Plastic Angst

I am ancient enough to remember Bakelite. It had been around for a while before the 50s but by the time I’d emerged it had become commonplace around the house, used for radios, toys and homeware.
A little later there was Melamine and its spin-off ‘Melaware’. My father took to these products with enthusiasm because at the time, light, unbreakable Melaware was a marvellous replacement for many of the metal and enamel items he packed into our modest, family car to go camping. Plastic was a wonder material. Homeware, toys, implements, storage boxes [‘Tupperware’], games and upholstery and much more besides were all reproduced in plastic. But back then we still had recyclable containers. We used glass milk bottles, glass soda bottles [which we children could capitalise on by returning them], glass jars, tins. We bought fish and chips wrapped in paper [newspaper on the outside], food items in waxed paper or paper bags.
Fifty years on and plastic has become the devil; the demon we must eradicate from our lives. To be precise it is single use plastic we must reject. Having been in love with the wonder product plastic for over a hundred years we are now faced with a monster of our own making. Plastic is overrunning the world, forming gigantic, unwanted islands in our oceans and lying suspended in our seas ready to ensnare fish and mammals; or clogging up our beaches, rivers and countryside, filtering itself into systems by breaking down into minute particles that can be detected even in the expensive water that people are foolish enough to buy in our supermarkets [packaged in single-use plastic bottles].
Faced with all this, plus the fact that China no longer wishes to accept our garbage, what are we to do? We are willing to change, yes. We would like to reduce our single-use plastic waste. But how can we do it? Plastic packaging abounds in the supermarkets. Unlike trendy London liberal-land we don’t have innovative green stores flogging organic turnips wrapped in jute. There are no entrepreneurial milkmen trundling round at five o’clock in the morning. As far as I can see the supermarket does not stock milk in glass bottles either.
And even if all these anti-plastic alternatives were available here in the provinces everyone would need a six-figure salary to avail themselves of their facilities. Going plastic-free does not come cheap. Some years ago a forward-thinking initiative opened stores called ‘Weigh and Save’, selling dry goods loose for customers to fill their own containers but they closed, perhaps due to public distaste for contamination from grubby fingers. It can’t, however be beyond the wit of designers to prevent direct access to dispensing machines.
We do our best. On the rare occasions when we buy a ‘takeaway’ meal we re-use the containers. We don’t buy take away coffees, preferring to sit down in a coffee shop with a china cup. We dutifully sort our waste, recycle, re-use. But expecting us to go single-use plastic free really is beyond us [for now].

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What not to Eat [clue: anything]

OK. New government health advice. We eat too much [we know this]. We must restrict our intake to 1,800 calories per day. The recommendation is 400 at breakfast, 600 at lunch and 600 at dinner. Great.
I watched the ‘experts’ on a daytime news programme showing us how this looks in terms of meals. Breakfast was a child’s bowl with porridge and a few blueberries. Lunch was two miniscule ‘spinach’ muffins and some tiny, doll’s house dishes with miniature tomatoes and a strawberry. Dinner was another child’s bowl with some chicken risotto. The expert generously suggested that the risotto could be accompanied by a small side salad. There, readers. Don’t eat it all at once.
Here at Lessageing Manor we don’t actually do breakfast, which leaves us a whole 400 extra calories to have at lunch! Whoopee!
It is certainly true that Husband and I have consumed too much during the winter and have been attempting to correct the ensuing spare flesh by cutting down on carbs and so on. But I can’t help feeling that these suggestions of tiny, dolly-sized helpings are not going to convert the mountainous, British obese into svelte, MacDonald and KFC refuseniks.
In other, dangerous-food-related news there was a long, detailed item on the subject of that most lethal of breakfast staples: BACON.
Some time ago the demon bacon was heralded as the greatest poison known to man and the consumption of it foremost in the list of behaviours most likely to cause bowel cancer. Like many such revelations this is not a happy discovery for those who’ve based a lifetime of breakfast experiences upon it. This bacon scare, having frightened devotees of the ‘Full English’ enough to prompt a boycott of the sausage/ham/cured meats aisle then appeared to die away and bacon consumers resumed their perilous habit, returning to Greggs for their bacon rolls and Burger King for their additive rashers.
Now however the bacon threat is re-awakened. This is not due to bacon itself, or any other treated meats, but the mass-production technique of adding nitrates to them.                Following advice, I prowled the aisles of Waitrose in pursuit of nitrate-free bacon and ham, with limited results.
Every day, it seems another food aisle is closed off. Don’t go near biscuits! Keep away from crisps! Touch fizzy drinks at your peril! Don’t touch fruit juice with a barge pole!
It’s no to alcohol, bacon, carbohydrates [especially evil sugar], processed foods, red meat and fruit! Fruit, apparently will not only make you fat but will simultaneously rot all of your teeth. This is the single most depressing news amongst all of it.
Perhaps the simplest approach would be for our health gurus to suggest what would be acceptable for us to eat and drink. What would they say was alright? I’m guessing kale, lettuce, lentils and beans washed down with water would be the answer. Am I right?

 

Beware Scooters!!!

Nobody can deny that those with a disability get a raw deal from society. For most, employment, income, social life and travel are all sources of difficulty. So it can only be a good thing if practical improvements such as public toilet upgrades become the norm. I read that the mum of a disabled child has produced a toilet-selfie advent calendar as part of a campaign to improve public toilet facilities for the disabled, a cause I wholeheartedly endorse. No one should have to lie on a filthy toilet floor to have their needs attended to!
And then there are mobility issues. Of course we must provide parking for those who need it. We should be making access to buildings easier and simpler for wheelchair users and making space for them at concerts and sports fixtures. No one can argue with any of this.
Mobility scooters, however are becoming ubiquitous; so much so that a miniscule fibre of doubt has begun to pervade my thoughts over whether the vast number of mobility scooter users are really, really in need of their machines. Is there a chance, perhaps that some may be merely obese and that walking on their feet might be just the activity they need to be able to dispense with the contraption altogether? Worse-there are some monster machines for couples, like tandems, which are larger than ever and cause even more mayhem.
Here, where I live mobility scooters are everywhere. A quick excursion to the supermarket becomes a hair-raising exercise much like attempting to cross a dodgem ride at the funfair wheeling a shopping trolley whilst it is in action. Two scooters in an aisle effectively blocks it for all other shoppers. Twin this with the supermarket staff members busily plucking items for their delivery vans and you may as well go home and get a takeaway.
But the issue that bothers me is not the existence of mobility scooters. It is the speed at which those on them travel. Couple this with a sense of entitlement and you have a recipe for many disasters-especially as the Christmas shopping shindig cranks up to a frenzy. A short walk down the street on the pavement from my house to the town in the company of a small child becomes an anxious dodge as one scooter after another looms up behind us, veers around us or hurtles towards us with no mind for the safety of a tiny child. I’ve taken to calling after them to slow down, a plea that is only ever a lost cause.
Many will, I know be affronted and take this to be a rant against the disabled. I have to stress that it is NOT a criticism of those who genuinely are in need of help with mobility. I would just like motorised scooters to be regulated and to be given a speed restriction when using pedestrian areas. Is it too much to ask that they be limited to pedestrian pace? What say you?

The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…

The Tour of a Touring Store Cupboard

To venture into a supermarket in a foreign country is not the tedious flog round that doing Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s is at home in the UK [or Walmart, Intermarché, Netto or Dia for citizens whose countries sport those stores]. It is more an exploration of unknown territory and requires a little bravado, some imagination and a leap of faith.

I suppose every nation must have store cupboard items without which life would become sad. Do the Germans take sauerkraut wherever they travel? Must the Spanish transport a large, cured ham with them? Perhaps the French stow away a stash of truffles? Who knows? I can only let you into the secrets of the travelling British; the food and drink necessities without which we would feel impoverished:

  • Of course! We are British! Decent tea is impossible to buy abroad. I’m sorry, European neighbours-but ‘Liptons’ does NOT cut it. We take a huge supply of strong, ‘Yorkshire’ tea bags; 2 cups every morning=bliss! We drink it with a little milk. No other nation understands this.
  • Tomato ketchup. It is relatively easy to get this in most countries-but I like to be sure. A bacon butty is a camp-site morning staple.
  • English mustard-hot and strong. Great for sandwiches or cooking. Foreign mustards can be good but are not the same as English.
  • Mixed herbs. They are versatile. You can’t take every individual herb in a camper-van. There are space constraints, likewise-
  • Curry powder
  • Tomato puree
  • Garlic paste
  • Stock cubes. I take beef Oxo, chicken Oxo and vegetable cubes, plus Bisto and flour.
  • A variety of tins, including tomatoes, peas, lentils, sweet corn. These must be replenished during trips although substitutes often become necessary.

Armed with these items we must then plunge into the mysterious world of whichever grocery store has us at their mercy. Meat or fish is required, plus vegetables-fresh if possible. In Scandinavia we are able to recognise some of the meat by various methods but not the names. ‘Skingke’ sounds like some kind of primeval eel-shaped fish, but turns out to be ham. Pork looks familiar, as does chicken. A pack of beef is easily identified by being roughly the price of a small car and also called ‘biff’. There is chicken [‘kykling’] but since we don’t transport a chest freezer around with us for bulk buys it isn’t an option. We can purchase two pork chops from the meat counter. Hooray! Pork it is then.

I’ve gained a new respect for fresh, British fruit and vegetables now I’ve seen the price of cabbage or lettuce in Scandinavia. We are cautious, reigning in our usual gung-ho approach to greengrocery buying and becoming selective. We’ve seen enough burgers, pizzas and hot dogs during the last three weeks in Northern Europe to supply the fast food joints of Disneyland for several years.

Check This Out!

It would be an understatement to say I flounder in the waves of new technology. No sooner do you begin to get a grip on some gadget, software or device then some new upstart replacement arrives and you must begin again. Nevertheless there is the odd innovation that I do, after some tuition and practice start to get the hang of-even derive some satisfaction from and appreciate.

Take automatic check-outs. At last, after studious avoidance, suspicion, trial, many failed attempts, instruction and practice I am able to process my shopping through the complicated business of self-check-out totally unaided [sometimes]; I am able to bag things without the strident voice admonishing ‘unauthorised item in the bagging area!’ I can manage to tell it I have my own bags and collect the points on my loyalty card. Even so there are blips, like this morning’s debacle of the machine refusing to acknowledge my bananas.

I can see the benefits of self-check-outs. They cut down queues, take up less space and time and negate the need to engage with real people. Wonderful! But actually I am getting to an age where I’ve begun to enjoy those mini conversations, those minor snippets of small talk-with the person queuing in front of me or behind me; with the baby sitting in the trolley, with the person sitting behind the check-out or the boy scouts helping to pack the stuff. And if those of us who have company at home want to speak to others-what of those who lead solitary lives, these moments of minimal chit-chat the only conversational encounters in their day?

And what will those check-out workers do when the machines finally edge them out of employment? Nobody wants to be labelled a Luddite or to stand in the middle of the road of progress, but what are the employment options for manual workers whose occupations are being usurped by machines?

The Japanese [who else?] have designed and manufactured a ‘drone waiter’; a flying tray that delivers meals to diners. I don’t know if it is programmed to intone ‘Enjoy your meal’ or ‘have a nice day’ or to return and ask ‘is everything all right for you?’ but I doubt if it can process the reply. What if your steak is underdone, your side salad hasn’t appeared or the wine is corked? What on Earth are all the resting actors to do to support themselves in between roles, if waiting at tables becomes a redundant job?

Technology has come a long way, no more so than in the field of communication; but the future holds a bizarre vision. Silent people queueing to commune with machines, restaurants full of silent customers jabbing at screens. Will we lose the power of speech and the ability to look anyone in the eye? Perhaps our personal machines can take on our communication for us? Why not? Get your mobile device to speak to your friend’s mobile device. Get it to select and order your meal-why stop there? Get it to eat the meal, tip the drone waiter, call the driverless cab and go home. Who needs people anyway?

Wandering around in the bagging area.

                I gather that ‘Morrisons’ is losing out in the supermarket race because they have no online shopping capacity. I understand very well that bookshops, electrical stores, music stores and, to a certain extent, clothing outlets might lose out to internet shopping, but not supermarkets. Why? Because the supermarket is always busy. The car park is always full, the shop is always heaving with people and the checkouts always boast queues. At weekends, particularly people like to make a family outing of it. Mothers, fathers and children will be there, arguing, shouting, crying, threatening, larking about, getting irritated. Why? Why do entire families go? Why do they not divide the tasks of childcare and shopping and save everyone from supermarket purgatory?

On the other hand, supermarket delivery vans are constantly buzzing around the streets so presumably someone is clicking away in the virtual food aisles-but who?

                I can see the appeal of online grocery shopping, and have attempted it myself, in a former life as a proper working person. I registered, got my puny brain round the method, selected my items, selected my favoured delivery slot and paid. Bingo! I could come straight home and collapse into my usual heap without the added stress of hunting down a parking space, flogging up and down the aisles with a trolley, queuing to pay, unloading it all onto the conveyor belt, packing it all into bags, trundling it to the car, unloading, getting home, unloading again and then stowing it-[of course that still had to be done]. I felt smug. The van came at the appointed time, the bags were brought in and the driver left. Lovely. I delved into my shopping.

It had not been a success. This must have been someone else’s order, I thought, as it was not recognisable as our familiar, monotonous food purchases. Somehow I’d managed to buy five large bags of pears, four, miniscule, wafer-thin slices of salami, three potatoes and a number of items I’d never heard of and had no clue what to do with. There was wrapped, sliced, white, blotting paper bread-the type we consider an abomination-and a packet of sliced, processed cheese. The pre-packed meats were clearly the packets that had been rejected by real, not virtual shoppers since they contained tawdry, fat and gristle encrusted scraps. Who had ordered these things? I rushed to the computer to find the answer: It was me.

Having ascertained that my knowledge of weights, measures, food descriptions and names was inadequate for such a quest I returned to manual shopping. Nowadays I am at liberty to undertake this task at whatever time of day suits me. Although a casual inquiry at the shop as to which times of day are the quietest will elicit the reply, ‘2.00am’, I find that by avoiding early evenings and weekends the mission can be accomplished without too much stress and I can trundle up and down whilst making a simultaneous, covert study of my fellow shoppers and their habits.

Of course it can be tricky in these straightened times, working out whether twenty washing capsules for £6.25 is cheaper than BOGOF of own brand, or if 89p per pound is a better deal than 60p per packet in point something of a kilo, and one thing we are all sure of is that the price of everything is never going to come down, but I still prefer to get inspiration from the shelves, to poke about, to select or reject-[but not on bank holiday weekends!].