5 ways a zero waste lifestyle could be harming the planet


If it becomes all about the packaging

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is, and packaging is only one of these. It’s what’s in the packaging that makes the most difference. There is some logic to this – there is simply more product than packaging, therefore more resources will go into producing it.

Some businesses are taking advantage of this narrow focus to greenwash their products and services. I recently visited a food outlet which made a show of promoting it’s ‘sustainable’ packaging, but the man behind the till told me that the amount of  unsold food they throw out at the end of the day is ‘crazy.’ Much of it was meat and other resource-intensive foods. There is really no type of packaging that will make this kind of business model sustainable.

If you end up buying mountains of new stuff

Consumption is the major driver of environmental destruction. There can be benefits to buying new things if you invest smartly in items that will help you to you reduce your consumption in long run. But many sustainable lifestyle tips seem to be little more than shopping lists for more stuff, and the most frequently promoted items are not exactly gentle on the environment.  Stainless steel is an insanely wasteful and co2 intensive material to produce, while cotton has an enormous water footprint. While I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t use things made from stainless steel or cotton, I would suggest that if your goal is to reduce your environmental impact then accumulating piles of resource-intensive stuff is not the way to do it. Buy just what you need.

Perhaps the most extreme example of excess consumption in the name of waste reduction is buying electronic gadgets like food processors and soup makers for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging. Electrical goods take a lot of materials to produce (much more than meets the eye) and are very wasteful and co2 intensive to manufacture, while electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. I am not suggesting that we should not use food processors. What I am saying is that investing in several kilos of metals and hard plastic to avoid the consumption of packets doesn’t add up.

If you end up increasing car use in order to shop zero waste

If you increase the amount you drive in order to shop, the environmental damage from car use could outweigh the benefits of buying more sustainable goods. Driving (at least for conventional vehicles) causes climate change, which is more problematic for the oceans than plastic waste, and is also a major cause of air pollution, which contributes to around 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK and is known to make children sick (though strangely, this doesn’t seem to cause the same levels of anxiety and outrage as turtles and plastic straws).

The good news is that zero waste shops are increasing so rapidly that you may now have one near where you live. Some even offer a delivery service with electric vehicles – a great way to reduce congestion and carbon emissions compared to everyone driving to the shops. So see what is on offer local to you.

If you simply swap one type of consumption for another

I recently visited a ‘zero waste’ grocery store that simply swapped plastic packaging for paper bags. Unless there was something very different about it’s supply chain, it’s hard to see how it was reducing packaging waste. It could potentially even increase the environmental impact from food packaging, as paper bags have higher carbon footprints than plastic ones, and since they are less durable cannot be reused as many times.

In general, the more a business is about reducing waste (rather than simply avoiding plastic) the more it will have an eclectic, down to earth feel. These are the places that encourage their customers to donate old jars and plastic bags for other customers to use and furnish the premises with second hand and repurposed stuff.

If a preoccupation with small details distracts from the bigger picture

Once you have made the changes that have the biggest impact, perfecting every last detail of an eco-conscious lifestyle has diminishing returns. Making everything from scratch and researching every single thing you buy are very time consuming, and it is not always certain that this has a lot of benefit for the environment.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t take small actions to benefit the environment. I’m questioning whether actions that involve a lot of effort, energy and focus but have very small or dubious benefits are the best use of time and resources given the scale and gravity of the environmental crisis. Nor I am I suggesting that you should not cook from scratch, make your own beauty products, or anything else if that is what you like to do. I am suggesting that if you feel duty-bound to do these things for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging, then this is something time and energy consuming which has relatively small environmental benefits and could be taking your time away from more effective actions.

Put it this way: if everyone reduced their consumption of animal products, energy and stuff, it would have enormous benefits for the health of the planet. If everyone volunteered or campaigned for the environment, even in small ways, we could achieve something big. But if everyone en masse avoided jars with plastic lids, the difference would be hard to spot.

We need volunteers to collect and redistribute the vast quantities of surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away. We need people to bother their MPs about fracking and taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and to demand better waste and transport infrastructure. We need bodies on the ground to protest. We need litter pickers. We need everyone to divest their personal finances from fossil fuels and encourage their institutions to do so too. We even need clicktivists.

Note that some of these actions could take 5 minutes. The movement to defend the environment is weakened when those of us who care are absorbed in the search for plastic-free ingredients for homemade toothpaste and travelling to distant shops that sell pasta in cardboard packaging.


Six steps to a zero waste autumn and winter

167795_10150365121055532_3005165_nAsk most people what zero waste means to them, and they will probably say something to do with rubbish and recycling. But there is a blind spot towards a type of waste which is not only very bad for the environment but is also very expensive – that is, wasted energy. Most household energy use in the UK is for heat, and almost all of this is generated by burning fossil fuels. Considering how expensive energy consumption is we can be surprisingly profligate with this resource. We heat rooms and even whole buildings that are not being used and leave the lights on all night. We fill up the kitchen sink with hot water to wash up just a few things and have a hot shower every single day, whatever the weather. We focus on coffee cups while waste heat from poorly insulated buildings is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. And the rapidly melting arctic ice is not the only issue – gas boilers contribute to air pollution. So what to do?

Stop paying for waste heat

Turn off radiators in rooms that are not being used and switch off the heat altogether whenever you are not going to be around. If your whole household is going out for the evening, consider resetting the timer so that the heat only comes on when you return and you will save yourself from paying to heat an empty home for several hours. The space will stay warm for a little while after the heat is turned off, so you can set the timer to go off shortly before you leave in the morning/go to bed at night.

Also, you can do some very fancy things with smart tech these days, so consider taking advantage of these to manage your home heat better.

Get the temperature right

If it is freezing outside, but indoors you are quite comfortable in your t-shirt, then you can probably save quite a bit of money and carbon by putting on a jumper and turning down the heat. Experiment until you find the right temperature.

Play around with the furniture

Last year in my own house we managed to warm up a chilly kitchen by rearranging some furniture that was blocking the radiator and closing the door to prevent icy blasts coming in from the hallway. Have a play around to see if anything could be better organised to protect against draughts and make the best use of heat. There are some good ideas here and here if you need inspiration. Energy is too expensive and too costly for the planet to be wasted over simple things that could easily be fixed.

Update your heat source

Consider signing up to a carbon neutral gas supplier such as Green Energy  or Ovo, or possibly a new, low carbon source of heat altogether.

Spend more time in bed in the mornings

If the weather is not that warm and you are only going to the office, do you still need to shower every single day? A strip wash will not only save money, carbon emissions, and water, it will allow you extra minutes in bed on a morning. And do you need to fill the kitchen sink with hot, soapy water to wash up a few things? Challenge yourself to get the dishes clean with the minimum amount of resources, otherwise you are quite literally paying for things which are going down the drain.

Spend money to save it

If you live in a cold climate like the UK, one of the best things you can do for the environment is make sure that your home is properly insulated. The extent to which you are able to do this depends on whether you own your own home and how much you can afford to spend upfront, but if you can invest in things like loft and wall insulation this will lead to financial savings in the long run. Some people may be eligible for home energy efficiency grants, so it might be worth checking with your local council to see whether this applies to you, while if you live in a privately rented home your landlord is legally obliged to ensure that the building has an energy efficiency rating above a certain level.

Don’t forget the lower-cost hacks as well, such as blankets, rugs, draught-proofing and thicker curtains, described here so beautifully by the blogger Gina Caro. A draught excluder may not be as instagrammable as a salad in a stainless steel tin, but it could turn out to be your most effective zero waste accessory this winter.

Going Low Carbon: Transport


So everyone’s heard about the UN report warning that we only have 12 years to limit global warming. Climate change can sometimes feel intangible compared to say, plastic litter, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the drive to reduce plastic use has taken off while the movement to go car-free has yet to gain traction. But the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are quite real. All the things you care about – social justice, the survival of species, your children’s future – are all at being impacted by climate breakdown as you read this.

Although there are many ways that we as individuals can reduce our carbon footprint (this is a good summary here) I’ve decided to focus this piece on car use, as transport is the one area where CO2 emissions in the UK are actually increasing. Car use is also one of the main causes of air pollution, which is thought to be behind the deaths of 28,000 – 36,000 deaths in the UK every year. In fact, earlier this year, air pollution was linked directly to the death of a 9 year-old girl in London.

Green transport is the bit everyone knows – we should all be walking, cycling and catching the bus. I could point out that walking and cycling is also great for keeping fit and saving money, but you already realise that. Whether or not you need to drive depends very much on your individual circumstances, especially the area where you live. In terms of environmental impact, what matters is not so much whether you happen to drive, but how much and with what fuel.

If you need to do a lot of driving, could you get an electric car? These are not perfect – I’ve already written about them here – but they can go a long way to reducing the carbon emissions from car use, especially if they are run on clean energy. If an electric car is not an option, go for a fuel-efficient petrol car that is the smallest size that meets your needs. Do not even think about a diesel car or an SUV.

If you need a car for some journeys, but don’t need to drive every day, are there any car clubs local to you? If they offer electric cars, even better. These clubs can reduce the amount of cars on roads, relieving congestion and reducing the impacts of manufacturing new cars and disposing of old ones. They should also reduce the temptation to drive for short journeys, as well as saving you the hassle of car ownership.

If a car is the only realistic way for you to get to work, could you car share? Or can you get your groceries delivered by an electric van? Some zero waste shops offer this service.

Also, are you sure that your local public transport is so bad? Have you tried it recently? Cars are often sold to us as offering freedom, but for me, one of the positives of giving up my car was the relief from the headache of paying for it, taxing, insuring and maintaining it, filling it up with fuel, finding somewhere to park it, and the rest. When I get on a bus somebody else worries about the route and the maintenance while I relax and look out of the window. When I am on my bike, I speed past the traffic jams.

Having said that, poor local transport infrastructure can be a big barrier for many people who would like to drive less. Where I live now there are good public transport connections and designated cycle lanes. But I have lived in places where public transport is a joke, or I didn’t dare cycle to work as there were no designated cycle lanes and the traffic was terrifying. For many people, navigating public transport with pushchairs or wheelchairs can be tricky, while some transport fares are absurdly expensive.

But these are all policy decisions. If you are frustrated by the lack of low carbon transport infrastructure in your area, do your local politicians know? Research finds that one of the reasons that politicians do not act on climate change, for example, is because they do not feel any pressure from voters to act. So does your local council/MP know you are frustrated with your local options? Imagine if the demand for safe, accessible and clean transport became a major voting issue – what difference might that make?

Car driving also has a circular relationship with local air pollution – on the one hand, it is a major cause of it, on the other, travelling inside a car can put you at more risk from it – levels of air pollution are 9 to 12 times higher inside the car than outside it. Children are particularly vulnerable. If you decide to walk with your children, experts recommend taking quieter streets, as this can cut exposure to pollution by up to two thirds. The health benefits of walking and cycling still outweigh the costs of breathing in pollution.

Plastic-Free July: A Call for Sanity

Many of us in the UK were disappointed by the recent vote in Parliament to allow a third runway to be built at Heathrow, which is expected to contribute to a 4.9 million tonne increase in co2 emissions by 2030. In the same week, the Committee on Climate Change warned that the country is likely to miss it’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, mainly because emissions from transport and home energy use have not been addressed. You might wonder why politicians seem so unconcerned by all this.

Some recent research offers some insights. A study interviewed 14 MPs from the 3 major parties, and found that most reported that people rarely speak to them about climate change. One said ‘If……the public are not flagging it up consistently as one of their top concerns or priorities, that is the issue.’ The study concluded that ‘politicians feel little pressure from those they represent to act on climate change.’

So why is this? Is it because the public doesn’t care about the environment? This seems unlikely. These days it seems everywhere you turn, people are talking about how we can all do our bit for the environment.

However, a closer glance at the national conversation reveals some clues. The BBC offers tips on avoiding cling film, straws and dental floss, while sustainable lifestyle bloggers repeatedly promise that using reusable cups and bags will make a ‘huge difference’ to our impact. Now I’m all for reducing waste – I haven’t used cling film, single use cups and the rest for years. But the current focus on small details is wildly disproportionate to the threat that any of these things pose to the environment. How might things be different, say, if the half a million people who recently signed a petition about plastic straws emailed their MPs about the impending climate catastrophe?

I have already written about the importance of keeping a sense of perspective when it comes to taking action to protect our environment. Please, everyone, we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, and if we do not get a grip on climate change, our cities will end up underwater and there will be huge famines. Meanwhile if we do not start seriously reducing the amount of food we waste and animal products we consume, we will not be able to feed the world.

Here is the zero waster guide to keeping things in perspective. The following actions should tick all the boxes – climate change, biodiversity, water use, resource depletion and pollution.

Dubious benefit: sourcing toothpaste in a jar.

Big benefit: letting your local MP/council know how you feel about the environment. Let your MP know that you were pleased/disappointed with the way they voted over Heathrow. Ask them whether they have signed up to Divest Parliament/the council from fossil fuels. Ask them what actions they are taking to facilitate low carbon transport in your area. Ask them what they are doing about any issue that concerns you.

Dubious benefit: worrying about/researching every single thing you buy.

Big benefit: consuming and wasting less.

Questionable benefit: eliminating plastic from your life.

Bigger benefit: litter picking and beach clean ups. Many people aim to go plastic-free due to fears that the stuff all ends up in the sea, but plastic pollution in the UK comes from litter – if you dispose of it properly, it’s unlikely to end up in the ocean. I have already written about some of the problems with alternatives to plastic, while green groups have expressed alarm that the war on plastic could increase food waste and contribute to global warming. Others have expressed concern that the campaigning energy directed at the small stuff, like plastic straws (a tiny fraction of ocean plastics) diverts attention from action on fishing waste (which makes up most ocean plastics).

Reducing consumption and waste is one of the best things that you can do for the environment, but targeting a specific material in isolation, and without factoring in the side effects, could end up causing more problems than it solves.

If you are concerned about the state of the oceans, concentrate on a) avoiding unsustainably sourced seafood (b) reducing your carbon footprint – global warming and ocean acidification is disastrous for marine life and c) avoiding unsustainable tourism.

Microscopic benefit: avoiding cling film, plastic straws and dental floss.

Huge benefit: Avoiding animal products. Actually, it’s THE best thing you can do, according to a massive study.

Small benefit: investing in special kit to preserve tomato halves.

Big benefit: taking advantage of schemes that rescue surplus food. If you have the time, consider volunteering for some of them. Many of these projects also have social goals such as tackling food poverty and encouraging a sense of community. You can also keep an eye out for yellow label food in the shops – ie goods that would be thrown out if they are not sold that day. The tomato should be ok if you put it in an old jam jar in the fridge.

Dubious benefit: driving to the next town to get to a shop that does washing up liquid refills.

Big benefit: minimising car use. This is the single area where the UK’s co2 emissions are actually increasing.  Cars are also major contributors to local air pollution, which was recently linked to the death of a child. We need to wake up about car use.

To save making a special trip, you can get refills of concentrate cleaning products posted to you. Research finds that using concentrate is better for the environment than buying liquids anyway.

Small benefit: taking your zero waste travel kit with you on holiday.

Big benefit: not flying.

No real benefit: sourcing biodegradable bin bags.

Big benefit: sorting out your home energy. Most energy use in UK homes (around 80%) is for heating, and this is contributing to the UK’s lack of progress on meeting it’s carbon reduction targets. So anything you can do to reduce the amount of energy you use for heat is worthwhile. For electricity, switch to a clean energy supplier – many renewable energy companies turn out to be cheaper and/or have better customer service than dirty energy companies anyway.

Also, if your general waste is sent to landfill, try to do what you can to keep anything biodegradable out of it, otherwise it will still be releasing greenhouse gases in several decades’ time. And if if your council sends the waste to be incinerated, there isn’t much to be gained from buying special bags.

So-small, are-you-sure-you-want-to-bother?: giving up chewing gum.

Big benefit: Getting involved in activism or volunteering. Apart from the suggestions above, there’s creative forms of activism, campaign groups, conservation projects, food growing groups…..not only do these things make a difference, but they sound distinctly more fun than searching around trying to to find groceries in paper packaging.

5 Habits of Successful Zero Wasters


The successful zero waster…..

Has developed an immunity to advertising

If something is advertised, then you probably don’t need it. Advertisers use all kinds of deviousness to try to part you from your cash, but ignoring them means freedom. This applies just as much to eco friendly lifestyle products as anything else. If you didn’t think you needed an organic peg bag or a sustainable fly swatter before you went online, what’s changed?

Similarly, the successful zero waster never relies on marketing as a guide to what to buy. Large corporations can be very clever about making themselves appear green, although they usually stop short of telling outright fibs. Meanwhile smaller, independent businesses may have more of a focus on sustainability, but seem less inclined to check their facts, and regularly make the most preposterous claims about the eco friendliness of their products and businesses.

Regardless of whether a business is large or small, they both have one thing in common: they are hoping you will give them your money. So get your information about sustainability elsewhere. If it helps, I’ve made a list of what to buy and what not to buy here.

Always Plans Their Meals Ahead

This is something which is a bore for about 10 minutes but pays off. It’s the most effective way I know to avoid food waste, and if you get it right, means you’ll always have something good to eat. I really enjoyed this example from the Green and Rose Blog.

Doesn’t believe everything they read

There is no shortage of misinformation out there, so be savvy about who you listen to. Sources to treat with caution include: social media memes, special interest groups and campaigners, anyone trying to sell you something, emotive documentaries that you haven’t fact-checked, and random people on the internet.

Also, sustainable lifestyle bloggers that tell you to buy beeswax wraps but don’t mention meat consumption and transport are the environmental equivalent of health bloggers that tell you to eat obscure foods but don’t tell you not to smoke.

It may not be realistic to review the scientific literature before every decision, but it is possible to be smart about your sources. As a guide, look out for articles that reference research and get quotes from well-qualified people. Serious news reports that are written by specialist science and environment journalists are also more likely to be reliable. Organisations who base their advice on evidence include Hubbub and the Waste and Resources Action Partnership.

Knows how to do the laundry

This is that one weird trick that can reduce impacts in so many ways. Wash your clothes only when needed, at 30°, using a full load on a short cycle. Then air dry if poss. This will not only reduce your consumption of electricity, water and soap, but it will make your clothes and your machine last for longer and help to reduce the amount of microfibres in the oceans. Life is too short to do any more laundry than necessary anyway.

Sees the bigger picture

A sense of perspective is essential for anyone who is looking to reduce their impact on the planet. Given the urgency of the planetary crisis, it makes sense to focus on the actions that will make the most difference – I have already written about those here.

Of course, small steps can still help – as long as a) they genuinely make a difference and b) they are relatively cheap and easy to do. Investing a lot of time, energy and focus on the small stuff can do more harm than good if it diverts attention from the most pressing issues. Yes, there are environmental benefits from using reusable bags, plastic-free teabags and taking care not to overfill the kettle. So let’s do those things. But for most people, the areas with the biggest potential to make a a difference will be things like reducing the amount of energy used for home heating, transport, and eating more earth-friendly foods.

The successful zero waster will also avoid a narrow focus on a single issue. So yes, it’s great to reduce rubbish, but not if it means buying mountains of new stuff and driving 5 miles to reach a shop that sells unpackaged nuts. Scrolling through social media, it’s amazing how much resources are consumed in a attempt to avoid rubbish or eliminate every last trace of plastic. Tunnel vision can lead to unintended consequences for the environment – either shifting to a different problem or causing more serious impacts than the original one. See also: ‘War on Plastic May Do More Harm Than Good,’ ‘The Unintended Consequences of a War on Plastic,’ and ‘Do We Really Need to Avoid Plastic?’

(And while we’re on the topic of perspective, take care to prioritise your health. Please don’t take risks with things like sunscreen or contraception, or make any decisions about medication or dental care on the basis of avoiding packaging. Pill packets, plastic pots etc can often be recycled anyway).

At the larger scale, a public focus on small details can allow unsustainable big businesses to get free publicity by making superficial changes to their operations. Supermarkets and burger chains must be delighted that environmentalists are concentrating their efforts on straws and bags rather than looking too closely at the environmental destruction caused by their business models. Meanwhile, the national policymaking agenda will be tied up with things like plastic straws when what we urgently need is action on co2 emissions from housing and transport. The planet is burning, people, and we need to stay focussed.

10 popular myths about eco-friendly living


I should go plastic-free.

Reducing plastic waste is an excellent idea, and so is avoiding single-use items like plastic bottles. But avoiding the stuff altogether? Green groups are worried that the war on plastic could do more harm than good, and I’ve already written about some of the problems with the alternatives to plastic. If you live in the UK and dispose of plastics properly, then it’s pretty unlikely to end up in the sea.

And why only plastic? All types of waste are bad for the environment. Currently, going ‘plastic-free’ is something of a national obsession, even though plastic makes up just a small fraction of waste in this country.

If you are concerned about the impact of plastic pollution, there would be more benefit to getting involved in beach cleans and litter picking than searching around for alternatives to plastic. So let’s carry our reusable bags and bottles with us and refuse the straw. But then let’s move on.

If I am good at recycling and use a bamboo toothbrush, it’s surely ok to fly. I should just pack some reusable cutlery for the flight.

Sadly, it takes more than separating the recycling to fly and still keep your environmental impact down. A a well-known study found that the benefits of recycling are quite small compared to the impacts of flying, which emits so much co2 and other nasties.

Depending on how far you flew, you’d basically have to spend the rest of the year growing all your own food, buying nothing new, and walking everywhere in order to make no more than your fair share of impact on the planet. (And for the record, taking a reusable bottle on a return transatlantic flight will save around 320g of greenhouse gases, the carbon footprint of the flights will be at least 1.6 tonnes).

I should bring my own containers to buy meat and cheese

Hmm…….  a recent, highly-regarded meta study of the environmental impacts of food concluded that the single best thing you could do for the environment is to give up animal products altogether. Even the most sustainably produced meat has higher impacts than plant-based food. When you consider the huge environmental costs of meat production, avoiding the impacts of the packaging will make very little difference to that. And if you have to drive a bit further to reach a shop that will allow you to bring your own container, the added carbon emissions will probably reduce any environmental benefits to nil.

I should aim to buy things in ‘recyclable’ or ‘biodegradable’ packaging.

Not necessarily. Most of the environmental impacts of a product occur before it reaches the shop shelves, rather than what happens to it when we’ve finished with it. Many packaging materials that have a reputation for being more ‘recyclable’ (whatever that means) have a higher overall carbon footprint than packaging considered ‘less recyclable.’ Choosing what to buy according to what it’s made from is a headache, and it’s not even clear that there is any environmental gain from doing so. Even plastic can be recycled, whatever they tell you.

As for ‘biodegradable’ packaging, this really depends on how the materials to make the packaging are sourced, and whether it is able to fully decompose at the end of its life. If biodegradable materials end up in landfill, they give off greenhouse gases, and if biodegradable plastics are put in the recycling they can cause havoc. One recent study comparing the impacts of different types of plastic bottles found that the one made from plant-based, biodegradable materials ‘showed the worst environmental performance’ when compared to alternatives made from virgin or recycled plastic.

I should wear natural fabrics to avoid microfibres from polyester clothes getting into the sea.

I wish I knew of a solution to the problem of microfibres from clothes, but switching to ‘natural’* fabrics is not it. Materials like cotton have to be grown somewhere, and increasing land for agriculture is one of the major causes of biodiversity loss and deforestation. It also takes away land from food production, consumes lots of water, and emits greenhouse gases. A study found little difference between the overall environmental impacts of cotton, polyester, and hemp, and there is evidence that ‘natural’ fibres can also have impacts on wildlife. Hubbub have some suggestions for ways you can reduce microfibres shedding into the water.

You can tell whether a product is sustainable or not just by looking. If it is made from material x, it must be bad for the environment. If it is made from material y, is must be good.

Not necessarily. It depends how the item was produced, how the materials were sourced, how the product is used and how sustainable the alternatives would have been. Most of this information is not available to us when we are choosing what to buy.

For anything which is not food or hygiene products, it’s better to ask – how much do I need it and how much value am I likely to get from it? Do I need to buy it new, or could I get hold of it second-hand or borrow one?

Electric vehicles are an environmentally friendly alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles.

This depends what you mean by ‘environmentally friendly.’ Electric vehicles have less global warming impact, yes (although clearly it depends on the source of the electricity used to power them). But only when you compare them to conventional vehicles. Compared to walking and cycling, their global warming impact will be huge, because of the fossil fuels involved in mining and producing all the materials to make them, manufacturing them, transporting them, and generating electricity to power them in a system which still burns fossil fuels.

As well as global warming impacts, the process to manufacture electric vehicles is more toxic than the process to make conventional vehicles, the materials needed for them are hard to source ethically, and all vehicles add to congestion and local air pollution from tyres and braking.

So, electric vehicles do have some environmental benefits, but they are not ‘environmentally-friendly.’ The ideal is always to reduce car use as much as possible.

Plastic takes 1000 years to biodegrade.

No-one really knows how long it takes to biodegrade – it hasn’t been around for long enough. It could be centuries, it could be millennia, or it may not biodegrade at all. But it doesn’t biodegrade quickly, that’s for sure.

Imported food always has a higher carbon footprint than locally-produced food. 

Not necessarily. If food is transported by ship it could potentially have a low carbon footprint, while local food that is intensively produced could have a high one. As a general rule, say no to foods (and flowers) that have travelled a long distance and have a short shelf-life. These are most likely to have been air-freighted, and were probably frozen or chilled along the way. Sadly, this includes avocados.

Prioritising which environmental issues to be concerned with is simply a matter of personal preference.

Well, yes and no. If you choose to be an environmental activist then yes, it is difficult to take on all the environmental problems in the world. You’re going to have to select. But when it comes to lifestyle choices, there is plenty of scientific research to tell us which are the biggest impacts to prioritise.

The biggest one thing you can do for the environment is to reduce your consumption of animal products. That’s not a value judgement of anyone’s personal choices. That’s the conclusion of a super-thorough, scientific study based on 40,000 farms across the world and covering 90% of all foods eaten.

Impacts can be measured and compared. Avoiding food waste has more benefits than avoiding packaging waste. The environmental impact of the way something is produced is usually more significant than whether or not it can be recycled. Avoiding flying will have more environmental benefit than reducing your rubbish.

Of course, whether or not you choose to eat meat or fly is a personal decision, and for some people, circumstances mean that the ideal option is not always possible. But if you are taking action to benefit the environment, aim to make choices based on the evidence.


Since I wrote this, everyone’s been asking, ‘in that case, what am I supposed to do?’ I wrote What to buy, and what not to buy and The Lazy Individual’s Guide to Reducing  Your Environmental Impact, if that helps.

*I am not sure what is ‘natural’ about cotton compared to polyester. Cotton is cultivated by people for profit and most likely grown with modern irrigation technologies and synthetic pesticides. Polyester is derived from oil, a naturally occurring substance in the earth’s surface. Both oil and cotton have to be intensively processed before they can be turned into useful products. ‘Natural’ is not a very useful word in this context.


I added up my own carbon footprint – this is what I found

My life in carbon

So I decided to calculate my carbon footprint*. My life looks pretty low carbon as I don’t own a car, don’t eat meat, and my home energy supply is zero carbon. But I do have a habit of travelling all over the country to visit family and friends –  I clock up around 3000 carbon-powered miles a year just on trips. I also eat a lot of food – an extremely dirty form of fuel, as food production involves high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

So I put all my data into a spreadsheet, and geeked out with this super-handy government greenhouse gas emissions database  –  a resource so comprehensive it even includes the co2 emissions from journeys on the London Underground.

It turns out that my personal footprint comes to 2.46 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This isn’t too bad. The UK average is around 13. Prince Charles’ is 1,173.  Mine would have been 4, but I saved around 1.7 tonnes with the cycling, vegetarianism, and clean energy supplier.

How my footprint breaks down:

Food: 86%

Travel round the UK by train/coach: 7%

Use of public services: 4%

Water use: 2%

Travel on London Underground: 1%

The high carbon footprint of food I kind of expected. The impact of all my travelling turns out to be quite small. I decided to include the carbon footprint of water use because it takes a lot of energy to pump the stuff to the house and then treat it again afterwards, but it hasn’t turned out to be massive.

I love trains

What I didn’t include

There was several things I missed out because they were just too hassly to work out, such as the impact of recycling, or the emissions from my fridge.  I also didn’t include emissions from landfill, since I don’t throw much away, or the carbon footprint of buying stuff, since I hardly ever buy anything new, and calculating the carbon emissions from charity shops and things was too much of a bore.

The future

To keep global warming under 2 degrees, everyone on the planet needs to get their carbon footprint down to 2 tonnes per year by 2050 (has anyone told Prince Charles?). That gives me 32 years to reduce mine by 0.46. Assuming that the UK public transport system is fossil-free by then (which I believe is the plan), I think I’ll do it.

*More precisely, I calculated all greeenhouse gas emssions, not just carbon dioxide. So it’s really more like a greenhouse gas footprint.