Monday, 22 November 2010

Sustainable Living, beyond energy

In my recent post, "The Basics Revisited", I covered the essentials of cutting carbon by saving energy at home.  Here I want to look beyond energy and explore the vast question of how to live more sustainably in our consumer society.  I can do no more than scratch the surface - whereas the film, "No Impact Man" gets uncomfortably close to the bottom of this issue!

While I am doing my best to reduce the impact of my everyday living on the environment, I remain comfortably affluent and middle-class. In discussing these matters I am aware of the risk of hypocrisy in bleating about sustainable sourcing while poverty, war and natural disasters are ravaging millions of families around the world.  My purpose in writing this is not to solve the world's problems but to offer you practical ideas and encouragement to make your life a bit greener by cutting waste and making the most of what you have.  I hope this will make you a little happier and it will also rub off on the people around you.  This article, published in the Wall Street Journal last month, compiled decades of research that demonstrates the best way to persuade other people to make ethical and environmental choices is to lead by example.  When we do what we say, practice what we preach, other people take notice.  "You must be the change that you want to see in the world" - Mahatma Gandhi.

Food and Drink
We had friends round for dinner on Saturday.  While dinner parties are not about sustainability, I was very happy with the menu we prepared.  To start, ricotta and herb-filled courgette parcels in beetroot cream (from the Montali vegetarian cookbook).  For main course, MSC-certified lemon sole with Atlantic prawn and breadcrumb gratin.  The dessert was FairTrade chocolate mousse with walnuts and cream.  Tragically, I used Divine's 85% cocoa recipe which turned the mousse rock hard.  Lesson learned!

The Lemon Sole link, above, takes you to the START initiative, which encourages us all to - yes - start doing a little to help protect our climate and the diversity of life on earth.  To buy sustainable seafood, look out for the MSC logo. Similarly, to buy products from the developing world, from bananas to coffee, sugar to cotton and roses to red wine, look out for Fair Trade.  It is often slighted as being "less good" than some other people's schemes but, honestly, it is the best across-the-board consumer signpost for ethically sourced produce.  Rarely seen in Tesco now, this is the best argument for shopping in Sainsbury's (their own-label teas and ground coffees, their bananas and their Taste the Difference jams are all fair trade) and the Co-op.

The important point is not to restrict yourself to finding only the most ethical and sustainable ingredients but rather to develop your sense of particular things to avoid.  I've been trying lately, for example, not to buy products containing palm oil that do not state it is sustainably sourced.  It is practically impossible to avoid this ubiquitous ingredient - it doesn't even have to be listed in the Ingredients Declarations! - so I'd prefer to give my business to companies that recognise the importance of sustainable sourcing.  Sainsbury's "Pure" soap and Nairns oatcakes are just two examples.  So far, I haven't found a low-fat vegetable spread that claims sustainably-sourced palm oil and I am waiting for the likes of Unilever to fix this.  Fortunately, that's exactly what they are going to do.  This week they launched their Sustainable Living Plan, committing to source ALL their ingredients sustainably within a decade. I hope they will move fast on palm oil while there are still orang-utans left to save.

More broadly, the most sustainable food is local and seasonal.  We've lost touch with the gardening year so most of us, myself included, are pretty woolly on what's in season each month.  Of course, the best remedy is to grow your own and gain a real connection with the soil.  Reading the labels to find home-grown veg at a decent price per kilo is a poor substitute but it does help to home in on seasonal produce!  Conversely, Mike Berners-Lee points out in his book, "How Bad are Bananas?" that a single kilo of organic cherry tomatoes grown in Britain in March has a carbon footprint of 50 kg CO2!  That staggering figure is the highest carbon footprint of any food.  He advises us to buy tinned tomatoes in the winter / spring, or fresh tomatoes grown in warmer climes like Spain, to avoid the intensive fossil fuel heating of greenhouse-grown crops.  While the transport impact of shipments within Europe is much smaller than heating the greenhouses, I do try to avoid fresh, perishable foods that are flown from South America - 12,000 miles away.

The golden rule of sustainable housekeeping is to plan your meals and make a list.  Buy only what's on the list, cook only as much food as needed and eat everything you prepare - leftovers make great ingredients!

Waste and Recycling
For years, the mantra of environmentalists has been "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle".  We tend to skip over the first two so let's just remember that they mean buy only what we need, make it last and, when it breaks, try to repair it or use it in another way.  Throwing things away is the last resort (and  there is no 'away') but we are all becoming accustomed to the third R, recycling.  My council (RBWM) has introduced a progressive policy of commingled recycling, with consumer vouchers to reward residents for recycling.

I find it ironic that they are aiming to maximise weight of recycled material by giving away vouchers for buying more stuff!  More serious is the fact that they will collect NO PLASTIC, other than bottles, in their doorstep recycling service.  Other packaging they consign to landfill includes aluminium foil and drinks cartons!  These exceptions are absolutely crucial and must be addressed - either by upgraded doorstep recycling or expanded "bring sites" for residents to recycle these materials.  I hope that my readers will be motivated to collect all these packaging materials and find ways to recycle them because, let's face it, the decision to send stuff to landfill is a personal one.  I refuse to send mixed plastic packaging to landfill so I am filling my garage with bags of the stuff, cleaned and ready to recycle when the Council finally recognises their duty to enable this.  Foil and cartons are much simpler (as are batteries and compact fluorescent lamps) because there are "bring sites" that I can take them to when my boxes are full.

Transport and Travel
I covered driving in a much earlier post but the key points bear repeating.  Personal transport is one of our largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  Nowadays, a typical car emits something like 150g CO2 per kilometre.  We drive an average of 12,000 miles a year.  Assuming we're always alone in the car, this emits  around 3 Tonnes of CO2, which is 20% of the average Briton's total of 15 Tonnes/year.

There is a great decision tool on the Start website, to help you work through the choices of whether to keep an old, inefficient car or replace it with a shiny new, low-emisisons model.  Living without a car for a couple of years taught me to view them as antisocial constructs!  Of course, we need them for commuting, shopping and holidays.  Indeed, the car is a greener choice than the plane for our summer hols but still we are poisoning our atmosphere and tarmacking our countryside to make this choice possible.  Accidents result in horrendous cost and suffering for the unlucky victims - frequently the people who chose to walk or cycle, without the protection of a steel box packed with airbags.  What is impossible to appreciate when regularly driving all over the place, for all sorts of reasons (good and bad), is how dependent we are on these machines and the freedom they provide, as they propel us wherever we wish to be on a cloud of carbon emissions from highly-refined fossil fuels.  

Ours is a genuine and complete addiction and it is not clear how we will ever break the habit.  If we can't quit then let's at least cut down a little!  With cars, like flights, it is time for us to begin weighing up whether each journey is necessary.  Our commute to work might not be optional but the school run, the quick trip to the post office or the corner shop, might be better and more enjoyable without the car.  Clean your boots, pump up your bike tyres and get outdoors!  I now walk to town for all the minor errands and only drive to the supermarket for a big shop once a week.  Even this could be ordered online, and delivered by a fuel-efficient multi-drop driver but I'm not usually that well organised.

There are endless other categories and tips but this is a blog post not a Haynes manual.  Please have a look at some of the book references in my last post - particularly Chris Goodall's comprehensive "How to live a low-carbon Life".  I would be very interested in your own suggestions so please add your comments to this page.


RobArchibald92 said...

Very interesting! I am definitely living by your 'no waste' proposal, but can't always afford to buy the most environmentally friendly food stuffs.
Plus I am constantly turning lights/radiators off ect. after my house mates!

Archipet said...

Very gratifying to know, Rob. Since you're living on root vegetables and carrying them home from the supermarket on your back, you're definitely living a low-carbon life!

RobArchibald92 said...

Oh yeh, big time!