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The older and wiser recyclers

June 1, 2010

A survey by a Swedish supplier of recycling bins to the UK suggests that the section of the population most likely to recycle are older, married women.

The Daily Telegraph, which reported the poll, quoted a Women’s Institute representative who explained that this is down to the sense of responsibility to the planet and the next generation that comes with being a mother.

She could have added that some WI members have experienced the rationing of wartime and its immediate aftermath, which engendered a frugality and aversion to waste which has stayed with them.  The WI itself emerged in the UK through the need to produce more food during the First World War, at a time when little remotely edible would have been consigned to the bin.

One would imagine a father, too, would have a sense of responsibility.  But maybe there is something about being a female that causes a greater desire to recycle.  Perhaps it’s down to superior empathy.

As for why statistics show that married couples recycle more than singletons, it could be down to the female influence again.  There’s also the sharing of what is an irksome duty: the single person could be less inclined to clean out his empty tuna tin, having had to shop, cook and do the washing up all on his own.

Other studies have revealed that affluent people recycle more than the less well-off.  Presumably allowances are made for the fact that the better-off would consume more and therefore have more to recycle.  The poorer, ethnic minority communities have particularly low recycling rates. 

While for those whose lives can be difficult recycling is low on the list of priorities, for others recycling is not about choice, awareness or social circumstances but mere practicalities.  If you live in the sticks and don’t recycle every last bit of glass, tin and paper it’s probably due not to lack of motivation but of facilities.

It is hard to see today’s younger generation being as frugal or affluent when they are in their 70s as today’s pensioners.  So recycling would need to be made easier, and there would have to be sticks as well as carrots in the form of passing on the costs of collections, incineration and landfill.

Not even the most optimistic sun worshipper would expect so many hot, hot summers that young, single men a) get shocked into believing that global warming is speeding up and b) get fed up with the stench of food rotting in their street’s frazzled bins awaiting their fortnightly collection.

A scientific approach to art: Ian McEwan’s Solar

May 25, 2010

Your blogger is not the first person at SolarUK you should turn to if you want to know how an expansion vessel works, or how by the marvels of physics a solar collector transfers heat to your hot water tank.  Every piece of technical information coming his way has to be read at least twice before it sinks in.

At school, he was definitely an ‘arts’ rather than a ‘science’ person, reflected in his choice of A-levels.  While he was sitting analysing Jane Austen with mainly female classmates, wearing floral dresses (the girls, that is, not your blogger) and almost keeling over in their passionate engagement with the text, most of his mates were anorak-clad, beer mat collecting inhabitants of ammonia-reeking laboratories.

We are stereotyping here, of course.  But Ian McEwan, whose new novel Solar is about a physicist who has the chance to save the world from environmental catastrophe (and we hear on Radio 4 this morning that it has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize) explained in a recent Daily Telegraph interview that the arts and science aren’t really so distinct.  Artists can refine what has gone before and make discoveries: in a sense, make improvements in their field, and get closer to the ‘truth’, just as science seeks to do.

If we look at the history of science, it is hard to disagree with Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and other philosophers of science that it’s peppered with revolutions in thought, abrupt transformations opening up new lines of reasoning which would not have been given any credence under previous assumptions.  Perhaps there are echoes here in the revolutions in fiction, such as the stream-of-consciousness style of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf which seems to come from a different planet from that of Thomas Hardy.

Through science, we learn about the state of the world as it’s currently known.  Aristotle’s error-packed theories about motion and other physics stuff belong to the history class, not the GCSE science syllabus.  This is what makes the discipline different to the arts.  If the arts really can be constantly getting ‘better’, as McEwan’s musings hint at, then the awkward implication would be that Austen, Dickens or Woolf should be relegated to the second tier in the English curriculum – behind a bang-on contemporary figure such as Ian McEwan.

Your litter, your responsibility

May 18, 2010

Back in the 80s, the non-environmentally concerned Margaret Thatcher was once filmed scurrying enthusiastically around a park picking up bits of rubbish and putting them in a black sack.

A couple of decades on, a reduction in the amount of litter on the UK’s verges and fields might be one way of measuring the success of the new, mainly Conservative, government in delivering its ‘Big Society’.  And some kind of performance indicator would be certainly be useful, for all that the new administration is not going to be as target-obsessed as its predecessor.

A country that looks a little less like a rubbish tip won’t come about through the actions of massed ranks of community-minded people joining together for picking-up days, though all this can help.  Rather, the change will be that more potential litterers will have a ‘social’, or ‘Big Social’, conscience.

The previous government was in talks with McDonalds and Coca Cola about reducing the amount of snack packaging litter.  But more bins near restaurants or bin-your-litter logos on drinks cans are not going to do anything about the litter on verges of rural roads or on footpaths (for the remotest areas aren’t escaping this scourge).

A Keep Britain Tidy survey examined people who have admitted to dropping litter.  Among the reasons were: not enough bins (but surely there never will be in most areas) and nowhere in the car to stash litter (this is what motivates chucking things out of the window).  Also, if an area already appears run-down and dirty it doesn’t seem to matter fouling it further.

The respondents saw littering as acceptable when everyone else was doing it, in the cinema perhaps or at a football match.  In these situations – and this is the crucial point – their notion of personal responsibility is largely absentNote that another excuse given was ‘being drunk’, which is basically just a more extreme example of failing to think rationally due to outside (in this case, alcoholic) influences.

In 100 years time, that Fanta can dropped today will still be there if no one has removed it.  It will have been joined by other cans too by then, making archaeologists wonder whether someone once held a rock festival on that stretch of ‘A’ road.

Some say that a clean-up tax on fast food items would help put an end to this offence.  However, though it could provide the funds for clearing up the thoughtless person’s mess, it would not prevent someone littering in the first place.  Another, fairly bizarre idea is that any packaging identified as originating from a particular food retailer should be picked up and taken to the ‘guilty’ store to deal with.  But this is of no help if the rubbish is an anonymous plain blue bag or a Walker’s rather than own-label crisp packet; and who would have the time or nerve to go to a largely-blameless supermarket with the offending items?                          

The answer to the problem can only lie in a change of outlook on the part of the individual: a heightened regard for others, a renewed sense of responsibility.

Flying long haul and short: birds and climate change

May 11, 2010

We are listening out for the cuckoos, and one was heard not too far from SolarUK’s HQ-to-be near Battle, East Sussex – so they are still here, for this summer at any rate.

If there has been a decline in cuckoo numbers, at least there’s a good news story in the form of The Guardian’s report last month that the black redstart has been tempted back to Sheffield thanks to the university and city council-backed cluster of green roofs.

We saw in an earlier blog how a green roof and a solar panel are very compatible, the cooling effect of the roof helping the photovoltaics to work more effectively.  These roofs have an exciting role to play in soaking up rainwater and also encouraging wildlife.  The sparse vegetation favoured by black redstarts can be recreated on the tops of public buildings.

Looking at the bigger picture, The Independent, reporting from Linares, Spain, quoted an ornithologist who said that long-distance migrators are travelling shorter distances, with short-distance migrators showing a tendency to stay put.

Rising temperatures are the reason.  It means birds are having to adapt – much faster than they have had to do during the temperature fluctuations of previous eras.  Shortening wingspans are one result of this fast-track evolution.

Rather confusingly, reported last year that bird migrations are actually going to get longer.  A Durham University-led study found that from 2071 to 2100, nine of the seventeen species looked at (including the warblers who arrive in Northern Europe in spring to take advantage of the abundance of insects) are likely to have to migrate further, particularly if they are coming from south of the Sahara.

It is facile to blame every challenge faced by the natural world on human-induced climate change, but whatever is causing winters to be warmer we have to acknowledge that changes in bird behaviour have knock-on effects: the increase in numbers of one species in a given area could cause a decline in another species.

Considering the hazards involved in long-distance travel, staying in one place or not flying so far might be thought of as sensible self-preservation. Swallows heading south must sometimes temporarily turn back if the winds over the English Channel are too strong: then they must get across France, negotiate the tricky Pyrenees, risk guns and nets if they choose the Malta-route, and brave thunderstorms over the Congo before reaching southern Africa.  

As this is a solar energy website, we can finish by sharing with you a sun-related bird fact: sunbirds are flashy little hummingbird-like inhabitants of Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.  Unlike their unrelated New World fellow nectar feeders, they perch to feed rather than hover.

Green means go for a new government

May 9, 2010

As the nation awaits the outcome of the Conservative-Lib Dem negotiations, commentators are speculating on possible areas of common ground shared by the two parties: the ways of reducing the deficit (though the timing is in dispute), helping the educational chances of the poorest children, and perhaps tax reform. 

But little is being said about the opportunity of taking forward the environmental policies which are now achievable with the all-change mood of the electorate and the demise (presumably) of the Labour Party.  For the Lib Dems have long been considered the most disposed of the three main parties towards sustainability and renewable energy, and the Conservatives under Cameron have a greenish hue to their blue.

So will the parties come out into the sunlight following their heads-down tough talking, beaming with optimism and brandishing a firm set of proposals for a greener country and economy?  It’s the sort of step forward that would reconcile the grassroots Lib Dems to working with the Tories for the next five years.

Solar thermal wins Gordon Brown’s vote

May 4, 2010

Just days before the Solar Trade Association (STA) published its response to the Government’s consultation on the Renewable Heat Incentive – the tariff scheme set to drive forward uptake of solar thermal systems in the UK – Gordon Brown came out as a fan of the solar thermal panel.

During the second live TV leaders’ debate, the Labour leader revealed that he has had solar hot water panels installed at his North Queensferry home.  He suggested that even in cold and windy Scotland, where a wind turbine might seem the most obvious choice of renewable technology, solar panels have proved the low-carbon answer to the Brown family hot water requirements – and he would recommend that we, the watching electorate, have them too if we can.

Of course, here at SolarUK we are not endorsing any particular party ahead of Thursday’s collective trip to the polling booth, but are merely pleased that the country’s most senior public figure has endorsed the logic of having solar thermal  panels.  As a former Chancellor with an acknowledged head for figures, he would not, one imagines, have panels on his own residence if the economic arguments, or sums,  didn’t make sense to him.

If he had his panels installed after 15th July 2009 he should profit from the Renewable Heat Incentive, which kicks off in April 2011.  He will be paid for the heat he produces, with a 6% rate of return.

On both these points the STA has cause for concern (on the general principles, naturally – not Gordon Brown’s specific case), stating in its consultation response that those who helped to establish the market for solar thermal, installing their systems prior to 15th July, should have a share of the benefits of RHI.  As for the rate of return, it is seen as low compared to that set to be received by households with other renewable heat technologies such as biomass. 

The STA recognises that the RHI is still in a relatively early phase of its development, and pledges to work closely with the Government to push the scheme forward over the next twelve months.   Gordon Brown may or may not be leading that Government: we’ll leave speculation to the politics blogs.

Saving daylight and energy

April 27, 2010

A month into British Summer Time, are you enjoying the lengthening spring evenings?

It’s interesting that we assume evenings are ‘long’, and therefore more productive, simply because the daylight lasts longer.  It’s as if nothing constructive can be done by artificial light.

Living and working and enjoying leisure activities when it’s dark outside is perfectly possible, but there’s something about daylight that makes even housebound couch potatoes happy.

Statistics link dark evenings with an increase in road accidents, but it’s unlikely that statistics are people’s prime concern – we are generally creatures of instinct, driven by what feels right.  The stark figures, of course, can then be profitably used by those campaigning for an extra hour’s daylight in winter (a shift to GMT+1, followed by GMT+2 in summer). 

Daylight could also have an effect on our unconscious, tapping into an atavistic yearning for light, the flip side of our fear of the dark.  Or the extra vitamin D our bodies are getting could be telling our brains that soaking in the sun’s rays is a good idea.  An effective treatment for sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) involves sitting in front of a light box, requiring exposure to light much stronger than that provided by standard light bulbs: they literally brighten up.

It’s unlikely any daylight saving reform would have an impact on the effectiveness of solar panels, as they would still be getting the same amount of energy from the sun whatever the clock says.  However, there are more general environmental benefits.  A Cambridge University study used an exploratory regression method to suggest that if the clocks were advanced by an hour in winter there would be ‘a reduction in peak demand for electricity of up to 4.3% during periods of high demand’ and that the electricity ‘wasted on GMT’ could have supplied 200,000 households and saved around 447,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

As we saw with our blog on keeping town centres viable, social and cultural benefits often accompany environmental ones.  Longer evenings would see folk out and about more, chatting to neighbours and, in the case of children (and perhaps some adults), playing in the streets.

However, this blogger is neither particularly pro nor anti a change, and wonders whether people couldn’t just get up an hour earlier, starting work at 8am rather than 9am and leaving at 4pm.  There’s no need to wait expectantly for a politicians to give the thumbs-up.  Most bosses encourage flexible working, and if enough people do this then the culture will change.  Perhaps the evolution of our habits will mean eating lunch at noon, and elevenses will become tenses.

Clear thoughts in a confusing world

April 20, 2010


We’re in the midst of an election campaign, so our minds are being buffeted more than ever by claim and counter-claim, statistics and damn lies, as politicians battle for our votes. 

Green news followers are quite used to this.  Should we be so worried about the rate of global warming that drastic, perhaps unpalatable lifestyle changes are called for?  Or will technology save the day and allow us to adapt? 

Then there are Feed-in Tariffs, which sprang to life at the beginning of this month.  For some they herald a new dawn of microgeneration, as homeowners get paid for producing their own electricity – and for exporting any surplus to the grid.  For others, the FiT represents a tax-free investment for the better-off at the ultimate expense of those who cannot afford the initial costs and should be replaced by simple incentives paid on the basis of reduced fossil fuel energy consumption.

One camp of environmentalists will say we should wind down our coal-fired power stations and power the UK on non-fossil fuel sources – including nuclear reactors in the energy mix.  The other camp will shudder at the thought of storing all that toxic waste for thousands of years and insist that renewables alone are the solution.  Whose line should we follow?

Fortunately, like little islands of calm in a turbulent ocean, there are environmental stories that can satisfy even the most cynical.  The Guardian reported earlier this month on the launch of the Turanor, the world’s largest solar powered boat.  Whether or not you think it will revolutionise transport – and the team behind it are refreshingly clear-headed in maintaining that ‘trial’ is the key word – we can only wish it well as it chases the sun on its round-the-world voyage.

This should resonate pleasingly with regular followers of the SolarUK blog, who will know from an October posting that sailing, or more specifically coping with life on the high seas as Thor Heyerdahl experienced it, connects us at a deeper level with the world around us.

You may also have noticed that food, and the purchasing of it, pops up in this blog almost as frequently as newspaper election polls.  So you might enjoy taking non-controversial pleasure in the Co-op’s fair-trade cotton shopping bag.  It not only encourages the shopper to cut down on plastic bag usage, but also provides communities in South India with a sustainable source of income.

Balancing up the competing claims of a retailer’s offerings does, we must admit, return us to the muddle-headed state we are trying to avoid (should I buy this major brand flapjack because it has Fairtrade sugar and honey in it, or that other chewy offering because it’s made by a small local producer and is organic but lacks the Fairtrade  accreditation?).  We can at least assure ourselves that, generally, if a product has been ‘fairly traded’ it’s quite likely to be relatively chemical free if not 100% organic (if only to protect the workers’ health).  It’s also reasonable to imagine that the ethical approach of the companies to employee pay will extend to the whole question of environmental benefits. 

Though arguments may rage around us, let’s end with a focus on the positive (especially as it’s a fine, sunglasses-donning day here in Eridge): the possibility of using the sun to power our transport, and cotton bags that benefit both people and planet.

The Great British Sugar Rush

April 6, 2010

In Italy, they’re serious about food.  Visiting holidaymakers will have seen the loyalty shown by the natives to their local, artisan foods, while for other evidence what about the 2008 Government bailout of Parmesan cheese, a reaction to the wholesale price decline, which gave the craft producers centred around Parma time to reorganise themselves?  It was a tradition that couldn’t be allowed to fall by the wayside.

It’s also no accident that Slow Food, now a transnational movement, emerged from the same country as a reaction against fast food (which the British unashamedly love, microwaved or eaten on the hoof with a wooden fork), the disappearance of local food traditions (would the British embrace Bath Chaps, a pig’s cheek concoction, once again?), and people’s apparently dwindling interest in the food they consume.  The founder, Carlo Petrini, was listed by The Guardian as one of the ’50 people who could save the planet’.

Across the border in France, tourists can stick their forks into restaurant food heavily influenced by the produce readily available in that particular region.  Specialities will include a feast of local cheeses and charcuterie.

Despite what we’ve intimated above, it’s not strictly true that in the UK we have no interest in the food we eat: but unfortunately the food that really engages us comes filled with sugar and surrounded by a bright plastic wrapper: chocolate confectionary.

Yes, where an Italian will wax lyrical about a mature ham, slowly and authentically cured by the breezes from the hills around Parma, or a Frenchman’s source of local pride will be an artisan Loire Valley goat’s cheese reaching its summer peak, the Walnut Whip and its ilk are what really get us licking our excited lips.  By way of proof, there’s an online review of the aforementioned chocolate-covered, fondant-filled sweet extending to over 1200 words.  Considering that as a nation we dislike intellectual pretensions, this is a surprisingly literate effort: if the writer had chosen a less trivial subject for his essay it would not look out of place in the Paris Review or an academic journal.  The Wagon Wheel meanwhile – despite disappointing its reviewer somewhat – is still considered worthy of a careful write-up.  Being chocolatey and sugary is what matters.

As for Cadbury’s Finger of Fudge, there’s a description of it which opens with nostalgic childhood recollections worthy of publication and a place on a bookshop shelf next to ‘Cider with Rosie’ and other sepia-tinted memoirs.

Citizens of the UK, stop guzzling the remains of your Easter chocolate for a moment and consider this: if only your passion for industrial, mass-produced sweets could be diverted towards the wholesome yet just as delicious food produced the length and breadth of this island, the knock-on effects in terms of food sustainability could be greater than you’ll ever know.

Move over Godzilla: sap-sucking lice are the latest invaders from Japan

March 30, 2010

The Government has announced that a sap-sucking louse from Japan will join the ranks of non-native species in the UK.

Following a consultation period, the innocuous-seeming insect, Aphalara itadori, is being released into the wild as a way of keeping that gardener’s bugbear Japanese knotweed in check.  Apparently it has a liking for this pernicious weed, feeding on its sap and stunting its growth, but doesn’t fancy much else in the plant kingdom.

However, the danger is that nature always seems to find a way of adapting to new environments, and the price of this critter making itself at home in the UK countryside might be paid by other organisms.  While the scientists will have looked at all the scenarios, there might be a scenario unexamined because unthought of.

As an example of the problems that can arise, consider Harlequin ladybirds.  These were introduced to Britain a few years ago as a similar biological control – to tackle aphids.  Many of our 46 native ladybird species are now losing out to these American (originally Asian) arrivals in the hunt for food, and are also being eaten themselves.  Attempts are being made to monitor the progress of these invaders with a view to eradicating them before it is too late to do so. 

The best-known example of a deliberately-introduced animal is the grey squirrel, which arrived in the 1870s.  Few (especially red squirrels) would disagree that we would have been better off without it. 

Ring-necked parakeets do not pose a major problem yet, but may do if their numbers increase further.  These birds have been popular pets since Victorian times, and escapees have thrived in parks and suburban gardens despite the British winter weather.   It was only in the late 1960s that they started to breed in the wild: they are most numerous in London and the South East, but have now reached Wales and the Scottish borders.

The Ruddy Duck, a native of the Americas, was added to wildfowl collections in the 1950s but has established populations in various parts of England.  In this instance, the unwelcome consequence is its tendency to mate with the European native white-headed duck, an inhabitant of Spain and the eastern Mediterranean.  Tackling the issue here in the UK is seen as an essential means of addressing a threat to the biodiversity of our continental neighbours, and hence the Defra-funded eradication programme. 

Looming in the background is the complicating factor that is climate change, as it could enable non-native species to thrive at the expense of natives, and also lead to unexpected changes in behaviour.

A further non-indigenous species is the wallaby.  It is more noticeable (if you happen to come within range of one) and more photogenic than a Japanese insect, and fortunately not a threat to local flora and fauna.   There is a wild population in Ashdown Forest, near SolarUK’s current office.