Zero-Waste Eco Mum Kate Hughes – A Greener (& Cheaper!) Christmas

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Kate Hughes

Welcome to our new Kate Hughes column, who has “greened” every aspect of her family’s life for the past five years. Each month, she’ll be telling us about her journey to becoming zero-waste and how you can become that little bit more eco-friendly.

Why there’s still time for a greener, cheaper Christmas. No, really…

It’s Christmas Eve 2017. The three-year-old is snuggled up at one end of the room, the baby in his cot at the other. Both have a strange, bulky mass nearby. They’re excited and happy and now, passed out like a pair of students after a massive night. But I feel rubbish because the bags – the hessian sacks at the end of their beds – contain half the contents that they did the previous year.

It was the latest in our bid to be greener, to rein it in, to consume less. And Christmas – an event described as the greatest annual environmental catastrophe in the world for its sheer excess – was a critical challenge to tackle.

But this isn’t an article about seasonal stinginess. It’s one about freedom and family fun and checking in on assumptions that can cripple us at this time of year – especially in the middle of a full blown personal financial crisis as well as an environmental one.

First, we did a deal amongst ourselves that is now commonplace. The adults in our extended families don’t exchange presents. We know we’re close and fond of each other. No luxury smelly set is going to make that any clearer. Wow, has that taken the pressure off finding the in-laws the perfect gift. And freed up budget for birthdays.

Then there are the kids. We’re a zero-waste household, so just like any other day, we don’t buy anything that contains plastic – single use or, ideally, otherwise. Their advent calendars are refills, for starters. And we stick to the “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” mantra for the big day. These days, that’s a whole social media movement all by itself.

That dramatically shrinks the number of packages under the tree or at the bottom of their beds – from us and from the big man in charge (Father Christmas is totally on board). But it also reduces that slightly disturbing tendency for kids to reach for the next pressie before they’ve even finished unwrapping the last. Or, in the case of our toddlers and babies, of getting completely overwhelmed and descending into confused tears.

These days, gifts are second hand or experiences if they’re bought, or made. This year all the nieces and nephews, ranging from a year old to 7, are getting homemade playdough, for example. I might go wild with the cinnamon for a smelly twist and include some natural shaping and decorating tools, like pine cones, shells and twigs. Pop the playdough in a washed out and glammed up ice cream tub, and the whole lot in a reusable bag with a bit of ribbon and job’s a good ‘un. Without spending an extra penny.

Meanwhile, I plan to set the kids to work making salt dough decoration gifts and collage Christmas cards cut up from last year while I desperately tried to finish work now that term’s run out before my last December deadline has. (Hands up if you know that feeling?)
Wrapping paper, if it’s needed, could be old wallpaper, or outdated maps, newspaper or, my personal favourite, an ancient London A-Z that turned out pretty damned stylish if I do say so myself.

The Christmas tree is a potted number, rather than a cut one. It was dragged out of the garden at no extra cost after being bought back in 2019 and means we’re not adding to deforestation or the millions of trees that are still tossed into landfill every year to decompose anaerobically to produce some of the most destructive greenhouse gases. (I fully admit it’s tree number 2. Tree number 1 didn’t make it past July after we, erm, forgot to water it. Which is slightly terminal as it turns out.)

Christmas crackers? No thanks. They’re a tenner a box, at least, and one study suggested that 96% of the contents were in the bin by the end of Christmas day. Make your own from the inside of toilet rolls or pick up a reusable material set in the January sales if you like me, don’t know one end of a needle and thread from the other.

In all, we’ve got a mindset change on our hands here. A big one that takes a bit of getting used to. Hence standing in a darkened nursery in tears because I wasn’t showering my kids with everything they’ve ever wanted.

The truth though, is that they didn’t notice. Of course they didn’t. These preoccupations with more and bigger and more expensive are our hang ups, not the kids’. As for us, we noticed more time, less stress and a far lighter credit card bill come January. Frankly, it’s a bit of a Christmas miracle.

How to make homemade playdough

Here’s a Christmas pressie from me to you, my recipe for homemade playdough. It’s quick to knock up, fairly fool proof, and has the added bonus that if tiddlies put it in their mouths, and they always do, the natural, non-toxic kitchen cupboard ingredients mean that at worst they’ll spit it back out sharpish.

Feel free to ad lib with a small amount of food colouring or ground spices for a seasonal twist. Just go steady, building up slowly to the perfect tone or smell.

Ingredients

250g flour
150g salt
500ml water
4 tsp cream of tartar (no, I don’t know what else anyone uses this for either)
2 tbsp oil (Doesn’t really matter what kind. Not butter though – it won’t go well.)

Method

Dump the salt, cream of tartar and flour in a cooking pot and mix up well. Then add the oil and water before cooking on a medium heat until its thick and smooth – playdough texture you might say. Turn it out onto parchment paper or something that won’t let it stick and allow to cool until you can knead it without ending up in A&E with third degree burns.

Divide into however many different coloured balls you’re after and do a bit more kneading until the colour has incorporated. Watch out for food colouring on your hands – rubber gloves may be a godsend here.

Go mad with colour and scent, package up to your heart’s content and dole out. Store in the fridge and it’ll last for ages. Compost the bits that fall on the floor. Nobody likes hairy playdough.

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Buy Kate’s book Going Zero: One Family’s Journey to Zero Waste and a Greener Lifestyle now.


New Column: Zero-Waste Eco Mum Kate Hughes – Go Green this Halloween

There’s a rule in our house. You can’t start using the ‘C’ word until after the ‘H’ word is done. In other words, there’s zero chat about Santa until after the Spooky stuff is over. I don’t know about you, but I can only deal with one bout of theme-based hyperactivity at a time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it all. But while Christmas may be described as the annual eco catastrophe (for a whole heap of reasons we’ll get on to in a month or so, including how to fight back) I’ve always struggled most with the plastic disaster of Halloween.

Eco Halloween Costumes

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Credit: Pinterest

Take the costumes. Any self-respecting supermarket has been lined with ghoulish outfits for weeks now. But they’re a horror show in more ways than one. Most, if not all, are made from synthetic fibres, which usually means the garment is made of plastic.

Avoid naked flames for sure, but you’d also need to avoid washing it to stop thousands of tiny pieces of that plastic breaking off in the violence of a spinning machine, being washed down the drain and into our waterways, rivers and seas.

We now know that a single load of synthetic clothing produces 70,000 pieces of microplastic. 70,000! They’re tiny, so aren’t caught by sewage treatment plants (even if untreated water wasn’t being dumped on a daily basis by our cowboy water companies).
We swerve synthetic fabrics at all costs, plumping for those good old homemade – far cheaper – at this time of year.

Think loo roll mummies for older children, or ghosts conjured up from an old pillow case, or the good old last minute option of black eyeliner cat whiskers, black outfit and a tail made of one old pair of tights stuffed with another.

There are masses of other homemade, cheap as chips, eco ideas on the socials. I think I probably live on Pinterest for the last three months of the year to be honest.

Eco Halloween Face Paint

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Snazaroo Mini Face Paint Kit

Speaking of eyeliner, we need to talk about face paint. Studies show they can be full of some truly shocking ingredients, from heavy metals and parabens to formaldehyde. No thank you very much.

There are some lovely, natural alternatives emerging now, and a quick search for non-toxic face paints will throw up a range of better options. But don’t forget to give the ingredients a good look before applying to delicate skin. Or any skin for that matter.

You could even make your own if you’re up for a challenge. Beetroot. I’m saying no more.
Bypass the glitter too, if you can, as they’re essentially just coloured bits of plastic. Even biodegradable stuff is pretty questionable.

Eco Halloween Sweets

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Credit: Joanna Kosinska via Unsplash

Finally, those treats. The unequivocal star of the show, we once opened the door to a toddler trick or treater who just threw his hands in the air and squeaked ‘Sweets!’ at us. Who could refuse that?!

But your average individually plastic-wrapped treat, laden with palm oil and unethically sourced cocoa, isn’t all that great either. Plastic-free is possible – pick ‘n mix didn’t die out with the demise of Woolies it turns out, and older kids will have great fun picking their ultimate combo to dish out on the doorstep. Or, if you’ve got time and a bit of creative flair, a bit of DIY treat conjuring could save cash too.

Avoid Halloween Horrors

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Guppyfriend Washing Bag

Synthetic fabrics are pretty rubbish for the environment thanks to all those breakaway microplastic fibres. But so often, they’re either difficult to swerve or are already entrenched in our homes. Think sports kits and school uniforms.

Plus, one of the golden rules of being more eco is to use what you have. So if they’re already in your home, one option is to use a Guppyfriend washing bag. Put your synthetics into one of these before they go in the wash to dramatically cut down the number of microplastics disappearing down the drain.

Other options include washing at very low or cold temperatures, not spinning clothes to help reduce breakages, and frankly, only washing any kind of material when the clothes really need it.

Don’t have time to whip up DIY face paint in time for this weekend? Don’t panic. There are some established fragrance-free, low and non-toxic brands out there alongside the Etsy inventions. They include well-known names like Snazaroo, whose range of products will give any ghoulish creative a run for their money.

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Buy Kate’s book Going Zero: One Family’s Journey to Zero Waste and a Greener Lifestyle now.


New Column: Zero-Waste Eco Mum Kate Hughes – Eco Festival Essentials

Hands up if you braved a festival in scorching sunshine or, more recently, torrential rain this summer?

I’m just packing up for our second of the season – Just So in Cheshire. A smaller, more mystical, entirely child-focused affair than the big, bold and fabulous fun Camp Bestival, designed for parents as much as the smalls. (I would recommend either for families of all shapes, sizes and ages next summer, especially if you can snag an early bird discount as tickets go on sale imminently.)

Right now though, I’m trying to tick things off the to do list. Except that our zero waste version looks a bit different to most people’s festival must-haves.

kate eco-columnEco Festival Must-Haves

There’s a fair bit of food prep to get done for starters. Oaty snack bars replace the shop-bought plastic-wrapped ones (and that’s just for the other half. Hangry doesn’t start to cover it), and breakfast muffins fill the gap between the kids waking up at 5am and breakfast being served from 8am.

Remind me too, that I need to do the wet wipes (see below!) and wrap a bar of soap in a small square of muslin for optimal festival loo/standpipe hand-washing opportunities. (Keep it in your pocket at all times. The cloth will absorb the water, I promise.)

If I have to spend another weekend with my hands covered in many dried layers of hand sanitiser the consistency of snot I’m going to scream.

I’m sure I won’t need to though because we’ll be having too much fun. Signature hats will be donned, the kids will forget how a bath works, the festival cart (an old wheelbarrow, painted and covered in fairy lights in our case) will become a key member of the family and a cider at 11.59am will, for three days in a random field, seem really quite restrained.

But all this prep has got me thinking. I’m not doing anything to dispel the number one myth about sustainable living – that it’s a pain in the proverbial. Which I don’t agree with.

It just takes a bit of practice and, god help me, organisation. Which hasn’t always been a forte of mine. So my top tip for going green is to stick with it. I reckon the bedding-in period is three months – and those will be the hardest three months of the whole lifestyle change, trust me.

Meanwhile, you won’t need to worry about finding a bin for the litter every five minutes, nor will there be a smelly bin bag driving you crazy on the long drive home.

Anyway, zero waste is creeping in everywhere. You can’t move for water refill stations at this year’s festivals.

Then there’s the other myth. That it’s more expensive to be green. After five years as a zero waste, sustainability-searching family I know we’ve saved a fortune on throwaways, single use everything, and spur of the moment buys.

Homemade wet wipes

Take those wet wipes. You’re a parent. You hardly need me to explain just how crucial a wet wipe, or 12, is when there are tinies in tow. Even if you’re only going to the end of the road for a pint of milk.

At a festival, they are nothing less than sanity-saving. But they also cause havoc on our beloved beaches, streams and rivers when absentmindedly flushed or otherwise disposed of. They’re plastic-based. They don’t break down. Plus they cost money, and there’s precious little of that floating around right now, especially if you plump for the biodegradable options in a bid to do the right thing.

Instead, fish out two old but ideally matching large tupperware containers – yep, the deep ones from the last takeaway Jalfrezi will work a treat. Half fill one with recently boiled water and layer sections of an old towel or muslin (cut into squares and folded long ways) inside it. We found 10 per kid worked well at Bestival, alongside a well-timed afternoon shower to avoid the early morning queues.

I throw a few drops of tea tree and eucalyptus essential oils in too for their significant antibacterial properties and general fresh scent…Just keep them away from eyes and stick to distilled water if skin sensitivity is an issue.

When you’re done, pop the lid on tight and stack the second container underneath for the used wipes when you’re finished with them. Maybe label them. You don’t want to get them mixed up…

Tip the contents of both into the washing machine when you get home and the whole thing starts again, including any unused wipes to avoid mould setting in.

Having fun, saving money and protecting the planet? It’s a win in my book.

kate-eco-columnBuy Kate’s book Going Zero: One Family’s Journey to Zero Waste and a Greener Lifestyle now.


Zero-Waste Eco Mum Kate Hughes – Starting our Journey

Five years ago, at about this time of year, I did something a bit… stupid. Horrified after a split beanbag sent millions of tiny polystyrene plastic balls into our little garden to pollute it for thousands of years, and with a newborn under one arm and a three year old under the other, I decided our family would go ‘zero waste’.

We would ditch all single-use plastic, we would do everything we could not to bring any plastic into our house. We didn’t know then that there was a term for it, or even that by doing so we would quickly get to the stage that we didn’t need a bin because we don’t produce anything to put in it.

If you think about it, though, something that sounds pretty simple – no more plastic – is remarkably difficult to pull off. And not just temporarily either – everyday for the rest of our lives.

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Kate and her family

Food was a tricky one for starters, and then there were the products the kids needed, household cleaners, cosmetics and toiletries, even synthetic fabrics. Plastic is so widespread we hardly register it’s there anymore. Going plastic free was overwhelming. And yes, even maybe a bit stupid in hindsight.

But it was also the first of a cascade of decisions we made as a family determined to do better for the planet, for our local environment, for our own health. In just a couple of years our family life has changed beyond recognition. It has been tough, sure. Often a bit mad, regularly hilarious. But contrary to popular myth, the last five years have shown us that a greener life, with a more considered use of resources, is also often cheaper, sometimes completely free.

Above all it has been – it continues to be – hugely empowering. Especially in the face of every new report on just what our everyday, automatic decisions are doing to the planet – each one scarier than the last it seems.

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Kate and her family

The truth is though, if we hadn’t started in the summer, I’m not sure our eco lifestyle change would have ever got off the ground. Everything seems easier in the summer. Or maybe it’s just the lack of the mad-dash school run… Either way, whenever friends and family ask for tips on going green, we suggest they start right around now.

For starters, it’s the middle of the UK’s growing season. That means we can get our hands on a wide range of delicious food that is at its best and hasn’t travelled halfway around the world, for grown in heated greenhouses to end up on our plates alongside huge carbon footprints. It’s less likely to be heavily packaged in plastic thanks to that short journey too, so we’re already onto a winner.

The most sustainable and often the most nutritious food is local, seasonal food. And yes, I’m mostly talking about veggies and fruit here. We all know about the United Nations’ advice that to save the world we should eat less meat and dairy.

That’s not just, as my now eight year old has great fun reporting in a very, very loud voice, because of farty cows. Or grazing land created by burning the Amazon. It’s also because the vast majority of the meat and dairy sold in UK supermarkets is produced using soybeans – usually grown on far more of that cleared forest land. It’s an ecological disaster playing out in the supermarket aisles we all know so well.

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Credit: Inigo de la Maza via Unsplash

So how about a veggie feast on the barbie this summer? Or even just bumping up the non-meat options while cutting back on a couple of burgers?

We know that when it’s in season, local veg is far cheaper than meat and dairy, as well as being seriously good for us and the kids. In fact veggies are remarkably protein-heavy (a big fear for many parents pondering a more veggie focused future despite UK children regularly getting three times as much protein as they need according to some studies).

It’s bang on trend of course, and you’re free to involve the same chargrilled or marinated action as meat. Just don’t forget the foodie posers points for basting your veggie skewers or grilled lettuce with an oil-dipped herb bundle. Masterchef eat your heart out.

But I don’t love the summer just for the food choices it brings. Warmer weather made the switch to reusable nappies so much easier too, for example. Line drying is a no brainer – laundry smells fresher so we use less harmful detergent and we’re not wasting energy on tumble drying.

Bambino Mio’s Miosolo range

We loved Bambino Mio’s Miosolo range. Their all-in-one fun designs appealed to our littlies, clever integrated absorption pads with optional extras definitely appealed to our desperate need to get at least some sleep at night, and the ingenious use of poppers meant one design took us from newborn to toddler, and there are pull ups and swim nappies too.

The second hand market for these nappies is strong, so there are bargains to be had when buying and selling on. Win win!

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Miosolo Classic All-in-one Reusable Nappy in Lemon Drop, £10.19, available from bambinomio.co.uk/collections/miosolo/

And, if your kids are anything like my little dirt magnets, you’ll be delighted that the sun has a remarkable natural bleaching effect on tough stains without the need to resort to strong chemicals that not only irritate children’s delicate skin, but are also catastrophic for the streams and rivers our waste water gets pumped into.

The other thing though, is that babies and children don’t need to be bundled up in 25 layers, so there’s less washing in the first place – a well known bonus for those who manage to time a bit of au naturel potty training just right.

Elsewhere though, the season does throw up a challenge or two. Suncream is an absolute must for families of course, but it has long been a tricky one in our house. And not just because of the plastic tubes or sometimes tricky-to-recycle spray cans. Sunscreen works by physically or chemically blocking out harmful UV rays from the sun.

Peace with the Wild Suncream

On sunscreen, we wanted a zero plastic container as well as a natural cover and a high SPF, so our current picks are Amazinc and Shade. Pricey though!

I love Peace with the Wild for this kind of product and their sun skincare page has plenty of options for sun protection and aftercare.

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Peace with the Wild sunblock, £21, available at peacewiththewild.co.uk

Traditional, chemical suncreams are a minefield of long-worded ingredients like octinoxate and oxybenzone, that are toxic to both humans and the environment. When we talk about reef-safe suncream, that’s the coral bleaching stuff (now outlawed in places like Hawaii) we’re trying to avoid.

We steer well clear and seek out physical sunblocks instead… even if the thicker consistency makes the already tortuous application on small children a bit longer. And they end up with those white streaks made famous by 80s cricketers.

My tip is to warm it in your hand first, which shouldn’t be hard in the balmy British summer we’re surely all set to enjoy without a cloud in the sky…?

kate-eco-columnBuy Kate’s book Going Zero: One Family’s Journey to Zero Waste and a Greener Lifestyle now.