Location:United Kingdom

An avid tea-drinker who likes nutmeg in her coffee and warm lavender-scented quilts. She knits, crochets and partakes in random acts of craftiness (and kindness). She likes obscure works of literature, philosophy and the idea that her mind exists separately from her body. She enjoys moving furniture around, literary criticism and baking bread. She writes haiku about nettles, would like to swim with seals and become completely self-sufficient. She writes as if her life depends on it, listens to beautiful music, and loves her darling husband Mr. VP.

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Thursday 18 December 2014

Stove Life: Esse 200 review

As we have had the stove for just over a month now, I thought I’d do a review of it and what it is like having it as our main source of heating.  We’ve discovered a lot about fires, fuels and heating since we got the stove and we’re still learning.  I thought it’d be a good place to share some thoughts and advice that we’ve picked up since ours was installed.  This might not seem interesting to those with no interest in stoves, but it would’ve been very useful to us when we got ours, so I’m going to put it out there!

The stove:

As I mentioned in a previous post, the stove we settled upon is an Esse 200 XK SE and is rated at 8Kw, though the heating output depends wholly on the type and amount of fuel being used.  We chose this model not only because it is large and we had an inkling that we’d have a large space for it (we ended up with a full inglenook), but because it is one of the only Defra-approved stoves that would allow continuous burning and that was very important to us.  Most stoves will say in the manuals somewhere that they’re approved by the manufacturer for occasional use only, which means a couple of logs in the evening rather than a belly full of fuel going day in and day out.  As we were looking to the stove to replace almost all of our gas use, this was a necessity for us.  I also particularly liked the look of the Esse as we wanted a traditional stove rather than a modern one.

The airwash of any stove is important if you’re wanting a stove to provide ‘entertainment’ as well as heat.  The general gist is that the more you pay for a stove, the better its airwash will be.  Esse stoves are definitely not cheap and thus the airwash is second to none.  The glass does fog up when left damped down overnight with solid fuel, however a quick wipe over with a damp kitchen towel and the glass is like new again.  Even burning wood, which is notorious for sooting the glass, ours is as clear as a bell, which is something that other stove-owning visitors have commented on.

Lighting the stove is really easy and, after a few abortive attempts at the very start, I now have it sorted.  Depending on what’s being lit, you need different ratios of kindling and scrunched-up newspaper.  Because of the size of the stove’s fuel-box, to light a smokeless fuel fire I use almost all of a tabloid-sized newspaper (the free local ones they stick through the door are ideal!) and quite a bit of kindling.  If you don’t use plenty of kindling when lighting a solid fuel fire, it simply will not get up to temperature and will smother the fire out again.  Wood is much easier to get going and needs only a handful or so of the kindling with plenty of newspaper.  Remember the task is to get the flue gasses it to their best operating temperature (on most stoves between 115º and 245ºC) to avoid creosote/tar deposits on the chimney.

Our stove did come with an official Esse mitten, however because it is a mitten, it doesn’t work very well to pick big logs up with or do many of the tasks that I need it for.  I thus bought a pair of £3.50 welder’s gauntlets online and have been very pleased with how well they have worked for loading coal and protecting me against the fierce heat of the embers.

I can’t recommend stove thermometers enough!  It will make sure that you’re on the right track when it comes to starting a fire and getting it up to temperature.  There are three zones for stoves: ‘too cold’ – your wood will form creosote in the chimney; just right – your stove is operating at the best temperature; and ‘too hot’ – you’ll either cause a chimney fire or disfigure the casting of your stove.  It is vitally important that you pay heed to your stove thermometer as it is the only way you can know that you’re burning efficiently and safely.  For around £10 it is an investment that will last indefinitely and will save you time, effort and money in the long run!


Over all, we have been using a roughly half smokeless solid fuel (a 25% petro-coke 75% anthracite fuel) and half kiln-dried wood (hardwood and softwood*).  This was mostly because the place I was buying my wood from was fairly expensive, however I have just found another local company online which sells excellent quality kiln-dried hardwood in bulk at a much better price.  Since finding a good source of wood, we burn mostly wood and a little bit of the smokeless fuel when we need a long-lasting fire at night.

There are pros and cons to both and in general we prefer wood as it is a carbon neutral, locally felled (and a very pretty!) source of heat.  Wood also produces minimal ash and doesn’t need to be cleaned out of the stove like solid fuel does.  If you need instant heat, wood is your fuel, whereas solid fuel takes a good hour to start throwing heat out but lasts much, much longer than wood (~12 hours per load compared to wood’s 2 hours).  If you’re looking to burn wood, please make sure that it has a moisture content of less than 20%.  Buy a cheap moisture-meter online and test your fuel before you buy it and burn it.  Kiln-dried wood should be around 10% moisture, which is great and means a long-lasting, low-soot and high-heat fire.

On the other hand, solid fuel is good if you’re not around to keep chucking logs into the stove (out at work etc) however it is messy to clean out and difficult to get lit.  Solid fuel, depending on the type, can work out to be cheaper than wood, however it depends on what sort of wood and how much you use.  We’ve worked out that 1.3 cubic metres of kiln-dried wood is equivalent to the cost of the solid fuel and should last us 3-4 weeks.  If you can get a load of green logs, stack them and season them yourself for a year, then you will have a very cheap fuel source.  However, if you don’t have the space for that, then buying pre-seasoned or kiln-dried is the way to go.

Due to the Defra restrictions, no Defra-approved stove can be fully choked off as it increases smouldering and smoking, so fuel doesn’t last as well as it could, but solid fuel definitely does last until morning, whereas logs tend to last a few hours longer than usual and then burn out.

The average temperature of the downstairs is 25.5ºC when burning either wood or solid fuel.  If we were heating the downstairs to this temperature with gas, there is no way we’d be able to afford it at the price gas is currently!  I have never been in a house so warm, and the warmest we’ve got the living room is 26.7ºC – practically tropical!  Upstairs, the temperature happily stays at around 20ºC and the wall in our bedroom that the chimney passes through works like a huge storage heater and traps the heat, becoming toasty warm.

*The general consensus for many years was that softwood (pine, spruce, hemlock etc) were not good to burn because of the amount of pitch (resin) that they hold, which creates creosote in your chimney.  Whilst this is true if the wood is not dry, if your softwood is kiln-dried, you then have a fuel which is easy to light, burns hot and fast and creates no more creosote than anything else.  It is the steam that creates creosote, which is removed by kiln-drying.  Most stove manufacturers say it’s fine to burn softwood as long as it is dry.  All the Scandinavian countries use softwood as that is their main wood fuel type and they’ve been using stoves a lot longer than we have ;-)

Cleaning and Maintenance:

I have spent quite a while perfecting the best way to clean the stove and it seems that a good shovel, a Henry vacuum cleaner and a metal bucket with a lid is the way to go.  Be very careful lifting ashes, even if you think they’re cold, as they can retain their heat for more than 24 hours and remain a fire hazard.  I have a covered metal bucket that sits outside and gets brought in when I de-ash the stove, and even in the cold of winter after 24 hours outside, it can be hot to the touch!

I let the stove go out completely around once a week, so that I can give it all a proper going over.  Once cold and the ashes have been removed, I make sure the inside is very cold with my hand and then use a Henry vacuum cleaner to remove the trapped ash and charcoal/coal that I haven’t been able to remove by riddling or shovelling.  Don’t try to do this with a bagless vacuum as they simply can’t handle the small particulate matter and will clog.

I wipe down the glass with a damp paper towel and vacuum the outside of the stove with a brush attachment.  I make sure that the vermiculite bricks are all okay and in their proper places before laying the kindling for the next fire.  When not in use, make sure that you clean the stove out and leave the door cracked open, so that the chimney can breathe, otherwise you risk your stove rusting due to condensation.

For the sake of your house insurance, you will need to have your chimney swept at least once every 12 months by an accredited chimney sweep.  Do your research and ask around locally for one that is reputable and does a good job.  Ours came highly recommended from everyone we spoke to and having had my first sweep I can tell you he is worth his weight in gold!


The only downsides for me is the time that it can take to clean it out and the sooty hands you will get for the first few weeks until you perfect your own way of cleaning and de-ashing the firebox.

If the outright cost of buying wood every 6 weeks or so seems expensive, consider that you will only likely be doing this for the worst of winter (November to March or April) and during this time, you will use very little other heating.  This means that you control the bills and can alter your usage to suit your purse, though.  Other than that, there are no downsides for us.  The average medium-sized house’s heating bill is £954/year and we’re on track to be considerably less than that even with the cost of wood.


  1. Research, research, research before buying a stove.  Use the wonderful WhatStove website to read reviews from other owners before you decide on your model.  Prioritise what is important for you – cost, type of fuel, continuous burn, cast iron, good airwash, smoke exempt?
  2. Find a reputable dealer of stoves.  Not all sellers and installers are equal and it will save you a LOT of headaches if you find a good one.  Ask questions and ask to see examples of their work.  Search online for reviews and ask people who have used them for their thoughts.
  3. Remember you don’t have to line your chimney.  If you live in a house with a patent chimney, and as long as you don’t have any draw problems, you should be fine without a liner (this info comes from both installers and chimney sweeps!).  Any good sweep worth his salt will be able to do a smoke test for you for very little money.  At best, liners last only the amount of time they specify then you will have to replace them, however they can control a chimney’s draw if that is a problem.
  4. Make friends with your local chimney sweep.  They are the most wonderful source of knowledge for all things chimney and stove.  If you’re new to the stove lark, ask advice and if they’re as good as mine, they’ll spend time explaining anything and everything!
  5. Find a good source of fuel before you get your fire.  If you’re planning to season your own wood, consider buying some well in advance so that you can begin the process cheaply.  If you want ease, look for recommended suppliers of kiln-dried wood or people who have seasoned it themselves.  Never buy without testing it with a moisture meter (it must be less than 20% to burn) and never buy wood sold by weight – it is illegal for merchants to sell by weight as weight is usually water.
  6. Buy a stove fan.  They work by the heat of the stove causing the blades to turn, which convects hot air and draws in cold air.  This moves air from your chimney nook and raises the efficiency of your stove for very little outlay.
  7. Consider buying some spares for your stove.  Vermiculite baffle bricks, baffle plates, door seal ropes and door glass are all ‘expendables’ and not covered by the warranty.  For our Esse, to replace all of the above, would cost about £130.  This isn’t something you will have to do regularly, but make sure you know where to get your spares from and buy official parts when necessary.

Most of all, enjoy it.  I guarantee that as long as you get a good stove, you will love it for many, many years to come.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Veg Boxes

Shortly after we moved up to Northumberland the first time, we became aware of an organic veg box scheme, but for some reason didn’t ever get round to using it.  Part of that reason was because I was fairly adamant that we would be Growing Our Own thankyouverymuch and wanted to try to be as self-sufficient as we could.  Often, this would result in huge gluts of courgettes, tomatoes, runner beans, chard and potatoes, but very little else as my ability to grow beetroot, carrots and broad beans was limited (I don’t know about you, but I like beetroot to be a little larger than a marble and my carrots not to resemble a piece of orange lace!).  Quite why I didn’t go for the veg box then, to supplement my own offerings, I shall never know, but since moving back, I knew that I wanted to give it a go, so I signed up for a month’s trial and have just collected my first lot of vegetables.

For a long time, eating organically was seen a bit of a snob’s preserve and few believed the claims made about the possible health and environmental benefits.  Thanks to a stellar study published by Newcastle University a couple of months ago (more details and full paper here), the benefits of organic vegetables versus their conventional counterparts far exceed what even I thought possible.  What does this mean?  It means that there are 60% more antioxidants and considerably lower neuro-toxic metals, such as cadmium and mercury, in my veg box than in a conventionally-grown one.  This means that to reach my magic five-a-day goal, I wouldn’t need to actually eat five a day, yet I would get almost all of the same benefits (minus the roughage).

All of the vegetables produced are organic and grown locally (though some fruit has to be shipped in – Northumberland’s climate doesn’t support banana production!), and compared to standard non-organic supermarket fare, they are considerably cheaper, as we have cut the middle man out of the equation.  Cost is a big issue for many, if not all, families and I know that vegetable prices have rocketed in the last couple of years.  When buying at a supermarket, we could happily spend about £20 per week on conventionally-grown fruit and veg, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on our menu.  For one week of our organic, locally-grown fruit and veg, it’ll cost us the princely sum of £13 (for a whole week’s fruit and veg!) and there is plenty in the box to keep us going for a whole week.  If that doesn’t make you want to go organic, I don’t know what will!  Each week, the selection of vegetables changes, which ensures seasonality and a diversity of ingredients throughout the year.  I’m also hoping that this regular influx of new vegetables will help inspire me to try new recipes and stretch my kitchen repertoire.  As for tonight, I’m thinking lop-pork sausages from our favourite (Lincolnshire) farm shop with a selection of yummy roasted veg, lentils and wilted chard.  Not bad, eh?

Thursday 26 July 2012

Green and squeaky-clean

I haven’t done a ‘green’ post for a while now, but I thought it was high time I wrote a little ditty about washing up liquids (no, really!).  Now, for the last six or so years, Mr VP and I try, wherever possible, to use ecologically-friendly variants on the normal household products.  Through our leanest times, this has still been our motto and we are thrifty and cautious moneywise as we always have been.  I get a bit non-plussed by people saying that “going eco” is ridiculously expensive and not necessarily better for the environment or us etc.  Quite simply, this is not the case if you do it right.  The whole notion of “going green” means to think about which choices you make on a daily basis and with an informed view of the products on offer.

So, washing-up liquids.  Mr VP and I love Bio D (and Faith in Nature and Ecoleaf) products.  We have done so for years and years.  I simply love their huge (in print size, small in length) ingredient list on the front of the bottle, their affirmations about responsibly sourced products and how well their products actually perform.  They sell all manner of cleaning products from multi-purpose cleaners and shower sprays to washing (laundry) powder and washing-up liquid.  It was a real boon when we found out that a few years ago Oxfam shops began to stock their products too.

Now at £2.49 per litre, it isn’t that expensive.  C0mpared to supermarket leaders (i.e. big-name branded liquids), they come out quite favourably.  All the brands (apart from Ecover) in supermarkets are usually sold in much smaller bottles.  Moreover, the most important bit is that Bio D has nothing bad in it, unlike main brands which not only utilise pertrochemicals (finite rescources which take a lot of work to reclaim) but also preservatives (the allergy-inducing, immune-system toxicant Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Benzisothiazolinone), phosphates, foaming agents and other nasties such as (the very carcinogenic) formaldahyde.

Since beginning to write about green issues in perhaps 2006, I have noticed that many product formulations have changed to remove parabens (have you noticed this trend?) and other well-known ‘nasties’ from their ingredient lists and this is a laudable change which is, I belive, down to the awareness of individuals of the concept of “chemical cocktails” (see here and here) which happen every single day.  However the negative side to this is that the list of ingredients of products has changed to include more cleverly-concealed ingredients (I mean, who is going to Google an 11-syllable ingredient, which is unpronouncable to all but chemical geeks like me, in case it might be bad?).  So now parabens are (partly) gone (yay), they have been replaced by the likes of Methylchloroisothiazolinone and (one of my absolute no-nos) Butylated hydroxytoulene aka BHT (which is in an alarming number of items nowadays, particularly in oily products like moisturiser and lipsticks as its purpose is as an anti-rancifying agent).  I don’t think that most people realise how bad they are, or even care enough, to not use these products.  I have to walk by certain skin products that I want to use because they contain these things – but that is the way I’ve chosen to live.  If I want to poison my body, so be it, but I don’t want other people (big businesses) to do it without my knowledge.

Such is why I like Bio D products (and no, I haven’t been enticed in any way to write this, though if Bio D want to buy me a year’s supply of their products, they can contact me below!).  Honest vegetable-based products, from sustainable sources, fairly-traded and considerately made.  Now to the cost.  I mentioned that for a 1ltr bottle of washing-up liquid the going rate in most stores for the Bio D is £2.49, however I am a firm believer in buying in bulk those things which you know you’re going to use – like toilet roll, washing (laundry) liquid/powder, washing-up liquid – in bulk.  From our online retailer (Amazon), the cost of the bulk 5l size is ~£8.80 (£8.40 after my student discount!).  That means that it is less than £1.70 per litre for our washing up liquid which currently beats everyone else.  In our household, doing two loads of washing-up per day, it has taken us 4 weeks to use a litre of the stuff!

The best bit and the bit that made me squee with delight (apart from the knowledge that I was saving the planet)?  The fact it was unscented!  As soon as I decanted it into the smaller bottle, I popped 9 drops of rose geranium essential oil into it and I had the most delicious-smelling, custom-scented washing-up liquid which was cheaper than the stuff in the shops, better for me and does an excellent job of washing up.  Perfect!

Do you know, I think I might go and do some washing up…

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Plastic ain’t fantastic

It has only really occured to me recently that although there is plenty of information out there about many green issues, for instance trying not to use plastic carrier bags in preference of reusable and changing ideals about what goes in our shopping baskets – there are still lots of things which tend to be overlooked but to me seem an integral part of being “green”. Choosing to have a conscience about the impact we have on the planet and its inhabitants is more than just choosing a free-range chicken or buying Ecover washing-up liquid, it’s about every aspect of how we consume and consquently how much of an impact we have.

One of my bug-bears is plastic. It drives me loopy just how much people use in their daily lives and take it for granted. Not only is it so incredibly inefficient, using a fair amount of our crude oil supplies, but it has to be intensively manufactured (more energy lost) and then transported (energy again) before it ends up in our homes in everything from electricity cables to your washing-up liquid and your sanitary products (that is, if you don’t use Natracare!). Just to be used the once and thrown into landfill, where the average plastic container will take 300 years to rot down – into carbon dioxide, sometimes dioxins and other pollutants.

It seems that we all take plastic for granted, and that because plastic’s so widely used and trusted, it’s safe. Unfortunately there are so many aspects to plastics and in most cases cost-efficiency comes first in the manufacturing process, rather than safety. So like I’ve done before on cosmetics and food, I decided to educate myself – and therefore you lot who read the blog – about plastics. How they’re used, what resources they take up, what they’re made of and whether they really could be dangerous to us.

My first exposure to the posibility that plastics could be dangerous was when I read a magazine article about a plastic additive, added to polycarbonate plastics, called Bisphenol-A. It’s the so-called building block of the polycarbonates-group and is an integral part of their structure. However, it is well published that Bisphenol-A works as an endocrine disruptor, in particular an estrogen receptor agonist, meaning it causes changes in the body as if you were being exposed to estrogen. This means that a males in utero, male infants and children who are exposed to this can have feminisation of their bodies at relatively low exposures. In lab animals (mice), when given the relatively small dose of 0.025 µg/kg/day suffered permanent changes to their genital tract¹. It’s not science-fiction, it’s science-truth, and even worse, most baby bottles are made of polycarbonate with the Bisphenol-A monomer included. The difference between a breast-fed baby and those using polycarbonate bottles to feed in relation to amounts of Bisphenol-A they receive is quite marked.

Polycarbonates are the plastics used in CDs (doesn’t it make MP3s sound so much better?), and many shatterproof, clear plastics (some picnic plastic glasses, for instance). They are hard-wearing and are very clear, allowing them to be used in anything from babies’ bottles to medical equipment and iPod cases to spectacle lenses. In short we come into contact with them on a fairly regular basis, and whilst the chance of them leaching Bisphenol-A into the atmosphere is slim, when they are used in a close setting (food and medical applications) then there is some cause for concern.

In the EU we are pretty lucky when it comes to identifying plastics, usually for recycling purposes, we are given the Mobius Loop with a number inside it. These are called Resin Identifiers. The number tells us which plastic we’re dealing with, and is a useful resource as it’s on almost all plastics. Armed with this knowledge we can make a lot of decisions on which plastics we allow in our homes (however there are issues with this which I’ll detail later).

So let’s talk about what sorts of plastics are good, which are bad, and which you should evict from your home ASAP.

The main plastic groups are actually very easy to tell apart from one another, though there are a few exceptions, each type usually have defined characteristics, be it texture or maleability, thus helping you to make quick and easy decisions when it comes to buying plastic products.

Plastics marked with the above symbol are PET or PETE, which stands for polyethylene terephthalate. Despite the ominous “pthalate” bit at the end I can’t seem to find anything “bad” about this plastic (from strenuous research, I can’t find anything anywhere that says it actually contains a pthalate), other than it is a plastic, and therefore unsustainable. A chemical used in its processing, antimony trioxide has been proven to leach out, however it is a low-toxicity chemical, with little effect at low doses, and is well-below WHO targets for maximum daily intake. However if you go around your house and look at anything from water bottles to plastic food containers, shampoo bottles and plant pots, you are most likely going to find PET or PETE. This plastic is readily recyclable, meaning that when you’re done with it, there are potential future uses as long as you do recycle it. It is also used in the manufacture of polyester clothing. PET and PETE are usually clear, though they can be opaque, and they can come as any colour under the sun. They are pliable (bendy) but not as much as HDPE and LDPE.

Our second plastic is HDPE or High Density Polyethylene. HDPE is the cloudy plastic used in carrier bags, modern plastic milk bottles, tupperware, water pipes and compost bins. It is, like PET, pretty much everywhere around us, and as far as I can tell it’s a fairly “safe plastic”, though it’s used an awful lot in plastic bags, which have to be the worst invention to ever have graced the planet. Especially when fabric bags look so much nicer! HDPE items are very recyclable, too, which means that they can be used again and again, saving the planet some landfill space!

Our next plastic is one to watch out for. I’m sure you’ll all be very familiar with PVC or polyvinyl chloride. This plastic is particularly used around children and babies, in wipeable bibs, rain protectors for prams, washable toys and many other uses. It can take on many different forms, from clear, easily formed sheets (rain protectors) to typical “soft” plastic toys, such as rubber-duckies for the bath. You’re also likely to find it in non-food bottles, cling film, plastic fencing, covering electric wires and many medical appliances like IV bags, tubing and oxygen-masks. PVC is made malleable (or easy to bend) and non-brittle by the use of a plasticiser called a pthalate (thal-ate), there are lots of different pthalates like DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate), DINP (diisononyl pthalate) and more.

I think what worries me the most about PVC is its use in so many products around the home. I’ve managed to just about elminiate individual instances of it from our home, but don’t forget if you’ve got uPVC windows (we do), then not only do they contain pthalates (to stop the PVC from becoming brittle), they also secrete dioxins into the air when manufactured and when burnt. You know, even the gorgeous Cath Kidston oilcloths contain PVC-coated fabric, which is why as much as it pains me to do it, I won’t buy any (I just had official confirmation from their head-office).

Though PVC isn’t just used in children’s toys. There was a big scandal by Greenpeace when they showed that there is an alarming pthalate leach risk from sex toys. Yep, your best bedtime friend may be doing you no favours. Though I think the scariest thing for me is cling-film. Go to any deli counter (or kitchen) up and down the country and you can find cheeses wrapped in the stuff, cooked meats, just about anything covered in it. What often isn’t known is that PVC leaches pthalates at high concentrations when in contact with oils or fats, i.e. it is very oil-soluble. And what is cheese if not a big piece of fat? It is possible to buy non-PVC clingfilm, however this is as yet not in wide use. I always cover everything with either recycled foil or baking parchment, and I suggest you do too.

But what do pthalates actually do? Well they have a very similar effect to that of Bisphenol-A, in that they are endocrine disruptors and can change sexual characteristics, particularly of the testes³. That bit is pretty certain, and what is also certain is that those people who have worked with PVC for any amount of time have a significantly increased risk of developing cancer (rare cancers, seldom seen in the normal population)5. There was also a Danish-Swedish study² that found a statistical association between concentrations of DEHP and BBzP in the air and asthma in children. There is an American group of hospitals who are removing PVC from its IV bags and tubing, and this report4 shows it’s probably a good thing.

On the upside, the pthalates DEHP, BBP and DBP are restricted (restricted, not banned) for all toys, however the pthalates DINP, DIDP, and DNOP can still be used in any toy not specifically designed to go into the mouth (try telling that to your gummy, exploring 8-month-old).

Number 4 is LDPE, cousin to HDPE it stands for Low Density Polyethylene and is found in many of the same applications from milk bottles, carrier bags, lots of bottles and boxes, food containers and tubing. As far as I can tell there is no particularly bad press about this plastic, other than it’s in use alost constantly, especially in the nature-devastating plastic rings around multipacks of canned drinks. This is a typical “reduce, reuse, recycle” plastic, where it is better to reduce your consumption and reuse bottles wherever possible.

Our fifth plastic is PP or Polypropylene. It is the jack-of-all-trades in the plastic world, it is many things, from bottle tops (being slightly more rigid than HDPE/LDPE) to packaging, stationary, textiles, plastic cutlery and reusable containers. Again not a particularly worrying plastic, there are no pthalates or bisphenol-A, however the sheer amount it is used in packaging is enough to be worrying.

Plastic number six is not a toxic plastic per se, but it is considered an outlaw in our household. It is the dreaded PS or polystyrene (or if you’re going to be all American about it, styrofoam). You know when you get something sent to you in a huge box, it’s stuffed with those little nuggets which your 3 year-old stuffs in their ear? That’s polystyrene (and I was the 3 year-old who stuffed it in her ear).

It can come in two main guises, as very cheap, thin, clear plastic used to make disposable drinks glasses and a puffy, opaque material used to make insulated drinks containers and those horrid little packaging nuggets. Like any plastic it takes ages to decompose, giving off carbon dioxide as it does, and dioxins if it’s incinerated. Either way, it’s such a waste, when you can use old newspapers to line a box, or even popcorn. Both compostable alternatives!

Number 7 is the one marked “other”. It is for all the plastics which aren’t those mentioned above. It can mean literally anything from acrylics to ABS plastic, polycarbonates (the ones mentioned above, with bisphenol-A), nylon, PLA or Polylactic Acid (a biodegradable plastic made from corn-starch) and many others.

The more I research plastic use in the modern world, the more it angers me. Already we’re trying to do away with as much of the plastic as possible – for more than a year we’ve done all of our shopping using only fabric bags, we avoid buying drinks in plastic bottles where possible, and if we do buy them we find an alternate use for them (plant waterers!) when they’re finished-with. But when I go to a supermarket I see more plastic than ever, still in use. Ready-meals in lots of plastic packaging destined for a bin, whole aisles head-to-toe full of PET drink bottles and the dreaded plastic bags.

Plastics don’t just have a negative impact on the land and us, they are devastating our seas, too. Those little plastic nuggets used in plastics manufacturing (the official term is “nurdle“) are finding their way into the stomachs of sea-creatures (48% more plastic than plankton in parts of the Pacific ocean), thinking they’re food. This is a long-known-about phenomena. Polluting our seas with what are known as “mermaid’s tears“, tiny pieces of plastic, which are not only leaching pthalates if it’s PVC or Bisphenol-A if it’s polycarbonate, but are literally killing our seas and the creatures that inhabit them.

Without knowledge change won’t happen, and without change we’re effectively letting big business decide what’s best for us, without getting a say in it. Anyone else for paper bags and glass bottles again?


¹^ Markey CM, Wadia PR, Rubin BS, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM (2005). “Long-term effects of fetal exposure to low doses of the xenoestrogen bisphenol-A in the female mouse genital tract“.

²^ Bornehag et al. (2004). “The Association Between Asthma and Allergic Symptoms in Children and Phthalates in House Dust: A Nested Case-Control Study“. Environmental Health Perspectives 112 (14): 1393–1397.

³^ Salazar-Martinez E, Romano-Riquer P, Yanez-Marquez E, Longnecker MP, Hernandez-Avila M (2004). “Anogenital distance in human male and female newborns: a descriptive, cross-sectional study“. Environ Health 3 (1): 8. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-3-8. PMID 15363098. PMC:521084.

4 ^ Safety Assessment ofDi(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP)Released from PVC Medical Devices.

5 Clinical and morphologic features of hepatic angiosarcoma in vinyl chloride workers. Makk, Delmore, Creech et al.

Saturday 3 May 2008

Clean, green and less of the mean!

It has been a good long while since I last penned a Green post. Since then my shopping habits have changed as the availability of “eco-friendly” products has rocketed, enough for a whole new post about eco-products on the market and why some of them aren’t quite as green as they’d have you believe…

For the most part in our house I’d describe us as pretty green. We try really hard to use less chemicals than other people and to make conscious decisions when we’re buying, we banned the likes of anti-perspirant deodorant in 2004, don’t use throw-away washing-up cloths or sponges (2005), and avoid the use of unnecessary items wherever possible. If it takes more elbow-grease that’s fine with us! But because the “green” market has boomed to such an extent, a slew of “eco-friendly” products have come onto the market and it seems that not all of them bear the same ecologically-friendly credentials as others.

Take Tesco’s so-called ecologically-friendly fabric softener. To any Tom, Dick or Harry, this bottle (photo below) is doing something good for the environment. It’s called “Naturally…”, the leafy-green logos on the bottle gives a hint of virtual green fields and sports the scent of Cotton Bud and Almond Milk. Most people would agree (and I’m sure Tesco’s marketing surveys proved-so too) that it is less harmful to the environment than a “standard” brand. Here is where you’d be wrong. Actually, the devil is in the details, in smallish print are the words “based on plants”. Like a film’s titles “based on a novel by…” it means based on, not derived from plants at all. Actually, it is made of purely petrochemical ingredients, which whilst being not only absolutely unsustainable (oil crisis, people!) tends to be worse for our waterways and our skin. It has the standard preservatives, one of which can cause skin sensitivity and allergic reactions, the other can cause some significantly worse side-effects. It doesn’t seem so “green” now, does it? Mr. VP said it was very like certain supermarkets having lovely sunny meadow-pictures on the labels of their battery-farmed chickens. Apart from not having colourings, it isn’t any better for the world than a standard brand.

However not all supermarkets alike. If you’d asked me a few months ago which supermarket was the worst around I would’ve said Asda without a doubt, but now I’m not so sure. They seem to be coming along in leaps and bounds, whereas more promising supermarkets (Sainsbury’s) who were ahead of the trend are now falling far behind. Contrary to the above story of fabric-softener woe, Asda’s range of ecologically-friendly products are pretty good. The provenance of the coconut and palm oil isn’t given, but as for what’s actually in it I’m impressed. 100% natural fragrance (the most important thing), no petrochemical ingredients, completely biodegradable and pretty good at cleaning too. They may just be paying lipservice to the nation’s concerns about ecological issues, but at least they are doing something about it!

For those who are very militant, you may want to think about Ecover who has now changed its animal-testing policy to be on a rolling basis rather than a fixed cut-off. That means that unlike other brands (Bio-D, Faith in Nature etc) who impose a fixed cut-off date for items tested on animals (for Faith in Nature and Bio-D it’s 1988), the cut-off date is kept rolling, meaning that as time goes on, the cut-off date moves with it. Not fair on those little bunnies who have to undergo the tests! Ecover do not use regular animal testing – much better than the big bad companies (Unilever, Proctor & Gamble etc) who do it on a regular basis. Did you know the Co-op have the BUAV mark on all of their own-brand cosmetics?

I read labels of absolutely everything. Thanks to good laws you can now see what each product contains, even though some of them may just say “cationic surfactant” or “parfum” – once you’ve learnt the lingo you can decipher what’s good and what’s not. I’ve tested loads of different brands and by now I’ve found a few that I use and love to pieces. Research is key! Want to know what’s in your washing up liquid? There are websites to help (doesn’t work with all products, and is only for those in the EU).

[image courtesy of alexthegreek]

Even though products claim to be green you have to look past the flashy advertising to find out how green something is. If it contains palm oil or coconut oil, ask if it’s come from a sustainable plantation. Did you know they are cutting down rainforest in huge swathes to make room for palm oil plantations – often used in these so-called “eco” detergents (as well as lots of food items)? A good brand like Bio-D will give you a sustainability promise. Do it for the orangutans!

So in an attempt to make this Green Shopping malarkey easier, here is a list of the products you can find in local shops which really are green!

We’ll start in the kitchen, shall we? It’s the hub of our house and when it comes to chemicals around food, you really do need to be careful. I am amazed at how many people use products like Dettol and other disinfecting sprays in such close proximity to their food. What scares me more is how many people use those products in the first place. If only they knew what harm they could be doing in an attempt to avoid those dreaded nasty germs like *gasp* e-coli and *shock* listeria. The chances of anyone getting these bugs is small, however having a good standard of hygiene and keeping raw from cooked could prevent you ever having those bugs around in the first place. I haven’t ever used those sprays and there may be many things wrong with me, but as yet e-coli isn’t one of them!

Washing Up:

To do our washing up we use either Ecover’s washing-up liquid or my very favourite Bio-D washing up liquid. Life has been made an awful lot easier these days for us Bio-D lovers as you can now buy their range at all good Oxfam shops! Another well-respected brand is Clear Spring who are a subsidiary of Faith in Nature, a brill company who make the best shampoos to ever have graced this earth! Not only are these 3 companies dedicated to using only the most natural of ingredients, they make the best washing-up liquid. You don’t have to rinse, it’s great for hands that suffer from dry, chapped skin and best of all it’s good for the planet. They are generally a bit more expensive (between £1.50 and £1.99 a litre) – but we don’t think twice about the cost now, and believe me, we’re far from well-off.

Things to look-out for and to avoid:

  • Formaldehyde. Let’s leave it to pickling dead bodies, eh?
  • Petrochemical ingredients – oil crisis, unsustainable natural resource etc.
  • Artificial fragrance. If it doesn’t say “natural scent” or somesuch, it is artificial.
  • BHA, BHT, Chloromethylisothiazolinone, Butylphenol methylpropional and the like. If it’s too long to pronounce, avoid!
  • Phosphates and phosphonates – bad for river ecology.
  • Anionic surfactants are detergents. They call them that instead of having to name each and every type included in a product. If it’s on a non-eco-branded product you can bet your bottom-dollar it’s Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLS) or SLES – petrochemicals which are drying to skin and unsustainable.
  • Cationic surfactants are similar to those above but work in a slightly different way – you find those in both cleaners and fabric softeners.
  • Look for recyclable packaging. The Mobius loop (above) lets you know what it is and how it can be recycled.

Multi-surface cleaners:

As a general multi-surface cleaner, Ecover is okay, as is Bio-D’s multi-surface cleaner. Inexpensive and smelling nice, they rock. I’ve also just managed to get my hands on (after a long time searching) Method products (stocked in John Lewis stores). The jury’s still out on their perfume and what it’s made of, but the rest of the product is completely natural and we’ve been using it for a couple of months and liking it, especially the “tub + tile” bathroom cleaner, however multi-surface cleaners are pretty common, even Asda does one in its “Eco-friendly” range!

Or what about borax? It’s a natural mineral-cleaner that does everything from boost cleaning in your washing machine to make your toilet look sparkly. Lemon juice mixed with borax is even better, especially on bathroom tiles. And having problems with soap scum? You need household soda, it’s so cheap it’s funny but best of all it works. Give it a go!

Things to avoid:

  • The same as above.


For our laundry what a choice we have! Bio-D’s laundry liquid is one of the best to use, and not too pricey at £3.85 for 1ltr which does 22 washes. You can use soap flakes and a cup of household soda per wash, which is cheap and as long as you don’t mind grating your own soap, it works very well indeed. I do use a biological washing detergent now and then, but I make sure it doesn’t use phosphates or phosphonates. Both of those cause severe river pollution and kill fish by causing algae to grow in excess and starve the rivers of oxygen. We judged Ecover’s washing powder and liquid to be a bit too expensive for us. You could also try “soap nuts” – seeds of a tree which contain natural saponin, or soap. Pop 6 “nuts” in a sock, knot it and put it in with your wash and clean clothes abound (you don’t even need fabric softener as it makes everything gorgeously soft!).

Things to look out for in any laundry products you want to buy:

  • Optical brighteners – they irreversibly bond to the skin and have been known to cause skin issues and there has been speculation as to its long-term effects on the human body as they are relatively new products.
  • Perfume. If it doesn’t say it’s 100% natural fragrance, it’s not. Simple as that. If it’s an artificial fragrance it is possible it will contain pthalates – a chemical so toxic it has been banned in many areas of manufacture. There has been widespread testing and conclusive results that it can mess with your whole endocrine system. The so-called Pthalates Information Centre is made-up soley of those who have an interest in the continued production of pthalates in our daily lives.
  • Zeolites good, phosphates bad. Zeolites are included in many eco-friendly washing powders as a phosphate alternative.
  • Biological washing powders/ liquids should be kept to a minimum – there are very few stains that can’t nowadays be removed through other methods. Non-bio powders and liquids of the eco variety are much better than they used to be.
  • Read labels. If it doesn’t give you sufficient information, do your research before buying. It’ll make choosing something in the future quicker and hopefully safer.
  • Look for recyclable packaging. The Mobius loop lets you know what it is and how it can be recycled.


  • Polishes are becoming less and less pleasant to use. They often contain a cocktail of unpleasant ingredients, fake smells and lots of things that don’t make your wood look nice at all! For real wood, get some decent beeswax polish – got a local honey farm? They’ll no doubt sell their own polishes. Method, Ecover, Bio-D and all of the other usual suspects have their own polishes which definitely don’t come in horrid aluminium spray-cans and which work wonders.
  • Cleaning windows is a chore I don’t mind doing. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to distilled vinegar and you’ll have lovely clean windows that dazzle.
  • Don’t use kitchen towels. They get a big “Immoral and Unethical” sticker from Yours Truly.
  • We always use cotton cloths for cleaning and washing-up, they are better than those flimsy blue-plastic jobs, and you can use them again and again. You can even knit your own using cheap and readily available cotton, it’s easy-peasy (pattern coming later)!
  • We have a SEBO vacuum cleaner and when you buy one of these “Rolls Royces of vacuuming”, you get given a tub of their Duo-P carpet cleaner which contains lots of micro-sponges coated in an alcohol/detergent mix. It is like dry-cleaning your carpet and works wonders with only the tiniest amount.
  • We don’t have much brass to clean, not like my mother who has tons of the stuff. But nonetheless we do have some, and over time it becomes tarnished. Save yourself the cost and horrible-smell of Brasso and get half a lemon and some salt, rub onto the brass and it gleams like new (tried this myself for the first time today and it worked like a charm!).
  • A tub of bicarbonate of soda is the best “shake and vac” you can get – and it won’t cause your cats and dogs (or yourself) respiratory distress. Add either two handfulls of lavender heads or 5-10 drops of essential oil to one tub, mix and leave for a few days – then sprinkle over the carpet and leave overnight (or longer if possible). Vacuum up after a good 12+ hours and your carpets will smell dreamy.
  • Don’t use air fresheners. They contain tulouene, a carcinogenic compound as well as a plethora of ingredients which aren’t listed on the packaging. Try putting some essential oils in an oil burner for best effect.
  • We only use post-consumer recycled toilet rolls. They can be pretty cheap and work just as well. They get a big “Moral and Ethical” sticker from Yours Truly.


Our skin is our largest organ and is incredibly sensitive to what we put on it. As above, don’t use synthetic fragrances, anti-perspirant deodorants or anything you wouldn’t put on a baby’s skin.

  • For washing we use soap. Apart from being cheap, it’s been used for centuries and is a very effective way of cleaning yourself. There are lots of shops selling soaps which contain completely natural ingredients.
  • For our hair we use Faith in Nature shampoos. Hemp and Meadowfoam shampoo is our absolute-favourite, but their Lavender and Geranium is good too!
  • Our teeth are cleaned using only the finest Kingfisher toothpaste – it doesn’t contain fluoride, it tastes lovely and minty, and works really well.
  • We don’t like smelling bad, so we use a crystal deodorant. By wetting the crystal and applying it liberally to your under-arm area it inhibits bacterial growth which is what makes you smell when you sweat. However it does let you sweat, a good thing, as those aluminium-containing anti-perspirants have been linked with a plethora of possible side-effects. The crystal deodorant looks expensive, but Mr. VP and I have been using the same one for at least 2 1/2 years now (yes, we share it) and it’s still 90% of the size it was when we bought it! Bargain!
  • Bath products vary – Faith in Nature make some very sweet-smelling bathtime additions, as does Lush (watch out for some of their products) and The Visionary Soap Co. make heavenly bathtime melts!
  • When it comes to moisturisation, try aqueous cream. You’d think this is going completly back on my not wanting to use petrochemical ingredients but I’ve found through having the most awful case of dry skin going, that this stuff works and it’s OK. There are no preservatives, scents, colours or anything else bad. It’s just a simple emollient cream for your skin. However there are also ecological-alternatives available. The Visionary Soap Co. make some lovely creams, naturally. You can also make your own, too.
  • When it comes to sanitary products (Thanks Mhairi for reminding me!) I’m a bit in the dark, as I (thankfully) don’t have to use them often (there are upsides to this infertility malarkey).  However when I do (and now this fertility malarkey is getting sorted, that is more often) I was faced with the usual products which contain not only plastic (in large amounts) and scents, but a whole host of other nasties in the plastics.  I went to my local green shop and bought a shelf-worth of Natracare natural sanitary products.  From tampons to towels, to panty-liners they do the lot and they are much better not just for the environment, but for yourself.  Thankfully they are the same price as the regular ones and work wonderfully.  Amen.  As for the Mooncup, which I’ve heard is very good, after one dear blogger’s accident, I don’t think I’ll be trying one soon!
  • Find out if any of the current products you use contain potential carcinogens – simply download a free PDF.


In the garden we’re organic. We use the simplest methods (usually found in a plethora of gardening books, from folklores to modern gardening manuals) to keep weeds down and wildlife happy in our garden, as well as growing enough food to keep us fed throughout the Summer months.

  • If you have an aphid/greenfly/whitefly/blackfly problem that is too big for “squidge-power” alone to deal with, try pyrethrum dust. It’s ace. We use it on everything from the chickens (a special bird preparation, of course!) to our veg. It’s made from the seed-head of a chrysanthemum and is excellent at killing all inverterbrates dead. And would you believe – it’s not toxic to humans or animals at all! Apart from those little things nibbling your roses. It is broken down in 7 days by exposure to sunlight, which turns it back into a harmless compound. Be warned it will kill all inverterbrates including spiders and bees – use carefully. It’s the only pesticide we allow into our house or garden.
  • Composting all of your household vegetable matter is a really good way to help your garden. It saves on landfill too. A big “thumbs up” from us!
  • Fish blood and bone is the stuff to use as a fertiliser. It works wonders. As do stewed nettles or comfrey. Oh and chicken manure – and well-rotted horse manure. Yum.
  • Get yourself some chickens. This is only a good idea if you have the time to look after them though, as they can be a surprising amount of work. But we love our hens and their quirky personalities.
  • Slug-pellets are bad, midnight slug hunts are good. Find a nice way to dispatch them – or feed them to your hens. Bad slugs!
  • Remember even the largest dandelion has its place in your garden. You are the interloper, not it – leave ’em be. Just remove the heads to stop them spreading.
  • Ditto for daisies in your lawn or cleavers in your hedge. Gardens shouldn’t be sterile. I can name every type of wonderous weed we’ve got growing, and we respect every single one.
  • I feel for you if you’ve got ground elder. But you can’t fight it, so you might as well start eating it. It’s apparently a bit like… nettles. Yum!
  • Weeding by hand is tiresome and needs to be done often during the growing season, but isn’t that bad if you keep on top of it. An hour a week will stand you in good stead, and probably make you feel much better for it.

I hope this long list has made some sense. I’m aiming to make a PDF of the most pertinent bits – so you can take it to the supermarket. It feels good to be writing mammoth (3241-word) posts again!

Side-note: We were disheartened today, when having popped into Gosforth to visit their Out of This World shop, we found it closed and empty. We didn’t think the competition of a Sainsbury’s store opening 20 feet away would have made it easy to stay open but apparently the whole company went into liquidation, which heralds the end of one of the best eco-shops around. It just shows that, despite this huge upturn in ecological-issues and consumer demands, there are still those who fail to compete against the Big Nasty supermarkets. *sigh*

Friday 29 February 2008

Going (paper) potty

[We did indeed get the washing line up. This is my favourite photo of the year so far. I love it!]

It has come once again. The time of year when, at Chez VintagePretty, I relinquish the use of our back bedroom for the sole purpose of growing beautiful plants. It’s actually surprisingly easy to grow-your-own and so much cheaper than buying seedlings from garden-centres. For instance, a packet of tomato seeds is usually £1.39 and from that (much to my surprise) almost every seed came up, leaving us with almost a hundred little tomato seedlings – about a third (20-odd) of which we kept and grew on (if you’re an allotment-holder you can barter readily with neighbours for other seedlings), producing a bumper crop despite last summer’s poor weather. Before that we used to buy the tomato plants themselves, costing £2.99 for 6 plants, with at least a couple not surviving. It makes huge financial sense to grow from seed, and as there is very little equipment needed to grow them, it is a sure-fire way of growing your favourite varieties.

Last Christmas my MIL bought us, as a joint present, a paper potter. A wonderful invention it allows you to make the tiny cell-like pots from old newspapers. I’d completely forgotten we had it until the other day when I wanted to start planting some seedlings – it flicked into my head and, raiding the recycling bin for old newspapers I got cutting. You make the strips and wind them around the handle-bit, once done you fold the ends over the bottom and press hard into the stand. It makes lots of beautifully-formed cell pots which biodegrade naturally.

I made a start with the leeks. I tried growing leeks from seed a few years ago and it failed horribly – nothing seemed to come up. Since doing some research on the subject in my many gardening manuals, I’ve come up with a better way of doing it – almost everyone recommends filling pots with compost and sowing the seeds on top, allowing them to grow a little bit before planting them out. The packets tell you otherwise, but I’m going with what others say works. We’re trying “Castor” this year.

I also planted half of the butternut squash seeds. These are my first butternut squashes I’ve grown and according to the packet they are the only truly “born and bread”UK butternut. Apparently suited for all weathers and will produce a prolific crop whatever our British summer throws at us. They are called “Butternut Hunter” and as I love anything from the curcubita family, I hope I won’t be disappointed by this crop!

Yesterday saw me listening to the Afternoon Play “Ghandi’s Goat” by Matthew Coombes, drinking a cup of Rooibos tea (as well as sugar-free and calorie-restricting, I’ve now dropped caffeine too!) and scribbling lists on pieces of paper.  This is the best way to organise onesself – write a list of what’s got to be planted when, in chronological order.  You can tick off what’s been done and what hasn’t and how it’s got to be planted (indoors or out).

Vegetables still to be planted are: parsnips, perennial (!) broccoli, broad beans “Express”, French beans “Lazy Housewife”, pumpkins, tomatoes “Moneymaker”, mixed salad leaves, spinach “Mediana”, kale “Scarlet”, swiss chard and potatoes. We’re also hoping for a small but plentiful crop of raspberries whose canes are now starting to bud.

And as for annuals this year we’re growing an array of new ones. Of course I’m still going for things like godetia and some sunflowers dotted around, but we’re also trying asters, lupins, aquilegias (had problems with these before), mixed butterfly-friendly seeds, poppies, phytostegia “alba”, antirrhinum “Monarch mixed”, stocks “Ten-week mixed”, malope and some more whose names escape me.

But now a little break in the proceedings to show you chicken-related cuteness for today:

It’s also been the weather for tulips and narcissus to show their faces. Only a day later than its neighbour, the crocus, this little tulipa bakerii “Lilac Wonder” showed its beautiful pink face.

On the swimming front I’ve just come back from a 70-minute swim managing a very lush 50 lengths. That’s 1.25km or 0.77 miles! Unfortunately the weight doesn’t seem to be “falling off” as I had hoped, but nonetheless I’m feeling better for it!

Now playing: Chris Bathgate – Serpentine

Friday 11 January 2008

Hooray. Reactions to Hugh’s Chicken Run.

I want to say Hooray! for Channel4’s wonderful season of food-ethics programmes. We watched all three programmes of Hugh’s Chicken Run with glee as it is finally the sort of thing the Great British Public should be watching – in fact, it should be compulsory at secondary-school age for children to see what goes into our food production in the UK. It seems that although this is making headlines up and down the country, only Channel4 have stuck their necks out to say that this is the sort of thing that we as a nation should be pushing for.

If you aren’t in Britain and don’t know what I’m waffling on about, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, who has always campaigned vociferously for small-scale, free-range, cruelty-free and where possible organic meat production. Way back in 1999 he took on a smallholding (River Cottage) in the most beautiful Dorset countryside and started by growing his own veg and then getting some egg chickens, shortly followed by the introduction of his pigs which he would fatten up for the table. It was a magical series which made me see that what I wanted (to live that kind of lifestyle) was possible. Hugh decided more recently to turn his most recent home-town of Axminster (of woolen carpet fame) into a Britain’s first free-range town.

He tried desperately to get some filming access into standard broiler-house production farms, where he could demonstrate to the public just how awful conditions were for the birds living there. However the intensive poultry farming folk in the UK took offence to this and wouldn’t let him near any farm for fear of their sales taking a dive. So Hugh did something no one would’ve thought possible – he made his own intensive broiler-house housing over 2000 birds in the standard way. After having found a shed which would serve his purpose well, he split it down the middle and made one half free-range and the other half standard production. The free-range birds would have access to a big paddock during daylight hours, there would be no synthetic light to stimulate feeding, they would be a slower-growing breed and would be raised for 59 days before slaughter.

The standard chickens would be allowed a minimum of 30 minutes sleep in any 24-hour period – the longer they are awake the more they eat, the faster they get fat. They would never see daylight, they are even caught for slaughter at 2am in the morning to avoid stress. They are kept 17 birds to 1sq/m (one square metre), living for 39 – 42 days in sawdust with their own faeces, with heat and synthetic light along with as much food as they can eat, and a supply of water. Their legs cannot physically cope with the ratio of weight to bone and so they develop bad joints (much like very over-weight humans) and stop walking altogether towards the end. Those with any sort of defective joints or those who don’t put on enough weight are culled without question. The one saving grace is that their suffering lasts only 39 days.

These are the scary-but-true things that it doesn’t show you on the label of the standard birds in a supermarket. It isn’t OK that we can turn a blind eye to this sort of cruelty. If you eat an animal – any animal – you should not only know how it has lived and died, but how it was treated and where it has come from. In what kind of housing it lived and what it was fed on.

Hugh not only reached his goal of making Axminster free-range (he aimed for 50% of all chickens bought to be free-range) he exceeded it and managed 60%. Channel4 are just showing how good they are at grassroots TV – they were the ones who brought you Jamie’s School Dinners, The Lie of the Land documentary by Molly Dineen which spurred this post, and the original River Cottage series. But what surprised and worried me slightly was that all of my worries were proved to be true – that the supermarkets really don’t care. Through their lack of willingness to be met on camera (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-Op, Waitrose, Asda, Morrisons ad nauseum), to the blanket ban on Hugh’s camera-team to even look around some shops (Co-Op be ashamed – so much for your ethical policies!) it has shown the nation just how fickle the supermarkets are.

We received a letter in the post the other day from Sainsbury’s, which has been sent to every customer on their database stating that (I copied the edited version from this forum):

Dear Mr XXXX,

Over the next few weeks you may see programmes on the television or read articles in the press about the farming practices used for chicken and egg production.

…Currently all the fresh and frozen chickens and eggs we sell are British and we are one of the few retailers who can make this claim.

…In December we were delighted to win two out of three awards that the charity, Compassion in World Farming presents to the major supermarkets for their commitment to the welfare standards of farm animals.

…You may have seen in the press that we plan to stop using eggs that are produced by caged hens by 2010… In addition we are working closely with both the RSPCA and the Woodland Trust to make significant improvements in our chicken production methods.

It does show how very scared they are about what is being said on TV, and now we’ve got the supermarkets running scared, it shows how just a couple of television programmes can make a difference. The letter said that all of their meat and eggs are soley raised in the UK (it’s something, I suppose…) and that they sell many different types of chicken. Enclosed with the letter were two information cards giving information as to how their meat and eggs were raised. For the battery (egg) chickens it said:

Sainsbury’s basics eggs:

Our basics eggs are currently sourced from farms where the hens are kept in cages under carefully managed conditions. The packaging clearly states ‘eggs from caged hens’.”

It almost makes it sound alright, doesn’t it? The very limited level of information given shows that they don’t want customers to feel at all guilty for buying these. It is the egg-laying hens I feel the sorriest for, their lives are miserable from the time they are born to the time they are killed because they are too exhausted to live in those conditions anymore. 18 months in a cage, then you die.

Whereas the information for their free-range and organic eggs is much more detailed (106 words in the description to 27 in the battery description) as you would expect. They are proud to tell you about the organic and free-range because there is nothing shameful in their upbringing.

Sainsbury’s SO organic free-range woodland eggs:

These are from hens free to roam in pasture planted with a mixture of native British trees which provide the hens with shade and protection, encouraging them to display their natural jungle fowl behaviour. The hens are fed an organic diet which is supplemented by food they obtain naturally from the fields. Sainsbury’s pay a 2p premium per dozen eggs to the farmer to support this type of farming, and a donation is also made to the Woodland Trust to help them plant more trees across the United Kingdom. Our SO organic woodland eggs are from farms certified by Freedom Food and Organic Farmers and Growers.

Definitely nicer to extol virtues than to reveal nasties. I suppose that is what they call “big business”.

So a big hooray for Channel4 and a huge BOO to the supermarkets who are so uncooperative when it comes to talking about these issues. Do I think everyone is going to change their habits overnight? No, not when some people won’t accept that they may have to stop feeding their family chicken every single night (a subject which infuriates the usually-serene Mr. VP) just to improve a chicken’s life. Though we both feel this runs deeper as the obsession with cheap food seems endemic. Food should never be cheap, any animal that has lived and ultimately died so it can feed us should never be a commodity. And we should always feel a pang of sadness when we see an animal die for our table.

We’ll be watching Jamie’s Fowl Dinners, Gordon’s Cookalong (even though I cannot stand the sweary chef), and giving our own egg hens an awful lot more swede, carrots and cuddles. And we will also never, ever buy a non-free-range chicken (we haven’t bought one since November/ December 2004). I will also continue to campaign for the rights of the animals that aren’t given a second-thought. I hope through this someone else does, too.

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