Posts Tagged ‘Features’

Pollutionwatch: wood burning worsening UK air quality

February 4th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Pollutionwatch: wood burning worsening UK air quality” was written by Gary Fuller, for The Guardian on Thursday 1st February 2018 21.30 UTC

A new study shows how home wood burning is worsening air quality in UK towns and cities. Wood burning is adding between 24% and 31% to the particle pollution emitted in Birmingham and London. Many people think that this is a harmless form of heating, but it is often hard to see the impact of a pollutant until it is taken away.

That’s exactly what researchers did in three studies. Between 2005 and 2007, 1,110 old wood stoves were replaced in the small town of Libby, Montana. Wintertime particle pollution reduced by 28% and children had less wheeze, respiratory infections and sore throats. After banning wood burning on 100 of the most polluted days in California’s San Joaquin Valley in 2012, between 7% and 11% fewer old people were admitted to hospital with different types of heart problems. Finally, particle pollution dropped by 40% in Launceston, Tasmania when many wood-burning homes were converted to electric heating. Death rates in the over-65s fell by about 10%, an effect most clearly seen in men. In contrast, there were no matching health changes in nearby Hobart, which was outside the conversion scheme.

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Weatherwatch: can we keep the lights on when the wind fails to blow?

January 10th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Weatherwatch: can we keep the lights on when the wind fails to blow?” was written by Kate Ravilious, for The Guardian on Tuesday 9th January 2018 21.30 UTC

Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?

Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.

Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.

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The eco guide to Christmas trees

December 14th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The eco guide to Christmas trees” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Sunday 10th December 2017 06.00 UTC

This year I’m going real. Given the plastic pandemic, my goodwill doesn’t extend to manufacturers of oil-based fake trees shipped across the globe.

From an ecological point of view, all cut trees are imperfect. Three-quarters of the trees put up this Christmas in the UK will be grown here (this at least cuts down on tree miles). But these trees are raised on plantations that are as quick growing as possible. They are not carefully calibrated forests for the benefit of the future.

A standard UK forestry guide I came across cheerfully recommended to growers that they apply glyphosate in summer (this is the weedkiller that controversially just had its licence renewed in the EU) and a spritz of another pesticide in the winter.

There are few agronomic studies of Christmas tree growing. But one from US researchers reports that pesticide residues are not found on harvested trees by Christmas. If that offers cold comfort, seek out a certified organic tree.

Christmas trees are grown from seed held in cones and stored in the crown 30m above ground – these are then collected by cone pickers. The seeds for our plantations largely come from Georgia. Here, campaigns on the human cost of the industry have uncovered exploitation and dangerous working conditions. In 2010 a Danish company started to produce fair trade Christmas trees grown by workers paid a fair wage in decent conditions.

Of course, by Boxing Day it is hard to remember that the disco ball in the corner is a forest product at all, let alone that it needs returning to the earth as mulch via a recycling scheme. But this is your chance to claw back some eco advantage. Better still, if you’ve got a good-quality potted tree, shake the tinsel, replant and nurture for the next 12 months.

The big picture: watching Alaska’s whales

Aerial whale-watcher: the non-invasive Parley SnotBot.
Aerial whale-watcher: the non-invasive Parley SnotBot. Photograph: Christian Miller/Courtesy Parley for the Oceans

Advanced drone technology in the form of the Parley SnotBot was recently sent on an expedition to study whales in Alaska. Finds included the identification of a whale from a past expedition and a confirmed pregnancy in another, all discovered without the need to leave the boat and disturb the whales. It has been described as the new frontier of non-invasive marine research.

Well dressed: get a head start with a carbon fibre helmet

Head savers: the gloss cycling helmet from Dashel
Head saver: the gloss cycling helmet from Dashel

To wear or not to wear? As the debate over cycling helmets and whether they should be mandatory rumbles on, the idea of designing better helmets seems to have been eclipsed.

But Catherine Bedford has been quietly getting on with designing a small, lightweight carbon fibre helmet. Bedford, with a background as a designer of accessories for luxury brands, has transferred values around premium craftsmanship into her helmet design.

The carbon fibre shell is hand-finished by a family-owned factory in Cornwall which manufactures helmets for the military and marine industry, and the harness webbing is sourced from Derbyshire.

Already featured as ‘an accessory of the future’ at last year’s Cycle Revolution exhibition at the Design Museum, the Dashel helmet has now arrived.

Gloss cycling helmet, from £170 dashel.cc

Email Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle

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The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope’

November 10th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope'” was written by Damian Carrington, Environment editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th November 2017 07.00 UTC

‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”

But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.

“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”

No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”

Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”

THE TRENDS

1. Methane: getting to the meat

A lab-grown burger.
A lab-grown burger. Photograph: David Parry/PA

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.

The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.

What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.

Perhaps even more telling is that major meat and dairy companies are now piling in with investments and acquisitions, such as the US’s biggest meat processor, Tyson, and multinational giants Danone and Nestlé. The Chinese government has just put 0m (£228m) into Israeli companies producing lab-grown meat, which could also cut emissions.

New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”

Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”

Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”

Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products are growing fast

2. Renewable energy: time to shine

Solar panel installation.
Solar panel installation. Photograph: Kristian Buus/Corbis via Getty Images

The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.

This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.

In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.

Global wind and solar is soaring

3. King coal: dead or dying

The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.

The cause is simple: solar and wind are cheaper. But the consequences are enormous: in pollution-choked China, there are now no provinces where new coal is needed, so the country has just mothballed plans for 151 plants. Bankruptcies have torn through the US coal industry and in the UK, where coal-burning began the industrial revolution, it has fallen from 40% of power supply to 2% in the past five years.

“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.

Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”

World coal production peaked in 2013

4. Electric cars: in the fast lane

Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China.
Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.

China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.

“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.

“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.

It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.

The rapid rise of electric cars has left the oil giants, who have a lot to lose, playing catchup. The oil cartel Opec has increased its estimate of the number of electric cars operative in 2040 by five times in the past year alone, with the IEA, ExxonMobil and BP all bumping up their forecasts too. Heavy transport remains a challenge, but even here ships are experimenting with wind power and batteries. Short-haul electric airplanes are on the drawing board, too.

Global electric car fleet is following a rapidly rising curve

5. Batteries: lots in store

A lithium-ion battery.
A lithium-ion battery. Photograph: Alamy

Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.

Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”

It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.

Battery costs are tumbling

6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts

A zero-carbon house.
A zero-carbon house. Photograph: Alamy

Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.

Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.

But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”

In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.

One sector that is lagging on energy efficiency is industry, but technology to capture and bury CO2 from plants is being tested and ways to clean up cement-making are also being explored.

Energy efficiency has improved in EU homes, transport and industry

7. Forests: seeing the wood

The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.

This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.

In fact, new research has shown that better land management could deliver a third of all the carbon cuts the world needs, and Wolosin says there are some grounds for hope that new forests can be planted. “Achieving large-scale forestation is not just theoretical. We know we can do it because a few countries have done it successfully.”

In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.

Global tree losses are increasing

The race against time

Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”

Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.

“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”

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Tattooed avocados and shampoo bars: the businesses curbing plastics waste

September 2nd, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tattooed avocados and shampoo bars: the businesses curbing plastics waste” was written by Tess Riley and Guardian readers, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 29th August 2017 06.00 UTC

The first global analysis of all mass–produced plastics refers to the “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste”.

From shops offering individually-wrapped bananas to apples packaged in tubes, plastic is everywhere. And news that fish are mistaking plastic debris for food, is just one example of the negative environmental impacts.

So where is progress happening? We asked readers to send us examples and here we explore three ways businesses are trying to curb plastics use. Do you have other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz and we’ll share the best examples on our Twitter feed over the coming week.

1. Minimising packaging

If you’ve been at the receiving end of an online purchase that has come swamped in plastic in an oversized box you’ll know how frustrating it can be. The answer seems simple – pack the product in something smaller and minimise the need for so-called void fillers such as polystyrene chips inside. Yet companies are often constrained by the limited range of box sizes available.

Meet Slimbox, a machine which helps companies create customised packaging boxes in-house to reduce cardboard and filler waste. At €25,000 (£23,100) per machine, Slimbox CEO Filip Roose says he’s aware how important return on investment is to his customers.

“We’ve calculated that if a company sends at least 30 packages a day then it should get a return on investment after approximately two years,” says Roose. “The more they send, the shorter this timeframe.”

As well as reducing costs over time, Roose highlights the environmental benefits: “Yes you reduce packaging use, but you also reduce carbon emissions by being able to transport more packages at once.”

Solution for waste of packaging

Solution for waste of packaging

We always owned a printing company. Finding right-sized boxes was one of our daily struggles. To remedy this problem, we built a machine that customizes boxes in-house in every shape en every size, called the Slimbox. The boxes are only made out of recycled paper and cardboard. By this we want to stop the waste of packagingmaterials and save our planet.

2. Refills

A number of shops now offer people the ability to bring in their own Tupperware, bottles and jars to refill with items like pulses, nuts, grains and washing-up liquid.

Splosh has taken this concept online, enabling customers to buy concentrated laundry and cleaning product refills, which arrive by post in plastic pouches that can then be posted back to the company free of charge for re-use.

“The problem of plastic waste cannot be solved while we still buy from supermarkets, because single-use plastics are essential to their business model,” says Angus Grahame, founder of Splosh.”

Splosh’s refillable concentrates, says Grahame, enable customers to cut plastic waste for most laundry, home cleaning and personal care products by around 95%. “We believe the move to the circular economy is about massive new business model opportunity rather than tweaking decades old systems as the likes of Unilever are trying to do,” he adds. “The value destruction to existing brands when it happens, and it will happen quickly, will be awesome.”

Splosh.com

Splosh.com

Splosh laundry detergent: one bottle you reuse countless times. Refills – v concentrated, which top up with water yourself – arrive in the post. Even better, the refills come in boxes that fit through the letterbox and which can be recycled. Finally, you can send back the pouches that the concentrate comes in to be re-used.

3. Banning plastics altogether

London’s Borough Market has pledged to phase out sales of all single-use plastic bottles over the next six months, offering free drinking water from newly installed fountains instead.

Similarly, some bars and restaurants have started to ban straws in an effort to reduce the volume of plastics that end up in the oceans. The city of Seattle is taking this a step further next month with its Strawless September campaign to get local businesses to switch to paper alternatives where necessary, and ditch straws altogether where possible.

Despite Marks & Spencer’s “apple tubes” and plastic-wrapped plastic cutlery, the company has been exploring innovative alternatives to plastic packaging. By tattooing avocados rather than using produce stickers, for example, it intends to save 10 tonnes of plastic labels and backing paper and five tonnes of adhesive every year.

Cosmetics company Lush takes a very clear position when it comes to packaging: the ideal is none at all (approximately half of Lush products can be purchased without any packaging, according to the company website). By creating a solid shampoo bar, Lush claims it saves nearly 6m plastic bottles globally every year. What’s more, since the bars are more concentrated than liquid shampoo, less is needed per wash, resulting in lower carbon emissions from transportation.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Package free soaps!

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Package free soaps!

Lush Cosmetics follows all of these guiding conservation principles. I'm so glad they offer package-free solid bar products, as well as products packaged in recycled pots and bottles. And they've been doing it for a long time! This is nothing new and I remain hopeful that this environmental consciousness will continue to grow among other businesses.

Have you got any other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz.

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The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace

February 13th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Sunday 12th February 2017 06.00 UTC

If you’re dreading the start of the working week tomorrow can I just check it’s not the lighting? A 1990s study showed plentiful natural light to be a top determinant of job satisfaction.

If you can’t get near a window at least press for LEDs (they have a life of up to 60,000 hours in comparison to 6,000 hours for a fluorescent tube). They also improve your mood, productivity and energy efficiency.

But for real practical change in the workplace, you need to influence facilities and purchasing staff. This is where the power lies. In Europe, better purchasing has led to 72% of our paper now being recycled.

Get your office in order and you’ll be up for multiple certifications, such as ISO14001, but if you want to aim high I suggest looking to festivals for inspiration of what we can achieve in our own workplace. Shambala, the UK festival held in August, has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 81%, partly down to its plastic-free initiative; no bottled water sold onsite as part of its “bring your own bottle” campaign.

There’s so much innovation in the green festivals movement and offices can learn from them.

If greening your office – or festival – isn’t enough and you want to get deeper into saving the planet, The Ethical Careers Guide: How to Find Work You Love by Paul Allen is an excellent resource, full of real-world experience. By coincidence the book’s publisher New Internationalist will also be launching a community share offer at the same time.

In the world of green careers, things are moving fast. By 2018 Riverford Farm, the originator of veg boxes in the UK, aims to be employee owned. Start off changing the lighting, and you could end up with a stake in the future.

The big picture: the consequences of climate change

a dried-out patch of land seen from the air.
Drying up: an aerial view of the devastating effect of climate change

If you’re looking for the ultimate take-down of Trump’s flirtation with climate-change denial, Jared P Scott’s new documentary The Age of Consequences should just about do it. This is an investigation into the impact of climate change on increased resource scarcity, migration and conflict. It is frightening, but it also shows some unlikely climate-change allies – namely the US military (theageofconsequences.com).

Well dressed: Vivienne Westwood goes to China

the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, Get a Life!, in Shanghai.
Viva Viv: the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, Get a Life!, in Shanghai.

Chinese curator Adrian Cheng is credited with kicking off an art revolution in his native country. When he talked about climate activism with the veteran British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood some time ago, he became fixated on telling that story to Chinese designers and consumers through the medium of fashion. The resulting exhibition, Get a Life! (named after Westwood’s book on her brand of climate activism), has been three years in the making, but is now attracting record audiences to the K11 Art Museum in the Chinese capital, Shanghai. Alongside, China’s top fashion colleges are competing in an eco design competition, based on Westwood’s environmental vision. The work of the two winners will be stocked in K11’s concept store, Kuriosity.

Email Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle

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The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower

February 23rd, 2016

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower” was written by Shane Hickey, for The Guardian on Sunday 21st February 2016 09.00 UTC

When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.

Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.

This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.

“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”

Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.

The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.

Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.

From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.

But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.

The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.

The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”

The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.

“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”

How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.

Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.

As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.

A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.

So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.

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The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture

May 7th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture” was written by Josephine Moulds, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th May 2015 15.06 UTC

Britain was falling in love with coffee just as Adam Fairweather was exploring ideas for new products and materials. Ten years ago, Starbucks stores were opening on every corner, followed by the burgeoning industry of artisan coffee roasters.

Fairweather, a designer by training and expert in recycling technologies and materials development, now develops materials from coffee grounds and uses them to design products including furniture, jewellery and coffee machines.

A poll of 2,000 Britons by Douwe Egberts in 2012 found 69% spent between £1 and £5 in coffee shops five days a week. “We use coffee as a moment to take a break, it’s a luxury product,” says Fairweather. “The idea that it already had this high value but we only use a little of it, that was interesting because I felt that there was a way of tapping into this perceived high value the product has intrinsically.”

On average, we use just 18% to 22% of the coffee bean when we make a cup of coffee but Fairweather says that coffee waste is not “the biggest problem”. “There are already massive recycling programmes in the UK that manage organic food waste very well. My interest is that we can use materials that have a perceived value to them, to communicate and get people excited about the idea of sustainability and social change and environmental management.”

Google seats coffee material
An example of Re-Worked furniture: easy chair and unity coffee table made with Çurface boards containing 100% recycled content and ash wood. Photograph: Re-Worked

Fairweather first tackled coffee waste by helping to develop the Greencup scheme, which provides offices around the UK with Fairtrade coffee and then collects their waste coffee to turn it into fertiliser. His new venture, Re-Worked, works with Greencup, so he has a ready supply of waste coffee grounds and a list of potential clients who may be open to the idea of other products made from their coffee waste.

Google uses Greencup’s service and has bought designer furniture from Re-Worked, created with a hybrid material made up of 60% used coffee grounds. “They’re all very quick sales,” says Fairweather. “It’s five or six conversations rather than hundreds, because we already have a relationship with the catering facilities management.”

Re-Worked has also teamed up with Sanremo, which uses a material made of 70% coffee grounds for the decorative housing of its Verde coffee machine. Fairweather says they have sold 300-400 of these each year since it was launched in 2013 and they are currently being installed in Wyevale garden centres around the country. High-end jeweller Rosalie McMillan makes use of another of Re-Worked’s materials, combining it with gold and sterling silver for her Java Ore collection.

Scaling up for profit

Re-Worked is a non-profit and Fairweather says the quest for funding has been one of his biggest challenges. “I’m really under-resourced. Because it’s been pioneering work, it’s made it quite hard to get the buy-in from people. We’ve never had huge amounts of wealth in the background to make things happen quickly.”

Re-Worked does generate revenue from trading, which it invests back into the business but Fairweather says the organisation still relies on grants. “In all honesty it’s not been massively profitable. The way we sustain ourselves is by getting government support.” This funds ongoing research into new materials and better production processes.

Fairweather says the process of making materials from coffee grounds would be economically viable if Re-Worked were to scale up. “Doing the life-cycle analysis of materials, is a very good way of seeing whether or not something stands up. If it’s more environmentally friendly, generally it’s more economically-friendly, because it means that you’re using less of everything.”

Java Rock Bangles
Java rock wrist bangle made by Rosalie McMillan using a custom Çurface material containing 70% recycled content. Photograph: Rosalie McMillan

Fairweather only wants to scale up, however, if he can maintain true to the original aim. He says the company explored the option of developing a low-value product, making fuel pellets out of coffee, to act as a staple to keep the business running. That hit a stumbling block when he realised they would have to take waste coffee from other sources and not just Greencup.

“It’s about promoting the idea of a circular business, if we started to offer the service to Nero, then we add value to their business, but we don’t promote the idea of this circular business model that excites people. It just becomes a service that people use.”

He admits he is not particularly commercially minded and that is, perhaps, why Re-Worked is not a million-pound business. “I’m not a marketer I’m more of an inventor. I like to invent the stuff. I like to work problems out.”

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Tesla’s new low-cost battery: ‘the missing piece’ in sustainable energy?

May 3rd, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tesla’s new low-cost battery: ‘the missing piece’ in sustainable energy?” was written by Sam Thielman in New York, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st May 2015 12.12 UTC

Will the world become battery-powered? That’s certainly the ambition of Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire turned would-be space explorer and electric car baron.

On Thursday night, Musk unveiled what he called “the missing piece” in sustainable energy: a range of batteries that can be used in homes and businesses to store power from wind or solar or take advantage of cheap electricity to charge up overnight and then be used in peak hours.

Two billion Powerpacks – as the batteries are called – could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs.

“That may seem like an insane number,” Musk said. “We’re talking about trying to change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world.”

The first place to feel the battery charge will be Nevada. Next year, Musk’s Tesla Motors is set to start operating a power-storage-device “gigafactory” across nearly a thousand acres of Nevada real estate. It’s required to contribute .5bn to the local economy, in return for a .25bn tax break.

Battery expert Davide Andrea, an engineer at Colorado-based battery manufacturer Elithion, worries about costs. The most basic home unit will cost ,500. No details have yet emerged about the cost of the large units Tesla is reportedly supplying to companies including Apple and Google to help manage their power supplies.

“Electricity is way too cheap to store in an expensive battery,” Andrea said. “It’s like saying I’m going to be storing my potatoes in a safe. Potatoes are too cheap to store in a safe.”

But Andrea is sold on the idea that batteries are part of a more efficient energy future. He is currently involved in a new project in Boulder to install batteries in homes, in order to ease the strain on power plants and avoid costly rewiring as the sizes of neighborhoods change.

Felix Kramer, a clean energy entrepreneur in California, said he hopes Musk’s presentation on Thursday evening changes minds.

“Tesla demolished the idea that EVs [electric vehicles] were golf carts,” Kramer said. “And maybe they’re about to do it again now. Maybe they’re about to demolish the idea that we can’t switch from coal and gas to wind and solar because of reliability issues. If they convince consumers, that changes the conversation.”

But Andrea and Kramer are enthusiastic about the possibility of greater infrastructure improvements with greater adoption of electric cars. Power provision could get a lot more efficient if cities can be persuaded to draw power from those car batteries, as well as supplying it. That would provide electricity and diminish local reliance on expensive, fossil fuel-powered generators during times of peak demand – when everyone in New York turns on the air conditioner, for example. Nissan is already trying to do this with the Leaf in Japan.

“In a home, the cost of the storage becomes much more important,” Andrea said. “It solves so many problems – the power company no longer has to turn on a dirty power plant during high-demand times. You can use the present wire infrastructure.”

If those sound like lofty goals, they had frankly better be: Musk will have to impress a great many people in order to justify the gobs of money the state of Nevada is giving him – the gigafactory will be allowed to operate essentially tax-free for 10 years and won’t pay property taxes for another 10 afterward. Beyond even that, the state is giving Tesla m in transferable tax credits, which the company can sell to other businesses in the region.

Nor is it the first time Musk has asked the government to chip in: SpaceX receives 5m in help from Nasa.

Still, if Musk’s batteries can merge wind, solar and electric car power into existing grids, that would constitute tremendous economic savings for cash-strapped municipalities everywhere.

“This is within the power of humanity to do,” Musk told the large crowd gathered at Tesla’s design center in a Los Angeles suburb on Thursday. “We have done things like this before. It is not impossible.”

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Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical’

March 26th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical'” was written by Oliver Balch, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 09.30 UTC

Handmade cosmetics retailer Lush is proud of the fact it does zero advertising. It’s also pretty chuffed about its ethics. It has every right to be, having won an Observer Ethical Award last year. The Dorset-based brand shuns animal testing, caps executive pay, donates to anti-fracking groups, pays its African suppliers a fair price and much else besides.

Would you know though? Not from its minimal packaging, that’s for sure. Lush shuns the word “ethical” and its synonyms (think “eco”, “sustainable”, “responsible”, “good” and so on). Instead, its marketing is all about laying its products bare. That way, says Hilary Jones, the company’s ethics director, there’s “an obvious dialogue that begs to be had between us and our customers”.

On the face of it, Lush appears to be missing a trick. All the evidence suggests that consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics behind what they buy. The latest Trust Barometer from public relations firm Edelman places ethics and integrity top of 16 specific categories that engender the public trust.

Just because consumers want their brands to be ethical, however, doesn’t mean they want brands banging on about it non-stop. No one much likes the person who boasts relentlessly about their charity work or moral good conduct. When brands do it, the effect is just the same.

Explicit ethical branding has other negative connotations too. First, there’s the quality question: will this eco-branded washing powder get my clothes whiter than white? Some shoppers will doubt it. Similarly, on price, there’s a widespread (and usually justified) perception that “ethical” means expensive. A niche shopper may pay a premium for their principles, but the majority will not.

“In practice, most consumers assess their needs first, then how much they can afford to get those needs met,” says Brian Ahearne, director at London-based public relations agency Parker, Wayne & Kent. “Sometimes ethics will come into the mix, but that’s pretty rare.”

It’s not just consumers who are wary about ethical branding. The branding people are too. The fear is that by boasting about their ethics, brands will be setting themselves up for a fall. Take the Co-operative Bank, says Ahearne. For a long time it was the ethical poster-child, but news of its financial woes and drug-taking management were met with an eviscerating, almost gleeful backlash.

“As I always tell my clients, there’s only six inches between a slap on the back and a kick up the arse,” says Ahearne. Or, to put it another way, if you put your head above the parapet expect someone to take a pot shot.

Perhaps finding a less toxic term than “ethical” is the answer? Giles Gibbons, co-founder of specialist communications firm Good Business, is cautious about name games. Terms that resonate with ethical shoppers rarely do so with mainstream consumers. “Fair trade” represents a rare example, he suggests, but even that carries a “worthy” (read, boring) image for some.

Actions, not words

For Gibbons, words are not the most important factor; actions are what count. “Too many brands are trying to get the green or ethical label, rather than genuinely being a good business and getting the benefit from that,” he says.

He admits that most marketing professionals gulp at this message. Branding is their home turf, not “being” – but there’s no way round it. If ethical marketing is going to work, the ethics have to come first and the marketing second. Therein lies authenticity. Anything else smells, well, fishy.

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, concurs. Take Starbucks, she says. The Seattle coffee chain has umpteen certificates to say it’s sustainable. So does she believe it when it claims to source its beans ethically? “Not when I question whether they pay the right amount of tax in the UK,” she argues.

That doesn’t mean brands should keep schtum. No one is a saint – not even Lush. What the public expects isn’t ethical perfection; it’s clarity on what a brand stands for, and transparency on how its ethics are staking up.

Sarah Pinch, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, gives the example of Devon-based food box delivery brand Riverford. The company grew so quickly that it had to go back on an initial pledge to buy only UK-grown produce, she says. Now it imports veg from France in spring, although it commits to zero airfreight.

For Pinch, such transparency only adds to her trust in the brand – it doesn’t detract from it: “Consumers and the media are now much more adept at testing ethical claims, so the need for greater accountability and openness is absolutely vital. PR professionals have a responsibility to tell their clients: we can’t say Produce A is 100% ethical. What we can say is that we are taking every effort to meet this and this ethical standard and here’s the proof.”

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