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Doing something drastic, cutting the plastic

According to Surfers against Sewage (SAS), plastic pollution can now be found on every beach in the world, from busy tourist beaches to uninhabited, tropical islands. Whilst this is a worrying statistic, making even the smallest change to your single-use plastic consumption can reduce your plastic footprint significantly. I’m now two weeks into my plastic-free July challenge and I’m starting to get into my stride!

Monday 8 July
It’s my first full week back at work since my holiday and I’m definitely feeling the Monday blues! Just like last week, I pack myself lunch and take my (many) re-usable containers into work with me. I make my first tea of the day – I’ve switched to a loose leaf tea as I was shocked to discover that most teabags contain some form of plastic. As an avid tea-drinker, that adds up to a lot of plastic waste over time!

Tuesday 9 July
As I’m starting to use up some of my regular household items I’m looking into plastic-free alternatives. After doing my research I discover that although the initial outlay is often pricey, the sustainable alternative should last me longer and the re-fills are often cheaper. I’ve made an order from an online plastic-free shop called Plastic Freedom and I’m excited to unpack washable kitchen sponges, organic cotton produce bags, washable cotton rounds to take my makeup off and plastic-free cleaning products.

Wednesday 10 July
Today I get the chance to try out my new cleaning products! I purchased a few glass spray bottles and fill these with lukewarm water, then add the concentrated cleaning solution. I shake the spray bottle thoroughly and my anti-bac cleaner dissolves completely into the water, making it completely zero waste! On testing, my plastic-free cleaner does the job nicely and as an added bonus it smells incredible!

Thursday 11 July
At lunchtime I sit down to listen to my audio book and tuck into my homemade salad of chickpeas, sundried tomatoes and olives (all salvaged from last night’s dinner). Not only is my lunch delicious, it also cuts down on unwanted packaging and is saving me money too – a definite win in my eyes!

Friday 12 July
Food shopping has been the hardest area to go plastic free. I’m making changes by shopping for all our fruit and veg at a local farm shop rather than a supermarket and trying to buy items in cans or glass wherever possible, as these are easier to recycle. Buying meat plastic-free has been pretty much impossible unless I go to the butchers (unfortunately we don’t have one locally), so all my meals have been meat-free this week.

Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 July
My husband and I have a quiet weekend at home, so living plastic free is relatively easy! I take a trip into town to stock up on some bubble bars and bath bombs from Lush (my favourite treat!). I bring my own bags and the staff in store put my purchases in small paper bags. They go in a bowl in our bedroom, which makes the room smell amazing and means we don’t need air fresheners or room sprays anymore!

What started off as a challenge that felt almost overwhelming, is starting to become quite enjoyable. And researching the plastic pollution problem has only spurred me on to continue to make as many changes as I can.

How’s your plastic free July going?

Drowning in plastic – my plastic free July challenge

After seeing both the recent BBC documentary the War on Plastic and Blue Planet, I’ve been horrified to see the impact that single use plastics are having on the environment and on wildlife. A particular statistic that shocked me was that in the UK we throw away around 16.5 billion pieces of single-use plastic cutlery every year.

To me this seems like an unbelievable amount and it’s inspired me to try and give up as much single-use plastic as I can.

Whilst researching the plastic-free / zero waste movement online I came across Plastic Free July – a global movement encouraging people to refuse single-use plastics throughout the month of July – and I decided to give it a go!

Although living completely plastic free is probably a step too far for me right now, I’m aiming to reduce the amount of single-use plastic I buy and use over the month of July and I’ll be sharing my journey here – read on to find out how I got on.

Monday 1 July
I’m currently on holiday in Zante and as we aren’t doing much today except for sitting by the pool I’m able to make a good start on going plastic-free during July. I can get free water from the bar and the smoothie I order arrives in a glass mason jar. We have lunch in the hotel’s restaurant, meaning we avoid plastic cutlery, and I remember to ask the bartender not to give me a straw, so not a bad start all in all!

Tuesday 2 July
Today we travel home from Zante and although I try my best, the wheels come off today. We have a mid-day flight, so the morning flies by in a haze of packing, but before we leave the hotel we have one last glass of water and then travel over to the airport.

Zante airport is tiny, with a couple of cafes dotted around and not much else. I manage to buy a sandwich and ask them to put it in a paper bag, which they do for me, but getting water that isn’t bottled from here on out is impossible as the tap water isn’t drinkable in Zante. I buy a large bottle of water for myself and my husband to share and hope this option is a bit better than buying individual bottles – we take this on the plane and try and make it last as long as possible. By the time the food trolley comes around, I’m starving – but there aren’t any plastic-free options so I give in and order a sandwich (feeling surprisingly guilty as I do).

Wednesday 3 July
I’m back at work and back to reality! I have a s’well re-usable bottle in the cupboard at home, so I pour in some water from the fridge and add a few ice cubes to keep it nice and cold. I also bought a set of re-usable stainless steel straws so I pop one of these in my work bag.

We go out for lunch and although I’m well-prepared with my reusable straw, the place we go to for lunch provides paper ones! I’m struggling to find snacks that aren’t wrapped in plastic, so on the way back to the office I go into a local grocery store and pick up some loose fruit.

Thursday 4 July
Today I decide to bring in my own lunch. For most of this year I’ve been buying lunch out every day which is not only an expensive habit to have, but it’s made me think about how wasteful it is. I pack myself a nice healthy lunch in my reusable, stainless steel lunchbox and I can use the cutlery at work so I don’t need to bring a knife and fork with me.

My snacks today are an apple, an orange and a packet of crisps. The individually packaged crisps are an issue, so I decide to buy a large bag of crisps in my next food shop and divide it into portions, rather than buying a multipack, to cut down on packaging. Plastic-free packaged crisps seem pretty much impossible to find!

Friday 5 July
I have the same lunch as yesterday, so I put it all in a re-usable tote bag and take it along to work with me. In the evening, I go out for dinner with a friend and order a mocktail, but it comes with what appears to be a plastic straw. –I speak to the barman and he explains the straws are actually made entirely from cornstarch, which means they look like plastic but are completely biodegradable and they dispose of them amongst their food waste. I enjoy my mocktail even more!

Saturday 6 July and Sunday 7 July
It’s finally the weekend! We have a double helping of BBQ’s and I have a feeling that navigating this plastic-free is going to be a bit of a nightmare! On Saturday we have a hog-roast so I’m able to refuse a plate and eat my bun without the need for cutlery or a plastic plate.  We go to a family BBQ on Sunday and I feel slightly awkward asking for a proper plate and knife and fork rather than the paper plates on offer, but my sister in law gladly obliges. This gets me talking about the challenge with the family and I think I’ve now got a few of them on board too!

This first week hasn’t been without it’s challenges, however the small swaps such as bringing my lunch in, carrying everything in a re-usable bag and bringing my own cutlery with me have helped make a big impact already. I’m starting to plan how I’m going to tackle the food shop next week – I’ll let you know how I get on!

Not so fantastic plastic

Ever since the first plastic was created by Alexander Parkes in 1862, its use has sky-rocketed – with common household items such as bottles, shopping bags and wet wipes now being relied on for daily use.

Our over-reliance on plastic and its devastating impact on the environment is now making global headlines – and reducing plastic use is one of the biggest challenges we currently face. Although positive changes have been made, I feel there’s still a lot more to do.

How exactly does plastic impact the environment?
Many plastic products contain harmful chemicals that can transfer or leak from the plastic by a process called leaching. Leaching contaminates soil and groundwater, killing fish and undersea species in oceans. And plastics release greenhouse gases when they’re produced or burnt – leading to global warming. So it’s fair to say plastics have a particularly damaging impact on the environment!

This should be a major concern to all of us as inhabitants of the planet, but the simple steps listed below can help us to take action and reduce the impact on our environment right now:

Quick and easy plastic-free lifestyle changes:

  • Use reusable shopping bags – these are generally quite low cost and can be reused many times, so on top of being plastic free they have less impact on the environment. Plastic bags are bought 160,000 times every day, so helping to reduce their use could have a major impact.
  • Stop buying single-use bottled water – plastic bottles are one of the main causes of plastic waste, and we can all easily help by simply buying a stainless steel or bamboo reusable bottle instead.
  • Give up plastic straws – one person uses approximately 130 plastic straws every single year. Saying no to plastic straws is an important step towards being plastic free, but going straw-free would be even better in my opinion.
  • Use wooden cutlery – when you’re out and about try to choose wood over plastic – they’re stronger than plastic forks which always end up breaking before the end of the meal too!

Try starting with these small steps – it shouldn’t be a huge change to your lifestyle, but could help in the fight to massively reduce plastic use around the globe.

Festival Survival Guide

You bought your ticket months ago, and you’ve been looking forward to it ever since. There are even rumours the sun might make an appearance!

The start of summer means the start of music festival season. So whether you’re getting geared up for Glasto, ready for Reading, or teed up for TRNSMT, here are our top tips to ensure you get the most out of your festival weekend.

Supplies
If you’re buying a tent specifically for a festival we’d recommend getting one that’s light and easy to pitch. Festival campsites can often be a long walk from the car park, so something that’s light to carry will make life easier. The same goes for your sleeping bag and carry mat, light and durable are best. And make sure your sleeping bag is warm, as despite the day time temperature it can get chilly at night! Also, a trolley can be a huge help for transporting your stuff from car to site, particularly heavier items like food and drink.

And if you can manage a camping chair, then take one along – it’s always good to have somewhere to sit, especially if it gets a bit muddy on the campsite.

As well as your essentials mentioned above, make sure you take:

  • toilet roll
  • a portable phone charger
  • a torch
  • a towel
  • (plastic free) baby wipes & anti-bac hand gel
  • refillable water bottle

Most of these are self-explanatory, but the baby wipes can be a hygiene godsend if there are no shower facilities available. And make sure you take any medicines you might need with you too.

Drinking (and eating)
Festivals are a great place to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. But one thing we’ve learned (through experience) is the importance of staying hydrated and drinking lots of water, especially if it’s a warm weekend. Of course we’re not saying you shouldn’t drink alcohol, but just make sure you pace yourself. You don’t want to peak too early and end up in your bed before the headline act has even started.

Try breaking up the alcoholic drinks with a bottle of water or two. You’re more likely to last the distance this way. And make sure you eat plenty while you’re there too. Think about what you’d eat at home and try to eat just as much while you’re at a festival. Gone are the days of only terrible burgers and awful fast food at festivals (mostly). The majority of sites now serve-up some tasty treats, so check them out and make sure you ‘line your stomach’ with something to soak up the alcohol.

What to wear
Our top tip is to take clothes you don’t mind getting ruined. Of course we all want to look good, but comfort and practicality win out when it comes to festivals, as the unpredictable weather can often leave you wet and muddy! With that in mind, make sure you dress for the weather – waterproofs or sun cream if required. And given you’re likely to be on your feet all day, comfortable footwear is a must!

While you’re there
We wouldn’t recommend planning every minute of your weekend and every single act you want to see, as things can crop up and plans can change. But having a loose idea of what you want to do can help everyone in your group know what you’re doing and what stage to go to. Agree on a meeting point if you get split up so you know where to head if you get separated.

But most of all, have fun and enjoy yourself – festivals can be some of the best weekends of the year, so make the most of it!

It’s good to look forward

The holiday of a lifetime, a gig, a day out with friends, or even just a new episode of your favourite TV programme. It doesn’t matter what it is, we all like something to look forward to.

These little (or large) rewards give us something to work towards, and sometimes they can be the very reason we work at all. Future treats can motivate and even help us to get through challenging times if we know there’s something to look forward to at the end of it.

Finding time to plan ahead can sometimes be difficult, especially if you’ve got a lot going on. But planning even small things to look forward to can be really beneficial. And the science is there to back this up too.

Some psychologists believe that having something to look forward to can be good for our wellbeing. The feeling of anticipation we have when looking forward to something can harness positivity. One such study went even further, suggesting that in some cases, the anticipation of looking forward to something can even outweigh the feeling of looking back on the event itself.

As well as being good for your wellbeing, planning ahead can also save you money. Early bird tickets for events like gigs and shows are usually cheaper, and making firm plans can save you scrambling around at the last minute trying to find something to do. It can potentially save you wasting time and money on things you might not enjoy too.

So why not take this opportunity to plan ahead and give yourself something to look forward to? You might just thank yourself later.

Gifting friendship to the elderly this Christmas

If you’re anything like me, you’re already imagining spending the festive season surrounded by your family and friends, enjoying all kinds of splendid treats.

Half a million older people here in the UK face the prospect of spending Christmas Day alone.

And even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you may take the opportunity to eat, drink and be merry with your nearest and dearest at some point over the next few weeks.

Sadly, this isn’t the case for nearly half a million older people here in the UK who face the prospect of spending Christmas Day alone, according to research by charity Contact the Elderly. This is in spite of the fact that the research also shows a third of the survey respondents plan to visit their older relatives over Christmas.

Many of those older people have been widowed, and can find themselves isolated or vulnerable. Christmas can be a really difficult time for them – highlighting their own loneliness amid the seasonal bustle going on around them.

Contact the Elderly have been working tirelessly for over 50 years in an effort to combat social isolation and loneliness among older people. They have a network of volunteers across the UK who support the elderly in their local communities, providing everything from cake and cuppa, to support and friendship.

This year, Contact the Elderly have joined forces with charity Community Christmas whose mission is to ensure ‘No older person should be alone on Christmas Day unless they want to be.’ Together they aim to provide real help to lift those older people out of isolation, and strengthen communities to support each other throughout the year, as well as at Christmas.

Community Christmas has an easy to use search facility on their website to help with finding all of the Christmas Day events in any given local area. The listings are updated weekly and have plenty of information around time, location and directions. Many events are free or suggest a small donation and list transport availability as well as whether volunteers are needed.

Help isn’t just for Christmas either – Contact the Elderly organise their Sunday afternoon tea parties throughout the year. If you’d like to find out more about events in your local area or how you can help either of these worthwhile charities, visit the Community Christmas and Contact the Elderly websites.

No one should go hungry at Christmas

Christmas is traditionally a time for giving and spending time with loved ones. And there are few things that truly capture the festive spirit better than enjoying Christmas dinner together.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a luxury that everyone can enjoy, and this is especially true for many homeless people. Christmas can be an incredibly lonely time, and those on the street often find themselves isolated, with no one to turn to.

Official figures released earlier this year show that homelessness has risen across England for the seventh year in a row. However, there are charities and organisations trying to help tackle homelessness and support those less fortunate. At this time of year in particular, there’s plenty you can do to help support those in need, including buying them Christmas dinner.

Centre Point and Social Bite both run initiatives to buy a homeless person Christmas dinner. On their websites you’ll find more information about how you can help, details of how to make a regular donation, and examples of the incredible work both organisations do.

Or, perhaps you’re looking for an advent calendar with a difference this year? You could take part in a reverse advent calendar, by collecting an item a day in the lead up to Christmas and then donating them to a foodbank. Head over to The Trussell Trust’s website to find out where your local foodbank is and the types of thing they currently need.

Other well-known charities such as Shelter and the Big Issue Foundation provide support for homeless people, as well as local charities in your area. Any donation to these causes, big or small, can help support the great work they do, and it can help try to ensure that no one goes hungry this Christmas.

Your own free will

We all want to make sure that our wishes are respected once we’re gone, right? But, worryingly, almost two thirds of adults in the UK haven’t got a will.

Age UK and other well-known charities, including the British Heart Foundation and Marie Curie, have come together to help tackle this problem by offering free wills in October. Solicitors across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have signed-up to Free Wills Month to offer people aged 55 or over a free ‘simple’ will writing service, which can include updating an existing will or drawing up a new one.

A will can explain what you want to happen when you’re no longer here, reduce the tax you pay, and make it easier for family and friends to deal with your estate. As well as allowing you to make sure that your estate goes to the people who matter most, you can also state any gifts or donations you want to make to charity.

Sorting out your will can be a difficult topic to talk about, let alone actively organise. But it can be one of the most important things you do for yourself and your family. And once it’s done, it will likely give you peace of mind too. It makes sense to check your Expression of Wish form while you’re organising your will to ensure that your pension provider knows who you’d like your pension to be left to should anything happen. Get in touch with your pension provider to find out more.

Head over to https://freewillsmonth.org.uk/ for details on how to find a participating solicitor in your area. But remember, appointments may be limited and it only runs during October!

Taking care of the grandkids and your State Pension

The school term is well underway, those new uniforms are starting to fit a bit better and everyone is getting settled into a routine. Working parents will also be weaving together a complicated web of formal childcare combined with help from friends and family to cover the school run and after-school care. Pension planning falls off everyone’s priority list, as school costs and practicalities need immediate attention. However, there is a little-known National Insurance provision that could offer a bit of help to some of the unpaid army of grandparents, aunties and uncles helping out with childcare at any time of the year. And what better time to look into it than today, National Grandparents’ Day.

Entitlement to the State Pension is linked to an individual’s National Insurance record over their working-age lifetime. Employees and self-employed workers pay National Insurance contributions from their earnings. But for people claiming benefits due to illness or unemployment, National Insurance credits are instead available to maintain entitlement to the State Pension.

Many people have an incomplete National Insurance record for myriad reasons: gaps in paid employment, periods of earning below National Insurance thresholds, time spent living abroad, or early retirement or redundancy. An individual with an incomplete National Insurance record can pay voluntary National Insurance contributions in cash, buying their entitlement to a full State Pension with top-up payments before they reach State Pension age.

However, for some grandparents (and other family members who provide childcare) there may be another option. Formally known as the Specified Adult Childcare Credit, these National Insurance credits are transferrable from a main parent or carer to a grandparent or other family member who provides some childcare for a child under 12.

Child Benefit is available to anyone responsible for a child under 16 (or 20 if in education or training) and includes National Insurance credits for the parent or carer. It is these credits that may be available to transfer, as long as the original recipient doesn’t need them. In practice, childcare is often necessary because a main parent or carer is at work, and so is already making National Insurance contributions from their own earnings. This means that the main carer does not actually need the National Insurance credit that comes with Child Benefit, and so it can be transferred to someone else who does need it.

The National Insurance credit can be claimed by a wide variety of family members or their partners. It’s available for any week or part week of childcare, and for any number of weeks in a year. Applications can be back-dated to 2011, plugging a sizeable gap that might otherwise cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds in up-front voluntary contributions.

For anyone considering voluntary cash payments to plug gaps in an incomplete National Insurance record, completing a very simple form might provide a no-cost option to build a full State Pension entitlement.

The factsheet and form are available from the Department for Work and Pensions website, which also details the helpline number for questions about your own circumstances.

Save up to £2,000 a year on your childcare

Are you a parent? Did you know that you might be able to save up to £2,000 a year on childcare if your child is under 12 (or under 17 if disabled)?¹

The Government’s Tax-Free Childcare scheme offers families support towards childcare costs of up to £2,000 per child (up to £4,000 if your child is disabled). The scheme adds 20p for every 80p you put in, effectively giving you back the 20% basic-rate tax on what you pay.

You can use the scheme to pay for childcare including nurseries, childminders, playgroups and after-school clubs. And you don’t need to use the money straight away either. You can build up credit to use when you need it most, like during school holidays.

To qualify, you, and your partner if you have one, must both be working, earning a minimum of £125.28 per week if you’re over 25 (the equivalent of 16 hours per week at the national living or minimum wage currently), and each earning less than £100,000 a year.

To find out more, take a look at the Childcare and parenting section of the Government’s website.

The Tax-Free Childcare scheme replaces the Childcare Vouchers system that closes to new applications on Thursday, 4 October 2018. For more information about childcare options visit https://www.gov.uk/browse/childcare-parenting/childcare.

¹www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/help-with-childcare-costs

Saving money on your childcare

If you are a parent, did you know that you could save over £1,000 a year on childcare for your little ones aged up to 15 (or 16 if disabled)?¹

That is because the cost is taken you out of your gross pay meaning you save money, as you do not pay any tax or National Insurance on it.

In order to get the vouchers, you just need to ask your employer and join their childcare voucher scheme.  You can use the vouchers to pay for childcare including, nurseries, childminders, holiday and after-school clubs.

There is a time limit though to join as these schemes are going to close to new members in the next six months. The vouchers are being replaced by a new system called ‘Tax-free Childcare’, which will give eligible parents an extra 20% towards childcare costs, up to a maximum of £2,000 per child, per year.

In the meantime, it’s worth knowing the difference between the two:

Tax-free childcare

Childcare vouchers
Anyone can apply Only available if your company offers them
£120 per week minimum (if in a couple, both parents must work) One parent needs to work (no minimum earnings)
Child’s maximum age 11 (16 if disabled) Child’s maximum age -15 (16 if disabled)
Maximum income limit – less than £100,000 per parent No income limit
Buy up to £243 per month Tax and NI free (based on tax band)

To help you make a decision about your options, visit www.gov.uk/childcare-vouchers-better-off-calculator for more information.

¹ www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/help-with-childcare-costs – based on basic rate tax payer with £243 of vouchers each month

Part three: planning to make your dream retirement a reality?

Have you really thought about what retirement looks like for you? Which aspects of your daily life do you currently take for granted that might have a significant impact on your wellbeing? And importantly, what plans do you need to put in place to make your dream retirement a reality . . ?

It’s worth remembering that you will still be the same you when you retire but with the added benefit of not having to go into work every day! You might be looking forward to the day when you hang up your work hat for good, but don’t under-estimate the positive effect that the old routine has had on you over the course of your working life.

Keeping in touch

You might be shocked to find that you miss aspects of your work routine! The security and familiarity of long-seated routines can be highly influential on mood and mental wellbeing. It’s worth considering how you are going to keep the variety of contact and experiences in your daily life to make sure you enjoy all the free time you suddenly have! Head over to Age UK for a wealth of information on hobbies, travel and activities local to you.

 

Missing your former colleagues? Some of our longest lasting friendships can be forged at work, so don’t be surprised if you feel lonely without daily contact with your work friends. Make time to keep in touch with your friends – you’ll benefit from a huge lift in mood even just going for a coffee and a chat.

 

Does retirement mean being at home with your partner all day, or on your own? People often describe having to get to know their partners all over again when they retire as they’ve never spent so much time together! It can be a challenging time for many in relationships, but incredibly isolating for those who suddenly find themselves at home on their own too. There is help out there for those who experience loneliness and isolation – take a look at the amazing community that Contact the Elderly has built around having a cuppa and a slice of cake!

Whatever retirement looks like for you personally, you can never save or plan for it too early. 4me has a wealth of interactive tools, short videos and a comprehensive library to help you with planning for the future. Find out more about how 4me can help you here.