Friday, 22 October 2010

Day 159: Kitchen Woes (Part 1)

So, I'm halfway through a very painful kitchen refit. When I say painful I mean, of course, wonderfully fulfilling. In all honesty though, ripping out the hideous 1980s kitchen was more than satisfying and I feel a renewed sense of pride. Yes, I can use a hammer, a chisel and various other tools. Quite impressive really.

Being my ignorant self I hadn't really stopped to think about the impact our little project could have on the environment and, I'm ashamed to say, I think I've learned a few things the hard way. I've got one word for you: plaster. It's evil, evil stuff. Dip-shit here, unfortunately, didn't realise this. I'm talking about 'Gypsum' plaster here of course (the standard plaster everyone means when they use the word 'plaster') which takes up a hell of a lot of energy in it's production and is, all round, a bit on the dirty side. We are all so used to seeing literally buckets of the stuff being smothered over our walls when we decide we must have the latest high-gloss wall cabinets (ok, maybe that's just me) but have probably never spared a thought about the alternatives. 

I am here to inform, am I not? There are alternatives. There pretty much always are. How about a lovely coat of lime plaster? Very similar to 'gypsum' but with a much lower amount of 'embodied energy' - basically meaning less energy goes into its production. It's also boast all the same properties as gypsum plaster and can be used in exactly the same way (internally and externally). It is great temperature regulator too keeping warm in winter and cool in the summer. If only I had researched this before we arranged the plasterer to come. I now have three large bags of powdery shame hanging around that I can't bear to look at. 

Next mission: paint. I'm not going to let this one slide. Check back soon to see my findings...

- James
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Monday, 27 September 2010

Day 133: Ethical Chic

Paris Fashion Week is upon us. The deliciously flamboyant couture houses will no doubt churn out some remarkable, if a little off-the-wall, creations. We all know, however, that fashion ain't necessarily the 'nicest' of industries - for many reasons. It may be pretty to look at, but the ethics of it are more than a little fluid. So as not to waffle on about sweatshops, unsustainable products and, dare I say it: fur, lets take a different tack.

Now in its seventh year, the Ethical Fashion Show is a chance for sustainable and ethical designers and retailers to show off their creations. Note the distinct lack of 'earthy' types with clothes made of patchwork fabric tied together with hemp. There is not a garment in sight that is there purely because it's ethical, it has to have style too - this is Paris, after all.

Now held in the rather grand 'Docks en Seine' building, home of the French Fashion Institute, it seems like 'ethical' fashion need not be frumpy. Besides, who could call a couture dress made entirely from recycled film stock 'frumpy'? Hot names at this years show include: Terra Plana, Diffus and Ciel.

Up until recently, I have passed off 'ethical' fashion as a bit of a fad. Something that just won't, given the nature of the fashion industry, work. No matter how 'good' an item of clothing is (ethically speaking) if it's not aesthetically pleasing, it's not going to cut it. Shows like this, and the rather surprising statistic that the industry is now worth around £175 million in the UK alone, seem to point to a significant shift in our thinking. Are we now at the point where we are happy to sacrifice our fashion? Will we be saying 'no' to paying hundreds of pounds for a garment made by a child, in Malaysia, from unsustainable sources? I think we are. It's been a long time coming, but the timing feels right. All we need now is for these 'big' ideas to filter down through the high street so that us lowly 'masses' will have the luxury to make the choice ourselves. Failing that, we need a fit celebrity and a major fashion house to launch a ludicrously lavish campaign of some sort - I'm not holding my breath on that one.

- James
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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Day 121: Bristol Bristol Bristol

Phew. What a positively mental few days. I am finally getting round to putting a few words together about a couple of events I was lucky enough to attend over the weekend - Bristol's Organic Food Festival and Bristol Green Doors.

The weekend kicked off with the food festival. A wonderful display of organic produce - everything from locally grown veg to organic and ethically produced bedding - it was well worth the £5 entrance fee. I won't bore you with a stall-by-stall lowdown of what was on offer, suffice to say good times were had by all (especially when you throw in some Bath Ale). One stand-out stall was The Community Farm which is a lovely little project that brings together local produce from around the south-west. The volunteers were amazingly knowledgeable about the food and were damn proud of it too. They offer a weekly delivery of veg right to your door for a very reasonable price and, if you're feeling green, they welcome a hand at harvest time too.

So after a swift half of Bath Ale, it was time to hit the city of Bristol and have a sneaky peek into a few of the homes that had very kindly offered to open their doors and show us their greens. I only had time to visit three homes, but was lucky enough to visit three very different set-ups.

The first was a beautiful terraced Victorian house with the synonymous high ceilings and intricate coving - a total pain in the ass when trying to reduce your energy consumption. They had installed a solar water heating system that had practically slashed their gas bills to zero during the sunnier months. Another similar house had made the effective, but slightly less visible change, of insulating the walls, sealing the wooden floors and installing a wood burning stove (using sustainable wood, of course). The third house, crammed into a row of terraced houses on a narrow street, really was breathtaking. With little space to play with, they did what good ole' IKEA tells us - 'think cubic'. A Dahl-like stair case led up to a raised 'workshop' where a solar powered train-set whizzed around much to the delight of the children. Up yet another, even more tiny staircase, and you emerged in the middle of a greenhouse atop the roof of the garage (two-storeys up by this point) to find a fully utilised vegetable garden and 'green roof' - really quite an amazing feat. All the work of the home's owner, Simon Lewis and his marvelous company Bristol Green Roofs.

So, all in all, a very fun and very informative weekend. It was inspiring to see energy saving techniques that I had only heard about in the flesh and actually working, to see how it was making a difference to the environment and also to the lives of the people living there was invaluable. Now, if only I had a garage I could build a green roof on...

- James
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Monday, 6 September 2010

Day 112: Random crap in your house (or how to "upcycle")

We've all gotten to the point where we now what type of plastics we can, and can't, put into our recycling bins. We have come to recognise the dreaded type '7' plastic as being a horrific blend of chemicals (all with unpronounceable names) that should not go anywhere near your little green box. How about though, we do something with our used products before we throw them out?

Some frustrated Googling threw up a delightful article on what is known as 'upcycling' - basically giving a new life and purpose to something before we cast it into the green box or the blue bag. It's a 'pre-recycle', cycle. If you will. 

Ideas ranged from saving the fat from bacon to (eventually) make a bird feeder, to toilet roll tubes as cable tidies - have a peek and get your craft on!

- James
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Sunday, 5 September 2010

Day 111: Bristol Green Doors

What a lovely idea - a weekend where people around your city open their doors to show what they've done to make their lives that little bit more environmentally friendly. From the little changes: energy saving light bulbs, rainwater harvesting and home composting, to the larger changes like PV installations and complete house renovations. 'Green Doors' is an event taking place in Bristol (fast becoming a leader in 'eco-awareness' in the UK) on the weekend 11th & 12th September. Around 50 people will open their doors and let us all have a good poke around and ask those questions we'd all love to be answered: how much does it really cost? Do these changes actually make a difference? How does it impact on your day to day living? I'll be there, camera in hand, to report back on what I find out.

The 'green' aspect aside, the whole event strikes as a rather wonderful idea anyway. The idea of homes being opened up to the public, and for people to say: 'come in, this is how we live' is quite a heart-warming notion. As much as I'm sure I'll take away great tips and tricks to shave a few kilowatts of my footprint, I'm hoping to get a little more from the event. Maybe it's something we should all do. Every month we should all relax, open our doors and let the big bad scary world in for a few hours. Besides, what else is there to do on a dreary weekend in September? 

Visit: for more information.
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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Day Ninety-Three: Carbon Neutral?

Well, I think a giant BP sized slap on the wrist is in order for me. I have not blogged for nigh on six weeks. Shame on me. This project, to go 'carbon neutral', was always going to be a struggle. I knew that from day one. I was under no illusion that I could make a few small changes and I would suddenly become some beacon of eco-wonder. It's testament, I think, to how difficult this whole subject is.

I've continued to behave in as 'eco friendy' a way as possible. I've been recycling, composting, growing my own veg and have made a conceited effort to make those little, arguably easy, changes that we can all make. What does it all add up to? A slight underwhelming feeling, to be honest. We do like to see results, don't we?

I've come to the realisation that's it's all about context. Had I started this journey as an abysmal planet hating 'throw away' kind of guy, there may have been more of a dramatic change. I am, of course, not that kind of person. I harbour the same sort of middle class guilt that I think many of us share - I recoil at my neighbours who still do not recycle, at people who continue to buy unethical produce from the supermarket - but then who am I to judge? So I think it's time this project changed it's destination. A modest, humble acceptance that I am not going to become carbon neutral, but that I can continue to strive to improve my lifestyle within certain, boring, constraints.

An improved understanding and awareness of the world around me has opened my eyes to issues I was previously blind to, so I can only hope for a slow but definite upward trajectory to something resembling an environmentally 'sound' lifestyle. As and when I stumble across groundbreaking information I will continue to share and discuss them here on this blog, but I want to avoid the preachy 'do this, do that' mentality and focus more on the reality of the environmental state we're living in, and how the big stories and events around the globe affect us on a smaller, more personal level. I promise, therefore, that the next blog should be day ninety-five, or thereabouts, and not in another six weeks.

By the way, my compost is looking wonderful.

- James
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Thursday, 1 July 2010

Day Forty-Five: 47.76kWh

So it's been a week since I installed my NPower energy monitor and I am back with some official statistics. So far, over one average week's use I have used 47.76kWh of electricity, that equates to about 25kg of C02 emissions and has cost just under £6. A very handy little gadget. It allows you to easily switch between you energy usage for the past day or week, and gives you a target usage to stay under. It's quite scary to watch, in real time, how much electricity you're using. Turn a light switch on and suddenly your kWh shoot up  - I've come to fear the barely visible LED screen every time I walk by for fear I've fluctuated beyond control. To extrapolate into an insanely rough figure, my current usage would equate to about 1.3 tonnes of C02 a year - this would seem to tie into my findings from my carbon footprint last year. So what am I not doing to reduce this? Heading towards the same sort of figures is, obviously, not my intention. Have I merely reached the 'floor' of my electricity usage, or am I still just not doing enough?

I'm taking care to switch lights off, unplug appliances and take the telly of standby, but it seems this is not working. A year ago I was still environmentally aware enough to know I shouldn't be leaving appliances switched on overnight so I've come to the conclusion that, as far as electricity is concerned, I don't think I can reduce my usage much more than I already am (within the constraints of my current living arrangements). So what now? I don't even know where to begin to look at my gas usage - any ideas? Time to get my research hat on again and see what else I can do to reduce my C02 emissions.

As a side note and, being a bit of a gadget freak, I'd like to point out that if you own a first:utility smart meter you can access something called Google PowerMeter which is a wonderful pretty little tool that can produce all sorts of lovely graphs and charts showing your energy usage which you can access from anywhere using the online tool. There are also many other fancy meters available at various costs and some with subscription costs but, to be honest, if you would just like to see what you're using then a free meter from your electricity provider will suffice. All the big players provide them free of charge these days, and they're so easy to set up that there's really no excuse to not have one!

- JamesTweet This