Tuesday, 28 October 2008


There are a lot of missing posts on this blog - for example, I found plastic-free (fake) marmite in cambridge - but the three months are over! (Sunday, at noon)

Since then I have bought
frozen peas
a huge jar of real marmite
a jacket potato in polystyrene from spar**
soy sauce***
toilet paper

So, what next? I shall most definitely continue having milk delivered, buying vegetables loose. It is at times rather fun refusing plastic, so I imagine I shall continue with this. There are a few things I intend to buy though, including some extremely warm, waterproof gloves, either a tumble dryer or a dehumidifier and two (work, home) proper water bottles (we never found ones without plastic lids).

I imagine I'll fill in some of the gaps in this blog over the next few months. And an advanced warning that this is NOT THE END. There are some plans (in Ele's head) about lent and a plastic fast, with many people. You are invited to join in!

*the women on the cheese counter didn't seem to understand my requests and I didn't feel like fighting
**a previous favourite when working late however, it was horrible, both the potato and the plastic and I don't think I shall do this again.
***I looked all over the country for a plastic-free version with no luck at all

Friday, 24 October 2008

Quantum Hyperion

It has been commented on that there is NOT MUCH PHYSICS in this blog. Nor currently not much at all. So instead, see here for an interesting post by some other physicists.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


I took a trip to Preston with some friends on Saturday. It had been my intention to cycle, but rain and a late night hampered that. However, we did find what we were looking for: the Food Weighhouse (in the Guildhall for anyone interested).

We found, unpackaged
  • pasta (including wholemeal)
  • hot chocolate powder
  • sweets
  • coffee and tea bags
  • rice, couscous
  • various dried fruits + nuts
  • various powders (cake, gravy, custard and suchlike)
  • chocolate chips
  • dried banana and onion (separately
  • and more stuff - some which Single Step doesn't stock
And a very friendly shop assistant who said "This is the ultimate in recycling!" when she saw all the paper bags we'd taken.

A note of caution: you do need to take your own paper bags (if you're trying to avoid plastic) as they only provide plastic ones. Otherwise it could be a rather wasted journey!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Toilet paper

Thought this could be an impossibility, but it turned out that a 2-pack of Andrex comes wrapped in paper. And they sell this in Somerfield in Lancaster (by the bus station). Sainsburys do a tiny box (travel size?) in cardboard, but it is not really practical (and very expensive).

However, I would never usually buy Andrex, preferring brands that have other ethical plus points - i.e. using recycled paper (and I guess they are cheaper too). So I am undecided about what will happen after the 26th October (which I think is our final day).

Ideally there would be a cash and carry type place where they sold it un-packaged.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

In defence of plastic

I don't seriously believe that all plastic is bad, just that our reliance on it and readiness to use once and throw away is not a good thing.

So I post a link to an article on the BBC website about the good side of plastic. You can view it here.

Saturday, 4 October 2008


I forgot to mention, ages ago, the BBC journalist who gave up plastic for August (only one month I hear you say...). And to thank the many many people who emailed me to tell me! I include a link to her blog: 'Not my bag' because it is quite interesting. She began from a completely plastic-filled life (whereas I'd already eliminated a fair bit of plastic before starting).

On a separate note, I think we have a problem with yoghurt. Unless, Ele you have a rather good starter culture and JUST DON'T WISH TO SHARE IT. So, if anyone in Lancaster has some good quality, live natural yoghurt, that was not bought specially for the occasion, could I have a desert spoon full?

Friday, 3 October 2008

For non-squemish women and modern men

You have been warned!

This is a post about periods and avoiding disposable tampons and sanitary towels. Read on if you're interested.

The first thing to point out is that the alternatives have many benefits beside being fairly essential for those who are giving up plastic. Cheaper, greener, chemical-free, better for you etc.

First, as an alternative to tampons there are internally worn things which fall into two categories.

1) washable, reusable cups like the mooncup or the keeper.

2) washable natural sponges (which I know nothing about)

And as an alternative to sanitary towels, you can buy or make your own. This isn't as gross as it sounds (I was doing this well before giving up plastic). I liked lunapads - but there are many brands available. You have a base pad and then add liners according to need. Soak in water and wash in your normal load.

I also had a go at sewing my own, with moderate success. I used part of a broken umbrella for a waterproof layer, though that was mostly for amusement value. There are lots of patterns online, or you can try and copy something freehand... (this method not so recommended...).

I ought to point out that most of these contain nylon as a waterproof layer. So not strictly plastic free, though I don't think that is a concern of the majority of people.

So for a while, I though lunapads were great. Particularly the amazing variety of patterns and colours that they come in. Then I went away with only a mooncup and having no other option forced me to use it (I didn't like it much before). And now I think it is absolutely great!

It takes a little(!) getting used to - but worth persevering. It is comfortable (once you've cut enough of the stem off), cheap (£19 online, but cheaper at single step (£13?) as they sell at cost price), good for the environment - you're throwing nothing away. You don't have to remember to buy or carry tampons and it doesn't absorb like a tampon (which is not good for you).

There is lots of information on the website and I highly recommend you go and have a look!

There might be an information evening in Lancaster sometime soon. If you already have a mooncup and want to help out, let me know.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Feeding the 5000 with no plastic

Well, perhaps 20 people (and some are half size). But for a whole weekend. I've written a (brilliant) menu plan. Things I can't see a plastic-free solution to (yet) are in red. Leave comments if you have ideas!

Adults: Tea, coffee [milk from milkman in glass bottles]
Kids: water, squash, hot chocolate

Apples and raisins [how healthy! and raisins come loose at Single Step]
Flapjacks [homemade, but there may be some vegans so we'll need soya spread or something]
Sweets [for a game, from a traditional sweet shop with glass jars...]

Friday night
Vegetarian chilli with rice and cheese. [rice, soya 'stuff', kidney beans we can buy loose, fresh tomatoes from the market, but what about oil for cooking?] Then apple sponge or something.

Saturday Breakfast
Cereal [I might find this in Preson on Saturday], toast, jam, baked beans, orange juice [milkman], soya milk

Saturday Lunch
Pizza with salad [made by the kids, hopefully! Yeast, from Single Step. Jars of sauce would save work, but is there plastic in the lid?]

Saturday Dinner
Vegetarian BBQ with jacket potatoes and salad [but perhaps not lettuce?]
Veggi sausages / burgers often come without plastic, but which brands?
Desert - fruit dipped in / BBQ’d with chocolate + marshmallows for BBQ

Sunday breakfast
Cereal, toast, eggy bread, orange juice

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

I want...

an unlimited supply of marmite

soy sauce

frozen peas

some very expensive wind and waterproof cycling gloves

some silicone to seal my windows

some compost to plant bulbs

and for my laptop to become fixed.

Some people have been asking what happens after the three months. I think the first day, I go and buy all these things. Perhaps also some cycling trousers and a CD.

THEN perhaps I shan't want plastic again.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Not a CD, a condensing tumble dryer.

Monday, 29 September 2008

un-wild blackberries

I get my fruit and veg delivered in a returnable cardboard box by Abel&Cole. They are great (no plastic bags, ever) BUT today, as a substitute for apples (which I never eat), I received a tiny box of blackberries. Plastic, of course, and lined with bubble wrap. Perhaps fair enough if they were raspberries, but who buys blackberries anyway?? They grow everywhere and you can have loads for free. Plus, it is rather fun picking them.

So I shall give the blackberries away (and have added 'berries' to my dislikes list so they won't send me them again!)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


I'm away (again!) but this time they will collect the (plastic) conference badges when we leave, to re-use! I am really sick of cooked breakfast (cereal in little boxes, again).

Anyway, today I went looking for plastic-free wine to take to a friend's house. Suddenly I can't remember its name, but it is some chain of wine shops. And this was the one on Little Clarendon Street in Oxford.

The assistant was lovely, and not too phased by my request for European wine, in a clear bottle* with a real cork and foil, not plastic round the top. We think we found one... though cannot be completely sure until it is opened. (And apparently it will taste good too.)

* The UK is a net importer of products in green glass, and so while it can be recycled, it is not usually used in this country and often shipped overseas (probably to China...). So clear glass is better, I believe.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

There is no zero

You've probably heard about the LHC at CERN by now. You may have seen the LHC rap. Unfortunately, you've probably also heard about the 'end of the world via black hole'. While it is great that such an important physics experiment is now (almost?) a household name, it is a shame talk is of such nonsense, rather than the science.

There is no chance that the LHC will cause the end of the world (except via its presumably huge carbon footprint).

I believe a main reason for so many people seriously worrying about this is due to scientists communicating with 'the public' assuming that they think like scientists. And assuming that the public have some knowledge of quantum mechanics.

In physics, there is no zero. Nothing is ever just nothing. You can't be completely still (zero momentum), you can never reach a temperature of 'absolute zero', and nothing can ever have no energy. In fact you can't even have nothing. The theory behind this is quantum mechanics - I shall save the full explanation for another day - but it basically says that particles (and hence everything) behaves in a probabalistic manner. Instead of definites, you have probabilities. And nothing is ever impossible.

So when you pour your milk onto your cereal, in physics language it is possible that you will create a black hole and destroy the world. In non-science talk, you would say this is an absolutely ridiculous suggestion.

The same applies to the LHC. In physics terms, nothing is impossible; but in normal language, CERN will not destroy the earth*.

For a very entertaining introduction to the LHC, watch the LHC rap!

*And I don't mean there is a tiny chance. It is the same kind of chance as creating a black hole from a (glass) milk bottle.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

2079 cups of coffee

I've spent two weeks in CMS (pictured above) in Cambridge, and am currently in a 3 day meeting in Manchester. Here, we have real cups and teaspoons, but milk is only available in tiny plastic containers. In Cambridge there were jugs of milk, but disposable cups. A lot of disposable cups - perhaps a hundred people, and drinks twice a day for 10.5 days. That is 2100 cups. Minus 21 (I brought a mug) = 2079.

Even if you don't plan to go stealing sheets and chewing twigs, taking a mug to meetings and conferences would seem a particularly easy thing for everyone to do. Apparently even starbucks are in on the act and will give you a 25p discount.

sleeping. Not so simple.

I shall blame the lack of blog entries on the fact that this is my 5th week away from Lancaster...

Last week was spent walking between youth hostels in the peak district (Edale, Eyam(x2) and Hathersage if anyone is interested). Youth hostels have always used sheet sleeping bags - a clever laundry-saving all-in-one sheet + pillow case. However, they now have a "new bedding policy", in order to become a more attractive place to stay. All well and good. Real sheets and duvets are rather nice (even when you have to make your own bed). But, WHY MUST THEY BE WRAPPED IN CLING FILM??!

[yes, you read correctly. On your bunk you now find a duvet, sheet and 2 pillow cases wrapped in a HUGE piece of cling film.]

So I rescued some linen from the launrdy basket and used it inside out.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Day ?: penguins and jam

Some minor failures this week...

I was at the Hollywood-themed Mersea Island Festival in Essex, accompanying a group of young people from KEEN. One long bus journey later, we arrived, only to be given plastic wristbands, which I couldn't refuse! We slept in canvas tents which we closed using rope - and after pegging them down properly, there were no leaks, and not much wind... There were plastic ground sheets (but that doesn't break the rules of the challenge).

Breakfast on the first morning (and lunch on the final day) was served on polystyrene plates with plastic cutlary - but all was well as I'd brought my own. I was really pleased to see that instead of individual plastic servings of ketchup, jam, butter they used bottles, jars and plates of butter on each table. I imagine this was cost-saving rather than environmental in origin.

A few deserts were in plastic containers, but they were easily refused. However, we were provided with a packed lunch on the Colchester Zoo trip with rolls wrapped in plastic, crisps and a (chocolate) penguin. Then we fed the elephants.

The absolute most dispointing 'error' was in the arts and crafts tent. I was helping out / participating in some clay modelling. And only after the second session did I read the packet and realise that the clay was reinforced with nylon.

Today, I travel to Cambridge for a two-week summer school in theoretical particle physics...

Friday, 15 August 2008

Day Twenty one: camping and bananas

Tomorrow I set off for a three week trip away. This may prove to be a major challenge...

The first week will be volunteering with a group of young people from Oxford, at the Mersea Island Festival, somewhere in Essex. I'm prepared to some extent - I've packed a plate, bowl, cup etc but as I've had no hand in planning the thing I really don't know what plastic challenges will present themselves. A report will follow eventually.

The following two weeks, I'll be at a theoretical physics summer school. I think the mug will help - last conference all the cups were polystyrene (though I kept mine and reused it).

On another note, the absence of flapjacks and other plastic-wrapped snacks means that I am eating A LOT of bananas. But it seems that you need at least 15 to be in danger of potassium poisoning...

Monday, 11 August 2008

Day seventeen: photography

So this is a plastic-free camera! A photography talk + demonstration required a pringles tube to make a pin hole camera. But I suceeded with some card, masking tape, greaseproof paper, tin foil and pva glue. An image from a pin hole is projected onto the screen (placed part way up the tube). AND even though I had to construct a plastic-free pringles tube before starting, I wasn't even quite the last to finish!

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Day fifteen: Plastic-free DIY...

It would be wrong to claim that I've actually succeeded here...

I needed to fit a gas fire that I'd bought ages ago (wrapped in a fairly minimal amount of plastic). So my dad came round with tools and know-how... but we still needed a few things-

  • tin snips (plastic handle, plastic packaging)
  • plastering-trowel-thing (plastic handle, but non-plastic packaging)
  • rubble bags
  • cap for gas pipe (plastic packaging)
I first bought the trowel from B&Q, in a plastic wrapping. But when on the search for bricks in Wicks, I found the exact same one but in cardboard wrapping.

The rubble bags have been used many times as my dad usually empties and reuses them. But they'd come to the end of their life and we couldn't keep them anymore!

Had I had time and had I known what we needed in advance, I could have searched around... there is some kind of recycling DIY shop in Morecambe... I shall investigate one day

Friday, 8 August 2008

Day thirteen: magazines

All was going fairly well (except a purchase of some much-needed ibuprofen... I shall do some research into alternative pain killers sometime) until I arrived at work this morning to find the August edition of Physics World waiting in my pidgeon hole. Wrapped in plastic.

So I wrote an email:


This probably seems like a rather odd request, but I've 'given up' acquiring new plastic for three months. However, as I discovered this morning, PhysicsWorld comes in a plastic bag. Would it be possible either to send this to me in a paper envelope (with no plastic window...), or just not send it to me for the next two months? I really don't want to cancel my membership of the IOP!



Lets see if there is any response. Oh and I also emailed Booths to check that what we think are greaseproof paper cheese bags are actually greaseproof paper...

A rather speedy response from the Institute of Physics: my record is now 'flagged' and they won't send physics world again until I ask them to, and they sent the link for reading it online.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Day nine: Mixed news

First some good news - the olive stall at the market refilled my homous pot (and gave me a 10p discount). All you have to do is ask it seems!

Then the less good news. This weekend I've had three drinks in three different pubs/bars in Lancaster. Wasn't difficult to find a plastic-free drink, but in only one of these did I manage to stop the bartender from adding a stirer or straws. It seems I must be always on guard.(Or return to drinking tap water, which is actually my favourite drink, or avoid any social activity and sit at home listening to radio 4 on my (plastic) digital radio.)

I've made a decision on gifts - if it is impolite to refuse them, then I can accept, but should give it to someone else.

And finally, a recipe for pitta bread. This is incredibly easy (total kneading: 30 seconds) though may greatly diminish your enjoyment of any shop-bought substitute!

300g Strong white flour
200g Plain flour
1 level teaspoon easy blend yeast*
1 level teaspoon sugar
1 level teaspoon salt*
2 tablespoons oil**
325ml warm water

1. Briefly warm a mixing bowl with some boiling water.
2. Mix all to a sticky dough (don't worry if it seems too sticky...)
3. Leave covered for 10 mins
4. On an oiled work surface, knead the dough for 10 seconds
5. Repeat 3 and 4 twice more
6. Leave dough for 30 mins
7. Turn on oven and heat baking sheet (
250C or more)
8. Make 8 balls and leave for 15 mins
9. Roll out pittas
10. Cook two at a time for 3-5 mins (until risen + barely coloured) - keep oven
11. Cool under a tea towel to keep soft


*plastic-free from Single Step in Lancaster
** the olive stall (Lancaster city centre, Wednesdays and Saturdays) will refil bottles of olive oil.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Day 5: Positivity

It has been a while since I first started thinking about avoiding plastic. So I thought I'd list the things I already have solutions for. Then I might feel less like this is an impossible task!


Single Step, Lancaster's ethical, vegetarian wholefood co-operative (without which I might end up very hungry) is amazing. They sell loose rice, oats, flour, dried fruit, lentils, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, yeast, rooibosh tea, museli, possibly couscous (but not pasta).

Pasta can be bought as lasagne sheets (which my mum has an amazing non-lasagne recipe for) from most supermarkets, which also sell flour and sugar in paper bags. Apparently there is a 'Food Weighhouse' in Preston where you can buy loose products (but take your own paper bags as they provide plastic). And a very helpful friend has done some research and found a shop in London called Unpackaged which does exactly what it says (and apparently sells toilet paper too!).

Booths cheese counter uses greaseproof paper bags - if you ask nicely they will miss out the sheet of plastic they usually use to pick the cheese up. Yoghurt is very easy to make - see Ele's blog for instructions and a review.

Orange juice and milk are delivered in returnable glass bottles by the milkman. Currently can't find the number for the dairy... but will look if anyone is interested.

I have an organic fruit+veg box delivered each week by Abel & Cole. They never send plastic bags (it mostly comes loose in a returnable cardboard box) but soft fruits, cherry tomatoes, cucumber etc come in plastic. They were very helpful when I asked if I could have a box with no plastic... but they can't do it. So I'll have to check online what they plan to send each week and ask for alternatives for plastic wrapped things.

Fast food: Greggs sell all sorts in paper bags, as will other bakeries if you can find one! The LUSU shop on Campus sells sandwiches in cardboard / cornstarch compostable packaging, and SoupedUp will even give you a discount on soup and chilli if you bring your own container. And you can always buy take-away pizza!


Single Step will refil bio-D and ecover products. (However, I only have a laundry liquid bottle at present so am hoping I don't run out of washing up liquid!). Also, most washing powders come in cardboard boxes (some contain plastic scoups). Single step also sell hand-knitted dishcloths (I'm yet to try one, but apparently they are very popular...)

Personal care

Soap is very easy to find loose; shampoo and conditioner can be bought in solid bars from LUSH (haven't tried this yet) but be warned: they might wrap it in plastic. Women will find the mooncup can replace tampons and lunapads (or equivalent) can replace sanitary towels. And I found a coconut fibre /wood nail brush in boots!

More on some of this another time...

Monday, 28 July 2008

Day three - a realisation

I thought this would be easy. I really thought I could give up obtaining new plastic for three months without changing my lifestyle or making much effort. I thought it would be a case of borrowing rather than buying the Saturday Guardian and not eating marmite. I already don't use plastic bags, choose loose fruit+veg, don't wear makeup or otherwise use products in plastic bottles.

I've begun to see this might not be the case. What happens when the batteries in my bike light run out? Where can I get cheese from (this might be a little easier to solve)? Is take away pizza the only non-plastic food available on campus post 5pm? Is it ok to have take-away vegi chilli (in a reusable container of course) with soured cream that is obviously straight from a plastic pot? What happens if someone gives me a present (perhaps not that likely in the next 3 months...)?

And the worst thing: as a theoretical physicist, I rely on my mechanical pencil. I think it may be impossible to work without it - a standard wooden pencil JUST WOULD NOT DO. (The refills come in a plastic box.)

This all seems rather inconvenient.

However, one decision was made today: chocolate digestives are not ok in someone else's house (but a cup of tea would be ok).

And finally, a link to the blog of Ele, a friend who is also giving up plastic.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

London: the first 24 hours

I woke up in Balham on Sunday morning, post house-party. Managed to stay plastic-free (and sober) for the party, which went on for some people 'till the sun rose. However, I realised that I haven't really thought about how I can apply 'no new plastic' to things from other people. For example, I (gladly) accepted a cup of tea this morning - probably the tea bags originally were in plastic wrapping, and certainly the milk was from a plastic bottle. I'm trying to eliminate plastic from my life but certainly not my friends, so I think this is OK. But it might be easy to over-extend this 'exemption' if not clarified properly. I think a cup of tea at someone's house is acceptable, but if I'm offered a biscuit wrapped in plastic, the answer must be 'no'. But it is less clear cut if something has obviously been in plastic, or might have been... I don't wish to be routing through bins to see if an apple came in a plastic bag. Hmm. I shall have to think about this.

Anyway, post-party (and clearing up with plastic bags...) I left for the train station via Waitrose, Sainsburys and M&S to look for some breakfast/lunch. Loose fruit + carrots from Waitrose, along with a muffin (in a paper bag). M&S was the only place for a sandwich - they package them in card with the window made from cornstarch (or equivalent). [My plastic ban only extends to petroleum based plastics, not bio-degradable cornstarch (not to be confused with evil degradable plastic).]

Many delayed trains later I arrived home to be greeted by a pile of letters with plastic address windows. Anyone got ideas on how to eliminate these? I already get most bills online only...

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The beginning

Finally, we've set a date (and time) to begin:

Saturday 26th July 2008, 12:00

And for what?

Giving up plastic. From Saturday at noon, for the next three months, there will be no new plastic.

Including (but not limited to): bin liners, food in plastic wrapping, plastic lids (like on marmite jars), yoghurt pots, biros, toothpaste, toothbrushes, washing up liquid, takeaway containers...


One day, quite a few months ago, I got my bike fixed at a community bike shop. They were just beginning to become plastic bag and bottle-free. I thought something along the lines of 'how pointless and impossible'.

Months later, it turned out that I'd been thinking about this rather a lot, and it happened that knew I had to give up plastic. Hardly a decision, more an acceptance.

Is plastic even bad?

Well, no. As a material, it is a wonderful invention. Particularly, it has enabled developments in the field of medicine. BUT we think of it as a completely disposible product. I'm not just talking packaging obviously designed to be chucked, but things like tooth brushes, toys that have a useful lifetime of months or years, but actually do not decompose and hang around for perhaps 500 or 1000 years [yes, there will be sources quoted at some point, but not today].

And plastic is made from oil which might get rather expensive, or run out...

All this un-wanted plastic, while not decomposing, is causing all sorts of problems. Something like 97% of fulmars (a sea bird) have plastic in their stomachs. And so on. Perhaps more detail another day.

But mostly I think it is a waste. We just can't keep throwing stuff away.

Presuming I manage to update this with my rather busy lifestyle looking for non-plastic alternatives, I shall update with how things are going - alternatives we've discovered and any failures. Suggestions always welcome... particularly for toothpaste, toothbrushes and marmite.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Dead birds

Today, a cat left a dead blackbird just outside the back door, then jumped up to my bedroom window and tried to get in to tell me about it. I bet he (the cat) wasn't sorry. I really ought to move it, and perhaps I will.

Due to illness (only a cold...) there has been no thinking today about plastic, physics or otherwise. I think I heard a play on the radio about an underwear factory though.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

A beginning

And so, finally, I have a blog. The idea (in October) was to write about Physics - explaining my work to friends/family - and hopefully getting some writing practice too.

Except now it seems that I'll be giving up plastic for 3 months, and I'd like to document my progress somewhere. Later will follow both the reasons for this, and the precise rules I intend to follow (once I've decided them).

Today's physics thought is about Schrödinger's cat*. Specifically, the fact that it was thought of to demonstrate how absurd the realities of quantum mechanics would be if applied to macroscopic objects.

*"One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts." - from wikipedia; a translation of writing by Schrödinger himself.

A 'psi-function' is basically a wave-function (which might also not mean much...). It is basically a bit of maths that describes the particle / object / situation. So a wavefunction for an electron would describe the probabilities of it being at each point of space, and how it spins. Quantum mechanics applied to point-particles (like electrons) says that you can't say where a particle is , just where it is likely to be. Until you measure it. But measuring it changes the system. We say that the electron was in a superposition of all possible states (all possible places), until the wavefunction 'collapses' to a certain state once you observe it.

The cat, while not being observed (i.e. sealed in the box) could be either alive or dead - it is in a superposition of these possibilities. Until you open the box, collapse the wavefunction and find out. However, we know this is ridiculous!

In 2000, some scientists created a real life dead-and-alive cat. Well, not actually a cat, but a macroscopic (behaviour determined by bulk properties, not individual particles) superconducting device that they could show was in a superposition of states. See the full article here.