Fix What’s Broken

170 - BagThink for a moment about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve ever brought.

From when you were a kid, to the age you are now – the clothes, the books, the home items, the magazines, the shoes, the electrical goods, the furniture, the carpets, the crockery, the mobile phones, the computer games, the cushions, the kettles, the deckchairs, the cars . . . everything.

Where are they now ?

Assuming you’re home isn’t some vast Indiana Jones like warehouse full of everything you’ve ever owned (how disconcerting would that be?), it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the things you’ve bought you eventually threw away.

Why ?

All those raw materials, all that energy used in manufacture and transport, all the water used to grow the wood or cotton etc, all the chemicals, all the packaging? None of it really thrown ‘away’ of course, there’s no such place, but landfilled in some home in the ground – several hundred tons of your own personal waste.

Why ?

Sometimes we just get bored or tired of things, sometimes things go out of style, sometimes we’ve just no further use for something, but it’s more than likely that a large percentage of the stuff you’ve thrown away, you got rid of because it was broken.

Just a couple of generations ago many of these broken things would have been repaired, once, twice or even over and over again – whether tables, clothes, shoes or tools. This attitude of scarcity, of material things being limited and valuable, is now largely history. In our throwaway society stuff is cheap – it usually costs less to buy a new one than it would to fix the old one, and certainly it’s a lot less hassle. Who has time to fix stuff these days ?

But taking the time and effort to repair things is making something of a comeback – from Amsterdam’s Repair Cafes (which are now popping-up further afield), to increasing numbers of writers and bloggers discussing it – check out My Make Do and Mend Year or The Case for Working with your Hands.

Some of this is down to austerity of course – we’re all having to get by on less money than before, and so feel more inclined to patch up our coat, or re-screw the table leg, than use the excuse to buy something new. But some of the popularity stems from an increasing awareness of the connection between our own wasteful, consumerist lifestyles, and the environmental and social damage being done elsewhere in the world to support them. We increasingly understand it’s hypocritical to bemoan global warming while buying endless replacement gadgets and stuff made in Chinese coal powered factories, or to feel appalled about poor working conditions or workplace disasters elsewhere in the world, while buying endless £3 T-shirts on the High Street.

Just to be clear – I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone else – consumption is so deeply woven into our society it’s not an easy thing to avoid.

This isn’t just a personal problem – we’ve built our whole economies on a model of never ending consumption. We need to maintain ‘consumer confidence’ or GDP takes a bit of a hit. The phrase ‘planned obsolescence‘, you might be interested to learn, was first used in 1932, in a plan to help end the depression by ensuring all manufacturers produced goods that were designed to quickly break – in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumer demand! They realised even then, that if we all simply stop buying new stuff we’re going to have to face some rather difficult consequences.

On the other hand the phrase ‘waste not want not‘ dates back to at least the 1700s, and suggests that if we were to waste less in the present, then we’d have more left for ourselves in the future.

Solving this dilemma – by ensuring resources are used not just effectively, but also efficiently, but without collapsing the economy, is one of the key challenges of sustainability. To achieve it we’ll need to develop a much more circular economy, making it easier to use and reuse materials – while at the same time decoupling economic growth from consumption.

In the meantime, as policy makers and economists wrestle with how to do this, I’ll keep fixing my 10 year old bag . . . buy less, mend more.


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Help Define Sustainable Development

165 - SustainabilityWhat’s your favourite oxymoron ?

You know, terms that are self-contradictory, like act naturally, original copy, open secret, deafening silence, military intelligence, or my personal favourite Microsoft Works.

How about Sustainable Development ?

Can development ever truly be sustainable ?

Ultimately it comes down to what you think the words sustainable and development mean.

Sustainability is the ability to endure, and in this context is usually taken to mean something along the lines of: The ability to meet our own needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (the so called Brundtland definition).

This implies that we should hope to provide future generations with the same access to resources that we have available to us today, including energy, raw materials, fresh water, fertile land or natural landscape and habitat.

So for example, when it comes to energy, solar is considered sustainable but oil is not – as roughly the same amount of solar energy will continue to fall on the planet every day (at least until far into the future), while oil is a finite resource and will become increasingly scarce before running out.

With more and more of us on the planet, and all of us wanting to have more and more stuff for ourselves, trying to develop sustainable practices and technologies is increasingly important if we want our children and grandchildren to have a better, or even a similar quality of life to us.

So back to development.

We all want homes to live in, jobs to go to, food on the table, health, education, leisure, water, sewerage, electricity, faster broadband, occasional holidays and any number of other things, which all makes development important and desirable. How can we do this in a sustainable way ?

If we build new homes far away from places of work and facilities, it means people will have to use more energy in travelling. If we build in flood plains it means more resources dealing with the effects of frequent flooding. If we don’t install sufficient insulation in new buildings, it means more energy in heating. If we don’t provide efficient plumbing and water storage systems, it means using more water than we need to. If we cut down a forest or concrete over a wetland to build a new town or motorway, it means there is less habitat left for wildlife.

These kind of considerations are very familiar to those of us with a ‘green streak’, but we must remember this is only one aspect of sustainability.

As well as the environmental, the social and economic aspects are equally important – issues of equality, opportunity, crime, access to jobs and services, affordability, fairness ? We don’t want to saddle future generations with either a depleted and polluted planet, a fractured and violent social structure, or a huge unaffordable debt.

Unfortunately these so called three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) are very often seemingly pitted against each other – Do you want unspoiled landscapes or wind turbines ? Do you want cheap food or low impact organic farms ? Do you want nice houses with gardens in the countryside, or more countryside ?

These are not easy questions to answer, and can be very emotive, especially when considering our own local environment – we might all be a little bit NIMBYist on occasion . . . but we have to remember recycling plants have to be built somewhere, unless you’re a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) !

So what does all this matter ?

You might not be aware, but a New National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) came into force in the UK last year, guiding the shape of the UK’s future development, and (so the Government hopes) helping construct our way back to economic growth.

In it there is a clear presumption in favour of sustainable development - but what does this mean ?

Unfortunately there’s no simple answer – we all weigh the various factors differently, and a global supermarket chain might have a very different view about what sustainable development means than you might, for example.

But there is something else.

The NPPF also includes a strong commitment to localism, improving the voice of the local community in the planning process – to help decide what gets built where, and what sustainable development means locally.

If we want the proposed wind farm, or don’t want the proposed supermarket then the onus is on us to find our voice – attend meetings, write letters, send emails, comment on policies and ultimately use our vote in local elections . . .

As a former physicist I’m partial to the odd Einstein quote, and though this one might seem a little strong, the sentiment applies:

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil. It will be destroyed by those who watch but do nothing”


Photo from Ivan Walsh via Flickr

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7 Tips for Keeping Warm this Winter

If you’re currently reading this in San Diego, or somewhere equally warm, then you might want to skip this post, but if you’re in a somewhat cooler climate, December is a good time to start thinking about keeping warm. Particularly if some of the longer range predictions about this being an especially cold winter turn out to be true.

If you’re sat at home, how warm is your room ?

If you don’t know, consider spending £5 to get yourself a room thermometer this Christmas.

Room temperature is normally taken to be 20C , with typically quoted values ranging from 18 – 21C, the range in which most of us will feel fairly comfortable. Below this increased health risks begin to occur, below 18C most people will begin to experience some discomfort, while below 16C there is an increased risk of respiratory disease. Below 12C there is an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, and below an ambient living temperature of 9C hypothermia is a possibility. An extra 27,000 deaths occur over the winter in the UK, mostly of the elderly.

So it’s vitally important for both our health and our comfort to keep ourselves warm during the cold weather, but on the other hand we might be concerned about wasting both energy and money. Whether we’re motivated by reducing our carbon footprint or our energy bill (in my case it’s both) it’s important we manage to keep warm as efficiently as possible.

Here are a few tips – you might want to share them with more elderly family, friends or neighbours.


It seems obvious, but a if you have a central heating system controlled by just a single thermostat, that’s probably what you’re doing. Fitting room thermostats or radiator thermostat valves will let you heat just the rooms you use most – ie: not the spare bedroom, front room, conservatory etc.


Again, another ‘no-brainer’, but a surprising number of homes with central heating systems don’t have effective timer controls. Check your controls to make sure the heating is only on when you’re there.


A draught is ventilation in the wrong place (and vice-versa). Go draught hunting and use draught excluders, letterbox and keyhole covers, insulation strips, thick curtains and similar to deal with them. It your home is particularly draughty you might want to consider using a thermal camera to identify them (though it might be a good idea to get advice before hiring one). Remember though that it’s best to leave at least some ventilation somewhere in the house, to allow exchange of air.


Some ‘how to keep warm lists’ suggest letting warm bath water cool in the bath etc as a good idea to help heat your home. Generally speaking this isn’t a good idea, for two reasons. Firstly, moist air takes more energy to heat than dry air does – so the more water vapour you have in your home, the colder it will be (for a given amount of heating). Secondly, the water vapour doesn’t magically disapear – it just condenses on cold surfaces, like exterior walls and windows, often giving rise to black mould, which can become a significant health hazard. Avoid drying wet clothes on radiators without adequate ventilation, and make sure steam from cooking is properly vented.


Opening the curtains during the day to let in sunlight, and closing them as it starts to go dark, in order to retain heat might not make a huge difference in most homes, but it will help, and could be quite beneficial if your home has a conservatory, or other large expanse of exterior glass. Obviously the better insulated your curtains are the more effective they will be.


We wrap up warm when we go out in the cold, most of us could do a lot better at wearing warmer clothes inside as well. There are all sorts of suitable, comfortable ‘lounge-ware’, from jogging trousers and jumpers, to socks, thermals and even hats. I can confirm the currently popular onesies are very effective for keeping warm (though far too embarrassing to answer the door in) ! Sitting under a blanket to watch TV is also a good idea.


Your body keeps warm by using the food you’ve eaten, so if your home is cold it’s especially important to make sure you’re eating well, preferably with plenty of hot meals and hot drinks, while alcohol tends to lower core body temperature. A spot of exercise might also be a good way to help keep warm.

Photo by Ruben Laguna via Flickr

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Green Walls

Plants are fantastic – they provide food, regulate temperatures through transpiration, underpin ecosystems, help lock-up moisture and carbon, protect soil from erosion and they look good too. They can help improve air quality, with some studies indicating that they can cut pollution by up to 30%.

These are all things we could do with more of in our urban areas, where plants can the literally ‘thin on the ground’, but where there is rarely additional land available for new green space.

The solution: vertical green walls.

The concept is hardly new, vertical planting was supposedly a key aspect of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but using modern structures and substrates, we can now produce an increasing array of green walls using modern hydroponics and different structures and substrates.

Green walls have many additional advantages; deflecting water away from building surfaces, providing a degree of insulation and noise adsorption etc. It’s also possible to plant a variety of edible species, including herbs and some soft fruits, such as strawberries, or scented varieties.

They are increasingly being used architecturally, both externally, and internally, and several organisations and companies now produce advice for home gardeners who are interested in producing their own green walls in their own properties, such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Biotecture, Green Over Grey and the amazing site DIY Greenwalls.

Building a few more green walls in our urban areas could provide a large number of benefits for very little cost – not least providing a welcome splash of natural greenery, which will help improve people’s wellbeing and connection with the natural world. Something we could definitely do with more of.


Photo from Thelmadatter via Wikicommons

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Go Brown to Go Green

I’ve a confession to make.

I’m a bit of a map geek.

Maps are about trying to capture and communicate knowledge about the world – and whether it’s tube lines or star systems, I think there’s something very cool about them.

One of the interesting things about maps is that they not only represent the geography, but also the period – effectively capturing time as well as space, with old maps working like a window back into the past.

Have you ever wondered what was ‘there’ before you were ?

If you’re sat in a Norman castle reading this then the odds are there wasn’t a whole lot of human development involved beforehand, but  if you’re in an old urban area, and the walls around you aren’t made of stone, then it’s quite likely there’s some history literally under your feet.

Weirdly, looking at old maps is a large part of what I do for my day job as an environmental scientist working in land contamination and remediation. If we want to properly understand the condition of the land today, it’s important to know what it was used for before – whether a farmer’s field or an old gasworks !

Two hundred and fifty years ago the UK gave birth to the industrial revolution, which went on to transform the world with factories, railroads and all kinds of products of coal, iron and steam. Needless to say there wasn’t a lot in the way of environmental protection or health and safety back then, and numerous toxic wastes and by-products of these various activities and industries found their way into local surroundings and communities, where many still remaining in the ground.

We’ve added to this contamination over the decades by spreading ash and clinker in our gardens, through fuel leaks, from deposition of combustion products from coal fires and car exhausts, lead pipes, asbestos roofing materials, sending effluent and sewerage into the ground and landfilling all manor of wastes. Contamination of our air and water tends to disperse and be short lived, but contamination of our soil tends to stay put.

There are three things to think about.

Firstly, are there places where this contamination is so harmful to people’s health that it need’s to be cleaned up ? If so how do we find them and who should pay for the clean-up ? An easy question to answer if you can identify the polluter, but altogether harder if you’re talking about contamination from factory long gone and replaced by housing.

Secondly, when we build new developments are we sure we’ve properly considered any possible contamination that may exist, and ensured our new homes and gardens are suitable for use – after all, the derelict site of a former chemical works might be heavily contaminated, but if fenced off, that contamination may not actually be causing any harm until houses are built on it.

Thirdly, have we stopped causing new contamination ?

These questions are important if we’re to have peace of mind about our homes, and progressively improve the quality of our environment – but the truth is they’re not rocket science. We have well developed and cost effective ways of investigating and remediating contaminated sites, and are continually developing our understanding of the risks and issues involved. Good news if we want to develop the vacant and derelict industrial sites in our urban areas, and avoid having to concrete over ever larger areas of our natural countryside, whether currently used to grow food, or by wildlife.

Mark Twain once said ‘Buy land, it’s the one thing they’re not making any more’, and of course he was right. The UK is a small crowded island, and if we’re to avoid eating up more and more green space through increasing urban sprawl for the homes and infrastructure we need, we’re going to have to get even better at recycling our old urban areas into new urban areas, including dealing more efficiently with the chemical consequences of former land use.

In it’s current drive for economic growth, the Government continues to debate the relaxation of green belt protection around our towns and cities. The alternative is, of course, that we focus development on our existing brownfields, using space more efficiently, rather than simply using more.

If you want the maps of the future to have as much green on them as our maps of today, why not drop your MP a line and let them know.

Afterwards you might also want to look at a few old maps of where you live – you might find it was an old factory, or you might find it was a green field.

Decide for yourself which is worse . . .

Photo by PhillipC, via Flickr

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