I’m Trying to Use Less Disposable Plastic, and I Need Help!

It’s day 8 of 30 Days Wild, and it’s also World Oceans Day. That makes today an excellent time to reflect on the disposable plastic audit I carried out at home yesterday. Basically I went around my house and tried to identify where I’m still using disposable plastic. You can see the results of my investigation on yesterday’s blog post.

Plastic Not Fantastic - 30 Days Wild

What does plastic have to do with the oceans? Well, as I mention on the blog, a lot of disposable plastic (and disposable other stuff) ends up in the sea, with horrible consequences for wildlife. It also has toxic implications for us.

Not so good, then, that I found a lot of disposable plastic in my house, including a single-use food container and some single-use spectacle wipes in a foil-backed plastic envelope. I’m mortified at this because I like to think that I consider the environmental implications of the things I buy. Clearly I do need to up my game, and I also need to keep reminding myself to try and stay away from disposable plastic.

Areas Where I’m Doing Okay

On the whole I’m managing to stay away from plastic bags and disposable cups and drinking bottles. Fortunately I haven’t found any products containing those awful plastic micro-beads. And I’m starting to cut down on my use of plastic containers for cleaning and laundry products by getting supplies from an online company called Splosh. They’re pretty good: you only get bottles when you first start using the products, and you have to buy them. After that it’s a case of using clever refill sachets which dissolve in water to form the cleaning solutions.

If you’d like to try Splosh with a discount, you can. Use the code 2164F9 when you check out, and we’ll both save £5.

Where I Could Do Better

Yesterday I identified a few places in my life where disposable plastic is an issue. So brace yourself, because here they are:

The fridge – I buy milk in tetrapaks or plastic bottles because that’s how it mostly comes. If I saw it in glass bottles, I’d buy them. Does anybody know if this is still possible?

My lunch – Oh dear. I really need to get on top of my lunch preparation. In the evenings I try and make extra portions to have for lunch the next day, but I’m very greedy so I often eat them. Or I have a late meeting with a work client and my best laid plans for the next day go out of the window. It’s nuts, because buying ready meals is more expensive, too. Must try harder (but at least I carry my own non-disposable spork).

The food cupboard – Those squeezy bottles are handy, but they’re PLASTIC! Note to self: buy the glass or canned equivalents in future.

My desk – What was I thinking with the disposable pen and tape dispenser? I can’t buy a refill for the pen, but I’ve discovered that I can keep the dispenser and buy refills of tape.

My spectacle case – The glasses cleaning wipe is the thing I’m most embarrassed about. I bought a pack of these because I was out and about one day and found I had nothing to clean my specs with. They work amazingly well, but the wipe itself contains plastic and the pouch is made of foil-backed plastic. Neither can be reused. In future I’ll carry the traditional cloth in my glasses case.

Skincare – I’d never noticed that the supposedly eco-conscious Body Shop and Liz Earle companies use disposable plastic containers. This isn’t great, is it? Body Shop used to offer refills, but they now don’t. Perhaps I could write to them and ask about it. As for the hand cream in the loo, I’m in the process of changing over to a range which is made locally and comes in refillable glass bottles. You can just pop down to the shop—A Store in Chelmsford–and get your bottle filled up. If you’re anywhere near Chelmsford, do check them out (although they’re not cheap, the range is lovely). They also have an online shop.

I’d be really interested in hearing from anybody who has managed to cut down even further on disposable plastic, especially if they also have a busy life. For example, buying bread in plastic bags always makes me wince, but I don’t really have time to make my own. And the milk issue is a tricky one. But I also believe that consumer power can make it happen, so let’s see how far we can take things.

When Plastic Isn’t Fantastic

On this, day 7 of 30 Days Wild, I decided to audit how much disposable plastic is in my life. I like to think that I’m an environmentally conscious consumer (I always carry my smug little reusable shopping bag, for example, and I have one of those non-disposable coffee cups), but even in this house there’s a lot of it. I think I need to do better.

What’s the problem with disposable plastic? Well, first off it’s a by-product of the petrochemical industry, so it’s made from non-renewable resources. Secondly, it doesn’t decay. We’ve all heard the terrible stories of the damage done to marine life, but the fate of plastic dumped in landfill is equally bleak. It just stays there, taking up space. In tiny, cramped Great Britain, this is (or ought to be) a real issue, because space is something we don’t have a lot of.

Here’s a depressing rogue’s gallery of my disposable plastic:

Disposable Plastic in my Bathroom
Even supposedly environmentally friendly brands are at it!
Disposable Plastic in my Glasses Case
In my Glasses Case
Disposable Plastic on my Desk
On my Desk
Disposable Plastic in the Utility Room
At least this one’s refillable
Disposable Plastic in the Food Cupboard
In the Food Cupboard
Disposable Plastic by the Sink
By the Sink
Disposable Plastic in the Loo
In the Loo
Disposable Plastic in the Fridge
In the Fridge
Disposable Plastic for Lunch
For Lunch

You do it, I do it, and the Yeast in this Beer Definitely Does it: Fermentation

Today has been ridiculously busy, so on this, Day 6 of 30 Days Wild, the closest I’m getting to wildlife is drinking it. But actually that’s pretty close.

Wild Beer - 30 Days Wild Day 6

Here’s a great beer from one of my favourite companies. It’s brewed using a strain of yeast called Brettanomyces, which produces beer with a fresh, slightly acidic character. It’s a wild yeast whose natural habitat is fruit skins, so it gives us wine and cider as well as beer. I once met a brewing enthusiast who described ‘Brett’ (as it is often called) as “The brewery equivalent of athlete’s foot”, probably because there’s lots of it in the atmosphere and it has a habit of making its way into brews where it isn’t welcome.

Yeast is of course a fungus (more about that in future blog posts), and it produces alcohol through the process of fermentation. Essentially, fermentation is a type of metabolism which occurs in the absence of oxygen. In fermentation, the organism breaks down sugars and converts them to energy plus a number of by-products, one of which can be alcohol.

Brewers use different kinds of yeast depending on which by-product is required. If you’re brewing lager, for example, you’ll want to use a yeast which produces a lot of alcohol. Our pal Brett isn’t such a yeast; when Brett ferments, it produces a small amount of alcohol and a larger amount of lactic acid, which is precisely what gives Brett beers their fresh, lemony character.

It’s also what Brett has in common with humans. We produce lactic acid through fermentation, too: whenever you do intense exercise and start to feel that burn in your muscles, it’s because you’ve been fermenting. We produce tiny amounts of alcohol in our intestines, as well, but that’s because we have small amounts of yeast there.

Sometimes, people even produce a lot of alcohol. There’s a rare medical condition called Auto Brewery Syndrome, where an overgrowth of gut yeast results in just that. When the amount of yeast in the gut is large enough, sufferers can get drunk just by eating starchy food. This proves—if further proof were needed—that the wildlife inside us can be as important as the wildlife on the outside.

A Liking for Lichen

Let me come right out and say it: I love lichens. There.

The reason I love them is the same reason so many people hardly notice them (and when they do it’s usually to pressure-wash them off the patio furniture). They’re often small and unobtrusive, but they’re all around us. Whenever you get up close and personal with a lichen, you enter a completely new world. I didn’t need much encouragement to go lichen spotting in the park for one of my 30 Days Wild.

What is Lichen?

At school I was taught that lichens are a symbiosis between a fungus and an alga.  Much later I discovered that although this is broadly true, it’s a bit of an oversimplification. Yes, a lichen always has a fungal element, but it can contain cyanobacteria as well as algae (and sometimes even both).

The extent to which the algae or bacteria and the fungus depend on each other is also debatable. in many cases the fungus seems to get the best part of the bargain, making the algae or bacteria generate nutrients for it through photosynthesis while doing little more than providing shelter. I once read somewhere that a lichen is a fungus which has discovered agriculture, and this is how I tend to think of them.

How Lichens Reproduce

If you stop and think about it for a few minutes, you’ll see that the very nature of a lichen makes reproduction a complicated matter. Lichens reproduce both sexually and asexually, but however they’re to manage it, establishing a new lichen means reproducing the fungus and the algae or bacteria. This being the case, asexual reproduction is less complicated, because the lichen can just bud off a neat little package containing both fungal and algal cells. Sexual reproduction via spores results in a new fungus, which must then partner up with algae or bacteria.

Jam Tarts or Fruit Gums?

One thing I love about sexually reproducing lichens is their fruiting bodies. So far, it’s believed that these can be of four different types (I say believed because lichens are still mysterious in certain ways). On my lichen walk I just discovered one type of fruiting body known as apothecia, although in the interest of fairness I should say that others may have been present but unseen by me.  I don’t know all that much about lichens, but I do know that you really need a stereoscopic microscope to get to know them properly.

When I first started using the excellent lichen identification key published by the Field Studies Council, one of the instructions was to see whether the apothecia of the lichen you were looking at resembled jam tarts or fruit gums. Today I found both kinds, as these close-up pictures show (apologies for the less-than-brilliant photos, but I needed to use a high magnification with a small depth of field, and the lichens were on undulating surfaces).

Lichen Fruiting Bodies - 30 Days Wild
‘Fruit Gums’
Lichen Fruiting Bodies - 30 Days Wild
‘Jam Tarts’

Here’s what the ‘jam tarts’ tend to look like in cross section under a microscope. I made this slide a couple of years ago while studying some lichens from Chile, and it shows the structure really well. The fringe-like things under the brownish layer are sacs containing spores. The round blue shapes below are algal cells contained in a layer within the fungal ‘cup’ (or ‘pastry’, if we’re sticking with the jam tart comparison).

Jam Tart in Cross Section - 30 Days Wild

Identifying Lichens

This can be really tricky, because there’s a lot of variation in appearance caused by environmental factors such as the amount of sunshine or pollution the lichen encounters. But, like most difficult tasks, it’s fascinating and rewarding. I’d urge all of you to get hold of a magnifying glass and a set of identification charts and, instead of power-washing the lichens off your walls and patios, to become better acquainted with their complex ways.

To inspire you, here’s a few more of the lichens I found on my walk:

Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild Lichen Flora - 30 Days Wild

Supergrass

Grass can be quite boring – when it’s a meticulously-mown lawn, that is. Leave it to grow and flower, and you’ll see all sorts of interesting things. The first thing you’ll notice is that grass flowers are low- key and not spectacular in themselves; it’s mainly the way they’re arranged on the stem which makes them attractive (although this Scientific American article shows that when they’re flowering fully, grasses are even more beautiful).

You can think of grasses as having three basic flower arrangements, as shown below:

Grass Flower Arrangements - 30 Days Wild

Although I’m not good at identifying grasses, I’ve worked with herbarium specimens and I know that the way the flowers are arranged is helpful when it comes to making an identification. I’ve hardly ever gone grass spotting in the wild, because I’ve done most of my research on dried specimens. So my goal for today—day 4 of 30 Days Wild—was a simple one: to see whether I could find examples of all three types, and photograph them.

I found lots of different examples of spikes, and many kinds of panicle, but not so many racemes. And taking pictures was surprisingly tricky because there was a stiff breeze blowing, which made the grasses move.

But here are some usable pictures:

Grass Spike - 30 Days Wild
Spike
Grass Panicle - 30 Days Wild
Panicle
Grass Raceme - 30 Days Wild
Raceme

And here’s one where I managed (quite by chance) to get all three arrangement types in one picture:

All 3 Grass Flower Types - 30 Days Wild

Identifying grasses at the species level (which is something I have tried to do) can be amazingly tricky. It involves dissecting individual flowers (we call them spikelets), and measuring the inner structures under a microscope. Delicate and painstaking though it is, I love doing dissections. Until you’ve seen one, it’s hard to imagine so many beautiful and delicate parts coming from such a tiny package. That’s why I wanted to include this video of a grass dissection – this way the demonstrator does the difficult stuff and you get to sit back and appreciate how amazing the grass spikelet is!

Grasses are probably the most important plant of all for humans.  We eat a lot of them (wheat, oats, barley and their relatives are all grasses), we use them to thatch our roofs and make baskets and mats, and many different grass species can be found in our gardens. Did you know bamboo is a grass, too? Last but not least, grasses provide cover for other wildlife (from insects to nesting rockhopper penguins, depending on where you are in the world).

So you’ll see why I think the humble grass really isn’t so humble after all. It’s more a case of supergrass.

Eden in East London?

Today’s wildlife adventure took place a couple of hundred metres from my office in Aldgate East, in the innermost city part of the City of London. I stood for 20 minutes at lunchtime and tried to work out how many species I could spot on the patch of waste ground I normally walk right past. Because I’d neglected to take notes, I lost count. But I definitely saw some ferns unfurling, docks, thistles, more types of grass than I could recognise, and nettles covered in various snails. Oh yes, plus different flies, bees and wasps (sorry, entomologists, I’m especially bad at naming insects).

What does this gloriously fecund area look like? Here’s a picture.

Eden or Wasteland? 30 Days Wild

You’re looking at a total eyesore, aren’t you? Well, not quite. There’s beauty there – you’ve just got to work out how to recognise it, because it’s beauty of an unconventional kind.

From Eyesore to Ice Age

Let me tell you a story. This (and every) patch of waste ground hosts a small-scale replay of what Britain went through after the last ice age. As the ice gradually retreated, it scoured the earth clear of pretty much all life, just as waste ground is stripped at the beginning of dereliction. After such a profound purge, all new life must come from elsewhere, whether that’s local colonies of survivors, or places of refuge far away.

When life arrives, it occupies the territory in waves: first in are the pioneer species like mosses and lichens. These break up the surfaces they grow on and begin to create soil. You’ll often also find free-living blue-green algae, which enrich the soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere to soil-based nutrients.

Next come grasses and flowering plants, followed by perennials, then woody plants like brambles. Finally, if the site is left to its own devices, trees will grow, and eventually become woodland. This wave-like process of colonisation by plants has been much studied by ecologists, who call it succession.

A Miniature Eden

Because waste ground is uneven, and full of all sorts of rubble and junk with varying textures, it tends to contain a really large number of micro-habitats. And as succession moves on, more and more micro-habitats emerge: for example, grasses and brambles offer shelter to tender plants and seedlings, and also to animal life. It might not be what we normally think of as attractive, but every plot of derelict land is potentially a miniature garden of Eden, giving rise to all kinds of life.

And if that’s not a special kind of beauty, I don’t know what you’d call it.

Too Tidy for Wildlife

Contrast the patch of waste land above with the two manicured and very pleasant parks in the same area (pictures below). They’re lovely in their own way, and I’ve eaten my packed lunches in both of them, but they’re not bursting with wildlife in the same way. It’s important to know that whenever a derelict patch of land is developed, the variety of wildlife in the area tends to decrease.

Need this be the case? I don’t know, and indeed it seems defeatist to say that it does. What I do know is that I’d love to see more urban planning which really takes wildlife into account. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Green and Pleasant, but Where's the Wildlife? 30 Days Wild Tidy but Lacking in Wildlife - 30 Days Wild

What do you think? Is there a compromise between a tidy area and wildlife-rich one? Have you seen any interesting wildlife on waste ground?

Do We All Have Nature Deficit Disorder?

In Norwegian there’s the concept of friluftsliv: literally, ‘open air life’, or the culture of spending your free time outdoors in nature. There’s no pithy phrase for this in English, so perhaps that’s why we’ve become so bad at it. Tellingly, there is a term for the opposite condition: nature deficit disorder.

Named by author Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, nature deficit disorder is the consequence of losing touch with the natural world. Louv cites this estrangement as an underlying cause for common first-world ills like childhood obesity and depression.

It sounds far-fetched to make the lack of nature in your life into a medical-sounding condition, but Louv could have a point. I was never more removed from nature than when studying it academically, and I’ve never felt more ill than during that time. Plus, I’ve heard amazing stories from friends of friends about improved eyesight after long periods spent outdoors, and I believe there’s even some research to support the phenomenon.

This is why fun challenges like 30 Days Wild are important. They give us all a much-needed push to get out and renew our relationship with nature. Yesterday I discovered that this is possible even when you have a jam-packed work and commuting schedule. Since then I’ve been having a think, and I’ve come up with a few different themes for my wild walks. I may end up walking the same route many times throughout the month, so I want to try and mix things up a bit with different themes. I offer them to you to try as well.

Engage Your Senses

The real trick to communing with nature is to engage the senses. Going barefoot might not work so well on the cold, windy days we’re having at the moment, but there are other things to try. Simply listening to the sounds around you can be profound: trees swish, birds vocalise, fish and amphibians splosh. And feeling rough tree bark against your knees as you try to photograph camera-shy ants makes quite an impression (in your knees, if nowhere else).

Use Your Camera

If you can’t bear to go anywhere without your smart phone, this is the theme for you. Whenever you’re out and about and happen to see any wildlife, photograph it. The real joy of this little project comes when you adopt a broad definition of ‘wildlife’: see that tiny daisy struggling through a crack in the concrete? It’s wildlife. Before you know it you’ll have enough photos of nature to make yourself a nature picture gallery.

Sharpen Your Identification Skills

Learning to identify different species builds a special relationship with wild plants, animals and fungi. It’s satisfying and fun: pick a different organism each month and set yourself the task of cataloguing every specimen in your locality. If you’re a nomenclatural novice go with trees, which are large and stay still. For a real challenge, pick insects: they’re fast-moving and plenty of species have not yet been named. I must confess that I’m rubbish at identification, so with the help of social media I hope to get better throughout the month.

Become a Researcher

Ever wondered why some trees lose their leaves in winter and others don’t? Whatever your age or level of formal education, if you ask questions you’ve got what it takes to be a researcher. Start by looking for answers to your specific queries, or pick a plant, animal or fungus in your neighborhood and build up a dossier on it, illustrated by your own photographs.

Get to Know Your Local Birds

Ever hear about the 8 year old girl who started to feed some crows, and became the recipient of their gifts? Forget all those wisecracks about bird brains: birds have a keen intelligence and sophisticated social skills. So make their hard lives a little easier by feeding them and they may repay the favour in surprising ways, not least by amusing you for hours on end with their antics.

Between the pressures of work and the day-to-day hustle of family life, it’s easy to overlook the importance of spending time in nature. But as I re-discovered yesterday, you don’t have to journey into the wilderness to cure your nature deficit disorder. An appreciation of the wild things on your doorstep can be just as rewarding, and is certainly much cheaper. 30 Days Wild gives us all the chance to see how it feels to live more closely with nature for a month.

Where The Wild Things Are (and where they aren’t)

In case you haven’t noticed, today is the first day of June. It’s also the first day of 30 Days Wild, an excellent scheme to get us all outside and having encounters with wildlife every day for a month. I signed up in a flurry of optimism a few weeks ago because I think I’m Liz Bonin. I imagined myself spending June in a birding hide somewhere, or skipping through ancient woodland singing madrigals.

Today it dawned on me that I’m not Liz, and I’m not Michaela Strachan, either. I’m a busy person who lives in a city and works at a sedentary job in another, even bigger city. Even worse, I’m not going to be in the country for the entire month: I’m going to be in (you’ve guessed it) a city somewhere in Europe for about half of it. Where the heck am I going to find any wildlife?

Fortunately, my definition of wildlife is a broad one. If it’s alive and we humans aren’t deliberately cultivating or farming it, it counts as wildlife (this is legit, by the way, because I did biology at college and I should know – honest). It includes plants which have managed to find an existence outside gardens and parks, and the insects, birds and fungi all around us. So all I really needed to do to have my very first wild day was walk home more slowly than usual.

In a walk lasting 50 minutes (as opposed to my more usual brisk 35), here’s what I saw:

Mosses and lichens growing on walls. Some of the lichen was actually growing on some of the moss! Just look at that beautiful yellow colour (I’ll write about that in later blog posts because it’s a bit special).

Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild Lichen on Wall - 30 Days Wild Yellow Lichen on Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild

A whole load of overgrown verges just bursting with plant life. There weren’t many insects around since it was fairly cold, wet and windy, but I did see a lot of flowers.

Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild

A derelict school where plants of all kinds had pushed through the cracks in the damaged path, and grown under the fence.

Plant Life Under Fence - 30 Days Wild Plants Reclaim the Path - 30 Days Wild

Quite a lot of slugs and snails (some of which reminded me of a really fun citizen science project that ran a few years ago).

Banded Snail - 30 Days Wild Slug - 30 Days Wild

A tree stump teeming with camera-shy ants and showing beautiful spalting.

Tree Stump with Camera-Shy Ants - 30 Days Wild Tree Stump with Spalting - 30 Days Wild

A wild patch left unmown in my local park. Once again, this was hard to capture on camera, but it was beautiful. The long grasses waved enchantingly in the wind and their numerous awns gave them a pretty, fluffy appearance.

Abundant Waving Grasses - 30 Days Wild

So what are the take-home messages from my first wild day?

1. Wildlife lives all around us, so having a wildlife encounter really is just a matter of taking the time to notice what’s already there. Some of it is so commonplace and familiar that we hardly see it, and some of it is so small that we need to take the trouble to find it. Not much trouble, mind, but some nonetheless.

2. Untidiness equals diversity. I saw far more different plants in untended verges and derelict grounds than in any of the (admittedly lovely) tidy gardens I passed. And I’m sure there were many more insects and other animals keeping a low profile among the chaos than I managed to find.

I enjoyed my walk a lot. Maybe I should do the same activity for each of my 30 days wild, or at least the ones where I’m working. Instead of just plugging in to an audiobook and trudging home at top speed, I’ll take the trouble to notice the wildlife around me at different times of day and in different weather conditions on my walk home. It’ll be kind of an impressionist approach to nature.

How will you be spending your wild June days?