Interview: The Man Who Gave Up Flying

 

Steve Westlake (1)

Could you give up flying to save the environment? Greta Thunberg famously doesn’t fly, and the ‘Greta effect’ is credited with inspiring a movement to reduce flying. Long distance rail companies are reporting a boom in business, and even some airlines are encouraging us take fewer flights for the sake of the environment.

I spoke to one man, researcher Steve Westlake, about his decision to quit the habit.

‘I stopped flying about four years ago, when I started getting really engaged in climate change.  I’d always had this awareness about flying, as most people do, but when I started to get really engaged I thought there must be some kind of masterplan somewhere to reduce emissions from flying. But there isn’t one. That came as quite a surprise.

‘I thought there must be some kind of masterplan somewhere to reduce emissions from flying. But there isn’t one.’

The amount of energy required to get a plane in the air is so great that there aren’t really any viable alternatives to fossil fuels. There’s a lot of attention on it, but actually there aren’t any solutions. There are efficiency improvements and offsetting which doesn’t actually reduce emissions – it plans for it in the future. That led me to make a connection and think , ‘well if I’m serious about this, I’m going to need to stop.’

I’d actually flown a lot in my life – I had a job where I was flying all the time. I felt partly that I had definitely used up my quota. I don’t really come from the attitude that everybody else should do this, because I have no idea about their circumstances, but certainly from a personal point of view, I felt like it was the right thing for me to do.

‘I’d actually flown a lot in my life…….. I felt that I had definitely used up my quota.’

I can’t see myself choosing to fly except for a very good reason. Partly it’s a bit of a thing now after four years – it becomes part of your identity, and it would feel hypocritical now for me to fly. But then, who knows…..maybe the technology will advance really fast, or maybe there’ll be a really good reason for me to fly. But at the moment I can’t see it.

I haven’t travelled overseas much recently. I’ve done a few trips by train. I’ve been to the south of France by train, and to Alicante in Spain by train. I’ve pretty much stopped, although I have travelled a lot previously. I don’t feel any particular loss. I’m in my mid-forties. For younger people, I wouldn’t want to say, ‘the right thing for you is to not fly,’ because you’re cutting off a whole load of opportunities which I’ve enjoyed.

‘I feel like, if like myself, you’ve flown a lot and used a lot of carbon budget, you should consider whether it’s right to keep doing that.’

I feel like, if like myself, you’ve flown a lot and you’ve had a lot of great experiences and you’ve benefited from it, and you’ve used a lot of carbon budget (we know that the carbon budget to stay below 1.5 or 2 degrees are really tight) then I feel if that’s the case……you should consider whether it’s right to keep doing that. Personally I think I should do this, but I’m not saying that people who’ve never really flown very much should do the same. But I feel that people who really fly a huge amount should look at the reasons for it.

Do you think there are any benefits from giving up flying?

Yes, in terms of travel, there are so many places within the UK that I haven’t been. It’s not as if my world is suddenly hugely restricted or I can’t have any new experiences. It is a kind of freedom. It releases you from things you feel you ‘should’ be doing. If I flew, I would think ‘I should be going to see my brother in the states. I should be going to all these interesting places that I could go to. I should be doing all these things which are part of the travel dream.’ It’s just the sort of normative thing that you’re expected to do. I don’t have that. There is a feeling of consistency that is reassuring in doing it.

Aviation emissions make up a relatively small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, so I’m wondering why you decided to target that.

Global emissions from aviation are around 2%. The actual global warming effect is considerably higher than that – probably double – because of where the emissions happen. They happen higher in the atmosphere and so the global warming effect is higher than the proportion of the emissions from aviation.

On an individual basis, it can be a very large part of your carbon footprint. If I’m looking at it personally, then I can’t really say that aviation emissions don’t matter. Emissions per person are very very unequal between different places in the world – the top 10% are responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of global emissions. From a fairness point of view, I don’t really buy the fact that aviation itself is relatively small compared to everything else.

‘it can be a very large part of your individual  carbon footprint…..emissions per person are very very unequal between different places in the world’

I’m not saying everybody should stop flying. For me it wasn’t too hard. For other people, it will be much harder for all sorts of reasons – whether it’s that flying is more embedded in their lives, or they want to do it more, or it’s work, or family around the world, or all kinds of things. To people who say it is unrealistic to reduce flying, I would say that ‘what is your view on global warming? Is it a serious problem?’ Individual choices can influence other people.

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research is into social change – it is about how people change their behaviour in the social transitions to do with climate change.

The social side of tackling climate change in really interesting. It feels like the science, the technical side, is pretty well researched. We’ve got really detailed pathways for the technical side of climate change, but the social side is still unmapped.

I’m looking at leadership and the role of leading by example – I’m particularly interested in politicians.  People think that climate change is a distant problem – it’s in the future – and it’s distant from all of us. My hypothesis is that if people in influential positions, particularly politicians, take a particular stand on personal behaviour, I think that could be quite influential. That’s not to say everyone’s going to like it, but it feels like it’s worth a try.

‘People think that climate change is a distant problem – it’s in the future – and it’s distant from all of us.’

At the moment there are lots of plans for future emissions reductions. With flying, the plans are ‘we’ll offset emissions, so we’ll grow trees which will absorb emissions in the future, we’ll fund projects which will hopefully reduce emissions in the future, and in the future, hopefully technology will improve and flying will become less polluting.’ That’s all in the future. Climate change is such a pressing problem that we’ve got a climate emergency declared. So my position is: do what you can now as well as the future stuff.

There is an ongoing debate about whether responsibility should be loaded onto individuals. Clearly, the individual is not responsible for climate change. But there needs to be a move towards everyone taking responsibility together.

In terms of government policy,  that is still at quite a basic level. There are no plans to restrict aviation demand. That’s because of political and social reasons. Politicians are fearful of introducing something which might be really unpopular or being presented as being anti-freedom. It’s just a really sensitive area, for good reason. Freedoms are hard won and you don’t want to restrict them unless it’s for a very good reason.

‘Devastating wildlife loss is being driven by climate change…….surely if we have all that information we have a responsibility.’

My position is, we’ve got wonderful freedoms, especially in rich countries like the UK…….people in the upper stratas have got incredible freedom…..and I feel that with that comes responsibility. We have all this information about the impact of climate change which is going on already in many countries. Devastating wildlife loss is being driven by climate change, a lot of it. Surely if we have all that information we have a responsibility. Restricting freedoms has got to be part of that discussion.

Have you made any other sustainable lifestyle changes? 

I’ve gone pretty much vegan. I got rid of my car. That was also a huge relief actually, not having to drive anywhere. It has felt easy for me. Perhaps it would have been more difficult if I had had a family. It’s been a fairly easy thing to make these changes.

To find out more about Steve’s research see here.

 

 

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The secret to reducing your environmental footprint: 10 ways to be a bad consumer

Last autumn the media fell over themselves to give free advertising to a supermarket who claimed to be boycotting palm oil in its own brand products. The supermarket was praised as a ‘shining example’ for helping the planet.

But earlier in the year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released the findings of an in-depth study into palm oil concluding that boycotting it is not the answer, as switching to alternatives could increase the loss of species and wildlife habitats. But where were the shares on social media? Where was the praise for all those hours of careful research?  Why are we doing PR for supermarkets instead of supporting the work of bodies who exist to protect wildlife?

Over the last year there has been a palpable shift in awareness as more and more people begin to consider the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Clearly, this is a positive development. It’s just that with that comes the growth of the ‘sustainable lifestyle’ industry. Promotions in my newsfeed this week invited me to purchase ‘conscious’ skincare, ‘ethical’ scent diffusers, and a ‘climate-friendly’ bra. No wonder politicians are doing so little about the planetary emergency – people who care about the environment are too busy shopping to make any noise about it.

What is it that connects all of this? The answer is that it shows how effectively we have been trained to be good consumers. I’ve already argued that the planet will not be saved by ‘conscious’ consumerism. The mess that we are in is down to overconsumption of resources, and we are not going to solve this with more of what caused it.

Even as I write this, I know that this post will attract comments springing to the defence of big business: ‘at least they’re trying…….small steps…….’ We really have learnt to be good and loyal consumers, and we need to learn to be bad ones.

So, here is how to be a bad consumer:

  • instead of following stores and brands on social media, follow people who are passionate, inspiring and knowledgeable about the environment.
  • have a healthy scepticism towards the claims of advertising, especially those of large corporations whose entire business models are about selling more and more stuff. Remember that marketing people will use artful tactics to appeal to green-minded shoppers.
  • be wary of any sustainable lifestyle advice which is little more than a shopping list of new things to buy.
  • if you are organising a sustainability event, instead of filling it with people who are looking to promote their businesses, find contributors who are qualified to talk about sustainability and can offer good ideas and solutions.
  • instead of sharing posts celebrating corporations who’ve made small and/or ineffective changes, share things that offer inspiration from real humans or useful information from reliable sources.
  • have more faith in your own resourcefulness. You are easily capable of getting what you need and finding your own fun without consuming ever more resources.
  • choose your heroes with care. Save your praise for anyone out there doing the work of protecting the environment, not businesses who are looking to profit from trends without making any substantive change.
  • Notice how advertising encourages us to link our sense of  happiness and wellbeing to consumption, especially of things that are damaging to human health and the environment like sugary foods, flights and cars. Then ignore that message and find your own pleasures.
  • stay alert to more subtle forms of consumerism, such as small businesses flogging ‘eco-friendly’ stuff you didn’t know you needed, or beautiful but pricey ‘sustainable’ lifestyles on Instagram and Pinterest.
  • Put your wallet away and do something you enjoy.

How conscious consumerism gets it wrong

sustainable consumerism

You could be forgiven for thinking the world will be saved by shopping. Browsing the internet these days is to be bombarded with lists of ‘sustainable must-haves’ and edicts about what to avoid to save the planet. Buy beeswax wraps. Get an electric toothbrush. Don’t buy anything made with plastic or palm oil. Choose natural products. Get an organic duvet cover.

So is more and better shopping the answer to the planetary crisis? I remain unconvinced, and I’ll tell you why.

Too much of the product information is invisible to you and me.

To really know how sustainable a product is you’d need to know a lot about its backstory, and much of what you’d need to know is hidden at the point where you and I are choosing what to buy.

Let’s take just one environmental impact: water scarcity. To know how sustainable a product’s water consumption is we need to know not only how much water it took to produce it, but the answers to many other questions, such as ‘did the water come from a region where water is abundant or where water is scarce? Did it come from rain or from over-depleted aquifiers? And so on. Now imagine repeating a similar kind of exercise for CO2, biodiversity etc, for products with multiple ingredients or components, and with long supply chains. Now factor in that sometimes quite similar products can have big variations in their environmental impact.

If we are lucky and the product happens to come with an eco-label, then some of this research will have been done for us. Some researchers also propose mandatory environmental labelling on food. But until we have this level of information about the products we buy, then you or I are unlikely to fathom it all out by standing in the shop and reading a list of ingredients or noting what material something is packaged in.

It sets unreasonable expectations.

Essentially, ‘conscious consumerism’ puts a truly impossible burden on people to do copious research, shop around, and make tricky decisions based on scant information. Meanwhile, the ones who can most easily access the relevant information are those who produce and sell the things we buy, but they have every reason to conceal negative impacts and to use clever marketing tricks to convince us their products are green. The ordinary shopper with a conscience is set up to fail at this game.

And let’s face it: there will always be a limit to the number of people who have the time, motivation and level of education to take on such a project, while putting the responsibility on individuals to make carefully considered choices lets business and policymakers off the hook.

I notice also that much of this extra domestic and emotional labour – the research and shopping around, the angsty deliberations over making the right decisions – is done by women. The work of achieving more sustainable consumption needs to be equally shared between producers, retailers, government, the public, and, if I may say so, between the genders.

It perpetuates misunderstandings about what it really means to live sustainably.

There is a widely-held belief (encouraged by the ‘sustainable lifestyle’ industry) that environmentally friendly living is expensive and complicated, requiring a PhD in Sustainable Shopping Expertise and generous helpings of disposable income and time. Unsurprisingly, this puts many people off. In reality, low-impact living is, more often than not, a wonderfully lazy endeavour involving doing and spending nothing.

It doesn’t address the (becoming rapidly more endangered) elephant in the room.

The perception that living sustainably is all about careful shopping misses the essential point: it’s not about what to buy, it’s about how much. We can invest in multipacks of stainless steel straws, but they will still be made from finite resources which are extracted from the earth at environmental cost. We can fill our wardrobes with organic clothing and search for chocolate in eco-friendly wrapping, but all of this will have been produced with land, water and other resources that could have been left for wildlife or used to produce food. No amount of conscious consumerism will change the fact we live on a planet with limited resources, and the only real way to reduce our impact is to consume less of them.

Reducing your impact on the planet is not that complicated.

Here is how to reduce your impact on the environment this year, a 6 step guide: 1. Swap your petrol car for cleaner alternatives 2.  Avoid waste (of everything, but especially food and energy) 3. Swap your dirty energy company for a cleaner alternative 4. Avoid flying 5. Swap animal-based foods for plant-based foods 6. Stop shopping.

 

 

What to do with your waste at Christmas

Christmas Trees

If you have a real Christmas tree the gold star option is to keep it to reuse next year. If that wouldn’t work, the next best thing would be for it to be recycled into wood chippings, as this will return the carbon to the earth. Otherwise, it would be better for it to be burned. The most important thing is to keep it out of landfill, as this will emit far more greenhouse gases than any other option.

Food

Without wishing to state the obvious, you can reduce food waste by being careful not to overbuy food in the first place. Remember to factor in the biscuits/chocolates/cakes/drinks etc that you are likely to receive as gifts – you may not need to buy much more.

If you are preparing food for other people, consider allowing people to choose their own portion sizes by serving themselves from the dish – you will be much more inclined to use up leftovers from the dish than from people’s plates. At this time of year there are always lots of recipe ideas for leftover food, so have a google.

As for things like fruit and veg peelings and unavoidable food waste, the most important thing is to keep anything biodegradable out of landfill (although it’s worth checking where your general waste actually goes – many places incinerate it) as it will release greenhouse gases. If you have a compost heap or food waste caddy, be sure to put all peelings etc in there.

Parcel packaging

It’s the season for receiving things in the post, and with them a small mountain of jiffy envelopes, boxes, bubble wrap and the like. If you don’t expect to reuse these yourself throughout the year, consider donating them to your workplace, or any other business or organisation that would have a use for them. One year I had such a huge pile that I advertised them on freecycle and a local small business owner took them off my hands, so that’s always that option if you have more of the stuff than you know what to do with. Plastic and cardboard packaging that cannot be reused can usually be recycled, and some areas will recycle bubble wrap if you can’t find anything else to do with it.

Wrapping Paper

Any paper that is reasonably intact can be rolled up and stored with the Christmas decorations to be reused next year. This is what I do and I always end up with more than I need. It also removes ‘get wrapping paper’ from my Christmas to-do list.

Anything else can usually be recycled – your local council website should be able to tell you more (although wrapping paper with sticky tape or glitter is often a problem – you may need to remove the tape first). One way to tell whether or not your gift wrap can be recycled is to give it the scrunch test – if it scrunches, yes it can, if not, then it can’t.

Christmas Cards

If you (or your children) are creatively inclined, these can be kept for next year for reuse as gift tags, cards or other crafty projects. Otherwise, they can be recycled, although like the wrapping paper, you will need to remove any embellishments from them first.

Unwanted gifts

We’ve all been there. You’re not sure you’ll really use those bath salts/have never been keen on shortbread/never wear that colour, but getting rid of it feels bad, and anyway, who knows, you might feel like using it at some point in the new year. After many months of cluttering up your cupboards/bathroom, you realise your unwanted gifts have started to smell a bit strange, and you end up throwing them out.

Now is a good moment for some radical self-honesty. Let other people enjoy the things that you don’t want, and you could help to reduce the demand for new things to be produced, as well as decluttering your space. There’s friends/family/colleagues, charity shops, Shpock and ebay, Olio, Freegle, Freecycle, shelters, or the Zero Waste sell/swap/gift Facebook group, any of which could be happy to take your unwanted things off your hands and put them to good use.

There is, of course, another side to all this ‘waste,’ and that is: opportunity. After Christmas, charity shops, apps, eBay etc will be saturated with nice things that have not been used, all available for free or at a fraction of the retail price. Forget about the January sales. Now is the time to scour the charity shops (and the rest) to stock up on soaps, smellies, gifts, and anything else that takes your fancy, all without buying anything new.

5 ‘eco-friendly’ ideas to avoid this Christmas

At this time of year, the eco-friendly internet is full of guides on how to green your Christmas. But how much of this advice really helps to reduce your festive footprint? Here are some of the common tips you might want to rethink.

Giving reusables as gifts

I used to know someone whose sister gave him a reusable coffee cup for Christmas, as a prompt to be more green. Not only was he mildly irritated by the gesture, but as he worked from home didn’t even have much use for it. Most days he made coffee in a mug in his kitchen while the reusable cup sat on the shelf unused.
Reusables only benefit the environment if they are used often. There is nothing to be gained by simply buying ‘sustainable’ stuff. A reusable cup needs to save, on average, about 20-100 single use cups before it will save more resources than it took to make it. If the gift is used once or twice, then forgotten about as new years resolutions start to fade, all the materials and energy that went into making it will have been wasted.  And that’s the thing with giving gifts – you can never be sure how much they will be used.
See also: zero waste gift packs, Christmas cards containing seeds that need to be planted.
The ovenmade Christmas 
I recently saw a blog post that recommended making your own plastic-free Christmas decorations by roasting orange slices in the oven for an hour and a half. An hour and a half? That’s going to burn a lot of fossil fuels. If you are making your own this year, try to minimise the consumption of energy in the process.
For Christmas decorations, charity shops are full of these at this time of year. I’ve also seen Christmas things going for free on Olio, so check out that or sites like freecycle or freegle. Sometimes I like to decorate with things like ivy, holly and pine cones I find outside.
If you like the idea of unique, upcycled gifts but are not very crafty yourself, see what you can find on Etsy or at your local craft market, and support a small business.
Wrapping gifts in fabric
Another popular idea doing the rounds in seasonal sustainability guides is that you can save waste by wrapping presents in cotton bags, in the expectation that your recipient will reuse the bag at some point. The difficulty is that cotton is pretty harsh on the environment. Cotton production has an enormous water footprint and is also very polluting. (And organic cotton still takes a lot of resources to produce). I was given a cotton bag as a gift myself once, but since I already have as many reusable bags as I need, it was used just one time and then sat in my cupboard for ages until I got round to donating it. So all that water, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution went into producing something which turned out to be single-use, as far as I was concerned. Less zero waste, more maximum waste. 
You could wrap presents in the fanciest, sparkliest, non-recyclable wrapping paper and it would be nowhere near as extravagant as wrapping them in new fabrics. You could wrap it in plastic bags and it would be kinder to the environment. Perhaps your recipient will use the bag at some point in the future, but many people already own more reusable bags than they use, so are you sure that your recipient needs any more? And if they haven’t been motivated to get themselves a reusable bag before, then what is going to change now?
Less wasteful options could be reusing gift wrap, wrapping presents in paper from old magazines and newspapers, recycled wrapping paper, or even giving presents in a reusable bag which is returned to you. 
Buying gifts made from recyclable materials
Another popular tip is the suggestion that we can reduce waste by buying things made from recyclable materials. But this focus on just one stage of the product lifecycle ignores the impacts of extracting the raw materials, manufacturing and transporting the item – in other words, most of it. To reduce the demand for raw materials consider buying things made from recycled materials instead.
Giving edible gifts
These always seem like such a logical choice. Everyone eats and drinks, and most people like sweet things. It will all be used up in the end, leaving no waste.
But this doesn’t take into consideration the environmental destruction caused by most food production. In the UK, we need to be reducing sugar consumption as much as milk in order limit global warming, while popular edible gifts often include things like palm oil and cocoa, which cause deforestation, as well as being heavily processed and packaged.
I think we’ve all had that experience at Christmas, of eating until we feel stuffed then drifting into a sugar coma. But consuming more calories than we need can be seen as a form of food waste.

I am NOT saying that you should never eat sweet things, or that you shouldn’t enjoy your food. I AM saying that we shouldn’t assume that because something is eaten up, or because it can be sourced plastic-free, this makes it eco-friendly. Globally, food production is the single biggest driver of environmental degradation.

I know. I get it. I feel the same. I love chocolate, in fact I love most food, and most years I’ve given sweet things to my favourite people at Christmas. But this year, given urgency of the crisis, I just can’t. I won’t be giving sweet things as gifts (or any food and drink), apart from to support brands that recycle food that would otherwise go to waste.

Why I don’t avoid palm oil

Aerial view of green palm plantation during sunrise.

I’m going to say something that may surprise you: I don’t avoid palm oil. No, it’s not that I don’t care about orangutans. It’s because it’s not clear to me that this is better for the planet. In fact, I’m afraid it could do more harm.

Research shows that despite the well-known problems associated with palm oil, it’s still the best we’re going to get. It is very efficient, and to switch to alternative oils would use up to 9 times the amount of land, shifting the deforestation and biodiversity loss to other places and to other wildlife, such as bears and jaguars.

My brand of soap makes a big show of the fact it is palm oil-free, but it does contain coconut oil, which is just as bad. Since we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, businesses that promote themselves as palm oil free without first checking the scientific evidence are enormously irresponsible.

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is. It is never just about one ingredient. The way something is produced and transported is also important. And food production can have many impacts – including greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, pollution, soil erosion……..deforestation and biodiversity loss are only two of many issues to consider. And most products that contain palm oil, such as cosmetics and processed foods, have many different ingredients in them. So unless you can be sure that ALL the ingredients and processes involved in an alternative product are more sustainable than the one containing palm oil, it’s hard to be sure that simply switching to something else is going to be better for the environment.

Focussing on specific ingredients is of secondary importance to looking at our patterns of consumption. A glance at many of the products that palm oil is used for – cosmetics, junk food, sweets, biofuels – show that we could live without many of these things (or at least reduce our consumption of them) without a great loss to our wellbeing. And around a third of all food produced goes to waste anyway. If you want to reduce the environmental impacts of consumption, then these are all good places to start.

What about sustainably sourced palm oil? According to the research, it is ‘marginally’ better in terms of preventing deforestation. But even if it was possible to buy Mars Bars made with sustainably sourced palm oil, that would still mean that land and other resources are being used to produce confectionery rather than being left for wildlife, or being utilised to produce more nutritious foods. Consumption of junk foods can be seen as a form of food waste.

That’s not to say that there are no benefits to buying certified palm oil. It’s important to create the demand for sustainably produced food. It is to say that careful sourcing alone, without a change in patterns of consumption, will not fix it.

The beauty products we buy on a whim but never really use costs the planet. The daily meat-and-two-veg habit we always mean to cut down on is contributing to species loss. The slices of pizza we throw away because we couldn’t manage to eat it all, the stale bread we chuck out, the sweet things we give as gifts because we feel obliged to give something but don’t know what else to get……all these are contributing to the destruction of habitats, climate change and water scarcity. And every piece of fast fashion we buy but hardly wear, every unnecessary journey by car or by plane, every new gadget we have to have even though the old one still works, adds to the climate breakdown which threatens all life.

And please, let’s stop giving free advertising to big businesses who don’t take the time to do their research.

9 ideas for zero waste gifting

Santa Landfill

Just ask people what they want

The best way to avoid gifts going to waste is to give people something they really want. While the element of surprise can be part of the fun, it’s also a major cause of waste, as it can be difficult to accurately guess someone else’s tastes, and these are the gifts that end up stored guiltily in bottom drawers for the rest of the year. If you think your recipient would like it, why not ask them to give you a clue about what they want? It doesn’t have to be super-specific – one year my brother just asked for a T-shirt, and I chose the design.

Buy less

Do you need to buy for quite so many people? And do you need to buy so many things for each person? Some people receive more soaps and smellies than they are likely to use before next Christmas, and these are the types of things that contain palm oil. One year I was given so much chocolate at work that it lasted me until the end of January. Much as I love chocolate, I am surprised that my teeth survived the experience, and all the sugar, cocoa and palm oil that goes into chocolate is not great for the environment (in order to stop global temperatures rising we need to significantly reduce the amount of sugar we consume).  And do you need to buy presents for those who don’t realise it’s Christmas, such as very small children and pets?

Giving handmade…?

Handmade gifts are a popular choice for many zero wasters. Certainly these are fun to make and lovely to receive, although they will only be better for the environment if the ingredients, materials and methods used have less impact than shop-bought equivalents. Recently I had a go at making tomato jam, but after boiling a huge pan of tomatoes and sugar for more than an hour I started to have my doubts as to whether this was the most eco-friendly choice of gift. A better option might have been to buy relish from Rubies in the Rubble or the Wonky Food Company, as these are made from surplus veggies and are probably more efficiently produced.

If you like to give handmade gifts, see if you can make use of anything which is currently going to waste, and if you are making food, choose methods which use the minimum amount of energy (making jam in the microwave, for example, is more efficient). Also go easy on homemade beauty products made from coconut oil, as this is as harmful for the environment as palm oil.

Giving experiences….?

This is another popular choice among zero wasters, although clearly this only works if the experience is an environmentally friendly one. Perhaps don’t buy anyone a voucher for two at the local steakhouse. I usually put ‘vouchers for an eco-friendly spa’ on my Christmas wish list. But experiences don’t have to cost money – you can also offer your time/help with things.

Books for kids

For the small people in your life, there’s The Perfectly Wonky Carrot, about food waste and body image, Peppa Pig Recycling Fun,  or a whole series on the impact of plastic pollution on sea creatures. There’s also The Ones Who Walk Above, a story written to inspire kids to protect wildlife, or The Tantrum That Saved The World, about a little girl taking on climate change. Or see what else you can find.

Gifts to enhance biodiversity 

The UK (along with much of the rest of the world) is facing something of an ecological crisis, with rapidly declining wildlife. If you know someone who is a nature lover, perhaps they would enjoy something that attracts wildlife to the garden, such as butterly and bug habitats, bird feeders and wildflower gift sets, available online from Not On the High Street,  The Woodland Trust,  The Eden Project, or Seedball. Some of these might also make good gifts for children.

Giving second-hand

Is this really such a no-no? There may be some people who would really mind receiving second-hand gifts, so if this sounds like any of your family/friends, perhaps don’t buy anything pre-loved for them. Otherwise, why not? With some of my friends we have even been swapping the same wrapping paper back and forth for several years.

Recycled and upcycled gifts

Upcycled gifts are unique and reduce the demand for new stuff to be produced. They can be found at craft fairs or online at stores like Etsy. Gifts made from recycled materials can be found at Oxfam (who also do organic and fair trade treats), The Eden Project, Protect the Planet, and many other places. In fact you can find many things available in recycled materials, such as clothes, socks, accessories etc – google it before you buy something brand new. And don’t forget recycled food – Toast do a selection of beers brewed from bread that would otherwise go to waste.

Go radical

You could opt out of Christmas shopping altogether. Shopping refuseniks say they find this liberating and enjoy Christmas more. This may not be for everyone, but it will go a long way to reducing your environmental footprint this Christmas.

 

5 ways a zero waste lifestyle could be harming the planet

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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 its 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 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 collectively 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

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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.