Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Green Home Improvement - Paints

We used the multi-award winning Ecos paints. They may not be the most eco-friendly paints on the market as they contain non-organic materials like titanium dioxide, but they are excellent.


- NO solvents (VOCs) which cause local air pollution and health problems.
- No toxic materials.
- Recyled packing materials (reused large egg boxes).
- No smell.
- Very fast drying.


- Colour range is a bit limited.
- The shades available aren't the most subtle (although we deliberately used 'Cherry Ice' which is a wonderful lipstick pink).
- Pricey...

As an illustration, we had a Christmas party 3 hours after finishing painting our living room and kitchen. In comparison, the one room we did with conventional 'low VOC' paints stank for weeks and left me feeling a bit queasy after I'd finished.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Earthships Vid

If you want to learn more about the Earthship, check out this video. It cuts off rather suddenly, but the second part can be seen here.

Apologies for the spacey muzak...

Green Driving

As the Guardian reports that the Chancellor is considering higher taxes for the most polluting cars, readers may be interested in these two sites:

1. Green Future's review of green cars (hat tip to eco-worrier). Although I dispute the idea that the Saab featured is the only vehicle that will run on biodiesel - see the blurb on my Golf.

2. Vicenze's video reviews of the same.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's That Time of Year Again....

The publication of the Green Guide to Christmas has provoked interest from the Times and The Guardian, each giving their hints and tips on how to be a little greener this year.

My biggest dilemma at this time of year is choosing presents. Nothing to do with fretting over their environmental impact, I'm afraid, just choosing presents full stop. Every year I trudge round the shops, my eyes glazing over as I try to remember what I've bought people in previous years and to spot that perfect gift. But, in line with my principle that we should see the environmental challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat, I've found in recent years that going for a green theme closes down the options to a manageable number and opens up a range of ideas you won't see on the highstreet.

If you want green gadgets, then try The Green Shop, The Centre for Alternative Technology (great for books on absolutely anything) or The Natural Collection.

The Natural Collection do a range of clothes, but they do tend towards ecru t-shirts or brightly colored 'ethnic' knits. If you're after something a bit funkier then try Howies.

Other 'eco' gift options include house or garden plants, posh organic food and drink, tickets for events (music, comedy, theatre) or cycles (I live in hope that a Brompton shaped parcel will appear under our tree).

If you want to buy a 'conventional' gift, Gooshing give eco/ethical reviews on a wide range of manufacturers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Good News! (for once)

Most environmental statistics are bleak and getting worse, but edie is reporting a 3% fall in the waste produced by households last year, and a 10% fall in the amount being sent to landfill. To put this in context, most councils plan that waste will increase by 3% each year so this is a significant turnaround and shows that the war can be won.

The edie report talks at length about various recycling initiatives, but is silent on the reasons why overall waste levels have fallen. This is a pity, as waste reduction is a hard nut to crack. I would guess it is due to (some) better designed packaging, more composting, and the fact that we're moving to buying more information, like MP3 downloads, e-books and ringtones, as opposed to their equivalent physical products, like CDs, books, newspapers etc.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Switching to Green Electricity? It's a ROCky road...

I could say that one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to switch to a 'green electricity tariff'. Unfortunately it is not quite so simple...

There are two types of green tariff:

1. "Green Supply" - you purchase electricity which is guaranteed to come from a renewable source.

2. "Green Fund" - you pay a premium which is invested in building new renewable energy projects.

Straightforward so far?

However, every electricity generator is obliged to generate a certain amount from renewable sources (the Renewable Obligation). Last year this was 5.5% and it should go up to 15% by 2015. If a generator falls short of this, they have to buy certificates (called ROCs - short for Renewable Obligation Certificates) from someone who generates more than their obligation.

If you want a 'Green Supply' scheme, the trick is making sure you are not paying extra for electricity the companies should be generating anyway under the rules. Otherwise you are wasting your money.

This includes a 'green' generator selling ROCs to others as well as charging you the premium - because again this is double counting. According to Friends of the Earth the company should 'retire' (ie tear up) the ROCs on electricity sold under a green tariff, so the green energy you buy is always additional to what the industry should generate anyway.

Likewise with the 'Green Fund' schemes, you need to be sure that the investment is additional to the energy company's ordinary investment plans - otherwise you will just be contributing to their profits.


Fortunately the The Green Electricity Marketplace rates and ranks schemes in your area. They only recommend tariffs which go above and beyond their renewable obligation. There are other sites who can do the comparison, but they don't always make this clear.

As a result of researching this piece, I'm going to have to check out my own supplier, Juice, as they don't retire ROCs...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Is Carbon Offsetting a Con? The Prosecution Case

There has been much recent interest in 'carbon offsetting' - the idea that companies and individuals can ‘offset’ their carbon dioxide emissions by buying into low carbon projects such as renewables, energy efficiency and, most controversially, tree planting.

George Monbiot certainly does not mince his words when it comes to offset schemes. Writing in the Guardian, he likened offsetting to the 15th Century Dutch practice of paying for God’s pardon for crimes such as incest, lying or murder.

Back in July, the right-on magazine New Internationalist dedicated a whole issue, entitled “CO2NNED!”, to a demolition job on the offsetting industry, presenting their case with all the subtlety of a tabloid newspaper pursuing a suspected paedophile.

Last month the Advertising Standards Agency upbraided the Scottish and Southern Energy Group for a promise to plant trees to offset the emissions from their activities which they couldn't substantiate.

Beyond the ranting and raving, the central criticisms of carbon offsetting appear to be:

- They allow us to consume more without feeling guilty, buying off our pollution while pursuing business as usual.

- They deflect attention from the real problem which is over consumption.

- The effectiveness of the offset projects is suspect, particularly those in the third world.

To explore these arguments further, follow the links above, but in part two on this subject, I will present the case for the defence!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What can I do with...

The Times' eco-worrier blogger Anna Shepherd has found this great website where people can suggest uses for waste materials - anything from take-away materials to out of date condoms.

I love doing this sort of thing:

- I picked up a tip once from the Guardian that tetrapak bottles make great BBQ firelighters. They do as they are made from waxed paper - but make sure you cut out the plastic spout first.
- We used to save Nutella jars as tumblers, but now we enough for about 3 dozen friends coming around for a glass of juice.
- Never throw away bubble wrap if you are a gardener - it comes in v. useful for frost proofing.

Any more for any more?

Indy asks: "How Green is Your MP?"

Following Friends of the Earth's Big Ask campaign (saucy version posted here), The Independent has surveryed every MP in the land on their attitudes to the environment.

The Indy's verdict:

"If you take our responses as a guide, the LibDems care the most: 56 responded, with just 7 absentees. And David Cameron has clearly had an effect on the Conservatives: 114 replied, 82 didn't. Labour was much less impressive, with 141 respondents but 214 absentees (most notably Gordon Brown, despite repeated calls to his office). And climate change doesn't seem to be making much impact on Northern Ireland politics, with not a single response from any DUP or Sinn Fein representative."

Being from Norn Iron myself, I'm more than a little disappointed... but not too surprised. Can you imagine Big Ian bellowing "The Planet Says NO!!!"?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Green Canaries

The Independent is reporting that Norwich is the most eco-friendly place in the UK. Peterborough comes second - things must have changed since I worked there 12 years ago and the buses stopped running at about 5:30pm...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Winter is coming...

...sometime soon. I don't think I've ever seen leaves on the trees in mid-November before, but I assume the temperatures will drop in the coming days. It is all seasonal domestic bliss chez Kane at the minute with me putting the insulation in and weather proofing the wormery, while Karen makes pickles and chutney from the left over green tomatoes from her allotment.

Sometimes I worry I'm turning into Will Duguid from the Guardian's fitfully amusing Ecotist column. The caricature is spot on, but the humour is all a bit obvious - Viz's 'Modern Parents' satirised middle-class-right-on-ness far more wittily (and viciously) years ago.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Green Home Improvement - Insulation

My consignment of Thermafleece insulation arrived on Friday, so I've spent the weekend topping up the existing rockwool insulation with 100mm of waste sheep's wool. It is fantastic stuff - easy to handle, easy to cut, non-toxic, non-irritant, high insulation value, renewably sourced and it only uses 14% of the energy needed to make rockwool. It is so benign you can hug it.

Only one problem... it is eye-wateringly expensive, working out at over £12 a square metre, about five times the cost of rockwool. This is definitely a purist's solution and I must admit I splashed out partially to gain first hand experience for professional reasons. Unfortunately I don't think the taxman will allow me to write it off as 'training materials'.

If the cost is way beyond your budget (no shame there), there are products available with a high recycled content which are much more resonable, but you'll have to compromise on the other properties. If these are still too pricy, any insulation is better than no insulation.

Next thing is to see if I notice the difference in temperature and on the gas bills...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Fishy Business for a Friday

As I'm defrosting some organic trout from Graig Farm for tea, I got thinking about the wild fish stocks crisis. Last week's copy of Science published research warning that if current trends continue there will be no viable wild-caught seafood at all by 2050.

There seems to be a stark choice for Government - whether to slash the industry now or wipe out the stocks and the industry in a couple of generations' time. Seems straightforward to me.

The current rules seem positively Kafkaesque - fisherman can catch more than their quota, but have to throw away the (dead) excess rather than landing it for consumption, according to the Guardian.

The Guardian also published this interesting guide to sustainable fish last month, but with a strong omega 3 bent. Organicly farmed fish is their recommendation. Just like my trout (smug grin).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Flight of Fancy - A plane better than a Prius?

The Guardian is reporting that engineers have designed a 'flying wing' called the SAX-40 which would achieve 149 passenger miles per gallon compared with 121 for a Boeing 777. A Toyota Prius hybrid car (or a good diesel) gets 144 passenger miles per gallon. I don't know over what distance they make the comparison as obviously an aircraft has to go up and down as well as across, if you know what I mean.

This won't save the planet on its own, but it would be significant progress. If I could magic up one techno-fix, I think an even better 'plane than this would be it...

Monday, November 06, 2006

The igmony of being slated by British Gas!

I got a card with my British Gas bill offering a free energy review based on answers to a number of multiple choice questions, so I thought I'd give it a punt. I got my report back this weekend and they absolutely crucified me - an E on a rating of A to G. The problems (with my desperate excuses in brackets) are:

i. an old boiler (replacement on order with solar pre-heating, plus wood burning stove)

ii. insufficient insulation (top up on order)

iii. solid walls (partially internally insulated which I didn't equate to cavity wall insulation)

iv. not enough people living in a medium sized house (my office is also in there and a baby is on its way!)

The review didn't allow for my triple glazing, insulated loft hatch etc, etc ... but I'm more than a little chastened. They softened the blow with a free pair of CFLs.

Hallowe'en/Guy Fawkes Eco-Trivia

This week is the peak of the year's air pollution - dioxins from all those sofas etc on the bonfires, plus plenty of smoke from fireworks. Bah. Humbug.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Ali G(reen)

As Borat offends half the world in his new film, I thought you might enjoy this clip of his long-lost brother from Staines discussing environmental issues.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The UK only produces 2% of greenhouse gases? I don't think so...

I've posted a couple of practical tips since Monday, so it's back to harrumphing about the discussion around the Stern report!

I am fed up with hearing the excuse that, as the UK only produces 2% of carbon dioxide emissions, then there's no point us doing anything. This completely ignores the global supply chain which supplies the West with our standard of living.

Emissions are indeed growing rapidly in countries such as China, yet the Chinese people lead frugal lives - I didn't see many SUVs, patio heaters or imported strawberries when I visited. China's carbon emissions are from the manufacture of products for consumption in the west, as the press coverage of the world's largest container ship demonstrates. Ditto the very large amount of food imported into this country from all over the world.

I asked for estimates of the true figure at the launch of the Newcastle branch of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Studies on Wednesday. The best guess that the delegates could come up with was that the UK was probably responsible for about 10%.

Whatever it is, we cannot duck the fact that the UK's ecological footprint is huge and it extends way beyond our national borders.

What a waste of good food!

I was at an event yesterday which had a workshop on domestic waste minimisation. This has always been a tough nut to crack as the amount we bin has been rising at about 3% every year on average. We came to the conclusion that food waste was the key area as most domestic waste is either food or food-related packaging. Every calorie of food we eat requires 10 calories of oil to get it onto our plate, so there's a massive global warming implication here too.

The group came up with the following suggestions:

i. Don't take up BOGOFs (Buy One Get One Free) on perishable goods as you'll normally end up with more than you can manage (good weighwatching advice too - you might feel you just have to force that second package of profiteroles down).

ii. Go for 'little and often' when buying perishable food rather than the monthly/fortnightly trip to the supermarket. This also encourages you to use local shops whose food-miles are less.

iii. Be less squeamish about sell-by dates. They tend to be chosen arbitrarily rather than by any evidence, so use your eyes and nose instead.

iv. People who buy bottled water should be shot (from the militant wing of the group).

v. If you live alone or in a pair then use the freezer to extend the life of bread and milk if you don't think you'll use it. Our toaster is great at toasting frozen bread, so chiselling off a slice or two sometimes suits us if, say, we're about to head off for the weekend and have run out.

If you have any other suggestions, then please post them in the comments.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Earthship Ahoy!

This summer I visited the Brighton Earthship, one of the most sustainable forms of housing being designed to be completely "off grid" in terms of energy, water supply and sewerage. The earthship concept comes from the US, and, according to its promoters, Earthships Biotecture, they are "self contained dwellings that will sail on the seas of tomorrow". Hmm.

The building is built into a hillside using scrap tyres rammed with earth to form the back wall and provide 'thermal mass' to store the sun's energy through the night. This is much better than the normal way of creating thermal mass - pouring loads of concrete - but it caused a bit of a problem with the authorities as scrap tyres are officially a 'waste material'. Fortunately the Environment Agency looked fondly on the project and gave the developers a waiver.

Rainwater is harvested and greywater treated inside the building by the plants you can just make out through the side window. There's plenty of provision for renewable energy - solar PV, hot water and a wind turbine. The wood burning stove inside is rarely used as it makes the building too hot. Composting toilets are stationed outside.

I like the futuristic external appearance - a nice departure from the 'Swedish chalet" look of many eco-buildings, and the interior has a fantasticly airy feel about it. I wish I had the time and money...