Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Resigned to our fate?

Listening to James Lovelock on the Today programme this morning was deeply disturbing. You can hear his interview with John Humphries here.

I am not troubled by his comments on the so-called 'climategate' emails from the University of East Anglia. He hasn't read the transcripts and, if the scientists involved have fudged the data in any way, then I would agree with his dismissal of any dishonest practices in science.

What really concerns me is his fatalism. He asserts that it will take us 20 - 30 years to rein in our carbon emissions and that this will lead to the cumulative total addition of a trillion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. He describes this as "civilisation has pulled the trigger" and says we'll be lucky if the world population is as high as a billion people in future. Although Lovelock does not give a date for this future population in this interview, he did refer to the earth's population being well below a billion people in 2100 in his recent book, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia". In a similar interview on The Guardian website yesterday, Lovelock stated that the inertia of humanity is such that we can't do anything meaningful about climate change.

In my opinion, everyone who cares about the future of humanity and life on earth should take this as a personal challenge and set about making Lovelock wrong on this point. After all, as Greg Craven has so powerfully observed, "What's the Worst That Could Happen?"

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A visit to the Council

I have been collecting mixed plastic packaging (ie., food trays, tubs, pots, etc. but not bottles, bags, expanded polystyrene or film) at home for the past two years and have tried throughout that time to contact the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and ask them to recycle it.

In February, the local paper carried this story, with a picture of me glaring from a mountain of binbags full of our accumulated plastic. This led to an invitation to addresss the Council's Sustainability Panel, which met last night.

I had the honour of speaking before presentations from the Head of Packaging at each of our two largest retailers. My message was that many residents of the Royal Borough labour under the mistaken belief that their local authority recycles mixed plastics. These are therefore carefully cleaned and placed in the purple recycling boxes, along with bottles and cans, for kerbside collection by the council's contractor, Veolia, who then strip them OUT and send them to landfill!

Since 64% of our waste still goes to landfill, I said, it is the duty of the local authority to extract these valuable materials from our waste stream and recycle them. Pure picked polymers (ie., mixed plastic packaging SORTED into separate types) have a commercial value of £50 - £150 per Tonne.

I was saddened by the response from the council officers responsible for waste management, who said that reclaiming additional plastics from the waste stream would add greatly to the cost and would not make much difference to the tonnage going to landfill (because of the low density of plastic packaging) and also by the somewhat cynical allegation that many other authorities across the country are only 'pretending' to recycle these materials while actually burying, burning or exporting them to the developing world.

On the other hand, I was heartened to learn that the borough's contract for waste management is up for renewal in 2012 and that stringent environmental criteria could be included in the specifications for tender. My comments in response were that the Goverment's Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) had made the case for mixed plastics recycling and that RECOUP has developed comprehensive tools and analysis to enable more local authorities to do this in future.

When the senior packaging people from Tesco and Sainsbury addressed the Council, their presentations were inspiring, impactful, relevant and positive. It was a privilege to hear these thoughtful and informed contributions and this confirmed my view that retailers really are striving to green their operations because their customers expect this of them.

I was particularly moved by the forceful support for my position on post-consumer recycling of mixed plastics from one of these speakers - who told the Councillors that the myth of '36 types of plastic to sort' is an archaic hang-up from the past. There are just 4 or 5 high value polymers to sort and there are automated sorting facilities in operation around the country.

He went on to say that non-bottle PET is a high value material that can't be left to go to waste, that polypropylene (PP) is the next high value target for collection and that 'on-the-go' bottles and cans, thrown into street bins, are a problem that must be solved.

He said that his customers send him more letters about the availability of local recycling facilities than anything else and that bringback facilities in store car parks are destined to be replaced by kerbside collection as Councils increasingly fulfil their responsibility to recycle more of the domestic waste stream.

I was invited to visit the waste management officers in the coming weeks and am optimistic that, away from the political atmosphere of a Council panel, there is much that can be achieved and that there will be a shift in Council policy towards greater recycling in the coming years. Bring it on.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A day for 10:10

Hannah, Laura and I have been working together for a few weeks, preparing to promote the 10:10 campaign to our local community.

It was a great pleasure to visit the 10:10 office in Camden last week and meet the team who are running this amazing initiative, many of them volunteers and all of them incredibly committed to inspiring the public at large to make personal commitments to combat dangerous climate change. They kindly lent me a 2-metre high 10:10 banner and gave us lots of handouts and even the coveted 10:10 tags to sign up lots of new recruits.

Yesterday, we spent 8 hours in Waitrose, chatting about climate change and this simple pledge to cut 10% of our carbon emissions right now, in 2010. This certainly improved our sales techniques, to the point that I could now sell "The Big Issue" if things go wrong on the domestic front.

There is definitely a 'fear factor' to be overcome when talking to the public and you have just milliseconds to allay their suspicions and convince them that you're not after their money or their time and that you're not going to sell their email address to spam marketing outfits!

In our experience, many people who got as far as understanding what 10:10 means were happy to sit down at our laptop and add their name to our campaign. The only disappointment was the number of shoppers who support the idea of 10:10 but do not use email. We did keep their telephone numbers, to invite them to be part of the sustainability group that we plan to set up in our local community as a result of yesterday's promotion.

We are incredibly grateful to Waitrose for their hospitality in allowing us to talk to their customers in the comfort of the store. We are also grateful to Julian, Shaun and Theo who gave their time yesterday to catch people's eyes and charm them into hearing what 10:10 is about.

Many lovely people signed up on the spot, or went away with literature and agreed to sign up online later. Some told us that what we were doing was important and worthwhile, for which we were grateful.

A few were forthright in telling us what's really going on!

One gentleman explained that it's the human population that has gotten out of control (I'm with him so far) and that this has shifted the Earth on its axis, resulting in the climate getting hotter.

Another said that it's all these damn wars (again, nothing to disagree with to this point) and, now we've pumped all the oil out of the ground, there's nothing left to absorb the noise of all those bombs and they are warming the planet by ringing it like a bell.

Other than these contrarian theories, the only objections to the idea of 10:10 came from serving and retired cabin crew - because the town is not far from Heathrow. In the words of Upton Sinclair, quoted by Al Gore in 'An Inconvenient Truth', "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Hannah, Laura and I felt privileged to present such an important message to the people of our town and were delighted with the response we received. It was an enlightening way to spend our Saturday and will lead, we hope, to a small reduction in the town's carbon emissions.