Ups and downs

Switching to a simpler life came with one added bonus – I can engage my creative skills in making things myself. Being made from simple ingredients, they are better for me – and I get the satisfaction of making something with my own paws.

However, as with everything, there are successes and failures. I want to share my experience with homemade potions to encourage you to try something new (and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work)!!

Laundry

As mentioned in my last post, a homemade laundry gel is not only very easy to make but also much cheaper in comparison to store-bought products. I gave it a chance after an experiment with soap nuts which did not work for me at all. I bought a kilo of them when I started looking for an alternative to conventional laundry products. I closely followed the instructions on the nice textile bag. All was well until after a full 40 degree cycle, the clothes came out just simply wet. No feel or smell of cleanliness or freshness. I also probably didn’t fasten the little bag with the nuts properly so they ended up spread all over the wash. I was not impressed! Quickly after this, I decided to look elsewhere. In true zero waste fashion, I thought I would use the nuts for some second-degree laundry (rugs, mats, etc.) but never actually came around to do that. So, if anyone wants to give them a chance, I will happily send them my bag for free!! Maybe you can have better results than me. (Conclusion: Laundry gel – YES, soap nuts – NO)

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Soap nuts vs laundry gel…

 

Kitchen

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Buying in bulk 🙂

As we have a dishwasher, I searched for a recipe for homemade dishwasher tablets. After some internet research and entering the world of opinions on Borax I, luckily, found a recipe that consisted of washing soda (soda crystals), baking soda, salt and citric acid. Simple enough ingredients and simple enough instructions. Basically, mix it all together. Well…. The first batch was great. Consistency was fine, cleaning power decent as well. So I went ahead and bought a bulk pack (a 5kg tub) of citric acid. Hmm. Perhaps a slightly rushed decision. Every batch after the first one just didn’t cut it. The mixture either turned to liquid (this apparently happens in humid conditions – Ireland, duh!), turned to stone (citric acid reacting with the sodas apparently) or didn’t really wash the dishes properly (when the citric acid was added right before the wash). So, after a few trials and errors, I reluctantly went back to shop-bought tablets. I chose the Ecover brand which is supposed to be not damaging to the environment but every tablet is still wrapped in plastic. Not ideal. However, I haven’t given up on this one yet. Especially when looking at that full citric acid tub 🙂 I will try again. Perhaps the drier summer climate will help the result. (Conclusion: Dishwasher tables – MAYBE)

One more nature-friendly swap for your dishes is to change the shop-bought rinse for vinegar. I tried out red wine, white wine, malt and apple cider vinegars. They all worked perfectly and are all cheaper than the original rinse. (Conclusion: Vinegar rinse – YES)

Personal hygiene

I am not a big fan of mouthwash but here and there I like to use it. I don’t like, however, the alcohol-laden Listerine and similar products, so I searched for a natural one. The internet proved to be full of ideas and recipes which were pretty easy with simple and easily found ingredients. I followed the recipe from DIY Natural. Water, baking soda, a few drops of essential oil and you’re done. You can add some xylitol if you don’t like the salty taste of baking soda 🙂 [Recipe I use: Mix together 1/2 cup filtered water, 2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp xylitol, 2 drops of tea tree oil, 4 drops of peppermint oil]. You might need to mix the concoction more often than you buy a bottle of Listerine (big batches are not really wanted as the oils blend and the mouthwash changes taste slightly) but it literally takes 2 minutes and I am fine with that. (Conclusion: Mouthwash – YES)

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Some time back, I came across an article on Treehugger about natural body scrubs and said to myself that I am going to try them out! I picked the last one with sea salt and oil. I used some sea salt that I bought in bulk (well, bulk-ish – a 2kg tub), olive oil from the kitchen and added some dried lavender from my garden. I mixed everything in a nice little Kilner jar and put it in the bathroom. But, boy oh boy, what a mess trying to use it! Maybe I am just fussy but it just didn’t work for me. The oil was everywhere and most of it was soaked in my towel rather than by my body. Not to mention the bathtub was all oily and slippery after use. I suppose if you use very hot water for your shower (which I don’t), it wouldn’t be as bad. Either way, I was happy when I finally finished the jar. I still like a good scrub though so might try the dry one – no added oil – less mess guaranteed. (Conclusion: Oil scrub – NO).

At the local market, a girl was selling homemade cosmetic products and I was curious to try her natural clay toothpaste. I tried it twice. The second time just to reassure myself that this is not for me. I am not sure if it was the weird texture or the extra salty taste. Simply put, it was just yuck. But then again, that’s just me – my friend used it and loved it!! I happily traded her Waleda toothpaste for my clay one. Until I find something else acceptable to brush my teeth with (pure baking soda sounds like a very unlikely candidate for me), I will keep using the Kingfisher natural toothpaste. Smooth and refreshing. I like. (Conclusion: Clay toothpaste – NO)

Cleaning

If you haven’t tried it yet, the internet-praised cleaning power of baking soda and vinegar is, in fact, true. I was a bit sceptical at the beginning as it did seem a bit odd just to scrub the bathroom with some white powder and spray what is basically a sour water but it does work. The child in me also loves the fizzing when you mix those two together 🙂 There are dozens of uses for this combo but I mostly use them to get the bathroom to a spotless condition. Including that pesky black mould that is an organic part of an (c)old house in a humid country. (Conclusion: soda and vinegar – YES)

There are many more but these are just a few examples of fun stuff you can try to make yourself ! Homemade soaps, lotions, shampoos…all you need is an open mind and maybe a bit of patience 🙂

 

Green Whites

One of the things that I like about Zero Waste is the fact that I save money. Money that can be spent on going out, meeting with friends, trying out new fun stuff. So when I learned I can replace the commercial laundry detergent with something simple for a fraction of the price, I was sold on it pretty quickly.

All I needed to swap all the chemicals usually found in laundry products for something greener were two things – a bar soap and washing soda – and a bit of time to mix them together. I found this laundry detergent recipe in the Bea Johnson’s book and adapted it a bit.

You might be sceptical if this easy solution works but I’ve been using it now for a couple of months and I am very happy with the results!

What you need

Bar of soap – recipes in cyberspace ask for all kinds of different soaps but your basic castile soap bar, laundry soap or any natural soap bar will do. Bea recommends using the blue one which contains optical brighteners. I bought mine in Slovakia last time I visited but I am sure you can find it anywhere 🙂 Dr. Bronner makes soap bars that should be fit for the purpose!

Washing soda – or soda ash – usually sold in supermarkets in the laundry aisle. It took a little bit of internet research to find out that in Ireland I need to look for soda crystals! I found one kilogram bags being sold in Tesco – the bags are still made of plastic film which is not recyclable but at least the pack lasts some time.

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The last ingredient is just warm water. Other than that a few utensils will come handy – a basin or a bucket for mixing, a measuring jug, a measuring cup and a mixing spoon. Depending on the method you use, you might need a hand blender to liquidise it.

How to make it

For a 3-litre (about 3 quarts) dose, you will need a ½ cup of washing soda and a ½ cup of soap. Measure up the washing soda and pour it in the basin. Grate the soap (I use a conventional cheese grater) and add to the basin. Mix them together a little.

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Pour in about 0.5 litres of hot water (about half a quart). I use boiled water to start the mixing. Stir until the soap and soda are mostly dissolved. Add another litre of hot water. I then pour in 1.5 litres of cold water to bring the temperature to lukewarm. Stir the mixture for a little while and leave it to settle, best overnight. In the morning, when the liquid has turned into a wobbly jelly, enjoy this chemistry magic for a while and then break it with the mixing spoon. To bring it back to liquid form (it will be nicely thick), use a hand blender for a couple of minutes. If you used an unscented soap and you would like to add some scent, you can now add a few drops of any essential (not synthetic) oil – lavender, citrus or tea tree work well.

I asked my lovely boyfriend to film this part of the preparation process – please be kind with your comments 🙂

Pour the finished product into a prepared jug (I use a 3l plastic milk jug) and voila, your laundry gel is ready to use.

If you don’t have a hand blender or you want to skip this step, you can pour the warm mixture straight into the jug you are going to use to store the product and leave it to cool in there. Just make sure you shake it a couple of times in the next few hours to ensure all the ingredients are mixed properly. I found that with this method, the gel is more likely to separate when not used for a while but then just shake the bottle and you’re good to go.

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How to use it

I usually use about a cup (250ml) per load, adjusted for the amount of clothes and level of dirtiness 🙂 One 3l dose lasts me for about 13 washes. With 3 washes per week on average (darks, lights and towels for 2 people), I have enough for a month to 5 weeks. The recipe is very easily doubled or tripled if you want to make more, so no need to skimp!

I normally pour the gel into the detergent compartment in the washing machine but I don’t see why you couldn’t put it directly in the drum.

How much it costs

I mentioned in the video that this laundry gel costs about 10 times less than a conventional gel. These are my calculations:

Expenses:

300g laundry soap €1.501kg soda crystals €1.39

For 3l of the gel I need 60g of the soap (one pack lasts for 5 doses or 15 litres of gel) and about 90g of the soda (for 15 litres I use half a pack for €0.70).

In total, 15 litres of the gel costs €2.20. That is €2.20 for 65 washes (5 x 3l dose x 13 washes per dose).

A comparable conventional laundry detergent (let’s say Persil Small & Mighty Non-Bio 60 washes) costs €19.80 – which is 9x more. On offer, Ariel Bio Washing Liquid 60 washes costs €10.00 which is still 5x more than my non-toxic and totally working laundry gel.

The prices might vary where you live but I guarantee you that you can save money (not to mention all the chemicals which will not get into the waterways from the washing machine).

Final notes

My friend also uses this recipe because she and her daughter have very sensitive skin and conventional laundry products are quite irritating for them. So, that’s another brownie point for the homemade stuff.

Finally, if you’re asking about fabric softener that would be natural and eco-friendly, think  vinegar. Apple cider vinegar and white distilled vinegar work well for me.  About a ¼ – ½ cup (60 – 120 ml) with a few drops of essential oil of your choice (I like grapefruit or tea tree) will give the clothes nice smell and touch.

Well…are you tempted to give it a try yet?

 

Incredible bulk

Shopping in bulk and without packaging greatly reduces the amount of waste produced by any household. That is a fact. But what do you do when there aren’t many options for buying food from bulk bins into your own containers?

The Zero Waste trend of dry goods sold unpackaged has not really reached Ireland yet. The things I can buy loose or unpackaged in Dublin may be few but I can at least try!

Bread & pastry

This one is probably the easiest. Aside from packaged sliced pan which is not really my type of bread anyway, it’s pretty easy to pick up some lovely bread, baguettes and pastries into your own bag. Just have to remember to bring it with me!

Fruit and veg

The supermarkets are a hit-and-miss here. You can find loose apples, lemons, potatoes and the lot but they vacuum-pack the broccoli and I can never find celery or lettuce without a plastic bag in a supermarket. I compromise on those – lettuce is essential in our house!

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Strawberries in a bag 🙂

I don’t have a good farmers’ market nearby so I have to rely on the supermarkets and my local Fresh – a fruit and veg store where, as I mentioned last week, they package almost everything. They recently changed owner though so I might talk to them to see if they would loosen up a bit and sell the produce as is. The other day I bought some strawberries there (which they pack themselves in the shop), put them in my cotton bag and returned the box for their reuse…sorted.   

Meat

We do eat meat and when I want some free-range or organic stuff, I’ve found it’s best to go to a good butcher shop. Flemings just around the corner from our house is one of them. One day I went in, armed with my empty glass jar and asked for some chicken. At first, I got the classical confused look but I duly explained why…We ended up chatting about how this not only prevents waste but how the meat keeps better in glass than plastic! Since then, I‘ve barely bought any packaged meat – maybe just a whole chicken or a piece that is too big for my jar. They pack the meat in aluminium trays so at least I can reuse them for roasting and then recycle. I also used some of them for planting seeds – and reuse them each year.

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The infamous meat jar

Encouraged with this success, I tried to bring my jar into two other butcher shops and they happily obliged! In one of them I am officially known as the ‘Lady with the Jar’. Happy days.

Nuts & dried fruits

The one type of dry goods that is available in bulk in supermarkets are nuts. Lidl started selling these some time last year. The selection might be limited (roasted almonds, salted cashew and salted pistachios) but hey, it’s something. The only thing that baffles me is that the bulk stuff is more expensive than the packaged stuff. That’s nuts.

Nuts, dried fruits and sweets in bulk are also sold at some markets and country fairs. I just remembered that when my supply of dried apricots finished. I might do some research to see if there any on a weekly basis that I could replenish from regularly…and perhaps pick up some more natural sweets 🙂

Sweets

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Cinema’s pick & mix

When we go to the cinema, we get easily tempted (and seduced) by their pick & mix sweets selection. They have paper bags for it but the last time, I remembered to bring my own little cotton bag and used it – it even brought a smile to the cashier’s face! Refined sugar crush all the way!!

The above selection is not what it could be but, actually, it’s not that bad. It also depends on the type of diet you are on. It’s definitely easier for a vegan but we are not there yet. We cut almost all processed food but do buy the occasional pack of biscuits or crisps. We also eat dairy and despite my efforts, I couldn’t find any milk sold in a glass bottle. Our favourite cheese (Dubliner) is also only sold in plastic bags. I tried to switch to another type of cheddar but it just didn’t work. Compromise it is then!

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If packaged stuff is the only option, I always do two things. First – ask if I really need it. Second – if I do, check if there is a recyclable packaging option. There are often feasible alternatives to plastic, be it cardboard, paper, glass or metal. Then buying ‘in bulk’ means to buy the biggest package of the thing there is. I buy the biggest pack of the cheese, a 240-tea bags pack of tea rather than the 40-tea bags one. The idea here is to cut down on the amount of packaging if I can’t avoid it. Other examples from our house are buying the whole leg of ham (free range serrano ham from Spain no less) or toying with the idea of buying a 20kg bag of rice from an Indian shop. It might mean a bit of research before I buy something but once I know, the next time it’s easy!

 

All that said, it makes me thinking that opening a bulk shop here in Dublin might not be a bad business idea!!! 😉

Know your enemy

If you want to combat any enemy, first you have to know what you are dealing with. So when I wanted to scale down the waste our household produced, I went routing through the bins. Literally.

What I found was probably very similar to what you would in any western-world household. Most of it was packaging – for food, drinks or cosmetics. Then there were recyclable items like PET bottles, cardboard, magazines and papers, tins, glass bottles and organic waste.

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Looks familiar?

I used to live in an apartment block where there were recycling bins but there was no option to separate organic waste. You can imagine the look (and smell) of the bins whenever they missed a collection. So I was very happy when we moved to a house where we could pick our waste collection company – and I picked one that collected food waste separately. Score!

That was even before I embarked on the Zero Waste journey so now I am pretty used to separation of green and other waste. With that sorted, there were the recyclables and the ‘general waste’ to plough through.

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Soda Stream & Aloe Vera King Mango

Recycling is great but refusing, reducing and reusing is still better. We try to cut down on buying stuff in general even though it comes in a recyclable packaging. One of the very first alternatives we adopted was switching from buying sparkling water in plastic bottles to the Soda Stream system. The gas cylinders are reusable and you even get a discount when you bring your old cylinder to the store. This had significantly helped reduce the recyclables because sparkling water is popular in our little household! An added bonus is that we don’t have to carry all the heavy bottles from the shop!

We also learned to love our tap water which (filtered) tastes great! This, in combination with reusable stainless steel bottles, cuts down another big batch of plastic waste! Oh and as for all the cokes, 7-ups and other sugary soft drinks full of god-knows-what, we just stop buying them. The only soft drink we buy in a PET bottle is a natural mango aloe vera juice.

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“Mango Fizz”

“Mango Fizz” – the juice diluted with ⅔ of sparkling water – is my boyfriend’s beverage of choice :). You might argue that that’s also creating waste but I am trying to find a sustainable balance for our life that will work on a long-term basis and compromises are part of that!

So in this way, I went through all the recyclables and consciously divided them into two simple categories and courses of action: avoidable – stop buying – and non-avoidable (yet) – buy (much) less.

When I moved over to the ‘general waste’ pile, that’s where it got a bit tricky. Mostly because about 85% of it was packaging. A modern western life really seems to have an obsession in packing everything. Some of this might be necessary for transport but there is a lot of double or triple layers of ‘protective’ paper or plastic that is far from necessary. Take a simple pack of sliced ham or cheese. Not only are those 6 slices packed in a plastic box but they are separated from each other by a piece of plastic film. That’s such a waste! But sadly, it seems to be the norm.

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Sadly, this is the norm…

The easiest thing is to buy less processed packaged food …you’d think. But here in Ireland it is quite challenging to buy even the ingredients for home cooking without layers of the wasteful packaging. Fruit and vegetables, which are perfectly fine in their own peels and outer layers of leaves, are often thrown into a plastic bag – just so that it’s easier to stick the label with a barcode on them.

It also depends where I want to buy my food. Farmers’ markets are great altogether but if there are none at a convenient distance from where I live or work, I will hardly visit them regularly. Burn the petrol in a car just to get some fruit and veg does not add up for me. There is one market nearby but it only opens one day for two hours. I went there a few times but it’s more of a baked-goods-and-preserves type of market – things I like making myself so don’t want to buy them. But I made a resolution to visit more often – especially during the summer when there will be, hopefully, more fresh produce to be bought. 

I really want to support my local small fruit & veg shop but they pack everything – 6 apples on a polystyrene tray wrapped in cling film and sold to you in a plastic bag. I had a chat with them about selling loose produce but it hasn’t stuck for now. If I am really in need, I buy a pack of apples in there, don’t take the plastic bag and bring the polystyrene tray back. Then the only waste is the bit of cling film. As I said, compromises.

There are no bulk bin sections in the supermarkets here or dedicated bulk stores like in other European cities and America. Shopping for things with no packaging (or with the least packaging possible) can be challenging…and it does take a bit of planning to not make shopping a chore. But it’s totally worth it.

Next week, I tell you more about my other shopping solutions!

About Tallinn

I like travelling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s down the county or to a country where I’ve never been before. There is always that feeling of anticipation of something new, something different. You get a chance to get another point of view. That’s the point. To get a point of view that differs from your own and teaches you. To be tolerant, to be open to things but also to know what you like and stand for. People everywhere have their ways and I like exploring them.

In the true spirit of Zero Waste, last Christmas I got a present of a trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Last week then we visited this green piece of land. Nestled between Russia, nordic and baltic countries, the country is a beautiful mixture of all the above – architectonically and culturally. I am not much of a museum nut and would consider myself more of the walking-and-looking-around type. So I walked and looked around. The sunny city was very inviting!

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I wanted to visit the local town market so we hopped on a tram (public transport in Tallinn is reliable and cheap) and found our way to Keskturg (City Market). Definitely charming with a strong Russian feel, we first strolled through the stalls filled with clothes for all ages and sizes, some of a questionable style, some reminding me of my grandma (long dressing-gown style buttoned-up dresses from an unmistakable synthetic material:)). You could also find second-hand clothes and definitely some proper vintage pieces.

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DIY supplies 🙂

We passed by stalls with vintage crockery and glasses, old books, plumbing supplies, chargers for every phone known to man, Soviet uniforms, pin badges, toys, LPs or cassettes. You name it, they probably had it.

When we ventured inside a big concrete building in the centre of the market, it was like we stepped back in time. Imagine a still from an old Soviet movie. Left, right and centre – glass vitrines full of products. We entered the food section of the market. A bulk-buyer’s heaven. You could do your weekly food shop and not use a single bit of plastic. I immediately wished I had this in Dublin :)) People were purposefully walking around buying meat, vegetables, dairy products, pickles, sweets, spices – anything and everything. The best part of it was that they didn’t think about this as a novelty or a recent trend. They have sold and bought products in this fashion for decades.

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Selection of curd cheeses

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National condiment – sauerkraut

Despite Tallinn being a home to a half-million people, the Keskturg felt local. People knew each other and familiarly ran their errands as they did since ever. But don’t read this wrong, Tallinn and Estonia are modern and very European – modern shopping centres carrying world brands are also a firm part of the city. I like the fact though that they stayed loyal to their traditions and ways of life.

Tallinn won me over with its paved Old Town streets, rye bread and elk soup, calm people, unpretentiousness and its folklore of stripes. If you are looking for your next weekend break destination, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

…a few more pictures…

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Dried fruit

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Spices in bulk

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Pickled gherkins

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Suspiciously even-sized strawberries

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If you ever wanted a linen produce bag…