Friday, September 29, 2006

Biodiesel: The answer to transport emissions?

Biodiesel is diesel fuel made from vegetable oils rather than crude oil. The diesel engine was originally designed to take raw vegetable oil, but modern diesel engines require the oil to be reacted with methanol to form an ester.

Most biodiesel is sold as a 5% blend - in other words 95% of it is normal diesel. According to its manual, my VW Golf will run on 100% biodiesel in the summer and 50% in the winter. Unfortunately there's no supplier close to me (but I have found another source). Try here for your nearest biodiesel supplier.

You can make it yourself - see here - and only pay 20p per litre to the chancellor for the privilege. Be warned, the reaction is somewhat 'vigorous' so you should get someone who knows what they're doing to show you how.

The debate on biodiesel is how much we could produce without clearing rainforest to grow palm oil - this is happening in Indonesia - or cutting food production. Paul Mobbs, in his rigorous analysis of the energy situation, states there simply isn't enough land area in the UK to convert to 100% biodiesel. Peter Kendall, president of the UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU), says that there is enough agricultural land to deliver the Government's 5% biofuel target without reducing food production.

My verdict: using Biodiesel is better than not using Biodiesel, but it isn't enough on its own. We still need to drive less.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

One way to get the message across...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cycle Helmets: Friend or Foe?

I'm a keen cyclist but I'm completely against compulsory helmet wearing on the grounds that it is an extra barrier to using a bike as everyday transport.

I'm a fan of John Adam's book Riskwhich argues that motorcycle helmets (and seat belts, the Davy lamp and pretty much any 'safety' feature) have had no statistical effect on death rates. When we wear a helmet, Adams says, the safe feeling we get makes us less careful about how we cycle/drive/dig coal etc.

A new twist comes from Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at Bath University who has reported that drivers will not give helmet wearers as much space as their bare headed equivalents. But white van men are immune, so keep an eye on 'em.

Eco Hero No1: Kevin McCloud

Anyone reading the Guardian's Eco-Living Supplement will have been impressed by the efforts made by Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame.

On Grand Designs, McCloud often expresses disappointment with the sustainability of the projects. I always wondered if this was a bit of media green fluffery, but he obviously takes this seriously, while still being aware of the limits of his actions.

Of particular interest to me was his Bioethanol fuelled Saab and his son's Biodiesel powered Landrover, plus he uses a folding bike/public transport combo where possible. He obviously looks into the source of everything - a key characteristic of someone taking eco-living seriously. Give it a look if you haven't already.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Feeling smug...

...'cos we holidayed in the UK this year - for once - and it was fantastic. Have you noticed that eco-aware people usually also have an addiction to long haul flights?

Green Home Improvement Tip No.2

Use Recycled Materials

When we rebuilt our porch (a horrendous 70's mess which was falling over), we bought some lovely reclaimed brick from a salvage yard. They were four times as expensive as standard brick, but only a bit more expensive than 'aged' new bricks, and they look much nicer than either. From an eco-living point of view, reclaiming the bricks only used about 11% of the energy to make new bricks. This is fairly typical for recycled or reclaimed building materials. The roof tiles were recovered from the previous porch, so cost nothing in environmental (or economic!) terms.

As I mentioned before, the brickie hated working with them as they were quite uneven. He got off lightly though, as we didn't make him use lime mortar. Unfortunately this means that when our house is demolished, the bricks will be extremely difficult to recover once again - an oversight on our part.

In Denial or In Cahoots?

There's been a bit of a bust up in the wonderful world of climate change denial this week. First George Monbiot alleges in his new book that most of the 'institutes' generating reports saying that climate change may not be happening, or that it is part of a natural cycle, are actually PR front organisations set up and funded by big business. Initially they were funded to cast doubt on the link between passive smoking and cancer, but now, showing remarkable versatility, have become experts on climate science. The funding is alleged to be in the order of £1.5billion and the results are often quoted by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, David Bellamy and others in their campaigns against "political correctness gone mad".

Now this is fairly standard stuff from George M, but the Royal Society then weighed in, writing to Exxon-Mobil asking them to stop funding these groups. The big oil company got sniffy and retorted they now believe that climate change is man-made and that they've stopped funding such companies this year.

Progress of a sort, I suppose...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Ecological Footprint Part 2: What's Yours?

If you want to find out your ecological footprint, go to and follow the quiz.

Mine comes out as:

1.5ha Food
0.7ha Mobility
1.5ha Shelter
1.2ha Goods & Services

Giving me a grand total of 4.9ha compared to a national average of 5.3ha using this method. OK but not brilliant. The biggest change I could make is to go vegan which would lop a whole hectare off. BTW I like to think my food rating is really lower as I buy local produce from local stores which isn't picked up in this particular model.

My 'shelter' footprint will go down when our first child arrives next Jan meaning our domestic requirements will be shared by 3 rather than 2. Erm, isn't population growth an environmental problem, rather than an environmental solution?

PS: off on holiday for a week - see you soon!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Phew! Global Warming's A Scorcher!

Blimmin' 'eck, even your soaraway Sun has come out on the side of the muesli munchers.

Waitrose declared 'greenest' UK supermarket

Today's Guardian runs a report by the National Consumer Council on the environmental performance of supermarkets. Judging them on food miles, waste, nature-fish, nature-trees and sustainable farming, the results from A (excellent) to E (poor) were:

B: Waitrose
C: Sainsbury's
C: Marks & Spencer
D: Co-op
D: Tesco
E: Morrisons
E: Somerfield

Tesco's less-than-spectacular performance is most worrying as more than a sixth of all consumer spending goes through their tills.

Like a good greenie, I try wherever possible to avoid the big sheds and buy local produce from local stores. Unfortunately this is easier said than done these days, particularly if you're looking for fresh food and have exotic tastes. Farmers markets are excellent as many producers have diversified into 'posher' foods - my best find so far being nettle Wensleydale cheese.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Green Home Improvement Tip No.1

Six years ago we bought a run down Victorian 'villa' off a bunch of students and set about turning it into a beautiful and green home. It is now liveable in and we're currently planning phase 2, exciting stuff like a wood burning stove, solar hot water etc.

In the meantime, I will post experiences from phase 1, starting with:

Tip No 1. Get a sympathetic builder

This is the most important thing you can do. Good builders are like hens teeth and they're not renowned as environmentalists. We were v. lucky as our builder was very good and a friend of the family and could be persuaded to stray from white-uPVC conformity and take the odd risk with 'non conventional' materials. His brickie mate on the other hand hated working with recycled bricks as they're less regular in shape and take longer to lay.

Of course if you are stuck you can always do it yourself...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ecological Footprinting Part 1

Human beings have always grouped together for protection and while some developed a nomadic lifestyle, others preferred fixed settlements. These villages, towns and cities were surrounded by a hinterland – the area required for all the crops, livestock, hunting and gathering needed to support the settlement. Today our hinterland is truly global - all around the world there are patches of land providing for our wants and needs. For example, our oranges might come from groves in South Africa, our lamb from fields in New Zealand.

The ecological footprint concept expands on the idea of a hinterland to estimate our environmental impact. Our ecological footprint is the productive land area required in theory to support us in a sustainable manner. It includes agricultural land for our food, forest to recycle our carbon dioxide emissions into oxygen and so on.

While it is not perfect, ecological footprinting is fast becoming the accepted way of estimating the effects of our way of life on the world and is currently championed by the WWF in the One Planet Living campaign.

Here’s the scary bit:

The total amount of productive land per person = 1.8 hectares
The global environmental footprint per person = 2.2 hectares

In other words, we’re behaving as if we had a bigger planet than we actually have, which is why we’re suffering global warming as we exceed the earth's ability to recycle carbon.

However some people have a bigger share than others:

Average US citizen’s footprint = 9.7 hectares
Average European’s footprint = 4.7 hectares
Average African’s footprint = 1.1 hectares

This means if everyone lived like a European, we’d need three planets; if we all lived like US citizens, we’d need five. It is only the poverty of billions that stops total meltdown. Our challenge is to bring those people out of poverty and save the planet at the same time.

Product Review: Wiggly Wrigglers Wormery

The wormery consists of a base/sump, three legs, three trays, a lid and a rain cover. It comes with a worm certificate (they are posted later), a food block, a mat, some lime to avoid a build up of acidity and some 'worm treat'. Care has been taken to use sustainable materials in construction and the consumables.

The idea is to start the worms in the bottom tray with the food block - the mat stops them dropping into the sump. As you add food waste, you can add further trays as each fills up. The worms eat their way up through the trays, leaving worm cast compost behind. Liquid waste drains into the sump and can be drawn off via a tap and used, diluted, as plant food.

Advantages of the wormery over a normal composting bin:

1. The compost is much better quality.
2. You get 'organic' liquid plant food.
3. There is better protection from rats etc, so you can put in cooked food.
4. It's a lot more fun.


1. Cost - at £90 you have to be an enthusiast (or have generous relatives).
2. Effort - there's a bit of worm husbandry involved.
3. Capacity - the wormery won't take as much waste as a compost bin. In terms of food waste this would not be a problem for a normal sized household, but if you have a garden you will need a compost facility as well.

I got my wormery as a present for Christmas last year and I thoroughly enjoy maintaining it, but you do have to be careful. For example, I found you have keep it out of the heat or the worms head for the sump and drown.

Verdict: If you like composting as a hobby - get one.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Book Review: A Good Life, Leo Hickman

The best book I have found on Eco-Living is "A Good Life" by Leo Hickman. Before I read it I was worried it might just be a rehash of his UK Guardian columns, which can be a little wishy-washy. Fortunately it is a book in its own right, weighing in at a hefty 300 pages, brimming with facts, dilemmas and opinions.

The biggest chapter is on food, not surprising as this is the single biggest environmental issue we face - and one of the most complex. Hickman argues his way through the various issues: organic verses local, meat, what makes fair trade fair etc. Further chapters cover home & garden, waste, energy, toxic materials, transport, family issues - everything from contraception to funerals.

If you want to learn ways to reduce your ecological footprint, or want a reference on personal environmental and ethical issues, I cannot recommend this book more.



This is my new blog about the trials and tribulations of eco-living.