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.