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Archive for the ‘Waste’ 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

Bags for Better Lives

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There’s been much rejoicing and back-slapping recently in the London Borough of Merton, satellite state of the People’s Republic of Suburbia. The Wimbledon Park area of Merton is set to be the first part of London to go plastic bag free with the launch of  Sustainable Merton’s Bags for Better Lives initiative.

As part of the project, volunteers have been knocking on every door and handing a fairly traded cotton shopping bag designed by the Bags for Better Lives team, and a second fairly traded cotton bag from The Co-operative’s Wimbledon Park food store, to every one of approximately 3,000 households in the ward. The volunteers are asking residents to use their new bags every time they go shopping and to support a ban on throw-away plastic bags. Says ‘The Guy From Sustainable Merton‘:

“Around 9,000 plastic bags are handed out by traders in Wimbledon Park each week. If the initiative achieves a 50% reduction in bags issued, about 234,000 fewer plastic bags will be used each year. If the reduction is 75% bag consumption will fall by 351,000. Traders’ annual spending on throw-away bags could be cut by £8,000-£12,000. Even if not every retailer abandons plastic bags immediately the environmental impact will still be significant.”

Great news, but why has it taken so long for an initiative like this to reach London? Many other countries around the world are years ahead of us:

  • Australia is calling for a phase-out to start by the end of 2008
  • Bangladesh banned all polythene bags in the capital Dhaka in 2002
  • Bhutan banned bags in 2002
  • China banned production of ultra-thin bags in January this year, and will ban their use in supermarkets and shops from June
  • Eritrea has had an outright ban since 2005, with fines for anyone imprting, producing, distributing or selling plastic bags.
  • France plans an outright ban by 2010
  • In India, six states have bans or are considering them. Mumbai banned bags in 2000 and Himachal Pradesh banned ultra-thin bags in 2003
  • Ireland imposed a plastic bag tax in 2002, reducing use by 90%
  • Italy imposed a levy in 1998, with an outright ban to be introduced by 2010
  • Kenya and Uganda banned thinner bags and imposed a levy on thicker ones in 2007
  • Papua New Guinea banned the import, manufacture and sale of plastic bags in 2004
  • Rwanda and Somalia banned bags in 2005
  • South Africa banned ultra-thin bags in 2003
  • Switzerland requires supermarkets to charge for bags
  • Taiwan banned bags in 2003
  • Tanzania banned their import and manufacture in 2006

Do you notice a trend here? It’s the developing nations who have introduced outright bans, while developed countries rely on taxes to discourage use, if they’re doing anything at all. The UK has traditionally used ‘encouragement’, or ‘discouragement’ depending on how you look at it, to reduce bag usage. Even in the face of mounting disquiet over the environmental problems caused by these unnecessary trinkets, the UK government’s ‘toughened’ stance involves putting pressure on retailers to follow Marks and Spencer’s lead and charge customers for bags.

Gordon Brown gives supermarkets one year to start charging for plastic bags … or else

M&S to roll-out charging for food carrier bags across UK – All profit donated to national environmental charity

Why does every environmental measure have to come down to money? Why does the UK government take such a determined stance on issues of personal liberty such as ID cards and detention without charge, yet show such timidity with regard to telling people how they should carry their shopping home? Why haven’t we got the courage to just say “These things are bad for the environment, they’re a waste of precious resources, they’re totally unnecessary, they’re banned”?

Or, as Sir Alan Sugar might say, “You’re a waste of space. You’re fired”.

Written by Pete Smith

May 11, 2008 at 10:00 am

Posted in Campaigns, Pollution, Waste

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Guerilla Bagging

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Photo: zappers

Plastic’s been getting a pretty bad press for quite a while now. Bloggers like my erstwhile colleague Matt over at The Coffee House (‘The Dead Zone – plastic fcuktastic‘) have been covering the problem comprehensively, and quite right too. There can’t be too many people left who aren’t at least aware that plastic bags are a Very Bad Thing. How many of them take the issue seriously enough to actually do something about it is another matter.

Claire Morsman felt strongly enough about the media coverage of the thousands of marine creatures killed by ingested plastic each year, to make her own reusable cloth shopping bag, the Morsbag. This single individual act inspired a worldwide movement of over 200 ‘pods’ (groups of Morsbags creators), in the UK, America, New Zealand, Spain, Japan, Morocco, France. Since the ‘sociable guerilla bagging’ campaign began, the tally of Morsbags has reached 17,869, potentially saving 8,934,500 plastic bags. Says Claire Morsman:

“I’ve learned there are a lot of people out there who want to do something about environmental issues but don’t necessarily know how to start. There’s so much energy and emotion and intelligence ready to be unleashed. I’ve always thought there are many more good people than bad in the world, but now I’ve learned how brilliant people are! They’re joining in and not giving in to desperation.

“Everyone inspires each other. It’s a win-win situation. Anyone can do it, it’s completely universal, and you’re making a bag. How fabulous is that?”

For more information about Morsbags and instructions on how to make your own, go to

Written by Pete Smith

April 21, 2008 at 2:39 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


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Wherever you look, you’ll read something about “How To Have A Greener Christmas”. Helpful suggestions such as reducing packaging, buying locally and using low energy tree lights are really just the usual anti-climate change propaganda dressed up with a sprig of holly and some tinsel. Valid though these seasonal hints and tips may be, they’re missing the point. Christmas is the traditional big feast in the middle of winter to cheer us up when everyone’s at their lowest ebb. To brighten our darkness, Christmas must provide a contrast with ‘normal’ life. It’s true that modern Christmas has become an orgy of consumerism, cheap tat and mounting desperation, but we only have ourselves to blame.

I grew up in the 50s, with food rationing fresh in people’s minds and the economy still trying to kickstart itself. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t well-off either. Little ‘extras’ had to be worked and saved for, and were valued all the more for that. We had a rule: no presents except for birthdays, Christmas and perhaps an egg at Easter. Consequently, the contrast between the seasonal festivities and our everyday existence was intoxicating. The anticipation, the rituals, a few decorations and some rich food was enough to convince everyone they’d had a great time without spending a fortune. The tinsel and the wrapping paper were carefully stored away for next year.

Compare that with today’s Yuletide experience. We consume all year, buying ourselves and each other all kinds of nick-nacks and geejaws designed to fall apart or go out of fashion long before the Christmas shopping season starts in October. We’re sated by retail therapy, bored by novelty. What do you give someone who buys themselves whatever they want whenever they want it? As far as I can tell, you throw money at the problem in a vain attempt to make Christmas ‘special’, or at least distinguishable from August Bank Holiday or the third Tuesday in February. Over-consumption at Christmas can’t be separated from the much wider problem of universal over-consumption all year round.

Written by Pete Smith

December 24, 2007 at 3:07 pm

Moan Of The Week

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As a student of the Open University, I receive a quarterly copy of the magazine Sesame, “reaching the OU community worldwide”. The Winter 2007 edition flopped through my letter box the other day, snugly wrapped in a plastic bag. Now I’m not usually one to complain, but this struck me as a remarkable waste of resources. The OU publishes an online edition of Sesame, a PDF duplicate of the paper edition. I would be quite happy to read that, yet nowhere can I find an option to opt out of receiving the paper copy. But that’s not my main point.

Using a plastic bag to send this thing out is, well, a bit crap really. Being a meticulous sort of bloke, I weighed the thing. Several times. One bag weighs sometimes 5 grams, sometimes 10, our kitchen scales don’t get more precise than that. Let’s call it 5 for cash. Sesame goes out to “over 180,000 OU students, tutors and staff worldwide”. So that’s 180,000 x 5 grams = 900kg of plastic every quarter, 3.6 tonnes every year. All of it will end up in landfill, as there’s nothing on the bag to indicate what kind of plastic it’s made from or whether it can be recycled.

Now I understand that the OU is under pressure to keep costs down, and they’ve probably opted for the cheapest tender. But why use a bag at all? We get an endless stream of catalogs which survive the postal process quite happily without any protection. Just print name and address on the cover, frank it and send it out, and give people a chance to say they don’t want the thing. It’s not rocket science.

Written by Pete Smith

December 8, 2007 at 11:57 am

Village Green

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Archers mucking out

The environmental propaganda machine continues to rumble forward on ‘The Archers’, BBC Radio 4’s venerable soap opera and green information channel. Tuesday’s episode featured an earnest discussion of anaerobic digesters on farms, turning animal muck into methane and generating electricity for sale back to the grid. According to jet-setting career agriculturist Debbie Aldridge, calling home from Eastern Europe where she runs her father’s offshore organic farming operation apparently single-handedly, the Germans are streets ahead of the UK with this technology. She wants a piece of the action at Home Farm.

It’s taken a while for art to imitate life. Last year the BBC reported how an agricultural college was using methane from the muck produced by its dairy herd to power its working farm all year round (‘College harnesses cow pat power‘ ), saying “the technology is used at more than 1,000 farms in Germany but only at a handful in the UK”.

Why are we so far behind here? The natural conservatism (small ‘c’) of UK farmers? Problems financing the project? General uncertainties in the farming industry? The idea seems to tick all the right boxes: cheap electricity, lower emissions, reduced water pollution. For me, the only fly in the ointment is the need for artifical fertilisers to replace the muck that used to be spread on the fields.

The reason they’re ahead in Germany is, you guessed it, money. In 2004, Renewable Energy World reported:

In Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, the incentive system for anaerobic digestion consists of both a subsidy for the green electricity generated, and of either investment subsidies or fiscal incentives. Of all the countries reviewed, Germany has the best investment climate for anaerobic digestion at this level, the main reason being its high feed-in tariff for the electricity generated – 10.1 Eurocents/kWh. Moreover, this rate is guaranteed for a period of 20 years.

Sounds tempting. I bet Brian Aldridge would jump at that deal, if it were available in the UK.