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

How small actions really do count

I promised to not let my blog site become one about the Covid-19 crisis, but given how all-pervasive it has become in our daily lives, I can’t ignore its impact on me. This blog post does, however, draw a parallel between this crisis and the environmental one – and looks at the power of small, individual actions, taken together to make big impacts.

I’m writing this while we sit at home in “lockdown”. The kids are learning at home while schools are closed, we’re working from home as much as possible and we are practising “social distancing” with our friends and neighbours. We’ve been told to stay at home to save lives and to save the NHS. Small actions count.

By and large, we are a compliant bunch (for the time being) – the streets are quieter, people are communicating more online, most seem to be respecting the distancing guidelines when out and about. A recent YouGov poll (24 March 2020) stated that 93% of the British public supported the PM’s lockdown measures. We all seem to be getting the message that this is needed and that we all have our part to play as individuals.

Like no other time in recent history, there is lot of responsibility on each individual to do their bit for the greater good. We are quickly accepting that every single one of our actions may have a consequence for someone else. We should stay at home, not only for our own sakes, but also for the sake of others – to prevent the spread of the virus, and to save lives.

When first faced with this global public health crisis, just like the climate crisis, I felt small and powerless. But now that I’m being asked to do my bit and have been given clear instructions on what to do – handwashing, social distancing – I feel like I’m making a contribution to a bigger effort. It’s actually empowering. When I see others doing it, I feel like I want to do my bit too. Every decision we make – whether to go out, touch something, meet someone, get groceries – could have a serious impact on someone else.

Although many talk of a climate crisis, it rarely feels like a crisis that there is a collective effort to tackle – it depends a lot on the commitments of individuals. But, as a recent BBC Life Scientific episode with Myles Allen explored, many feel that too much is left to the individual to tackle climate change, and that governments and business should step up more. I have yet to read his book, but Mark Earls also offered some useful insights into “herd mentality” around green issues in BBC’s Analysis recently.

It can be a lonely place, making individual environmental changes – making a commitment to flying less while your neighbour takes a city break every month, reducing your meat intake when your friends all order burgers in the pub, trying to reduce paper use at work when your colleague insists on printing all her emails. But I do it because small actions count.

There are so many things that individuals can (and should) do. And doing these things – and sharing them – has the power to pull people together in the same direction, like we’re doing now. Here’s a line from Greta Thunberg’s ‘No one is too small to make a difference’:

Every single person counts. Just like every single emission counts. Every single kilo. Everything counts.

Greta Thunberg, Stockholm Climate March, 2018

This the kind of language that empowers me to take the small actions I take the live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. So much of the environmental debate is about who’s most at fault, or who performs better than whom. But I do feel this is all a distraction from the fact that we all need to do our bit, and do it together. Blaming someone else allows us to get away with not doing anything at all.

The current public health crisis is teaching us that every single action we take as individuals has an impact, on others, or on the world around us. Just like the climate crisis, every purchase we make, every journey we travel, every place we go, we have an impact. I hope that we can come out of this with a better understanding of how we all have a part to play and how if we all do something small, it becomes something big.

Everything counts after all.

What YOU can do

  • Make one personal commitment to individual action on climate change
  • Tell someone else about it and why you’re doing it

The environmental reasons to be a more ‘responsible’ shopper

We’ve heard a lot lately about how we should be shopping ‘responsibly’.

For me, shopping responsibly is about thinking about others when we shop – not only other customers, but also shop and farm workers, food producers, the environment. It’s about acting in a way that serves the collective good of people (and the planet) around us. This adage is so true, but not only in times of a global health crisis – we should always be shopping in a way that serves the collective good.

(It’s definitely not my intention to write about the current crisis, which is already causing information overload. My blog is about my efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle and trying to make better choices for people and the planet.)

For me, shopping responsibly means not buying more than you need, leaving some for others, ensure we are treating the supply chain fairly and not creating unnecessary waste. This will chime with anyone who is sympathetic to the idea of fair trade, organic, locally-produced, zero-waste.

So what am I doing? I already buy fair trade where possible and I signed up to a local organic veg box scheme last year. So the next step was to try to reduce waste, particularly single-use plastic. Although most people generally think plastic is recyclable, much of it isn’t, and certainly much of the packaging that supermarkets use is actually not recyclable. If I look at my own council’s list of what is recyclable, they state:

The following items are no longer recycled in the green and should go into the landfill (blue) bin.
  • Polystyrene
  • Plastic bags and films
  • Plastic wrappers (e.g. biscuit/crisp bags)

It’s not terribly helpful a definition, and it often relies on us knowing how the council defines ‘plastic’. Does ‘plastic bags’ mean the shopping bag, or the bag that you put your veggies in? How about the wrapping for my pasta and rice? What’s classed as ‘film’, or ‘plastic wrappers’? Confusing.

I found that there tended to be a lot of single-use plastic in the supermarket shop. (I praise some of their efforts to reduce the amount they use but think they could do way more). Many of the goods sold in supermarkets are also way over-packaged in the name of convenience.

Having sold our car last autumn, I don’t have the carrying capacity I once did, so have to shop in smaller chunks more regularly, which makes avoiding the supermarket easier.

The carrying capacity of my bike trailer

Happily, I’ve recently discovered that I have a local Transition St Andrews group that has an online food cooperative shop, part of the Open Food Network, that sells locally-sourced, organic and zero-waste products. It’s very good – you order online and then go to one of three collection points in town and collect your goods. Many of the products come loose in paper bags, there are re-fill options for laundry liquid or oil and many of the goods are local – frozen berries from Tayside, sourdough bread from St Andrews, fava beans, carlin peas or marrowfat peas from England.

The Transition collection point

I’ve also found other local shops that do the same thing – Handam in Perthshire, Sea no Waste in Arbroath and the Birchwood Emporium in Dundee – providing customers with much better packaging options.

A dry goods order from Handam

I sense that by making these really easy (and relatively small) changes to my shopping habits, I can lighten my carbon and environmental footprint. I’m making better, more responsible decisions along the way, and learning more about what’s grown and made locally. I am also less dependent on national distribution networks to get my food to me, and am reassured that my food doesn’t have the carbon mileage embedded in it.

How about you? Please share with me any experiences or thoughts you may have on any of the issues I’ve raised here. Any a new thing for each of my blogs is a bit about:

What YOU can do

  • Find out whether you have a local food network near you and try an online order
  • Find an organic veg box scheme near you
  • Research three things grown near you and be their customer!
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