It’s Not Easy Being Green

Last time you went to the supermarket how did you carry your shopping home ?

Your own fabric bags, durable PVC bags-for-life from the checkout, or did you take the free disposable plastic bags ? Perhaps you’re so image-confident that you used an oldschool wheeled shopping trolley, like grandmother used to – perhaps not !

This one really should be straightforward shouldn’t it?

We’re all aware of the issues: disposable plastic bags take energy to manufacture and transport, they cause litter, and many end-up as oceanic debris or lasting for hundreds of years in landfills. Reusing our own bags costs us nothing and causes us hardly any inconvenience. We’re even reminded and encouraged by the supermarkets, nudging us to do the right thing, by offering us loyalty points for reusing our bags.

So how are we doing ?

Not that well it turns out – around 10 billion lightweight disposable bags are handed free to UK shoppers every year. That’s about 200 each!

Obviously the ‘problem of carrier bags’ is a bit more wicked than we thought.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that we find changing our habits quite a struggle. We’re able to go shopping 24/7, and as a result it’s just not that big a deal any more. We drop-in to the supermarket for ‘top-up-shops’ more frequently than we ever used to – no planning, no lists.

Having our own bags with us when we go requires preparedness, and the reality is that all too often we’ve left them at home because we were too tired/busy to put them straight back in the car after the last time. We’re frequently rushing – either to get home, get to work, or get somewhere else, and have usually got a lot more on our minds than remembering to take our bags. We seem to have collective amnesia.

Having forgotten the bags we then may experience something psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

We know we should reuse our bags, but have forgotten to, so to stop feeling bad and guilty we create mental excuses to justify ourselves – our time is too valuable to worry about something as trivial as carrier bags, besides we do plenty of other things for the environment, and it’s really an issue for the supermarkets or the government to sort out, and anyway what difference will a couple of carrier bags really make – we also promise ourselves we’ll reuse these bags next time.

Not using plastic bags might not save the world alone, but it’s possibly more important than you think, not just because of the energy footprint and plastic pollution, it’s also important for another reason. The problem of plastic bags is representative of a lot of other mass behaviour issues, from transport to food, where similar factors apply – relationships between convenience, cost, personal choice, responsibility, what everyone else is doing and how well we understand and accept the facts all play a part in determining our collective behaviour. Can good motives and gentle policy nudges make us all ‘do the right thing’, or is something else required ?

Breaking bad habits, like constantly forgetting to reuse bags, is hard – but we can make things easier for ourselves if rather than focussing only on the things we want to stop doing, we try to focus more on the things we want to start doing. It’s hard to say NO to something, until we’ve already said YES to something we want more.

If we cultivate a habit of returning our empty bags to the car after we unpack them, we’d have more chance of breaking our bad habit of taking new bags at the checkout.

So problem solved ?

Well, yes and no . . . how damaging are plastic bags anyway ?

Clearly manufacturing and transporting 10 billion bags a year in the UK alone, then giving them away free so they can be used once and then almost immediately thrown away  - causing local litter, filling landfills, and some ending up in the worlds oceans, isn’t going to win any environmental awards. The question is what are the alternatives ?

In February the UK Environment Agency published a report on the Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. It suggests that a typical cotton ‘bag-for-life’ must be reused 171 times before it has a lower carbon footprint than a typical HDPE disposable bag, assuming the disposable bag is used once and then disposed of as a bin-liner for kitchen waste going to landfill. Crucially the report also states that cotton bags-for-life are, on average, actually only reused 51 times before being thrown away – making disposable HDPE bags much more environmentally friendly, at least in terms of carbon footprint !

Needless to say this has proved very controversial. In fact the report was quickly removed from the Environment Agency website, but with a bit of snooping around you can find copies elsewhere on the web if you’re interested – try here.

So things are more complex than they first appeared, and there are strong opinions on both sides – the same can be said of many other environmental issues. Sometimes we need to try to see things more simply.

It’s easy to get distracted by complexity and uncertainty, but unless we make a living from research or devising policy, the question that really matters is  - what should my own personal response be?

In the case of plastic bags, I’d suggest we simply keep reusing whatever bags we already have whenever we go shopping, keep doing so for as long as possible, and when we do eventually have to get new bags, choose them carefully based largely on durability.

In my own case I’ll also try to make sure I return my used bags to the car !

I’ll let Kermit have the last word.


Photo by Iragerich

How Hungry are you Right Now ?

HUNGRY: The painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food.

If you’re still thinking about it, the answer is not very.

Starting this Wednesday my wife and I will be taking part in the Live Below the Line Challenge and feed ourselves on only £1 a day each for five days.


It’s a much quoted statistic that 1.4 billion people in the world are currently living in extreme poverty, struggling to meet their basic needs of food, clean water, shelter, sanitation and education – on less than $1.25 a day.

You might think that perhaps it’s possible to live more cheaply in countries in the developing world, where perhaps $1.25 goes a lot further. If so you might be surprised to learn that the figure relates to local purchasing power, ie: the total equivalent goods and services obtainable for $1.25 in the USA.

The Live Below the Line Challenge is an awareness and fundraising campaign that aims to allow those in the developed world to better understand the daily challenges faced by those trapped in extreme poverty.

Those taking part agree to spend only £1 a day on food and drink –  the 1.4 billion people in the world really living in that situation also have to find drinking water, shelter, fuel, medicine, clothes, transport and school fees from that £1. Of course it’s impossible, and the more I think about this, the more difficult I find it to imagine the very very hard choices that living on such a small amount of money would demand.

As well as feeling hungry, I expect I’ll find the process of  planning, measuring and preparing all my meals pretty time consuming. Like everybody else I’m used to having a range of food available all the time, and not being able to simply go into the nearest shop to buy something when I want is bound to make me feel a little uncomfortable. I also expect it’ll be quite dull – lots of rice, potatoes, beans and soup, but not much sweet stuff, fruit, tea and coffee. There will also be no meet, fish, beer or wine (I know!).

Just to make it extra challenging the kids will be eating normally, and we’ll be preparing all their food . . .

I’m not after any sponsorship, but will be donating whatever we save on food to Christian Aid, one of the participating charities. I’m sure they’d welcome any of your spare cash if you wish, but the main aim is awareness raising.

Most of us could perhaps do with eating a little less, and if you feel inspired to give it a go there’s still time. In fact the campaign suggests that people pick any 5 day period during May that suits them, so you can work around parties and  big  nights out etc.

There’s something else interesting about Live Below the Line – it’s less than one year old.

It was thought-up by two Australian aid workers returning from Bangladesh in 2008, with the first official campaign in August 2010. Less than ten months later it’s one of the fastest growing anti-poverty campaigns across the world, with backing from several large international charities. It is supported by Hugh Jackman and several other celebrities, and seems to be catching the interest of an unusually wide cross section of people, including several Members of the House of Lords.

I’ll post progress reports and photos of my food on Next Starfish’s Facebook page.

I also imagine I’ll be spending a lot of time next week thinking how lucky I am . . .


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Michelle Obama and Me

For the last few years Michelle Obama and I have been working on something together – well not exactly together, but we ARE both new organic gardeners.

We’re not alone – more and more of us are rushing to grow our own food again. Ten years ago waiting lists for allotments were virtually unheard of, with many unoccupied, overgrown and unloved. Today the average waiting list for a UK allotment is over two years. In one part of London it is now supposedly a staggering one hundred years. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Landshare scheme, which connects owners of  land available for cultivation with potential growers, has over 60,000 members. Growing carrots is hot !

You may even encounter gangs of roving guerrilla gardeners out there planting-up roadside verges and areas of derelict land, inspired by the Diggers of 350 years ago. The contaminated land officer in me feels obliged to point out this isn’t always going to be a good idea!

The last time the Nation was this enthusiastic about growing vegetables we were singing along with Vera Lyn and ‘digging for victory’, but it’s not just the UK. In the US there is also a significant rise in interest in growing vegetables and self-sufficiency, and it’s a trend right across the developed world.

The obvious question is why ?

The answer seems to be a complex mix. We have an increasing appreciation of food and awareness of issues such as localism, seasonality and pesticides. Various celebrities have also had an important role, but the key factor no doubt is the current economic climate, giving rise to feelings of uncertainty about the future, as well as rapidly increasing food prices.

The second most obvious question is why do I do it ?

I’m new to gardening, I’d never grown anything until five years ago and had never previously had any interest in it whatsoever. I used to watch The Good Life as a kid, but the only thing close to a gardening programme I’d ever seen was Ground Force – and I don’t recall them ever planting vegetables !

When we moved to our current house in the Forest of Dean I was faced with a large garden south facing, including a pretty neglected vegetable patch. I was going to have to do something. The other key factor was wanting my children to have an appreciation for where food comes from and nature in general, and I thought growing vegetables would be a good way to go about it.

Five years later it’s weirdly become a bit of a quiet passion.

I’ve decided to include the occasional gardening article on this blog, so apologies in advance if that isn’t your thing – the photo above shows our vegetable patch. I certainly won’t be giving any ‘green fingered tips’ though, because quite frankly it’s all a bit of a struggle and the most positive but truthful way of describing the extent of my gardening success is to say that every year is a voyage of discovery. When people ask me what I grow, I usually answer weeds – they are the key problem in my garden. In terms of biomass produced they probably exceed everything else put together. There’s plenty of useful books in our bookstore if you’re hungry for gardening help.

I’ve gone for raised beds to make life easier, which is another hot gardening trend apparently. The ones I have now are the second generation. The first ones I built in a very eco-conscious way, using recycled scraps of untreated timber, a bed frame, the back of a piano etc – and needless to say they rotted away in no time! I put my new raised beds together this winter, and they’re a lot more robust, with anti-weed liner and bark chippings between them. The soil is a mixture of the natural soil, which is quite a heavy clay, mixed with the decent loamy topsoil, and our own garden compost.

The theory behind raised beds is that they create better growing conditions; as the soil remains uncompacted and they allow a separate micro-climate to form in the bed, warming the soil quicker. Opportunities for pests are also decreased, but the biggest advantage of raised beds is their ease of management. By having easy access from all sides and being raised off the ground, weeding and plant care are much less of a chore, and so tend to be done more frequently. Additionally by having a number of separate beds, it’s easier to break tasks down and control the space. I find myself spending much more time weeding, watering etc than I did without them – just because it’s more enjoyable. As a result raised beds are generally considered to be much more productive than traditional ground level cultivation in most gardens.

The American horticulturalist Mel Bartholomew proposed a further refinement of raised beds with his square-foot gardening method. By breaking down the beds even further into square foot blocks, they become even easier to micromanage and optimise growth . . . it all seems a little bit too much effort for me at the moment, though I may be converted in the future.

We’re fully organic in the garden, at least in the sense that we use no pesticides and only organic fertilizers (essentially bone meal and seaweed) in addition to our own compost. I like that I avoid adding industrial chemicals to my garden, but I am far from being absolutist about organic. I do think there’s much to recommend an organic approach in a domestic setting, where I’m not relying for my families survival on the success of my potatoes every year. But when it comes to feeding the world I’m unconvinced that fully organic is sufficiently practicable, efficient or cost-effective, though clearly traditional farming does need to lower it’s energy and water inputs, and adopting some organic techniques may help. There are a lot of strong opinions on either side of this debate, so I’ll come back to it in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I feel good that we grow organically, but I’m not too bothered about buying organically.

Successful organic gardening seems to be all about creating conditions to avoid problems before they happen; mulching (I tend to use grass cuttings) to minimise weeds, companion planting to encourage predators and careful rotation to avoid disease build-up in the soil. To an organic gardener if you’ve too many slugs, the real problem is you’ve not enough ducks!

We’ve had a few failures. One year we discovered that vigorous washing didn’t remove ALL the small green caterpillars from broccoli – but not until we were eating them . . . . we don’t grow that much broccoli any more. If anyone’s interested, steamed caterpillar tastes like chicken.

Despite our mixed success, what we have managed to grow has been as fresh and as locally produced as it’s possible to get, with far lower water and energy requirements than commercially grown food. It’s free from pesticides and preservatives, has no packaging, and we’ver been able to select varieties for taste rather than yield. Of course, it’s also been far more enjoyable to eat knowing we’ve grown it ourselves.

Just as importantly the unhurriable process of preparing soil, planting, feeding, watering and then harvesting is extremely relaxing and provides a bit of an antidote to the pace of normal life – slow is the new fast. I often seem to be very meditative when gardening, I don’t know if that’s just me.  It’s also all outdoors and hence tops-up my vitamin D . . . take note Farmville addicts!

The kids have also been involved, though they only enjoy the planting and picking – running away when they’re asked to do any weeding or digging. Watching them pick and eat raw peas out the pod for breakfast during the summer holidays makes it worth it by itself.

I’m not convinced growing vegetables saves us that much money, though it obviously depends on what we grow. We had a phenomenal glut of raspberries a couple of years ago, to the point where we were feeding them to the chickens – I recall they were a couple of pounds a punnet in the supermarket at the time. We’re trying to concentrate on the more expensive crops, and have managed to have armfuls of rhubarb this year, so our economics are improving.

I’d estimate that the last couple of years we’ve managed to grow about 5-10% of our annual fruit and veg. I’m hoping to get closer to 15% this year by having more successional planting and more winter vegetables, but increasing it beyond 20% would require devoting significantly more space to vegetables, a lot more time and effort, and most importantly getting another freezer or two for storage.

We’re not really striving for anything resembling self-sufficiency, so growing 15-20% of our own fruit and vegetables will be enough, and in the event of an unexpected zombie apocalypse I’m sure I could quickly scale it up!


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10 Ways to Change the World from Your Keyboard

Spend too much time staring at a screen ?

1              Free Rice

Free Rice is a website run by the United Nations World Food Programme. Users play educational multiple-choice games, and for every question answered correctly 10 grains are rice are donated to the food programme by advertisers on the site. Since the sites launch in 2007, enough rice has been donated to feed over 4 million people, for one day.

2              38 Degrees

38 Degrees is a UK non-profit site that coordinates and promotes political activism campaigns and awareness raising across a wide range of issues; such as tackling climate change, democratic media ownership and child poverty. It takes it’s name from the angle at which human triggered avalanches are most likely to occur.

3              Sparked

Sparked is a micro-volunteering network, providing convenient online volunteering opportunities in support of a range of good causes. It aims to provide meaningful opportunities that can be carried out in about the same amount of time most people spend updating Facebook, Farmville or Twitter. No particular skills are required for many of the micro-volunteering tasks.

4              Give Positive Feedback and Encouragement

We all enjoy receiving positive support and encouragement – it can help push us on and revitalise us, improve our mood and make us feel more positive and generous towards others. Yet many of us are slow in offering support and encouragement to others, with the internet in particular prone to an excess of critical and aggressive comments. We have internet trolls, but there’s no equivalent word for people who regularly spread ‘good vibes’ over the web. Make someone’s day – email, post, or Twitter them some love.

5              Amnesty

Amnesty has been working to demand justice for those suffering human rights abuses since 1961, winning the Nobel Peace Prize as an organisation in 1977 for its work against torture. Amnesty have always encouraged their members to write letters on behalf of political prisoners and others throughout the world, and they now have an email action facility on their website.

6              World Community Grid

There are several grid-computing organisations that seek volunteers to ‘donate’ their computer’s processing power when not in use for different projects, at no cost to those volunteering. World Community Grid partners with IBM to support a variety of research projects, including medical research into cancer, muscular dystrophy and HIV.

7              Avoid Junkmail with the MPS and Royal Mail

We all complain about it, over 17.5 billion items of unsolicited junk mail drops through our letterboxes every year, 650 items per letterbox on average. Over half a million tonnes of paper are used, requiring more than 16 billion litres of water, not to mention the energy requirements. Most of it goes straight into the bin.


Change .org is an American based international online social activism site, similar to 38 Degrees, but different in that campaigns are launched by members themselves. Recent campaign have included fighting wrongful deportations, environmental protection, and various alleged human rights abuses.

9              Register as a Blood or Organ Donor

It’s now easier than ever to register online as a blood or organ donor. You can book a blood donation session at a convenient location, and the site will send you reminder emails. There is a severe shortage of donated organs in the UK, and the NHS Blood and Transplant Service is actively encouraging many more donors to register, to assist next of kin with difficult decision making.

10           Kiva

Kiva is a microfinance organisation that allows people to lend money to specific entrepreneurs and projects in the developing world. It is based on the microfinance principles developed by the Nobel Prizewinning economist Muhammad Yunus, loaning small amounts of money, typically a few hundred dollars, to small business owners, who would otherwise have no access to capital to expand. Loans to Kiva can be made for only $25, and are then repaid back to donors over a number of months. Since its creation in 2005, Kiva has lent over 211 million dollars to small entrepreneurs in the developing world.


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Cleaning Out My Closet

“Where’s my snare ? I have no snare in my headphones.”

It’s an interesting metaphor when you think about it – the rapper Eminem was singing about dealing with neglected emotional baggage from his past in his song Cleaning Out My Closet, and most of us can relate to that. There’s a connection between our own feelings and the shut-away and neglected clutter we surround ourselves with.

Stuff isn’t just stuff. Stuff is emotional.

Our stuff defines us. It reflects our interests, tastes, means and especially aspirations. Why we choose to buy what we do is the basis of the entire advertising, marketing and sales industries, but that’s not the subject of this article.

This article is about why we choose to hang on to our old stuff, long after we stop needing it, and why we sometimes simply hoard it away somewhere out of sight and forget about it.

It’s also about when I cleaned out my own wardrobe a couple of months ago.

I’m actually a pretty organised person most of the time, but for some reason my wardrobe has a habit of being a bit of a dumping ground for stuff I don’t have a proper place for – not just clothes, but assorted books, magazines, papers, unopened things in boxes, letters, old shoes . . . you get the idea.

I do clear it out from time to time, but I felt the need to really empty it out. I went through everything in there (and anything left lurking on my ‘floordrobe’) and ended-up getting rid of nine carrier bags of clothes, as well as a large amount of other forgotten and misplaced junk. Most of it went off to charity shops, some for recycling and one bag was destined for landfill. The photo above is the ‘after’ – I didn’t dare show the ‘before’ !

It’s not just me.

According to a recent QVC survey, the average British woman has 22 unworn outfits hanging in her wardrobe. If true, this means that across the country there are over £1.6billion of unworn clothes hanging in women’s wardrobes! If we assume men are equally as bad, then that’s a clothes rail hung with never worn clothes stretching from London to New York nine times over. That’s a lot of ‘stuff’ just hanging around unused; what would Gok Wan say! And you don’t have to be an environmental scientist to realise there’s a huge environmental footprint associated with the growing, dying, making, transporting, packaging and retailing all those clothes.

The trend in society is to live in households with fewer and fewer people, but with more and more storage for our stuff, and if we can’t cram it all in there are companies happy to rent us storage space for all our extra stuff we can’t fit into our attic! We need to reduce our constant buying of things just because we enjoy the buying part. I’m firmly of the opinion that a sustainable future must see us all buying and consuming less. If we had a better grasp of what we already own, better managed and organised our belongings, took better care of our clothes and other things, repaired things occasionally and bought new things in a more mindful and considered way, we might find our lives a little less filled with clutter and perhaps even be a little less stressed as a result. Additionally we’d save ourselves a lot of money – which we might be inclined to put to some other beneficial use, or use to buy better quality and more sustainably produced clothes. Less is more, and all that jazz.

Psychologists say the extent to which we tend to surround ourselves with clutter and junk is connected to our underlying beliefs about life, especially how we feel about the future and the past. Everyone takes some comfort in familiarity and routine, and change can be stressful, and supposedly the more optimistic we feel about the future the easier it is to embrace change positively. If you think all your best days are behind you, it seems logical to try to hang on to them. As we get older it gets harder, our worlds often shrink, he world seems more scary and being optimistic about the future is harder.

There is an mental condition known as Diogenes Syndrome, named after an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. It describes extreme compulsive hoarding behaviour. It’s more common than you might think, in my last six years working in an Environmental Health Department I’ve encountered it a number of times. It reflects a person’s inability to cope emotionally, and their retreat from a wider world they simply can’t cope with into a smaller existence they have more control over – often just a corner of a single room. This tendency to retreat into our own little space with all it’s comforts of routine seems to affect us all to some degree. I think it’s something we’d be well advised to actively fight against, becoming less fearful and more embracing of change, and less willing to define ourselves both by our past, and by our stuff.

I’ll be continuing with my own decluttering journey throughout the year – simplifying and minimalising wherever I can. If you’re minded to do the same it would be great to hear how you get on. There are several people who make their living as professional declutterers helping other people dejunk their lives – you’ve probably seen them on TV. If you’re after advice on decluttering your life try these websites.

There are limits though – a man called Dave Bruno has created something called the 100 Thing Challenge, to combat the Western consumerist lifestyle and promote a life of simplicity, characterised by joyfulness and thoughtfulness. I can’t see me getting even close to 100 items any time soon, but the stories on his blog are quite inspirational.

If you want to go even further you could follow the example of the artist Michael Landy. In 2001 he catalogued and then destroyed everything he owned, saying it was “an examination of society’s romance with consumerism, and the amount of raw material and energy that goes into making things”.

It might be easier for now, just to tackle your cutlery draw.

So did clearing out my closet change my life ?

Honestly . . . yes, a little bit.


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