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Meet the anti-plastic warriors: the pioneers with bold solutions to waste

Meet the anti-plastic warriors: the pioneers with bold solutions to waste

Powered by article titled “Meet the anti-plastic warriors: the pioneers with bold solutions to waste” was written by Tim Lewis, for The Observer on Sunday 22nd April 2018 07.00 UTC

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’

Leigh Ann Tucker, left, and Chelsea Briganti
Leigh Ann Tucker, left, and Chelsea Briganti inventors of Loliware, edible and hypercompostable straws and cups. Photograph: Christopher Lane/The Observer

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’

Fashion designers Vin and Omi photographed in London.
Eco-fashion designers Vin and Omi, who use recycled and salvaged plastic, photographed in London. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

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’

Pierre-Yves Paslier, left, and Rodrigo García González with their Ooho! water pouches.
Edible packaging inventors Pierre-Yves Paslier, left, and Rodrigo García González of Skipping Rocks Lab, with their Ooho! water pouches. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

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’

Siân Sutherland from A Plastic Planet.
Siân Sutherland, whose campaign group A Plastic Planet wants a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

“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’

Erin Bastian, left, and Bex Band of Paddle Pickup. Photograph by Antonio Olmos for the Observer
Erin Bastian, left, and Bex Band of Paddle Pickup, who clean up Britain’s waterways by kayak. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer ( With thanks to The Pirate Castle, Camden for equipment)

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.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free

An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free

Powered by article titled “An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free” was written by Rebecca Smithers, for The Observer on Sunday 28th January 2018 00.04 UTC

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.”

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The eco guide to Christmas trees

The eco guide to Christmas trees

Powered by 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 Photograph: www.jamesbedford.c/pr

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

Email Lucy at or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace

The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace

Powered by 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 Photograph: PR Company Handout

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 (

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. Photograph: PR Company Handout

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 or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners

Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners

Powered by article titled “Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners” was written by Megan Conner, Katie Forster, Ed Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 8th March 2015 08.45 UTC

The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast)

Diver Howard Wood on how the winners of the 2008 Conservation Project category went on to secure a marine protected area around the south of Arran

Nothing changes fast in marine management, so the higher your profile, the more government may listen to you. That was something that became apparent after winning our ethical award in 2008.

We have grown as an organisation since; at heart we are still a Highland-based community organisation, but we now have two-full time employees, whereas before it was purely volunteer-led. And we have an office. The whole business has become larger and more professional.

Scotland had decided that the only people involved in fisheries management would be commercial fishermen – a bit like only having builders and developers on a planning committee. With some excellent lawyers, we managed to convince the government to acknowledge that the seas were a resource that they have to manage for the public benefit. In 2008 we achieved the designation of Scotland’s first-ever marine No Take Zone and community marine reserve; last year a marine protected area was designated around the whole of the south of Arran. I think that’s a huge achievement for a small community group.

Next, we hope to achieve better marine management for the entire Firth of Clyde, to set up marine interpretation facilities on Arran, and replicate our work around the coast of Scotland in other communities. There is a constant challenge to be heard by the Scottish government and get better policies for our badly degraded sea beds and fisheries. Being ethical is not always completely possible; we still need petrol outboard engines to get around the islands here, for example. But you can try.

Things are slowly changing. If you look at larger companies, they now have ethical policies. Even if it’s just a bit of greenwashing, they’re still thinking about it.

'By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries': Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt
‘By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries’: Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer


Their waterless lavatory bagged the Big Idea award in 2013. Now, says Virginia Gardiner, CEO of Loowatt, they’re providing sanitation systems all over the world

Ours is not your everyday message, so getting recognition from the Observer was important. The waterless toilet system we created, Loowatt, collects human waste in a sealed filter that can be easily emptied. It’s basically waterless toilet technology, but we also generate energy from human waste, so it’s very popular in developing countries and areas of the UK where you need an off-grid toilet: the countryside, festivals… We first publicly demonstrated the luxury mobile loo unit at Latitude in 2014.

I was actually very pregnant at the time we won the award, but it was great to be at the ceremony and meet like-minded people who are also interested in sanitation. Since winning, we’ve received more than m in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Initiative, which will help us to scale up our pilot system in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and put in more than 100 household toilets. We are also testing a new model designed for women in informal settlements, who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet at night. By 2016 we hope to be ready to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries.

An interesting part of our job is working with two markets that are so different. In the UK we’re building more event systems offering a luxury experience and we’re taking the toilet on the road to festivals. People are always surprised the toilets are so nice to use, so if you get to try a Loowatt, let us know what you think.

'There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there': Greg Valerio.
‘There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there’: Greg Valerio. Photograph: Richard Saker/Observer

Greg Valerio

Since winning his Global Campaigner award in 2011, Fair Trade jeweller and activist Greg Valerio has travelled all over the world to investigate the mining industry and expose the murky business of the trade in gems and precious metals. Now he’s launching his eponymous label

I’ve been a jeweller since 1996, and there are times when I have wondered why I’m in the business at all. I was in India when I first saw the exploitation of the supply chain – slavery, child labour, people working in terrible heat. That’s when I became an activist in the industry. By 2004, I’d managed to deliver the world’s first traceable gold, from mine to wedding ring.

I never expected to win the Global Campaigner of the Year award, though. I was up against Greenpeace and Avaaz, who both do a fantastic job, and I was very happy just to be nominated. Since then I’ve been travelling a lot, helping to initiate better supply chains. I’ve been to Sierra Leone, and worked with ex-militia in eastern DRC; I’ve been to Greenland to look at the problems with conflict rubies, and to California to see the toxic legacy issues of mercury left over from the gold rush – an estimated 19 million pounds of mercury in the watersheds. There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there.

Now that we have traceable supply chains, it’s really important to expose the hollow marketing narrative that holds the jewellery industry together. It’s a completely manufactured value based upon people’s narcissism and the false pretence that somehow these products – gold, diamonds – make them special.

The dignity of the person who dug the product out of the ground is just as important as the dignity of the person who buys it. So I’ve written a book about the story of Fair Trade gold, called Making Trouble, and last year I started shooting a documentary in Uganda with Dartmouth Films, the production company who made Black Gold and The End of the Line.

As for the future, I’m going back into jewellery under my own name: Valerio Jewellery will have launched by this summer. I’m also working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain on an accreditation system for gemstones and diamonds, which is really exciting because they’re the next big thing that needs to be addressed.

We have to be able to say this is not just a negative campaign: here we have the opportunity to do it right. If I look at a wedding ring and know where it has come from, and the impact that purchase had on that community, and I see the joy on the faces of the couple who buy it, that’s a positive legacy.

'There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more': Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro.
‘There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more’: Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/Observer

Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers

Since winning their respective Ethical Fashion Awards in 2010 and 2011, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers have partnered to create Fashion Revolution, a global initiative to encourage transparency in the fashion supply chain

Orsola de Castro It was cool to win an award for sustainability in fashion at a time when sustainability was not at all in fashion. Since then, From Somewhere [the designer label De Castro co-created, working with pre-consumer surplus from manufacturing houses and textile mills] has collaborated with Speedo and worked with Topshop on three bestselling collections. Fashion Revolution began as a reaction to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. Carry had the idea and called me straight away. Its aims are to encourage transparency and redress issues within the supply chain: there’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more. There are events all over the world, from open-air catwalks in Madrid to workshops on how to detox water in Nepal, and a dedicated Fashion Revolution Day [24 April, the anniversary of the disaster]. It’s about treating everything you buy with the respect it deserves.

Carry Somers In the days after the Rana Plaza disaster, there was a lot of discussion around why we need a more ethical fashion industry. I thought unless we channelled that momentum, it would dwindle and something similar could happen. Orsola seemed ideal to work with as she’s the “queen of upcycling”. The idea of Fashion Revolution is to create a platform which everyone – retailers, designers, academics – can use to showcase best practice. Pachacuti [Somers’s Fair Trade company, best known for its Panama hats] has helped a few hundred people, whereas Fashion Revolution can potentially change the lives of millions. Last year, Fashion Revolution Day trended worldwide. This time we’re asking people to turn an item of clothing inside out, take a selfie, contact the brand and ask: “Who made my clothes?” If we keep asking questions, it will start to filter through to the people who make the decisions.

'It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste':
‘It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste’: John Hall (centre, with Anne Watkinson and Terry Morris) of Essex Wildlife Trust Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Thurrock Thameside Nature Park

Essex Wildlife Trust won the Conservation Award in 2011 for its plans to transform a landfill site. CEO John Hall reveals how it happened

Four years ago we were deep in the planning stages to turn an 845-acre landfill site on the north bank of the Thames into a nature park. The site had taken waste from six London boroughs for 50 years, but we’d secured a 99-year “pie-crust lease” that would enable us to build on top of 20 metres of landfill. I can remember feeling like we were up to our necks in it; the first phase was building a visitors’ centre that required unique engineering and various people were questioning what we were doing. The Observer Ethical Award came along at a time when our resolve was being tested and gave us a much-needed boost of energy and confidence.

We opened a year later, in May 2012, to great fanfare: HRH the Duke of Kent visited the site and in 2013 we had an official ceremony with Sir David Attenborough and more than 2,000 attending. In his opening speech David described the project as “a miracle” and I think we were just so pleased to have him there that we all started crying.

It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste: we have cuckoos and nightingales singing, peregrines and short-eared owls hunting, skylarks, shrill carder bees and adders out in the sun – and even a pod of porpoises in the Thames estuary. Years ago the area was populated by swarms of gulls, so it’s quite amazing to think that such a variety of animals are living on what is essentially a pie of rubbish capped with clay. We still have a way to go – there are still 400 acres to restore – but already it’s a living landscape.

Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife.
Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Observer

Tanya Ewing

The entrepreneur dedicated her life to her groundbreaking energy-and-water monitor, which won the Big Idea Award in 2008. Now she’s championing a new money-saving invention

When I first entered the awards, I was at the prototype stage with my product. I was in awe of the judging panel and to have their endorsement was a great seal of approval for its marketplace possibilities. We took the product to market a few months after we won; a year later we were starting to see revenue from sales. I was receiving tens of thousands of emails a week from people wanting the product, but because of money constraints we could only manufacture small volumes, so we focused on the new housing market. House builders were given points under the code for sustainable homes for installing our product, and that helped generate the sales we’re enjoying today.

I left the company seven years to the day after I founded it. I wanted some flexibility – I’d given the company my life for all that time, and I wanted to spend time with my young son. I also wanted the freedom to work on something without having to worry about shareholders. I started helping other low-carbon inventors take their products to market, and came across an innovative magnetic secondary glazing business called Glaze ’n’ Save. Now I’ve bought the concept and begun commercialising it. So I’m starting all over again!

Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man.
Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Observer

Queen Elizabeth II High School

Pupils in the Isle of Man scooped the Ecover Young Green Champions award in 2013 after their Grow Your Own Clothes project impressed judges. Grace Harrop, 18, reveals what happened next

The intention of growing our own clothes was always to make a statement about the impact of fast fashion: clothes made cheaply but unethically. It just so happened that by experimenting with bacteria, tea, vinegar and sugar in a bath, we also grew quite a good fabric. Since winning the award we’ve become fascinated by the science of it, but we’ve also been able to keep publicising our message. We’ve taken part in a fashion shoot at the Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots awards, appeared on BBC Songs of Praise and spoken at the UN Convention Framework on Climate Change in Bonn. We’ve also won more awards, including the Society of Biology Prize at the National Science and Engineering Finals. And we were filmed for the Zayad Future Energy Prize, presented at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

In the meantime, some of us have left school – the four founding members finished their A levels last summer so we’ve handed the project over to Year 9 students, but we’ll still be their mentors. It’s their project now, we want them to develop it – maybe see a bit of the world publicising it, like we have, because it’s been fun.

'People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid': Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford.
‘People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid’: Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Averil Stedeford

The first ethical awards in 2006 saw Averil Stedeford, now 82, win DIY Project of the Year after she helped pioneer ‘retro-greening’ through the transformation of her own 1950s semi-detached house

Winning the award kick-started a whole series of events. The local press heard about it and named me “Oxford’s green granny”, which was rather nice. I started having open days so people could see the house and there were so many visitors I had to get stewards to help. Professional architects also came, which flattered and delighted me no end. People were amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid, and they didn’t know that rainwater could be used to flush toilets and run the washing machine. I still come downstairs and think: “This is my house.” But a lot happens in 10 years. Since winning, I’ve had a stroke and, just recently, cancer – I have no plans for the future but to enjoy living here as long as I can. Awareness of eco homes has improved a lot since I won the award 10 years ago. I am pleased there are more grants available now for those who want to build them. In 2006 hardly anyone had heard of using organic paint or fleece for insulation and it was very expensive. Now it’s actually quite reasonable. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the turbine I’d planned to in the end, as they’re not very efficient in an urban setting, but everything I’ve installed has worked well without any problems. The sun heats up water in the solar panels so the boiler doesn’t have to work so hard. To make your home more eco-friendly you should insulate well. When the gas man came to read my meter, he said: “You don’t use much!” as if I was a very bad customer – I liked that.

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