ENERGY

12 Easy-Peasy Things You Can Do At Home To Lower Your Energy Consumption

As a global population, we use more than three times the energy we used 50 years ago. And despite (in fact, in spite of) efficiency gains, we are increasing our energy usage by 2.4% per year. For perspective, 100 years ago the growth rate was 1%. Most of this energy goes into three sectors. Taking UK energy use as an example for developed countries, the biggest energy eaters are transport 38%, domestic 28%, and industry 16%. And it should come as no surprise that a whopping 83% of all this energy is powered by fossil fuels. (All stats are from There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee).

Now this blog is about taking control of the things you can and petitioning and voting with your feet for the things you can’t. And this is where the whole “change starts at home” is a bit of a struggle for me. I live in Italy. I’ve been here a year. I’m still not fluent in the language. I don’t plan on staying long (don’t get me started on why!) and when it comes to doing anything involving large governmental or semi-governmental bodies, utilities or the like it’s virtually impossible to get anything done, especially without Italian fluency. However, there are some green energy providers here in Italy and I’m currently looking at how I can make the switch. More news on that later.

What I want to focus on with this post is easy ways to save energy at home. You may have heard of some or all of these before, but it’s still worth repeating.

  1. Goldilocks Warm
    Heating your home accounts for almost half of its total carbon footprint. Turn down the thermostat during the winter and wrap up in a blanket when watching TV or reading a book. And make sure you close your curtains to keep the heat in. Turn down – or off – the heating in rooms you rarely use, like spare bedrooms.
  2. Stay Cool
    I’ve never had air con in my home before. Until I moved to Northern Italy. My indoor temperature peaked at 34ºC last summer. I have an air-con unit in my bedroom and I tried, for as long as possible, not to use it. But I did finally cave after a week of disturbed, sweaty sleep. However, I only used it for an hour at night to cool my bedroom down. I closed the door, shut the curtains and let the room cool down before creeping into bed – no covers necessary. Another good tip is to draw the curtains (and shutters if you have them) all day and hang wet towels in front of the windows. Get used to cold showers, too.
  3. Mood Lighting
    Unless I’m reading or working, I have few lights on in my living room. I also turn all lights off once I’ve left a room. I use bee’s wax candles quite often, too, completely eliminating the need for electric lighting.
  4. Switch Up
    They’re called energy-saving appliances for a reason. While I wouldn’t advise just ditching an appliance just to get a more energy efficient one, if you need a new microwave or kettle always make sure you get the most energy efficient version. And always, always, use LED lights.
  5. Keep It Covered
    When cooking, especially when boiling water, always put a lid on the pain. The liquid will boil faster, using less energy.
  6. Don’t Over Fill It
    Don’t put more water in the kettle than you need. My kettle is always popping a fuse, proof that there’s a lot of power in that thing. Don’t use more than you need.
  7. Unplug It
    Yes, even if it’s on standby, you should unplug all appliances that aren’t in active use (you can’t very well unplug your fridge-freezer). But you can unplug your modem and TV.
  8. Before You Throw It In The Wash
    Make two piles, or rather one pile, one rack: the pile for the truly dirty stuff and the rack where worn clothes that aren’t really dirty can air out. If you can hang them outside then all the better.
  9. Hang It
    I don’t actually have a tumble dryer but even when I did, I never used it. Buy yourself a drying rack and use that instead.
  10. Waste Not Want Not
    This applies to everything. Turn off taps and lights. Time yourself in the shower and see how fast you can be. Use draught excluders at doors and windows. Wash dishes and clothes in cool water when possible. Close the fridge door when you’ve taken out what you need. Let food cool naturally before you put it in the fridge. Use the oven window to look at your food, don’t open the door to do so. Use the right sized hob ring for the pan. Don’t have the heating on while the windows are open.
  11. Maintain Your Appliances
    Your fridge, for example, needs to be regularly defrosted and given enough space to allow air to circulate. Failure to do these two things will lead to inefficiency. And get your boiler checked annually for the same reason. And if something breaks, fix it, don’t replace it.
  12. Time It
    Put everything on a timer. Your heating doesn’t need to be on all night. It can go off an hour before bed and come on an hour before you get up. The same for charging of your phone and laptop. Newer models only need an hour or two to fully charge. They don’t need all night.
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FOOD

Got Milk? The Truth About Our Non-Dairy Alternatives

Bees, they’re humble little things. But, wow, are they hard workers. When I was younger, I used to read while sunbathing in the garden, a garden that was full of flowering plants. There were flying, buzzing things everywhere. At the time I consigned all flying insects – bees, wasps, flies – into the same pot of irritation. Now I know this was unfair. While those pesky flies were creeping up my thighs tiptoeing across my face, each little bee was busy pollinating.

Bees make around 12 trips from the hive each day and visit 50-100 flowers in one outing. Their importance for pollination is unimaginable. Honey bees pollinate a third of our food. Contrary to popular belief, however, they don’t pollinate everything. Grains and cereals – some 60% of the world’s food – for example, are pollinated naturally through the wind. But they do pollinate a lot of fruit, vegetables and nut-growing plants. Currently the economic loss of bees as pollinators is estimated to be around 8%. But seeing as we have to switch to more non-animal sources of food, particularly protein, as we move forward the role of bees can’t be underestimated. I’m putting aside the fact that we shouldn’t just look at bees for their economic value. The countryside would be dull, monotonous and homogenous without them and we’d be responsible for yet another mass extinction in the animal kingdom.

When it comes to almond farming, however, bees are vitally important. Almonds are grown on trees. These trees have beautiful white flowers and, guess what, they need to be pollinated by bees. According to Nielsen, between 2013 and 2018, sales of almond milk in the US have grown 250% to reach $1.2bn – four times the value of any other plant-based milk. California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, and the global almond milk market was worth $5.2 billion in 2018*2 and growing fast. That’s a lot of money, particularly for just one state in one country. And bees have been paying the price.

Colony collapse is a word that’s been in the news more and more over the past two years. But most recently I read about the massive extent of this terrible genocide in a The Guardian*3 article about almond milk – the jewel in every vegan’s crown.

According to the article, “50 billion bees – more than seven times the world’s human population – were wiped out in a few months during winter 2018-19. This is more than one-third of commercial US bee colonies, the highest number since the annual survey started in the mid-2000s.”

The reasons behind this are unclear. I’d guess it has something to do with the intensity of modern mono-culture farming and the loss of biodiversity that comes with it, as well as the increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides not to mention we are commercialising to the point of mass efficiency/break down of growing plants – something that nature definitely doesn’t rush.

So far, almond plantations haven’t felt the pinch. But US bee keepers are struggling. And, of course, bees are being killed off in their millions because of what we’re doing. According to The Guardian article, some farmers are losing 30% of their bees each pollinating season.

So what can we do? We could all cut down on our consumption of almond milk for starters. There are plenty of other alternatives, each with their own set of pros on cons. It is worth pointing out at this stage, that all plant-based milks have lower carbon footprints than dairy milk. An article in Science, states that a glass of dairy milk results in nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk and producing it requires nine times more land than any non-dairy milk alternative*4.

So what are the alternatives?

Coconut – intensively farmed in monocultures, workers are often exploited, it’s high in fat but low in protein

Almond – intensively farmed in monocultures, stresses bees with knock-on effect of colony collapse, high in vitamin E and low in fast

Rice – growing rice actually produces a lot of CO2 as well as methane emissions (not dairy level, but rice milk has the biggest carbon footprint at the cultivation level of any plant-based milk) and it doesn’t have much nutritional value

Hazelnut – not resource intensive and are pollinated by the wind, still quite expensive, it’s usually sweetened and doesn’t have much nutritional value

Hemp and Flex Seed – still relatively small scale so their expensive with not much in terms of nutritional value, but don’t negatively effect biodiversity

Soy – high in protein and other nutrients but it’s grown on massive monocultures (more on this in a later post)

Oat – similar pros and cons to soy but less protein and generally grown in areas with better supply chains, though still monocultures

There is no perfect solution. I generally mix things up depending on whether I want a ‘milk’ for cooking or drinking, in tea/coffee or to make some other ‘milky’ drink (I love a golden latte in the morning). While I was living in Sweden I saw, first-hand, the rise of Oatley and I think what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is impressive. Plus, it just tastes better than other oat milks. Here in Italy I opt for soy as it’s most readily available. But this is also because I’m trying to get my protein levels up. I’d say, go with what works best for you and what you enjoy most, but be prepared to give other alternatives a try.

For more detailed information, I’d recommending reading this article from The Guardian, who generally publish well-balanced and well-researched articles on many aspects of sustainable living.

  1. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2018/a-showdown-in-the-us-milk-aisle-continued-at-the-end-of-july/
  2. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/almond-milk-market
  3. https://www.theguardiacom/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
  4. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987
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FASHION

A Fashion Reality Check

A typical Monday morning coffee-break catch-up with a good friend of mine goes something like this.

“Hey, how are you? How was your weekend?”
“Good, thanks. Yeah, it was nice. Took it easy really.” (She says this most Monday mornings.)
“What did you get up to, then?”
“I had lunch with XXX then wandered around town. Oh I bought a new top.”
“The one you’re wearing? I haven’t seen that one before.”
“Nah, this one is old. I got it last year. No, it’s a metallic top (of which she has many) from Zara (her favourite haunt).”

I appreciate this friend. She is a good person. I don’t want to judge her, but I inevitably do. I can’t believe she buys at least one new item of clothing every week. She has great style and a wardrobe of eclectic looks that somehow all manage to be very her. She looks fantastic, always. But her consumption of fast fashion is completely unsustainable. But she, like millions of other people, is blissfully unaware of the massive, spider-web spreading impacts of the fashion industry.

So, before I write any articles on material choice, the pros and cons of one fabric over the other etc, I thought I should state some very fundamental facts about garment production and its impacts.

How much?
The average American shopper buys 53 items of clothing per year – pretty much one per week. In the UK, although a little more reserved compared to shoppers across the pond, consumers purchase 33 items per year*1. And these numbers have been growing. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled and consumers bought, on average, 60% more garments each year*2. And it’s not even that we’re becoming a population of clothes hoarders – though, even if we were that’s not a good thing, either. In fact, we are buying more stuff, for less money and discarding more of it.

Waste A Minute…
According to the UN, a rubbish lorry of textiles is burned or dumped in landfill every single second*3. That’s 86,400 lorry loads a day. The fashion industry is currently accountable for 10% of all CO2 emissions globally – more than flying and shipping combined – and if nothing changes it will “use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget” by 2050*3.

Where did it all go wrong? Well, let’s say somewhere in between the mass production of the 1950s and the moving offshore of production in the 1980s. With improvements in technology, increases in shipping speeds with a simultaneous reducing in costs, the abundance of cheap Asian labour, the mass roll-out of commercial flying, higher living standards and the rise of modern advertising the face of fashion changed.

In the 1970s, household spending on clothing was around 13% of annual income.  In 2015 it was just 3%. And don’t be fooled into thinking we buy fewer items now. The contrary is true, in fact. In the 1930s, women had just nine outfits. Today, we have at least 30*4.

Why have just seven dresses if you can now afford 14? And, of course, you need a new pair of shoes and a new jacket for each dress. And on and on it goes. Why repair that sweater, darn that sock, stich that hem when you can just go and buy a brand spanking new one with way less effort? More money has made us lazy. It’s also made us loose our appreciation for quality. We’re no longer attached to our products because we know we can just buy new ones. Because everything is cheaper, we value things less.

IN OR UN VALUABLE?
When I was 13 or so, I saved up all money from a regular Saturday night babysitting gig to buy a new pair of shoes. They cost almost a month’s worth of earnings, but I adored them. Treasured them. I would brush them off and keep them clean. I used my mum’s polish to maintain their shine. I had those shoes for years, until, eventually, after a couple of resolings, the left heel finally gave up the ghost.

My point is, when we invest in things we look after them. We value them for more than a jacket or a pair of jeans. They are things that make us feel good, that take us places, that are part of memories made.

On the other hand, we have little or no emotional connection to most fast fashion garments. Or at least that’s what the figures seem to represent.

According to a report in Forbes, we wear a typical high-street fashion item just five times and keep it for a mere 35 days. If we were to keep that item – and use it 50 times – for an entire year it would result in 400% less carbon emissions (per item, per year) *5.

But the extent of the fashion industry’s impact is far more wide reaching than mere CO2 emissions. 70 billion barrels of oil are used each year to make polyester*5. The fashion industry produces 20% of the world’s wastewater*3 and it’s the second biggest polluter of freshwater sources*5. Plastic microfibres from synthetic clothing account for 85% of human-made material found along our coastlines*7. More than 70 million trees are cut down each year to make rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell. Cotton farming uses 24% of the world’s insecticides, 11% of its pesticides but occupies just 3% of the world’s arable land. Oh, and it takes 20,000 litres to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That’s roughly 66 bathtubs worth.

Reading this back, I’m shocked. And this isn’t news to me. But when you put it all together in one essay of black on white it my heads falls into my hands. Whether or not you believe in human-induced climate change (though by reading this blog I presume you do), you can’t shy away from the fact that what we’re doing is just downright crazy: polluting our rivers, lakes and streams; throwing stuff away that’s virtually new; cutting down forests for clothing while on the other side of the planet planting trees for ‘forest bathing’; spending money on stuff we don’t really need or even get that much pleasure from.

So then you try and do something about it. You buy into ‘sustainable fashion’ brands. Patagonia tells you one minute about its recycled polyester t-shirts that take plastic out of landfill to one newsletter later telling you to grab some quick deals on their sale. H&M pushes its ‘conscious collection’ but renews product lines every two weeks – if that’s not fast fashion then I don’t know what is. It’s actively encouraging young people to buy new stuff. And yes, 57% of their materials are recycled or sustainably sourced (more on this later)*7. Well done H&M. But that still means that 43% aren’t and seeing as you’re the second biggest fashion retailer in the world by volume, that’s a lot of tonnes of raw materials.

A question I’d like to answer, is whether a fashion, no wait, whether any company selling physical stuff, can truly be sustainable? Swedish brand Haglöfs shares its unique and honest positioning on its website:

There is no such thing as a sustainable outdoor brand. No matter how good our intentions are, we always leave a footprint. It could be from the chemical composition of a material, the working conditions in a factory or the effect production and transport have on the climate.*8 

They then go on to kind of contradict themselves when they say that yes, actually a sustainable outdoor industry is possible. A bit weird. But I kind of get where they’re going. Right now the industry isn’t sustainable. But with massive customer education, renting, circular business thinking and so on it could be. So long as we only buy stuff we really need, rent stuff we kind of need and don’t produce things we don’t need.

  1. https://www.commonobjective.co/article/volume-and-consumption-how-much-does-the-world-buy
  2. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula
  3. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/putting-brakes-fast-fashion
  4. https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/news
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#11ebe4ee79e4
  6. https://www.newstandardinstitute.org/
  7. https://about.hm.com/content/dam/hmgroup/groupsite/documents/masterlanguage/CSR/reports/2018_Sustainability_report/HM_Group_SustainabilityReport_2018_%20FullReport.pdf
  8. https://www.haglofs.com/gb/en-gb/sustainability/its-possible/
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FOOD

Cheesy Nightmares

Melted, hard, soft, blue, goats, sheeps, mature, fresh – I could write a love song about cheese. From cheese and pickle on toast as my after-school snack to bottles of red wine and round-the-world cheese boards, I simply adore cheese in all its forms. And living in Italy has only deepened my love affair. I mean, burrata… just wow!

However, I was shocked to learn this year that dairy farming has the fourth biggest CO2 footprint of all our food protein sources, right after beef, lamb and crustaceans (p24 There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee).

I gave up meat several years ago, fish and seafood last year. I thought on the food front I was doing pretty well. Clearly not. Pork, poultry, eggs and even farmed fish pose less of a climate impact than dairy farming. So why am I still eating cheese?

It’s not just because I love it. Because I also love fish. I long for sushi. I reminisce about the smell of chicken tikka masala. And I grew up eating Cumberland sausages and they still have a special place in my heart. I choose to give all these things up because of the impact farming has on the environment and because I wasn’t altogether happy with the way we treat and kill farm animals. I’m not against eating animals, per se. But I do take issue with the conditions they live and die in. But that’s a whole other story. Let’s stick to the climate part here.

A couple of years ago I gave up all animal products (except honey). No eggs, yoghurt, milk or cheese. I switched to beans, peas, lentils and mountains of green vegetables. I fought mind over matter to make this switch, giving up things I loved. But my stomach fought back. I wasn’t eating many carbohydrates, you see. And my protein and fat intake were also pretty low. I became pretty ill. My stomach started to reject almost anything I put in it. I was severely inflamed. I had no energy. My intestines were revolting, in both definitions of the word. I sought help from a dietician who actually put me back on chicken and fish to get my stomach back in order. I had to eat lots of healthy fat, fish oil and vegetables, but limit the pulses. I also had to start eating dairy again. I needed gut-bacteria yoghurt, blue cheese, hard and mature cheese and eggs. So it all seeped back into my diet. My fridge was no longer a green forest. It was a dairy counter. And I have to say, I enjoyed it. And so did my stomach. I got healthy; felt more positive and less bloated. I had energy again.

Last year I removed the fish and chicken, as well as yoghurt. But I still enjoy poached eggs on crumpets, cow’s milk in my tea and cheese with my red wine. Should I feel guilty? I make cutbacks in other areas, so surely this allows me some luxuries?

Where am I going with this? I guess my point here is about balance. I need to balance my morals – not eating cheese for the planet’s sake – with my own wants – I do love cheese. I need to ask myself whether I can balance good behaviour with bad. We all need to make these choices. And we need to be harder on ourselves. We can’t just say, “well, I love it so I’m going to carry on doing it”. What it you loved driving up and down the same steep hill in your diesel-powered, 4-wheel drive car 20 times every day just for fun? That’s pure madness. And this is the issue. Until we accept that many of today’s everyday actions are tomorrow’s madness nothing will change.

So in the spirit of change. I am giving up cheese except for on special, “treat” occasions. And I challenge you to see what things you can move to the “treat” box. Because the whole point I want to make with this blog is that, generally speaking, it’s enough to reduce. We don’t necessarily have to eradicate. OK, some things we do need to eradicate – like digging more fossil fuels out of the ground. But if everyone just cut back on luxuries, then there’d be very few things we’d have to actually eradicate.

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TRAVEL

Choo Choo: All Aboard The Green Train

Some people say train travel is romantic. They clearly haven’t travelled on a fully-packed night train at Christmas. Overtired babies, irritable children, blocked toilets and snow drifts bringing everything to a halt can really test your patience. However, while I don’t think train travel is romantic, if everything runs smoothly – and quietly – it is convenient and can be extremely scenic. Just remember to take ear plugs, hand sanitiser and extra toilet paper. And a fully-charged reserve of patience.

The beauty of train travel is that you can go to sleep as you leave one city and wake up in the centre of another several hours later. And I do mean sleep; you lie flat in a half-comfortable bunk bed; not like economy class on a plane – I still haven’t managed to sleep comfortably sitting up. What about you?

The other reasons I love trains are reserved for daytime travel. You can gaze with curious eyes as the scenery unfurls on the other side of the window. You can listen to music, listen to other people’s conversations, read a book, watch a film on your phone, work on your laptop, daydream and transport yourself into another place entirely, almost all at once. It’s the only real way to multi-task successfully.

I’ve been travelling by train since I was a teenager, and on sleeper trains for the past decade. I’ve travelled across India, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy by train. I’ve never (until recently) owned a car so I’ve commuted by train, visited friends by train, accessed hiking trails and ski resorts by train.

In the early years this was because I had very little money and couldn’t afford a car. It had more to do with price and convenience. Then I lived in well-connected cities London, Sydney and Stockholm, full of public transport and where cars were more of a nuisance and a hassle.

However in the past five years or so, I’ve travelled by train to reduce my impact on Planet Earth.

According to figures from Defra in the UK, the average per-person emissions from a long-haul flight are 102g per kilometre. By rail, it’s just 41g/km. More efficient trains, like the Eurostar, emit just 6g of CO2 per person per kilometre. While it’s true some planes are better than others and some trains are worse than others, the overwhelming truth is that travelling by train is less impactful on the environment.

Cars are more problematic. It depends on the age, size, efficiency, fuel and driving style, not to mention that fine balance of filling it with people but not so much that it gets too heavy and emits more CO2. But using those same Defra figures, a one-person journey in a diesel car emits 171g of CO2 per person per kilometre – more than air travel. If there are four people in that car, however, the per person rate goes down to 43g, comparable to that of a regular, not-so-efficient train.

It’s not always possible to travel by train, but when time allows and when your destination is a city (especially if you’re not leaving the continent) then rail travel is, on average, the best way to go.

Here are my hard-earned insights for getting the most out of long train journeys:

1. Book in advance to get the best rate. And always make a seat reservation, even on short connections.
2. Allow plenty of time for transfers. Don’t just go on what the app/website schedule says. I once missed a Deutsche Bahn night train connection in Hamburg because my Danska Bahn train from Denmark was delayed. Because long-distance, multi-country journeys are with a variety of train networks, one train won’t wait for the arrival of another. Even if you book a through-journey with your local agent, if one train is so delayed that you miss the next, that’s your problem and you generally have to re-book. At quiet times this isn’t usually an issue. But at Christmas… Well, let’s just say it’s always better to have more time than you think you need.
3. Research your route options on a map. Sometimes train companies won’t give you the best/shortest route. They’ll show you a route that minimises congestion, even during low-peak periods. Be prepared to get creative on your own.
4. Although many trains sell food or have on-board restaurants, I still advise taking your own food and water. And always carry some local currency if you need to buy snacks. In some countries, cash is still king.
5. Take ear plugs. Trust me on this. You’ll appreciate them on night trains.
6. For the best night’s sleep (i.e. with minimum disturbance), sleep on the top bunk. You usually get more baggage storage too, as there’s a shelf over the door.
7. Remember a lock. Most people on trains are honest and friendly. But you don’t want to risk your stuff getting pinched while you’re power napping. Lock your stuff and put valuables in bags around your body or under your feet.
8. Talk to your neighbours. Aside from maybe learning a thing or two and making a new connection, if you need to go to the toilet, you can then ask them to keep an eye on your stuff.
9. Be patient and don’t get frustrated if things take longer than expected and if there are delays and missed connections. It’s all part of the adventure. If you do get nervous, speak to the conductor and make them aware of the fact you have a connection to make. Quite often, other travellers are in the same position.
10. Be kind to fellow train travellers. Help people on and off trains if they need it and keep music, phone chat and phone notifications to a lower volume.

On my most recent journey, from a ski resort in Austria back to Milan in Italy, I travelled with ÖBB, Austria’s national train network. The last-minute booking cost €89 for the nine-hour journey to Milan. And according to their app (which is good, by the way), I saved 121.9kg of CO2 compared with doing the same journey by car. Plus, according to Via Michelin, this journey by car would take anyway between 6 and half and eight and a half hours and cost between €70 and €115 for tolls and fuel. So even aside from the climate benefits I’m not losing any money and I’m definitely winning on the hassle front.

I can’t do all my journeys by train. Northern Italy is not the best place for a climber, hiker and snowboarder to get around by public transport. But every car journey I can swap for a train journey and every car journey I can carpool poses a lower impact on the planet.

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