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Archive for July, 2007

Supermarkets. You gotta love ‘em.

(Hold on a second, you might think. Is this going to be a moan about flying food around the world and causing damage to the earth just because we feel like a few lychees now and again? Because we all know about that one – and anyway I’ve reduced my lychee consumption recently so he can piss off…………….)

It’s a good point, but I want to talk about much simpler things than that.

Firstly, plastic bags. Britain gets through about 8 billion plastic bags a year (1) – (from all shops, not just supermarkets. That might be quite a conservative estimate – some people say it’s up to 17billion, like Chris Huhne). Assuming a population of 60million that’s 133 per person. But babies don’t do too much shopping now do they, so a better measure might be per household. It’s about 324 (2). Just think what Blue Peter could make out of that many plastic bags! Oh we do like a good plastic bag.

But why bother? Seriously. What is there that we buy that we can’t carry in an ordinary bag – like a backpack or one of those nice wheelie suitcases that everyone has. Most people who are bothered will recycle their plastic bags from one trip to the next, which is obviously a good solution too. But really, who are we kidding? The vast majority of people who are doing a ‘weekly shop’ will be driving to the supermarket. According to the Department for Transport, car journeys accounted for 62% of visits to shops (that’s all shops, not just supermarkets) (3). If you drive to the supermarket and take your trolley to your car when you have paid, do you really need to put the food in bags at all?

Obviously I know why people want to use a bag. It’s easier. It’s convenient. Who wants to stand in a carpark for 2-3minutes transferring individual items to the boot when you can just lift them in in a few bags. Not to mention carrying them into the house when they get home, apple by apple.

So why don’t we all bring our own bags, re-used ones or backpack etc, when we go shopping? Because we don’t have to! They have plenty at the shop just ready to be used! Not to mention the huge inconvenience of having to remember to take a bag or two with us. (Would it really be that difficult to leave a bag in the car for shopping? Or add it to the list of things to remember………Keys, wallet, shopping list, bag!)

The solution? Get rid of them. Simple.
San Francisco has the right idea – they’ve decided to ban plastic bags in supermarkets and Pharmacies throughout the city (4). In April, Sainsbury’s in the UK did the same, giving out free reusable bags instead – but unfortunately only for a day (5). Ireland was way ahead of the game. In 2002 it decided to tax each plastic bag used (5). It resulted in a 90% reduction in their use(6).

While plans are being drawn up to ask Londoners to pay 10p per bag later this year (7) many bags offered by supermarket chains in the UK are now degradable. The Co-op introduced degradable bags in 2002 and recently Tesco’s have followed suit (8).

Great. Soon we will all be using either paper bags or degradable ones. But what’s the point? Why make something to use once that will then break down when you can have bags that can be reused for years? And anyway, when plastic bags degrade they are going to give off CO2. Wonderful.

Waste that degrades is still waste. And it’s waste that doesn’t have to be generated in the first place.

The second issue is much more simple. Open freezers and fridges. You know the ones – the chest freezers with the frozen pizzas in, and the open front chilled cabinets for veg and other things.

The question is obvious. Why not put a door on them? How much energy is being wasted by supermarkets trying to keep the produce cool without a door on their cabinets?! It wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the store wasn’t heated and lit up like Guy Fawkes. But think about it. How hard would it be to put a door on them? And why don’t they have them in the first place?

George Monbiot (see links page), has asked just this question, amongst many others in his book “Heat”. His analysis and research is far greater than mine, so I will just quote a few facts from his book and advise you to read it for yourself.

Apparently, the reason for not putting doors on the freezers is that when they are opened and closed, the glass steams up so that you can’t see what is inside(9). That’s it. That’s the only reason. If anyone knows of another reason please tell me because I really hope that isn’t it. How pathetic is that? Again, it comes down to convenience.

When the supermarket chain Monbiot spoke to added doors to the top halves of the cabinets they cut their refrigeration budget “by around one quarter”(9). That’s some serious savings, just by adding a few doors. I know! Let’s put doors on all of them!

Oh I forgot. We can’t, they might steam up.

Supermarkets would save themselves a hell of a lot of time energy and money if they stopped supplying bags and put doors on freezers. But they won’t, because it just ain’t convenient.

References
1. Assumes things haven’t changed much since 2002 article “Planet Earth’s new nemesis?” – bbc.co.uk, 8th May 2002.
2. Based on approximately 24.7million households in the UK. 8 000 000 000 / 24 700 000 = 323.88664.
3. “Transport Statistics Bulletin”, 2005 – Dept. for Transport.
4. “Ban on plastic supermarket bags introduced” – Ben Quinn, The Telegraph,
30/03/2007.
5. “Sainsbury’s bans plastic carrier bags for a day” David Adam, Guardian Unlimited, Thursday April 19, 2007.
6. RTE news 1st July 2007.
7. ‘Bid to charge 10p per plastic bag’ – bbc.co.uk, 13th July 2007.
8. ‘All Tesco bags ‘to be degradable’ ‘ – bbc.co.uk, 10th May 2006,
9. “Heat – How we can stop the planet burning” – George Monbiot, Penguin Books, 2006.

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It’s been raining a bit in the UK recently.
On Friday, The Times website reported that some areas of the UK had experienced four to five inches of rain in one day which, as they pointed out, is more than double the average for July rainfall(1).

Also on Friday the Guardian reported that there had been £1.5bn of damage in the last three weeks (2) and the BBC reported that at the Glade festival in Reading carparks were closed due to cars floating around in the floods, while in West Sussex a hospital was flooded(3). It was just the start.

As I write this I am watching BBC News 24, showing live pictures of Evesham where the River Avon has consumed the town and forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Worcestershire and Gloucestershire have been the worst hit, and there may be more to come, with more rain expected in the next week.

Severn Trent Water are asking customers to conserve water because the clean water supply situation is becoming serious, but many shops have run out of bottled water, as people have been buying it all up(4). It is possible that Severn Trent Water supplies will run out for 350,000 people (Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury) in the early evening on Sunday, due to one of their treatment plants being flooded(5).

Oh, and just in case you didn’t know, it’s the 22nd of July.

This isn’t the first bit of strange weather we’ve had this year by any means. Remember April? It was the warmest April on record, and the first time that the average temperature of the UK had passed 10degreesC in April. It was, on average, a whole degree warmer than the previous record from 1943 (6).

It was the wettest May since 1967, and the wettest June on record. Temperatures in June were still one degree higher for UK averages for the time of year though(6).

The Met Office make clever little graphs (like the one on the “It’s getting hot in here” page), and they do one for rainfall. Basically they take the rainfall month by month and then compare it with the average for those months from years gone by, plotted as a percentage. It looks like this……….

rainfall2007.gif

It is very hard, if not impossible, to draw a direct link between any individual weather events, such as this one, and climate change. These floods could have happened without man made carbon dioxide emissions. But the frequency of these events is only going to increase over the coming years, and that will be due to knock-on effects of climate change. As was said in a press release from the Met Office about the rainfall in June “At this stage, it is not possible to say whether intense rainfall events are caused by climate change. However, there is an expectation of heavier extreme rainfall events in most places as climate warms and the atmosphere becomes moister.”(6)

And the climate certainly is warming. The last five years have been the hottest years in the UK on record. The hottest was last year(6).

The weather in the UK is changing, and it has been changing for a while. The question is, are we going to do anything to reduce it in the future, or are we going to sit around glued to the television, watching and waiting for the disasters to happen.

1. ‘Summer washout hits Britain again for weekend’ – Times Online, 20th July.
2. ‘Rain, rain and yet more rain hits UK’ – Guardian Unlimited, 20th July.
3. ‘Chaos as heavy rain brings floods’ – bbc.co.uk, 20th July.
4. ‘Flood fears for power substation’ – bbc.co.uk, 22nd July.

5. BBC News 24, 5.20pm 22nd July, 2007.
6. The UK Met Office (www.metoffice.gov.uk).

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A week or so ago there were the “Live Earth” concerts held across the globe to raise awareness of climate change. In case you somehow missed them, as well as the media coverage following, they were apparently designed to “bring together more than 100 music artists and 2 billion people to trigger a global movement to solve the climate crisis.”(1)

This left me wondering where they got the 2 billion bit from. Hmmmm.
The population of the entire world is about 6.6 billion at the moment, of which only just over 1billion of us have internet access(2). So I would reckon that optimistically 3billion of us have televisions? Now if you assume that every single one of those people knew that the concerts were going to be on tv (which is wildly optimistic, and a lie – my parents didn’t have a clue for a start) you would need about 66% to make the conscious decision to watch it. And then there are all the people who were watching Wimbledon, or out for the day by the seaside, or dying, or giving birth, or doing everything in their power to avoid it…………..

Well according to the trusty Daily Mail, viewing figures for Live Earth in the UK (shown on BBC) peaked at 4.5million (although they were much more concerned about the bad language – tut tut). If Eastenders gets that many viewers then people start to ask why it’s doing so badly.

Following the concerts the main topic of discussion in the press seemed to be the nerve that all of the bands and celebrities had, jetting across the world merrily pumping carbon into the atmosphere while telling us all what a terrible thing climate change is (3). The point is, of course, a valid one. I’m sure the organisers would argue that it was all worth it to raise awareness of climate change around the world. The great thing about awareness is that it’s pretty hard to measure.

If it wasn’t for these complaints then the event would probably passed with even fewer numbers being aware of it – so with that twisted logic the celebrity carbon emissions may have done us some good, by getting everyone on the offensive.

Personally I was more concerned with the idea itself. It’s like someone is sitting in an office somewhere going “Anyone got any big problems? What about you Africa? Any aid needed? No problem, we’ll have a concert. Climate Change. Ooooh now that’s a nasty one isn’t it. How about errr……..a concert? Yeah, we’ll get the Pussycat Dolls to solve that one.”

I can’t help but think that despite their best intentions, Al Gore and co. might have done themselves more harm than good on this one. There is something about Live Earth that degrades the issue. People have seen it all before and they weren’t too impressed the second time. When events like this take place there is always the problem of momentum, and although they may well get people to sit up and listen and think about the issue for a couple of hours at the weekend, once the music has stopped and the stars fly home there is little hope that anyone will think any more of it. Until the next concert. We are getting to the stage now where people are aware of the issue. Awareness isn’t the problem anymore, it’s action. If Live Earth had got those 2billion people to act, or convinced their governments to do something then we’d be getting there. But even then, there is always that problem of the other pesky 4.6billion.

Bob Geldof seems to agree with me. “We are all fucking conscious of global warming” he said in an interview with a Dutch newspaper(4). “Live Earth doesn’t have a final goal. I would only organise this if I could go on stage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress or major corporations. They haven’t got those guarantees. So it’s just an enormous pop concert or the umpteenth time that, say, Madonna or Coldplay get up on stage.”

Apparently an ailing George Bush is trying to think of a last ditch idea to solve the Iraq problem. Ooooo…. I know………..Live Terror anyone?

1. www.liveearth.org
2. www.cia.gov as at July 2007.
3. ‘Live Earth gigs send eco-warning’ BBC.co.uk, 8th July 2007.

4.‘Live Earth? It’s a waste of time, Geldof tells Gore’ – Cahal Milmo, The Independent 16th May 2007.

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