Wild swimming – a basic connection with the natural world

‘In Scotland?! … At this time of year?’ is often the response I get when I tell people I’m going for a sea swim, as I now do regularly. And it seems that every time I go with my swim buddy, there is almost always someone else in the sea too. It’s becoming really quite popular, encouragingly so.

So why do I do it?

Firstly, my weekly sea swim is a little space I carve out in the day for me. Particularly during lockdown, trying to squeeze in a full time job on top of parenting and home-schooling, housekeeping and general life admin, I have found it more important than ever to carve out some space for my own enjoyment. Not always easy.

Secondly, it allows me to push some boundaries within myself. I’m not sure I’m a born sea-lover. I’m not the biggest fan of slippery seaweed curling round my ankles, crashing waves over my head or sharing the sea with curious creatures with teeth and claws. But thanks to my regular swims, I am finding I’m getting used to the experience, becoming more confident reading both my body and the conditions, and starting to feel the cold much less. I’d go as far as to say that it’s making me more resilient, more able to say ‘I can’ rather than ‘I can’t’.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it gives me a connection to nature that I rarely feel with other activities. In the course of a 20-minute swim (though more like 10 at this time of year), my mind and body races through every emotion and feeling in a way that no other activity really does. I come out afterwards buzzing with energy.

There’s no sugar-coating the matter of temperature (most people’s biggest hurdle) – it’s basically usually freezing. The sea was 6 degrees for my most recent January swim, air temperature 1 degree. As long as you accept that fact, dress accordingly and take a deep breath, you’ll probably get used to it. In Scotland, the water can range from 5-9 degrees in January and between 11 and 16 in September. Your local swimming pool is about 25.

Sea swimming is an opportunity to connect my whole body with nature, and to remind myself of the power of the sea. It also serves me as reminder of who’s boss – the sea can be a dangerous place.

Want to try it?

Before you do, read some of my tips:

  • Start gently and work up. If you’re new to sea swimming, February is probably not the best time to give it a try. Like any kind of exercise, you wouldn’t start a marathon without any training. Work up to it gradually and get your body used to the experience.
  • Go where other swimmers tend to go. They probably know where are the best spots. If you see swimmers there, it’s probably a good sign that the locals deem it safe. Lifeguarded beaches are the best, but they are summer-only.
  • Swim with others. Mainly because it’s safer than swimming on your own, but it’s also more social. If all your friends think you’re mad for suggesting a sea swim in February, find a local swimming group on social media – there are loads, though many are restricted during lockdown. They’ll give you tips on where to go, what to wear and what creatures they spotted in the sea last week.
  • Leave 1-2 days after heavy rain. No matter how inviting they look, coastal waters and lakes are sometimes full of chemicals that run off farmland and from our sewers, mostly not good for our health. Check the relevant regulators’ water quality reports (Environment Agency), although they many only produce them in the summer.
  • Beware the unknown. The stuff you can see (seals, jellies, seaweed) isn’t half as dangerous as the things you can’t see (tides, rip currents, underwater obstructions). Look at the tide times and maybe even surf reports before you go.
  • Get the right gear. A wetsuit is a must unless you’re much hardier than me. In winter, it’s the gloves and shoes that are most useful, because the extremities suffer first. A bright hat might also save your life if you get into trouble.

Here’s a nice little video from the RNLI that gives some similar tips about how to approach a swim in the sea.

Adding in a #2minutebeachclean

One thing I’m trying to do more of this year, and that’s give back to nature where I can. Spending more time at the coast, I’m noticing more and more beach litter – fishing rope, wrappers, plastic bottles, broken toys, plastic cutlery – so I’ve vowed to do my bit to keep my beach clean (and I’d urge you to do the same).

I learned about the 2 minute beach clean from a friend. It’s a campaign that started back in 2013 encouraging people to take part in simple actions to contribute to the planet’s wellbeing, as well as our own. Every time I go for a swim, I’m now going to pick up a piece of rubbish and put it in a bin on my way home. It’s my contribution to a better planet.

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Each bit of rubbish I pick up will be less of a danger to the creatures in the sea, one less bit of plastic that might degrade into the food chain, and one less thing that may wash up and spoil someone else’s beach far far away.

As you can read on the 2 minute beach clean website – “we think that simple acts can add up to make a big difference, that doing something positive is infinitely better than doing nothing, and that it is positivity, people and passion that will change our world for the better.” Who can’t agree with that?

If YOU swim outdoors, or deliberately don’t, tell us why, and do share some of your tips ….

What YOU can do

  • Try a sea swim to get closer to nature
  • Do a 2 minute beach clean when you’re there

Who made your clothes?

Sounds obvious, but how often do you think about the fact that someone made the clothes you are wearing. How often do you think about or appreciate the work involved? Where are the materials from? How far has it travelled? Earlier in the year, I vowed to be a bit more thoughtful about the clothes I wear and the clothes I buy. It wasn’t an easy task, and I came across a few dilemmas, choices and hurdles. As is the theme of most of my blogs,a making the ‘right’ choices takes time and effort.

First, I buy new clothes better

Much has been written about the environmental impact of clothing. There are clearly materials to avoid (cotton uses a lot of water, synthetic fibres use oil), but others are hard to categorise as either good or bad. For example, I’m a big fan of merino wool – it’s a renewable, natural fibre and keeps me really warm, but breeding animals is notoriously carbon and methane intensive.

When I do buy new, I want to do good. I found that this is possible, but expensive. There are some great companies out there that have made great commitments on the environment – Patagonia for one. I found an ethical company that tells you where your clothes come from. Everything they sell is traceable using a code printed on the label, so you can understand the stories behind the items you buy.

The second point is about fast fashion. Too many of the clothes we buy are single-use. Christmas jumpers, for example. A report earlier in the year accused the fast fashion industry of being ‘the largest industrial polluter after aviation’. Over time, the number of clothes bought has risen, and the average length of time each one is worn has decreased. So I’ve vowed to pay more money for fewer things that will last me a long time, than buy something cheap and wear it once before I throw it away.

Trouble is, buying better is not cheap. I discovered Veja, a company that makes shoes from recycled plastic bottles, Amazonian rubber & organic cotton. My favourites (in case my mum and dad are reading and want to get me something for my birthday) come in at £90, much more than my usual budget for shoes.

Until the companies feeding the fast fashion frenzy get some eco-conscience, or their consumers ask them to, then it’s not likely much will happen in the global fashion space. Cheap clothes flood the market, and ‘buying better’ remains the choice of a privileged few. This is evidenced by the fact that at even companies engulfed in scandal because of poor environmental or human rights practices still make a profit.

Second, I buy second hand more often

My local Transition Group organises regular thrift sales of second hand clothing. I live in a student town, so it’s a neat way of getting fashion advice from people who are much more likely to know their stuff than me. They also use the website Depop to sell second hand clothes. I completely missed #SecondHandSeptember, Oxfam’s excellent campaign to encourage people to buy second hand and pledge to shop only second hand for 30 days or more. Why not try it!

I’ve also discovered that you can buy recycled clothing. I own a neoprene wetsuit (bought second hand), and recently discovered that you can buy recycled ones too (at some cost). I found a Dutch company where you can buy or rent jeans for a monthly fee. If you rent, you swap the old ones for new ones. Again, at some cost.

Third, I make things more often

This was a lofty ideal, but it turned out to be hard work. Earlier in the year, during the spring lockdown, I signed up to make some scrubs for local NHS staff. It was an extraordinary project bringing NHS volunteers, an art school and a textiles supplier together with people with sewing machines to make thousands of sets of scrubs. I happily volunteered, thinking it wouldn’t be too taxing. A number of late nights later, with strained eyes and a painful back, I was fed up with the job.

I clearly had no idea about hard work. Or physical labour. I also learned that I had very little idea about the work involved in making things. Every time I see a picture of someone in scrubs on the television, I am reminded of the fiddly ‘V’ at the neck line, the struggle to get the pockets lined up, the struggle with the trouser drawstring, the hours of finishing off and tying up loose threads.

I also tried to made Halloween cape for my eldest. Faced with the option of buying a single-use, synthetic (yet very cheap and convenient) option at the local supermarket, I decided to go to the bother of making one myself. I spent over £8 on a charity shop dress and about 4 hours of my spare time on my sewing machine making a unique, hand-made cloak for my little vampire, who wore it out of politeness and told me after school that his friend’s (shop-bought) costume was better.

I was very proud of myself, but my choice may have made good environmental sense, but poor economic sense. If you factor 4 hours of my time plus the cost of the raw materials, I had created the most expensive Halloween outfit in the entire neighbourhood. And admittedly, the £4.99 version from Morrisons looked better. What is one to do?

The solution is, of course, to really think whether you need what you are about to buy. I still remember one writer describing fast fashion as ‘like gorging on junk food; bad for us and bad for the planet’. She’s right. The less we buy, eat, wear, and have, the less our impact overall. At the very lest, we should think a little more about what we do and if we really need to do it at all.

As ever, let me know your thoughts!

What YOU can do

  • Consider not buying at all – ask yourself if you really, really, really need it!
  • Make things more often – if you have the skills and equipment
  • Buy more second hand – charity shops, ebay, gumtree, depop
  • Buy new better – choose companies whose values you support, and materials that have less environmental impact.

Can we be green AND clean in Covid-19?

In a bid to reduce my environmental impact on the planet, I have been re-assessing the more mundane parts of my life. Now it’s the turn of my dirty washing. Sorry, readers, forget about not airing it in public.

But does going green mean compromising on being clean? And does it still count for anything in the midst of Covid-19?

How green is “green”?

I have been washing with one of the best-known “eco” products Ecover for a long time. It’s one of only two ‘eco’ washing products I could find in my local shops, so my choice was limited. But when I looked at Ethical Consumer‘s sustainability ratings, I was surprised to see it rated really low – 7 out of 20. It appears that Ecover had been bought by UK firm SC Johnson in 2018 and its reputation has suffered. For example, although Ecover proudly states its products are cruelty-free, its new parent company tests on animals. This parent doesn’t have the best reputation, according to Ethical Consumer, for pollution, toxic chemicals, human rights, supply chain management, anti-social finance and political donations either. Ouch.

Before the takeover, Ecover appears to have performed fairly well. Now, it seems the poor Ecover child now gets a bad rap because of its adoption by terrible parents. I feel a little sorry for the child, but should I stick with it despite the rest of the family’s poor behaviour? I really quite liked their post-consumer recycled plastic bottle, their cardboard boxes, their re-fill stations, their innovation when it comes to finding plant-based ingredients. Except, they still use palm oil.

What a rabbit warren of ethical dilemmas I had gone down. While one product was tested on animals, the next contained toxic chemicals. The next, palm oil, or non-recyclable packaging, and so on. Take your pick from a whole host of eco-criteria – sadly, not one product seemed to meet them all.

Sometimes, I just want to be told that this product is “the sustainable choice” and be done with it.

I tried two less conventional options for my laundry; soapnuts (dried berries from a tree) and a wash ball, a re-useable plastic case housing mineral pellets containing biodegradable detergents.

Here’s a summary of what I found:

Not really that much between them, depending on your preferred eco-criteria of choice. A friend even suggested I tried washing with just water: “Try it! You might earn yourself the most eco-points that way.”

How clean is “clean”?

The science of how laundry liquid actually gets your clothes “clean” is a mystery to me. I just buy the product, put it in the machine and my clothes come out clean(er). Detergent is usually an oil-based product containing a whole host of ingredients, including bleaches or other stuff that doesn’t easily degrade down the drain. Soap, or eco-products like Ecover is generally made of natural fats or biodegradable ingredients and often pushes fewer chemicals down the drain.

But, to be honest, neither the soapnuts nor the wash ball really made my clothes radiate “clean”. Not the way that Ecover did. Or the way my mother would approve of. But at least my clothes weren’t dirty, which was good enough. Maybe it just depends what your own standards of “clean” are.

Does any of it matter amidst Covid-19?

Now is perhaps not the best time to blow the trumpet of washing with berries from a tree. Like never before, people are placing much greater emphasis on sanitising hands, surfaces and clothes. But, I worry that the obsession with being clean comes at the expense of being green.

This National Geographic article warns about the ineffective and unnecessary use of chemical cleaners to fight off the virus. I agree – in our obsession with cleanliness, we are doing damage to ourselves and our environment that we will only realise later down the line.

Coronavirus won’t prevent me from using more environmentally-friendly laundry products. The WHO advises washing hands with nothing more than soap and water. Soap is enough to break down the fat surrounding the virus molecule allowing it to wash away (read the Scotsman’s explanation of the science of handwashing). On laundry, the Government guidance doesn’t need us to wash our clothes any differently to how we would normally do.

So I’m not going to reach for the bleach. I will not be deterred from using a more eco-friendly washing product like soapnuts or the eco-egg.

And if you don’t like the smell, it’s a good job we’ve got 2m between us.

What are your experiences (not of me and my smell)? Let me know in the comment section.

What YOU can do

Follow a hierarchy when it comes to clothes washing, depending on how dirty your clothes are:

  • wash less often, with full loads
  • wash with soapnuts or a wash ball (or with just water)
  • wash with detergent with decent environmental credentials – concentrated, or in a cardboard box, to minimise plastic.
  • Take advantage of refill stations
  • If stains are bad, hang them outside (UV light removes them)

Let’s not squander this opportunity to re-think our public spaces

An Open Letter to my Councillors, 21 July 2020

A strange thing has happened recently. There has been an outbreak of consensus between the UK Government, the Scottish Government and Fife Council about the need to create space for people to cycle and walk more. We always knew it was good for the nation’s well-being and environment, but we now know it will help us in the fight to suppress Covid-19.

The ‘Spaces for People’ project managed by Sustrans is focused on making travel safer, and proposals have been put forward to create temporary infrastructure to allow people more room to get about on foot and on wheels.

Yet my local St Andrews Citizen is full of complaints, calling for a halt to the plans, pleading for no change, lest it might affect people’s ability to drive to and park in the town centre. “It will kill the town”, “people won’t come”, they say.

This view doesn’t represent everyone, and I am writing this to make my voice heard.

I live in St Andrews and regularly cycle into and around town. During lockdown, taking advantage of the quieter roads, I also cycled on the roads with my young children. I’m sure you noticed the streets teaming with families on bikes during lockdown. How many of them have you noticed are still there now that the cars are back?

Only last Sunday in town, we lived the familiar experience of cars passing by way too close and way too fast, rode past traffic jams backed up on Bell and South Streets pumping out toxic fumes and noise, cars parking dangerously on pavements, or making impatient u-turns at the West Port. Navigating sometimes narrow pavements during tourist season is difficult at the best of times, but add in the complications of social distancing limiting space in shops, and causing queues down the street, and we seem to be rapidly running out of available space.

The proposals to close roads in the town centre, widen pavements and build pop-up cycle lanes are not about shutting economic activity down, they are about using limited space differently. By dedicating space for private vehicles, we are essentially denying the public the additional space they need right now.

Making more space for people to cycle and walk is likely to enliven the town centre, making it a more communal, happier environment to be in. After months of lockdown, we desperately need public spaces where we can feel safe enough to feel like we can socialise without feeling like we are compromising public health.

The opposition to these proposals are borne from an old-fashioned view that people have a right to park their cars at the door of every shop they visit. Not only is that not right, its not fair, not on those who either don’t have a car or who want to walk or cycle. While I know there are people who have mobility issues, I don’t think that’s everyone. Perhaps we could all benefit if we could park a little further away and stretch our legs a little more.

Yes, retail businesses in St Andrews are suffering, but high streets have been in decline for many years – the pandemic is only accelerating it. I’d rather we didn’t pin the death of the high street on a modest proposal to install temporary cycling and walking infrastructure in our town centres.

It’s written into national transport policy’s Transport Hierarchy that active travel should be prioritised. Please don’t tell me that it shouldn’t apply here now. If not here, then where? If not now, then when?

People have bought bikes and e-bikes in their droves during the lockdown. A June survey from Cycling Scotland revealed that of those who started cycling during lockdown, 50 per cent said it was because there was less traffic on the roads. 26 per cent said having more dedicated cycle paths would be the most likely change to encourage them to cycle once lockdown is lifted. The lockdown has changed habits and behaviours. Please let’s use the opportunity to give people what they need and want – safer space to cycle. And my bet is that if you build it, people will use it.

I am writing to you, Councillors, to ask you to be bold and not give in to a desire to maintain the status quo, but to take the massive opportunity to re-think our town and make it fit for the future. The proposals are temporary – if they don’t work, we can modify them. What an opportunity to try something new. We will never learn without trying.

Here’s a little story to finish with. Earlier in the year, at the school gates, I spoke to a Dad picking up his five-year old son. I asked where he had parked. “About a mile away”, was the answer. I was astounded. He had deliberately parked a mile away from school, factored in an additional 15 minutes to the journey so that they could incorporate a walk to the car. “I want him to get used to using his legs.” As a society, we can learn a lot from that.

Remote working – being everywhere, going nowhere (and reducing carbon)

Like many of you, since lockdown, I’ve spent a lot more of my time at home and online. A recent report by Ofcom shows that in April, UK adults spent on average just over 4 hours online every day. It was 3.5 just 6 months ago. Many workplaces (those who can) have transformed their working practices overnight to enable home-working on a massive scale to ensure that their wheels keep turning while their employees stay at home.

Don’t worry, this isn’t my desk

While my employer hasn’t given me the tech to work remotely, I’m still taking advantage of opportunities online in my own time – free courses (check out Skills Development Scotland for an impressive range of learning opportunities), webinars, networking and virtual events. All within the highly commutable distance of my spare room.

My world has opened up

Before the world largely moved online, I would often have had to travel over an hour to attend in person. It would often mean I simply wouldn’t go. In February, I signed up to do an online training course precisely because I couldn’t commit the time for the travel. If you don’t live in a major city, have access to a car or lots of spare time, you’re often at a disadvantage.

Until now. Thanks to the large-scale move online, my world has opened up. And I’ve not strayed further than five miles from my house.

I’m hoping that employers’ investment in remote technology and employee familiarity with it will mean that gone are the days of terrible video-conference (VC) meetings portrayed in Tripp and Tyler‘s comedy videos. I used to work for an organisation where I would regularly be the only remote participant in meetings. In the absence of decent VC equipment, the only viable option for me was to FaceTime in on a phone passed from colleague to colleague round the table as they spoke.

Inevitably, people would talk over one another, or someone would put the phone down on the table and forget to pick it up until I reminded them I was supposed to be part of the meeting. It often made me feel not really part of the team or, worse, an interruption to the proceedings. There was a lot of me apologising for interrupting – either I couldn’t read the body language, find a natural pause, or catch the chair’s eye. At least on Zoom now, all participants are equal.

But is it good for the planet?

I read recently that VC meetings have less environmental impact than face-to-face. According to a 2014 study quoted in Ethical Consumer, VC can take at most 7% of the energy/carbon of an in-person meeting. Of course, generalisations are hard to make. Certain situations that require face-to-face interactions are hard to replicate online. But I’m sure we find a way to can cut out some of those unnecessary journeys to unnecessary meetings if there is another way.

It’s all about reducing the need to travel. And as with most green efforts, there needs to be a viable alternative to the norm.

VC is the fast becoming the viable alternative

I probably don’t need to convince anyone. Because it’s already happening. According to Scottish Government statistics in May, 47.8% of those who work are more likely to use conference and video calls for work compared to before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. A majority of Scots usually commute to work by car (68%), but a recent poll showed that 67% would be prepared to walk for part or all of their commute to work and 16% to cycle. That looks like progress when it comes to environmental behaviour change.

Alas, come winter…

Although home working brings the benefits of less commuting, there are risks that some of these environmental benefits are soon undermined as the winter draws in. Working from home in the summer is fine, but if home-working continues into the colder months, people will be working in cold, draughty homes heated by inefficient boilers powered by fossil fuels. An office shared by 20 people is likely to be more efficient than heating 20 separate homes. Then we have to talk about making our homes more efficient. But tackling this nation’s housing stock is a blog post for another day …

What YOU can do

  • Press your employer to invest in proper video-conferencing facilities if they don’t already.
  • Next time there’s a face to face meeting, ask if there is VC available. The more we ask, the more it’s likely to happen.

Appreciating nature around you – through cuckoo spit

Earlier this month, I took part in a local ‘bioblitz’. A bioblitz is an intense period of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Anyone could take part. All I had to do was download an app, take pictures of everything I saw and that stayed still long enough for me to point my phone at it, take a guess at what it was (though the app really helps you out) and upload it. Your identification then gets verified by someone else, and your data gets to be part of a bigger scientific dataset. Citizen science!

For those two days in June, I walked around desperately slowly or sitting in random places with my eyes peeled in desperation of finding anything that moved. At times, I became slightly obsessed, if not cross-eyed, but I found an awesome array of living things that I never realised I shared the same space with.

Earlier in lockdown, I wrote a blog about how it was making us appreciate the value of things that were local. The bioblitz had the same effect. It made me realise the biological value of everything around me – from the tiny green shield bug to the huge sycamores in the nearby woods. Ignore those who say we don’t have any interesting wildlife in our country, compared to the moose roaming around Canada, the bears of Russia or the elephants of India. We have shimmering blue dragonflies that dart around delicately defying gravity with their dances. We have spittlebugs that lay their offspring in a spit-like foam on grass stems to keep them safe until they are ready to emerge and face the world.

It totally re-kindled my love for nature as I spent the best part of two days finding any excuse to go out for a walk, take pictures of plants and find out their names and histories. My eldest child, who came with me, was pretty impressed to learn that every living thing we saw had an identity and a name. We learned how spittlebug foam was called ‘Cuckoo spit’ because it appears in late spring when the cuckoos start to call. We learned that the plant we like to call ‘sticky willy’ and a friend of ours calls ‘goosegrass’ can also be called ‘catchweed bedstraw’. We looked up what other plants had funny names and found this great list, by Kew. We talked about how other languages had different descriptions for things. My Dutch mum, for example, translates wisteria as ‘purple rain’ – a pretty good description of what it looks like. Same for ‘golden rain’ – a laburnum.

Last year, we gave over a 1m wide strip of our small garden to wild flowers. The soil quality was rubbish – perfect for wild flowers that thrive best on poor soils. We threw in some wild seed mix (a colleague of mine advised us to use local, native seeds, as it supports native wildlife) and waited.

Here is what is looks like today. It’s a bit straggly, but if you stand next to it, it buzzes with life:

I’m not sure if any one else has noticed, there seem to be a lot more wild flowers in public places in recent years. I’ve often wondered whether this is intentional (is it part of Fife Council’s biodiversity ambition?), or coincidental (has grass cutting fallen victim to budget cuts?), but the fact that I am seeing this amazing colour buzzing with life is truly welcome. Here is a strip on local playing field:

From cursory research, it appears to be intentional, with some help from Plantlife’s Road Verge campaign (thanks!), so council deserves a pat on the back. Mind you, not everyone is happy about it, as you can see from the ‘significant levels of complaint’ the council received recently.

Yes, I can hear some of you say that what do the little things matter when acres of rainforest are being destroyed every second? Absolutely, but my view is that a global appreciation for nature starts with a local one. If we can’t appreciate what’s on our doorstep, where can we start?

What are your experiences? Have you tried, or would you try growing your own wild flowers in a patch of your garden? Does your council cut its grass in a way that’s sympathetic to nature? As ever, feel free to comment below.

What YOU can do

  • Consider dedicating a corner of your garden to wild flowers, scrape the top soil off it and plant some native wildflower seeds
  • Download an app to help you identify and name the nature around you
  • Support Plantlife’s Road Verge campaign to get councils to protect wild flower areas on road verges

We’ve just used our last cloth nappy – it was hard work, but worth it

Lockdown seemed to be the right time to ‘encourage’ my three year old to stop using nappies for good. It presented us with the right circumstances – being at home lots, having plenty of time in the garden, consistent routines, fewer distractions and generally less rushing around between social events or childcare.

My three year old responded well to the cues, and has now cracked it. For both our children we used cloth instead of single-use nappies because it seemed better for the environment. Now I thought I’d take the time to check whether it actually was.

My stash of cloth nappies

Here’s what I found:

I saved a pile of money

4 nappies a day, 365 days a year, 3 years, 2 children.

That’s 8,760 nappy changes in all.

With cloth nappies, the cost splits into two – initial outlay and running costs:

  • Initial outlay – We bought around 30 second-hand washable nappies for an average of £7 each. That’s a total of £210. New nappies cost around £20 each, so would have cost me £600.
  • Running (washing) costs – According to my A++ rated washing machine manufacturer, a 40 degree wash uses 0.85 kWh of energy. Power costs me 14.41p per kWh, so each nappy wash cost me just over 12p per load. We did a nappy wash roughly 3 times a week, so over the course of the 5 years we used nappies, we did around 780 washes coming to around £95. If we’d used 60 degree washes, the total cost would have been just under £150. The drying and whitening came free from the wind and the sun.

Had we used single-use nappies, at about 20p per individual nappy, I’d have spent a whopping £1,752 in all.

£1,540 saved.

I saved a lot of carbon

A 2008 (admittedly quite old now) study by the Environment Agency looked at the environmental impact associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of nappies (both single-use and cloth) in the UK. The headline figures seemed to show little difference between the two: the single-use nappy had a “global warming impact” of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents compared to 570kg for cloth. Not much of a difference.

But there was a lot hiding behind these figures – the impact of cloth nappies really varied depending on how they were washed and dried. Whereas most of the carbon impact of the single-use nappy comes from its production, most of the impact from the cloth alternative comes from their use. For example, you can cut the impact of cloth nappies by a massive 40% (to 342kg) simply by using them with a second child, by washing nappies on a full load, and by not using a tumble-drier (which we did).

So it’s what you do with your cloth nappies that counts. Buying cloth nappies gets you environmental credentials, but if you wash half loads at 90 degrees, then tumble dry them and don’t use them again for your second child, you might as well not have bothered.

200kg carbon equivalent saved.

I cut waste and environmental pollution

The Scottish Government aim to create a Zero Waste economy, with a target to ban biodegradable landfill by 2025 (it used to be 2021). If they are going to do something about this, nappies would be a good place to start.

According to Zero Waste Scotland, around 160 million nappies are sent to landfill in Scotland every year. It is said that single-use nappies take hundreds of years to decompose.

That means every nappy that’s ever been thrown away since single-use nappies were invented in the 1940s is very likely still there.

Cloth nappies are not only re-used hundreds of times, they are also mainly made of natural fibres, from bamboo to hemp and cotton (OK, there is a debate about how sustainable cotton really can be, and yes cloth nappies so have a layer of plastic laminated on the outer wrap). Then there’s the pollution from landfill. With cloth nappies, the human waste goes down the wastewater pipe, which gets treated. With single-used nappies, the waste can leach out untreated.

Single-use nappies are made of plastics, bleached wood pulp, gels, dyes, latex and other elastics. Even the nappies that brand themselves as ‘biodegradable’ only claim to be ‘made of 60 to 80% biodegradable material’ – none are actually fully biodegradable. And the use of the term ‘biodegradable’ must be loosely applied. Landfill – being compacted and covered – is definitely not the right environment for any kind of decomposition to take place very effectively.

I did an experiment, trying to simulate what would happen when a single-use nappy was thrown into landfill and got wet. When dry, it weighs a mere 31g, but when filled with water, increases to 1.5kg and swells up like a balloon:

Remember how many single-use nappies we would have used? 1,870 nappies saved from landfill.

Hard work, but worth it

I completely acknowledge that single-use nappies top the convenience charts. When faced with a scary, shouty newborn, a massive change in your life and priorities, the last thing you want to have to think about it washing and drying dirty nappies. There have been a few times where I have cursed the stinky bucket next to the washing machine or the awful weather for not drying them in time.

But on days when it didn’t work, it was too hard, we were on holiday or when grandparents were on duty, we just used single-use nappies. There’s no point

It is certainly true that it takes more effort, more time and logistical planning to use cloth nappies. You need to remember to put the machine on, you need to change them more often, you need to carry around dirty nappies with you or bring them home from nursery at the end of the day. Then there’s all sorts of weird rules that apply to cloth nappies, like not using oil-based nappy rash creams, or not using fabric conditioner.

After 5 years of using them, I can confidently say that cloth nappies are a great, environmentally positive choice for new parents. There’s no point in killing yourself in an effort to be green by never deigning to use a single-use nappy. By all means, use a half and half approach – every cloth nappy used will help. Every action counts. Give them a go!

What YOU can do

  • Look up on social media if you have a nappy library near you – they provide fantastic help for cloth nappy learners, and may even loan you some kit to try
  • If you’re having a baby in Scotland, look in your Baby Box and use the voucher to try out a cloth nappy.

Quiet roads – a temporary blip before we jam them all up again?

Has anyone noticed more cyclists riding on the streets during lockdown? More children cycling with their parents? More adults giving it a go, previously too scared to venture out on the roads? Fewer cars and less congestion? This is echoed by the Government’s Coronavirus press briefings that show the staggering downwards curve of transport use changes since lockdown. The question is, will it last?

It’s encouraging to see so many people out and about enjoying their rides and gaining confidence on the roads. With two young children, we have made use of the quieter, safer roads, whether it’s taking the time to teach them some basic road sense, using empty car parks to do manoeuvres or treating the local golf course tracks as segregated cycle paths.

Our local golf course, which we’re using as a cycle path

Cities all over the world have closed roads to make space for cycling. Some councils, like Edinburgh, have opened up free bike hire schemes for key workers. The Scottish Government, recognising the new demand for cycling and walking, has even announced a new programme with Sustrans, the cycling charity, to build temporary infrastructure to give people more space.

There is evidence that more space is wanted by the public. Cycling Scotland published a survey earlier this year (before the lockdown) that looked at attitudes towards cycling. It revealed that people wanted to cycle more but concerns about road safety put them off. 63% of those polled agreed their local roads were too busy for safe cycling. 28% of parents thought cycling with children was ‘extremely unsafe’. And when asked what would make them cycle more, a staggering 81% named cycle lanes, traffic free routes and cycle paths.

A new wave of enthusiasm for greener travel?

I’m not sure that this apparent new wave of enthusiasm for cycling and walking will be sustained beyond the lockdown. Many people are cycling more precisely because they are locked down and don’t have other things to do, like shopping, travelling, or travelling to work.

However, I hope that when we come out of this, we will re-think how we share our road space – including taking some cars off it. Doing so would have clear benefits on public health, mental health and, given the massive footprint of transport on the environment, on emissions and climate change. Any momentum towards greener travel (and policies to encourage it) has to last longer than just the lockdown.

What I have learned is that if you make roads safer by giving more room (and yes, that means taking some cars off it), people will cycle and walk more. The opposite is also true – if you build fast, unsafe, roads and jam them full of cars, people won’t cycle on them.

Five challenges we face

However, there are some fundamental challenges that we (individuals, society, governments) will face as the lockdown eases.

First, there will be a massive demand to carry on as we were before, just to feel ‘normal’ again. Indeed, the ‘transport use’ curve in the Government Coronavirus briefings is already beginning to creep up again. Our brains (and economies) will also be in ‘catch up’ mode, tempting us to binge on all the things we missed since the lockdown started on 23 March. That means more cars on our roads.

Secondly, until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, people will be wary about sharing space with others. A recent survey by Ipsos MORI said that 61% of Britons would feel uncomfortable using public transport once the lockdown eases. This means that those who used to take the bus or the train will probably choose the car instead. And car-sharing will probably not be so popular either. That means more cars on our roads.

Third, behaviour change in the transport sector has always been a really hard nut to crack. According to the Scottish Government’s Transport and Travel statistics for 2018, 66% of all journeys were made by car, 20% by foot and 8% by bus. These figures haven’t really changed massively over time. Going back to that Cycling Scotland survey, almost half (44%) said they were not interested in reducing the use of their car. If buses and trains reek of virus, or you can’t keep 2 metres between you and your fellow passengers, why take the risk? That means more cars on our roads.

Fourth, there is a massive risk that cars are seen as a ‘safe space’ from the virus. Indeed, the car industry is already polishing off its new marketing strategy as defenders against transmission of the virus. Clever. There is also a massive question mark over the future of public transport in general (in rural areas in particular), much of which can’t operate without subsidy. People might not have the choice of taking the bus instead of the car if there’s no bus left. That means more cars on our roads.

And fifth, if we want people to make different transport choices, we can’t rely on individual action alone – it needs concerted government policy (local and national), long-term vision, incentives, infrastructure and financial support. And some pressure from transport campaign groups like Transform or Cycling UK. Governments are totally overwhelmed by the work involved in dealing with and containing this virus, so there is neither the political appetite, energy nor money to do much else very complicated unless there is public demand for it.

I don’t want the nice quiet roads we are experiencing at the moment to be a temporary blip before everything just jams up again after lockdown.

I don’t want our transport emissions to rise and rise, and for people continue to feel roads are unsafe for cycling.

My last blog was about ensuring we do things differently after lockdown, and I really want transport to be the major thing we focus on. Maybe all this home-working might take off a few car journeys a week. Maybe we have all discovered that it’s not as far to walk to the supermarket as we once thought. Maybe we’re starting to enjoy a Saturday walk with the kids more than a drive to the soft play. Maybe we will think differently, make different choices.

Do you think our transport choices will change for the better after lockdown? Will we remember the days of quieter roads and safer streets for cycling? Will governments ensure that we try to green our transport infrastructure coming out of the lockdown?

What YOU can do

  • Try to replace one of your car journeys this week with a bike ride or a walk, and take the time to enjoy it.
  • Lobby your councillor, MSP and MP about greener travel, or support a greener transport campaign – it needs political action to really happen.

My post-COVID wishlist will NOT be business as usual …

We’ve been in lockdown in the UK since March 23rd, and already I’m longing for a return to normality. In my head, I’m already creating a list of things I’d like to do (or buy) once the lockdown is over and the crisis has passed:

  • have a holiday (our Easter break was cancelled)
  • eat out (fed up of my own cooking)
  • have a haircut (I look ragged)
  • buy new toys for the kids (they are bored of the old ones)

Then I stopped myself and thought about it again. A voice was telling me to resist the urge to splurge post-lockdown in an effort to return to life as normal as if nothing had changed.

Yet plenty of things have changed. We all caught that glimpse over the cliff-edge and realised we all need to be a bit more resilient.

There has been some debate about whether the pandemic has, or will, benefit the climate. There are positive environmental stories – industrial emissions fell in some parts of locked down China, nature returned to certain areas in Italy under lockdown. On a personal level, I’m appreciating the natural world more with my daily dose of local exercise, I have no commute, the roads are safer, the air is cleaner and our town is much less congested.

But these benefits have come at a huge social and economic cost (to often the least advantaged in society), they are temporary, and only a fool would argue that COVID-style lockdowns are a good way of tackling the environmental crisis.

Because while I like (and need) positive news, these stories are like a mirage, an illusion. As our economies race to play catch-up after the virus is under control, emissions are likely to sky-rocket. Dirty industries will lobby for prop-ups or weakening of environmental legislation in the name of jobs and profit. There is a risk that we do all we can to get our ‘normality’ back and forget about doing it in a way that prevents, or even undermines, our efforts to tackle the next crisis – the environmental crisis. Just like me and my list.

I’m a fan of making personal commitments to tackling climate change (see my recent blog on the power of collective action). However, it has to be supported by action from governments too. As Richard Dixon from Friend of the Earth Scotland recently wrote in the Scotsman, this current crisis shows that where there is a will, Governments can make things happen, and quickly. This was echoed in the latest episode (Green Recovery) of the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd.

My personal commitment is to make my post-COVID list more green. Yes, I can make a list of all the things I want to do once this is over, but I have to do this with a green mindset. And importantly, our governments have to do the same – their economic stimulus packages needs to have a green mindset too.

For me, I will try to make my post-COVID list look something like this:

  • buy less stuff I don’t need
  • cook more with the ingredients I have
  • do more toy swaps
  • re-use more packaging for my kids crafting
  • use more natural materials from around us for play and learning
  • explore my local area more
  • get my sewing kit more and learn to mend!

What YOU can do

  • Make a list of things you will do more of (and more green) after the COVID crisis
  • Make a list of things you will do less of after the crisis

How I’m re-assessing the value of ‘local’

I wrote a blog in February the year about re-thinking the need for travel, when Storm Ciara hit the UK. Little did I know then that just over a month later, we would be facing such massive state-imposed restrictions on travel, where we are being asked to stay at home and only take essential journeys.

But here we are. The Covid-19 pandemic is upon us, we are (mostly) all doing our bit to reduce contact with others and minimise the spread of the virus. It is an awful situation and really scary stuff. We have been told we can have one stint of exercise a day, staying close to home and keeping a 2 metre distance from others. How many of you thought the same as me: How on earth do we entertain ourselves without going anywhere?

I have two young kids at home who don’t understand the virus. In fact, they are mostly delighted to have so much of their parents’ time and attention at this time. Being kids, they love simple things, and they love being surrounded by their primary care-givers (even if, now and then, it means doing sums and spelling). For me, their positivity is a shield from the negative news in the wider world.

River play

However, their need for entertainment has not diminished, just the tools I have to work with. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to re-energise our interest in smaller, simpler, more local stuff. I’ve designed treasure hunts and obstacle courses in the garden, traced rivers, set safari challenges and taken them on walking/biking trips nearby. A friend reminded me it was wild garlic/nettle season and we went out to find and pick the youngest leaves, making pesto with our spoils. We’ve perfected the art of stone-skimming in the stream near our house. We’ve looked under stones for worms, snails and centipedes.

Wild garlic and young nettle tops

Suddenly, the place where we live has become incredibly important. Who knew there was so much fun to be had within a mile of our house?

I’m learning a lot. About where we live, about how my children learn, about making the most out of a scary situation, being grateful for the small pleasures. Ironically, although my geographical limits appear to be shrinking, others are expanding. I’m seeing new stuff, in a different light. Children are incredibly resourceful – they find fun in the smallest things. It is a good lesson for us all.

Nature’s climbing frame

Instead of travelling in the car long distances, going to museums and shows, essentially shunning the ‘local’ as being boring, we’re now taking more pleasure in the small things that are close by. And we are learning the value of nature to provide understanding about the world. As this is an environmental blog, I have to make the point, but I believe that understanding and valuing nature is the first basic step to protecting it.

I’m not advocating this lockdown to be kept any longer than it needs to. We really do yearn for a bit of variety and a bit of adventure. But while it is a reality, we’re going to make the best of it. As I see more of our neighbours out and about in the street as the weather begins to turn more spring-like, I hope that they are also valuing the ‘local’ a little bit more, appreciating the world around them.

What YOU can do

  • Go for a walk, and learn something new about where you live
  • Make some food using locally foraged (or sourced) food
  • Trace the course of your local river on a map all the way to the sea and see if you know all the places it passes through

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