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!

We need to talk about milk … (and an ode to oats!)

First thing in the morning, mid-morning, just after lunch and mid-afternoon. I’m a tea drinker and there’s only one way I like it. With milk in it.

Which is why when I cringe when I keep reading this line from a 2018 Oxford university study:

Producing a glass of cow’s milk has at least three times more environmental impact than producing a glass of any non-dairy milk.

This is apparently due to three things – greenhouse gas emissions (methane from cows), land-use (cows need space to roam and their food needs space to grow) and water use (to make the milk).

Crikey. So if I want to go green, I need to address my taste for dairy.

I have to admit, the idea of not having milk in my tea – or ice cream, or cheese, or butter – makes me shudder. But it is something I’ve realised I need to tackle if I’m serious about being green. And dare I say it, meat (but that’s a story for another day…)

Hang on a minute, before you click away! The last thing I want this blog to be about is how green always means giving nice, convenient, tasty things up. No, I want to be more inclusive – I think being green is more about doing things differently, less of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff more of the time. I get it. The more you talk about giving things up in order to be green, the more you lose people along the way. Plus, it makes going green a really boring, “worthy” , thing to do. So, no, we’re not talking about me giving up milk we’re talking about reducing consumption of it.

Phew, because there is an important place in my life for milky tea (and cheese and butter) and I am not at the point (yet!) where I can go vegan.

So, back to my attempt to reduce my milk intake – and stumbled upon a minefield where I wasn’t looking for one. As this article on the BBC shows, while traditional dairy milk ain’t so green, the alternatives to dairy milk might just be even worse.

But what are the alternatives?

The terrifying array of milk alternatives

Many of them – almond, rice, cashew, coconut milk are all from crops that are grown in hot places, have a tonne of food miles, as well as use a lot of water and fertiliser in production.

But oat milk seems to be one of the least bad options – it’s grown closer to home and boasts top points in the sustainability scale.

We got into oat milk a while ago and started to buy lots of it as a replacement for cow milk – it worked well in porridge, pancakes, mashed potato (sadly not in tea) and we were actually buying less cow milk.

I then noticed that these oat milk tetrapaks were filling my recycling making me feel bad about the waste (I’ve learned that green issues never stay in their own silos. Just when you think you’re solving a carbon problem you end up with a waste problem!)

But one of the best things about oat milk is that it is super easy to make at home – no packaging. You just add water, whizz in a blender and strain. I add a touch of vanilla essence and a bit of honey to make it taste more palatable, and hey presto! A more environmentally friendly alternative to cow milk.

My home-made oat milk

As for my tea, I still take it with milk. And I can’t resist ice cream as an occasional treat. Cutting dairy out entirely is a step I might have to take later on. One step at a time…

How about you? Have you any thoughts about the alternatives to milk? Can you tell me how to give up milk when I still have to start the day with milky tea?

When a storm makes you re-think the need to travel

Goodbye and good riddance, Storm Ciara! Most of last week I saw the forecasts, learned about potential disruptions in the news, and heard the ‘do not travel’ announcements by train companies. So as the storm rolled in on Saturday afternoon, I heeded the warnings and cancelled my Sunday plans. I also hate storms – they can be seriously dangerous things and make my house shake.

While I was cancelling plans and hunkering down, it occurred to me that, much like my efforts to be greener, Storm Ciara was forcing me to ask myself whether or not the journey I had planned was really necessary.

As you’ll see from an earlier blog, I’m trying to reduce my transport emissions by reducing vehicle use by using public transport and cycling and walking. This also entails sometimes choosing not to travel at all. So Storm Ciara’s effect on me chimed well with the kind of choices I’m having to make to reduce my environmental footprint.

A lot of us have cars parked in the drive for us to just take when we want – even for short trips. We often don’t really question the need to travel – we just do it. Because of the convenience of it.

Here are some stats from the Scottish Government (from 2018) that show that a majority of road journeys we make are short:

16% of car journeys made were under 1km (0.6 miles)

53% were under 5km (3 miles).

To me, that last figure is amazing. Over half our high carbon car journeys could be replaced by lower carbon alternative – a 25 min cycle or 45 min walk (if we gave ourselves the time and effort to take these options).

The important question the stats don’t show is how many of these journeys are really essential?

When we had a car, I wouldn’t think twice about jumping in it to nip to the shops to get some milk, to the pool, to a cafe or into town.

Since having sold the family car, we’ve had to become much more resourceful in terms of thinking of alternatives to driving. Or, importantly, choosing sometimes just not to travel for journeys that don’t really need to be made.

So, back to this stormy weekend and my shaky house. With travel plans cancelled and cabin fever having set in before midday, I decided to walk (with child) the mile and a half into town instead – the form of transport with least emissions and highest fitness/wellbeing value. We had a great time. We picked up fallen sticks and branches, jumped over puddles and threw our gloves wildly into the wind.

Jumping over puddles!

So thanks, Storm Ciara, for focusing my mind on what travel is essential and what’s maybe not. I reckon I can get the hang of the thinking, but I’d rather you didn’t make my house shake as much.

If you’ve got any views or experiences, please share them here and start a discussion. Did the storm make you think twice about travelling? Are there other ways you think we can cut out short journeys and reduce our carbon footprint?

How does reducing plastic increase carbon?

I wanted to try to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our house. The first thing I did was look in the plastics recycling box; I found mainly food packaging, Tetra packs and milk bottles. Easy win, I thought, those milk bottles don’t have to be there.

So I signed up for a home delivery of milk in glass bottles by Scottish company who operate a rinse and return system. Maybe I’m romantic, but I liked the (perhaps nostalgic) idea of milk deliveries of my rural youth. So, every Monday night, I put out my empty bottles and before Tuesday’s breakfast, I have three glass bottles of fresh milk on my doorstep. Although I’d made the more expensive choice for the white stuff, my recycling box is less full. Environmental brownie points to me. Until …

A friend told me that in my attempt to reduce my plastic use, I might have inadvertently increased my carbon footprint.

What? It’s about the carbon embedded in the milk’s life-cycle, he said, not just in the final product.

Glass is much heavier than plastic, so my milk delivery requires bigger lorries and more fuel. So, he asserted, unless it comes from down the road (like it did when I was young), it’s bound to have caused more carbon emissions than if it were transported in plastic. Plastic bottles are also designed to be efficiently transported – their square shape means more bottles can be fitted onto one vehicle, making each delivery more efficient. I found a 2016 study concluding that plastic beats glass over its life-cycle, mainly because of glass’s energy-intensive production and transportation emissions.

Breakfast time!

I was crestfallen, at the point of giving up. How is an ordinary consumer who wants to do the right thing for the planet meant to make the right choices? Was I just jumping onto a trendy bandwagon? (The answer, sadly, is yes).

It just so happened that Zero Waste Scotland, a credible non-profit organisation, recently posted a blog about this. They concluded that it’s fine to use glass bottles, as long as;

  • the energy used in washing, rinsing and refilling them is low carbon; and
  • they are re-used at least 20 times (on average).

So, I had to go back to my supplier and check some facts.

Firstly, their processing of the glass involves four stages, soaking at 63 degrees C, draining, pre-rinsing in hot water and rinsing with tap water. I didn’t find out whether their electricity was low carbon, but unless they shouted about it, I assumed not.

Secondly, my supplier assumed a re-use of 14 times (oops, not enough for ZWS standards), “but that allows for people who do not return the glass. A bottle could be used up to 30-40 times” they said (phew, that’s better).

But the Zero Waste blog didn’t really address my friend’s point about transport, except to hint that choosing a local supplier means there would be lower transport emissions associated with delivery.

Mine was the most ‘local’ supplier I could find online. The milk came from “local farms” (they clarified that local actually meant Scottish), processed and bottled in Glasgow and sent in diesel “special VW transporters” to a distribution centre in Kirkcaldy before being delivered to my door in St Andrews (a journey of about 70 miles). That’s not exactly local.

So I am sad to conclude that until the following things happen:

  • I find a more local milk supplier,
  • We decarbonise the grid,
  • We decarbonise transport,
  • I stop drinking milk altogether (I will talk about diet in a later blog),

.. I can no longer claim the environmental brownie points of switching away from plastic.

Finding green alternatives to plastic is fraught with difficulty, particularly in our system of mass food production and transportation. My decision to use glass milk bottles was made for a different era and a different place. I’m not saying glass doesn’t work for everyone. It probably does for people living closer to where it’s made.

What I’ve learned, however, is that trying to make the greener choices is hard for the average consumer. There are limits to what individuals can realistically do, and where we sometimes need a little help and support.

And next time, I’ll be more wary of bandwagons…

Is it possible to ditch the car?

Last year we sold our family car. There were a few reasons. It was not the most efficient model at 10 years old, costly to run and to insure. We also like cycling, have decent gear to transport our kids around in bikes (trailer and bike seats) and live and work in a town which has a pretty good cycle infrastructure and most facilities (shopping, schooling, entertainment) here.

My cycle commute

Admission of guilt – It was also because we bought a VW campervan last year and I was feeling terribly guilty about having two lumps of metal parked in our drive.

So one had to go

“What?” I hear you say, “You decided to keep the (more polluting?) van and ditch the (less polluting?) car?”

Yes, but let me bore you with some calculations first. The car emitted 120g/km and the van emits 170g/km. So we’d need to use the van a whole lot less than we did the car to justify the purchase in terms of our carbon footprint.

We had hired a van the previous year and found it a great way of holidaying without the flights. So we managed to convince ourselves that it was ok to have it as long as we set ourselves some rules first…

  • the van is only to be used for journeys that are too far to cycle, and when there isn’t a realistic public transport option
  • the van is only to be used when it’s time-critical, like an urgent doctors appointment
  • the van can be used if the weather is so terrible that cycling just won’t cut it (luckily, the weather is rarely a barrier here on the east coast)
  • the van can be used when we need to transport big or heavy things that we can’t carry in our bike trailer or in a buggy.

So for most trips we try to think bike or walk first, then bus or train, then last resort, van.

And it’s led to quite a few changes in our behaviour, which are worth sharing.

Firstly, I’ve learned to reassess my need to make short journeys, replace them with cycling and walking. For example I used to jump in the car to the supermarket. I now either shop during my lunch hour, combine it with a run (using the buggy to carry the shopping), get an online order, or shop on the way back from a weekend camping trip in the van.

Secondly, I’ve learned to plan my time better too. It’s annoying, but not having a car at your disposal needs you to create extra time, both for planning and travelling. For example, I used to just jump in the car for the 15 minute drive to the nearest train station. Now, I’ve had to get to know the best buses and their timetables to get to the station. And I now have to leave 45 mins to get there by bus.

On that point, it’s the connections that are the time-killer. We once had an appointment at the hospital in another town, and rather than the usual 30 minute door-to-door car journey (plus 10 mins to park), we had a 3-bus journey taking us about 2 hours door to door. All for a 10 minute check up.

Thirdly, we had to be prepared to spend a little more money on public transport. Fares are not cheap so I can see why people don’t use them. My 4 mile bus trip to the train station costs me £6 for a return, and 10 miles on the bus to the hospital the wrong side of a tenner. I know it wouldn’t cost that much in fuel for the car.

Finally, I seem to feel more geographically limited not having the car. Limited to this town and whatever is on the bus routes around it. Because of our self-imposed ‘rules’ around our van usage and the difficulty of getting to other places (particularly rural ones off the bus routes), we leave our home town a lot less frequently. But frankly, it’s the way we all used to travel – and probably should all be doing in a future emissions-constrained world.

So what’s the verdict?

We’ve ditched a car, but I’d say that we have exceptional circumstances that allow for it (no commute, a half decent bus network, and a cycle-friendly town). These are things that a lot of people in this country don’t have.

What the experience has taught me is exactly why people have cars cluttering up their driveways. And why it’s so hard to ditch them. As a society, something will have to change if we are going to be less dependent on them.

It needs a lot of supporting infrastructure, the right incentives and a total change in mindset about getting around. Not an easy nut to crack. And certainly not one to crack as quickly as is probably needed.

All we’ve done is gone from two vehicles to one. We’ve still got the security of having a vehicle parked in the driveway if other options don’t work. The better solution would be to have an electric van. The best solution, perhaps, to have none.

So while we’ve ditched a car, the real test is to go from one vehicle to none. At the moment, that seems a bridge a little too far…

How hard/expensive is it to avoid a UK flight?

I’m going to Cambridge (from St Andrews) next weekend. My plan is to head down early Saturday 11th January, returning early evening on 13th January. Got to be back at work on the Tuesday, see. So what are my travel options:

Driving between the two cities (which are some 640km apart) is not an option. I’m not desperately keen on driving the 8 hours needed on my own and I want to be able to read my book. It would also be pretty carbon heavy. According to Defra’s emissions factors calculations, based on a medium sized car, I would emit around 256kg of CO2.

Flying might be a sensible option given that Cambridge is near Stansed, and St Andrews is near Edinburgh. It’s an average flight time of 1 hour 20 mins, although this masks the often lengthy time it takes to get to and from – and through – the airport at either end.

But flying – especially on a path to green (my first month!) – is definitely out of the equation – it most definitely has the heaviest carbon footprint. According to Defra’s figures, for a return 511km flight, it would cost 306kg CO2. Ouch!

(P.s EasyJet promise to offset the carbon from the fuel used in every single flight – more about this probably a later blog)

How about the cost comparison?

According to easyJet, the return air fare is £104.98, taxes £26, hold items £44.98 (for a 15 kg bag) making a total of £175.46. But then I’d need to add on the train journeys to and from the airports – £27.40 on the Scottish side and £16.40 on the English side. Total £219.26. Ouch again.

Next I explore the train option. I look up LNER’s train tickets and find that a return to Cambridge on the 11th and 13th would set me back £155.85. Better.

According to LNER, who have their own carbon footprint calculator, the train would be 66.56kg of CO2. Better still.

The journey would involve 2 changes and take me about 6.5 hours. I’d need a long book.

A friend of mine told me about TrainSplit (other websites available). It is a rather clever website that gets you the cheapest ticket by splitting long journeys into constituent parts, often making the overall cost lower. As they explain on their website, an off-peak ticket between Birmingham and Leeds costs £61.10 but you can get Birmingham to Derby and then Derby to Sheffield, then Sheffield to Leeds, all for £40.10. Even taking into account the 10% cut they take off the amount you save.

I looked it up for this journey. The total was £139.41. It involves 2 changes and, like the LNER option, takes about 6.5 hours. Not bad.

This is the cheapest option, but is it the best? With TrainSplit, I get loads of tickets, even though I’m staying on the same train. It also means that because my tickets are split, I might be in trouble if I miss a connection, and I might not be eligible to compensation if bad weather hits and there are delays.

Now this is a lot of tickets

But as I’ve never done it before, and I have limited time and energy to do all the research, I’ve gone with the cheapest option and bought my tickets with TrainSplit. It’s the cheapest and the greenest, so big brownie points for me!

I’ll let you know if it works .. Maybe I’ll get stuck somewhere in the midlands and my next blog will be a rant.

Now there’s something to look forward to.

Addendum- I should have pointed out the source of the Defra figures –

New Year, new path..

It’s December 2019. Nearly New Year. Nearly 2020

2020 is a nice round number, seems a little like a milestone. One that I feel like I need to mark in some way. So here’s my new year’s resolution – I’m going to finish the year a whole lot greener than I started it. Here’s why.

I’d say I was a pretty enthusiastic environmentalist. I am not a climate scientist, but I absolutely get what is going on with our climate and want it to stop it getting out of control. But I always struggle with the how.

We’ve had international climate conference after climate conference where countries and its politicians are failing to take the lead. We have commitments and targets by politicians, but no real roadmap (or conversation) for how to get there. Meanwhile, everyone blames one anther for not doing enough, which is a great excuse for not doing enough in the first place. It’s a vicious circle of inactivity that leads to disastrous effects on our climate.

So rather than blaming others, or asking others to do more, I feel I can do the only thing I feel empowered to do – be the change I want to see. I’m just going to have to do what I can myself to reduce my own footprint. And perhaps hope it inspires or rubs off on others to do the same.

So in January 2020, I’m going to start my year of trying to be greener. This means doing all I can to make changes to my life (and my family life) – to reduce my impact on the environment. I plan to take a different issue every month, try to figure out what changes can/need to be made, shine a light on some of the challenges and dilemmas I face along the way and share with you what I learn.

This is the path I’m taking over the course of 2020. I’m mainly doing it for myself, but would love it if others could share it with me – merely for the fact that it’s nice when you feel like you’re not the only one doing it.

I don’t think it will be easy, and requires some learning, but that’s the point of the blog – to share with you one person’s lows and the highs of trying to do the right thing for the planet – and our future.

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