Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Change the World Wednesday - 23rd May 2012 - Packed Lunches

This weeks Change the World Wednesday Challenge is to make a waste free lunch.

Five mornings a week I make up packed lunches for myself and our two children hence this challenge is particularly appropriate.  In terms of packaging, this is the most wasteful meal of our day and it can only be marked as a "fail - must try harder".

But I'll start with the good bits. I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to packed lunches: the cornerstone of any packed lunch should be a piece. It can be a cheese piece, jeely piece, cheese and jeely piece or any other type of piece: egg, ham, tuna, banana - anything that fits between two slices of bread. We do well here with home made bread. It has flour, yeast, water, sugar and salt. No preservatives, no additives, no packaging (the flour comes in biodegradable paper bags) and no transportation.

So far so good but when all the additional things are included we start to go down hill. The children take refillable water bottles to school for during the day but single use cartons of fruit juice for lunch. You know the type: plasticy cardboard cartons with a plastic straw in a polythene wrapper glued to the side. Then there are crisps, raisins or other dried fruit, pots of yoghurt and cereal bars or biscuits - not everything every day but two or three from the list. Almost all have packaging.

We have tried buying in bulk then filling reusable containers but the kids keep losing lids or breaking the containers. Understandably, they have more important things to do at lunch time, like playing hopscotch, skipping or football, rather than putting their lunch things away properly.

I look forward to reading other posts on this challenge in the hope of gaining inspiration.

Related links: If you don't know what a jeelly piece is, this link may help:

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Change the World Wednesday Challenge - 16th May 2012 - Permaculture, part 2

Following on from last weeks challenge of learning about permiculture, it is time to put the theory into practice for this weeks challenge:

Now that we've observed the area around us, let's use that knowledge to plant something. Choosing a location which considers rain fall, sunlight, "pests", etc., plant something using sustainable methods such as double digging, companion planting and natural pest control. Use natural compost instead of fertilizer. And
then ... come back and tell us all about it.

Or ...

If you've already planted, tell us all about the process ... did you choose the garden's location based on natural elements? Did you prepare the garden using double digging? Did you make use of natural compost and companion planting? How do you control pests? And, knowing what you now know about Permaculture, will you make any changes next year? We want to know everything.

Every year is a bit of an experiment, growing different varieties in different locations with varying results.  I have found that the factor which influences results most is the one we can least control: the weather.  Other factors, such as pest control and feeding the garden, are more controllable and I wrote about some of them here. I guess it comes down to not bringing in unnatural or unpleasant things and allowing nature in around the edges.

I must be getting something right because the garden is teeming with life. My daughter has been learning about mini-beasts at school and she was fascinated by this critter that she found under a stone:

I'm not sure I fancy the chances of the newly planted out turnip seedlings (below) with it and its friends about.

And it isn't only the creepy crawlies, this rather sociable little chap stopped by for a visit:

He first landed on the handle of my trowel a couple of feet away from me before moving to this stump by the time I took my phone camera out of my pocket. I had another couple of visits over the afternoon, not for my company but for the freshly dug soil and its bountiful supply of dinner!

And so on to the last task of the day, earthing up the potatoes we planted a few weeks ago:

These were the first earlies. The second earlies planted in the last week of April are just starting to break the surface. The potatoes in a sack that was in the west side of the garden has grown faster than the one on the east, but they may not have been planted as deep. I will continue to observe.

Last Weeks Permaculture Challenge:

Post script: Came home today to find not one, not two but three robins in the garden at the same time, so it may not have been the same one being very sociable!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Change the World Wednesday Challenge - 9th May 2012 - Permaculture

This weeks challenge is to think about the principles of Permaculture and how they relate to our own environment.

On first reading the challenge I began thinking of my own garden: the high fence down one side that is perfect for growing beans, peas, sweet peas and sun flowers or the shady corner at the bottom where nothing grows and is now home to the compost heap.But then I read posts by Mrs. Green and  Lynn Fang which opened my eyes to the wider application of the principles of Permaculture, bringing nature in to our cityscapes.

In many ways it is related to the disconnect between many people and their natural environments, the gulf between increasing numbers of urban dwellers and the natural cycles that sustain us. I like the idea of connecting our urban green spaces: making corridors for nature and wildlife between our parks, for example and re-introducing traditional varieties.

In one of life's little coincidences, I borrowed Food for Free by Richard Mabey from my local library a couple of weeks ago.  It talks of the harvest obtained from hedgerows, forests and other wild places that was used to supplement rations during the first and second world wars.  Many of these places have been depleted in the intervening years through changes to more intensive agriculture with larger fields and less hedges and expansion of our towns and cities but there is still a great variety if you know what to look for and where. The author also writes of the fear many people have of wild foods, a largely misplaced fear that they will poison themselves. Other than a very small number of fungi nothing will kill you in the UK.  This is another case of our growing unfamiliarity with nature.

There seems to be a reluctance to include fruits, berries and other edible plants in to urban parks and public gardens, possibly from the above fear that people will be poisoned or simply because people will help themselves.  I wonder how we can get some more brambles, gooseberries, bilberries and apples in to our parks... perhaps some guerrilla gardening?

Related Posts:

Mrs Green's Post: http://littlegreenblog.com/green-home/environment-issues/international-permaculture-day/
Lynn Fang's Post: http://lynnfang.com/2012/03/open-source-permaculture-interview-with-sophia-novak/

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Big Energy Switch Swindle - Part 2

Last week I posted about The Big Switch, a reverse auction for domestic energy being organised by Which and 38 Degrees.

I have to admit that my prediction was wrong, that suppliers would offer discounts, probably short term in nature and at the expense of other customers. But I was correct that the auction would make little difference for consumers.

The winner was Cooperative Energy which was £6 per year cheaper for the average user than the next lowest tariff, however the tariff is only available to the first 30,000 applicants out of around 280,000 that signed up for the Big Switch. The remainder will be offered the second place tariff, which is from EDF and has been available on the open market for several months. A post on the Which website also indicate that the winning coop tariff is also available on the open market.

I'm sure some consumers who participated in the big switch will see significant savings but they could have got them at any time. In fact, the Big Switch has delivered no new benefits to consumers.

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Edward Davey has been quoted a saying that he wants to see more schemes “enabling consumers to club together in this way to buy their energy, cutting out the hassle of
shopping around and switching and helping households get a better deal for their gas and electricity.” Evidence that he doesn't have a clue and that the government has no intention of intervening in the failing energy market.

At this time there is little information on the winning tariffs, although average standing charges and unit rates have been posted. What has been made clear is that those not paying by direct debit, including those without a bank account will be charged almost an extra £100 per year based on average use and the tariffs don't appear to be open to those with prepayment meters, thus the people suffering the most from high energy prices will not benefit. There are also regional variations in the tariffs, therefore you may have to pay more depending on where you live.

The result isn't really surprising. Energy differs from most commodities in the infrastructure required to deliver it, whether cables or pipes, and measurement of how much is used. For each customer that switches supplier as a result of the big switch, the energy company still has to run credit checks, set up individual accounts, read meters and issue bills giving limited savings to the suppliers from a group switch compared with many individuals. By contrast if your street gets together to bulk buy transportable commodities, such as a truck load of toilet roll our baked beans, the supplier can discount this based on the costs he saves by processing a single large order with a single bill and delivery rather than lots of smaller ones.

One of the big problems with such a powerful group of energy companies, untouchable by consumers, protest groups and government is that they have no real incentive to cut costs for the long term, especially the volatile price of fossil fuels. When investing in new generation they will invest in power stations with greater cost certainty in terms of planning and construction, that is gas power stations which have lower risk during the planning and construction than wind farms or nuclear power stations.  The burden of future uncertainties, such as the price of gas, can be passed on to the consumer with impunity. It follows that the continued dominance of fossil fuels in the energy supply mix is bad for the environment and we, the public, will be left to pick up the cost of mitigating against the effects of climate change.

There are no easy answers to these problem. Schemes like The Big Switch are clearly not the answer. The Regulator and Government are not the answer. The answer lies partly in greater efficiency in the home to lower consumption and hence energy bills, but there are limits to what is achievable.

One method for groups to see real and lasting benefit from collective buying power could be through buying the means to generate their own energy, such as a community wind farm, solar collectors or geothermal heating systems.  This would reduce the dependence on the major energy retailers, putting power literally back into the community.  There are already some good examples of this, mostly from small isolated communities where the benefits of locally generated power is more tangible.

Related Links:
The Big Switch
The Big Switch Ts & Cs

Related Posts:
Energy Market Reform
The Big Energy Switch Swindle

Monday, 7 May 2012

#CTWW Challenge - 2nd May 2012 - Barbecues

It's the Bank Holiday weekend, temperatures are back to single digits (celsius) and there is a cold drizzle. Ideal conditions to think about this weeks Change the World Wednesday challenge:

This week, consider Eco-friendly Grilling/BBQing. Please share all your ideas for cooking outside. Here's a hint ... Charcoal Briquettes
are not necessarily Eco-friendly. Need another hint to get going? Check out this POST.

We don't tend to use the barbecue often: our weather is too unpredictable to plan ahead for them so they are rare spur of the moment occasions. On one memorable occasion when we did plan a bbq, our guests took shelter indoors while I cooked under an umbrella. 

As they don't feature large in our lives, I hadn't given much thought to the environmental impact of bbqs. I figured that, since charcoal is made from wood that it is probably carbon neutral if it comes from sustainable sources, although probably not very efficient. I had also read that the ashes could be added to the compost heap.  However these assumptions were proven wrong when I read up for this challenge.

I came across an article in Science Daily (link here) which looks at climate related emissions from propane gas compared with charcoal and it also highlights that most charcoal used in the UK is imported from areas in Africa where the first cover had been depleted.

Charcoal briquettes also have added ingredients which make them unsuitable for use in the compost heap put garden. These additives may include borax or starch to bind the charcoal, nitrates to aid ignition or sometimes anthracite to improve performance of the briquettes.

Traditional lump wood charcoal tends not to have the additives but it is more likely to be made from tropical hardwoods which may not be sustainably harvested.

Is this the end for summer barbecues then? Or should we replace our barbecue with a gas one?

As we use the bbq so infrequently, it will take a considerable time to repay the embodied energy of a new gas bbq with savings from each use. And a gas bbq does not satisfy that primal urge to create fire! It looks like the answer for us, if we get a summer, lies in sustainably sourced lump wood charcoal. Or cooking indoors a normal but eating outside.

We can't be good all of the time.

Finally, if you haven't tried barbecued pineapple, give it a go: take a whole pineapple, cut in to quarters lengthwise then grill. Delicious.

Related post:

Elsevier (2009, May 12). Grilling With Charcoal Less Climate-friendly Than Grilling With Propane, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090512093254.htm

The Big Energy Switch Swindle?

You may be aware of The Big Switch, a reverse auction being organised by campaign groups 38 Degrees and Which. you can sign up here to participate in the event which allows you to switch to the winning deal if it suits you.  You are not committed to switching but if you don't preregister you can not participate.

I have a few issues with this approach:

To register you need to provide your personal details, some of which will be passed to the energy companies participating in the auction. The example of such information is your meter numbers.  The energy companies will be able to use this information to assess how many new customers they may gain if they win the auction or how many existing customers they may lose (and how profitable or otherwise those customers are and hence decide how keen they are to win. From the energy companies perspective, this is little more than a marketing exercise.

A closer look at the terms and conditions of the offer show that there are no guarantees, prices may fluctuate at  any time after switching and the savings illustration that you will be given is meaningless.  In effect you are taking a gamble just the same as switching at any other time and the energy companies can give low prices which are, in effect introductory discounts which can be recouped at a later time through tie ins and higher future unit rates.

If my perspective in the previous paragraph is incorrect, how will the energy companies maintain their healthy profit levels? By charging more to other customers who have not participated in The Big Switch.  The latest figures on the website show that 286,000 people have registered to participate which sounds a lot but is around 1% of the customers of the big six energy companies. Those most in need of reduced energy costs, including the elderly and other vulnerable people, do not necessarily have access to this type of online deal and those with prepayment meters are normally excluded from the best deals. In fact the Terms and Conditions state the personal information may be used by the energy companies to determine whether the energy companies will allow individuals to participate in the scheme.

It is not clear what benchmark will be used to determine the winner so it may be that, of the 286,000 participants, some would save and others wouldn't depending on their consumption levels and mix of gas and electricity used and the supply terms and conditions.

A better arrangement could have been one where Which/38 Degrees set the conditions for the energy companies to bid such as that the deals are open for all, regardless of payment mechanism, that there are no lock-ins and that there are restrictions on how much and when prices can vary.  The energy companies would then price for supplying energy under standard terms rather than using small print and future price rises to pay for loss-leaders.  This would also put more of the risk  back on to the energy company that make the big decisions such as future energy contracts and mix of generation types. Currently customers pay the price of these decisions whether good or bad.

The fact that the big energy companies are participating is a sure sign that they do not expect to lose much revenue over it, in fact I'm sure they see it as a positive Public Relations exercise.  Meanwhile those in most desperate fuel poverty will see no benefit.

Are you taking part in The Big Switch? Will it save you money? Will it change the domestic energy market?

Or is it just another chance for the Big Six to pull the wool over our eyes and get some good press coverage?

Related Links:
The Big Switch
The Big Switch Ts & Cs

Related Posts:
Energy Market Reform

And for the follow up: The Big Energy Switch Swindle - Part 2

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Local Council Elections - 2012

In less than 24 hours the polls will open for the local council elections in throughout the UK.  Over the past couple of weeks I have reviewed the proposed policies on a number of environmental issues with a particular focus on Glasgow and found them to be generally lacking in detail, imagination or ambition. There are clearly other important issues on which the mainstream parties have focused the debate, such as education, health and employment, but these are often linked to environmental factors.  Better classrooms which can be temperature regulated well ventilated can aid concentration and hence academic achievement. Access to good quality open space, safer cycling and walking routes and clean air can improve health and decent public transport infrastructure can improve mobility and hence job opportunities, especially considering the low car ownership in the most deprived areas of the city.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

I'd like to think that it can, but I have often wondered wether organic agriculture could feed everyone or whether we need more intensive agriculture. There are many environmental benefits to organic methods including reduced use of herbicides and pesticides such as neonicotinoids which are implicated in the decline of bee numbers. Another benefit is the greater diversity of vegetable varieties also associated with organic farming. This is for two reasons: to use varieties with greater natural resistance to pests and to use more flavoursome varieties to differentiate from non-organic produce.

 A recent study of studies of yield from organic methods compared with so-called conventional methods has recently been published in Nature and reported here by the BBC. From the BBC report:
The headline conclusion is pretty unequivocal; across the board, organic farming produces lower yields than conventional methods, by about 25%. For fruit, the difference is marginal, just a few percent. But for vegetables, organic yields are about 33% down on conventional, with barley and wheat a little lower still.
 A lower yield from organic farming over a given area of land is not surprising really; good organic farming would have a reduced crop growing area as there would be hedgerows and possibly field boundaries that are unplanted. Then the reduced fertiliser use can reduce yield and varieties bred for pest resistance may not be optimised for yield. Another factor affecting yields identified in the report was irrigation, with non-organic methods using more water. In many parts of the world, including southern Britain the future may not slow such profligate water use, thus closing the gap. In fact a study undertaken by the Rodale Institute showed that organic growing produced better yields of corn in drought years. Another review of the Nature report in the Guardian notes established organic production using the best organic practices and with the right natural conditions can be as productive as conventional methods.

But this still doesn't answer the question, can we feed the world organically?