Wednesday, 19 December 2012

How to have a happy eco-friendly Christmas

As the festive season approaches, many people are buying presents, planning food, and arranging parties. But is there a way to enjoy the celebrations while minimising the impact on the environment?

I think there is. Here are some suggestions.

Don't overbuy presents
Let's face it, we've all done it. And we've had someone do it to us, maybe without realising. It results in that familiar guilty feeling that someone has splashed out on you, while you only got them something relatively small. And whether you're young or old, some of those extra presents always seem to end up unwanted or unused - which is a real waste! So:

  - Have a present list and pass it to family and friends
  - Agree a spending limit with others. People are often more receptive to this than you would think. And it means people can concentrate on the real value of the present and not just how much it cost or how many items they've bought.
  - When you go out shopping, know what you're buying and for who. Ask for present ideas if you're unsure.
  - Try giving gifts that are a bit more personal and don't involve buying new stuff. For example, offering an evening babysitting, or offering to cook a meal. You can write the details on paper and present them in an envelope if you want to give something on Christmas day.

Party Planning
Disposable plates and cutlery make for easy clean-up, but they're not so good for the environment. There are more environmentally friendly alternatives to paper and plastic that are made from plant fibres with minimal processing. But the best way is to use tableware that you can wash in a dishwasher and re-use.

Full of food?
It's difficult to estimate how much food and drink your guests will want, and how much they will bring along themselves. If you've got leftovers at the end of the evening, suggest that everyone takes something home with them (and perhaps something different from what they brought).

Or why not prolong the festivities? Before throwing away the remains of the food, find out if you can freeze or refrigerate it and use it up over a few days or more. Search the Internet and you will find information on preserving all sorts of food easily and safely. And I mean all sorts - for example, did you know that you can freeze some types of cheese?

So, in conclusion...
Be good to others, to yourself, and to the environment. But most of all, have a great time. See you in 2013!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Natural Synthetics

I heard recently that scientists in the Antarctic have discovered masses of microscopic plastic fibres underwater. Could this be the biggest environmental polution problem yet?

One of the main causes, apparently, is synthetic fibres from clothes coming loose in the wash, and being rinsed down the drain. The fibres then make their way into the sea, and for some reason (which I'm still unclear about) end up in the Antarctic. Here, they are swallowed by marine life, causing harmful effects. Again, I'm unsure how microscopic particles do this, although I do know that a whole carrier bag can kill if swallowed by, say, a turtle.

So there were a few gaps in the news article that was reporting this story, and I need to do some research of my own to fill the gaps. But what came next in the news story took me by surprise.

An "expert" gave their opinion that the problem would be much better if people stopped wearing cheap synthetic clothes, and bought clothes made from natural fibres, such as cotton and wool. On the face of it, this sounds like great advice. Natural fibres break down in the water, whereas synthetic fibres don't degrade.

I might have believed this a few years ago before I started doing my own research. The trouble is, this advice only looks at the problem from one side. While natural fibres are biodegradable, they also take a lot of energy to grow and process. The research I've seen shows that the energy needed for this is far more than the energy needed to produce synthetic fibres. And when you consider that most of the energy used to grow natural fibres comes from fossil fuels, the overall environmental impact of natural fabrics can be much worse.

There are some people who point out that synthetic fabrics cannot be made without oil. But they forget that modern intensive cotton farming also needs oil - not just for the farm machinery, but as ingredients in pesticides, herbicides and other agrochemicals.

So the fish might not be swallowing plastic shards, but the pesticide run-off from the cotton field that washes into the rivers might get them instead. Basically, you can't win either way. But synthetic fibres seem to have the edge, as they need less energy overall to make, and tend to last longer.

What we really need is a new fabric that is energy efficient to produce and lasts a long time, but breaks down when disposed of. I think this is technically difficult, and probably won't be developed while mass consumers are focused on price versus designer brands. However, some moves are being made, and bamboo fibres are looking promising.

Bamboo is quick and easy to grow, and can be spun into a stretchy, breathable, cotton-like fabric. I have a few pairs of bamboo socks, and they're very comfortable. What's more, they're about the same price as ordinary socks. Unfortunately, they're still not as biodegradable as cotton.

Other developments may take longer. I guess what it boils down to is that no-one wants to develop a product that doesn't make a profit. But sometimes there is no monetary profit in looking after the enivronment. This, I think, is the greatest environmental dilemma of all.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Site Announcement - Sep 2012

After over 6 months of posting weekly articles, I've decided to slow down a bit. Posting weekly seems to be too frequent for some folks, and I have to admit, it also takes up a lot of my time.

There will still be new articles appearing here, but less frequently than at present. I expect it will be every month or so, but if you have any strong views, leave me a comment at the end of this article.

I'm also opening an invitation for Guest Bloggers - if this could be you, then just drop me a line explaining who you are and what type of things you'd like to write about. Both new articles and re-publishing of old articles (perhaps from your own blog) are welcome.

Incidentally, I'm always open to suggestions for new articles that fit the general theme of ethical consumerism and the environment.

My longer-term plan is to re-organise the site into a collection of useful articles that people can refer to at any time, and according to topic; i.e. not just in date order. This will take some time as I need to tinker with Blogger settings and templates, and want to test it properly before unleashing it on the readership.

Rest assured, I'm not going anywhere, and the site will continue to be updated.

Thanks for being part of the readership, and don't forget that you can subscribe to be notified of new articles as they appear. You can do this by entering your email address in the box on the right-hand side of the screen (this doesn't work with mobile browsers - sorry!), or by using the RSS or Atom feeds in your web browser.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Legs or breasts?

As someone who doesn't eat much meat (although I'm not a vegetarian), I'm intrigued by some of the issues posed by the farming and meat industries. Things like: if most chicken products are made with chicken breast, what happens to the rest of the meat?

The answer came to me on a recent television programme about cheap food and animal welfare. Some of the chicken thighs and legs make it onto our dinner tables, or in the summer months, onto our barbecues. Some of the other meat from the chicken goes into chicken mince and chicken burgers. But most of it doesn't.

Meanwhile, over in the Far East, cheaper cuts of meat are standard fare in some countries. For example, when I was in Japan a few years ago, I noticed that restaurants had chicken gizzards, cock's combs and chicken skin on the menu. One restaurant had chicken escalopes, but they were made from chicken skin with a thin layer of meat attached. There were no chicken breast products. If you consider that Japan is one of the more wealthy Far Eastern countries, you can see that their choice of chicken meat is a matter of tradition rather than price.

I should tell you that it's not the same in every country; for example, I've had fantastic street food in Malaysia that was made with chicken breast. Things are certainly different between countries.

But I was surprised to learn that we eat so many chicken breasts in Europe that we can't supply them from our own farms. Guess what happens?

Yes, we take the breast from our chicken, and sometimes the thighs and legs. Then we send the rest of the meat and skin off to the Far East. In exchange, they send us the breast meat from their chickens.

Bits of chicken are travelling back and forth all over the world, right now. There is a global trade in chicken parts.

But cheap chicken breast on the dinner table, or in our sandwiches, comes at a cost. The big problem is that animal welfare standards in some Far East countries are far worse than the minimum legal standard in Europe. Apparently, Thailand have been criticised for this, and they are a major exporter of chicken products to the UK. But you won't find this fact mentioned prominently on the packaging.

It can help to check where your chicken comes from; as I mentioned, meat that comes from somewhere in Europe has come from farms that maintain minimum standards of animal welfare. Although some intensive farms are still pretty poor, they could be a lot worse.

The other thing to check is how the chicken was reared. If you buy a Freedom Food chicken, for example, then the chicken is raised to the RSPCA's minimum standards. It may still be intensively farmed (and less than ideal in my opinion), but it gives a balance between animal welfare and the price tag. But if you can afford it (which isn't always possible, I know) then free range or organic chicken is better.

The only problem is that the "higher welfare" products aren't often available as convenience foods. You'll struggle to find free-range chicken burgers in the supermarket, or even organic chicken breast in most local butchers shops. You might have to buy and cook a whole chicken, but this can end up cheaper in the long run if you split up the cuts of meat and freeze them for later use. Not sure how to do that? Google.

I was brought up next door to a mixed dairy and arable farm that diversified into other livestock. I know that things have changed in the farming industry over the years. Not all of the changes have been for the better, in my opinion, and some farmers have been forced to do what they have to, to feed their own families. But the ultimate power to change this is with the consumer.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Social Trends

One thing that interests me is when new social trends catch on. Now, I'm not talking about Facebook or designer fashion brands here. It's something far more down to earth than that, and it affects how we all behave around other people.

Die-hard environmental campaigners have, for a long time, pushed the message that we should think of the world we are creating for future generations. Subsequently, sales of organic baby food are higher than ever, and car manufacturers now sell family-sized cars with higher efficiency engines.

I think there is still a long way to go with openness and honesty when it comes to food labelling in general, and in making public transport more affordable. But the important thing is that changes are happening because people start to talk about these topics. The press releases and announcements have helped, but what really spurs things on is when influential people take action, and their friends realise it's a good idea and want to copy them. Or, as they used to say, "keeping up with the neighbours".

Trends can work in the other direction too, though. For example, there appear to be many more people who are sceptical about climate change today than there have been for many years. Unfortunately, some of them now disregard and ignore enivronmental issues - which is a shame, as they'd probably be the first to complain if pollution in their neighbourhood reached dangerous levels, or there was a shortage of fuel so they couldn't run their car. Or even, if litter was left on their doorstep.

As a rule, I don't leave litter behind. As well as the environmental issues, I consider it my social responsibility to clear up my own mess. I think most other people are the same, having had a good upbringing and being taught basic moral values.

As an example, a friend of mine was babysitting a friend's 7 year old son for the weekend. He normally lives in the country, miles from the nearest town, so the cinema was a new experience for him. He asked lots of questions, and my friend explained everything: from why the lights go out, to how popcorn is made. At the end of the film, they were both walking out when the boy stopped. "Why do people leave their popcorn and drinks behind at the end?".

My friend was stuck for an answer. She couldn't explain this - especially when the cinema foyer and car park were spotlessly clean.

I remember reading an article written by a cinema worker some time ago. He was equally baffled, especially because the major cinemas always provide a litter bin directly outside the auditorium. It may just be because everyone else is doing it, so it's assumed to be OK - even though the facts say otherwise.

Is littering inside the cinema a trend that has become socially acceptable?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Rechargeable batteries

One of the problems with rechargeable batteries is that they never seem to last as long as the advertising claims. But are they still worth buying?

I use rechargeable batteries in a few different gadgets. The manufacturers usually say that their batteries can be recharged hundreds or even thousands of times. But I've found that I usually have to discard them after much less use than that.

The problems and the reasons behind them

Some of the batteries I have will no longer charge to their full capacity. Apparently, this is part of an ageing process that can't usually be reversed. So the affected batteries are charged, but they only last for a very short time.

The other problem is with batteries that lose their charge over time, even when they're not being used. Most rechargeable batteries do this to some extent, with many needing to be recharged after a few months. However, I have some batteries that lose their charge completely over a period of one week. If I can use them on the day I charge them, there's no problem. Apparently this is an ageing process too, and is perhaps why these particular batteries were less costly than other makes.

The solutions

All the batteries I'm using are the (fairly) modern NiMH types. There's a new kid on the block though: Nickel Zinc batteries. They seem to have a number of advantages, including a slightly higher voltage, which enables them to work in some gadgets that don't normally play nicely with rechargeable batteries. However, Nickel Zinc batteries need a special charger - you can't use a normal one.

It is possible to "recondition" NiMH batteries by running them flat (so there's no charge) before recharging them. Although it also seems that if you run them too hard, too often, then you can also run into problems. Chargers that recondition automatically tend to be quite pricey compared to the standard equivalents, so I'm not sure if it would be cheaper and more efficient to just put the batteries in an old torch (flashlight) and leave it switched on until the light goes dim.

Hybrid batteries are also useful to know about. They're a special kind of NiMH battery that keep their charge for longer. I find these are ideal for my camera, which can get no use at all for a few months, but then be called into action for an impromptu day out or event. Hybrids are also supplied ready to use, straight from the pack, which can be useful in some situations. The two main brands I've come across are Uniross Hybrio and Sanyo Eneloop. You might not think of Sanyo as a big battery producer, but for many years they have made "own brand" rechargeables for other people. 

The Conclusions

Going back to the point I mentioned at the start, a battery that can apparently be charged "up to" 500 times may not achieve 500 charges in your home. It's marketing-speak. Take it with a pinch of salt.

As for disposable batteries, they can be recycled in the UK, and there are collection points at most major supermarkets. But it still seems to be far more efficient and cost-effective in the long run to use rechargeables.

Overall, rechargeables are great. They save money, save the environment, and most of the time they work very well. Sure, there are a few niggles, but I'd rather have rechargeable than disposable batteries any day.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Saving your energy

I've just watched the news on T.V., where people were being interviewed about price increases for electricity and gas. There seemed to be a lot of blame apportioned to the energy companies, but I'm not sure that's the whole story.

We could endlessly debate the merits of profit-making private energy suppliers versus the old system of public-sector gas and electricity boards. But we'd still be watching T.V. news stories about price increases.

The profits of the energy companies are the most obvious and visible aspect. The less obvious one is that the gas we use in our homes, and to fuel our power stations, is increasingly coming from abroad. The U.K. isn't self-sufficient in gas, even though we have all the North Sea oil and gas rigs. They can't meet the demand on their own, so the gas we use is being piped from further and further afield.

The longer the pipeline, the more it costs to operate and maintain it. Also, when you deal with overseas countries, you often deal in overseas currencies that can change in value - as you'll know if you've been abroad on holiday. More importantly, when the energy companies buy the gas, they're only a middleman. The foreign gas supplier can put their prices up when they want, and if the energy companies or their customers (that's you and me) aren't willing to pay the extra, then the supplier doesn't have to give it to us. But because there are limited places to obtain gas, the choice of alternative supplier is also limited.

Obviously, if the supplier's price is too high, then few energy companies would buy from them at all. But the point I'm trying to make is that your home energy supplier doesn't have as much influence on prices as you might think.

So the way to pay less for your household energy in the long term is to cut back on use. Changing supplier might also save you save you some money, but the wholesale price to your supplier will likely be the same, and it's the one thing you can't change.

You could also look at more efficient appliances when it comes time to buy replacements. For example, wood burning stoves are touted as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to a gas fire. We're still trying to figure out if a wood burner is cheaper overall though, as the cheapest log burner we can find is around £400, plus fitting and some necessary building works. When an electric fire costs around £100, and a basic electric heater is less than £20, then I'm not really sure which is the cheapest option overall. Will the increased cost of electricity outweigh the low purchase price? I don't know, but I think I'd need my calculator to work it out!

In the meantime, the cost of energy will increase, and unfortunately, none of us will have much choice but to carry on paying for it. The best we can do is try to use less, which will help the environment too.

Image: Gas Flame by George Shuklin, Public Domain. Obtained via

Monday, 20 August 2012

The case of the missing blog post...

No need to call Sherlock Holmes! It's just that this weekend's intended blog post didn't make it onto the site.

I had written most of an article, but got stuck while checking my facts. I'm a bit old fashioned that way - I don't like to publish something without being reasonably sure of what I'm saying. Five minutes of fact checking before publishing is far better than spending lots of time having to apologise and correct articles afterwards.

In the commercial news media, it seems there is an ever-increasing pressure to bypass the fact-checking stage. A friend, who was close to the industry for many years, tells me that checking facts means that there's a delay in getting the news out. In today's world of instant connectivity, this means that some other media outlet might break the news before you. And that costs money.

The same friend tells me that the professional journalists he knows are keen to check their facts. But, as the documentary film "Starsuckers" shows, journalists are not always given the time to check facts by their employer, due to commercial pressures to get the news out. Accuracy, it seems, doesn't sell half as well as a good headline.

And so, as old-fashioned as it may seem, my originally intended blog post has been sent back to the drawing board because of incorrect facts.  But I hope you'll agree that it's better to have a missing post than a misleading post.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Shopping local

On a recent visit to Belgium, I noticed something was missing from the outskirts of the towns and cities I visited: large supermarkets. I began to wonder if I'd just not noticed them. After all, if they didn't exist, where did people buy their food?

I eventually saw some smaller supermarkets in the suburbs, but they were a long way from the massive American-style retail parks common to the UK.

All became clear after a visit to a small town centre cafe, where I indulged in a capuccino and some people watching. I noticed that many locals came into town on their bicycles. They bought meat from the local butcher, bread from the local baker, vegetables from the greengrocer, and bumped into friends for a chat along the way. There was a small town centre supermarket, but it didn't have a car park. Again, most customers walked or cycled. There were no massive queues, no big car park traffic jams, and no-one losing their temper.

No, I hadn't fallen asleep and started dreaming. This was real. In some respects, it was like being transported back in time 30 years, to a time when the high street was the centre of retail trade in the UK. But it was also surprising that shopping in this way could still be an easy, stress-free experience - even with today's high-speed lifestyle, and even if you had to go to several shops just to get the basic essentials.

In the process of going into several independent shops on a regular basis, you'd meet several familiar faces. Those shop owners would get to know their customers personally, without needing a computer and a loyalty card to track their regular purchases. In turn, this seems to foster a sense of community. And that's an experience that the out-of-town megastores have difficulty matching.

In the process of demanding low prices and instant availability, I wonder if we've lost something quite important at the heart of our communities.

So shop local - maybe your community needs you!

Image: adapted from Maastricht Shopping Street by Redvers, Public Domain, obtained via (yes, I know Maastricht isn't in Belgium, but I am impressed that you're reading this bit at the bottom).

Saturday, 4 August 2012

How bad are bananas?

I have to admit, I don't actually like bananas. But I've just bought a book called "How bad are bananas? (the carbon footprint of everything)". And it contains far more than just musings on bendy-shaped yellow fruit.

Bananas galore!
Image: Martin Wiesheu
The author, Mike Berners-Lee, meausres carbon footprints for a living. While it's not an exact science, he does at least explain how he arrived at his figures, and is very careful with some of his results that contradict popular wisdom.

I even found the answers to the hand drier versus paper towel debate and the fruit juice dilemma :
  • Using two paper towels is equivalent to using an electric hand drier. Surprisingly, there is no difference in the energy used, even though the paper towels are usually transported by truck. So if you can get away with using a single paper towel, that's the more environmentally friendly option. However, even this is trumped by a cyclonic hand drier, like the Dyson Airblade, which wins hands down.
  • Fresh juice seems to beat concentrated juice. Oranges are usually transported by boat, which is fairly efficient. However, creating fruit juice concentrate uses lots of energy. So despite the fact that concentrates are made to reduce the volume and weight of the juice, so it can be transported more easily, it doesn't translate into less energy being used overall. It just means that a single boat can carry more.
I found some other surprising facts about transportation that I hadn't considered. For example, a bottle of wine imported from New Zealand to the UK could have a lower carbon footprint than one from Italy. Products from within Europe tend to be transported by road, whereas the New Zealand wine will arrive on a boat. So even though Italy is closer to the UK, it's the mode of transport that makes the biggest difference. The concept of "food miles" is beginning to look a bit suspect to me now.

By the way, the same logic applies to bananas too. They may come from far away, but they usually arrive by boat.

Which begs the question, why don't we ship more freight by sea and waterway?

Photo by Martin Wiesheu, CC-BY-SA licence, obtained via

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Charity collections - or are they?

We regularly get clothing collection bags pushed through our door. But I've calculated that about 90% of them aren't really charity bags, even if they have a charity logo on them.

Collection bags - can you tell the difference? *
(Image: Howard Lake)
Many of the collection schemes are run by commercial companies. They make a profit on the donated clothes, either by shredding and recycling them, or by selling them overseas in developing countries (yes, I said sell, not give away).

The charity gets a percentage of the takings, and this is usually printed on the bag. Something like £50 per tonne of clothes is not uncommon. Imagine: if the airlines gave you a 1 tonne weight limit for your luggage, how much could you take on holiday? Answer: about 50 suitcases full - and that's a lot of clothes to only be worth £50!

There are some genuine charities who rely on legitimate commercial collections. Times are hard, and it's difficult to find funding, so some charities will enter into partnerships with well-run commercial collectors. £50 is better than nothing, especially if you're a small charity.

I use the following general rules of thumb for telling the genuine charity bags from the commercial collectors' bags:
  • Charities will always state their charity number. Commercial collectors will state a registration number as well - although usually in a different place. If it doesn't say the word "charity" next to the number, then you're usually dealing with a business.
  • Commercial collectors working on behalf of charities will state how much of the profit they're donating. Usually the statement is not as noticeable as the charity logo or their publicity photos. Look closely.
  • Look for the Charity Retail Association logo. This guarantees that the charity gets a fair share, and that no-one else is exploiting your generosity.
In addition, there are some fraudsters operating collections, who are nothing to do with any charity. So in addition to the above:
  • Look for a contact address or landline telephone number. Fraudsters won't be keen on giving out details that allow them to be traced. On the other hand, an email address or mobile phone number are easier to hide behind.
  • Remember that, on their own, none of the following make an organisation legitimate: photos of sad-looking children, pictures of kittens, pleas to "help the needy", promises to "help create jobs", asking for donations.

These are all just general tips that I use myself, but they're far from perfect. I find the best way around all these problems is to take old stuff straight to the charity shop ourselves. That way, the charity doesn't have to pay someone to collect it, and they'll keep more of the proceeds - up to 50 times more, according to one source.

Incidentally, thanks to the endless supply of "dodgy" collection bags, we haven't needed to buy any bin bags for nearly 2 years. There's always an upside!

* As always, the examples given above are generalisations, and are not intended to portray any particular organisation or person.
(Credit: "Donated goods bags" by Howard Lake, CC-BY licence, obtained via )

Friday, 20 July 2012

Designed for the dump

Was your laptop built for this?
Image: Alex E. Proimos
This week, a certain well-known maker of computers and phones has come under criticism for launching a product that is not as environmentally friendly as it could be. According to reports, their new laptop has a battery that isn't removable or replaceable. This might not sound like a big deal, but it does have surprising implications.

The battery is often one of the first things to stop working in a laptop or other gadget. By installing a battery so that no-one can replace it (not even a computer engineer) then you're limiting the life span of the device. Which, cynics would argue, is a great way to lock people into buying the latest gadgets.

Sadly, there are many companies that seem to be doing this. Some people have called this approach "designed for the dump" - in other words, a product is designed so that it becomes useless after a couple of years, can't be repaired, and has to be thrown away.

On the one hand, this doesn't seem great for the environment. On the other hand, it causes people to buy products they wouldn't otherwise buy, and so keeps people in jobs and money in the economy.
Personally, I like shiny gadgets and new technology. But I don't like how quickly it can become unusable when it's still capable of working.

There's an interesting video about the life of electronic gadgets that goes into more detail. It's available below, and also via YouTube.

Image credit: Trash Mountain by Alex E. Proimos, licenced under CC-BY licence, obtained via

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The public transport dilemma

I'm writing this on the train home from work. Normally I don't commute on the train, as it's slow for me and expensive. But it does give me an excuse to cycle to the station and back, and get some exercise in the process! So I try to use the train once a week.

I'd love to get public transport every day, but it's just too much hassle and expense. So I compromise. Three days a week, I drive a fuel-efficient car to the outskirts of the nearby city, then catch public transport from there to the city centre. And one day a week, I work from home.

I've never really understood why we have a public transport system based on 1950's life - when people commuted from the suburbs to the centre. Today, the offices and factories have moved out of town, but you often still have to go into the centre to come out again.

I do think that we need to end our obsession with the car. But public transport is often a poor relative of the car when it comes to commuting.

Unfortunately, it's often the case with long-distance travel too. I recently priced up a trip to Belgium for 3 people, booking 2 months in advance. The train was over £700. Taking the car, and using the Dover to Calais ferry, cost about £120 including fuel. No contest - I can't justify the £700 spend.

I think there are some possible solutions, but they need money and time.

Firstly, long-distance train travel has to be cheaper. If I need to be in London for the morning, I can go by car for about £60, by parking in outer London and getting the tube into the city. By coach, it's under £60. By air, it's about £150. By train it's £230. Why?

Secondly, since we're stuck with the "out of town" syndrome (shops, offices, healthcare) then we need to have transport hubs in these places. Travelling 12 miles into and out of the centre, in order to reach a destination 3 miles away, is not the kind of thing that promotes public transport as a viable option! We have cities with successful Park and Ride systems, but we need to build on this.

Thirdly, we need to make cycling more accessible. In Belgium and the Netherlands, many locals don't think twice about cycling to the shops or to the station. In the UK, we've embraced leisure cycling, but we charge commuters 20p per day to access the toilet, so they can change out of their sweaty cycling gear before getting on a train!

The car still has a place, and is a valuable form of transport. Trains and other forms of public transport need a chance to shine too; but this won't happen unless people start using them more.

So why not try using public transport or your bike once a week? It might not be as bad as you think.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

We need to talk about... Yoga

A lot of people believe that yoga is a great way to keep fit and relieve stress. But there is a popular myth that it's not very active. To use the words of actor James Nesbitt, appearing in a TV commercial several years ago, yoga is "a bunch of ladies going 'ommm' - how hard can it be?"
A yoga class.
This pose is called Warrior 1, or Virabradrasana 1.
Photo: lululemon athletica

In the TV ad, James' character enrols in a yoga class to impress his new girlfriend. He ends up falling over on the floor in spectacular fashion, when he over-estimates his ability to balance on one leg! Which goes to show that yoga is more than just meditation, and definitely not restricted to women.

There are different forms of yoga: some have gentle stretching exercises, some have poses that need focus and concentration, and some types build stamina. Even then, the forms that concentrate on stretches and balance can make people out of breath (eg. hatha yoga, see picture for an example pose), and the more active forms (eg. ashtanga) share some similarities with an aerobics class. There are even fun classes designed specially for children (in fact, many children in India learn yoga).

For me, the most important part of yoga is at the end. You don't leave a class panting for breath and ready for a sit down - you have a sit down or lie down as part of the class at the end! This is the meditation part of yoga. As well as letting your body rest, it's wonderfully relaxing for your mind, too. You can leave a class feeling chilled out, or energised and raring to go.

And that's the real beauty of yoga. There is no competition, because everyone learns their own capabilities and limits. You're encouraged to improve over time, but never by forcing yourself. It's up to you what you get out of yoga, but you never leave a class feeling quite the same way as when you arrived.
Most instructors will hold classes for beginners - so don't be like James' TV character and try to jump straight into the intermediate level!

So if you're feeling stressed, or if you feel that you should be doing some exercise but don't like the gym, then look for a local yoga class and sign up for a taster session.

Photo credit: Derivative work based on "Tent of Warriors" by lululemon athletica, obtained under CC-BY licence, via .

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Which is greener: hand driers or paper towels?

In the toilets at work, we have both electric hand driers and paper towels. I'm always surprised by the amount of people that use the paper towels, as I've never seen them as good for the environment. On the other hand, some people can't believe I use the hand drier, and ask if I'm aware how dirty they can be.

I looked into this, and they do have a point.

Hand driers usually have filters that need regular cleaning to remove dust and grime. If this isn't done, then bacteria can breed inside the machine, and then get blown onto your freshly washed hands. However, I do wonder if this is any worse than the bacteria that's always on toilet door handles, from people who haven't washed their hands. I'm still alive, so I guess it's not a major issue.

The argument for paper towels is that they're greener because they can be recycled and they don't use electricity. I've looked into this.

Dirty paper towels are often unsuitable for recycling, because they are made from low-grade paper, and are contaminated with bacteria (and worse) from people's hands. There's also a vast amount of energy used to fell trees, cut them, ship them to the paper plant, grind them into pulp, dry them (using hot air!), cut them into sheets, and drive them to the office. So I reckon using a hand drier eliminates a lot of unnecessary energy use.

Unfortunately, the information I have is from sources connected with either the paper industry or the hand drier manufacturers. I don't have concrete figures or independent evidence, so it's difficult to prove either argument. At the moment, I'm sticking with the hand drier.

So what's your preference - paper towels or hand drier?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

In Transition

I've just finished watching a documentary film called In Transition. It's about communities that are trying to become less dependent on oil, and products made from it.

I thought it was worth mentioning, because unlike many films of this genre, it manages to do this without any hysteria or evangelism. Sure, some of the people interviewed are die-hard environmentalists. But most of the people are just ordinary folks trying to make a small change, and in the process, making new friends in their local neighbourhood. Like the chef who proudly announces that all the ingredients for his dishes come from within a 50 mile radius of his kitchen, and he personally knows the farmer who supplied the meat.

There were a few technical terms in the film that weren't explained fully (I'm guessing there probably wasn't enough time). So if phrases like "Peak Oil" don't mean much to you, then you might not get the most out of the film. It's still worth watching though. There's a different film that explains these terms in a wonderfully simple way, which I'll share in a future post.

Here are some great quotes from the film that I couldn't help noting down:

 - In the US, a carrot travels an average of 1838 miles in order to reach the dinner table.

 - In the UK, 50 percent of all vegetables and 95 percent of fruit come from overseas. There are crops like garlic that we could grow in the UK, but instead we import them from China and other countries.

 - In England, 142,000 acres of orchards have been cut down in the last 100 years (I've noticed myself that even in the British apple season, we import apples from overseas).

All of this means a lot of transportation, which invariably uses oil. A consultant presenting the issues to a local council meeting summed up the problem: "We're moving from a time when our consumption of fossil fuels - be it oil or gas - is the key factor in our economic success, our sense of wellbeing, our personal prowess; to a time when our dependency on fossil fuels is our degree of vulnerability".

Despite this, I thought the film ended without any definite conclusions. However, there was an invitation for viewers to send in their own stories on video for use in a sequel.

You can now watch the film online for free, in the window below, or via Vimeo.Grab a mug of tea first - it runs for about 50 minutes.

In Transition 1.0 from Transition Towns on Vimeo.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Marketing Uncovered: Price Wars

You've seen the discounts, the sales, and the shops fighting to be the cheapest. Or is it just clever marketing? Let's find out in the latest "Marketing Uncovered" episode!

Here are my top phrases in the shopping category, together with their alternative meanings.

"We guarantee our prices are unbeatable"
This doesn't mean that the prices are the cheapest. You'll often find a host of terms and conditions attached to claims like this. Usually, if you buy the item and then find it cheaper elsewhere, you can get a refund of the extra you paid. But the devil is in the detail - you may have to jump through hoops to get your refund.

"10% off"
And what was the original price? If the company were already more expensive than their competitors, then they still may be more expensive! It's the price you pay at the checkout that counts, not the discount.

"Our customers save £150, on average"
This is designed to lure you away from your current supplier, but again, doesn't guarantee that you'll save money. The key here is that the phrase talks about "our customers", and not the entire population. That's because, with services like insurance and utility companies, no company is cheapest for everyone - it depends on where you live, how much you use, and a whole range of other factors.

"Special offer!"
Why? Is the product a limited edition? Is there a temporary discount? Or is the company trying to offload some outdated products from the back of their warehouse?

A side note
Don't get too sidetracked by prices. A cheap product that doesn't last long can be worse value than a more expensive product that lasts. After-sales service can be important too, and may be worth paying extra for. These are factors that are easily overlooked when comparing prices.

If you've ever wondered why competing companies can seemingly have "cut-throat price wars", while still managing to make a tidy profit at the end of the day, then you might now have an inkling as to how this is done!

(as always, the phrases above are generalisations, and are not intended to reflect any particular company's claims)

Friday, 8 June 2012

Marketing Uncovered: Food Labels

Image credit: Ralf Roletschek
In the latest instalment of Marketing Uncovered articles, I decided to explore some of the ethics around food labelling and advertising claims.

Here, as always, is a run down of my pet hate marketing phrases, together with what I think they really mean.

No added sugar
This just means that the product hasn't been sweetened with sugar. But if it's a sweet product, and it's a processed food (eg. a soft drink), then it has to get its sweetness from somewhere. Sometimes manufacturers use fruit juice concentrate, which is really a sneaky way to use fruit sugar instead of normal sugar. However, for the most part, I find that "no added sugar" usually means "contains artificial sweeteners". Also, because sugar is a natural preservative, removing it can mean that products like soft drinks need stronger artificial preservatives to compensate. So "no added sugar" doesn't necessarily mean "better for you".

Real ingredients
This doesn't necessarily mean you're eating a hand-made product, or one that only uses natural ingredients. Going from the products I've seen using this claim, it currently seems to mean that natural or close to natural ingredients are used. This might include "nature identical" ingredients, for example, a strawberry flavour that is made in a factory, but is almost identical to the natural substance in real strawberries. But as I haven't been able to find an official definition of "real ingredients", it's really anyone's guess as to how tomorrow's products will use this phrase.

85% Fat Free
Regular readers will have already worked this one out. It means that the product contains 15% fat. In other words, when you look at the nutrition information on the back of the pack, you will see that there is 15g of fat per 100g - fairly high. Thankfully, recent industry changes in the UK mean that there are now controls over the use of phrases like "fat free". But it still serves as a useful illustration.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm the one in the supermarket looking at ingredient labels. At least they have tight regulation, and they have to disclose most (but not all) of the contents. I find it a great way to dispel the marketing spin, but only if I have one of those rare ingredients: time!

Image: Bilder im Supermarkt by Ralf Roletschek, CC-BY-SA licence, obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Endless Summer

Fresh vegetables at a street market
Image: Biswarup Ganguly
Everyone knows about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. But did you know that choosing the wrong ones could have an impact on your wallet, your wellbeing, and the environment?

The phrase "Endless Summer" was coined some years ago, to explain how it's always summer in some part of the world. This makes it possible to have fruit and vegetables on sale all year round, no matter whether they're in season or not. Thanks to an Endless Summer, they are always in season somewhere, and can be transported to store shelves anywhere in the world.

As you'd imagine, the environmental impact can be huge, especially if goods have to be kept refrigerated on the journey. And by the time they reach the store shelves, they're already a few days old and have lost some of their nutrients.

Of course, someone has to pay for the transport costs too. That would be you. Well volunteered!

The way around this? Look for produce that's grown in your home country, or at least close to it. Ideally, try to buy from local producers or farmers markets. If there's a poor harvest (which still happens even in developed countries) the local outlets will still have small amounts of local produce. The supermarkets, however, have to buy in bulk and will often buy abroad instead. The supermarket may be cheaper in this case, but don't forget that there is still a cost to the environment.

Even better than all this is to grow your own vegetables. It's easy (no, really it is), and you can start with a plant pot or grow bag on your patio or balcony.

We might not be able to make the summer last all year, but we can make food choices that have a feel-good factor.

Image: Vegetables by Biswarup Ganguly, CC-BY licence, obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Mental Health Awareness Week

It's Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Mental Health issues are often the "elephant in the room" - we all know people who have been affected, but we might not realise because it's a taboo subject. But it needn't be.

Let's break this down using some facts and figures from the UK Department of Health:
  • 1 in 4 people will have a mental health issue at some point in their lives. That means you already know people who have been affected
  • 9 out of 10 sufferers experience stigma and discrimination
  • People with mental health issues are more likely to become victims of violence (not cause it).
A large proportion of mental health issues are related to anxiety and depression.

People with a diagnosis won't necessarily ask friends for help and support. They may be afraid of discrimination, or they may even be in denial. Of those who do reach out to friends, some will be pushed back because their friends are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

If you're a friend in this situation, please keep the friendship going as normally as possible. It is almost always appreciated. If you're stuck for words, the web site Time To Change has ideas and e-cards that you can use to strike up a conversation.

After all, you never know if you'll be the 1 in 4 next time.

Don't be afraid to talk about mental health
Click image to enlarge
Image copyright © 2008 Time To Change, used with permission,

Friday, 18 May 2012

Can you dig it?

I hated gardening when I was a youngster. My parents lived in a house with a large garden, and grew their own fruit and vegetables. I was given my own corner for planting, but I hated weeding and hated waiting for things to grow.

Not much has changed. The wife and I have our own house and garden, but still the old bugbear about weeds and waiting. But we're more aware of the benefits of growing your own fruit and vegetables, and they're certainly worth the effort.

We don't have a greenhouse. We don't have any special expertise, other than the advice our parents give us, and what it says on the seed packets. We don't have a big garden area, and we have probably some of the worst soil to work with (heavy clay).

But if we can grow tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes and purple broccoli, then anyone can! Some things we've learned are:

 - not much grows in heavy clay soil, and it's very difficult to improve it. You'll know if you've got some if it sticks together in large clumps when you dig it, and it tends to crack in hot, dry weather. Growing things is a hit and miss affair, but...

 - old buckets, plastic bins and washing-up bowls are great for planting veggies. We clean them thoroughly, drill some holes in the bottom for drainage, then fill with two-thirds topsoil, one-third organic compost, and some "fish blood and bone" mix. All are available from a garden centre. You can even decorate the outside if you're feeling arty!

 - slugs can be kept at bay by burying old glass jars in the ground, so they are flush with the soil. Then fill them with beer. Slugs love the ale, but they get drunk, fall into the jar, and drown!

Hopefully I'll be able to show some of our gardening results later in the year. But for the moment, here's a photo of some of our plants that are well on their way to the dinner table.

Photo of seedlings. Parsnip, bell pepper, potato, broccoli and carrot
Seedlings. From left to right: parsnip, bell pepper, potato, broccoli, carrot
(Photo: mpmedia)

Friday, 11 May 2012

Positive News

Image: NS Newsflash
As they say, "No news is good news". And I've found that one of the ways to keep a positive outlook is to ignore many of the stories in popular media. I still read newspapers occasionally, but I'm careful which paper I buy. I don't like to start the day on a negative note if I can help it.

A surprising number of friends have adopted the same attitude, saying that many news outlets seem to have a negative tone. And it can be difficult to tell a real news story from marketing and political "spin".

I'd like to share a great example that I encountered last week. We were with some friends in a local pub at the time, when the barman started talking about the news.

He had read in his newspaper that 1 in 5 convicted criminals in the UK are residents of other countries, and the majority of those are from Poland. Someone at the bar overheard. "That's ridiculous", he said, "all those foreigners coming over here to commit crime".

I pointed out that, by the same figures, 80% of convicted criminals are UK residents. And only a fraction of the remainder are Polish nationals.

A few people's eyes widened. "Oh yeah...". There was a sudden realisation that the shocking news story wasn't shocking after all. It was, I suspect, written by someone with a hidden agenda. Now, hopefully, no-one will be suspicious of the Polish customers who wander into the pub. Or the locals who buy imported Polish beer.

This all reminded me of a legendary story from the cold war era, where a car race was organised between two teams, from America and Russia.

The Americans won the race, and the US newspapers reported that the Russians lost. However, the Russian newspapers reported that the Russian team came second, and the American team was next to last.

Both stories look like they have opposite views, but in fact they are presenting the same facts in completely different ways. Just goes to show that there's always another side to the news.

Photo credit: Newspapers B&W (4) by NS Newsflash, CC-BY licence, via Flickr

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Quest for new socks

Hand-made re-soleable socks,
without anti-bacterial agents
(not my legs. or my socks.)
credit: krysaia
It's that time again. I've had to throw away a bunch of socks with holes in them. Part of me wonders what happened to darning, which seems something of a lost art. But back to the main topic...

New socks are hard to find in the shops. I'm talking about plain, ordinary socks.

If you've bought any in the past year or so, you may not have noticed that they weren't as plain as you thought. Yes, even the humble sock now comes with anti-bacterial agents and "freshness technology". And it's almost impossible to buy men's socks in the UK without it.

Now, no-one likes smelly feet (well, apart from one of our cats, who seems to be developing a strange fetish for socks that have been through a hard yoga session). But there is becoming no choice whether to have socks with chemically-treated fabrics or not.

Plain, ordinary cotton socks (bless 'em) are a rare species.

The packs don't say what the chemicals are. I might feel better if the manufacturers came clean on the label. And I'm sure this would be welcomed by people with skin allergies.

It seems to me that we've survived for a long time without anti-bacterial socks, even when socks had a longer lifespan (through darning). Do we really need them now?

Photo credit: "Sharks socks redux" by krysaia, licenced under CC-BY-SA licence, via

Friday, 27 April 2012

Turned off by low energy bulbs?

Since moving into a new house a few years ago, we've been slowly replacing the ordinary light bulbs with energy-saving ones.

Everything has gone reasonably well, but there are a few lessons learned. As they seem to be the same things that turn other people off low energy lamps, I thought they were worth sharing.


A CFL Bulb
Image credit: Nroose
These are fluorescent light bulbs, and are what most people think of as "energy saving". However, I had two issues.

Firstly, they were not very bright, especially for the first few minutes. This was a problem on the stairs - but it was easily cured by buying a slightly higher powered bulb. It still uses less energy than the filament bulb it replaced.

Second were the energy costs to transport the bulbs all the way from China, where most of them seem to be made. I eventually found some made in Hungary, which is at least closer to home; though they probably go by road, so I can't really tell if they're greener.


LED bulbs use less energy than CFLs, they switch on instantly, and they don't need to "warm up" to give their full brightness.

LED bulbs
Image credit: Fcancela
Most of the cheap 1 watt LED bulbs are very dim, and I found they are best suited for background or decorative lighting. They tend to have a clean white light that is easier to see by, but it can look harsh compared to a normal bulb.

More modern LED bulbs are rated at 3 watts and above. There are some that are designed to mimic the warm colour of a normal bulb, rather than the brilliant white light normally associated with LEDs. And, in a contrast to normal energy saving bulbs, I found I could get away with a lower powered bulb than I expected, even though it was one of the "warm" ones.

LED bulbs cost a lot more than CFLs (£15 upwards), but they use even less energy and last a very long time. I calculated that they'll pay for themselves in a few years in our kitchen, where they have replaced halogen downlights.

A bright idea!
Image credit: Oscarjosue


I tried to replace the old bulbs only when they blew. Despite the fact that the newer bulbs use less energy, there's still a lot of energy used in their manufacture. Besides which, there's no point throwing away something in working order!

The Verdict

I'm convinced that energy-saving bulbs *can* work well. But as with many things, it helps to have a bit of insight, and not pay too much attention to marketing hype.

Image credits:
"Cuerpo humano jaqaru" by Oscarjosue, CC-BY-SA licence. Obtained via humano jaqaru.jpg.
"Compact fluorescent straight" by Nroose, public domain. Obtained via
LED lights based on an original image "Green Ray Lights" by Fcancela, Free Art Licence 1.3  Obtained via Ray Lights.jpg.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Making money from the sun?

A close relative was visiting us at the weekend, enthusing about a new money-making scheme she'd signed up to: solar panels.

A salesman had called round, and sold her a grid-connected system - in other words, the solar electricity she doesn't use gets put back into the electricity supply network for others to use. And, because she's effectively running a miniature power station, she gets paid for doing so.

The salesman estimated that the system would pay for itself in 6 years. But this seemed overly optimistic, given the small size of the system he quoted. The government has publicly said that they will subsidise the payments to solar generators for many years to come. But there's something about politicians' promises, in combination with salesmans' promises, that made me feel uneasy.

Thankfully, another relative used to work for a renewable energy company, so we were able to support our opinions: solar PV may be a good way to help save the planet, but we don't view it as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Thankfully, there's a cooling-off period on the contract, so there's time to reconsider.

Is there really a money-making opportunity in solar PV panels? And where does the money come from?

(photo credit: Solar Panels by Ell Brown, licenced under Creative Commons CC-BY licence, obtained via )

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Beyond marketing: juice concentrate

When I look at fruit juice labels, I always find the phrases "not from concentrate" or "made with concentrated juice". I often wondered what this meant, and why concentrated juice is usually cheaper.

But is one really better than the other? I did some research, and found that the answer is far from clear cut.

Concentrates start as fresh fruit juice, but some of the water is evaporated. The resulting concentrated juice takes up less space, and uses less energy to transport. If you're shipping orange juice from (let's say) Brazil to Europe, that seems a pretty important consideration. Eventually, when the concentrate arrives at the juice factory, the missing water is added back in and the juice is delivered to the shops.

Juice marked "not from concentrate" doesn't go through this process. This makes it sound fresher, because it's squeezed closer to home. But it does mean that the whole fruit has travelled further, as opposed to just the juice from the fruit - which means more Food Miles.

In terms of nutrients, the government's "five a day" campaign makes no distinction between types of juice - one glass of juice equals one portion of fruit.

Which gives something of a dilemma. Unprocessed and fresh, or fewer food miles: which do you go for?

(Photo credit: Orange juice carton by Gerald_G (CC0/public domain licence). Obtained via: )

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Spring has sprung

 'Tis the season for spring cleaning (almost) - which often means getting rid of clutter, as much as dusting and polishing.

This time last year, we had a dilemma in our house. There was a pile of stuff that we no longer used. It had too much life left in it, so I didn't want to take it to the dump. But at the same time it didn't have any resale value. What to do?

First up was an old dining table with 4 chairs. They were made of solid wood, but there were some stains and scratches on the table top, and the chairs were looking battered and worn. It was all very sturdy though, and would be great for someone who fancied a project sanding them down and re-varnishing them.

But would anyone bother with a DIY repair project when it's so cheap to buy new? (under £100)

Yes, apparently they would! The table and chairs went on Freecycle, and within a couple of hours 2 people had offered to come and collect them. They were picked up the following evening.

Next was a large pine cupboard with a missing handle and a broken drawer. This went to a local charity who give work training to people who have recovered from substance abuse. It helped someone to learn joinery skills, and the repaired unit was sold to help fund the charity. Everybody wins.

Just goes to show that there are places for unwanted and unsaleable items, besides taking them to the dump! Have you found any others?

(Photo credit: Broom Closet by wayne's eye view, CC-BY licence, obtained via:

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Earth Hour
Do you fancy an atmospheric, candle-lit night in? Well, here's a great reason to have one.

Earth Hour has been running for several years now, and is supported by WWF, the World Wildlife Fund. The idea is to switch off your lights for one hour, starting at 8.30pm on 31 March. This has three purposes:

 1. It's a fun way to save energy and money.
 2. It's a good reminder of how reliant we are on energy, and what things might be like if we were without it.
 3. It's also a good time to reflect on our own energy use, and how it might affect the environment.

In our house, we joined in last time by having candlelit snacks and a few board games. However, ours was the only house in the street with the lights off. I'm glad to see that this could radically change this year, as WWF are predicting that hundreds of millions of people around the world will be involved. All will be switching off their lights at 8.30pm local time, creating a kind of ripple across the globe.

I've already seen posters in the local community (with the title "60+ : Go beyond the hour"). The WWF have also scored a coup by signing up many famous landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower in France to Sydney Opera House in Australia. It looks like this year could be a big one!

The WWF have a site explaining more about the campaign here: , and there's a UK-specific site here: .

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

It's in the bag... already

Reusing shopping bags is something I'm trying to make a habit of.

So, off I go shopping, and actually remember to take some bags along to reuse. I arrive at the checkout, look for my wallet, and when I look back... all my items are in a store carrier bag. The assistant smiles back, happy that they've packed so many things in so little time. Like 10 milliseconds.

I've even had this happen to me when I've already put my empty bags on the counter. It seems that many sales assistants use new bags automatically, especially if they're busy, as it saves time waiting for people to unfold their reusable bags.

In the small stores where I regularly shop, I'm trying to actively point out that I've brought my own bags. Even so, the assistant in one shop refused to listen, and pointed to a tiny hole my carrier bag. She then double-bagged my purchase (two more bags!) to "make sure it all gets home safely". Arggghh!

On the other hand, I sometimes manage to dispense with bags altogether. Like at lunchtime, when I walk off with a sandwich, a drink and a bag of nuts, using nothing more than my bare hands. "Are you sure you don't need a bag?", they say. "You've got a couple of items there". I'm sure the shop staff think I'm some kind of balancing act who has escaped from the circus.

What are your experiences of trying to re-use shopping bags?

(Photo credit: "carrier_bags" adapted from an original by "How can I recycle this", licenced under CC-BY licence; obtained via )

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Reducing food waste

I always feel guilty when I end up throwing good food away.

I try to avoid over-buying when I go shopping, and always check the Use By dates before I buy. But sometimes meal plans change, and things get lost at the back of the fridge.

I looked in the fridge last night and saw a pack of butter that was hiding at the back. It's Best Before date was 31 May. That may not sound bad, but I realised that it meant May last year - when I bought it.

I'd been checking the butter regularly though, and it always smelled fine and there had been nothing growing on it. So yesterday I tasted a bit - and it was fine.

So I've made some chocolate chip flapjack with butter that's a year out of date. Talk about reducing waste to the extreme! I'm eating the first couple with my morning coffee today, and if you see me posting again, you'll know I haven't poisoned myself!

What's your record for (safely) consuming out of date items? (that's a question, not a challenge!)