Monday, 29 April 2013

SOS - Save Our Seas

Growing up in Northamptonshire, I lived about as far from the coast as you can get in the UK. Two hours drive from The Wash; we visited the sea for family holidays and I remember rock pooling, screaming at occasional jelly fish (I've still no idea if these tiny creatures could have harmed us or not) and insisting that a snorkel and mask were a useful purchase for the muddy brown waters. It wasn't until a family trip to northern Scotland that I realised that not all UK waters were so opaque and I remember gazing down into the crystal clear sea amazed. I saw my first dolphins on that trip too and whenever I've visited the coast since I always gaze out in the hope of some sort of marine mammal sighting whether it's seals, dolphins or an elusive glimpse of a whale.

Now I live in Devon and the sea is only 30 minutes down the estuary (and the tidal effects of the sea stop only 20 minutes walk from our flat) I am acutely aware of how incredible the UK's marine wildlife is. From white and yellow gannets that pierce the waves like arrows to hidden gems such as our cold water coral reefs; our coastline is covered with life that is truly spectacular. Every summer we flock to the shores searching for crabs, starfish, or other signs of life under the waves and we are captivated.  Even one of the UK's most iconic dishes, fish and chips, comes from the sea.

We live on an island and as a nation we are rightly proud of our coast and all the wonders within it. In fact, it's easy to forget that many of these creatures are found in few other places on Earth. The UK is home to more than half of the world's northern gannets, the biggest leatherback turtle ever discovered was found on a beach in Wales measuring over 3 meters in length and we have some of the most important estuary habitats in the world.

But we are destroying the marine environments and ecosystems that we are so proud of and hold so dear to our national identity. From oil spill to over fishing news story after news story tells us that our coastal waters are worse off today than they were in the past.

In the last few weeks thousands of seabirds have been washing up onto the shores of Devon, Cornwall and Dorest covered in a gluey substance. The same substance that hundreds of birds were found covered in a few months ago. It is polyisobutene (PIB) a polymer used in many products including clingfilm and chewing gum. It is also used as an additive in oil lubricants and this appears to be the current source, when ships wash out their tanks at sea. A sticky substance on its own, when mixed with seawater PIB becomes a gluey mess like a very strong PVA. So imaging covering a bird in PVA and then chucking them in the sea. With wings stuck together and no waterproofing left for insulation sea birds have been drowning and starving and washing up onto our shores in their thousands. Even for those which are collected alive there is less than a 50% chance of survival. It's not a pretty sight. Covered in PIB the birds stick to everything including any rubbish on the shoreline or in the water.

If you haven't already seen the pictures have a look here, here and here.

If you are thinking that we must catch the people who committed this wildlife crime you may be surprised to find that despite the obvious effect it has on marine life it is completely legal to discharge certain amounts of PIB when washing out tanks according to international marine pollution regulation (The MARPOL Convention).

This is happening on beaches across the South West, beaches which in a few weeks will be filling with happy families enjoying the sunshine and our wonderful coast. I haven't heard whether other sea life has been affected by PIB. It may be that the substance floats and so mainly sea birds are affected or it may be that other damage caused by this incident is sinking under the waves never to be seen. Worryingly many of the birds show signs of burns and volunteers helping with the recovery have noticed irritation to the skin. It'll definitely be making me think twice before I dive into the waters around Devon this summer.

And that's really what stuns me the most about the whole situation. I can believe that some people just aren't interested in seabirds (but I wish I could take them to watch puffins or gannets and see if they change their mind) but our marine environment is important for the economy and we are wrecking it. Tourism is still one of the biggest incomes for the South West, yet we cover our beaches in dead birds and fill our seas with toxic substances, fishing is vital for many local communities yet we are slow to ensure that those communities have a sustainable income for future generations.

Wildlife cannot vote, it cannot speak up against injustices done to it, but we can. So whether it's because you want your children to swim in clear waters and discover starfish in rockpools or because you live in hope of seeing dolphins in the distance or just because you love fish and chips; do something now. Speak up and tell someone you love your seaside, that your life would be worse without it and that you want to protect it. To make sure PIB cannot be discharged legally into our waters and that those who do are held to account
sign the petition here.

What lurks hidden beneath the surface of our waters all around this island is often unknown. There may be giant turtles, whales, coral reefs and huge shoals of fish, or, very soon, there may be nothing at all except waste from ships, dead animals and empty cold water. Which will you choose?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Pretty in Green

I refuse to buy fruit out of season from abroad, I always buy UK meat and I'd never consider buying non-Fairtrade bananas so why am I much less picky when it comes to buying clothes?

I do think about ethical and eco-friendly clothing but since I buy clothes quite rarely (maybe one item every month or so) it's not in my normal routine. I've grown up trusting old high street favourites but the clothes in these shops just don't match my green consumer desires. Could I get just as nice, fashionable outfits and help the planet too?

I've have dabbled in green clothing in the past. Getting all excited about a bamboo top in the sale at Cotswolds, Faritrade and organic t-shirts from supermarkets and the odd Fairtrade dress bought online during Fairtrade Fortnight but my wardrobe just doesn't seem to want to make the full shift to eco-fashion.

A few decades ago there wasn't a lot of choice if you wanted clothes that didn't hurt people or the planet, and in most shops it's still tricky to find ethical outfits, but with the wonders of the internet there are many, many choices for the ethical clothes shopper today. Whether you want organic, Fairtrade, locally produced, recycled fabrics or vintage there's something for everyone, and unlike many foods you can find clothing that has several ethical labels to it's name, rather than being forced to choose between helping people or helping the planet.

Having grown up in a generation which expects to be able to buy an outfit for a few pounds I'm often a little put off by how much ethical clothing seems to cost, but in reality it's just a worrying sign of how little someone, somewhere is being paid for their work. Ethical brands are priced at the level which pays everyone a fair wage throughout the manufacturing process, and seeing the difference between a shirt in a normal high street store and an ethical brand is really startling. Also, as with any ethical item, knowing that your money is going to good, not bad, causes and that no-one is being pushed out of the market by the price makes the purchase much more pleasant.

In fact, many ethical brands are priced at a similar level to good high street brands nowadays, which makes me wonder if high street stores could produce ethical fashion without a big increase in price, if they really wanted too. Fantastic, reasonably priced, ethical brands I've discovered recently include Braintree (I love their hemp clothes), Komodo (I've never thought about organic demin before) and for the men Arthur and Henry (some very nice organic shirts you can wear without any ethical guilt!).

I've also found a very useful site for comparing highstreet store's ethical credentials on the ethical consumer website.  It's interesting to see how the different stores match up, and there are a few surprises in there too.

So there are ethical brands out there for a good price and they're very pretty and fashionable too (so you don't have to choose between looking good and doing good). Looking at all these lovely clohtes has definitely made me more determined to look harder for those ethical gems.

Hopefully my clothes shopping will be able to match my food shopping on it's greenness soon.

Monday, 15 April 2013

A Year In Memories

In my daily life I spend a huge amount of time staring at screens. I am getting better at avoiding the TV and laptop though and it's definitely easier now it's lighter in the evenings. This week we've swapped TV for board games (where you actually talk to other people rather than just watching the same thing at the same time), walks around our local nature reserve to see swallows and chiffchaffs and just generally chatting with cups of tea rather than staring at the box. It feels good.

One thing I've noticed is that I think about all those fun things in the days afterwards too. Of all my favourite memories very, very few include screens. The best memories I have seem to be of big family meals (a great reason to cook together and eat with the telly off) or moments outside discovering nature. And those are the moments that mark the year and the seasons for me, built up from lots of favourite memories.

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January is the first key nature date in my year. It's always interesting to see which flowers are open by then. Whether it's still snow drops and crocuses or if we've moved onto daffodils is normally a good indication of how far off spring is. This year we were definitely still on snow drops, with snow covering a lot of the country that weekend!

Later it's noticing the first primrose or tulip and buds coming out on trees and bushes. With a winter that seems to have gone on forever we're finally there now and although I'm not in Northamptonshire my mind always wanders back to looking for rare pasque flowers with my family at a local spot around Easter time. The occasional sound of a cuckoo makes a spring and any spot where we hear one will be remembered and talked about for a long time.

University days brought new memories for springtime; with May and exams inextricably inked to huge banks of wild garlic under shady trees. Then always quicker than I expect swallows become a common sight and we return to the pasque flower spot to look for glow worms on summer evenings. The summer passes with sightings of butterflies marking out the months; brimstones first, with trips to see purple emperors a seasonal highlight.

As summer passes the last few days of warmth are used to pick blackberries for pies and freezers and fruit and seeds are everywhere. My mind turns to sloe gin, preserves and storing things up for the coming winter. Eventually there are conkers on the trees (never as many as I claim to remember from last year) and the leaves fall and winter migrants like jays appear.

Winter means rediscovering your coat, remembering bird feeders and going for long brisk walks and enjoying the silence of newly fallen snow.

Whatever the season I know there are lovely days ahead and just writing this blog has got me all excited for the coming months. With buds on the tree, chiffchaffs and swallows over the river and lots of animals pairing up I think spring is really here. I can't wait to enjoy the season and hopefully by next year I'll have even more lovely memories away from screen mark out the year.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Just a note to say...

I love writing letters. It might be a little old fashioned (I'm sure somewhere in a magazine it will have been described as vintage by now!) but there's something very relaxing about settling down with a pretty piece of paper and writing to someone you haven't seen or spoken to for a while. Typing an email just doesn't feel the same. There isn't the sense of finality as when you put ink on paper; with an email any mistakes can be removed and sentences are easily rewritten and it just doesn't feel as personal.

Another reason I sometimes write letters rather than emails is because the people I'm writing letters to don't have computers or email addresses. They've survived for 80 years without them and I very much doubt they'll ever use them. Also, if you want to send someone something colourful to brighten up their day the internet has a long way to go before it's colourful fonts and images actually rival pretty writing paper or a hand chosen card.

But is writing a letter and posting it to someone any more or less environmentally friendly than emailing someone? On the face of it I would presume email is better. No paper used and no fuel used to transport the physical message around the world sounds like a good thing. But it's very easy to forget that using the internet uses more energy than just your laptop battery. You need to power the servers that run the web pages, you'll probably spend more time online than just to send that one email once you've booted up the computer, and the receiver will also have to turn on a computer and go on the internet to receive it. Storing emails costs money and energy too which is why companies repeatedly tell employees to tidy their inboxes and remove unwanted mail from storage.

According to another blog on this subject one letter sent by post has about the same environmental impact as using a laptop for about an hour (20g of CO2). I expect that as you send more emails (think how many you could send in that one hour of computer time) it becomes more efficient. So, if you can type fast and know what you want to say, sending a bulk load of emails will probably be greener than sending a bulk load of letters. But if you're going online just to send one email and you'll spend a long time composing it, a letter might just be greener.  Thinking about how many letters are computer written nowadays I suspect that typing the letter on a computer, and then printing and posting it may actually be the least green method, although obviously the formality of letters over emails and the ease of corrections in word processors have massive benefits.

The other obvious advantage of email is the speed. I can talk instantly with friends all around the world when a letter would take possibly weeks. It works in the opposite direction too that I can email a friend in the same town as me at any time of day, and know they can receive it and reply without having to wait for the postman to come and pick up the response.

There also the price of letter writing to consider. Buying paper, envelopes and stamps are all more expensive than turning on the laptop. It's definitely more expensive to send post so I suppose if you spent the cost of a second class stamp on offsetting carbon emissions every time you sent an email perhaps email would be greener

But there are ways we can make both emails and letter writing greener. Switching to a renewable energy source means that any emails we send will hopefully be using energy that isn't polluting and that can be used again. Actually clearing out old inboxes and deleting unwanted mail means servers aren't having to constantly store messages we will never use or need (and I promise you'll feel less stressed with a nice tidy inbox!). Using recycled paper and envelopes for letter writing means you don't need forests to be cut down to send your mail and in fact using Royal Mail is probably one of the most efficient methods of sending post, because your little letter goes in a bag with lots of others so the environmental cost of transporting it is shared out too.

I think I'll always be more excited to get a letter than an email, just because I know someone has put the time and effort into sending it and the art of letter writing will, I suspect, never quite transfer over to emails. But whichever you do, why not send someone a message today? Whether it's a letter to a friend you speak to daily online, or an email to someone you normally only post Christmas cards too. Keeping in touch is definitely worth the effort.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Talking Rubbish

Recycling is pretty much second nature to most of us at home nowadays. We all have our own routines; where the paper goes, where glass goes, when the bins go out. So when that routine gets interrupted or changed it takes a while to readjust.

Having lived in Northamptonshire, Durham and Preston I know that changing area almost always means a new recycling routine and Exeter is no different. Having lived here for almost five months now, I've finally got around to have a good search through the council website to find out exactly what can be recycled and where. I've blogged about recycling lots in the past (here, here, here, here, here and here) and I feel I am somewhat of a recycling routine veteran after having to adapt to seven different systems in the last five or six years but there are still a few surprises on the Exeter website.

The strangest thing about recycling in Exeter is that there is no household glass collection. I do faintly remember going to the bottle bank to recycle glass when I was very little (there something so satisfying about pushing bottles through a slot and hearing them smash) but for most of my life having someone come and collect my glass has been the norm. Thankfully our flat is only a minutes walk from one of the glass banks in the city. So for us it's only a quick walk round the corner to get rid of our waste glass. But even then, it takes quite a while for us to remember to take it out, and for people who are further from a bank I wonder if this means they are more tempted to just chuck the glass in the normal bin instead. When it comes to recycling making it the easiest option is definitely the way to convince people to do it.

One other difference to my recycling routine in Exeter is the joy of living in a flat. I have very little idea of when bin day is, because we take our rubbish and recycling down to a communal bin and then that is emptied once a week by the bin men without us having to drag it out onto the street. I find it really interesting to see whether the rubbish bins or the recycling bins are fuller, as I guess that shows what the whole block of flats is doing more of. I'm pleased to say that the recycling one is normally fuller, although that might just be because if it's not flattened first recycling fills a big space with lots of air gaps. 

When it comes to what we can actually recycle there aren't many huge differences compared to previous places I've lived. Exeter seems to be most similar to Durham with recycling for almost all types of plastic, paper, cardboard and tins. It's fantastic that I can now recycled ALL types of plastic from milk bottles to plastic wrapping around fruits and plastic bags. It's even changed our habits as we cannot recycle tetra-packs and so we now make an effort to buy fruit juice in plastic bottles instead. Another plus point is that we can recycle aerosols although we use hardly any of them, but it's still nice to know that we can.

Being able to recycle plastic food containers is a huge positive change for me compared to Preston. So many foods come in plastic boxes; meat in particular. While in the long run I want to move back to getting most of our food from a veg box company for now it's good to be able to recycle all the extra packaging the supermarkets use. And when we do swap back to veg boxes it's good to know that even the small amounts of plastic they use will be able to be recycled.

There is one massive downside of recycling in Exeter compared to Devon though and that is the food waste. In Preston I could recycle almost all our food waste. Cooked food, veg peelings, egg shells, even cooked meat. Here there is nothing and so without a garden and without access to a compost heap I sadly throw any food waste we have away. I'd guess that almost half of what is in our rubbish bin could be composed. This does mean I've been trying even harder than usual to reduce our food waste and use those leftovers for new meals, but there's always something that has to be binned. I wonder why Exeter doesn't have a food waste collection.

So there you have it, a comprehensive look at what you can and can't recycle in Exeter. While wandering around on the Exeter Council website I discovered that Exeter residents recycle 38% of their waste. I'm certain we recycle more than that in our household, I'd guess maybe 60% so that 38% looks a little poor to me. Maybe one day we'll forget what rubbish bins were because we recycle and reuse everything we haven't reduced. We got to that point pretty much during WWII in the last century, so it seems crazy that we can't get there will all our new technological advances now. But until we do I'll keep recycling everything we can, and hoping for a food waste collection from Exeter City Council as a late Easter present....