Friday, 23 April 2010

The Story of Stuff

Is Annie Leonard the Rachel Carson for our generation?

Her new book, The Story of Stuff, carries the subtitle, 'How our problem with overconsumption is trashing the planet, our communities and our health'. That about sums it up, I think. Published here in the UK at the end of May, it should prove to be a very interesting read.

It all started with this little animation on YouTube... This basically confirms everything I was afraid of about consumer society. There's one or two things in there that I didn't either, like the fact that this was all planned! It must be a conspiracy theorist's heaven.

What the story made me think of most is Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson was the herald of the green roots environmental movement and her book, Silent Spring (which I have just finished reading) was instrumental in bringing to the world's attention the fact the pesticides and insecticides were poisoning the world. Perhaps it's an exaggeration to suggest that Annie Leonard is the new Rachel Carson, but what she has to say has the same importance and we should all be listening.

Watch the video, read the book, and take a look at her website,

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Message in the Waves

Message in the Waves is a film made by the BBC Natural History Unit that set out to look at some of the environmental challenges facing Hawaii.

And what did they find? Well, plastic of course.

You can read about the making of the documentary, watch a trailer, and download a copy of it on the Message in the Waves website.

One of the team behind the documentary, Rebecca Hosking, was so appalled by what she saw during filming that it inspired her to launch a campaign in her home town of Modbury to ban the plastic bag. In May 2007 they became the first town in the UK to achieve this, and their actions have inspired many others to follow suit.

What about your town? Can you inspire them to do the same? There is all sorts of information out there to help, from Rebecca's book, Ban the Plastic Bag, to advice from the Marine Conservation Society, and their guide on being plastic free.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Fistral Beach Clean

“You couldn’t have picked a better day,” I tell Imogen.

The sun is shining and the sky is blue as far as the eye can see, with only a wisp of cloud here and there. It is the first week of March and the first hint of spring is in the air; sitting in the car and looking out, it could easily be the height of summer, the illusion only broken by the cool air when you step outside. I am here on Fistral Beach in Newquay, surfer’s paradise, to take part in my first official beach clean.

The short stretch of straight road that leads to the car park has been inlaid with some sort of mineral that sparkles in the sunlight as you drive down it, creating a mesmerising approach. As I pull into the sand-blown car park, I am looking for anyone that looks as if they may be preparing to collect rubbish, but see no-one so decide to sit and wait to see who appears. In the distance there are one or two specks in the sea that could be surfers, and there are three shivering dudes wrapped in fleeces, standing with sandy surfboards just across from me. Soon, three girls emerge from a nearby car, each wearing a black fleece advertising Cornwall College. These must be the people I’m looking for.

Imogen is older than I was expecting – her college email address suggested student status – though she is no older than I am. She is a teacher at the Newquay college, and leader of the Newquay branch of team green. Until today we have only exchanged emails regarding meeting times for the clean-up parade. She looks very young to be a teacher, but I have to remind myself that I am certainly old enough to be one, even if I don’t feel like it, perhaps because teaching is such a grown-up job.

The long, crescent moon shape of the beach is exaggerated by the low tide, washing away at a distance. The surf is calm, flat, quietly breaking in the background. Four or five people are walking their dogs or enjoying the sunshine, but generally the beach is quiet and peaceful, with just the gentle swish of the sea. I am surprised to note a complete absence of seagulls. This is a very different beach to the tourist packed Fistral of high summer with screeching and giggling children, teenagers playing Frisbee, cricket, or football, and radios blaring.

Imogen hands me a plethora of bits and bobs: a pen, a record sheet, a clip-board, plastic gloves, and a bin bag. Because the information collected today will be passed to MCS (The Marine Conservation Society), it’s important to record everything we pick up. The record sheet is a form, detailing all the possible different items that might be found today, from plastic bottles and bottle tops to packaging, rope, nails, wire and – heaven forbid – condoms and tampons. Despite the fact that plastic items take up almost half of the form, I’m interested to note that plastic bags aren’t included. I wonder what this means: is it rare to find plastic bags in these cleans, or is it some strange oversight?

“Don’t touch dog poo,” she tells us. “And don’t touch anything biological.”

Most of the other people here seem to have come in twos or threes and know each other. There are several of Imogen’s students, and I am introduced to Amy, Cornwall College’s environmental manager. A chap from Serco is also here, and shortly after we start litter picking Dom from the SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) arrives, accompanied by his very boisterous Springer spaniel, Bob. Bob likes to bark and to run around, trying to convince everyone to play with him; he seems very excited to be here. We make 12 people altogether.

Imogen pairs me with Amy; Amy writes down on the form what we are collecting as I pick it up and put it in the bag. She is nice, easy to talk to, and I feel comfortable working with her and with my surroundings. I was worried I wouldn’t be. We find an easy rhythm, although we soon get bored of calling out the same things - plastic lid, foamy stuff, nylon string - and soon there’s a small competition developing between us and her two friends who are picking nearby. Who can find the most interesting items?

As well as the expected plastic and polystyrene, we find nails, barbed wire, and a pair of nail clippers. Even though Amy discovers an abandoned barbecue buried in the sand, complete with discarded food tins and beer cans, her friends win hands down with their shoe, light bulb, and half-decayed fish, complete with enormous teeth.

The sun stays with us, and it’s almost like a leisurely stroll along the beach, chatting and joking with everyone. As I pull a long stretch of orange string from the sand, Bob spies it and grabs it; we have a wresting match, much to his enjoyment. We find a lot of broken glass, but only one nurdle, perhaps because I’m not looking close enough, or perhaps because there are no rocks for them to shelter against in the area where we’re picking.

Two and a half hours later we take our black plastic bin bags back to the car-park to be weighed. Between us we have collected 42kg of mixed rubbish, plus an extra 15kg that is just metal and glass. The 42kg is contained in a half dozen bin bags while the glass and metal takes up just one small bowling bag.

This is interesting. Plastic is generally quite light, so even if there are more pieces of plastic, the weight compared to the same amount of glass or paper can be less. Commercial packaging waste is often discussed in terms of tonnage: making things with plastic reduces waste in terms of weight, which seems like a good thing when you see the numbers. Except for the part where plastic never returns to the natural environment, never breaks down, never disappears.

This is one small beach on one day, with just one dozen people picking a small area. Multiply that and it gets scary. Why are we doing this to ourselves and our world?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Happy Easter Chocolate Snufflers

What does Easter mean to you? A religious celebration, the start of spring, some extra time off work? Or chocolate, chocolate, chocolate?

Over Packaged?
The ‘chocolate, chocolate, chocolate’ scenario is definately my forte. But over-packaging is a term that has become synonymous with Easter chocolate over recent years.

A typical chocolate egg in my mind includes: chocolate treats suspended in a plastic bag inside the chocolate egg, the egg wrapped in foil and then encased in a protective plastic mould that is nigh-on impossible to break into, the whole package topped off with an oversize cardboard box. Did you ever open out the box from an Easter egg in years gone past? They always had what must surely be the most complicated design in the world.

According to WRAP, over 3000 tonnes of waste is produced by Easter packaging each year, and in a poll conducted by Packaging in Perspective in 2009, 59% of British adults thought Easter eggs were over-packaged.

Madness! Madness!
When I was little, Easter was measured by the number of eggs I received. More eggs meant not only more chocolate, but more people who loved me, and a better standing with my friends when I got back to school after the holidays, ‘How many did you get?’ being the typical first greeting on re-entering the playground. I had no qualms about eating them – still don’t – but my big brother would save and save his to the point where Christmas would come around and he’d still have a chocolate bunny sitting on his bookshelf. What was the packaging like on these eggs? I don’t honestly remember – what was inside was always considerably more important, after all - so when did it begin? And is it just a UK thing, or are all western countries obsessed with over-sanitising their chocolate?

There is light at the end of the tunnel
‘Smarties have got plastic-free Easter eggs!’ Bron announced on his return from a shopping expedition a few weeks ago.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked, thinking it just doesn’t sound right. Maybe he was mistaken.

‘Well, it says on their packaging, ‘Plastic Free!’’

Huh, well that’s quite surprising and interesting. ‘Ooh, I’ll have to get one,’ was my immediate thought. ‘And then I can blog about it!’

Tempting as it was, I didn’t immediately rush out to buy one, but next time I walked into Sainsbury’s there they were, a big pallet of Easter eggs ready to greet me right inside the front door, piled high above my head, and each individual egg shouting, ‘Plastic Free!’ ‘Plastic Free!’ Of course, the slight irony here is that the pallet was still wrapped in thick plastic cling-film to keep all the eggs from falling off and scattering at my feet, but I guess you can’t have everything.

The Smarties Way
So if Smarties, care of Nestle, have seen the light and realised that chocolate eggs can survive the retail experience without copious plastic support, why hasn’t it been done before? Apparently commercial egg-makers were concerned that less packaging would make eggs look smaller. Smaller eggs equals less attractive to customers; being less attractive equals fewer sales. Seems a bit silly really, especially when you see this little video detailing consumer reactions to plastic-free eggs, care of The Zero Waste Checkout.

Furthermore, in an era where, at my guess, around 95% of chocolate and confectionary on the high street shelves have switched from classic paper wrappers to plastic, the Easter egg is not the only Smarties product to be plastic-free. In 2005 they switched from a tube with a plastic lid to simple cardboard.

Happy Easter
Thankfully, Smarties are not the only ones to be jumping on this particular bandwagon. Pictured here is my Easter gift this year from my parents, beautifully plastic free (Mummy, Daddy, maybe next year you could buy a plastic-free egg for everybody rather than just me?). And in 2009, Cadbury’s, Marks and Spencer, and Mars also took steps towards a plastic free Easter in the future; baby steps perhaps, but at least it’s a start.

P.S. Read about the Courtauld Commitment to learn more about which retailers are doing what to reduce their packaging.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Printer Catastrophe

I’m going to go back through time today, over the seconds, minutes, hours and days, way back to October 2009. It is portfolio time again for my MA in Professional Writing. Time to smarten up those sentences, tidy up my punctuation, and add some spirit to the submission I have been working on, before printing out two copies of the 30 odd pages and binding them together ready for the hand-in date.

But no, disaster has struck: my faithful printer has run out of ink! Oh how grateful I am to you, Amazon, for being one click away on my mouse, and enabling me to instantly buy the replacement cartridges. And there are even people on your website that offer remanufactured cartridges so I don’t have to feel bad about consuming the resource that is plastic. Not only cheaper on my pocket, but better for the environment. Perfect.

Life never quite works out how you expect it to, though, does it? Or at least, not like you want it to. First of all, I ordered a coloured and a black cartridge, but the kindly marketplace buyer from whom I purchased them considerately and helpfully sent me two coloured cartridges instead. ‘Well, that’s ok,’ I thought. ‘I won’t make a fuss, I’ll just save the second one for next time, and get another black for now.’

Ah yes, what a simple idea.

The coloured cartridge wouldn’t work in the printer. Bron had to follow a set of carefully written instructions enclosed with the cartridge on how to persuade my printer that yes, this cartridge really is compatible, its not a lie. Eventually the printer was convinced, but it meant that the printer controls were unable to read the ink levels, and it rather put me off the idea of remanufactured cartridges. So when it came to my second attempt at purchasing a black cartridge, that little voice in my head told me to stick to a normal, new cartridge rather than a fancy recycled one. Shamefully, I listened. Not that it did me any good. I don’t know why, but it turns out that installing an official printer cartridge alongside a remanufactured one is a really bad idea. Printer non comprende. Printer kaput.

At this point, having already spent over £50 on cartridges, I couldn’t face the idea of having to buy another, new coloured one, and discard the two recycled ones. And only with the vague possibility that that would actually fix the problem. So my printer sat, tucked away under the computer desk, refusing to work, for two and half months.

And so it would probably remain, if Bron, bless his cotton socks, hadn’t surprised me by buying a brand new printer for Christmas. It seems rather terrible to say it, actually: that instead of trying to solve the problem a new one was purchased to replace the old. Very modern living, very consumer society. I do have some feelings of badness and feelings of guilt over this, but my new printer is lovely and sleek and shiny, and it does – so far, at least – what I ask it to. Which is more than I can say for the old one, now consigned to the attic.

But I also can’t help but see the irony in the situation: I tried to do good, to do the environmental thing and use recycled or remanufactured cartridges. And it wound up costing the environment more than if I hadn’t tried.