The No-Plastics Challenge – the No-Plastics Dream House

We have a B**bie dream house in the closet. It was a freebie; Patience, who is just past two-and-a-half years old, doesn’t get what she is supposed to do with it. It’s too small for her, too big for her favourite Ashley chipmunk doll, and doesn’t really look like a house. And it’s all plastic.

What if you couldn’t afford plastics for the house, as proposed previously, if crude oil were to shoot to the same price as a barrel of crude diamonds? Or you developed a terrible allergy to all things petroleum-based? What would you do?

Bedding, curtains, paint, flooring, bathroom and kitchen fixtures would be hard to replace economically. We might consider reverting to old appliances which were all wood or steel – the icebox, the wood-burning stove – since electricity and natural gas would be out of price range for most people once a real oil crisis hits. Would you know how to use them?

Bedding would have to be replaced by natural alternatives to the synthetics in common use. Mattresses used to be stuffed with wool, or made from rubber latex – the latter would be almost impossible to get for household use, since it would get sucked up by the government for their own vehicles and such. Steel springs aren’t very comfortable without a thick pad on top. Say we stuff the mattress with wool batts in a linen casing. Yes, it will get lumpy and matted down if you don’t clean it and fluff it twice a year or so. Sheets would be old cotton repaired many times, and linen, which gets softer with use until it gets paper thin. Both can be recycled into first rags and then paper fibres. You can mulch with it and it will break down in the soil. Wool is the same, but will hold its fibrous shape for many years even when exposed to weather. The patchwork quilt would become the only option for covering the bed, with wool loomed blankets underneath for winter.

Wood-framed furniture is obvious, and the modern type of sofa and armchair would just about disappear. Most people would end up with woodframed furniture with loose cushions.

What about window coverings, or “treatments” as they are often called on television decorating shows? Cotton will probably be very expensive for curtains. Silk, the same. Wool is heavyand awkward to hang and tends to strecth out of shape with its own weight. So those who can will hang linen and those who can’t will have wooden shutters or corded wood blinds.

Our immediate ancestors of just a hundred years ago didn’t have fitted kitchens in most homes. When our synthetics wear out, and it gets too expensive to ship the much-desired granite and marble from overseas, either local stone will be used if anyone knows how to cut it, or we will go back to unfitted kitchens of wooden furniture. It was trendy a few years ago to fit out the fitted kitchen as if the furnishings were loose pieces, very nineteenth century.

Ice boxes require ice. Ice requires an icehouse, sawdust for insulation, and someone who knows how to cut ice from lakes or who knows how to  “grow” ice on racks or in blocks. Then someone has to deliver it, or each family has to have its own icehouse. It does limit what you can save for food.

Woodstoves aren’t that rare, and many of us know how to manage and cook on them. It isn’t that hard to learn, really.  It is hard work, especially the splitting and carrying part of the wood fuel, but people still do it every day.

As for the bathroom – needless to say, without affordable electricity it might be hard to run an electric pump for your water, but there are windmill and cistern systems that make indoor flush plumbing possible, and even wood-fired hot water heaters that make a bath or shower a bit less onerous. I can deal with heated water from the woodstove myself, the galvanized tub, and the little shack out back.

Floor coverings are so often oil-based, or rely on oil-based adhesives. Wood is the old-fashioned floor covering, with wool carpets over, on a linen warp. Unless you have lots of sheep, flax, a big loom, a production spinning wheel, and several weavers to work on it, your rugs will be made of old clothes cut into rag strips. Old-fashioned varnish made of pine pitch will be what you use for finishing wood, with milk paint on the walls.

Wood clapboards and cedar shakes will finish the outside of the house. While window glass is made of silica, it is expensive to make energy-wise, and hard to transport. Big windows were once a sign of wealth; they could be again.

As you replaced broken, melted or worn-through plastic kitchenware, it would look a lot like the stuff your great-grandmother used – enamelled metal, cast iron, stoneware. This is all relatively easy to make; fine porcelain china and glass would again be luxury and status items. (Hang on to mama’s old china!)

No microwaves, no convenience foods, no freezer – no icemaker or electric coffeepot. Could you cope?

Maybe it’s time to get some practice.


20 thoughts on “The No-Plastics Challenge – the No-Plastics Dream House

  1. magdalena,

    My bible Study colleagues, from 60-mid 80’s in age, remember plenty of horse drawn delivery services, and the icebox/iceman/ice factory in their childhood and youth. Even my husband, in his 50’s, remembers, in his childhood, the milkman and breadman still using horse drawn cart. Indeed, until 1997 and around 1999 respectively, Carlton United Breweries and W. C. penfold stationary deliverd their supplies throughout the Sydney CBD in draft horse drawn drays; very magnificent, all done out in company livery! They wre an icon and somewhat of a tourist must see; a tangible link to our pre petrolium past. the draft horse, in a sad twist of irony, as with many pre i 20th century breeds in both the domestic animal and plant kingdoms, is considered endangered. however, there are enough trainers, enough craftsmen and craftswomen, enough dedicated individuals and society maintaining the old crafts – coach-building, horse breeding/training for this type of work, blacksmithing, heirloom practical crafts, traditional building techniques, manual (pre electric) tool societies, herritage seed growers, coopers, tanners, taylors, spinners, womens’ clothierres, cobblers etc keeping these skills alive. In places such as Cambodia, the technology of the pre WWII 20th century is the prevailing tech; iceboxes, maintenance, ice production etc; and if they can do it in the tropics, where electricity is not always reliable, we can do it; Remember, the flush toilet was invented and brought in to slow popularity in the 1880’s, though in Hornsby, Sydney, my best school friend’s home had a night soil outdoor loo until 1973, and many parts of the central coast where I used to live in my earlier adult years had the night soil out door toilet until around 1978-1980. parts of Australia, many actually, are still on water tank and septic tank.

    And remember, we have composting toilets nowadays that do not smell; not a bit; I have used these in the heights of summer and not a whif could be discerned. Oh, and the mint that grew around the dunny was incredible!!

    As it happens, wooden shutters and venetian blinds are very popular, and, truth to tell, we would jump to install these… I grew up with furniature in the home that was not synthetically ‘varnished/polished’, but natural, beautiful. Australians also invented the coogardie meat-safe; open-sided shelving draped with heschen kept damp that creates a cooling microclimate inside. other forms of cooling used in the Middle East, for instance, consists of two earthenware bowls; the space between outer and inner filled with sand kept very damp;, the whole thing covered; good for keeping things cool. As it is, even here, I do not rfrigerate my butter and I get a good week out of it, cooking with it when its uber freshness wears off, or using on toast; can’t taste anything wrong, and I am health-wise fine. old French church acquaintances, cheesemakers by trade, keep their cheese out; I was rather shocked at this, but they insisted that pre opening, it improved and matured excellently; and I was pleasantly surprised. In places like Australia, or parts of North America with plenty of sun, a ‘waterbag’ (dark coloured oil cloth, traditionally) filled with water and suspended in the sun (black plastic variants are sold for camping etc) will give a hot shower (if one wishes to shower before dark). There are ways; we’re an ingenius lot…

    • When I wanted a sun shower as you describe, I couldn’t find one anywhere! They used to be de rigeur on sailboats. I used to keep my perishables in the spring, as did most of my former parish before they had electricity. I keep butter out, and would leave cheese out, except for the possibility of mold – which can kill me. I still let it sit until warmed a bit to improve the flavour. Once cut, a cheese has to be rewexed to keep fresh, although a wine-dipped cloth does the same thing. It;s just a bit much in this household right now.

      Old Order Amish here live without electricity but still have gravity driven indoor plumbing. The technology does exist.

      I am trying to make the point, though, that we need to start now to prepare for when the oil is no longer affordable; the government is not goign to help as it is in big oil’s pockets. That means building our communities, outside the government, to care for people in peaceful ways.

  2. This is not a good scenario. It sounds very much like a “good old days” kind of discussion. There is no such thing. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof! In the good old days you had uninsulated houses, wooden door and window frames that leaked, people died young, got worn out from the struggles of day to day living. If you had a bad harvest you died. If you weren’t strong enough to put away enough food or fuel you died. If you had a chronic disease that impacted your ability to struggle for life you died. If you were weaker than your neighbor and he wanted something you had you died. If your canning efforts were not rigorous enough with your low acid canning you got botulism and you died. Petroleum and plastics revolutionized the way we live from medicine to energy efficient houses.

    Indeed it would be a Mad Max scenario when you think about the infrastructure, economic, and social fallout that would result in this crisis scenario. This is not something I could possibly imagine preparing for in any realistic way.

    • I’m trying not to stray into the ‘everything was rosy then’ scenario, because I remember my great-grandmother crippled with polio, raising a family in a huge old drafty woodheated house. I am trying to say that now is the time to move to off-grid, low-impact technologies because we don’t want a Mad Max scenario. My reading and research into the ancient world and the so-called dark ages show that life wasn’t that gloomy. Cities brought malnutrition, poverty and disease; the nomadic life of Abraham was the good life. It’s one of the reasons God tells Abraham and Israel to stay out fo the cities – idols and illness.

      Is there any utility to altruism? One can argue that there is, but Christians are called to altruism in obedience, without any eye to a prize.

  3. Hi,
    I have a lot to say ( ask), but not on here. I can’t find your email. If you can get mine from this, please let me know yours. Our story is very long and complex. Basically, though, we have been plain for about 8 yrs – in dress and in efforts to simplify. We consider ourselves Quaker but have been fellowshipping with an Old German Baptist Brethren group for 7 yrs. My husband I have always been convicted on getting away from the “machine” and all that, which led us to plot on perhaps trying to move among an Amish group for support for that lifestyle. But our son’s illness turned out to be worse than imagined and my health is something that takes constant work. I am not strong and can’t take extreme heat/cold etc…. . Then, we couldn’t sell our house and well, we just think that at 53 maybe we ought to forget it. My husband is hardy and thrives on hard work. So, IS it crazy, in your mind, to push ourselves? I think I have not prayed enough for the strength, but then I was struggling with clearness on the convictions.

  4. On various levels, our lives would be forced to change. To start, the blogs would have to end because we could not waste the power on such luxury.

    My grandfather designed a solor shower when I was a child. It was up in the Christmas Tree grove and completely surrounded by trees. He put a water tank up there that he planted black and put behind a piece of glass. He piped the water from the well – I believe it was gravity fed because there was no power that far out in the property.

    After a day of weeding and planting or harvesting, yard chores and studying – we all took turns at the shower before cocktails and dinner. It was a fun time.

    Something else to think about is that when all these items you referred to were being made, we had industry in the United States. Now most of the things are imported from other countries. Under the premise of your original post where we can no longer afford to ship in the products we need, we have a problem because we also no longer have the technology and manufacturing here to make them.

    • I suppose I am suggesting local industry; varnish and soap are easy to make, for instance, and probably people will have to do more for themselves. Making a feather or wool-filled mattress may be tedious, but it isn’t complex. Making furniture isn’t complex. Machining and automation are complex. How do we get off the vicious merry-go-round of consuming and spending? That is probably the core question.

  5. I am looking forward to when we have our own home, and not living in a school townhouse. Largely for laundry reasons. I’m not allowed to have a line or do wash outside. There is no place for a garden, and we are not allowed to put recycling bins out. I feel wasteful just breathing.
    I grew up in the southern Appalachian mountains. My great grandmother still cans, we all can garden, and I’m pretty quick at picking up manual trades. My stepfather does woodwork and while he obviously loves the convenience of power tools, he knows how to build without them and that’s another thing I could learn.

    What I see and am concerned about is the advancement in medicine. The newer discoveries to human health have needed these advances in technology.

    • When I lived in a place where I couldn’t recycle, I set it aside until I could take it to a friend’s house where there was curbside recycling. Of course, when you can’t recycle, you get a little choosier about what you buy so as to cut back on waste. I’m gardening in a washtub right now -have you got a window sill where you could put a few plants? You can grow lettuce in one of those wallpaper wetting trays, or hang cherry tomatoes in a pot suspended in front of the window (assuming someone in authority will let you put a bracket into the window frame.) Ashley English (htttp:// writes about this stuff a lot.

      Do they object to a small laundry drying rack on your patio? If it is not permanent, maybe you can get away with that. If no patio – I’ve been there – I used to wash clothes in the kichen sink, wring them pretty thoroughly, then put my rack on a towel in the kitchen or right into the bathtub. We are spoiled with washer/dryers in North America!

  6. I have relatives who lived in a very old cottage with basic electricity for lights, an outdoor toilet, no cooker and no bath until 2000.Such a life is possible.

    Until about 2000 my family had a wood stove which was for cooking and heating.

    • I know from experience that you adapt quickly to fewer conveniences. Then you don’t miss them because they don’t need to be cleaned, stoked or repaired. A woodstove is a bit of work but since there are plenty of benefits, it’s often a good choice. the highly efficient modern ones use a lot less fuel and don’t make nearly the mess the old ones do.

  7. Unfortunately some HOAs (Home Owner Associations) and small municipalities do not allow clotheslines because they are considered unsightly. Some places won’t allow you to keep poultry no matter how few. It’s pretty amazing. I am biased against HOAs but that’s just me. Basically these regulations work against the sustainability effort.

    • As I’ve said before, my clean aprons are probably a lot more attractive than some of the junk people have in their yards – I think it’s because clotheslines are associated with poverty – people who can’t afford appliances. Most municipalities ban chickens because of fear of rats attracted to spilled feed or even because of the fear of avian flu. Spileld dog food attracts rats faster, and it won’t sprout in your lawn! Avian flu, endemic to Asia, has yet to jump the pond in any long-term scenario. It’s just big ag scaring people.

      • Yes, it’s a matter of cultural perspective. The Catholic seminary where I did volunteer work still had their clothesline frame in the back garden, although I doubt if the seminarians even knew what it was!

  8. I completely agree. I think HOA regulations are just a new Jim Crow, a way of segregating people, just now by class instead of race. When an HOA says that a certain size of pick up truck is not allowed to be parked in the development (the kind of truck tradesmen use – they are a little bigger than an F250 truck) they’re basically discouraging working class people.

    The idea that cities are afraid that chickens would draw rats is so funny. You should almost consider city rodents a different species they are endemic!

    • That’s a good way to put it. It’s a weird form of Victorian classism – the middle-class is too nice for those things – clotheslines and working trucks!

      When I lived in a city, if you didn’t see at least one rat a day, it meant you hadn’t looked out your window or left the house.

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