Monday, 31 October 2011


The door's been knocking all evening with very scary small children in great costumes for Halloween. I've failed on the "green" snacks as I ended up buying lots of plastic wrapped sweets for the evening but they do seem to be going down well. It's easy for Halloween to become expensive and full of plastic which gets thrown away later. I have thought of a few green ways to get spooky though.

If you make pumpkin lanterns why not roast it afterwards? It cooks just like butter nut squash and can just be cooked whole which would make a great centre piece for a dinner if you'd carved it. You could also make the traditional pumpkin pie or try a pumpkin cake recipe. Those left over seeds can be used too like I did yesterday. Once you've done all that you'll have almost no pumpkin waste!

You've carved your pumpkins and filled them with candles so how about an electricity free evening? Tell ghost stories by candle light or play games in the dark. With Diwali and other festivals of light coming to a close this week it's the perfect time to celebrate the dark nights (even darker after the clocks change over) and look forward to Guy Fawkes Night next week.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Snack Time

Well after a three hour train journey from Leicester back to Preston today I didn't do very well with my I Spy train list.  I saw a river, bridge over the railway, some flooding, a road, graffiti, budleia and a successful traveller making a dash for an almost departing train. I only managed one church spire before darkness closed in and the dark is my excuse for missing the rest of my list. Hopefully I'll do better later in the week when I'm on another train.

When I'm on train journeys I try to make sure I take food and drink with me, mainly because of the prices on trains and at stations but also because there seems to be a serious lack of "ethical" snacks. This has mainly been an assumption up to now but today I thought I'd check out the on board shop on my Virgin train to see if I could back it up with facts.

I was  happily surprised to find that all the hots drinks were Fairtrade and according to the shop menu,
Virgin Trains is proud to use only Fairtrade Certified hot drinks, to help protect farmers and deliver you the very best quality.
 I'm quite impressed by this and I like the fact that, on these trains at least, the ethical choice is now the only choice. There aren't that many places where only Fairtrade drinks are served, although there were still fizzy drinks which were Fairtrade.

The only other Fairtrade items I found were some Fairtrade Jelly Beans (I didn't even realise they existed!). There were also some UK produced oat bars which had "fully recyclable packaging". The packaging was plastic and while it probably is recyclable somewhere I doubt it would be accepted by my council. On the recycling topic it annoys me that there is nowhere to recycle on trains, not even behind the shop counter.

In general I was pleased that there were ethical/environmental options for both food and drink, but there's still a fair way to go. It would be great if Fairtrade was the norm for all products that could be.

Thankfully I avoided the shop choices as I'd brought a snack with me. This weekend I tried making roasted pumpkin seeds for the first time. They were a lot better than I expected and very easy to make. Remove all the seeds from the pumpkin, brush a tiny bit of oil onto a hot frying pan and then put in the seeds. Wait until the seeds swell and turn brown and then remove from the heat and cover with sugar/salt/chilli powder or paprika. I think I used a bit too much chilli powder but they were great otherwise and staved off hunger until I got home to finish off the last of last weeks pork.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Feed the Birds Day

Today is the RSPB's Feed the Birds Day, where they ask everyone to put food out for garden birds. Bird feeders are important all year round in urban areas but they're particularly important when wild seeds and insects are hardest to find during the winter months. My bird feeders are nice and full in the garden this weekend. I haven't seen many other bird feeders in the area but maybe there will be more after today!

Have a look at the RSPB's website for more information on feeding the birds in your garden and identifying what turns up. You could even have fun making bird cakes to hang up outside- a great activity for kids at the end of half term week.

Why not let me know what you saw on your bird feeders this weekend? I'm expecting sparrows and not a lot else but maybe I'll be surprised.

Friday, 28 October 2011

I spy...

The next few weeks I'll be on a lot of trains visiting various people around the country. Over the summer I went inter-railing in Europe and found that there are some things you can almost always guarantee to see from any train ride, no matter how long or short. There are some things in particular that you see on U.K. railways that don't turn up elsewhere on the continent-I'm sure there are more buddleia plants on the tracks here.

I've started compiling an I spy list of things I think I'll always see and then counting how many I get on each journey. I might end up adding to the list if there are things I've missed but I think it's not bad as a start and it keeps me entertained and noticing the world around me. In a few weeks I'll let you know how I did on my various trips but below is the list I'm starting with.

Hotel sign
Birds flying
At least five church spires
Some one running to catch a train, and succeeding
Someone running to catch a train, and failing
Power station
Wind  farm
Flooded field
Bridge (One point each for over a river, a road and the railway)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Leftover lunches

We haven't had a new veg box for two weeks now and we still haven't finished all the veg from the last one!
We did buy a particularly large box but I'm amazed how well the food keeps. I suppose it's because it comes straight from the fields rather than being transported for a week or so before it gets to the shops.

It's been a week of leftover meals. We cooked a joint of pork on Sunday and have been using the rest of it up over the last few days.

Tuesday was Cheesy Pork, a variation on my Mum's Cheesy Chicken which is left over roast chicken with cheesy sauce and rice. It's a family favourite and has been adapted to most left over meats including turkey and pork. We've never tried Cheesy Beef but I think that's because we're rarely left with leftover beef!

Wednesday was stir fry pork: vegetables, pork, rice and gravy. Very quick using leftover rice from Tuesday and pork from Sunday. Great for popping in a Tupperware box and taking to work when I'm working in the evenings.

Tonight will be broccoli and pork pasta. Really simple if you cook the pasta and broccoli in the microwave together. Again a great one for lunch or dinner when working late.

As well as all this evening food the pork's been in sandwiches for lunches every day! I reckon the one joint we cooked on Sunday will have done over 15 portions when we finally finish it. Brilliant value I think and it means less cooking for the rest of the week, especially if you use left over roast veg in the first few meals.

Next week I'll need to use up the cauliflower, celeriac, broccoli and half a leek that are still lingering in the fridge. I've got a baking potato somewhere too. More leftover meals (probably with lots of grated cheese) and then we'll be ready for a nice new box. I love the way you can see the food going down over the weeks. On delivery day I'm struggling to shut the fridge then two weeks later I discover things I'd completely forgotten we had! What are you favourite recipes for using up leftovers? I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Yellow and Blue Make Green?

In May 2010, shortly after the coalition had been formed, David Cameron said that he wanted it to be "the greenest government ever" and Chris Hume (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) said "Climate change is in my view, our view, the greatest challenge facing mankind."
When I heard that I was really hopeful. I don't know a lot about  politics (and knew even less 18 months ago) but those statements sounded like the new government were going to really take environmental issues seriously.  A year later, with the struggles of deficit, recession and social unrest the environment had already slipped into the background.
During Mr Cameron's speech at his party conference this year he must have forgotten the page on the environment as the only references to it were a passing comment on "green engineering" and berating Labour for not "going green". 
Then George Osborne made a bold environmental pledge. He said 
"We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let's at the very least resolve that we're going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe."
Brilliant, thanks George, that really is the very least you can do. His arguments included the fact that the U.K. contributes 2%, compared to China and the USA's 40% of emissions globally and that carbon investment businesses will go overseas. Now I've done a quick calculation and it looks like the U.K. population is less than 1/20 of the combined populations of China and the U.S.A so by Mr Osborne's figures we should be reducing our emissions more if they are to match population sizes. Another quick calculation shows that the U.K. actually makes up less than 1% of the world population so we should definitely be trying to half our emissions.
So far it's not looking great for the greenest government ever. Then, this morning, I turned on the radio to hear that the Prime Minister, who is passionate about the environment and is trying to make his government the greenest ever, may not be going to the globally important Rio+20 summit next year because it clashes with the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. I checked the dates and I'm sure Mr Cameron could at least make the 6th June, after a 4 day weekend!
Today the Environmental Audit Committee of MPs will make a direct call for David Cameron to confirm his attendance at next year's summit in Brazil. They hope that this will reinforce the UK's commitment to the low carbon economy and also may boost the conferences profile. According to The Guardian,
sources confirmed the Prime Minister will not attend the summit. The UK's delegation will instead be led by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman with the rest of the ministerial delegation being announced nearer the time.
With proposals to raise the speed limit to 80 mph (which will raise emmisions), Mr Osborne's firm stance for economic growth over all else and a refusal to lead the way in Europe, today's news isn't really shocking, just disappointing. It seems that maybe yellow and blue don't really make green at all.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

These boots are made for walking

The U.K. government website says
In the UK, more carbon dioxide (CO2) comes from people’s car travel than from any other kind of UK transport. Reducing your car travel is a key step to reducing climate change effects and local air pollution.
Nearly a quarter of all car trips are under two miles, a distance you can cycle in less than 15 minutes. Cycling and walking distances under two miles could help you get fitter and save you money in fuel. 
 The two mile rule is commonly used to separate journeys which should never use cars and those which it's OK to drive for. According to Google Maps my work place is 2.4 miles away by car and 1.9 miles away if I walk so I'm just under the key limit. It takes me 40-45 minutes to walk to work which I don't mind if it's an eight hour shift but if I'm just going to the gym (which is on the same site) for an hour I spend more time getting there than the activity. Now, I know it's ridiculous to drive to a gym when you can walk it (you're going for the exercise!), but a 45 minute walk on dark rainy streets just doesn't seem as appealing as working out comfortably inside on a treadmill with a TV attached. I am trying thought.

Next week I have three early shifts and I'm going to walk them all, at least I won't have to work as hard at the gym. Walking rather than driving also means I get to know my local area better. I read the street signs (best one I've see yet is Penguin Street) and look at local shops. I notice the weather more, appreciating the sun when it's there and really feeling the change in seasons. I'm not saying it feels better than the 10 minute drive and the extra 30 minutes in bed but I am feeling more connected to the place I live and less in a bubble of one.

Cycling to work would take a lot less time and it's something I mean to do in the future. Over the summer I was given a second hand old bike which needs a lot of TLC before it's ridable but once pay day comes I'll be kitting it out ready for the winter months-anything to give me 5 more minutes sleep when I'm working earlies!

Almost everyone is used to having a car nowadays. Living in the countryside you think of hiking and nice walks but I find it much easier to avoid car journeys now I'm in a city than I did before. A 45 minute walk to the next village seems easier to justify the car for than one across town to the gym. We're lucky that we don't need the car for any essentials very often. My boyfriend can walk to work (and is much better at it than me!) and we have small shops close by that we can walk to for essentials. The veg box gets delivered when we need it and we only have to use the car for long journeys to visit family or for a big monthly supermarket shop for bulk buying essentials like tinned food, pasta and rice. I'm begging to get addicted to the smug feeling when you can see the fuel gauge in the car is still about the quarter tank mark, weeks after first filling up, but as the winter creeps in I'm worried my will power won't last. I'll just have to make sure my boots are ready for lots of walking and see it as an extra gym session.

Which green habits do you find hardest to stick to and what does the change in seasons mean for your weekly routine? I'd love to hear from you so just post a message below!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Vikings and Bivouacs

On Saturday I talked about some of the Wildlife Trust reserves I volunteered at last week. But I didn't tell you what I was actually doing!

On Monday I helped at a Viking Day run for a school trip of about 30 eight year olds. Arriving at the Trust's Education Centre in Penwortham I was given my Viking outfit and Viking name, Astrid.Then we filled the mini bus with wooden swords, shields cooking pots, fire kit, water and wheel barrows. We headed out to Booth's Plantation, about 5 minutes drive away, and ferried the gear over the the "long house", a very long wooden shed.
Just after we'd hidden anything plastic or modern, the children arrived (after travelling back in time) and ate their lunches (Viking suitable with no tomatoes, potatoes or modern foods) in the round house while being told Viking tales. After lunch, and a game of Kubbthree groups split up and learnt about how Vikings lived; cooking, weaving and learning warrior craft. There were lots of questions like "Do you have guitars?", "Why aren't you dead?" and "Do you know what electricity is?" which had to be answered in character-quite tricky when being told all the Viking's were dead. All the children seemed to have enjoyed themselves and they headed back "into the future", since we decided none of them would make very good slaves.
It was a bit scary at first as I wasn't quite sure what to expect or what I should be doing but by the end of the day I was really having fun and it was great to watch the children learning and using knowledge from the classroom outside.

On Tuesday I helped with another school trip of about 60 year six children on a survival day at the Mere Sands Wood reserve. This was a little easier than Monday as I didn't have to pretend to be anything and it involved all the stuff I loved doing at Scouts when I was younger. Before the children arrived we set up logs around a fire pit and put up tarpaulins in case of bad rain later in the day.
Once the children arrived they were split into groups and half did fire making while the rest worked at making shelters from the surrounding natural materials in the woods. This was so much fun! We first propped three long sticks together to form a tripod and then covered two sides with sticks to make a roof. This was then covered with leaf little-nothing green so living plants are damaged, and then we had our shelter! I was very impressed with how the children worked together and also a little surprised at how little they seemed to know about the natural world. I was asked "Is this an olive?" while being presented with an acorn, which isn't as silly as it sound really as they do look quite similar.
After the shelters were finished the children played hide and seek games before lunch and changing over to the other activity. My afternoon group were slightly more productive as they didn't have the distraction of finding a frog whilst building their shelter! Just like Monday it was brilliant to see how enthusiastic and exciting the children (and teachers) were about being outside all day and I hope they learned something too. I definitely did.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

62 days...

Well it's still months away really but I've slowly started thinking about Christmas, although next week's Halloween festivities are mainly filling my mind-more on that on next week.

The first things I'm having to think about are present lists, for me and for family, and Christmas decorations.

Christmas is normally a time of excess and it can be hard to remember the otherwise second nature green habit's you've been working on all year. Once December arrives I'll jump at the chance to buy plastic decorations, buy lots of presents with packaging and wrap everything up in non-recyclable paper. But by starting early this year hopefully I can stick to my principles a little better.

My first thoughts are decorations. I'm going to try my hand at making some this year (definitely a later blog there!) and I've started by using my crochet skills to make a snowflake runner-which I'll use either as a centre piece or to hang Christmas cards off on a wall. I found the pattern here and if you can do any crochet it's really simple. By starting now and using old white wool I'll hopefully save money and I won't be using lots of plastic to decorate the house and tree. I'm also planning on making some wood and fabric decorations but we'll see how that goes later!

Present's are tricky to do ethically. Books are quite an easy green present (especially if you can get ones using FSC paper) and things that will last are good too, rather than ones which will be thrown away before next August. I've made presents a bit in the past including sloe gin and gingerbread biscuits. These are good as you can personalise them and decorate them without spending lots and you'll also have fun doing it-less stressful than city centre shopping!

In mid December and then mid January I have a purge of old presents/unwanted things from the house and do a big trip to the charity shop. That way I know my old things will be used again and I have room for anything new I get.

It's really to early to think about Christmas too much yet, but I'll be thinking about it lots more nearer the time.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


This week I've visited two nature reserves owned or managed by the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside. I've begun volunteering with the Trust's education and outreach department and so far I've been a Viking for the day and also helped with a survival day, learning how to build shelters and fires in the wild.

Both days were great fun (more about what I actually got up to later in the week) and I'm sure part of it was having the activities in such wonderful surroundings. My Viking experience was run on Booth's Plantation, near the Trust's Education Centre in Penwortham. The plantation is lovely thick woodland, well sheltered and far enough away from roads to feel like you really might have travelled back into Viking times- except for the large substation on the hill behind! Due to funding cuts (both for the Wildlife Trust and the National Grid who owns the land) this was the last event to be held at the Education Centre and Booth's Plantation. This is really sad as the Centre has been built up over 15 years with orchards, allotment plots and  beautifully painted classrooms with pictures of nature everywhere. The care and passion that has gone into producing such a wonderful asset is obvious and it must be devastating for those who work there to have to leave it all behind.

But leave it they must and move to their new reserve which will be the Trust's base at Brockholes. I haven't visited this site yet but hopefully I will soon, anywhere with a name that means "badger holes" in Old English has got to be a good place to protect wildlife!

The survival day I helped with was at Mere Sands Wood reserve which has a huge diversity of habitats from around Lancashire, including heaths, woodland, lakes and marsh. We worked in the deciduous woodland and while rain threatened all day it held off mostly. It was great to be out in the fresh air and nature and I'm looking forward to visiting the reserve again soon to have a proper look round all of the 105 acres.

With a chill in the air Autumn is a brilliant time to get out and warm up with a walk. Where's your nearest nature reserve? Why not find out this weekend and visit it, or if you already know it visit somewhere you've never been to before. That reminds me that I really need to go for my weekly walk before the weeks over!

Friday, 21 October 2011

One Man's Rubbish...

As I put the recycling out last week I started thinking about how different countries recycle. I agree this is a big thought for early on a rainy Tuesday so maybe I was just dreaming of somewhere sunnier.

According to the Defra website, in 2009/2010, on average, each person in the UK generated 457kg of waste. Of that 181kg was recycled and 275kg was not. That is an average of 39% of waste recycled which sounds pretty good but the idea of 275kg (I'm imagining bags of sugar) being thrown away by every single person is really crazy. I find it odd how most people wouldn't thrown rubbish on the pavement but putting rubbish in a bin that is later taken and put in a big pile on the ground somewhere is fine. How is that a good system of waste disposal!?

The U.K. is improving its recycling habits and slowly reducing its waste. It's a problem we all need to face and deal with. Companies need to start packaging products with less plastic, in fact with less everything. Consumers (us!) need to remember to recycle as much as we possibly can and minimise our food and non-food waste, do you buy loose apples rather than plastic wrapped ones? And finally government and local authorities need to keep providing better, easier and more extensive recycling facilities.

As a developed nation the U.K. has a responsibility to lead the way towards sustainable living. We've got the money (we still have more than lots of countries!), the infrastructure and the technology to show the rest of the world how it's done. Whether we will is a different, more worrying question but we can't expect less developed countries such as India to be showing us how it's done.

It's hard to find reliable figures for India's recycling. Some put the level of electrical waste recycling at 40% while others say 20% of paper is recycled but I can't find a statistic for total waste and total recycling annually. This is probably due to the much larger numbers and much less organised system of waste disposal in Indian. Not everyone get weekly collections and nice colour coded recycling bins!

From what I've heard from friends who have visited India, electrical recycling is quite easy but anything else is almost always binned. Maybe this is because the electrical components are more valuable than other waste but this might be changing as new innovative ways of recycling and using waste are appearing across India.

In one of the biggest slums in the world, Dharavi in Mumbai, recycling is funding a mini economic boom. Almost every street on the slum contains family run factories recycling everything from oil drums to ball point pens. This waste not want not attitude is helping lift people away from absolute  poverty and helping them improve their living conditions. Read more about this here.

Recycling is becoming a real money maker in India where brand new resources are expensive. There are now many entrepreneurs setting up their own recycling factories and finding new ways of recycling unwanted items across the country. For example, Mr K Ahmed Khan has patented a method to combine old plastic bags with bitumen to make new roads and in 18 months has laid 40km! More on this here.

It's brilliant to read these success stories and I'm sure there are lots of similar stories around the world and in the U.K.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

I'm Back!

After a week offline I'm back! Lots has happened in the last week and I'll be talking about some of it over the next few days. I'll have updates on my veg box ventures and my weekly walks, why I was dressed as a Viking for a day and recent environment news.

Suddenly Autumn seems to have really arrived. With the first frost last night and the clocks changing in just over a week the nights are feeling a lot longer and darker. The heating has come on at home as we need somewhere warm enough to dry clothes. The occasional sunny days are enough most of the time but when washing stays wet for days inside something needs to be done. Our lights are on more now too and since the weekend all our bulbs are energy saving, saving us money and fossil fuels.

As I've said before while we're tucked up in ever warmer houses the wildlife outside has to find other ways to cope with the onset of winter. The sparrows in the garden are at the feeders constantly and I'm going to give them all a good clean and make sure they're filled before the RSPB's Feed The Birds Day on the 29th.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Technical Dificulties

Due to technical difficulties there will be no new posts on this blog for a few days. Sorry!
Keep thinking green though. Future posts include: Recycling in India, European CAP, a new veg box delivery and much more!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Flowers in the Rain

I managed to find almost an hour of no rain yesterday for my walk. It was still very damp and dreary but nice to be out in the fresh air. Now it's part of my routine it's easy going out for a walk but the trickier thing is remembering to take my headphones out. When I remembered yesterday there wasn't much to hear other than the wind in the trees. Occasionally I heard sparrows but there were very well hidden, hopefully in the middle of nice dry hedges.

It wasn't just the sparrows hiding from the rain. I saw my usual pigeons and mallard ducks but even they were sheltering under branches and reeds. There were moor hens, which were quite happily bobbing around on the canal, and I saw my first blackbird on my weekly walk. In fact there were two blackbirds, chasing a pigeon for some reason. The black headed gulls were numerous overhead but noticeably quiet, it was one of those days where everything feels muffled.
The most exciting bird was right at the end of my walk. Just before leaving the canal I saw a grey wagtail! These birds are really pretty, grey on top with a very long tail and a yellow tummy. This yellow tummy always makes me think they should be called yellow wagtails but looking at their pictures on the RSPB website the one I saw really was more grey.
I didn't think I'd seen many birds but now I've written it down it doesn't seem too bad!

There were less people around because of the rain too. Normally I see about 6 people or couples out for leisurely walks but yesterday there were 3 very quick dog walkers trying to get home as fast as possible. Once I was actually out in the cold and wet it wasn't too bad but after the heat wave of a few weeks ago it's definitely Autumn here in Preston with warm coats and scarves all round.

Despite being October there are still lots of flowers out along the canal. Mostly pinks and purples but also yellows and whites. I took some photo's of them so I could identify them at home. Here are my attempts (from left to right, top to bottom), if you can fill in my blanks or if you think I've got any wrong please let me know!
Welsh Poppy, Dandelion, Hedge Bindweed, unknown, Spear Thistle, Herb Robert, Himalayan Balsam, Some type of Hawkweed?, unknown, unknown.


After a week of strong winds across the country I expected almost all the leaves to have been blown off by now but there is still a surprising amount of green on the trees. The pond weed has also grown back on the canal so it's green too at the moment! Here are my pictures from the top of the canal from the last few weeks.

Week 3

Week 2
Week 1

Monday, 10 October 2011

October in the Office

We're ten days into October already and I've only just got round to looking at How Green Are My Wellies by Anna Shepard for this month. The book is split into twelve chapters giving tips and suggestions for green living month by month. I got this book for Christmas a few years ago and I love it. Each chapter's short enough to read in a spare half an hour and ends with tips and actions you can do to green your own life.
For October Anna looks at green office etiquette and how even if you're greener than green at home it's easy to slip into bad habits without noticing at work. Many work places now have environment champions or committees and small steps can often make the office a much more pleasant place to be.
Her main tips that everyone can do are:

  • Install greenery - Putting a plant on your desk absorbs toxins and pollutants (a green air filter) and also absorbs CO2.
  • Give your computer a lunch break- Even if you don't turn the whole thing off (turning it off then back on again later gives a nice 3 minute settling in period after lunch doesn't it?) definitely turn the screen off. The screen accounts for about 80% of the computer's energy and it only takes a second to turn on again.
  • Lunch al-fresco - Bringing in your own lunch saves money, saves on packaging as you won't be disposing of a plastic box every day and is almost certainly more healthy for you. Eating outside (even sometimes in winter!) is even better for you as it gives fresh air, a walk and a proper break from the office.
  • Right sort of cuppa - Using a proper cup from home rather than a plastic beaker makes drinks taste so much better. You could even ask the canteen whether they can provide milk jugs and sugar bowls rather than sachets.
  • Ethical snaking - A mid afternoon snack always raises spirits but it feels that much better if you know you're helping the environment too. Did you know there are over 800 Fairtrade certified products available? Does you office stock any of them, and if not could they?
  • Put the office to bed - If you, like me, turn lights out as you go round the house at night do you do it at work too? The last person out the door should check computers are turned off and lights are out, and make sure it's never you who is the one who's left things on!
  • Promote a green commute - Some people enjoy their quiet alone-time on the way to work but other love company. Organise a lift-share board or cycling/bus group.
I'd add make-your-own recycling boxes to this list. If it's a long way to the recycling facilities use a cardboard box to collect your recycling and then do a trip at the end of the day. Group together with colleagues and take it in turns to make the trip. This will raise awareness of recycling and also create a feelings of community responsibility and achievement.
As well as all this office greening a quick look on Wikipedia showed up a few more things to do this month. October is Fairtrade Month in the USA, on the 21st October it is Apple Day in the UK (so remember to stock up with nice British ones) and on the 29th October it's the RSPB's Feed the Birds Day, so better stock up on bird food too! My sparrows have finally found the second seed feeder so hopefully by the end of the month I'll have lots of full happy birds in my area.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Counting Up The Miles

Well  I failed in my attempts to improve my wine habits this weekend. Although I looked carefully at the bottle I still ended up with a plastic cork and I chose a German wine as there weren't any Fairtrade ones. But I'll keep trying to get better and I'm definitely thinking about it more now.

I've been on a lot of trains this weekend. Preston to York, York to Leeds and Leeds to Preston. I definitely enjoy going by train more than driving. It does take longer but you get to see much more of the countryside, I love riding through the dales in all its different weathers-rain, sun or snow!

Preston to York is about 80 miles by train. According to the East Coast Carbon Calculator I produce 7 kg of Co2 on a train from Preston to York whereas it would be 15kg in a car. York to Leeds by train is about 15 miles and Leeds to Preston is another 65 miles. In total, according to the East Coast website, my journey by train saved 16kg CO2 compared to going by car. This is apparently equivalent to 371 hours of TV or 296 hours of boiling a kettle.

I don't really know how they work that out. The car values will depend on how many people in a car per trip and the train will depend on how full it is. But as a rough estimate knowing that you're using almost half as much energy to travel feels quite good.

A really interesting book about calculating energy use is Sustainable Energy- Without the Hot Air by David MacKay. I'm only halfway through reading it but it's very good so far. It discusses different energy supplies available and whether sustainable energy can meet our demands without changing our lifestyles. Having not got to the end I don't know the answer yet, but the graphs, facts and figures are very clear and it's a well written book with lots to think about. I've got a copy but I've just discovered it is a free book online here which means it's available to read and download. The information in it is also free to use and the author encourages people to  share the information in this book. For more information on the book look here.

More on this when I finish reading it!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A Long Way For A Drink

How far would you go for a good bottle of wine? Even if you buy wine from across the street the chances are that the bottle and contents have had a long journey to your door.

English wine, although getting more common, isn't a mainstream product just yet. The English wines I've tried are delicious but it's not always easy to find them in your local supermarket. Wine from some of our nearest neighbours, France, Spain and Germany, are common in our shops though as well as bottles from further a field such as Australia, Chile and South Africa.

If we're trying to live more sustainable lives isn't it a contradiction to only buy local food but to buy wine from the other side of the planet? Following this line of thought I tend to automatically buy wines from France and Spain, ruling out wines from other countries even if they're Faritrade (more on that later). I always thought this must be better for the environment but after looking into it a bit more I'm not so sure. After reading an article on the carbon footprint of wines, here, I realised, as with food, it matters much more how the wine travels to my glass not always from where.

Only around 2% of the environmental impact of food comes from it's transportation but this figure could be as high as 34% for wine. A new initiative is to bulk ship wines and then bottle at the location of sale. For countries such as Australia this could reduce the carbon emissions of wine transport by 40%. This is great for large brands but impractical for small producers. 

Once bottled it's also important to look at how the wine is transported. It's been calculated that a bottle of wine from Chile, shipped by sea container from Valparaiso to Felixstowe and then by road to Bristol uses about 318g of CO2. This is hard to comprehend but when I read that the average car uses 170g CO2 per kilometre it puts it into perspective. Wine from Spain and France may be shipped but may also be brought by truck which will have a higher carbon footprint. The real problem for most buyers who are trying to be ethical is there's no way of knowing exactly how the wine got to this country. I don't know if anything is being done about this at the moment but I'll definitely look at wines from further away more closely now as I can pretty much guarantee they'll have been shipped in.

Fairtrade was mentioned earlier. I'm almost addicted to the Faritrade logo, and if I see it on a product I automatically want to buy it, even if it's something I don't need. You often see the logo on wine from countries outside Europe such as Chile or Argentina or South Africa. Now I've stopped ruling these wines out I'll definitely pick more Fairtrade bottles up in the shops. The reason Fairtrade isn't used in all countries is because it's mainly a way of helping growers in developing countries. In Europe we already have minimum wage and employment laws to protect workers but other places don't have the same protection. As with all Fairtrade products the farms must pursue sustainable growing techniques, minimise use of chemicals, pay a fair wage and help support local community and social development.

So to round up the past few wine filled days: I'll definitely stick to picking wines which use corks (to help the wildlife I talked about yesterday) but I'll look more at wines from countries further away than Europe as they might not have higher travel emissions. If I do buy wine from developing countries I'll always buy Fairtrade so I know that my money goes to the farmers and also supports sustainable development.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Thirst For Knowledge

No veg box yesterday as we haven't finish all the veg from last week! Instead of food I'm thinking about drinks. Today I'm off to a fancy dress party. I'm no wine expert but there's so much choice that surely there's an environmentally friendly option I can find. As well as taste and price there are several key things I look for in a good bottle, but having researched it a little harder some things aren't as simple as I first thought. Over the next two days I'll look at a few of the environmental issues connected to wine.

The first thing I look at is what's in the top of my bottle. In the past 20 years there's been a huge expansion in the number of products used for bottle closure. Before I was born cork was used almost exclusively, and that cork was produced just as exclusively from countries on the Mediterranean, mostly Spain and Portugal. Nowadays screw caps, plastic corks and glass stoppers are easy to find on the shelves so is one better than another and why the sudden change?

Cork monopolised the market for centuries but about 20 years ago scientists discovered TCA, a chemical which taints wine and causes it to go off. TCA is estimated to be in 1-10% of corks and currently cannot be identified before the cork is put into the bottle, you only know it's there when the wine goes off. This problem forced producers to start looking for other ways to seal their bottles.

The most common alternatives are plastic corks and screw tops. Screw tops have the added advantage that you can easily reseal the bottle if you only want a glass so is seen as better than cork for reasons other than a lack of TCA. Plastic corks are designed to look, feel and pop like natural corks. I hate plastic corks. Something about the very fake, plastic feel puts me off, especially when it's set against the almost natural feel of the glass wine bottle. I also can't help thinking that making plastic corks isn't the best use of the world's limited oil resources.

So I don't mind screw tops and I hate plastic, but is there any environmental reason for picking one type
over another. Other than the fact that cork is renewable while metal screw tops and plastic corks aren't there's also another benefit of using cork. The cork oak forests in Spain and Portugal are facing serious danger since the cork percentage of the closure market dropped. The cork oaks of southern Spain are rich in insects, birds, mammals and plants as the production of cork is naturally kind to the surrounding environment. Cork is the stripped bark from the oak trees and this must be done carefully to preserve the trees health. This means that the trees are left safe for wildlife to use while cork can be harvested for decades without ill effects. With a drop in cork demand these ancient forests might be lost forever if the land use is forced to change and with it we could lose the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle and the Barbary Deer.
Having seen this beautiful, rare environment in the past I know it's worth protecting so I'm going to try and buy cork wine whenever I can. But is it environmentally friendly to ship cork out to countries that don't produce it themselves, or is it better for Chilean and Australian wines to use screw tops? More on this tomorrow.

Spanish cork oaks. The dark lower trunk had already had it's cork stripped.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Buzzing Around

What's black, yellow and good for the garden?

Wasps! If you said bees then you can have half marks. It's well known that bees are great at pollinating our gardens but wasps do this and more. Adult Common wasps eat nectar from flowers, pollinating as they go, but also kill pests, such as aphids and caterpillars, for the wasp larvae to eat.

Until last week I didn't know much about wasps, but then I started volunteering for Buglife. This small but perfectly formed charity is the first in Europe devoted to the conservation of invertebrates including insects, spiders and snails. As part of my volunteering I wrote this months Bug of the Month on the Common wasp, which is now on their website here.

While writing the article I discovered loads of fascinating new facts about wasps. Did you know that in the Midlands they're nicknamed jaspers, either because of the Latin for wasp being vespa or after their similarity to the striped mineral jasper?

Did you also know that at this time of year wasps are more likely to go for your crisps than your fizzy drinks? Earlier in the summer there are lots of larvae which the wasps tend to. While this is happening the adult wasps get small droplets of sugar water from the larvae, which helps sustain them. At this time of year there are hardly any young left and so the adults must find other ways of getting their sugars and carbohydrates. Crisps and fruit are great for this and so wasps are commonly found on fallen fruit or trying to get into carbohydrate rich foods during the Autumn.

There are also more wasps around at this time of year too. The numbers steadily grown throughout the summer, from when the nests are built in spring to now when their completely full and can hold up to 10,000 wasps each.

For more information on wasps and all other insects go the the Buglife website!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

It's Not All Rubbish

Tuesdays are bin days for us in Preston. Over the last few years I've lived in a few different areas with a few different recycling and rubbish systems. Some places had rubbish collections ever week, some rubbish every week and recycling fortnightly. In Preston we have rubbish one week and recycling the other.
The recycling is split into two big boxes under the stairs. The yellow lid box is for paper and cardboard while the red lid (which has been missing for some time...) box is for glass, tins, foil and plastic bottles. We also have a food waste collection every week which is great as it mean the actual rubbish is kept to a minimum. Having weekly food rubbish collections also mean that what little rubbish is in the bin doesn't smell at all.
I love watching how much we recycle, put into food waste and rubbish. It really makes you think when you can see how much food you throw out each week. I'm also addicted to seeing how small I can get our rubbish bag every fortnight and how much of our waste I can get into the recycling boxes. The next step will be to keep rubbish down but also reduce recycling and food waste. Recycling's great but it's better not to make the waste in the first place! My veg box is helping as we no longer have plastic packaging for that, just a big cardboard box which we give back each week to be reused.

Rubbish has been in the news as well as on my mind this week. On Monday the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced that £250 million is going to be found to encourage councils to provide weekly rubbish collections. Environment groups and those against the austerity cuts have been horrified. It does seem a little surprising that when everything seems to be being cut there's money around for extra bin collections.
I know some people complain that in the summer after two weeks their rubbish smells or that in a large household bins fill up within a week. But if the recycling's separate and clean that won't smell, which with good recycling facilities should be most of the household waste. With regular food waste collections, and a desperately needed reduction in throwing good food away, rubbish won't be smelly and won't fill up as quickly.
I don't live in a big family house but in a student house of 6 the recycling boxes only got full after two weeks and we only filled the bin once a week. So that's 2 full bin bags a fortnight, easy to fit into the wheelie bin and that included all the food waste as we couldn't compost or recycle it.

The Independent talked about the governments proposed changes here, while The Guardian discusses it here and the BBC covers it here. There's a lot of comments from both sides of the debate so have a read for more info.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Curtain Twitching

Going out for walks to see wildlife is great, but we shouldn't forget what's right on our doorsteps or out of our windows.

Yesterday I looked up from typing and saw two birds right at eye level flying past. They were black headed gulls, although already in their winter plumage their heads were confusingly white. While you might associate gulls with the seaside black headed gulls are more commonly found inland and are the most common inland gulls in the UK. You'll often see them flying behind ploughing tractors or anywhere with a good supply of worms, fish or insects. The way they glided past my window was breathtaking, completely still except for moving forwards with the wind.

Later in the day I saw movement in the corner of my eye and looked up again. A flock of about fifty starlings were flying round and round our row of terrace houses. Autumn starling roots are beautiful. What I saw wasn't really a proper roost spectacle, those at the RSPB Otmoor (video here) and Fen Drayton Lakes (video here) reserves are truly stunning. Thousands of birds flying in beautiful patterns just like shoals of fish in the sea. This behaviour helps to protect them from predators, flying in a flock makes it harder for birds of prey to pick out individual birds, but they also roost in large groups for warmth and to exchange information.
While these flocks are huge the starling population has dropped by 70% in recent years. There used to be common roosts over big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh but now you're much more likely to see them in rural areas. The reasons behind their decline aren't certain but could well be linked to increased use of chemicals on farmland and loss of permanent pastures.

So there are two really exciting birds I can see out of my window as well as my normal lovely house sparrows who are taking a while to find the new seed feeder, it's only two meters from the old one!

What's the most exciting wildlife you can see from your house? What's the most boring?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Falling Leaves

I can't believe how fast this week has gone! It's Monday again and I went for my weekly canal walk. I was lucky with the weather again too. Even though it had been raining all morning by the time I went out at 2:30pm it was a sunny day, although quite windy.

The wind was blowing lots of leaves out of the trees and the canal was almost covered with them in places. Most are still green but they're slowly turning yellow and some lovely oranges and reds. It's amazing how many different shapes and colours the leaves can be. Another colourful sight was all the wild flowers that are still out. Maybe it was last week's warm weather but I'm amazed how many flowers are still in bloom, even though it's October now! I saw three different types of purple flowers (the Himalayan Balsam I talked about last week is still there) and some white ones too.

There was still lots of birdsong all around but I think the birds must have been hiding today as I didn't actually see many. I did see mallard ducks, moorhens and pigeons and I'm sure some of the birds singing were sparrows but that was it.

Four red admirals on the ivy-can you see them all?
Even though it was windy there were other things flying around. I paused by a large ivy bush and noticed lots and lots of hoverflies moving from flower to flower. I shouldn't have been so surprised as I'd recently read September's Bug of the Month on the Buglife website, which is all about the golden hoverfly and it's fondness for ivy at this time of year. More on Buglife later in the week.
To my surprise, as well as the hoverflies, there were about six red admiral butterflies on the ivy. These big butterflies are really beautiful-although a few today looked quite tatty and might have survived a fight with a hungry bird at some point. When I looked them up on Butterfly Conservation's great website I discovered that red admirals are actual migrants. Last week I was impressed that house martins fly from Africa, I'm much more impressed that some of these butterflies do too!

As a walked back along the canal I tried to see whether anything had changed in the past week. There were definitely more fallen leaves and those in the trees still are definitely changing colour. It wasn't as warm and there were lots more berries on the hedges. I saw blackberries, haws, hips, sloes and plums, all just out of reach annoyingly. On the left below are pictures from last week and on the right are today's. Can you see any big differences? I can't get but I'm sure I will as the weeks go on.
Week 1
Week 2

Week 1
Week 2

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Autumn Cleaning

Cleaning isn't my favourite weekend activity but this weekend some of if was quite interesting. I've read a lot about "green" cleaning methods, using stuff that you already have in your cupboards instead of harsh chemicals. It's meant to be better for the environment because you're not putting dangerous chemicals into the water system (when you wash them down the drain) and better for you because your not breathing the chemicals in. But do these homemade cleaning products really work? I tried three out.

  1. Vinegar window cleaner: I've used this in the past and I find it works almost as well as window cleaner. Mix some vinegar (I normally use 1:10 vinegar:water) with some hot water and use an old clean rag to wipe down inside and outside windows. Then use a clean towel to dry and polish. This takes a little more time than the usual methods but really works well, even better if you put the vinegar mixture in an old spray bottle.
  2. Bicarbonate of soda microwave cleaner: I read this in a magazine a while ago. The method said to put equal parts of bicarbonate of soda and boiling water in a microwavable dish and pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes. This is meant to loosen all the dirt inside the microwave so that you can just wipe it off. Maybe I did it wrong but it really didn't do anything. Much better was hot water and scrubbing, only took a few minutes so no cleaning product needed, just elbow grease.
  3. Brown sauce for metal cleaning: I've recently bought some old brass/pewter (can't tell which) cups and wanted to give them a really good clean. I've found a few cleaning suggestions on the internet including ketchup, brown sauce and a mixture of brown sauce, salt and vinegar. I tried all three. I rubbed the mixture onto the cups, left it for a few minutes and then wiped off and washed with hot water. It definitely got a lot of the dirt off but not as good as actual metal cleaner. It  smelt better than normal metal polish and I think it worked at least half as well, I'll be using it again. Out of the three the brown sauce worked best, but only by a little. I'm not sure whether it's the vinegar content or something else that changes the effectiveness. Does anyone else know?
I enjoyed my green cleaning experiments and although there were mixed results I'll be using some of them in the future. It was nice to get things clean without getting dizzy from chemical smells. Does anyone else have any green cleaning methods I can try out?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Party Time

The Green Party has one MP, two MEPs and 130 councilors on 43 councils across the UK. While not yet quite a mainstream party, membership has doubled in the last few years and is still growing steadily.

I've decided to volunteer one day a week for the Green Party's North West region; to gain experience in campaigning, media and general political policy. My first job will be to look at the regions university local groups, their current activities and what they need to expand.

Today I went to the regional meeting in Preston's County Hall- a very impressive building! I met with Emily Heath, their regional coordinator and a member of Lancaster City Council, to discuss what my volunteering might involve.

In the morning there was a choice of two workshops. I chose "Why Capitalism is destroying the planet", run by Joel Rasbash, a supporter of the Green Party in Carlisle and a very engaging speaker. Although I didn't know much about capitalism before the session was very interesting and informative. The workshop discussed the basic principles behind capitalism, it's historic relevance and the consequences for economics, society and the environment. Then the discussion was opened to the room and there was a 45 minute discussion of the key points. I didn't understand a lot of it but it was very interesting to see that the main points weren't environment based but social and economic concerns. It's easy to forget that the Green party isn't all about the environment. A lot of their policy is built around sustainable living, which involves renewable energy and recycling, but their policies stretch across all areas of governance.

The afternoon was taken up by reports from regional local groups, current campaigning updates and feedback from the Party conference which was help in Sheffield last month. I found the campaign updates particularly interesting. Currently the main concerns for the North West region are opposing the governments planned austerity cuts, disposal of nuclear waste, the national planning policy framework (which I talked about on Thursday) and Fracking-a very real concern for the region at the moment.