An old coal power station is set to be transformed into a “sustainable village” of 2,000 homes powered by solar panels, in the biggest redevelopment yet of a former UK power plant.
French firm Engie said it had decided against selling off the Rugeley site in Staffordshire and would instead build super efficient houses on the 139-hectare site as part of its bid to “move beyond energy”.
Half of the energy required by the new homes will come from green sources, predominantly solar, which will be fitted on rooftops, in a field and even floating on a lake.
The company is planning for 10 megawatts of solar capacity in total, equivalent to one of the UK’s smaller solar farms.
Batteries will be used across the site, both in homes and at a communal power storage facility, to balance out electricity supply and demand.
The firm is also claiming the homes will be so efficient they will use nearly a third less energy than average new builds. Heating will come not from gas boilers but electric devices such as heat pumps.
Wilfrid Petrie, Engie UK’s chief executive, said: “We are positioning ourselves as going beyond energy into place-making. It’s an example of us closing down our coal power plant and, instead of selling off the land, we’ve decided to regenerate it ourselves.”
There are seven operational coal power stations left in the UK, but all are due to shut by a government deadline of 2025, raising questions over what happens to the sizeable parcels of land afterwards.
While some energy companies are hoping to build gas plants on or adjacent to the old coal sites, others will need to be decommissioned for other uses.
In Shropshire, regeneration firm Harworth is planning to turn the 97-hectare brownfield site of a former power station into a development of homes and commercial units.
Engie said it was eyeing other sites around the country. “There’s a list of similar sites, which we are looking at. It’s not in the hundreds, but there are several,” Petrie said.
Peter Atherton, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, said putting local electricity generation at the heart of new housing projects was almost becoming a prerequisite for developers to get through planning.
“It is the way of the future. There is no doubt large scale housing developments going forward are going to have some form of local generation because it is all the craze,” he said.
Around 30% of the Rugeley project will be classified affordable homes, though it is not clear how much the green energy measures and high building standards will add to the upfront cost of the properties.
Consultation on the scheme starts this month, with construction due to start next year and demolition of the former coal plant – including the cooling towers – due to finish in 2020, with plans for the first people to move in the year after.
A huge new cruise ship terminal planned for the river Thames would lead to a surge in dangerous levels of air pollution in the heart of the capital with unknown health consequences for hundreds of thousands of people, campaigners have warned.
Under the proposals, which have been given planning permission, up to 55 giant cruise ships would dock in London every year. Each ship would need to run its diesel engines round the clock to power onboard facilities, generating the same amount of toxic NO2 emissions as almost 700 continuously running lorries.
“There is simply no justification for having these huge ships sitting here right next to busy residential areas and schools, belching out this level of pollution with all the associated damage to people’s health that have now been proven.”
There has been growing concern about the scale of the air pollution crisis in recent months. A slew of new research has highlighted the health risks associated with toxic air – from reduced intelligence to a rise in asthma deaths; heart disease to spikes in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In London, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced a range of measures including plans to introduce a low emissions zone banning the most polluting road vehicles from a large swath of the city from 2021.
However, the Thames does not fall under his jurisdiction and campaigners fear it has become a “wild west” in terms of air pollution.
“The fumes that are emitted on the river simply would not be allowed if they were coming from a road in London,” said Eyres. “It is really worrying to think what damage these fumes are causing local residents, and if the new terminal goes ahead that is only going to get a lot worse.”
The Port of London Authority (PLA) controls traffic on the Thames and admits the “marine sector” has lagged behind in terms of tackling air pollution.
However, it says it is catching up and earlier this year it produced its first air quality strategy. It points out that the Thames is only responsible for 1% of London’s air pollution and says emission levels will improve in the years ahead as clean marine technology comes into force.
Martin Garside from the PLA said it wasworking with the the mayor and local authorities “to secure strong environmental standards”.
He added: “With a single barge carrying the loads of 50 lorries – the Thames helps reduce traffic and pollution on London’s congested roads. Over four million tonnes of cargo is transported between river terminals – removing about 300,000 lorry movements from the roads.”
The proposed new cruise terminal at Enderby Wharf in Greenwich is owned by Morgan Stanley, which was given planning permission for the terminal and wider residential development by Greenwich council in 2012 and updated permission in 2015.
Now the council has changed its mind and is backing campaigners’ calls for Morgan Stanley to come up with a greener alternative for the cruise terminal.
Residents want it to be “zero emissions”, only allowing ships that can plug into an onshore power point so they can turn off their polluting diesel engines.
Eyres said: “With 55 cruise ships planned annually and each staying for three days we face huge amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter being released into our homes every day of the summer with potentially devastating health implications.”
One of the big cruise ship companies, Viking, said its ships were already fitted with the “latest technology that meets the strictest environmental regulations”.
A spokesman added: “If shore side power were available then we would consider using it. In fact, we are already prepared to use shore power. Our newest ship, launched this year, has a built-in connection, and we are updating our other four ships to use shore power in order to have the capability fleetwide.”
Campaigners wrote to Morgan Stanley earlier this month raising their concerns again and arguing the current plans were at odds with the company’s stated commitment on environmental sustainability.
A spokesperson for the company said it had received the letter and was working on revised plans for the development.
“We acknowledge East Greenwich Residents Association’s concerns and can assure [them] that our new proposals will take these concerns into account.”
However, Eyres said local residents needed more than encouraging words. “We can’t rest until we see a concrete commitment from Morgan Stanley that their plans for a polluting cruise port are dead in the water.”
Among retailers and manufacturers, they talk of “the Blue Planet effect”. The BBC series, screened late last year, was the moment that many of us realised the catastrophic impact our use of plastics was having on the world’s oceans. Scenes such as a hawksbill turtle snagged in a plastic sack, the albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic or the mother pilot whale grieving for her dead calf, which may have been poisoned by her contaminated milk, are impossible to unsee.
It’s a crisis that affects us all, and the facts make for dispiriting reading. If nothing changes, one study suggests that by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic swimming around, by weight, than fish. It’s already estimated that one third of fish caught in the Channel contain plastic; another piece of research found that “top European shellfish consumers” could potentially consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Suddenly our use of plastics is firmly on the political and cultural agenda. While impassioned individuals have been pushing to reduce our use of plastics for a few years, the volume of the debate has been turned up dramatically in recent months.
There is hope, too, that the message is getting across. The 5p charge on carrier bags, introduced in 2015, has led to an 85% drop in their use across England; an astonishing 9bn bags. Here, we highlight pioneers who are tackling the issue of plastics in creative ways.
Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker: ‘Imagine a lemon-flavour straw and a grapefruit cup or a vanilla straw for your iced latte’
Across the US, around 500m plastic straws are used and discarded every single day. “We could fill 125 school buses,” says Leigh Ann Tucker, co-founder of Loliware. The straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum by-product, which is technically recyclable in large formats, but this is practically impossible with something the size of a straw. “So they end up as landfill or ocean pollutants,” Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s other half, chips in. “We’re drowning in our plastic.”
Britain sucks, too. Here, we throw away an estimated 8.5bn straws annually, easily the most in Europe. In London alone, more straws are used than the whole of Italy. Most campaigns focus on getting rid of plastic straws or using longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives and these have had considerable traction – now the UK government has announced a consultation on banning plastic straws.
However, Briganti and Tucker have a more playful solution. This summer in the US, and next year in the UK, they are launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from and then eat – they call it “biodegr(edible)”.
The main ingredient is seaweed, which can have different flavours or nutrients added. The material can also be fashioned into cups and lids, all of which can be munched on after you’ve finished drinking.
“Imagine a lemon straw with a blood orange lid and a grapefruit cup,” says Briganti, in a call from Beacon, New York, where Loliware has its offices in an old silk factory. “Or a flavoured vanilla straw for your iced latte. There’s an inherent idea that there needs to be a trade-off, but actually we can offer something more exciting. We want to invigorate the discussion of ‘What does sustainability mean now? And how does that benefit me?’, rather than asking people to compromise as a consumer.”
The neologisms do not end there: Loliware has also created a designation called “hypercompostable”. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from industrial compostable materials such as PLA [polylactic acid] plastic, which is often made from GM corn, because we wanted to show people what real compostability means,” explains Briganti. “If this cup or straw ends up in a waterway, it’ll simply dissolve; if it ends up in the natural environment, it will break down in 60 days.” PLA, meanwhile, though technically biodegradable, can take a long time to decompose (anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill) and also needs to be kept separate when it’s recycled because it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Loliware launched in March 2015, but Briganti and Tucker had been working together since they’d met a few years earlier at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Their first product was an edible cup and it immediately caused a stir. In October 2015, Loliware pitched on Shark Tank – the US version of Dragons’ Den – and there was a “shark brawl” as all of the entrepreneurs tore strips off each other to invest.
The original cup proved popular – deals were sealed with the Four Seasons hotel group, 60,000 were bought by Absolut and so on – but at nearly a unit, it was too expensive for mainstream penetration.
That has changed with a new material they call Lolizero, which is “cost-competitive” with paper and PLA. Loliware is currently in discussion with global chains in the coffee and fast-food sectors, as well as more upmarket chains, about using its cups, lids and straws. “Just to give you an idea,” says Tucker. “One big account, replacing 10% of their straws, is so significant it’s in the hundreds of millions.”
Briganti and Tucker are confident their products will make a big dent in the single-use drinks market – and they’re especially proud to have made an impact as a pair of female innovators.
“Women solving the challenges for Mother Earth, if you will,” Briganti says with a laugh. “We have a direct connection with her.”
Vin and Omi: ‘People ask “Is this silk?” No, it’s 11 small Evian bottles’
The eco fashion designers Vin and Omi are tricky men to pin down. They don’t like to use their real names. They are vague about their ages and where they live, though it’s usually either London or New York. It’s not impossible to find photos of them, but they often wear masks or, as was the case at end of one catwalk show, cardboard boxes with holes hastily punched for their eyes. “The Daily Mail called us the Banksys of fashion,” says Omi with a giggle, the slighter of the pair and originally from Singapore, when we meet at the Andaz hotel in east London.
Perhaps inevitably, the pair dislike the tag “fashion designers” too, though they concede this objection is getting harder to sustain now they have shown their clothes a dozen times at London fashion week. They also have enough celebrity admirers to fill Grazia many times over: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have all worn Vin + Omi. Walking in their shows they’ve had rappers, Jane Horrocks, the boxer Nicola Adams and “someone from Made in Chelsea”.
But what’s certainly true is that Vin and Omi do not really fit in the fashion world. In an industry famed for waste, excess and ethically dubious practices, they try to do things the right way. They started in 2004, working with latex – “really organic and sustainable!” says Omi – and a doomed attempt to make it breathable. This led them on to plastics and a quest to make beautiful, tactile garments from recycled materials.
“We’re on the cover of Recycling & Waste World soon,” mock-boasts Vin, who has a background as a sculptor and in public art projects.
“It’s brilliant,” adds Omi; away from work, the pair have been married for 17 years. “Instead of Vogue, we get Waste World.”
And yet perhaps the day when they appear in both those market‑leading publications isn’t too far away. Scattered around the hotel room are a selection of clothes, made from 12 fabrics unique to Vin + Omi. They are vibrant and outlandish, some are plain bizarre, but what’s really surprising is how enjoyable they are to hold. Most are made from recycled and often salvaged plastics, but there’s also a no-kill fleece and a “leather-esque” vest made from chestnut skins.
“When the first T-shirt made from plastic came back we were amazed – it was softer than a normal cotton T-shirt by far,” says Vin. “That had to come from Canada, which was a shame, but people would ask, ‘Is this silk?’ And we’d say, ‘No, it’s 11 small plastic Evian bottles.’”
Perhaps their biggest champion is Debbie Harry. Last year, they created the wardrobe for Blondie’s world tour: 12 pieces all made from recycled or salvaged plastic included blouses, capes and an especially eye-catching smock inscribed with “Stop Fucking the Planet” in block capitals. “Debbie said, ‘Just design me anything,’” recalls Vin. “And we said, ‘Are you sure? Right, it’s going to be Stop Fucking the Planet and you’re wearing it.’ And she did.”
Vin and Omi certainly enjoy a mischievous stunt. They are currently collecting Coca-Cola bottles. The beverage giant sells more than 110bn single-use plastic bottles every year according to Greenpeace, and has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030, but has been lambasted by the environmental group for not setting a target on reducing the amount of plastic it production. When they have enough bottles, Vin and Omi will create a lavish garment and hand-deliver it to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Omi smiles, “The note will say, ‘Look, we can help bring your quota down. You can use this for your marketing.’”
Until now, Vin and Omi have concentrated on one-off, high-fashion pieces, but in the next year or so, they would like to open a shop in London selling more affordable designs. They also hope that more established labels will start to follow their path. “Eventually, plastic will be banned,” predicts Vin, “but in the interim period, if all designers did what we were doing on a larger scale, there would be no plastic in the ocean. They would pay to have salvage operations, because they’d get free raw material. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.”
Rodrigo García González and Pierre-Yves Paslier: ‘Corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to try something else’
When people hear the concept for Ooho!, they often assume it’s a joke. Much like the notion of food pills, the idea of water delivered in a transparent membrane you swallow whole seems too futuristic for 2018. “When we started crowdfunding, people called us fake news,” says Pierre-Yves Paslier, the 30-year-old French co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the east London-based startup that makes Ooho!. “They couldn’t believe it was a real thing.”
“We had to organise events for investors,” adds 33-year-old co-founder, Rodrigo García González, a Spaniard, “so they could touch it, taste it and see it was real.”
I can confirm that Ooho! very much exists, but there is definitely something bizarre about popping the little pouches in your mouth. First, you explode it in your cheek and get a pleasant rush of filtered water. Then you decide what to do with the membrane, which is made from seaweed – you can spit it out – it is biodegradable in four to six weeks – or you can chew it. “It has a bit of texture, it doesn’t really have a specific taste,” explains Paslier. “It’s a texture found a lot in south-east Asian food, but we are not very familiar with it in the west.”
García González and Paslier met while studying for a masters in innovation design engineering, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. The idea for Ooho!, says García González, was borrowed from the natural world: “In nature, to contain liquids, such as fruits or eggs, they normally use membranes. It’s the most efficient way to contain any type of liquid, because you need the minimum amount of material.” This led them on to spherification, a process invented in the 1950s that was then used to make fake caviar and had a revival in 2003 at Ferran Adrià’s modernist restaurant, elBulli. Since their discovery, Skipping Rocks Lab has been working out how to refine and package its offering.
There is obviously a market to disrupt here. It’s estimated that 1m plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. García González and Paslier cheerfully accept that it would be better if everyone carried reusable bottles and there were plenty of water fountains. However, until that’s the case, they believe Ooho! can fill a gap at music festivals, running events, offices and takeaway lunch spots. Ultimately, sachets will be delivered by an on-site dispenser like a coffee machine. These should start rolling out later in the year.
Skipping Rocks Lab believes its technology could be adapted to face other challenges such as disposable cutlery or coffee cups. And its experience of crowdfunding suggests that there is public demand. Recently, it set out to raise £400,000 via Crowdcube; in the event, 900 investors pledged almost £850,000. “People are ready for an alternative,” says Paslier. “The corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to switch to something else.”
It might seem surprising that a European-led company would choose Brexit Britain as a base, but García González and Paslier insist they are happy here. They have received strong support from Imperial College and Innovate UK and have a close relationship with other startups such as Aeropowder, which creates new materials from waste feathers. “It’s still really great to be here,” says Paslier. “The clean-tech sector is booming.”
Siân Sutherland:‘What we’re asking for is difficult, but we have to turn off the plastic tap’
“I’m probably your least likely eco-warrior,” says Siân Sutherland, a 56-year-old British entrepreneur and co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet. I have an idea what she means – she has glitter on her jacket and bag and her blond hair is flecked with blue – but I ask her to clarify. “There’s a bit of a mould isn’t there, where you think, ‘She’s a right old activist.’ You know, knitted armpits, sandals. But there’s a whole new wave now – it doesn’t have to define your look.”
For most of her life, Sutherland had given little thought to the environment. In her 20s, she opened and ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho; she has also set up a design and branding agency and founded a skincare brand for pregnant women. “I did that for 10 years in the UK and the US, so you can imagine that my personal plastic footprint is huge,” she says. “It’s a very competitive space and I didn’t really think about what happens to those white plastic bottles afterwards.”
A Plastic Planet was born when she was asked by an old friend, Frederikke Magnussen, to help with the launch of a documentary, A Plastic Ocean. This was 2016 and, says Sutherland, you had to “strong-arm” anyone to take any interest in the subject. But she and Magnussen quickly realised that this was a problem that went far beyond the oceans and started their campaign.
“You go to your supermarket and it’s a sea of plastic and you have no choice,” says Sutherland. “It’s almost like this human right has been taken from us. So this is really about two unreasonable women saying, ‘Why can it be that we’re now made to feel bad about our shopping habits and we have no choice?’”
Right now, A Plastic Planet has a very straightforward goal: a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. It focuses on this area because this is where Sutherland and Magnussen believe they can make the greatest difference. In Europe in 2016, 40% of all plastic was used for packaging, and nearly half of that wrapped food and drink. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation estimated that British supermarkets were responsible for more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; that’s enough to bury Greater London 2.5cm deep.
“It’s indefensible for us to use something that is so indestructible as plastic, which we now know is going to exist on the planet for centuries, to just wrap our perishable food and drink in,” Sutherland seethes. “It makes no sense. We just got it wrong.”
A Plastic Planet’s campaign has already made global headlines. The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened in February in Amsterdam. Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain, had around 700 products at its pilot launch and everything was packaged, just in glass, metal, cardboard or a compostable, plant-based biofilm.
“We really had no idea it would be the media storm that it was,” says Sutherland. “Personally I did 55 interviews in 24 hours. But the story is not: the people of Amsterdam can buy plastic-free; this is a message to the world that we don’t need to wait five years. We don’t need to wait 25 years definitely. I’ll be dead. Half the planet will be dead. We can do it now.”
In the UK, Sutherland has not yet spoken to Theresa May or Michael Gove, the environment secretary, though she offers them both an open invitation. But she has had discussions with the firm Iceland, which has committed to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products by 2023, and also the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer: “I love the fact that this is not an affordability issue and it can’t be.” A Plastic Planet also receives inquiries from around the world – recently Portugal, Korea and China. “China will save the world in my opinion,” she says.
Sutherland does not lecture individuals – “I’m no plastic saint” – but she thinks the main thing we can do is support any supermarket with a plastics-reduction scheme.
“The quicker they do this, we the public have to make it a success,” she says. “Because I know what we’re asking for is difficult; it is inconvenient, it might have a cost implication. But it’s essential. We can’t hide behind words like ‘recycling’ any more. They are not the solution. We have to turn off the plastic tap.”
Bex Band and Erin Bastian: ‘Every change that’s happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance’
For the inaugural Paddle Pickup last year a group of women kayaked from Bristol to London. They covered 300km in 15 days, negotiated 151 canal locks and collected 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution. “We pulled out all sorts of weird stuff,” says 29-year-old adventurer Bex Band, who came up with the idea along with Erin Bastian, also 29. “We found a Santa Claus, chairs, bikes, a rubber duck, Viagra. A bag of class A drugs … ”
What did she do with those? “I disposed of the contents and took the plastic away,” Band laughs. “And I thought: ‘Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe the fish wouldn’t appreciate that.’”
Band first made contact with Bastian, a sea kayak guide and founder of Evoke Adventure, after seeing her website: “We’re both in the adventure scene and it’s quite a small scene,” says Band. The idea for Paddle Pickup came up in that first conversation and two months later they were on the water. The trip was great fun, but their main takeaway was the realisation of just how dirty Britain’s waterways have become. “I had a day in Reading where it was so bad we weren’t even scraping the surface,” says Bastian. “And you can’t help thinking, ‘What difference are we actually making? It’s not even 1% of the plastic that’s there.’”
“It’s a constant battle, where I’m trying to fight this hopelessness,” adds Band. “But if we don’t have hope, we have nothing. People say ‘What’s the point?’ But every change that’s ever happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance.”
So, undeterred, Paddle Pickup returns at the end of May and this time they are kayaking from one end of Wales to the other, via the river Severn, again collecting plastic as they go. This trip is 240km, and it’s divided into three, five-day sections. A few places are still available; no previous kayaking experience required.
Why just women? “A lot of women struggle to get involved in adventure because it’s such a competitive and masculine environment and they’re lacking in confidence,” says Band, whose company Love Her Wild specialises in all-female expeditions. “So by making it all women, it breaks down that barrier.”
If last time is anything to go by, the trip will be hard but rewarding. And it might just be the start of something: one woman from the 2017 Paddle Pickup is now cycling around New Zealand, speaking in schools about plastic pollution; another is rowing across the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Bastian. “You go on one adventure and then you’re like: ‘Now I can think bigger.’”
Band and Bastian hope they can inspire informal Paddle Pickups all over the country – and that, as word spreads, change will follow. Band says: “My favourite message from the last trip was one guy who said that he’d read about us in the local paper. He went to buy his lunch that morning as usual and he didn’t buy a water bottle, he used a reusable one. And he said he wasn’t going to buy a [disposable] water bottle again. That’s amazing: we can take away the plastic, but that doesn’t solve the long-term problem. We need people to change their habits.”
Unlike conventional price comparison sites, which require people to actively search for a better deal and input their details and energy use, Labrador will automatically switch people’s accounts when it finds a cheaper tariff.
Jane Lucy, founder and CEO of Labrador, said: “We’re not about behaviour change: we assume consumer lethargy will remain.”
Flipper is a similar service that launched in 2016, relying on accessing a customer’s energy bills, which might be estimated. Labrador believes it will be more accurate, as it use a device that plugs into a customer’s broadband router and talks wirelessly to their smart meters, taking readings direct from them.
While Flipper charges an annual £25 fee, Labrador makes its money like a switching site, by being paid an acquisition fee by suppliers.
Lucy said she expected customers would be switched 1-3 times a year and save on average £300 a year. They are given the choice to tailor their preferences, for example, to just green energy tariffs.
The company has signed up about 500 customers since a soft launch in February, but aims to take 3% of the switching market within five years. In the future the company may branch out into home automation and helping consumers identify individual energy-guzzling appliances, Lucy said.
The war on plastic waste is extending to the UK’s favourite beverage, with a major retailer in the final stages of developing a fully biodegradable paper teabag that does not contain plastic.
The Co-op is to make its own-brand Fairtrade 99 teabags free of polypropylene, a sealant used industry wide to enable teabags to hold their shape, and the guilt-free brew is due to go on sale by the end of the year.
The scale of the problem is huge. According to the trade body the UK Tea and Infusions Association, teabags account for a whopping 96% of the 165 million cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Anti-plastic campaigners have been appealing to consumers to use loose tea or “greener” options such as Japanese-style “pyramids” made of 100% compostable corn starch, but these are more expensive than mainstream mass-produced teabags.
The Co-op, which sells 4.6m boxes of tea a year (367m teabags) has joined forces with its tea supplier, Typhoo, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö – specialists in sustainable fibre solutions – to develop a method of heat-sealing bags to eliminate the more widely used plastic seal.
The biodegradable bag will undergo rigorous testing next month and could be on shelves later this year. It is intended to be rolled out across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections.
“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic,” said Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food. “Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6bn cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.”
But the UK Tea and Infusions Association warned of higher prices for consumers. A spokesman said: “The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now. We know that a significant price rise would have a severely negative effect on sales and seriously reduce the income of farmers from some of the poorest tea-growing regions of the world.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Have you got any other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz.
The UK could be a green business powerhouse in the next three decades, but only if given proper support by government, a group representing more than 30 low-carbon companies has said.
The low-carbon economy in the UK employs at least 432,000 people, with a turnover of more than £77bn in 2015. This is larger than industries such as car-making and steelmaking, which are frequently given the spotlight when politicians discuss industry and jobs.
Growth in green business is also expected to outstrip other sectors of the economy, as international opportunities open up for low-carbon goods and services. Investments by major developing countries alone are projected to be tn by the end of the next decade, with green business’s supporters arguing that the UK is well placed to take a share of the burgeoning market.
In a letter to the Guardian, a group representing more than 30 of the UK’s green and low-carbon companies forecast that the low-carbon economy would rocket from 2% of the UK’s GDP today to 13% in the next three decades, boosting both manufacturing and services, but only with government support. The business leaders urged politicians across the spectrum to respond, as the policies of the next government will play a major role in determining how the sector develops and whether job opportunities are realised. They wrote: “Stable policies to grow the UK’s low-carbon market will be essential to turn this potential into reality and ensure our economy remains competitive on the global stage.” Green businesses have been disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in the sector during the general election campaign, and by the absence of strong public commitments in the manifestos. The signatories to the letter concluded: “We call on the new government to put in place ambitious and long-term policies to tackle climate change and improve the state of the environment at the heart of its industrial strategy and vision for the UK.” The letter was coordinated by the Aldersgate Group and also signed by 11 companies including Kingfisher, Aviva Investors, Anglian Water, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the decision by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change would not make a major dent in the prospects for growth. He noted that the shift to a more efficient and lower carbon economy is well under way across the globe, with the cost of clean technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, falling rapidly, and investment growing strongly. “Following the commitments made by six world leaders at the recent G7 summit, and the news of greater cooperation between China and the EU on climate change, major global players like the UK must continue to build competitive, low-carbon economies and honour their commitments under the Paris agreement.” Environmental businesses in the UK have been hit in recent years by swings in government policy that have led to job losses and uncertainty among potential investors. These swings include the scrapping of subsidies and harder planning requirements for onshore wind farms; the slashing of support for solar panels and restrictions on solar farms; the abandonment of the “green deal”, which was intended to boost home insulation; the removal of the promised £1bn funding for carbon capture and storage facilities; and the scrapping of the target to make new homes zero-carbon. Last week, Labour accused the Conservative government of failing to come up with plans on how to achieve the statutory targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, set out under the Climate Change Act. Green groups fear that a new Conservative government under Theresa May could scrap the Climate Change Act, leaving the UK without firm targets on cutting greenhouse gases. However, the government has pointed to increased investment for electric vehicles, support for new nuclear power stations, and a boost to offshore wind as evidence of its commitment to low-carbon infrastructure.
Since May 2010, the UK has installed more than 11GW of wind power, generating enough electricity for more than 7.8m homes.
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.
The EU is celebrating 10 years of the world’s largest carbon trading system this year by looking at new reforms to keep it on track. The emissions trading scheme (ETS), which covers half of Europe’s CO2 emissions by limiting the number of carbon permits available to energy generators and industry, has been dogged by low prices and oversupply of allowances.
The problems are largely ones of success – carbon emissions are lower than anticipated. But much of the oversupply was caused by the recession in Europe, so has the trading system been a waste of time or has it changed business attitudes and operations?
To answer these questions the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group commissioned a report, 10 years of Carbon Pricing in Europe – a business perspective, which was released last week. The report is based on interviews with a small number of companies from a variety of sectors that are mandated into the ETS to see what impact it has had on them.
For some, the responses were pretty much to be expected. EDF and Shell have long been advocates of the carbon market and higher prices. Energy companies need the price to justify the right investment decisions at the right time – and many of them are able to pass on the cost of carbon allowances to their consumers – so they would be in favour of a high carbon price.
Although they profess the importance of the carbon market, it is clear that other policies, such as those promoting renewables or nuclear energy, have had more impact.
Carbon trading driving emission cuts
But then there are the energy intensives. Often vulnerable to international competition and with limited options to reduce their CO2 emissions, these industries generally have not been enthusiastic advocates of the carbon price. But here the European carbon market does seem to have had a genuine impact. Steel company ArcelorMittel acknowledged the importance of monitoring and reporting emissions to manage them.
Tata Steel Europe said that even in the depths of the recession some of its facilities were taking steps that would have previously been unacceptable or impossible in order to stay afloat, because reducing emissions is synonymous with efficiency. To the same effect, cement company Italcementi uses CO2 intensity as an indicator of efficiency as it “combines most of the key levers to industrial excellence”.
It seems unlikely these companies would have got this far without the ETS.
Next, we should consider the industries that are within the ETS but for which energy is not such a significant cost or where there are other options. What is interesting here is how the most advanced companies have moved beyond compliance to more interesting and creative ways of cutting emissions.
There are plenty of examples of companies using their waste heat or buying heat from their neighbours, thus going the extra mile to improve efficiency. The bottling company O-I Group uses waste heat to pre-heat raw materials and to heat the floor in their plant. Others have created new business models that have provided a lucrative income stream from offering consultancy advice to others. Here the ETS has provided a valuable focus on carbon and underwritten the improvements made.
Finally, there are those companies that probably would not have gone beyond compliance if they had not had leaders with vision. Where senior managers decide to take carbon seriously there can be huge benefits, even where energy is a small proportion of total costs.
Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline have directed new resources to cutting carbon with astonishing success. This has been crowned by a reduced carbon liability. Clearly in these companies the ETS alone has not driven this transformation, but the senior management teams would not have had this on the agenda without the carbon price being discussed at board level. It is noteworthy that these businesses instigated action in 2007 and 2008 when the allowance price was relatively stable in the €20-€25 range.
What needs to happen next? Europe is embarking on reform of the ETS now. Clearly getting prices back up to the lofty levels of 2007 would help but, ironically, the companies that have focused on carbon have found the low hanging fruit of cheap emissions reductions to be almost limitless, which will make it a bigger struggle to raise the price.
Do we need a higher price then? Yes. To tackle the challenging industries that will need technological breakthroughs we will need higher carbon prices to incentivise more reductions and to fund innovation.
Of all the carbon emitters that surround us every day it’s easy to overlook one of the most ubiquitous: concrete.
The material that builds our buildings, paves our roads and spans our bridges is the most widely produced and consumed material on earth apart from water, according to a WBCSD report. By 2030, urban growth in China and India will place global cement output at 5bn metric tons per year, with current output already responsible for 8% of the global emissions total, according to a WWF report.
Although its environmental impact is far from benign, concrete – defined as the mixture of aggregates, water and the hydraulic powder material known as cement – is incredibly useful and widely applicable. Thanks to its durability, easily-sourced raw materials and thermal resistance, it is unlikely that an alternative building material will replace it on a large scale any time soon.
Hendrik Jonkers, a microbiologist at Delft University and a finalist at the recent 10th annual European Inventor Awards, has a plan to increase the lifespan of concrete. His innovation, which embeds self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into building material, is designed to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower maintenance and repair costs for city officials, building owners and homeowners.
Jonkers’ self-healing concrete marries two fields: civil engineering and marine biology.
“One of my colleagues, a civil engineer with no knowledge of microbiology, read about applying limestone-producing bacteria to monuments [to preserve them],” Jonkers said. “He asked me: ‘Is it possible for buildings?’ Then my task was to find the right bacteria that could not only survive being mixed into concrete, but also actively start a self healing process.”
When it comes to Jonkers’ concrete, water is both the problem and the catalyst that activates the solution. Bacteria (Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii) are mixed and distributed evenly throughout the concrete, but can lie dormant for up to 200 years as long as there is food in the form of particles. It is only with the arrival of concrete’s nemesis itself – rainwater or atmospheric moisture seeping into cracks – that the bacteria starts to produce the limestone that eventually repairs the cracks. It’s a similar process to that carried out by osteoplast cells in our body which make bones.
Healing these cracks the old-fashioned way is no small expense. According to HealCON, the project working on the self-healing concrete, annual maintenance cost for bridges, tunnels and other essential infrastructure in the EU reaches €6bn (£4.2bn) a year.
The invention comes in three forms: a spray that can be applied to existing construction for small cracks that need repairing, a repair mortar for structural repair of large damage and self-healing concrete itself, which can be mixed in quantities as needed. While the spray is commercially available, the latter two are currently in field tests. One application that Jonkers predicts will be widely useful for urban planners is highway infrastructure, where the use of de-icing salts is notoriously detrimental to concrete-paved roads.
Encouraging as it sounds, Jonkers’ self-healing concrete can’t cure very wide cracks or potholes on roads just yet; the technology is currently able to mend cracks up to 0.8mm wide. And while making better concrete is a more feasible approach to sustainable building than shifting to an entirely new building material, that doesn’t mean the innovation is a sure bet. The current cost would be prohibitive for many. A standard-priced cubic meter of concrete is €70, according to Jonkers, while the self-healing variety would cost €100.
John Alker, director of policy at the UK Green Building Council, says the success of any new green infrastructure technology relies on innovators like Jonkers being able to demonstrate the particular benefit of a product, whether that’s around cost or enabling a client to meet environmental targets.
“We’ve seen a lot of innovation around concrete as it is a highly impactful product in terms of the energy that goes into producing it and it’s simultaneously a very important construction product globally,” Alker said. But persuading the construction industry to change its behaviour will be tough, he says. “It comes down to innovative clients and developers being willing to experiment with their building and try and test these materials and prove a track record before others will follow.”
Though Jonkers is aware of the challenges of reaching wide adoption of the material, he points out that in particularly vulnerable environments – such as coastal communities or tropical regions that are increasingly experiencing extreme rainfall – some are already seeing the cost-benefit analysis of using this technology from the outset.
“We did a project in Ecuador where we made a concrete canal and irrigation system with self-healing concrete,” Jonkers said. “We are doing tests all over the world in developing countries where they realise that though this is more expensive than current tech, they see the profit because they will have to avoid repair down the line.”