An Ordinary Person’s Views on Living With Minimal Environmental Impact

  1. Written by .

    A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation about energy (the type typically generated in a power station, not the personal type) that got me thinking.  This person was in their 80s and had worked in engineering when younger.  He was of the opinion that we (as in the UK) would always need fossil fuels because it wasn’t sunny enough.  It wasn’t a long discussion, and a few years ago I would have been in agreement with him.  But, it occurred to me, for once I was more optimistic than someone else about a sustainable future.

    The reason for my optimism is the pace of change we are seeing.  Despite the government for their own peculiar reasons doing everything in their power to stop renewables and promote fossil fuels (see the latest move where they have decided to fast-track fracking planning applications) it would seem that renewable energy in this country and around the globe is on the rise.  I personally think renewables will come into their own with improved battery technology, although I admit that brings with it another set of sustainability issues.

    So, in the spirit of optimism I thought I would share some recent good news stories that show that there is a momentum growing out there and that we probably do have a lot of the answers, even if we are told things aren’t possible (in no particular order). 

    1.  Windpower generated more electricity than nuclear power in the first quarter of 2018.  18.8% of the UK’s energy was produced by wind; providing up to 43% of electricity on some days.  Whilst this was helped by some of the nuclear power plants being turned off, it follows on from the last three months of 2017 where wind and solar combined produced more electricity than nuclear power.  It shows what can be achieved despite government policy and a collapse in clean energy investment.  Imagine what could happen if we had a government that wasn’t so obsessed with the fossil fuel industry or that believed that renewables were the way forward?

    2.  A new labelling system is out that allows consumers to be able to identify items in packaging that doesn’t contain plastics.  The first use of it has come from Iceland, which has already shown the way by announcing, unlike any of the other supermarkets, that it will remove single use plastic packaging by 2023.  This has shown the power of social media and consumer pressure.

    3.  The EU have voted to keep the ban on the neonicitinoid pesticides that have been linked with the decline in many species of pollinator.  An appeal by the manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta has just been turned down.  (Although the caveat is that the ruling states that bees must only be exposed to ‘negligible’ levels of harmful pesticides.)  Again, huge amount of pressure in the media and by NGOs.

    4.  More than 10 million people are now employed in the renewable energy industry around the world.  In the US, where there has been a recent focus on pushing the fossil fuel industry on the promise of more jobs, there are more people employed in renewables than in fossil fuels in nearly every state.  Meanwhile Costa Rica has pledged to ban fossil fuels and New Zealand is banning offshore extraction of fossil fuels.

    5.  85% of milk distributing businesses have seen an increase in glass milk bottle sales.  MilkandMore, the largest distributor, has seen an increase of 15,000 customers since the beginning of the year – 90% are buying milk in glass bottles.

    So, whilst I admit that it was a bit difficult to find positive news stories in the mainstream media, there are a lot of changes out there.  From Tesla and batteries, to the Circular Economy efforts of Dame Ellen McCarthy, from smaller organisations finding a market for their more sustainable options to Unilever stating that their sustainable living brands are their fastest growing for the second year in a row, the momentum is growing and, every now and again, even I feel a small tug of optimism that perhaps we can overcome those that don’t think change is possible.

     

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    On the 25th April 2018 42 leading companies and a number of industrial organisations launched the Plastic Pact in conjunction with WRAP and the New Plastics Foundation. 

    4 pledges are to be realised by 2025:

    • 100% of packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable
    • 70% of packaging effectively recycled or composted
    • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use packaging
    • 30% recycled content across all packaging

    Amongst the signatories were the major supermarkets (with the exception of Co-op and Iceland) and some other big name brands including Pret and Unilever.  

    A cynic might wonder how much of this is down to China’s ban on all imports of plastic and other waste.  The result is that a UK market for recycled material needs to be created  (30% recycled content across all packaging) to stop waste management costs escalating and recycling levels stalling or falling.  It also requires means waste streams to be easy to recycle so it is  worthwhile investing in the recycling infrastructure and technology (eliminate problematic packaging).

    Having already looked at the supermarket packaging a few weeks ago I wondered how much of this was new, or was already in their plans?

    The first pledge regarding the recyclability or otherwise of the packaging is, for the majority of supermarkets at least, nothing new.  Most of the supermarkets, with the exception of Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda had already pledged they were going to do just that.  (Can one assume that the details of the Plastic Pact were already signed and ready for delivery earlier this year?)

    As for the recycled content, this is generally an increase.  Aldi and Lidl had already pledged to go further, with 50% made from recycled plastic by 2025, Waitrose were looking at the feasibility of increasing the recycled content, but there wasn’t much from the other supermarkets.

    The goal to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use plastic I think this, if it is monitored and the definition of unnecessary or problematic is not too loose, could be a positive outcome.  There had been some plans to remove hard to recycle items such as black plastic trays (which of course will have to go if they are to meet the 100% recyclable, compostable commitment), or to trial some plant based cartons for tomatoes, but, with the exception of Iceland, there had been no plans to eliminate any packaging, just reduce it – this usually comes by reducing weight and making the plastics thinner.  If interpreted in the spirit of the commitment, this could really push a change in the supermarkets’ attitudes.  But, I don’t think it will mean glass milk bottles back on the shelves or cardboard punnets and paper bags in the fruit and veg aisles.

    They haven’t yet said how they are going to do this, and I can’t find details of who will be monitoring it all (hopefully the New Plastics Foundation), but it does hopefully mean that some of the suppliers to the supermarkets will also be working to eliminate some plastics.  Of course, this is just a first step and I would personally like to see the use of plastics stopped wherever possible as soon as possible.  Whilst I  don’t expect to be able to go to Waitrose and buy much other than onions and carrots free from added packaging in the near future, I shall be watching with interest to see whether the promises made last month are kept and whether there is any significant reduction in the almost 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging coming out of the supermarkets each year.

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    The World Health Organisation recently released figures showing that worldwide there are 7 million deaths each year due to indoor and outdoor pollution (almost split 50/50).  The same report states that ‘9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants’ with women, children and those working outdoors being the worst affected.

    The main cause of outdoor air pollution in urban areas is the burning of fossil fuels, whereas in rural areas it is the use of fertilisers and other agrochemicals.   The increase in air pollution also puts a burden on the health services; with air pollution linked to stroke, cancer, heart disease, breathing difficulties and possible brain diseases such as Alzheimers.

    The main urban air pollutants of concern are NOx and PM2.5 (PM standing for particulate matter).  Not too many years ago, diesel cars used to throw out black soot from the exhaust.  Now, the particles are too small to see, which means they can get past the body’s barriers and make it further down into the lungs.  The fact that the particles are often covered in chemicals and might have metals adsorbed onto them can also promote an immune response, and lead to heart attacks and strokes.  The small size of the particles also allows them to cross the barrier into the brain, suggesting a possible link with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimers.

     

    Within most towns and cities there will be some level of pollution monitoring, whether it is published or not is a different matter.  Although, in the UK the main focus is London, as the headlines show, nearly all of us are breathing health threatening levels of major pollutants.   In Northampton, the Green Party recently measured the air pollution across the town and found levels of NOx above legal limits right outside the General Hospital.  In 2016 the Royal College of Physicians released a report stating that there are 40,000 excess deaths each year in the UK due to air pollution.  In addition it causes 6 million sick days a year and has a social cost of £22.6 billion.

    You would think that with the overwhelming evidence collected concerning the health impacts of air pollution the governments around the world would be making a big effort to cut pollution.  Not so, particularly not in the EU.  Whilst there have been some noticeable changes; e.g. congestion charges in London, in the main there has been little movement.  Indeed, in the UK, the government has spent £500,000 of tax payers money defending its inaction to provide plans to bring levels of pollution down to those specified by the EU – levels that should have been reached by 2010.  The government’s latest move has been to leave the issue up to local councils to resolve in their area.  Nor do I see the NHS as a whole making big changes.  There are some electric vehicles, lots of travel plans, some car share schemes and quite a few members of staff who cycle or walk to work.  But within most Trusts the majority of the conversation is about how to find more parking spaces for staff and visitors, not about how to reduce pollution or find innovative solutions to reduce car usage.

    There is perhaps some hope on the horizon (although you will need a powerful telescope to see it) with surveys showing that younger people are less likely to want to buy a car, more people are working from home and the increase in the use of electric cars (up by 11% in the UK last year).  Statistics also show a slight reduction in the miles travelled, although the number of cars registered keeps on rising – I have a suspicion that a lot more shorter journeys are being undertaken.  But with powerful lobbying from fossil fuel companies and car manufacturers, weak promises from governments to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars some time after they are likely to have stopped being made, and very little commitment to invest in public transport (particularly buses, use of which outside London has declined by more than a third in the last 30 years) I am not convinced that much will change any time soon in the UK.  

    Disclosure:  yes I do have a car, I do drive to work and I hate it (my request to work from home 1 day per week was refused).

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    April saw the UK manage 76 consecutive coal-free hours of electricity – partly due to renewables and partly due to lower demand.   (Coal use increased when the Beast from the East hit and the cost of gas spiked.)  

    This coincides nicely with a Royal Society of Chemistry book I am currently reading; ‘Coal in the 21st Century’.  My interest is mainly from an Energy Manager’s background; the burning of coal being responsible for 31% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  Living in the UK, where coal use has dropped by 80% in the last 5 years, and where coal is expected to be phased out by 2025, I don’t think too much about the direct health effects of coal anymore.  (I was born post-Clean Air Act before which the world was in black and white and you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.)  But, whilst climate change is, according to the Lancet, the biggest threat to human health of the 21st Century, for a lot of the world’s population the health issues related to coal are much more immediate than those from climate change, which sometimes seem distant both geographically and temporally.  

    Suffice it to say that I am halfway through the book and it has already opened my eyes to the reasons that burning coal for electricity generation is something we should be stopping with all haste.

    The issues with coal start with the mining – even ignoring the environmental aspects.  Miners themselves, are often exposed to dust, causing Black Lung Disease, with underground mining obviously much worse than surface mining.  Then there are the accidents, which when they do happen, often kill many in one go.  

    The mined coal doesn’t automatically resemble the shiny black anthracite that some of us remember from our childhood.  It is brought out along with a lot of impurities and waste which have to be cleaned off.  This may be stored on the surface near the mining complex, polluting ground and surface water with toxins and acidic runoff.  Those living adjacent to surface coal mines in the USA have an increased mortality due to the toxins emitted from the process.  Water is used to clean the coal, the waste from this process is stored in large ponds behind dams.  These are not checked for leakage and there have been cases of complete collapse, causing millions of gallons of toxic waste and water to pour into nearby towns.

    Burning the coal causes air and water pollution.  The air pollution comes from some the expected pollutants, and some lesser known ones.  These include PM2.5 – particulate matter that can make it into lungs, bringing all sorts of nasties with it.  PM2.5 is linked to various cancers as well as stroke, respiratory and heart disease.  Also on the list are NOx and SOx, causes of acid rain and respiratory problems, Mercury about which I don’t think much else needs to be said (445 tonnes is released each year from burning coal for electricity) as well as Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, formaldehyde and many other metals.  Some of these are scrubbed from the air, so at least they aren’t dispersed as far.  However, they still end up in the waste ash that comes out of the coal station; its disposal is a major health issue.

    The coal ash contains many metals and toxins, in even greater concentrations than in the coal itself.  Whilst the toxicological effects of many of them are known individually, there has been little to no research on the synergistic effects of these pollutants combined.  The ash is created in huge volumes; in the USA it is estimated that 140 million tonnes are generated each year, this is then stored in dry landfills and wet ponds.  The nature of many of the toxins in ash, such as mercury and other metals, means that they persist in the environment, never degrading, and they are likely to remain a problem for decades, if not centuries.   The dry landfills are not usually required to be covered, thus exposing nearby communities to airborne pollutants either directly, or as they settle onto land.  The wet ponds also have containment issues, with liners not always employed, allowing the water to leach into ground water thus contaminating drinking water, or entering the food chain through contaminated fish.  Then, as mentioned earlier, there is the potential for the walls containing the water to break, thus releasing the concentrated toxins into the local water courses and often onto land and into buildings.

    There are many examples of coal mining and power generation polluting the local environment and causing health issues cited in the book that I am reading.  All of the examples are in the USA where, until recently at least, one would hope there is some degree of regulation.  (I haven’t read the chapter on regulation yet.)  But the majority of new coal-fired power stations planned or in construction are in India and China, where there are already examples of much weaker regulation for environmental protection (see my earlier post about antibiotic manufacture) and where the local communities are more likely to draw water directly from local wells and to fish from local rivers. 

    Whilst there are pressing climate change arguments for removing coal from the energy mix, surely the dirty nature of its production and use, and the health impact on all those living nearby make keeping it in the ground even more of an imperative.

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  5. Written by .

    In the UK, 44% of antibiotics are prescribed to non-humans – that’s livestock, including gamebirds, (37%) and pets (7%)1.   That’s not to say there are likely to be antibiotics in your meat, there is a mandated withdrawal period before any animal is slaughtered for meat or before milk enters the food chain.    However, the overuse of antibiotics as a cause of antibiotic resistance applies as much to veterinary use as for human use.  Despite the emergence of antibiotic resistance shortly after the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, and many reports in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t until 2006 that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters was banned in the EU.  The good news is that government targets to reduce antibiotic use in livestock are currently on track.  The bad news is that they are finding antibiotic resistant genes in meat around the world.

    The Guardian recently reported on an increase in the proportion of chickens found in UK supermarkets that had campylobacter resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.  (Campylobacter can cause serious food poisoning in humans.)  Whilst there are differences in many of the bacteria that infect animals and humans, there is the potential for resistance to be transferred between species (horizontal transfer) and there are some bacteria that are shared; Salmonella and Campylobacter being two examples.

    It is also worth noting that 83 billion tonnes of livestock manure is spread onto land each year in the UK, and in one gram of manure there are 1×1011 bacteria, which means that if just 1% of the bacteria have resistance to antibiotics, then there are more resistant bugs than there are grains of sand going onto UK fields each year.

    So, given that it might be a problem, what are the supermarkets doing about it?  To date, there are only three supermarkets publishing data on the use of antibiotics in their supply chain; Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Asda, all seem to have less than the sector average which means someone is using more than average.  With the exception of Lidl, all of the supermarkets publish their policy online; many contain the same aims.  Most are targeting a reduction in the amount used in their supply chain, although some are only just starting to monitor and establish their baselines.  All of them say that they will only allow the use of antibiotics under veterinary supervision.  But some of the pledges are not entirely clear; for example, Aldi state on their website that they don’t support the use of antibiotics as prophylactics (used to treat an animal to prevent disease e.g. if others in the herd are ill), but then in their policy they state that prophylaxis is only permitted under veterinary supervision.  Sainsbury’s have something similar on their website.

    But, most concerning to me is the stand on CIAs – Critically Important Antibiotics – antibiotics important to human health.  Only M&S states that they prohibit the use of these, including Colistin, the last resort antibiotic for humans.  All of the other supermarkets mention them, but they only go so far as to state that they can only be used as a last resort.  Whilst these antibiotics only make up around 1% of the total use in animals, M&S seem to be saying that they don’t need to be used at all.  With the first bacon labelled as being raised without antibiotics hitting supermarket shelves2, perhaps change is on the way?

    1.  https://www.farmantibiotics.org/science-facts/antibiotic-infographs/human-vs-animal-antibiotic-use/
    2. https://farming.co.uk/news/antibiotic-free-meat-goes-on-sale-in-uk

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