Plastic is Choking our Oceans

I recently spent a week’s holiday in sunny Santorini, and while I was there I was hit with the serious reality of plastic pollution. Although Santorini is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have travelled to, the amount of plastic that washed up on the beaches shocked me.

It made me more aware than ever of how important it is to drastically reduce our plastic consumption. The impact that plastic pollution is having on the environment and marine life is devastating. Our excessive waste is not only impacting Greece. The whole world is at risk.

I found myself swimming amongst plastic bags and I spent a lot of time fishing plastic and pieces of abandoned fishing net out of the water. This took away from the beautiful, carefree atmosphere of Santorini. It also made the seriousness of the issue even more real for me.

We are recklessly filling our oceans with plastic we don’t need.

Around 570,000 tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year – the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles every minute. It is choking ocean life and birds. The pollution is so dire in some areas that wildlife can no longer thrive. Species are dying out, with deadly implications for our environment. Every species is vital to the health of the whole ecosystem.

Why is there so much plastic in the oceans?

First of all, because of the amount of single-use plastic we consume. Plastic bags, water bottles, milk cartons, etc – all of these products take hundreds of years to break down. When we throw them away, they often end up in the sea because there is not enough space in landfills.

Secondly, when we discard non eco-friendly products down drains and toilets, such as cotton buds, face wipes, tampons, etc, they eventually end up in the sea as microplastics. These are tiny pieces of plastic that result from plastic that has broken down but not decomposed. Unsuspecting animals swallow the tiny pieces and the toxins kill them over time.

80% of microplastics come from land-based sources such as plastic bags and bottles. These are things that we can easily and quickly cut out of our lives with just a little bit of thoughtfulness.

It might seem impossible to escape plastic but more and more alternatives are becoming available.

The reduction of single-use plastic is vital to our planet and people are finally starting to get the message. Organisations such as WWF and Greenpeace are encouraging people to ditch plastic straws, cups, packaging etc to reduce the waste that ends up in the sea.

There are also many shops and businesses going plastic free. For example, where I live in Edinburgh, zero-waste shops such as The Eco Larder are doing their bit for the environment by cutting out all plastic. As an alternative, they use glass jars and recyclable fabric bags to store and package products. There are plastic conscious shops like this all over the world and it is easy to find one local to you online. Supporting sustainable shops will help them to grow, and it will become more of the norm for a shop to be plastic free.

Small changes are vital.

We can all make small changes in our lives, such as using a reusable bottle, a reusable coffee cup, or reusable pads to remove makeup. Not only will you reduce your plastic consumption and live a more sustainable life, you will also save money. Businesses are also making big changes. This year, Glastonbury music festival made the decision to go plastic free. McDonalds has also announced that as of September 2019, they will be scrapping the plastic lids that come with McFlurrys.

Decisions like these must continue. Becoming more sustainable is extremely important and sometimes we need a reminder. The ocean makes up two thirds of our planet. Reducing our plastic waste is one small sacrifice we can make to keep it alive.

We can all help our planet recover from the damage we have inflicted on it – while there is still time.

The Fashion Industry is Suffocating our Planet

The UK has the highest consumption of clothing in Europe. On average, a piece of clothing is worn only a handful of times before it is thrown away, and online shopping is continuing to grow. The fashion industry has become a major contributor to pollution and the overuse of land and water.

‘Fast fashion’ refers to items of clothing produced rapidly and cheaply in factories by retailers desperate to be the first to produce the latest trends. We, as consumers of the fashion industry, are buying and discarding our clothes far too quickly, resulting in approximately 235 million items of clothing being put in landfills every year.

Fast fashion is suffocating the earth.

To hear the opinion of someone in the fashion industry, I interviewed Imogen Evans from Edinburgh, who recently showcased her own designs at New York Fashion Week. When I asked Imogen about her thoughts on fast fashion, she told me: “We live in an instant world where everyone wants things as soon as we see them… People are seeing fashion week pieces and then purchasing them online at Pretty Little Thing for £5 the next day.”

Fashion items have become so cheap that they are only used once, even just to take a picture to upload to Instagram. Online retailer Pretty Little Thing stocks hundreds of items under £5, made possible by using cheap blends of materials. It’s encouraging people to carelessly buy a clothing item and then throw it away almost instantly.

Plastics such as polyester and nylon, which are found in cheaply made clothes and take up to 200 years to break down, are going straight into landfills.

This is polluting the earth and affecting wildlife. Landfill sites are taking over natural habitats and plastics are being eaten by unsuspecting animals. The fashion industry is guilty of contributing to air and water pollution in a major way. This, in turn, is contributing to climate change.

The fashion industry is currently creating more pollution than all of the aeroplanes in the world.

We should be extremely worried. According to scientists, we have 12 years to stop climate change. Fighting fast fashion is one major way to do so.

Several British Influencers, such as GraceFitUk and Zanna Van Dijk are now using their social media platforms to encourage people to shop in charity and vintage shops. Their influence will hopefully slow down the rate at which clothes are being bought.

Another example of an influential person using social media to change people’s views on fast fashion is Alice Wilby. Wilby is a Sustainable Fashion Expert for the BBC, as well as the founder of Future Frock – an online editorial platform focused on sustainable fashion. Through her Twitter profile, which is almost entirely dedicated to sustainability, Wilby explains how we can reuse, repair and recycle clothing.

There are several innovative plans being created to help reduce the impact of disposable fashion.

American Eagle has launched a new clothing rental scheme. For $49.95 a month, customers can rent items for a certain amount of time before returning them to be reused by someone else. The aim is to reduce fast fashion while still being able to fulfil customer need, and will hopefully decrease the number of items that are thrown away.

Another idea is a ‘penny per garmet‘ levy, which would require retailers to pay a penny for every item they sell. The money would then go towards recycling the clothes instead of throwing them away.

Only 1% of material from clothing is currently recycled for new clothing and only 12% is recycled for other uses.

We are slowly waking up. We’re getting rid of plastic bags and single use coffee cups and we are reducing the amount of meat we are eating. Hopefully, we will begin to phase out disposable clothing and the climate-changing emissions it produces.

There are some companies who are already trying to do their bit for the environment, such as Adidas, who have said they will only use recycled polyester by 2024. H&M have begun mending clothes for free so that they are not thrown away.

When speaking to Imogen Evans, she rightly noted, “the main problem is trying to educate millennials who aren’t necessarily interested in fashion because these are the people who are mindlessly buying from Pretty Little Thing and Misguided every other week.”

As consumers, we need to change our attitude towards clothes.

We need to stop seeing items as disposable and start buying fewer better quality items which will last longer. This way, we will reduce how much we are all contributing to climate change. Buying less clothing at a slightly higher price and recycling old clothes is a small price to pay for better quality products and reducing our carbon footprints for the earth.

Sustaining Breastfeeding for our Environment

The health of our planet is affected by the way babies are fed. We know that breastfeeding has overwhelmingly positive impacts on both mother and child – with long-term health effects that last a lifetime. Yet, safeguarding women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding and providing necessary support for women is also of incredible importance for our environment and in tackling climate change.

To break it down, there are a few noticeable impacts that breastfeeding has on combating climate change – when put in contrast to the use of breastmilk substitutes:

  • Reducing waste in your home from breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing methane gas from cows that produce milk to make formula
  • Reducing industrial waste and pollution from production of breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing fuel consumed to transport products to market
  • Reducing use of energy to heat formula and sterilize equipment
  • And in the long term – reducing energy use and waste associated with ill health and deaths of children and mothers

Yet, aren’t these points just a necessary evil for women who are not able to breastfeed? For some, yes. David Clark of UNICEF puts it into perspective for us:

“Entire sections of society mistakenly believe that large numbers of women cannot breastfeed and that formula is a necessity, and that any harm caused to the environment is a necessary evil. The breastmilk substitute industry (estimated to be worth $41.5 billion in 2012 and forecasted to double in size and reach $63.6 billion in 2017) has played a significant role in idealizing the use of their products and persuading women that they are either as good as, or better than breastfeeding.”

Like in so many other areas of our lives – especially as women – we are bombarded by marketing telling us how to look, how to behave and what life-changing decisions to make. Breastfeeding is not excluded from this. The detrimental environmental impact of breastmilk substitutes is a responsibility for all of us to bear – not mothers alone. We need to provide enabling environments, supporting policies and changed attitudes that give women the freedom to choose to breastfeed, as part of our efforts to combat climate change.

The biggest task ahead is communicating the important linkages between breastfeeding and the environment – taking the conversation about breastfeeding beyond nutrition to the impact on sustainability and women’s rights, and putting it into practice.

An example of how this is being done is through the work of Pan Asia Pacific. Their work focuses on creating a just and pesticide-free future with strong partnerships at the grassroots level – including with agricultural workers, indigenous peoples and rural women’s movements. They acknowledge that poor women from poor communities are more susceptible to pesticides, which further puts their babies at risk during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They promote women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding – yet they do so with caution, as they know the implications of working in polluted environments.

Safeguarding breastfeeding is an essential step in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – including the targets related to climate change and our environment – and requires us to collaborate across sectors and at multiple levels. One such partnership is the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), which aims to raise awareness of the contribution breastfeeding can play in combatting climate change.  

“Through the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative, UNICEF is reaching out to partners beyond the world of infant and young child feeding and this must include allies in the field of environment and climate change,” Clark explains. 

Let’s increase action by ensuring that groups working on environmental issues understand the linkages between breastfeeding and combatting climate change – making this a central part of our advocacy strategies. Advocacy must also include the normalization of breastfeeding as a sustainable way to feed babies – including the message that breastfeeding contributes to reducing our carbon footprint. New mothers and the younger generation need to be informed of the environmental impact of formula feeding in addition to receiving the support they need to choose to breastfeed.

To ensure that sustainability and environmental protection is a central part of breastfeeding advocacy we must broaden our messaging to include environmental and climate change arguments, like curbing the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. To protect mothers and children that are the most vulnerable, we need to partner with grassroots organizations that work among poor and marginalized groups.

Lastly, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes creates a framework for us to limit the formula feeding industry and thus safeguard our environment as well as women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding. Let’s ensure that The Code is fully implemented and monitored regularly.  

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

Raising Awareness of Menstruation and Sustainability in India

During a visit to Auroville, India a couple of days ago I was happy to have the opportunity to chat briefly with Eco Femme co-founder Kathy Walkling in between customers at their busy stall at the market. I had already heard about Eco Femme before I came to India and I was exited to meet the people behind it in real life. I wanted to get to know more about their important work on raising awareness of menstrual hygiene and sustainability among rural women in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Eco Femme was founded in 2010 and in collaboration with the Auroville Village Action Group – an NGO working for womens’ empowerment in rural Tamil Nadu – they started to design and produce eco-friendly, washable cloth pads for sale worldwide. The cloth pads are stitched by women in self-help groups who have been trained in advanced tailoring. The women run their own collective tailoring unit and Eco Femme, whose monthly production order alone provides a full time livelihood to 7 women, is just one of their customers.

The cloth pads are not only helping women to make a living for themselves, but they also contribute to a more sustainable planet. The pads can often be used for more than three years, which is a real investment for the environment and especially so in India, where waste management is really poor.

Cloth pads are nothing new to the Indian women who have been using them for centuries. However, due to lack of information about hygenic practicies, many women and girls in rural Tamil Nadu still have unanswered questions about their bodies and menstruation. Therefore Eco Femme initiated the “Pad for Pad” education programme which sets out to inform and educate adolescent girls on menstruation and hygiene so that they can make informed choices about their own bodies. For every pad sold outside of India a donation is made to the programme which enables Eco Femme to offer menstural health education and washable cloth pads to adolescent girls in India.

During my conversation with Kathy we were interrupted several times by women and girls who were curious about the pads, and at one point, two men approached the stall. This is, unfortunately, a rare sight, Kathy told me. She, (like most of us, I guess) wishes there were more men engaging in women’s rights. However, a lot of effort is needed to make changes just among women. The pads are generally positively received although there are women who initially are sceptical, especially on whether the pads are hygenic and if they are safe to use without any leakage. Furthermore, Eco Femme has to compete with the high volume of commercials on disposable menstural products which claim to be hygenic and safe to use. However, Kathy stresses, a lot of women experience discomfort, such as allergic reactions to synthetic ingredients, while using disposible menstrual products and would actually benefit from switching to reusable ones.

Another obstacle which has to be overcome is the lack of basic facilities for women to be able to change and wash the pads properly. Therefore, the pads are always distributed to NGOs, who are advised to carry out basic studies on access to water and proper toilets before starting any projects. This reminded me of the importance of a holistic perspective when working with development projects.

Overall, Kathy told me, we all have to really recognize the importance of working with girls because they are our future. Certainly, here in India girls are very marginalized and face many obstacles. It is also important not only to educate girls but to educate all levels of society in order for things to change. We need to acknowledge the importance of organization and solidarity throughout the world.

So, if you would like to act in solidarity with women and girls in India and at the same time contribute to a more eco-friendly planet, go ahead and visit the Eco Femme website to learn more about how to engage!

Cover photo credit: Eco Femme 

Urban Farming: Regeneration in our Cities

Grey. Angular. The low buzz of foot traffic, rubber-on-tar traffic, shoulders pushing against shoulders traffic. Did you see his face when he tried to smile at your across the street? Did you breathe in the blossoming jasmine that crept toward you at the bus stop? We navigate through cities, so loud yet full of silence. We have been waiting. Waiting for the earth to rise up against the pavements, to activate our joy and to remind us who we are and where we come from. We are nature.

This is an unfolding narrative of the environmentally conscious and gradual movement that is Urban Farming. This is the remembered narrative of the female presence in the food system.

Hailing from the mountainous green landscape of Barberton, Mpumalanga, South Africa, I have long held the forest as a close friend. Mother Earth can be said to have an innately powerful, fecund and peaceful presence. Plant life and forests are the ultimate reflection of matriarchy, pregnant with the life of a million organisms. My first encounter with a large city was dazzling and it was easy to become distracted by technology, industrial architecture and the scramble for identity within its oddly confining walls. Bureaucratic, patriarchal systems still hold our cities in place, where our connection to the ‘Mother’ has long since been replaced with a relationship with walls and structures; where is the ‘wild’ element of nature within all of this? Where is the wild feminine?

I dove into a practice of ‘remembering’ when I first finished university. I explored the world of documentary film in South Africa and found myself telling stories of young social entrepreneurs, many of whom were women my own age (23 at the time); but I was left with an incessant itch after having conversations with these inspiring youth: who was I? What mark was I making on the world? Where could my passion for connecting people to each other and the planet truly begin? Where did my voice fit in?

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So I went off to see the world. I saw women collecting grain in Rajasthan, India. I saw young girls pruning tea leaves with their grandmothers on the hills of Kumily, Karnataka, India. I saw “mama’s” collecting seeds to string up necklaces and stripping corn cobs to dry them in the sun outside their huts in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. I met women who had forgotten where their food came from. I met young girls who couldn’t name a vegetable from its whole form to it’s packaged product. I met older women who remembered their grandmother’s ways of caring for the earth. It was through this process of ‘seeing’ that I saw my role as a young woman to renew my understanding of the planet, to inspire those around me to do the same, so that we may all remember together, so that we can bring the wilderness back to the cities.

Our answer to connecting people and plants lies not in the fast paced ways we have become accustomed to, but in the gentle, attentive nature of our planet’s ecosystems. There is a strong female presence in the Urban Farming Greening movement around the world and it is equally matched with the supportive male energy. Earth work appears to be the perfect (and practical!) place for men and women to meet each other and work together collaboratively and harmoniously.  

So where to start? Balcony gardens, vertical gardens, urban & public food gardens, you name it! Regeneration begins with you. Occupy your neighbourhoods, sidewalks, highways, schools and public places with beneficial plants. Teach your friends, your families and your communities. Become the local urban acupuncturist and inspire your communities to localise food production, to ‘remember’ our planet and create internal networks of food exchange that not only benefits the natural environments, but strengthens relations between people.  

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Urban Farming is rated as one of the top emerging new jobs in the upcoming decade; will you embrace your roots as an earth-keeper and rejuvenate the way we consume our food? The concrete alleyways can become the edible jungle we dream of. You can begin by learning how to plant a tree with us at Green Pop, checking in with your local food gardeners (Cape Town’s finest being Guerilla House, Tyisa Nabanye and Oranjezicht City Farm), attending their workshops and planting some seeds of your own!  

There is a tremendous, empowering strength that comes from growing your own food. Let your children be the ones whose grandchildren remember you as the one who taught them to watch the beautiful complexity of a single seed come to life through it’s own, wild and gentle accord. We are nature.

Cora Women: Join the Movement, Period.

Two years ago I had the privilege to live and work in Northeast India. Every day, I traveled to remote villages and sat with women and girls and listened to their stories. I’ve already shared how one woman named Naisban  created change for literacy, water and sanitation in her community. As I sat with women and girls, I learned a lot about the health and water-related illnesses that effect their every day lives.

Women and girls shared that during menstruation they are unable to participate in normal routines and activities.

Girls are kept from school due to lack of proper sanitation and hygienic facilities. In fact, in most rural areas girls use old cloths, bark or dirty rags during their periods. These methods can cause serious health related issues for both girls and women. Being unable to afford sanitary pads, girls will stay home from school during their period and quickly fall behind in their studies. In India, 12% of girls have access to sanitary pads and 56% have a poor understanding of menstrual health and hygiene. When girls reach puberty, 23% of them will drop out of school completely.

This is a major health and personal crisis for girls.

Upon returning to the United States, I began to think about my own menstrual health. I read articles about the harmful chemicals used to make feminine hygiene products. Toxic shock syndrome, harmful chemical exposure, fertility issues all can be linked to chemicals used in feminine products purchased by most Western women.

The average Western woman uses 11,000-16,000 menstrual management products throughout her lifetime. This equates to ten years of exposure to harmful chemicals. Armed with this knowledge, I knew I had to make a change. I began to think about investing in my own menstrual health and researching the availability of organic feminine products.

Then I discovered Cora Women.

Cora Women is a company with an unwavering commitment to girls who are disempowered and stigmatized during their periods. When you join the Month for Month giving circle, Cora Women provides a month’s supply of sustainable, locally made sanitary pads on your behalf to a girl in the developing world. Cora Women works with local partners to implement this project.

When you join the circle, Cora Women sends you a box of your pre-selected choice of organic tampons, liners and pads. Because periods come at all times during the month, your box is guaranteed to arrive on the very first day of the month. If that is not amazing enough, Cora Women includes chocolate, tea and special products to help you through your period. This month, my box included a special feminine wash for clothes and undergarments. Currently, Cora Women only ships to women who live in the United States.

I am joining the movement.

I love knowing that I can improve my own health while contributing to the sustainable health and education of another girl in India. I no longer have to worry about harmful chemicals polluting my body. However, I also know that I am helping a young girl receive the vital education she needs. This is a win, win situation! I am saying goodbye to harmful chemicals and hello to an organic solution that empowers girls around the world!

Want to learn more about Cora Women? Join the movement today!

Follow @CoraWomen and support their Catapult Campaign.

Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMattersShare your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.