Language. Mobility. Environment.

Can we save Poland from toothbrushes?

Anne Hathaway recently posted a short videoclip from her film The Devil Wears Prada. The rather mundane clip features herself brushing her teeth in front of a mirror. Below, the following caption: Did you know that very single toothbrush that has ever been used ever is still on the planet?!!! It’s true! And gross!!

Oh, dear.

A simple calculation, just to put things into perspective: a toothbrush is approximately 1cm wide x 20cm long, which means it covers a surface of approximately 20cm². On average, it is recommended that toothbrushes are replaced every three months, which means roughly 4 toothbrushes per year. Since my first tooth has come out, I have honoured Mother Earth with 92 toothbrushes in total. If I could retrieve them all, I would be able to cover the entire floor of this tiny apartment with my toothbrushes all lined up next to each other (18.40m² ca.). And this is just myself.

It is quite difficult to find accurate global statistics on toothbrush users, but let’s say that we are 7.2 billion at the moment, 2.7 of which do not have full access to improved sanitation. Now, this does not mean that this couple of billion of people do not use toothbrushes at all, but let’s put them aside for now. This leaves us with 4.5 billion people. In one year, these people (us) ensure that 18 billion toothbrushes fill our landfills. All lined up, they make up to 3,600km², twice the territory of London! Two Londons covered in billions of toothbrushes orderly laid on the ground, next to each other. Which also means that after 87 years of worldwide toothbrush experience, we could wrap Poland (312,679 km2) under a  layer of plastic toothbrushes.

What a memorable achievement for humankind.

This is obviously a bunch  of pub maths and questionable data, but it is a good exercise to grasp the enormity of the problem we are facing right now. As a society, we seem to have lost contact with the limitedness of the environment. We are more, and produce a lot more, including many disputably useful things that we send to the landfill after a single use. Every – single – day.

The example I provided here accounts for one of the many products that fill our lives and pollute our children’s. We don’t know where or how these products are made. We just grab them off our supermarket’s shelf, buy them, use them, and  throw them away into the mystical black hole where all the things we throw away go. As though they simply ceased to exist.

Well, it turns out that they do go somewhere. And wherever that is, they stay around for quite a long time.

This must stop.

The issue of plastic pollution has been widely addressed by charities, businesses, and political authorities. The mass consumption of single-use plastic is becoming catastrophic. We’ve come to a point in history where global behavioural trends (i.e. universal use of plastic) must be reversed.

Fortunately, there is already something in the air, and it smells like outrage. Non-recyclable plastic is slowly becoming public enemy number 1: people have started seeing the “bigger picture”, the long-term effects, the baby turtles trapped in plastic, or – in my case – the sea of  toothbrushes looming over Poland. People are talking about it, are re-considering their choices, are demanding compliance. Many have started to think about the impact of their choices . And this is the most powerful weapon we have.

The corporate world is all over our data: our spending habits, brand perceptions, consumption trends. And they can’t ignore the figures. Our clubcards are there to tell supermarkets what we want, what we don’t like, where their marketing strategies succeed or fail. They base their offers on what we place in our trolleys. Which means  that a collective adjustment of shopping habits towards sustainability will push retailers to re-organise their supplies accordingly.

We can solve the many challenges that a plastic-free shopping experience entails can if we demand change from below. The formula does require some motivation, but it’s very simple: Cut waste. Scan your Clubcard. Save Poland. (And do give bamboo toothbrushes a go. They’re great).

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Eco-Village Moldova

Eco-Village Moldova

When I was in high school, my literary cravings for short fiction were yet to be satisfied by the wonders of in-flight airline magazines. At the time, I would turn to my English-language course book to enjoy the cheesy narratives on the British existences of all Johns and Marys, their friends, and their cat. Among them, there is a story I remember particularly well. It was about a married couple from London (let’s call them John and Mary) who were not happy with their jobs and, generally, with their life in the capital. Disillusioned by urban life, they decided to leave their career, their apartment, and their local supermarket behind to move to the countryside and start a new life.

Pragmatically speaking, the short story was meant to encourage English-language students to familiarise themselves with the term downshifting and reflect on the pros and cons of favouring a less stressful existence over a financially rewarding career.

Quite unsurprisingly, I do not recall using that word ever again since I moved to Britain. Instead, it had to be Moldova to bring it back from the dustiest volumes of my English vocabulary.

‘Downshifting’ generally indicates a voluntary life- or career-change from a stressful, though highly-paid job environment (and the lifestyle therewith associated) to a less-pressured existence. Contrary to what I remembered about the proper definition of the word (and I blame John and Mary for this), Google tells me that ‘downshifting’ may imply giving up on city life in favour of a quieter, rural life – but not necessarily. Anyway, for me, it was the moving-to-the-countryside part of the story that remained imprinted in my memory.

Living in the countryside is not something I have really considered as far as my current life plans are concerned. Yes, maybe I considered the idea while thinking about the future, about where to buy a house, about where to eventually ‘settle down’ – yes, living in the countryside does not sound too bad then. Right now, though, I am seeing myself heading towards the hustle and bustle of the city and the countryside does not look like a feasible option. But this should not prevent me from exploring and learning about alternatives: they trigger some interesting reflections about how my interests and the causes I care about may be affected (or facilitated!) by certain life choices. I am thinking about my general interest in sustainable living, in environmental issues, and about how I seem to solely focus on a limited side of the issue and I still have so much to learn about “the bigger picture”.

Let me explain this further.

The question ‘how can we live more sustainably?’ has been crossing my mind since the moment I realised I had had enough with freeloading all the depressing media coverage on war, conflict, racism and climate change: ‘it is time to understand what I, within my capacity, can do’ – that is roughly what I told myself.

The large-scale impact that my habits of consumption– and especially my ability to control them, to reduce them – came as a simple, straightforward solution to my quest for a field of action.

Over the past 12 months, I have put a lot of emphasis on my responsibilities as an ‘end line’ consumer – e.g. responsible shopping, recycling. But I have dedicated very little attention to sustainable living (≠ sustainable consuming). Thankfully, my experience in the Republic of Moldova has given me the opportunity to learn more about it.

On the 19th of August, I boarded an old marshrutka (a minibus – a very popular means of public transport in former Soviet countries) that drove me all the way to the village of Rîșcova, just 40 km north from Chișinău. In Rîșcova, I reached my final destination, the EcoVillage Moldova, which – allow me to be a little bit overdramatic with my prose – rises among the round green and yellow hills of the Cruiuleni district: a stronghold against environmental neglect and wild consumption.

Poetics aside, the EcoVillage (here’s a link to their Facebook page) does catch the eye: located on the easternmost side of Rîșcova, it welcomes visitors and passers-by with a big round building topped by a quirky, thatched roof. Reeds, straw bale, natural plastering: I walk in past the gate, and take a few pictures of what will soon become the object of my first introduction to eco-building. Liliana, one of the extraordinary founders of EcoVillage Moldova, comes to greet me. I am a stranger who had expressed some interest in the project over the phone, a week earlier. Besides, I am covered in sweat because of the crazy ride I’ve just had (note: minibus drivers are very optimistic about spatial capacity). But all of this doesn’t matter, Liliana cuts out some time off her busy schedule to show me around and teach me about what she and the other co-founders have themselves been learning while working on the EcoVillage project. The building with the quirky roof is a workshop space. We get inside and I find myself in a childhood dream. There is something treehouse-y about it, but the chairs, the desk and the whiteboard inside it make up for its professional outlook. Here and there, there are some patches in the wall that have been left unplastered on purpose, and work as useful teaching props. Liliana shows me the reeds inside: ‘they provide excellent insulation’. And they did not have to go miles to fetch them – later on I pop by the lake with a volunteer that is helping out at the Village. The banks are blanketed with excellent, ecological construction material.

Riscova LakeAt present, the EcoVillage counts three buildings: the workshop space, a residential building where two families and occasional guests/volunteers stay, and a training centre, currently under construction and predicted to be functional by the end of 2017. Between them, patches of land are cultivated according to the principles of permaculture, another crucial concept I diligently jot down on my notebook. Roughly speaking, permaculture acknowledges that nature is the ultimate master of strategists: in order to implement sustainable agriculture, we just have to observe and facilitate those strategies already implemented in the natural world without recurring to external interventions. For example, certain pairs of plants grow well together, others don’t. Permaculture encourages the pairing of plants that support each other in terms of, for instance, sharing resources. Permaculture also prescribes the replacement of chemical repellents with natural, sustainable solutions: it encourages the creation of habitats that are favourable for insects or reptiles that are the natural predators (spiders, frogs, lizards) of undesired pests or for bugs and insects that are beneficial for the plants (bees? Yes please). This is why the Eco Village can boast a prime hotel for insects (free meals are very happily provided):

Something that really strikes me is how everything within the complex of the EcoVillage is where it is for a reason. The buildings, the patches of cultivated land, the apiaries, the rainwater collection tank, virtually everything has been allocated a spot within the area of the Village in accordance with a wide range of factors, including the cardinal points, the position of the sun in summer and in winter, the slope of land. Even the choice of paint colour on the external walls was driven by the natural pathway of the sunlight over the different seasons. All in the name of efficiency: a house built under these premises will be cool in summer and warm in winter, thus reducing the energetic consumption due to air conditioning. It is some impressive work, no doubts about that. Especially if one takes into consideration the fact that the project was effectively launched three years ago. And if one takes into account the fact that this project is the offspring of incredible determination, hours of self-study, professional networking and peer collaboration.

Every single detail regarding the village may cover a day-long training session on sustainable living and my scribbled notes somewhat look like an insult to the months of determination and intense studying that those very details have entailed. I try to help out in the garden and I find myself getting my hands dirty (quite literally) in the wonders of organic composting. I learn that there are different kinds of compost that differ in the types of benefit they provide to the soil and the produce. And I learn that these kinds of compost make the soil incredibly fertile. The guys from the EcoVillage shows me a bunch of massive pumpkins growing on the edge of a pile of compost. ‘We dropped a few seeds by mistake, and this is the result’.

The backyard of the housing units provide a beautiful view over the site, framed by the green hills surrounding the village of Rîșcova. The eco-community is still evolving and expanding: only two families are currently living in the village, but the idea is that more people interested in sustainable living will join and support the project. At the moment, the EcoVillage is an important educational hub that seeks to spread the word of environmental sustainability in Moldova. A word – or rather, a message – which contains a series of incredibly simple suggestions and recommendations: simple strategies that decades of wild consumption have made us unlearn.

I leave Rîșcova the following afternoon. I have a few flower seeds in my pockets. ‘They go well with tomatoes’, I’m told. ‘And they attract bees’. I keep them inside a brown paper napkin. I still do not know how to found an eco-community, and I am probably not founding any any time soon. There is no recipe I could learn in 24 hours to follow: there are too many factors to take into account for each single context. But I know that individual initiatives do make a change, and the EcoVillage is evidence of that. It reminds me that there are so many people around the world who are so full of bright ideas and makes me think, for a few seconds, that this planet is not that doomed after all. There is something else in that paper napkin besides those flower seeds that I take with me on the minibus back to Chișinău.

Yes, it’s hope for change. And a great determination to work towards that change.

Thank you, EcoVillage Moldova!

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