The Blue Planet Effect – is it real?

Even without a television, I am aware of the so-called Blue Planet 2 effect.  Or at least one manifestation of it – the ‘concern’ about the plastic pollution in the oceans.

We now have a Prime Minister calling for the removal of single use plastic ‘wherever possible’.  Michael Gove has mentioned plastic and Blue Planet in the House of Commons.  There is some rejoicing on social media as the government is consulting on a deposit return scheme for plastic – just as we did in the 1970s for glass.  At work I have even had people asking me if we can do some more recycling because ‘We have to save the fishes’.

My first thoughts were why can’t we do the same for Climate Change – make it something people care about?  After all, climate change is arguably an even bigger problem.  But, I am reliably informed that the series also emphasised the devastating impact of climate change on our oceans – but somehow this seems to have been lost in the press.  I am sure there are many theories out there as to why this is the case, but I can think of a couple of reasons.  You can see plastic; pictures of seahorses with cotton buds and turtles with plastic in their mouths are memorable.  Other than a polar bear without an iceberg, what does the impact of climate change on the oceans look like?  Possibly just as important though is that to make an impact on climate change, we all have to change our lifestyles.  Whilst these solutions will save households money,  for most people not flying, turning down the heating, cutting car use or going meat light are not things that we are willing to do just to save the planet.

But, I hear you say, there are things individuals can do to mitigate the plastic issue – and indeed there are.  We can stop using plastic bags (although that only worked when the government slapped a 5p tax on them).  We can get a reusable water bottle – that would definitely save money (and I see them being used much more frequently) or a reusable coffee cup (again, I think a tax is the only way, because I rarely see anyone taking a coffee cup into most coffee shops).  But these are hardly going to be a lifestyle change compared to giving up a Caribbean holiday or fancy new SUV.

But, once we have our reusable bottle and cup, we can sit back and be pleased with ourselves, because it is the supermarkets’ faults and there is not much more we can do about it, even if we wanted to.  And, there is a point – there are increasing shouts on Twitter about the fact that some supermarkets are charging much less money for veg in plastic than loose and unfettered as nature intended, and it seems that the number of items sweating in plastic on the shelves is increasing.  Going plastic free often seems to be the expensive option.  I can (and now do) buy my milk in glass, but the increase in cost is about having it delivered rather than being in glass  – that adds just 1p over the delivered plastic version.  The switch to glass is costing me about £100 – but then I have saved half of that amount (and probably done my health some good) by cutting my milk consumption by about 2 pints a week.

If you think I am being a little harsh on my fellow British humans and their motivations, I would point to a recent IPSO Mori poll about the British attitude to plastic.  Whilst 85% of those polled were concerned about plastic to some extent (interestingly it was the millennials and GenX who were the least concerned) only 3% believed we consumers had the biggest responsibility to reduce packaging, 27% thought it was down to the companies that make the goods.  Most think it is a shared responsibility between companies producing and selling packaged goods, the government and consumers (and I would tend to agree).

Given that 85% of us think there needs to be a solution, it appears that other than reusing bags and bottles (but worryingly only 75% of those polled are willing to make this small change) only a measly 14% would pay more Council Tax to improve recycling and only 12% would pay more for goods with no packaging that can’t be recycled.

Hmm, something doesn’t add up because although we are not willing to pay more, almost half of those questioned felt that in order to help sort the plastic pollution problem there should be a tax on retailers who produce a lot of unrecyclable packaging (which there already is) and that councils should be forced to spend more on recycling facilities (a lot of the facilities are already there…)  Surprisingly (not) a fine on householders that don’t recycle (yes, some of my neighbours, that’s you) was not deemed likely to be effective to solve the plastic problem.

So, I am not convinced there is a Blue Planet 2 effect. If there is will it last? (Not if it requires consumers to take the initiative and change things.)  And, why have the Netherlands got the first plastic free supermarket aisle and not the UK?

Great Crested Newt Debate

I recently attended a workshop that was discussing the potential impact of Brexit on Environmental Laws.  There was a mix of people in the room, although about a third worked in the Environmental Impact Assessment field.  This means that they co-ordinate the surveys that look at the potential impacts (positive as well as negative) of developments on the environment, produce a report, suggest mitigation and monitoring schemes.

One of the topics that seemed to come up a lot – and this is not the only place I have heard it mentioned, is the protection given to Great Crested Newts.  This is a species that strikes fear into the heart of developers, or at least it used to as they are a protected species.  The hope amongst this set of co-ordinators/ assessors was that if the planning laws were amended (and the general consensus in the room was that the current government is likely to weaken pretty much any environmental law they can, if not abolish it entirely) then surely it is worth getting rid of the protection for great crested newts – perhaps we could protect hedgehogs instead was a suggestion.

The reason there is so much debate about these newts is because in the UK they are more common than the general public usually think.  It is just that internationally they are rare.  Whereas in the UK at least, hedgehogs are in decline.

But, does that mean that in some countries in Africa they should be able to disregard elephants for example, just because they have lots?  If we have an internationally important population of a creature, then surely we should do our best to look after them?  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing anything about hedgehogs, but there are lots of them around the world, so do UK populations matter in the grand scheme of things.  (I think they do, but they could be added to the protected list, it is not a case of newt or hedgehog.)  I’ve seen quite a few hedgehogs in my time, never seen a great crested newt yet though.

Besides, if we stopped protecting great crested newts, how long would we keep our large population for – we haven’t done very well with other species – even the starlings and sparrows are disappearing.

Zero Waste Week – not rubbish so far

This week is Zero Waste Week and I thought this was probably a good excuse to host some events at work to start raising awareness about waste.  The theme of Zero Waste Week is ‘Do One More Thing” and there are lots of things that people can do that will reduce the ridiculous amount of waste that we create.  My aim this week is to get people thinking along the lines of reuse rather than recycle – see my previous post on why I hate recycling.

At the hospital where I work as Sustainability Manager, we produce a lot of waste.  And I mean that in the sense of waste being something that is no longer to be used for the original intention.  However, in actual fact I don’t believe it is really waste.

So, for Zero Waste Week I decided to have a series of events for the week, all to get people thinking about waste and, yes recycling if it can’t be reused.

After two days, which I couldn’t call  the busiest two days I’ve had in terms of talking to people, I have had some success and am developing a few ideas for further waste reduction projects.

We started with a uniform and stationery amnesty on Monday.  I had several trollies full of stationery delivered and have distributed several reams of coloured paper and a few boxes of folders already.  I also got to talk to a few people as they passed; always worthwhile.

Tuesday we had our new waste management company in with free lollipops – we were hoping for pens (pens are like gold dust in a hospital and open many a door) but they didn’t arrive in time!  However, they had a recycling game which gave us something to talk to staff and visitors about – many didn’t realise that plastic bottles could be made into fleece jackets or that their food waste collected from their doorsteps is used to generate electricity.  Although not as good as pens, lollipops are a useful way to invite people to talk to you  – or just to put a smile on their face as they wait for the lift.

We still have three days left although I am trusting in our catering team to deliver tomorrow whilst I am away in London.

A Zero Waste Week Rant

I have a confession to make that may surprise people that have never had a conversation with me (and, please don’t tell our waste contractors this).


Or, to be a little more precise I hate the perceptions and excuses that recycling brings.  I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard people say, I do everything I can, I recycle!  Sorry, no you don’t do everything, you put something you buy in a bin that is provided for you.  Or, another of my favourites, we are in a better position than we were thirty years ago.  WRONG.  (I ranted at a bunch of old men in a meeting about this once – most unlike me, as I am actually usually quite shy and retiring).

I grew up in the 70s (yes, I know, I am old).  We didn’t have so much recycling back then, but we didn’t throw so much away either.  Today we throw away an average of 423 kg of waste per person (and this has fallen dramatically in the last five years) whereas 30 years ago we each threw away 25kg less.  When you consider how much effort has gone into reducing the amount of material in packaging – thinner bottles, thinner cans, less easter egg packaging (it appears everything is getting thinner apart from the general populace itself), it is still a bit disappointing that we are now where we are.  But, as a child of the 1970s I remember that we used to have a return on the pop bottles so of course we didn’t throw them away.  The milkman brought the milk in milk bottles which he collected when empty and returned for reuse.  We used to hire our television and it was easy (if not cheap) to take it back to be repaired – have you tried finding someone to fix a TV or fridge recently?  The last time I tried to get my fridge fixed I was told it wasn’t possible.  When we went to the supermarket (such that there were back then) you would put your food in a shopping basket or, if it was a Friday night big shop (yes, we did call them that, Peter Kay didn’t make that up) you would get one of the cardboard boxes from the back of the store to put the tins in.  You didn’t get a plastic bag – they charged for those!  And you certainly didn’t have all your food prepackaged – who ever thought putting bananas or mushrooms in plastic was either necessary or useful?

We might be making moves to be more sustainable – but all we are doing in many cases is turning the clock back.  There are now reverse vending machines that give you tokens for bringing your bottles or cans back, there is a move to leasing items so the onus is on the manufacturer to make the goods repairable or recyclable, people search Freegle for cardboard boxes (because you can’t pick them up from the supermarket any more and they come in handy for so many things).  I believe that George Osborne (our green chancellor – please, please say you realise I am being sarcastic) is even thinking of charging for plastic bags – his excuse to date has been that it might send us back into recession and hit our pockets too hard – I might be misty eyed in my recollections (remembering days when wagon wheel chocolate wasn’t translucent) but I don’t think anyone blamed plastic bag charges in the 1970s for people being poor.  I thought there was an  oil crisis and three day week and huge inflation and trade unions that affected disposable income, not plastic bags being less than free!

So, the next time you congratulate yourself on your dark green credentials and think that you are doing all you can because you are recycling, be a bit more critical and think – what am I recycling, did I need it in the first place and, can I reuse it or next time buy something that is reusable?  Remember, Freegle is your friend.

A bit of realism required?

I’ve seen a few posts recently talking about how to convince the general public change that climate change is real and it will have a devastating effect if we don’t do something about it now.  Not soon, not in the near future, but now (although it is too late to stop any changes at all, but the sooner we do something the better the outcome.)

One of these posts was quite pragmatic.  The basis was that as 97% of peer-reviewed papers published by climate scientists agree that it is happening and it is aggravated by man made emissions, then we should accept it as fact and, rather than talking about how to convince the general public about climate change the press should start talking about how we are going to limit the effects.  I applaud this sentiment, and look forward to this change in the general media, although I won’t hold my breath.

However, much of the press / social media is still asking the question ‘How do we convince people that they need to act now to stop the worst effects of climate change?’  They tend to liken the problem to the requirement to get people to stop smoking and use this as a ray of light showing that true enlightenment can be ours and mankind will be saved.  Sorry, I think that you are wrong and living in false hope if this is your example of a major shift in behaviour change – but I think it is a good example of why we (i.e. society at large) are not likely to do anything dramatic about carbon / resource use anytime soon.

Firstly, there are still an awful lot of people out there smoking and it is not because they don’t have the information to tell them that smoking is bad for them and is a major cause of many diseases that are likely to kill them.  It is because they don’t want to give up.   They will come up with all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t give up.  These reasons include ‘I’m stressed / depressed, giving up will make it much worse’  (sorry, I think there is a lot of published information saying the opposite is true), ‘I’ve cut down a lot already’, ‘I’ve been smoking for so long it is too late to do anything now, I’ve probably already got any disease that I’m likely to get’  (also wrong).  I’ve even heard of pregnant ladies who say they’ve been told by their doctor that giving up would be worse for the baby than carrying on smoking through their pregnancy – really, I’m not a doctor, but I find that hard to believe.

Anyway, to cut a long rant short, the gist of it is that they don’t want to give up because they believe bad things happen to other people and it would involve them making a change to their lifestyle.  Now do you see the parallels with climate change?  Bad things (climate change) happen to other people (we won’t talk about how hot it was last summer, or how wet this winter was) and in order to do something people would have to change their habits and that’s hard.  (Actually it isn’t that hard.)   Besides, we all know that China is spitting out coal fired power stations faster than we can smoke a cigarette so what difference will turning off a light, or not taking a holiday somewhere that involves getting on a plane make?  We can come up with excuse after excuse should we bother to ever think about climate change (which most people never do) – as Machiavelli once said ‘ for every deceiver there is someone willing to be deceived’ – and sometimes they are both the same person.

As with seat belts in the 1980s, the last time a major change in smoking habits came about was when the law in the UK about smoking in public came into effect.  Therefore, the only way to do something about climate change is to enshrine it in law.  Whilst we are a long way off that, I agree that it is time to stop debating how many people are convinced about climate change and whether it goes up or down with changes in the economy, weather (insert current news event here) and lets just get on with making a difference anyway.


I’m not sure what to make of this…

Apparently Richard Branson has written on his blog that ‘businesses should stand up to climate change deniers’ according to an article in the Guardian.  He is citing the case of Apple whose CEO recently told climate change sceptics to ditch their shares in Apple.

So, whilst I am sure that Sir Richard’s remarks will actually have an influence on other CEOs (otherwise there would not be so many quotes on LinkedIn attributed to him) and it is fantastic that someone with his clout is being positive about the need to move on in the climate change arena and go from debating to doing, I can’t help feeling that there is something a bit wrong here.  After all, one of the messages that a lot of environmentalists try to get across is that flying is bad and for the founder of Virgin Atlantic, someone who made flying more accessible to the masses, to be talking about climate change seems a little bizarre.  It appears yet another example of do as I say and not as I do (as he lives on an island now I can only assume that he has not minimised the travelling that he does, particularly by plane).

So, whilst I applaud anyone trying to make the world a more sustainable place, I wonder why it is someone like Richard Branson, rather than governments making these statements.  Will the fact that Sir B. makes his money from areas that are inherently sustainable will lessen the impact of his message or will it just give more publicity to the climate change deniers instead of just pretending they don’t exist.




Leading by example.

One of the quotes by Ghandi that is often cited, particularly within the environmental and sustainability world is

‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

To be honest it is probably the only quote I can remember reading that is ascribed to Ghandi.  However, it highlights an issue that I see quite often.

I am now lucky enough to work as a Sustainability Manager, I hesitate to use the word professional as I am not sure what constitutes professional sustainability.  But, I digress.  Although I have only worked in this area for a couple of years, a couple of things soon became obvious.  Firstly, almost everything in some way comes back to sustainability – most things are linked; travel, food, climate change, population – you name it and I can probably link it into sustainability somehow.  Secondly, some of the issues seem to be so obvious that you wonder why they are an issue at all.  Why isn’t everyone changing their behaviour to preserve the planet – if not for future generations then at least so I don’t have to suffer in my old age?

But then, and here is where I really want to rant, I look around me at colleagues in the sustainability arena.  I see pictures of them on holiday in places where they could only get to by ‘plane.  Apparently it is their only vice and they do everything else sustainably – BUT this outweighs all the other stuff and then some!  Others get out their latest iPhone, would not even consider cutting down on meat, don’t care whether their food is Fair Trade or locally grown.   I could, and often do go on.  I recently made a comment when a colleague was talking about their upcoming cruise around the caribbean to the effect that I can no longer go on a ‘plane.  They thought that I was afraid of flying (for the record I’m not) – and were gobsmacked when I said that I could no longer fly for ethical reasons.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do try to reduce my environmental impact as much as possible and don’t ask others to do anything or give up anything that I wouldn’t do or give up.

After all, how can I tell people about climate change, try and convince them to adopt more climate friendly behaviours and then jump on a ‘plane to fly halfway across the world for a holiday?  It would be like being an overweight, twenty a day doctor lecturing someone on their unhealthy lifestyle.

I learned today … a bit about nanosilver pollution

OK, so this may not sound that interesting unless you are an environmental scientist, but hear me out – although I am going to save the best bit to last to keep you reading.

Silver is ubiquitous these days.  Although its antimicrobial properties have been harnessed for medicinal purposes for centuries, it has more recently been found in socks, shower heads and various medical consumables such as swabs.  Although, a recent study of silver containing textiles in Denmark found that a lot of the articles claiming to contain silver had no trace when tested in the lab (see Chemistry World July 2012) but I digress.

A lot of the ‘new’ silver products contain nano (aka very, very small) particles of silver and this is where the controversy has arisen.  There has been concern raised about the effect of nano particles on the environment and human health.  By their very nature of being incredibly small they can get to places that larger particles can’t reach and there is the potential that they may have different surface and chemical properties.   Studies have shown that, depending on the method used to incorporate the silver into the textile or article, there is a high chance of the nano silver being released into the environment, especially if for example it is put through a washing machine.

The problem with silver escaping into the environment is that the property that makes it so useful – the toxicity of silver ions released from an item – is the very thing that makes it an issue – it is toxic to all organisms depending on the concentration.

There is a worry that the nano silver would get into the water course and pollute and kill everything in its path (OK, that’s an exaggeration but you get the idea).  Not to mention that the sludge from sewage works is often spread on fields.  However, there is a chance that this fear is unfounded.  Firstly, it appears that the toxicity of the nano silver is due to the fact that, just like other forms of silver used in medicine since whenever, it is the fact that it is Silver and releases silver ions that causes the toxicity.  The tiny-ness of the particles doesn’t make a difference to the toxicity.

Secondly, it is the free silver ions that are the problem.  In the water course the silver tends to combine with sludge and forms silver sulphides – these are not soluble, so less of an issue.

Finally, when solid silver objects, such as silver spoons, are examined it appears that they release nano silver – so this is probably not as new an issue as previously thought.

However, I do have a cooler bit of knowledge that I learned today to share.  In order to test for soil pollution worms are used.  A clew (for that is the collective noun for a ball of worms) is put into a test chamber.  On the one side there is lovely unpolluted soil, on the other there is the potentially polluted soil.  Worms are so good at sensing when soil is bad that and should be avoided that they have their own ISO standard for determining the chemical quality of soil.

insect_worm_15-1669pxSo, what is the worms’ verdict.  When they are faced with soil contaminated with silver nitrate they won’t go near it and detect the silver straight away.  Put them in front of some soil with nano silver and they take their time deciding that it isn’t a good place to be and that it’s time to run away.  See, it was a fact worth waiting for.

Whilst the jury may still be out gathering evidence as to the environmental and health impacts of nano particles, the verdict of the worms is definitely in.

Plastic Bags Are Rubbish

England lags behind Wales and Ireland.

Have you noticed how much easier it is to get a plastic bag these days?  About 6 years ago the government had a drive to try and reduce plastic bag usage – supermarkets stopped having them readily available and you had to ask for them.  It made you feel a little guilty and you had to think about how many you wanted and if you asked for an extra one…  As a result of this plastic bag usage fell by 40% in the next three years.  Now though it is on the rise again, and, I don’t know if you are finding the same, but these days I am asked if I want any bags, or they are automatically put out for me.  Even worse, when I have occasionally had food delivered (it was mainly tea, coffee and sugar for work) the plastic bag usage was horrendous.  However, there is hope.

Wales has recently introduced a 5p levy on plastic carrier bag, Ireland introduced one in 2002  Following the introduction of the charge plastic bag usage in Ireland dropped by 95% and in six months use in Wales dropped by 22%.  Compare this to an increase of 7.5% in England last year.  But, just in case you think this is a money making scheme by the Irish government the levy, in addition to acting as a deterrent, is being recycled (unlike most plastic bags) into environmental schemes.  And, it is not just these two countries that are trying to curb the use of plastic bags – Italy is the first European country to ban non-biodegradeable plastic bags, and certain plastic bags are banned completely in countries as diverse as China, South Africa, Rwand and the United Arab Emirates.

So, why are plastic bags such a problem.  Firstly, the numbers used are huge, 12.2 billion were handed out in 2011 – that is roughly 11 per shopper per month, and that is just in the UK.  They are used on average for just 12 minutes before being thrown away, with very few being recycled.  Whilst lots are used as bin liners, it takes between 500 and 1000 years for them to degrade in landfill.  Plastic bags are of course made from oil, as we know a scarce commodity that really should have better uses, but this also means that there are additional nasties in there that leach out when the bag decays.  (I am not even going to get into the resources required to make and transport them – well, maybe I will another day.)  Not all bags end up in landfill, you have all seen them out in the countryside, caught in trees and lying on the beaches.  You have no doubt also  heard the stories about the amount that are drifting around the oceans, killing the sea life either directly or through those aforementioned nasties (the current estimate is that there are 46 000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean).

What are the alternatives then, because we all have to get our shopping home.  Firstly, do you need a bag, or at least THAT many bags – really, you do?  What about reusing the bags you got last time (I always keep one in my bag – it also stopped my bum getting wet when I sat on a damp bench – bonus)?  What about a bag for life – these last for ages and yet only need to be used 4 times to make up for the additional resources used to make them.  They are also bigger and you can therefore get more in them – less juggling.  I prefer the Jute bags, they are easier to carry (I can sling mine over my shoulder), should last a long time and are relatively inexpensive – reusable bags that are a modern take on your grandmother’s shopping basket.  Some would prefer paper bags as in the US, but the resources that these use are a lot higher and there is the risk of soggy bag syndrome.

What can you do now?  Well, apart from reusing your bags (after all, shouldn’t we use oil for something more than carrying home a packet of biscuits for 12 minutes), you can join in the call for the government to introduce a ban or a tax on single use plastic bags.  Please sign the petition that has already been started on the government website and lets try and stop some of the waste.  Ban the Bag!

Creating a buzz just Bee Cause

Friends of the Earth are hoping to create a bit of a buzz with their Bee Cause campaign.  I attended a launch event in Northampton today – the aims of the campaign are to get those in power – specifically David Cameron, to acknowledge that the government needs to adopt and implement a bee action plan.  The launch event included a couple of talks about pollinators and their habitats.

Why are bees important?  Just to clear up a misconception, it is not just bees that are important it is all of natures pollinators – insects, animals and birds – even some lizards are important pollinators elsewhere in the world.  Across the world 87% of the estimated 308,000 plant species are pollinated by insects and other fauna.

There has been a lot of coverage about the collapse of honey bee populations across the world and lots of speculation about the reasons.  However, this is not a new phenomenon and since the 1800s the UK has lost 23 species of bee and 18 species of butterflies.  More recently there has been a 75% decline in moths since the 1970s and a 25% decline in hoverflies since the 1980s.  So, it would appear that the recent problems with honey bees are only the latest in a long line of declines.  Whilst there are lots of reasons for this, the overriding issue has to be loss of suitable habitat caused by urban expansion and the intensification of agriculture and removal of woodlands and hedgerows.  Indeed Northamptonshire holds the dubious distinction of having lost more species of wildflowers than any other county.  Not something to be proud of.

So, the Bee Cause campaign aims to raise awareness of this problem and get people taking action.  I’ll be writing some more posts outlining what you can do to help our pollinators in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, if you are interested in getting involved in the campaign there is a lot of information on the FoE website.  Alternatively, if you are in the Daventry area and would like to help, give me a shout and we can work together to make Daventry a bee-friendly place.