Monday, February 26, 2007

Guide to Eco-products Pt3 - "better stuff"

A while ago I was quite harsh on "eco-efficient products", but what is the alternative?

One answer is to look out the window. Old Ma Nature has been pretty much sustainable for the last billion years since the oxygen cycle was closed and plants and animals could start breathing. But she is not very efficient - a tree casts hundreds or even thousands of seeds to the wind, yet only one or two might grow into a tree. Instead natural systems work on three basic principles:

i. There is no waste* - everything becomes food for something else.

ii. Everything is solar/gravity powered.

iii. Everything works in synergy (if lions ate all the wildebeest, they'd die out themselves, so they don't).

So the idea is to copy nature - some people call this 'biomimicry', some 'eco-effectiveness', but my favourite version is Edwin Datchefski's 'biothinking', as he boils it down to a simple principle:

Products should be "solar", "cyclic" and "safe"

This translates as: all energy must be renewable, everything must be made out of recycled (and recyclable) or natural materials, and no toxic materials should be used. This is a big departure from our 'linear', oil driven economy and would take a huge effort to change.

As an example, under solar, cyclic, safe, you would use biodiesel rather than buying a fuel efficient car. But, as we've seen before, producing enough biodiesel to fuel all the UK's current transport would take more land than we've got.

This is the second big drawback of the solar, cyclic, safe approach - we are limited by the amount of renewable energy we can capture. Fortunately all that recycling saves a good amount of energy, but the basics of heating, lighting and transport will still need to be provided for. Tricky!

If you're interested in lots of examples of how these principles can be applied to products, try Edwin's excellent book:

We'll look at other solutions in Part 4...

* There are a couple of examples where nature could be said to produce 'waste' - can you think what they are?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Eco-nonsense Award?

In one of those 'quirky surveys to get us some free press coverage', property search website PrimeMove found that:

"although 94 per cent of respondents believe it is important to adopt energy efficient methods, 65 per cent mainly do so to save money. This was deemed a higher priority than saving the planet and reducing the amount of harmful emissions. This follows recent research from financial advice site The Motley Fool, which also concluded that while most consumers are willing to go green, they need to be offered tangible financial benefits."


That's not "going green", that's saving a bit of cash. The whole idea of eco-living is to improve our quality of life while living within ecological limits, not sticking some extra insulation in and ending up with enough spare wonga for another flight to Marbella. The only conclusion you can make from these two pieces of 'research' are that people aren't willing to go green.

This kind of lazy nonsensical rubbish really gets my goat and it gets churned out on a daily basis. Is there an award yet for the best bit of "eco-BS"? I think we need one to heartily embarrass greenwash, rubbish research and journalists who say that SUVs aren't an ecological nightmare 'cos not enough of us drive them (you know who you are). If there isn't one then, in a Kids from Fame stylee, let's start one right here!

Nominations, pur-lease!


Monday, February 19, 2007

Yes, I'd like my cake & eat it too

You can't have missed the furore over the on-line petition against road charging whose signatures at the time of writing are just bubbling under the 1.6 million mark. This morning the London congestion charge is being extended Westwards into Kensington and Chelsea. Again protests are being held to protest about this curtailment of the fundamental right to drive.

As a car owner, I don't accept this 'poor burdened motorist' argument. For a start, car transport is still much cheaper per mile that any form of public transport in the UK. The freedom that the motor car has given us is immense, but the flip side of the coin is climate change, poor local air quality and a breakdown of local communities - and we've all got to accept responsibility for it.

The BBC is quoting Transport for London saying "traffic in the original central congestion charge zone has fallen 20% since the scheme began in 2003". It expects a further fall of 15% when the new charge kicks in. It also says the toll has helped fight pollution, reduce road injuries, increased the number of cyclists and caused more people to turn to public transport. How can you argue against that?

What is happening is the theoretical concern about climate change is hitting hard reality. We are going to have to change, and loads of people ain't going to like it.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

All the people, so many people...

With childbirth at the front of my mind recently, I've been mulling over the population question. Part of this was stimulated by a brilliant letter in the Guardian on 27 Jan:

I have a simpler, more accurate way for you to judge your footprint. Count your children [my emphasis]. More than two (per couple) and you are living a lifestyle that is not sustainable in the long term. Your real carbon footprint stretches down the ages, via your offspring, and this long-term effect is the cause of most environmental problems in the world today, and tomorrow.
Dee Quinn

I haven't heard anyone mention the 'IPAT' equation for a long, long time. I don't normally do equations in this blog, but it goes like this:

Environmental Impact (I) = Population (P) x Affluence (A) x Technology (T)

So environmental impact depends on how many of us there are, how much money we have and the impact of the products and services (technology) we spend it on. Most of the debate today focusses on Technology and the "techno-fix" approach (keep flying, mate, 'cos one day we'll find a way of making those planes more efficient). Others, like George Monbiot, argue that constant economic growth will always wipe out technofixes and that we should start thinking about 'sufficiency' of our income to augment the 'efficiency' of technology. But the last of the three factors, population is the one almost no-one ever talks about.

There are good reasons why population is a difficult issue. Firstly, most people (me included!) believe that the right to reproduce (or not to) is a basic human right - how could we ever consider Chinese-style baby rationing in a free country? Secondly, the current pensions crisis is being caused by a bulge in the number of older people with relatively few people of working age to pay for their upkeep. Thirdly many world religions encourage large families to keep their numbers up, so there is considerable resistance to population control.

But just imagine what the world would be like if we had, say, a quarter of the population - everyone could live a Western lifestyle within the planet's limits and there'd be more open space left to nature. If anyone can come up with a solution that encourages a contracting population without riding roughshod over human rights, causing socio-economic meltdown, or involving bird-flu, then please let me know...

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

New Arrival!

Harry was born on Saturday night to two very happy parents!
Reusable nappies are working great - I'm sure that most people who say they're not for them haven't really tried them.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Green Home Improvement: Wooden it be nice...

Wood is one of the most sustainable building materials - non-toxic with a solar-powered 'manufacturing' process and it is easily recyclable. The main thing you need to be careful about is where it comes from and this is made easy because of the well-respected Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation. If your wood has the FSC logo, you can pretty much trust that it is OK.

There are other sources of sustainable wood. The treads on our stairs (right) were made by a local company who get their wood from tree surgeons, so we knew the wood was local and would otherwise go to waste.

Another important issue with wood is preservatives as most are toxic (they have to be to kill rot and fungus). The excellent Greenspec website has some excellent advice on wood preservation, how to avoid it and what the best options are if you must use it.

Lastly, wood boards such as MDF and chipboard are normally manufactured using toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde to bond the wood particles together. These volatile chemicals 'off-gas' during the product's life which affects the indoor air quality and has been linked to sick building syndrome. It is best to avoid these upfront by only using ZF (Zero Formaldehyde) products (eg Medite Ecologique MDF which is ZF and FSC certified), but if you can't source them, then certain houseplants such as spider plants will happily suck up as much of the gases as they can.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Guide to Eco-products Pt2 - "eco-efficiency"

At the end of last year I promised some posts on what makes a product 'green' - see the summary here.

The first way a product can be green I mentioned was "using less stuff". The technical term for this is 'eco-efficiency' - the amount of use we can get out of each unit of natural resource. For example, if you buy a more fuel efficient car, you will get more miles (the use you want) out of each gallon (the natural resource required). Other examples of efficient products include efficient lightbulbs, lightweight packaging and multi-function products.

The main problem with eco-efficiency is that it requires reciprocal eco-friendly behaviour from the man (or woman) in the highstreet. I've mentioned the rebound effect before - if you save money by being efficient, an then go and blow your windfall on eco-nasties you might as well not have bothered. Another type of rebound is in the use of the product itself. If you leave your house at night and look back and notice you've left the bedroom light on, then you are much less likely to go back and switch it off if you've got an efficient bulb in.

Another problem is just sheer materialism. My mobile is a phone, PDA, camera and MP3 player all in one tiny box, which sounds wonderfully efficient, but I already had a digital camera and an MP3 player, so I haven't actually reduced the amount of resources I have consumed, no matter how hard I try to persuade myself I've done a good thing.

The same is true with longlife products - yes, they are eco-friendly if you use them for their entire lifespan, but many products get binned because we fancy a new model, rather than because they break. Again, mobile phones are a great example of this with people upgrading several times a year - I used my last one for four years (despite people openly laughing at it towards the end), but when the battery went on the blink, I upgraded rather than repairing.

I did some research on this once and came to the conclusion that we have to increase the eco-efficiency of our lives massively before we get even moderate reductions in our eco-footprints. Or we need to earn less money...

So, eco-efficiency isn't everything it's cracked up to be we'll have to look at other solutions in Parts 3 & 4 of this series.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Back in the saddle

Unfortunately my attempts at bike repair following my little accident came to nowt, so last week I bought a new bike. A bike is a major component of my eco-living as it slashes my transport footprint, but it also provides my main form of exercise, some of my favourite holidays and, frankly, I'm rarely happier than when I'm cruising along a country lane in the sunshine.

I use a bike for commuting, 5 day touring holidays and day long leisure rides, so I left all the £1000+ mountain bikes and road bikes to the lycra clad obsessives and stuck to an all-rounder - the hybrid. My shopping list was:

- 700c wheels with smooth-ish tyres for fast road pedalling, but a bit of grip in the mud
- no suspension - I prefer a firm ride for the type of cycling I do
- lugs for a decent rack (the type that fix to the seat post can only take 10kg - no good for touring)
- flat handle bars
- a decent range of gears (you'll appreciate a granny gear if you're hauling full panniers up a 1:4 hill)
- something that looks good

If I had any sense, I'd add mudguards to that list, but I'm afraid I like a rugged looking bike. Unfortunately bike ranges now tend to divide into practical and dull, or, macho but without rack lugs etc. Eventually I settled on a Cannondale Adventure 3 which I think looks good, suits my riding position and, importantly, took a decent rack. Yesterday I took it into the hills to the west of Gateshead and thrashed it over some bridleways and backroads. I came back happy, muddy and knackered.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Win £150 of Green Books from FoE

Apologies if you've seen this on other blogs, but Friends of the Earth are giving away £150 of green books in a prize draw to launch their new on-line shop. All you have to do to enter is to complete their survey. The shop looks pretty good with many interesting nuggets amongst the usual suspects - I'll have to try to blag some to review (hint, hint...).