Saturday, September 23, 2006

From a field in Sweden

Holiday-time but no air miles for us. Our green, lean, household policy means eco-friendly travel and holiday activities. Carbonlite went on a mission to find a suitable destination, poring over maps and becoming over-familiar with tourist information in a range of countries. He emerged triumphant from the bedroom he had turned into Holiday HQ, and thrust a map of Scandinavia in my direction. "Sweden", he announced, already there in his head. "What's in Sweden?" I asked, the only Swedish delights I could think of were ABBA and Sven. "Meatballs, saunas and blondes!" he said, folding the map, "and if we go by ferry - very low emissions."

We took the car as far as Newcastle with the bikes piled high on the roof - even these emissions Carbonlite found hard to offset in his conscience. But at least we weren't flying. Carbonlite tells me if carbon were rationed it's predicted a flight to New Zealand would emit as much carbon as our household for an entire year. Instead we would go by ferry, by bike and by canoe up the west coast of Sweden: a month of low-emission living.

But not exactly low-cost. Carbonlite choked on his beer when he found out how much it had cost on the ferry crossing. And as the Swedes and Norwegians settled in the restaurant, the English huddled in the bar while a giant furry parrot crooned "We are sailing" to the assembled crowd. We wondered if we'd be dining on crisps for breakfast when the eldest Carboncopy won the bingo during a break in the singing. We retired to our cramped cabin in steerage, looking forward to our smorgasbord the next morning.

As we cycled off the ferry, stuffed full of pickled herring and salami, we felt like we'd pedalled into a greener world. Family cycling wasn't a freakshow here, everyone was out and about on bikes. We crossed the city of Gothenburg without having to cross a road, on an intricate network of cycle paths. But we hadn't gone unnoticed: outside tourist information we were collared by the Press, doing a feature on tourism in the city. As Carbonlite bored them in pidgin Swedish about eco-travel, the photographer snapped away at us all on our bikes.

We made our way down the coast, pottering in and out of sandy bays, while local kids plunged from wooden jetties into the sea. On publication of the tourism feature we were greeted with enthusiasm by the Swedes, beers in hand that we couldn't afford, admiring the double-page spread of us on our "human-powered transport" as we travelled past.

In this country there was a definite pecking order: at the bottom of the pile was us Brits, with our low-value pound and bicycles. Then the Swedes, in their campervans with awnings the size of our house, and their smart Volvos. Then at the top, the Norwegians, cruising through in their yachts, rich on the profits of oil. While we were definitely the greenest, a touch of it may have been jealousy!

But we'd soon join the Norwegians on the Swedish lakes in our two big family-sized canoes. "Put the baby at the front", we were advised, "then if she goes overboard the person at the back can hook her out as they go past." Thankfully this was unnecessary, and much to my dismay I began to get hooked on this human-powered transport. It was peaceful and got air into my lungs and power into my muscles. I worried that the idyllic lifestyle there would have a negative impact on my life in the UK. If cycling and canoeing could get us around so cheaply, efficiently and environmentally soundly, would I feel obliged or pressured into ditching the car? (Carbonlite had already spent too much time hanging around chip shops discussing the benefits of alternative fuel.) I tried to sabotage the experience by getting a puncture or hoping for rain, but it was not to be. The roads, and the skies, were as clear as the beaches.

As we stopped for a lazy ice-cream and a swim one hot Saturday afternoon, a stream of people trooped out to ask where we were from. While now used to all the attention, even Carbonlite was surprised by the volume of enquiries. It was when several members of a wedding party came to ask about our nationality that we found out the source of their curiosity. On the back page of the weekend newspaper was a prize crossword, with a picture of us splashed across the centre. "What nationality are these cyclists who appeared in last week's edition?" one of the wedding party translated. "We thought you must be English", said the groom, "the Swedish prefer to drive around Sweden." He took his bride's hand, jumped into the silver wedding Volvo and sped off to a smorgasbord reception, leaving us to pedal on with zero emissions and a green, clean conscience.

Friday, September 22, 2006

How embarrassing?

I got caught out yesterday. I was out for a cycle with carbonbaby and running late to get back to pick the carboncopies up from school. What to do? No time to go home first so I decided to stop off and pick them up on my bike. So what?

Well, it's not exactly an ordinary bike. It's a tandem (you know a bike for two), with kiddy cranks on the back (so a kid can ride stoker and reach the pedals), and a child seat behind and a trailer tagging behind (well where else are you going to put baby?) Oh and it's bright yellow with a luminous flag and one of those bright orange sticks that pokes out into the road to force cars to keep well clear or be scratched.

OK, so it's a bit unusual and we look like a reincarnation of The Goodies but I like it. It's fun, practical and I can take the carboncopies and carbonbaby out and about without emitting any carbon. So what's so embarrassing?

Was I embarrassed? No, not really. I rode up, left the bike outside the school gates, grabbed carbonbaby from her trailer and went to collect the carboncopies as usual.

Were the kids embarrassed? No they seemed pleased to see 'Maizie' (their nickname for the corn coloured bike), dropped all their clobber over carbonbaby in her trailer, climbed up onto their seats and urged me to ride them home.

So what's this posting about then? Well, according to an anonymous source, one mum in the playground was seen pointing in our direction proclaiming, 'Look at that. How embarrassing.'

Well, I'm not sure I get it but maybe I should expect it for doing something a little bit out of the ordinary. It's disheartening though and another small barrier to change. It's hard enough changing habits and tweaking your lifestyle when people around are encouraging and supportive. But for many (perhaps even my dear washingqueen) even little comments like that can be enough to put them off trying.

Fortunately, I am of stronger stuff and Maizie will ride again. Cycling helps keeps us fit and carbon free, which probably can't be said for the mum in question. Now that's what I call embarrassing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lord of the flies

It all began with the bin. It was rather like an episode of the X files, the way the bin began to mutate and multiply. We started the week much as usual with our old familiar green wheelie bin, always identifiable by its smell of old nappies and stale pepperoni pizza, but by Friday it had spawned an entire alien bin species, all over the patio. Giant black plastic bins towering over blue squatting bins, dalek like compost bins dallying with dwarf bins, brightly coloured recycling bins clamouring for attention on the stone flags. Now while I'm fully aware that the plastic packaging on the kids toys could take the next four hundred and fifty years to biodegrade in landfill, and that my own household is personally responsible for a significant chunk of the 25 million tonnes of waste that we ferry to the dump each year, I hadn't realised that recycling it would be so bin intensive.

Carbonlite's campaign to transform our household practices had hardly got off the ground with the bins before the postman arrived with a jiffy bag full of worms, the beginners kit from Wiggly Wigglers to kick start the heap. Just what a girl needs to go with her Weetabix and semi skimmed. Needless to say building a suitable home for the worms was a man's job. The male variety of the Carboncopies jostled to help with the affordable housing scheme on the patio, while I looked on anxiously from the third floor window. Soon I got into the swing of compost creation, as the smart green mini bin by the sink saved me a good few trips to the wheelie bin. It happily swallowed up everything vegetable including the chard mountain in the fridge ( chard being the unwelcome visitor in the organic vegetable box. ) Egg boxes fitted nicely in there too, it was a pleasure to offload all the half masticated jam sandwiches. I even braved the worms in the main bin, closing my eyes and hoping the contents of the mini bin wouldn't end up missing their target and decorating my new pink pumps. I was proud of my efforts in food recycling, and felt it was a substantial start to my new role as planet protector. Admittedly it's a bit of a challenge given that we've only got a small yard with tiny flower beds and no lawn, and the compost bin is a central feature of the garden. I read my leaflet from CAT on the latest cold composting techniques and felt my eco-education was progressing nicely. But I knew my harmonious relationship with the natural world couldn't last.

When the weather warmed up the area by the sink became a hive of activity. Our country kitchen started to resemble a riverside camp in the Scottish Highlands as the midgies arrived in chard-hungry packs and began a sit-in in the mini bin. Then I was ambushed in a lunchtime raid. Expecting the usual placid encounter with a rotten pile of worm infested rubbish, I opened the patio compost bin and was bombed by an SAS midge flying squad. As I squealed and ran, the mini bin went flying into the air and deposited several rotten avocados and a load of swede peel onto the Wendy house roof. I sprinted round the garden as if a swarm of bees were at my tail, much to the amusement of Carbonlite, eating his lunch on the patio, copy of The Ecologist at hand to swat any flying beasties.
"Don't worry about the fruit flies, it means nature is doing her bit. But best not to empty it in the daytime I find," he advised, stabbing a cherry tomato with his fork.
"They vomit on everything and then suck it up again" I wailed. "Anyway how would you know? Have you actually once emptied the bin?"
"I put a load of toilet roll tubes in there yesterday," he said cheerfully. "Don't forget to put the lid back on will you, we don't want the worms to escape." I retreated to the downstairs toilet to empty the washing machine that resides there. Thankfully the room was still a bin free zone. But Carbonlite had other ideas. "I found one of the non disposable nappies rotting in the washing basket." I reassured him there was no way it could rot as I clear the washing basket every day. "We need a nappy bin," he said, delighted at the thought, and a ten minute debate ensued about the toxicity and concentration of babies' wee in a mixed wash. The result was the arrival of yet another bin, this time filled with water; perfect for a baby on the crawl. Now if the water butt doesn't drown her, she can go swimming in diluted urine. I took a recycled supermarket plastic bag full of rubbish out to the wheelie bin. There I found myself once more under attack, this time by mummy and baby fruit flies who had found a new home.

Carbonlite was by my side in a flash. "Ah well, if all the food waste was in the compost bin, then they wouldn't set their sights on that one would they?" Then I knew the answer, to get on the internet and order one last bin, tall, thin and husband-sized. It wasn't easy 'going green' but at last I was engaging with recycling!