Friday, March 31, 2006

A holiday in your own back yard

When I first mentioned the idea of holidaying in our own backyard, the washingqueen was none too impressed. "I'm not spending our Easter break sitting in the garden watching a community of composting worms devour our kitchen waste," she explained politely as she scraped dinner scraps into her new kitchen caddy. Of course she'd misunderstood me; what I meant was we should go local rather than heading off to Europe and running up tonnes of reckless holiday carbon emissions.

It took a couple of weeks for her to come around to the idea, a couple more weeks for us to figure out a plan, and now all that remains is a couple of weeks to execute it. We're lucky to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and for the next two weeks, we're reducing our emissions at home to zero and heading off to explore the area on our own home made low emission eco tour. We'll be posting details of the tour on our other website so if you want to know more follow this link.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The cabbage patch kid

It was two weeks ago last Monday when the house fell forbiddingly silent. It was the day the washingqueen finally got with the project and abandoned the utilities room. The atmosphere was strange that day without the comforting whirr of the spin cycle or the gentle rumble of the tumble dryer. At first I thought it might have been the start of a dirty protest. You know, "I'll save the planet all right, reduce our detergent consumption, save some electricity, reduce our water consumption and see how you like it when you run out of clean clothes." But it was nothing so sinister. No, the washingqueen had organised a visit to Howbarrow organic farm to get some advice on going organic and find out about their box delivery scheme.

She came back all fired up, raving about the merits of organic production and of how it was good for us (healthy fruit and veg grown without pesticides), good for the environment (fewer food miles, more food for insects, healthier soil), and good for the community (supporting local farmers and keeping money in the community). I couldn't find a flaw in her argument so welcomed the announcement that Howbarrow were going to add us to their growing list of customers.

The first box arrived on the doorstep about ten days later and it wasn't just the kids who had difficulty identifying some of the contents. "What are those thin little muddy orange things?" asked our eldest boy. "Oh they're organic carrots," explained the washingqueen. "But why are they muddy?" asked the youngest. And so began the story of how carrots grow under ground and an educational journey which I'm sure will touch us all over the coming weeks and months. The washingqueen and I are already committed to finding recipes for chard and alfafa sprouts, just two items that would not normally find their way into our kitchen but are already sitting on the shelf waiting for a suitable recipe. Your suggestions welcome.

It has to be said that the vegetables that we recognised and cooked were delicious, although I quickly became concerned about the small portion sizes. I queried this with the washinqueen after she transformed a large green cabbage into just four small servings. "Oh," she said, "once you'd peeled off the outer leaves there was hardly anything there."

Later that evening, I emptied the days food waste into our new compost bin and served our growing community of worms a delicious meal of 16 fresh green organic cabbage leaves. I sensitively broached this issue with the washingqueen a little later, applauding her for supporting the worms and querying the amount of leaf peeling necessary in preparing a cabbage. Turns out she'd never prepared a cabbage before but then neither have I. We both agreed we could probably save a few more leaves next time, but I'm not sure the worms will be happy about that.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Getting out of the habit

My obsession with our energy consumption, carbon emissions and our household footprint may be good for the planet but it's not so good for my relationship with the washingqueen. Over the past weeks I've become ultra sensitive to all emission creating actions and I have to admit it's pretty irritating; it irritates me so goodness knows what it's like for her.

Now I think we've done quite well over the past six weeks in making some pretty obvious (and probably long overdue) changes to our household arrangements - like switching to a renewable electricity supply, installing energy efficient light-bulbs, getting our doors and windows draught proofed, setting up a cold composting bin for kitchen waste and installing flow restrictors and water hippos to reduce water consumption. It's all moving things in the right direction, reducing our footprint and emissions, but I know it's not going to be enough to keep things moving in the ever downward direction that's required by this experiment in the long term.

So that's why I've started looking at the little things, the small everyday actions we take that waste energy, that are probably insignificant on each occassion but add up over the weeks, months and years to make a big difference to our emissions and footprint. And judging by early reactions, I think it's changing the thousand little habits that's going to be the tougher nut to crack. We're talking about little things that are so deeply habitual that we probably don't even notice we're doing them anymore. Until someone like me starts mentioning it every time you do it.

Little things like leaving the microwave door open after heating something up.... which also leaves a little 40W bulb burning pointlessly for an hour or two. Or boiling a pan of vegetables with the gas on full and no lid on.... superheating the kitchen and turning it into a Turkish bath. Or filling the kettle to the brim to make a cup of tea, then forgetting to make the tea, then boiling it again, making the tea, forgetting to drink it and starting all over again.

Now I'm just as guilty as the washingqueen at doing some of these things but my internal nagging has been quite effective at helping me change my habits, at least some of the time. But the nagging is not working so well with her. Probably something to do with the fact I nag myself quietly while I remind her out loud several times a day. It's probably another habit I've developed which I'm going to need to change. If I don't there'll be little chance of saving our marriage let alone saving the planet. For the sake of my marriage and the planet, let's hope habits can be changed.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Food glorious food.

Carbonlite got his knickers in a twist, ranting on about how this was a joint project and all I've done is put up barriers to it. So I resolved to sort out the food part. "Where are you off to so early this morning?" he asked as I loaded the baby into the car. "To the supermarket." I replied. "Don't forget to take some plastic bags." he reminded me. "You don't want more to end up in landfill as a result of your careless consumerism." I went back into the house for my purse and some milk for the baby, and chucked it all into my car, forgetting about the bags.

In the supermarket car park the baby was crying and the three year old demanding a lollipop. I looked in the back of the car for the carriers. Damn. I scrabbled around in the boot and found an old bin bag that smelt of sour milk. It was the best I could do, and I felt quite proud that I was saving the planet before I'd even had my breakfast.

"Shop local," I repeated to myself as I tried to find anything in the produce counter that was from England. "Tomatoes; Spain, Gibraltar. Bananas; Dominican Republic. Don't we grow anything anymore in this country?" Even the organic range had flown halfway round the world to be there. The three year old took advantage of my dithering over the prepackaged sprouts, and hid under the produce section. It took ten minutes of panicked trolley dash around the store, and the 'seeking' involvement of a sixteen year old who had to be interrupted while marking down satsumas (Spain) before the three year old ended his game.

At the checkout, there was a boy scout helping to pack. "It's ok, I've got my own bags....well bag." I said, casually wafting the bin bag around. "You can go for a cup of tea if you like, take a break." The boy looked at me pitifully, then ripped a handful of bags off the bag tree and began stuffing my shopping in them. Not wanting to cause a scene, I stood beside him, transferring things around from bag to bag, taking this surrepticiously out of his and putting it into mine, then trying to jam the extra bags back onto the tree. The smell of rancid milk began to permeate the checkout area. While I paid, the scout began trying to bring some kind of order back to the bag tree. I left without leaving him a tip, the three year old screaming for the promised lollipop that was now at the bottom of the sorry black bag.

At home I lugged the black bag and a couple of stuffed new carrier bags into the hall, then made countless trips for the extra items that I'd shoved into the boot loose. Carbonlite came in and surveyed the scene. "I counted thirty bags the other day. Why the hell have you brought home more." "Its only two." I answered, hurt that he would criticise after I'd gone through so much faffing. "So it's fine that two more bags rot in the ground for a hundred years is it?" I shot him one of my blackest looks before answering, "Your fruit and veg are from Spain, Gibraltar and the Carribean. They contain so many carbon airmiles that I wouldn't bother fretting about the packaging. Next time I'm getting it all delivered." Then I stormed out and went upstairs to sulk.

What a waste

The washingqueen thinks I've lost it. She caught me weighing bin bags the other day and then freaked when I put a large bucket by the sink and told her it was for collecting food waste for a worm bin. I don't think my behaviour is unreasonable given the global and local problems of household waste but perhaps two months of trying to think more greenly is starting to show.

According to DEFRA households in England managed to recycle just 23% of their waste in 2004/5. This is a figure to be ashamed of, even though it represents a four fold improvement in our collective performance over just four years. But it is still one of the worst rates in Europe where households in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands manage up to 64%.

But the UK government has big ambitions for us and has set a bold target - to reach 25% by 2005/6. Surely we can do better than that? Recycle Now reckons 60% should be achievable for most UK households.

Anyway I figured if the government has a household waste strategy and targets then why shouldn't we? Hence the weighing in. And the results? In a fortnight our household generated 41kg of waste, 11kg (27%) of which was recycled kerbside (bottles, glass, paper), another 6.5kg (16%) of which we recycled ourselves (cardboard and plastic) by taking to a recycling centre, giving a bottom line of 43% recycled. I felt quite good about that for a while until I put it the other way around i.e 57% not recycled.

So we're going to try and reverse those figures, and my number one target is food waste. Hence the bucket. Our kerbside scheme prohibits food waste, so we're going to compost it. Now that's a bit of a challenge given that we've only got a small, yard like garden with tiny flower beds and no lawn but then that's no different to millions of urban dwellings. And there are people out there promoting interesting solutions for urban composting. So, I've got my leaflet from CAT on the latest cold composting techniques, ordered myself a subsidised compost bin through Recycle Now and organised a starter kit of worms from Wiggly Wigglers to kick start the heap.

The boys are looking forward to a parcel of worms arriving. I'm not sure what the washingqueen will make of it when it arrives addressed to her but I'm not going to let her wriggle out of this one.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fruit and fibre

I became suspicious that carbonlite had sneaked some of his water saving 'hedgehogs' into the upstairs loo without telling me. After accusations were bandied about, it turns out that he'd merely cleaned the toilet. Well that's a first. "You're the most reluctant environmental campaigner I've ever met," said Carbonlite in frustration. He rummaged about in the cleaning cupboard and pulled out a large dirty black bucket, which he put next to the sink. "What's that for?" I asked pleasantly, reluctant to give him any further ammunition. "It's for the food waste. We to put everything in there, then once a week take it out to the worm bin. I assume you don't want the worm bin in the kitchen?" he said. I shuddered before replying, "but we haven't any worms. Or a bin to put them in." I was stopped from any further protestations by great excitement from the hallway.

"There's a dalek on our front doorstep," called the five year old. "Can we go out and see it?" The shadow of the dalek fell across the room as Carbonlite and I shoved each other out of the way to get to the front door. My partner's smile mometarily banished the shadow. "I'd better get out the back and dig up the paving stones," he hummed happily, "anyone coming?" "Is the dalek coming too," the boys shouted, putting their wellies on the wrong feet in all the excitement. Carbonlite noticed the confusion on my face about ripping up the patio. "The worms have to get in and out of the bin. In case the stuff inside ever gets toxic. Then they can escape for a while and come back when it's all calmed down." I didn't answer, I was too busy wondering if I could do the same. "By the way, the worms will be arriving in the post, shouted Carbonlite, as he lugged the bin through the house. "Now I know you're having me on." I replied, getting back to scraping food into the new black bucket.

When I went out later, Carbonlite had found a place for the dalek. "The children can just about squeeze their bikes around it. And we'll put the water butt over here." I had a momentary panic attack about a drowning incident involving our six month old toddler, but put it to the back of my mind and went inside. The dalek was concealed from view by the Wendy House and I knew Carbonlite was joking about the worms. Time to clean up that dirty old bucket.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dim and dimmer

With spring almost in the air, the bulbs in the garden are showing signs of life. The same unfortunately cannot be said for some of those in the house. I've adopted a policy of not replacing any blown bulbs until I can find an energy efficient replacement. Now that's been pretty easy for those standard bayonet fitting bulbs but a nightmare when it comes to the spotlight reflectors, globes, candles and halogen bulbs that inhabit the myriad light fittings left as an energy inefficient legacy by the previous owners of this carbon spewing property. There's a growing pile of these sitting on my desk awaiting further research.

It took me days of research to find a low energy replacement for an innocent little MR16 halogen bulb that blew the other week. I finally managed to locate an LED powered replacement that claimed to be equivalent to a 20W MR16 but consuming only 4W of power. Price £16 compared to about £2 for a normal one. Ouch! But they say they last 50 times longer and save you leccy so you'll be quids in after a couple of years use. I wondered if it would be worth the wait but in the interests of science decided to give it a try.

The results were very dissappointing. Sitting in the living room began to feel like camping with a headtorch to read by. This kind of LED technology is developing fast and a bulb like this would be great with a narrow beam for spot features but there's still a way to go before it can do the work of a 50W halogen flood. So for the moment, it looks like I either stick with my £2 bright and beautiful energy guzzling halogens or rip out all the fittings and install something more efficient instead in my living room, bathroom and toilet.

The more I look at our big old house from a carbon consumption perspective, the more bits of it seem like a carbon guzzling legacy from a time when no-one gave a monkeys about energy efficiency. It doesn't seem to matter what aspect of our emissions we focus on there's only so much we can do quickly and easily before we bump up against problems of infrastructure or legacy installations which limit our options. Taking things further then means tougher decisions involving substantial investments of time, money and effort to make the house more climate friendly. And I'm left wondering are we up for it, can we afford and is it worth it? The thing is to make the kind of cuts the experts say we need to make to avoid catastrophic climate change there is not really a 'can't afford it' option. If that's right then sooner or later we're all going to have to face these tough decisions. It's enough to make denial seem an attractive option.