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Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Greenest Chelsea Yet

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It’s that time again, and the Chelsea Flower Show, “the ultimate event in the gardening year”, is in full swing. The show, flagship event of the Royal Horticultural Society, is being loudly promoted as the ‘greenest’ ever. Mind you, they seem to say that every year. They’re certainly placing a great deal of emphasis on things like recycling, reuse and waste avoidance, with exhibitors incorporating rainwater collection, solar power and permeable paving in their projects. The RHS itself has laid down strict environmental guidelines:

  • All wood products on sale must be from sustainable sources
  • Patio heaters have been banned
  • Glass and plastic in restaurants and food outlets must be recycled, along with at least half the carpet used at the show
  • The use of peat has been banned

Show organiser Bob Sweet, who has taken to carrying a camera around the displays with him so he can photograph what is being thrown into skips, said there was a much greater focus on environmental concerns this year. For the first time exhibitors have been asked to list where their plants had come from, in order to ensure ethical sourcing.

Traditionally, plants from the exhibits and show gardens have always been sold off at the end, often at knockdown prices, but this idea is being extended this year. Community gardens, city farms, school gardens and allotments associations could get their hands on free plants and materials, thanks to a scheme set up by Good Gifts, the ethical gifts catalogue. The company has recently negotiated with the RHS to run a recycling depot for gardens at the show, and expects items like plants, turf, bricks, stone, paving, breeze blocks, plant pots and timber to be available.

The RHS has responded to the challenge of eliminating the use of plastic bags by replacing them at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show with eco-friendly fully-compostible carriers made with GM-free non-food grade corn starch. 350,000 bags, supplied by small family-owned company Ecosac in Shropshire, will be distributed to visitors throughout the five day event. One does wonder exactly how many of those bags will be composted.

All very commendable, but why has it taken so long to get this far? I know gardeners tend to be traditional types, especially the stuffed shirts and blazers that run the RHS, but really!


Written by Pete Smith

May 22, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Australia Pumping Empty

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Australia Pumping Empty
Fuel rationing may be just one of a series of shocks facing drivers and commuters in Queensland, Australia. Looming oil shortages will produce the biggest change in society since the industrial revolution, Sustainability Minister Andrew McNamara warned yesterday.

To underscore his concerns, Mr McNamara will appear in a documentary film premiering May 20th in which he says the days when Queenslanders could “travel on a whim” in oil-powered vehicles are numbered. The documentary, ‘Australia Pumping Empty‘, argues southeast Queensland is squandering billions on road, bridge and tunnel projects on which few will be able to afford to travel.

A report by Mr McNamara for the Queensland State Cabinet on the impact of the fuel crisis is expected to include recommendations on rationing, the future of public and private transport and sustainable population issues. It has been ordered on the premise that there is overwhelming evidence world oil production will peak in under a decade. It is expected to recommend risk mitigation measures such as cuts in fuel consumption and encouraging the development and use of alternative fuels, technologies and strategies. It will also outline demographic and regional changes as Queenslanders change travel, work and living habits.

“I think people are going to be in for a shock when they find it’s too expensive to drive their cars to work and then, when they get down to the station, they find the train is full and they can’t get on board,” Mr McNamara said. He will recommend the State Government focuses urgently on ways to cut private-car use. “I cannot overstate this – we need to adopt a wartime mentality. We’re going to face a level of urgency that will require dramatic change.” Private car use is expected to trend towards hybrid vehicles and then to electric. “But will we have enough electricity generating capacity when everyone comes home and plugs their cars in to recharge?”

Mr McNamara said no government would want to introduce fuel rationing but it could not be ruled out. It might become an option as fuel supplies run down and prices rise to avoid a situation where only the rich can afford private transport. “We face the need for a whole new economy, from the way we generate power, to how we deliver water, to how we live”.

It’s good to see that someone, somewhere, is taking all this seriously.

‘Queensland’s vulnerability to rising oil prices’ – taskforce report April 2007

Written by Pete Smith

May 18, 2008 at 8:38 am

Green Light For London Desalination

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Boris Johnson paddling a coracleLondon’s new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has dropped a legal challenge to Thames Water’s proposed £200 million desalination plant in Beckton, East London. The High Court challenge was initiated by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, on the grounds that the project was inefficient and bad for the environment.

Mr Livingstone said cleaner, cheaper and less wasteful alternatives should be found to avoid the “energy-guzzling and carbon-intensive” way the plant was run. According to Times Online, Boris Johnson withdrew the case after Thames Water “promised to introduce a series of environmentally-friendly measures”.

The plant will use reverse osmosis to remove salt from river water. Osmosis occurs between two solutions of different concentrations or strengths. A very fine membrane separating the solutions allows liquid (but not the dissolved solids) to pass from the weak solution to the strong solution.

Over time, the concentration of the two liquids will balance out but pressurising the stronger solution can stop the flow. If the pressure on the stronger solution is increased further the osmotic process is reversed and the liquid passes from the stronger solution making it more concentrated. This reverse osmosis process can be used to remove water from a saline solution (i.e. brackish water) thus providing a desalination technology.

The first reverse osmosis water treatment plant was built in California and started working in 1965. The nice thing about this technology is that it’s highly scalable, suitable for large projects like Beckton, producing enough water for 400,000 homes, right down to small-scale devices like Red Button Design’s ROSS (‘Innovate or Die‘)

According to Thames Water’s FAQ page, the process will be timed to extract water during the three hours leading up to low tide, minimising the salt content to less than one-third that of seawater. This means that the plant will use approximately half the energy required to treat pure sea water, and around 15% of that used by the most energy-intensive thermal desalination plants.

The plant “will use around 6.3MW a year over a 25-year lifespan”. Hmmm, not sure what that means, someone doesn’t know the difference between a megawatt and a megawatt-hour it seems. More work needed, must try harder. Thames Water have “given a legally binding commitment that 100% of the plant’s energy needs will be met from renewable energy”. Options being considered are wind power, and used cooking fat and oil. Initially, however, the plant will be powered by biodiesel, which raises the old questions, where will the biodiesel come from, and what environmental damage will be caused in producing it? I bet it’ll have some palm oil in it.

Interesting how the word ‘sustainable’ doesn’t show up in Thames Water’s information on the plant, it’s all about ‘renewable’ energy, which is more difficult for the green lobby to take exception to. They’re learning.

Written by Pete Smith

May 13, 2008 at 10:12 am

Oh, bugger!

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Broken PC

It had to be April 1st, didn’t it, but it was no joke. I doubt if anyone noticed, but yesterday morning while updating this site to enhance your viewing experience, some finger trouble on my part caused a WordPress widget to go berserk and bring down the hosting server. It took about a day to restore from a backup and recreate the subsequent posts. And that merry prankster post I spent hours on has passed its sell-by date, and will have to be put on ice for next year. If it’s still topical.

None of this has done anything to improve my mood. I was in a dark place for a while, and seriously considered giving up this blogging lark altogether. However, my mate Nick at Dream Hosting helped me through it and here we are again. In one of my blacker moments I considered moving to a new hosting service, preferably one that has a position on envionmental issues. A quick Google shows there’s a load of options out there. Here’s a random sample.

“Give your carbon footprint the red card!” say, who claim to be an affordable earth-friendly service, 100% solar powered and Fairtrade friendly.

NSDesign Web Hosting say they “recently became one of the few web service companies to become carbon neutral, by completely offsetting our carbon footprint”. NSDesign has partnered with Tree Appeal to offer a tree planting carbon offset service. The presence on the Tree Appeal home page of two photos of that ghastly, misguided old duffer ‘Professor’ David Bellamy doesn’t tempt me to pursue this option.

Eco Web Hosting “provide carbon neutral web hosting and green web hosting throughout the UK”. They offer “individuals and companies a carbon neutral web hosting service. We carefully calculate the carbon emissions of our servers, and offset them by planting trees in Ransom Wood Business Park.”

A swift glance suggests that the majority of ‘green’ web hosting services justify their claims by using carbon offsets. Outfits like Greenwebhosting that invest directly in renewables to power their data centres seem to be pretty thin on the ground. Careful research is needed to make sure you get the right service for your own personal ethical stance. Another complicating factor is price; I pay £9.99 a year for my current site, I would have to pay seven times that amount for a basic solar-powered service with Greenwebhosting, offering a fraction of the web space and bandwidth.

Decisions, decisions. Why does everything have to be so difficult?

Written by Pete Smith

April 2, 2008 at 1:50 pm

Eco-Towns: Unravelling The Mystery

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We wait with bated breath for the UK government to publish its shortlist of proposed eco-town sites in April. Around fifty projects have been put forward, but the government has refused to release information on the bids or locations on grounds of bidder confidentiality. Information is leaking out from somewhere, however, and there are growing concerns that the eco-town concept is just a smokescreen to make housebuilding more palatable (‘Un-eco Towns‘). There are three petitions on the Downing Street web site relating to specific proposed sites, and highly vocal protest groups for many others.

The Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE) has researched a list of 38 eco-town proposals, and an interactive map showing locations and details can be found here, and a PDF location map here. While sympathetic to the idea of eco-towns in principle, CPRE thinks it is essential to assess each proposal on its own merits, taking its local impacts and benefits into consideration, and has produced a list of ten tests which they believe eco-towns must pass to be successful:

• the public and affected communities should be fully consulted on schemes, including the principle of whether or not to have an eco-town in their area;

• schemes should be tested through regional spatial strategies and local development framework reviews. These should ensure that decisions on eco-towns take full account of evidence on environmental effects, housing need and alternatives for meeting this;

• decisions on eco-towns should be accompanied by evidence that demonstrates a new settlement to be the most sustainable option for accommodating housing growth compared with other options, such as redeveloping an existing urban brownfield site or an urban extension;

• schemes should demonstrate efficient use of land, with densities capable of supporting public transport and a high priority given to recycling brownfield land and buildings;

• they should be genuinely carbon neutral, taking into account potential emissions from transport (domestic, public and commercial) and buildings (in construction and use);

• they should foster a strong sense of place and community, achieve CABE gold Building for Life Standards, with high quality public spaces, architecture and street layouts that give priority to pedestrians and non-motorised transport, including substantial car free areas;

• they should be subject to an independent landscape character appraisal, be sympathetic to their setting and clearly enhance the local landscape, built and natural heritage, including through the designation of new Green Belt where appropriate;

• they should include measures designed to conserve water and other natural resources, minimise soil, air, noise and light pollution and achieve zero-waste;

• they should be complete communities with homes (with at least 50% affordable), schools, workplaces, shops, recreation, community and health facilities and open space within walking distance and foster active, sustainable lifestyles and civic participation;

• they should be well connected to surroundings with high quality public transport providing good access to nearby settlements and local supply networks, with sourcing of local produce, such as food, fuel and replenishible building materials.

Some of this echoes the contents of the original eco-town prospectus, but it’s good to hear that the Government is taking some notice. In a recent speech (‘Quality of life, not just quantity of homes‘) Caroline Flint, Minister for Housing, said:

“Contrary to some reports, eco-towns will be subject to rigorous planning processes. Each proposal will have to submit a planning application and will be properly scrutinised before it can proceed.

“I will soon be publishing a short-list of locations which we think have the potential to be successful. This will be followed by full public consultation with communities and stakeholders.”

This makes all the right noises about local consultation, but only for the ten projects (or fifteen or twenty, depending on which article or press release you read) that eventually get selected for the short list. That selection process is going on without any public involvement; how many perfectly good proposals meeting local priorities and demands will be secretly rejected because they don’t fit the wider Government agenda? No wonder that there is growing suspicion that this initiative is designed to give us what ‘they’ want, rather than what ‘we’ need.

Written by Pete Smith

March 10, 2008 at 3:07 pm


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SurvivalistsIt’s funny how words’ meanings can change over time. I was browsing idly through our bookshelves the other day, when I came across an interesting little volume called ‘The Survivalists’. Nothing to do with Jerry Ahern‘s interminable macho saga, Patrick Rivers’ 1975 book is a serious review of the ‘alternative’ environmental movement in the mid 1970s. From the blurb on the back cover:

“It has become fashionable to write and talk about the environment crisis: about the Earth’s fast dwindling resources of food, raw materials and energy; about Doomsday. But it is all talk: life goes on as before.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

“Beneath the veneer of the Establishment there exists an Alternative of people ‘living the revolution now’…. Some are escaping to rural self-sufficiency, others to communes; some join non-violent revolutionary groups; the technically-minded begin experimenting in alternative technologies; some set off to fight world poverty; others do all this and more”

The people Rivers describes would nowadays be called ‘greens’ or ‘environmentalists’. Today, ‘survivalist’ conjures up a particular set of images: rugged individualists, preparing for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) by stockpiling supplies and weapons in a remote hideout, sometimes with some form of extreme political agenda. For an amusing glance at the survivalist ‘sub-culture’, watch Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekend episode ‘Head For The Hills‘. But there’s a wide spectrum of preparedness, and a whole range of survival scenarios to prepare for, from Hurricane Katrina to getting stranded in the snow on the way home from work. There is a growing awareness that disasters don’t just happen to other people, and a realisation that our ‘civilisation’ is much more fragile and precarious than we used to think.

“A dedicated ‘conserver’ does not generate much garbage in the modern sense. Consider the following ultra-frugal conserver practices:
Kitchen scraps: Use every available scrap for animal feed or for compost.
Paper and cardboard: saved for re-use as stationary or for fire kindling, insulation.
Bottles, jars, plastic jugs, and plastic bags: washed and saved for re-use.
Candle stubs and soap scraps: save to periodically combine and re-use.
Steel and aluminum cans should all be carefully washed and sorted, for re-use as containers or raw material for various metal projects.
After being boiled for soup, most bones can be ground to make bone meal, or burned to make lime.
Scrap metal of all descriptions should be sorted and stored.
Wood ashes and fat scraps should be saved for soap making.
Twine, string and thread of all kinds can be saved for re-use.
Clothes worn beyond the point of usefulness should be saved for bandage material, quilts, rags, and insulation.
Electronics beyond economical repair should be cannibalized for their metal hardware and individual components.”

An excerpt from the manifesto of some low-impact hippy permaculture commune in West Wales? It ticks all the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ boxes. It’s actually a recent piece of advice on post-collapse garbage disposal at, a preparedness web site that claims over 55,000 visits a week worldwide. If you can see past the ‘gun nut’ discussions, this is an wonderful resource for anyone thinking about ‘off-grid’ living, growing their own food, or just planning for a winter power-cut.

A common factor in survivalist philosophy is that our present-day consumerist lifestyle is unsustainable. Where Rivers’ survivalists and today’s greens seek to modify our behaviour so as to avert, or at least moderate, catastrophe, the typical Survivalblog subscriber is planning to maintain as much of his lifestyle as possible WTSHTF. The conclusion to the above advice reads like this:

Of course, most of these extreme measures should be reserved for postTEOTWAWKI. The value of your time must be considered! Taking these measures now would probably alienate your spouse. Your family and neighbors would also soon notice your growing heap of stored “recyclables” which they would surely label garbage. It might not be to long until the fire marshal was called to condemn your stockpile as a fire hazard. Unless, of course you could convince them that all you were doing was “reducing your carbon footprint”.

Business as usual.

Written by Pete Smith

February 5, 2008 at 2:51 pm

London Light Bulb ‘Amnesty’

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A flyer in my weekend paper announces that Londoners are to be offered the chance to exchange two traditional light bulbs for two free energy efficient bulbs. From 11th-13th January, take your nasty old incandescent bulb along to any branch of B&Q and trade it in for a lovely new long-lasting, energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL). While stocks last. This is a joint project between B&Q, British Gas and the Mayor of London. According to the Mayor’s web site, the initiative is a “stunt-led PR activity across the city, [involving] above the line marketing, promotional activity, point of sale information packs”. Its purpose is to “help raise awareness of the importance of using energy efficient lightbulbs”.

There are so many issues and unanswered questions raised by this it’s difficult to know where to start.

  • Presumably it’s OK to swap a dead bulb, we’re not told. But who keeps dead bulbs lying around just in case of a trade-in opportunity? It’s highly likely that the majority of people participating in this exercise will be presenting perfectly viable bulbs for exchange.
  • I never shop at B&Q. My nearest store is about 5 miles away, in an area I never go to. Taking part in the amnesty will require a round-trip of 10 miles.

All of which devalues the ‘freeness’ of the new bulbs. As for the whole idea of phasing out old bulbs, which underlies this initiative, don’t get me started. Oh, I have.

  • CFLs are not 100% satisfactory alternatives for incandescent bulbs. They’re subjectively dimmer and the light has a different quality, an effect that becomes more noticeable amongst older people as their eyesight deteriorates. CFLs are not suitable for activities such as reading, sewing or electronics. A 11 watt CFL is not equivalent to a 60 watt incandescent, despite what it says on the box. In practice, users will end up switching to 20 watt bulbs and even installing additional lights to compensate.
  • CFLs tend to be longer and heavier than old-style bulbs, so they often don’t fit existing light fittings. Ceiling roses may need to be ‘beefed up’, small lampshades may have to be replaced with larger ones.
  • As has been publicised recently, information on disposal is vague, inconsistent and unavailable. While the current health scare about the mercury content has been over-played, people still need to know that CFLs are different and need to be handled accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong, I support the use of CFLs where appropriate. I even have several installed in my house. I do not approve of the current blanket policy of phasing out and banning. I am planning to stockpile incandescent bulbs so that I can continue to find my way round the house in my old age.

Oh yes. Ken, that link on the flyer still doesn’t work, get it fixed.

8th January Update: At last Ken’s found someone to fix that link at
There are some interesting snippets of information in there. Good to see that someone agrees with me that CFLs are different.

For technical reasons, the glass used to house energy saving light bulbs has to be opaque – not totally transparent, so shouldn’t be directly compared to clear traditional bulbs.

Written by Pete Smith

January 6, 2008 at 4:18 pm