Sunday, 31 August 2008

Shake powered torch

Most of my travel accessories are old and dearly loved - I don't really like new things, I much prefer old objects with a story to tell. I was disappointed to realise that my ancient maglite didn't make it back from my last trip, but took the opportunity to replace it with something more sustainable. My new torch is powered by shaking it; I got it in Tesco but there's one just like it at It's really very effective, you don't have to shake it for long to get a light and unlike a battery-powered one you can revive it very quickly if it does run out, even if you have nothing else with you.

Friday, 29 August 2008


We're travelling with my friend Debbie and her family. She removes one battery from her camera when she's not using it - she tells me the batteries last much longer this way. My camera seems to use up batteries at an alarming rate, and definitely wears them out quicker if I use the screen feature to line up shots rather than the viewfinder. I'm using rechargeables, and have a great daysack with solar panels. It comes complete with a set of 4 AA batteries and a charging pod for them, plus a selection of leads to charge different devices. I wasn't sure how effective it would be, but it really does work!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Wind farms and peat cutting on the Isle of Lewis

Visiting the Outer Hebrides today I was struck by the conflict between old energy technologies and new. The islands are rich in peat, which used to be the islanders' main fuel source in the old days but had fallen out of favour. There's evidence now of new peat cutting, motivated by the recent steep rises in energy costs. Of course, peat is a carbon sink so a revival in peat burning will result in carbon emissions; I have no idea though whether substituting peat for conventionally-produced fuels will be better or worse in terms of carbon emissions.

There are three wind turbines on the hillside above Stornaway. I heard that a plan to build a major wind farm with 200 turbines elsewhere on the island was finally rejected in April 2008 after many years of wrangling. There will be more wind farms there, but none on such a massive scale. Of course they will change forever a wild and ancient landscape, but so did the building of the standing stones, brochs and blackhouses of which the islanders are so proud. Could wind farms eventually become the tourist attractions of the future?

Monday, 25 August 2008

Solar Powered Lighthouse

Even in August, the Western highlands of Scotland aren't the sunniest spot in the World, so I was surprised to see PV panels on the Rheu lighthouse. I'd be surprised if it ever gets enough sun to light the bulb, and given the wet and windy conditions we experienced there I think I might have been inclined to opt for a wind turbine.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Making plans for Nigel

I've just found Nigel's Eco Store, an impressive emporium of all things green. According to a profile I read in BT's customer newsletter it's a relatively new business, established (by Nigel!) in 2006 which has already grown to three staff and a half a million pound turnover.

I'm liking his green hints and tips page, although those who read my previous post will be interested to see that washing machine balls aren't much in evidence there!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Washing machine balls

Call me a cynic, but do those washing machine balls really work? You know, the ones you put in your washing machine instead of detergent to clean your clothes. I'd really like to believe it, but surely if they were that effective we'd all be using them already? The science seems plausible enough - something to do with ionising the water. It just seems a little bit too good to be true.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Japan adopts carbon footprinting methodology

News today that brewer Sapporo will be among the first companies in Japan to publish carbon footprint data on product labels. From next spring government approved labels will appear on food and drink, detergents and electrical appliances from around 30 firms in a project led by the Japanese trade ministry. The labels will show how much carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacture, distribution and disposal of each product, following a methodology loosely modelled on the PAS 2050 standard being developed in the UK by The Carbon Trust and Defra.

According to a report in The Guardian, the companies involved in the pilot project will display their labeled items at an eco-products fair in Tokyo in December, and the products are expected to start appearing in shops at the beginning of April 2009.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Green Google

My husband found Google's carbon footprint pages today. It looks like a really interesting project. You can calculate your carbon footprint, map it, get tips on how to reduce your impacts and much more. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

£20 wind turbine

A product design student at the University of Portsmouth has developed a £20 wind turbine from recycled materials which can be used to help people in the developing world. 22-year old Max Robson set out to create an electricity generator which could be put together anywhere in the world. His 1.8m turbine, which can produce enough electricity to run lighting for 63 hours or a radio for 30 hours, can be constructed entirely from scrap by unskilled workers in less than a day.

This project follows the fine example set by Ian Thorpe with his Pump Aid project, which provides low cost water pumps using locally-sourced materials.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Corn phones revive food vs. energy debate

Samsung has proudly reported that its new E200 phone is made of “bio-plastic,” which it claims is better for the environment because it's naturally extracted from corn rather than hydrocarbons. Apparently, each ton of bio-plastic saves two tons of CO2 emissions compared with oil-based plastic. So far, so green - but isn't corn a food crop? Hasn't Samsung heard the debate about the impact on world food supplies - and prices - caused by increased demand for bio-diesels and bio-plastics?

Samsung also boasts that this phone and its charger are also free from "harmful bromine-infused flame retardants" - but I thought these had been banned throught the EU a couple of years back under the RoHS directive anyway. Samsung is a huge global corporation and one of the World's top 10 brands - a fact which earns it instant credibility with the majority of consumers who don't have the time or inclination to examine green claims. I wonder how it will perform in next year's Greenpeace Green Electronics Guide?

Sunday, 17 August 2008

How to use energy saving lightbulbs

A question – since energy saving lightbulbs are compact fluorescents, presumably they consume more energy when powering up than they do when actually lit. So in a room which is often vacant, but visited frequently – like the toilets in an office – is it better to leave them on all day or to switch them off when you leave the room? When we first installed such lights in our office, we were told to leave them on all day, but that was fifteen years ago. Has the technology moved on since then, or did we just stop paying attention to it?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Renewable energy doesn't count in carbon reporting

The UK government plans to change reporting criteria for businesses so that they will no longer be able to claim carbon savings gained by using renewable energy. As a result, many organisations which currently claim to be "carbon neutral" could find themselves with a large carbon deficit to deal with. Several large companies are lobbying against the move, including BT which has been using the carbon contribution from buying renewable energy to help towards its ambitious target to cut carbon by 80% by 2020.

Currently about 5% of UK grid electricity is generated from clean hydroelectric and wind sources, and in 2005 the government said companies buying such renewable electricity tariffs could report them as producing zero emissions. However, environmental campaigners and energy experts have called into question the benefits of green tariffs. The Carbon Trust has indicated that concerns over green tariffs are similar to those over carbon offsets: transparency, double counting and additionality – ie whether they cut carbon emissions over and above what would have happened anyway.

Hence the move by Defra, which could prove costly for larger businesses, which from 2010 will have to participate in the Carbon Reduction Commitment. The cap and trade scheme will not just impose levies on companies with above-average carbon emissions, it will also rank them in a league table, causing potential embarrassment for organisations which have previously earned a reputation for carbon busting.

A consultation will now take place on this subject, but it's likely the controversy will continue for some time. In the meantime, organisations which are serious about cutting carbon should focus on reducing energy use rather than relying on the potential carbon benefit of renewables.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Junk the junk mail

Junk mail in the US is causing carbon emissions of 51,548,000 metric tons annually, according to pressure group Forest Ethics. That's equivalent to 9 million cars or 11 coal-fired power plants. Their report, Climate Change Enclosed: Junk Mail’s Effect on Global Warming, claims that almost half of the carbon impact of junk mail comes from deforestation and 1% comes from emissions during printing. There is a small carbon benefit – burning waste paper to create energy returns 1% of the total, because it's more carbon efficient than fossil-fuel based energy. It's worth noting here that the term "junk mail" defines items sent through the mail that the recipient doesn't want or need - the numbers quoted above are bound to include both wanted and unwanted items.

So, what do you do with your junk mail? Dump it in the recycling bin (or, worse still, the waste bin) - or unsubscribe? The easiest way to avoid receiving direct mail which is personally addressed to you is to register with the Mailing Preference Service. And since March this year, the Direct Marketing Association has also offered the Your Choice scheme to opt out of unaddressed mail. It will only protect you from mail drops by DMA association members, but it's a start.

If senders persist, you need to let the sender know that you don't want to receive future mailings. Preparing self-adhesive labels to attach to packages and return them to sender with an explanation is probably the least labour-intensive method. Yes, I know the transport impact of the returned package needs to be taken into account but if it’s sent via the normal mail system this is negligible and at least it will prevent further impact from unwanted mailings. There are more useful tips at

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Waterways revival

As a river and canal enthusiast, I've always wondered why they fell out of favour as a means of transport. So I'm delighted by news that Britain's waterways are emjpoying a renaissance as some of the UK's biggest transport firms migrate from tarmac to water. Many of our major towns and cities are located on rivers or canals - indeed the canals were created to link major industrial centres during the industrial revolution - so there's a readymade infrastructure there. And thanks to the efforts of volunteers and enthusiasts, most of the canals that had fallen into neglect and decay have already been restored to a navigable state. Companies already moving some goods by water include Sainsbury, Tesco, DHL and even the nation's favourite trucker Eddie Stobart. Tesco expects to to have saved an estimated 3,500 lorry movements by the end of 2008.

However, the rejuventation of water freight won't all be plain sailing. A proposal to build a commercial wharf near Heathrow, which would have saved tens of thousands of lorry journeys around the M25 or through central London, was recently shelved. Meanwhile, former wharves are being sold off for waterfront homes. In fact, so many of London's wharves have been sold off to developers that those that do remain have protected status; a plan to extend this protection to the rest of the country is awaiting government's response. The regulatory body which oversees the canal network, British Waterways, was founded to support their use for leisure and heritage use and a revival of their use as a transport network would require a major change of its focus and remit. In short, whilst the freight companies recognise the opportunity to cut their carbon - and their costs - by moving goods on water, the government and regulatory bodies are not rising to the challenge. Whilst we continue to subsidise the road network, the potential to revive the waterways as a transport network will probably never be realised.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Shell rapped for greenwashing

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell misled the public about the green credentials of an oil project in Canada. A complaint against an advertisement in the Financial times was lodged by the WWF (formerly Worldwide Fund for Nature). It's unclear whether any other complaints were received. Shell was criticised for using the word "sustainable" for its controversial tar sands project and a second scheme to build an oil refinery. The ASA ruled that the adhad breached rules on substantiation, truthfulness and environmental claims, since both projects would lead to the emission of more greenhouse gases. You can read the full story here.

It's interesting to note that before any radio advertisement can be aired in the UK, it has to be submitted for clearance and any any claims must be substantiated to the satisfaction of the relevant authority. Yet press advertising is not usually scrutinised until somebody complains. I'd like to see the radio system adopted for all types of advertising, then consumers could be more confident that advertisers' claims are "legal, decent, honest and truthful". In fact, it would also benefit conscientious advertisers, who already perform this kind of due diligence only to find their position undermined by the less scrupulous organisations.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Carbon-neutral credibility

As Dell becomes the latest corporation to trumpet its carbon neutral status, I'm wondering whether they've shot themselves in the foot. Until now, I've been impressed with Dell's sustainability efforts - they seem sincere and they've made some good improvements. But in order to claim carbon neutral status requires carbon offsetting - and that, for me, is where the rot sets in. The theory that you can compensate for your own emissions by paying somebody else to reduce theirs just doesn't stand up - for an illustration of this visit

I'm not against carbon offsetting per se - take air travel as an example. Even if you do your best to avoid flying to meetings, sometimes in a global ecomomy there's no alternative. When you've exhausted all the other options, incurring a specific carbon impact and then offsetting it is OK. But that doesn't make the activity carbon neutral. What offsetting does is neutralise both the negative carbon impact of the act you wish to offset and the positive carbon impact of the action taken to offset it. At best, it gets us back to square one (although that depends on the effectiveness of the offsetting project - and that's a whole new can of worms). It's just a gesture.

Personally, I find it more credible when a company claims to be low carbon. This acknowledges the fact that the vast majority of businesses have a detrimental carbon impact, and that the best we can hope to achieve is to reduce it. By all means take some steps to help mitigate these impacts by investing in carbon-positive projects - and even pick some individual impacts to offset. But to claim that any of this makes your business carbon-neutral is just disingenuous.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Small wind turbines "net emitters of carbon" says The Carbon Trust

According to a recent paper by The Carbon Trust, most urban small-scale wind turbine are net emitters of carbon. The report, entitled Small-scale wind energy is based on research carried out with the assistance of the Met Office and consulting engineers Arup. It claims that the most commonly used UK windspeed database is highly optimistic in the case of urban areas and suggests that one should be wary of believing any figures offered by the wind-turbine industry.

The report's projections suggest that the potential contribution to a household's energy consumption that could be achieved with a turbine is so low that electricity prices would have to rise eight-fold before it became even remotely viable financially. Worse, over 50 per cent of installations have a carbon payback period of more than 20 years, which is beyond the expected life of most turbines.

Despite this damning evidence, the UK government is still prepared to give grants or tax breaks for a roof turbine. The Low Carbon Buildings Programme, Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) for domestic installations and the Code for Sustainable Homes. all encourage the adoption of small-scale wind energy. Perhaps in future such schemes should require actual carbon saving projections to be taken into account.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Biofuels fail eco standards

According to a report in The Guardian, more than 80% of the biofuels used under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) fail environmental standards. the RTFO calls for biofuels to be mixed into all petrol and diesel supplies, in a government-led bid to tackle climate crisis. A report by The Renewable Fuels Agency says just 19% of the biofuel supplied under the scheme met its green standard. For the remaining 81%, suppliers could not say where it came from, or could not prove that it had been produced in a sustainable way.

The project began in April, and biofuel accounted for 2.1% of UK road fuel for the first month of the scheme, against a target for the year of 2.5%. 865 was biodiesel, the rest bioethanol. Scientists and campaigners have warned that biofuels could cause more problems than they solve, with concerns over the destruction of tropical forests and impact on global food supplies.
The RFA's environmental standard is intended to address those concerns and covers issues from child labour to water and soil conservation, although it doesn't take into account the impact of changes in land use, which experts have warned could cancel out the environmental benefits of biofuels.

Under the RTFO, suppliers are supposed to ensure that 30% of the biofuel used meets the voluntary standard. Data shows most biofuels were imported, with the majority of identified supplies coming from the US. However, at least 6m litres came from palm oil, a highly controversial crop that has been linked to severe deforestation and threats to orang-utan populations in south-east Asia. This could be an under-estimate because half the biodiesel used was untraceable.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Fuel poverty news

With fuel poverty becoming an increasingly serious problem in the UK, news today that we could be subsidising French energy consumers from now on. Energy company EDF, which supplies customers in both countries, has been ordered to cap price rises in France - increases will be limited to 2% for electricity and 5% for gas. Commentators are suggesting that if bulk energy prices continue to rise, EDF may be forced to recover from British consumers any revenue shortfall in France. However EDF argues that the two operations are entirely separate and the 11% price advantage French customers already enjoy is due to the fact that 80% of electricity produced there is nuclear. France also has up to four times the amount of gas storage as Britain, allowing it to buy gas in bulk at low prices during the summer for use during high winter demand.

Whilst we should all be encouraged to reduce our energy consumption, it's a basic neccessity of life. Many MPs feel that energy prices should not be left to market forces and highlighted the lack of controls in Britain’s liberalised energy market in a parliamentary report last month. Some are calling for the UK to adopt the French government's approach and restrict energy price rises to the inflation rate. Certainly this would help vulnerable households which this winter could find themselves unable to afford heat and light.

For expert advice on how to find the cheapest energy providers, sign up to Martin Lewis' excellent - regular alerts will advise you on when and how to act to cut your energy bills. Tips on how to cut energy consumption are available from the Energy Saving Trust. And if you're committed to cutting your carbon, compares tariffs from renewable energy suppliers which can save an average of 2 tonnes of CO2 per household per year.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Why not walk it?

Sometimes the greenest ideas don't come from a desire to improve sustainability. Take, the UK's first walking route planner. According to a profile in BT's customer magazine, founder Jamie Wallace was driven more by the desire to save time. He wanted to prove to his colleagues that walking to meetings in central London could be quicker than using any other form of transport. Of course, he caught the zeitgeist (and the London congestion charge!) and is now popular with those who want to cut the carbon - it even calculates how much carbon you've saved.

He's busy adding new cities to the site but while you're waiting from walkit to get round to including your own city, you might find that adding the Co-Pilot application to your PDA is a worthwhile alternative. It has a walking mode as well as the normal route planning and driver's satnav features and can even be used to avoid buying printed maps for countryside walks.
Finally, if you do decide to walk it, tell Green Thing. Walking was its first ever green thing, in October 2007.

Rebranding global warming

Overheard on the radio this morning, another member of the public expressing the view that "this global warming stuff must be nonsense, all we're getting is rain". As the need for climate action becomes ever more urgent, there's a strong chance that a misconception about the manifestations of global warming might convince many that the threat isn't real. Of course as anybody who has watched Al Gore's magnificent movie knows, the result of global warming is disruption weather patterns rather than warmer weather as such. The poles may become warmer - and thus sea levels rise - but in fact the UK could face a mini ice age if our warming Gulf Stream changes its route. Extreme weather like floods and droughts, typhoons and hurricanes will become more common, too.

As a marketer I understand the power of labels to shape people's perceptions and I think adopting the term global warming undermined early efforts to promote awareness. It's just not threatening enough. Ask any bunch of Brits over 40 what it means to them and a good proportion will smile as they recall the long, hot summer of 1976 and murmur "bring it on". The term climate change is less friendly, with fewer positive connotations, but still rather too neutral to describe a process which could ultimately mean the end of civilisation as we know it. I'd like to propose that we all adopt the term "climate crisis" as a more accurate representation of the situation - then perhaps more people would understand the enormity of the challenge that we face together.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

In-car versus mains charging

I've been pondering today - is it better to charge my mobile phone in my car, or to plug it into the mains at home? I know I have to unplug it when it's fully charged, as it will otherwise continue to draw power, but is there a difference between the carbon impact of electricity drawn from the national grid and from my car? I feel that somehow the electricity drawn from my car is "free" - but does it affect fuel consumption? And is the effect significant enough to make a difference?

A mischevious colleague has just suggested that I should charge it in my car and, if necessary, take the car for a drive just to provide a charging opportunity. Thanks, Steve, but of course I mean when I'm using the car anyway. In fact, if the impact of charging my phone in the car is lower, maybe it can even help mitigate the carbon impact of driving in the first place. And because I'm bound to be there in the car to hear it beep when the battery is full, I'm likely to unplug it sooner than if it beeped at home when I'm in another room. So which is greener?

Anybody know? I'd love to find out!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Love for Water

More on the subject of water; in my inbox this afternoon is an invitation to join a survey sponsored by Waterwise and the Oxford-based Centre for Water Research. The aim is to determine whether incentivising householders to reduce their water use would have a positive impact. If you would like to take part in the survey, which closes on 8th August, you can do so at

Should we boycott bottled water?

In my own small way, I've been making a stand recently by ordering tap water in restaurants instead of bottled water. So I was delighted to see that Thames Water and the Mayor of London have teamed up to launch London On Tap, an initiative to encourage the drinking of tap water in the capital. According to their website, London’s tap water is rated top in the UK, making it one of the best in the world, and consistently beats more expensive, bottled alternatives in taste tests. Thames Water Chief Executive David Owens claims London's water is 500 times cheaper than bottled water and emits 300 times less CO2 to process than bottled alternatives. Yet many people feel that to order tap water in a restaurant looks "cheap". To address this stigma, London On Tap has commissioned a competition to design an iconic carafe which can be used to dispense tap water in restaurants.

CIWEM calculate that 22 million tonnes of bottled water are transferred between countries every year - ludicrous when you think about it. And, according to the Bottled Water Information Office, the average briton drinks 37.6 litres of bottled water per annum. It may seem like a small gesture to ask for tap water, but if enough of us do it - just like anything else - it really can make a difference.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Top 10 environmental bugbears

Harris Interactive has recently carried out a survey on over 1,500 respondents that revealed the Top 10 environmental bugbears in the office.

They were as follows:
1. Mindless printing resulting in increased paper waste (40%)
2. Leaving lights on (37%)
3. Lack of recycling bins (33%)
4. Excessive air conditioning in summer and heat in winter (29%)
5. Excessive use of paper products, like cups, plates, etc. (27%)
6. Co-workers not recycling (27%)
7. Co-workers not printing double-sided when they can (24%)
8. Too many cover sheets when faxing or printing (24%)
9. Having to store paper copies of existing, electronic files (24%)
10. Leaving computer on and not powering down when going home (23%)

Go on, be honest, how many of these are you guilty of?