Archive for March, 2010

Recycling organic waste

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

On Wednesday, I went to a breakfast seminar hosted by Blake Lapthorn in Seacourt Tower. It was one of a series of such breakfasts, and a man from Agrivert was doing the talking.

He was talking about waste, and he spoke of some interesting things. I knew whilst I was there that I wouldn’t be able to properly articulate the thoughts and ideas from this seminar unless I did it immediately; I didn’t, so I can’t. I will make a list of thoughts and ideas, instead of trying to generate paragraphs.

  1. Agrivert deals with organic waste.
  2. One method Agrivert uses is anaerobic digestion.
  3. James, the man giving the talk, said that we – the people who create household waste – don’t like to see or smell the waste we create, we dislike the possibility of having the waste we create being weighed in order to tax us for creating too much, yet we have no problem creating endless amounts of waste.
  4. There is heat and electricity produced through anaerobic digestion. The heat could be put to use if there was a new housing development planned near to an anaerobic digester by being pumped to the houses and used for underfloor heating.
  5. Digestate is also produced. This is nutrient rich.
  6. There are 2 million AD plants in India, James said. There are far fewer in Britain.
  7. People in rural parts of some countries can use domestic plants, into which they can put the waste from their animals and get gas on tap for cooking.
  8. There is a prison in Rwanda that has a plant. It has reduced its energy requirements from firewood, deals with its sewage, and produces a compost to go onto their gardens.

I think there is great potential for this technology to work on a medium scale, with hospitals, prisons and schools dealing with their own waste and reducing their reliance on fossil fuels for energy requirements. Such establishments could then also grow some of their own food to deal with the resultant digestate.

Idea #2 – Reason washing machine

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

I just watched a video of Andrew Reason talking about the washing machine he invented. The drum slides open and you just drop the washing into the drum. It has a 10kg capacity, yet has standard European dimensions. When the washing is put into the drum, the washing machine weighs the load, and only uses that amount of water. It has some other clever details, too.

Packaging and Kenco

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Kenco has new packaging for some of its coffee. As well as selling coffee in glass jars with a plastic lid, they also sell it in plastic bags. These bags of coffee are referred to as “Eco Refill”. Basically, Kenco is saying that these bags reduce the amount of packaging used per gram of coffee; that they’ve used the word “eco” suggests they think this is a good thing that will save the world. I think the use of the word “eco” is misleading and helps to misrepresent things, because it doesn’t seem to really mean anything. It’s just a word we have come to associate with seemingly positive actions for the environment.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw the advert for the first time is that a composition of plastic and foil is not going to be better in any way than a glass jar. I haven’t seen the inside of one of these bags, but I am almost certain that it will be a plastic/foil composition, because foil is used in packaging where the manufacturer wants to keep the product “fresh”. Composites like this are difficult to recycle. A glass jar, however, is not difficult to recycle, and can even be reused.

On its website, Kenco has an “about” section, in which it asks and answers four questions about the bags. The first question they ask is “how can a bag be more eco-friendly than a glass jar?”, and they say it is because the bags are more efficient to produce and, compared to the glass jars, ”send 97% less waste to landfill because the lids are not widely recyclable”. It isn’t clear to me if they are saying that the bag uses (97%) less material than the lid uses.

They are arguing that the bag produces less waste than the lid does. Assuming that people tend not to recycle things that are difficult to recycle (that is, things that aren’t collected by the local council), it is definitely better to have the bag thrown away instead of having the lid thrown away.

However, if the lid is the problem, why not make a glass lid for the glass jar? That way, the whole thing is recyclable. I don’t understand why they would develop something less recyclable – a composite – in response to this problem. Had they started to sell their coffee in something like a Kilner jar, where both the lid and the jar itself are made of glass, they would have been able to claim that the coffee’s packaging doesn’t create waste at all because they are reusable; when we say “reduce, reuse, recycle”, “reuse” comes before “recycle” for a reason. Had they started to use Kilner jars rather than developing this non-solution, they would have had to start a scheme where the jars could be returned to them, because there is probably only a certain number of Kilner jars one can use, unless one makes preserves for a living. For returning the jars, the customer would receive some money back. Presumably, when jars are returned, Kenco would only need to wash and sterilise them before refilling with more coffee and sticking on a new label. I suspect that any such idea would have been dismissed because it is easier to just make a plastic bag with the colour green and the word “eco” on it than to set up a returns scheme.

“But surely a glass jar is more recyclable?”, Kenco asks on its website, before citing Defra on the fact that 40% of glass isn’t being recycled (in 2009). Kenco appears to have good intentions when it says that it’d like it if everybody recycled their glass jars, but it recognises that not everybody does, therefore the new packaging is a way for everybody to reduce their waste. I still think that finding a way to reduce the material wasted when the lid is thrown away (by making a glass lid) would have been a better option, and that this new packaging is an insufficient half measure that is probably only for the purposes of greenwashing the company rather than for actually making a positive difference in the world.

Kenco says that it has partnered with a company to recycle these new bags. It says the bags “can be turned into fun new items like bags or pencil cases, or even umbrellas”. The recycling of these bags depends upon customers sending them to the recycling company. Two pence per bag is donated to “your choice of charity”. I really can’t think of a reason why this is genuinely better than developing a glass product that is 100% reusable and recyclable (with a returns scheme to go with it), when the two options both involve trying to make a better product and setting up a way of reusing/recycling that product.

I think that Kenco might have decided on this new packaging because it means the company is seen to be doing something positive, even if it proves to be not as positive as it could be. And, by handing over the recycling of its packaging to another company, Kenco is absolving itself of its packaging’s life cycle. This is akin to throwing something away and not realising there is no “away”; by producing this flawed packaging, Kenco thinks it is improving its profile by having an “eco-friendly” product, but apparently isn’t too bothered about what happens to the packaging afterwards (who really wants to buy a bag or an umbrella that has Kenco’s logo all over it, or maybe that is the whole point).

Overall, I think this new packaging is just using the potential naivety of some people who are eager to do their bit to supposedly save the planet, by using the word “eco”, talking about helping people to reduce their waste, and having a charity element in the recycling process. If we, as consumers, can be more questioning and understand that there is more to sustainability than creating unrecyclable products as a solution to a small problem with a good product we will see that Kenco is using greenwash.

If it is not greenwash, Kenco, employ an institution to carry out research on all aspects of  the sustainability of this new packaging and other alternatives. It is no use to focus only on reducing the energy needed to produce the packaging if the packaging can only serve its purpose once before being turned into an umbrella. It must be better to spend as much energy as necessary to produce packaging that can be reused for its original purpose indefinitely.

Ideally, all produce would be sold loose, with no packaging at all (and the customer takes their own packaging to be refilled). It is clear, though, that loose branded coffee would be difficult to sell, so the best solution I can come up with for Kenco to reduce packaging waste is this: Kenco should develop a glass jar with a glass lid, then work out the cost of the coffee and the cost of the glass packaging. They could sell jars of coffee with two different prices – one price includes the cost of the packaging, and the other price is just for the coffee. When somebody wants to buy a jar of Kenco coffee, they take their empty jar with them and buy the jar of coffee that doesn’t include packaging in the price, handing over their empty jar when they pay. If a person doesn’t have an empty jar to return, they should buy the jar of coffee that includes the packaging in the price.

Cycling safety considerations

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Lazy people can skip to the end for a synopsis, if you really must.

Cycling seems like fun. Every now and then, I feel like I might like to cycle. When I search through the WWOOF directory I always look to see if they say they have bikes available for use. I like the idea of being somewhere in west Wales, and cycling a few minutes to the coast on a sit up and beg affair. Because it’s west Wales I imagine that my whole way there I will be the only person around, as well as being the only person on the beach. I don’t imagine myself wearing a helmet. Why would I be wearing one if I am using roads with very few other road users?

I know that cycling is enjoyable. Ideally, there would be no need to wear a helmet, or lights, or reflective gear. Making sure you are suitably equipped before cycling could, no doubt, reduce the fun in the spontaneity of going out on your bicycle.

The Transition movement seems to like visioning. I went to a Transition Town Brixton food event in October, and the first thing we did was vision our lives in 2030. The next week, I was at another event in Oxford, and I chose to go to a workshop hosted by one of the people who initiated Transition Town Totnes. One of the things we did was vision. Whenever I imagine the future of transportation, I always imagine roads without kerbs, without cars, where pedestrians and cyclists move amongst each other; the cyclists are always moving about in a leisurely way, and they are never wearing helmets.

With that said, today’s transportation situation kind of requires all of that annoying preparation before getting on your bike. Motor vehicles and bicycles share the roads, unfortunately, and cyclists are the more vulnerable of the two. Wearing a helmet, being seen in the dark and signalling are some of the things that can help a cyclist to stay safe, yet so many cyclists are seen flagrantly ignoring these common sense guidelines.

Not only do I know that cycling is enjoyable, I also know that it is good for one’s health, and that it is better for the environment than driving. Also, I am a kind person who will think that perhaps it is for a lack of understanding that a cyclist is doing something silly, rather than assuming they are an idiot (some people, however, are quite obviously simply being stupid). However, I wouldn’t give cyclists any preferential treatment because they are doing a positive thing in using their bicycle.

Here are some sensible cycling ideas. I recommend all cyclists follow these. It is, after all, for everybody’s safety that road rules exist, and it is only fair that motorists and cyclists and pedestrians all consider each other.

1. Lights.
I would recommend that front and rear lights are used after dark. Judging by the placement of a light on the helmet, as I often see, it seems many people assume the sole reason for a front light is to be able to see the road. Yes, headlamps enable the car driver or cyclist to see the road ahead, but they also allow other road users to see you. I don’t think it is enough that the cyclist can see where he is going; other road users need to be able to see the cyclist, too. You might think that a light on the front of the helmet is equal to a light on the front of the bicycle, that either way the cyclist is illuminated.

I think it is important to have bicycle lights in the place one would expect lights to be. Motor vehicle headlamps are always where you expect them to be; if I am out at night, I can easily recognise two adjacent headlamps coming towards me as a vehicle with four wheels.

I am an occassional motorist. Driving in the dark, especially if it actually is dark (which it isn’t really in a lot of built up areas), means that even more attention has to be given to the road. I have to make sure that I am seen (which is why I didn’t drive after dark when one of the headlamps broke), and I have to make sure that I can see other road users, especially since they might not be easily seen.

I don’t find it helpful, as a motorist, for cyclists to wear lights on their helmets, because I am not expecting to see a light in that place, and that delays my recognition of the light as a cyclist.

Flashing lights is an annoyance for the same reason. There is a lot of information to process when driving, and a blinking light in the distance could be anything; lights aren’t only found on the front of vehicles, so it is not as though I should automatically assume that a blinking light is a cyclist coming towards me. I really don’t see any reason to use flashing lights. Why should the lights of a vehicle flash?

Flashing lights aren’t only annoying because they are pointless, they are annoying because they are confusing. It would be great if a cyclist just remembers that he is not the only person using a bicycle to get to work, and remembers that all of those people will be on the roads at roughly the same time, possibly in low light. Perhaps, then, he would understand why flashing lights are annoying: one might not be so bad, but a whole bunch of cyclists in the dark – some with static lights, some with flashing lights – can be a visual assault for the motorist.

As for the colour of the lights, I think there is nothing wrong with keeping with red for the back and white for the front. That is, for all vehicles. It could be argued that if cyclists had different colour lights they’d be distinguishable from other traffic (like colour-coding the traffic), but I think it is far better to avoid green/blue lights on the front and yellow lights on the back, as I have certainly seen.

2. Signalling.
Road users need to know what other road users are going to do if it affects them. That is why, in driving lessons, it is taught that you don’t need to signal if there is nobody around, or it is otherwise deemed unnecessary. When it is judged as necessary to indicate, we indicate.

Motorists, though not all of them manage to successfully carry out the procedure, are taught “mirror, signal, manoeuvre”. This makes sense, and can be translated as “check what the other traffic is doing; give reason for your brake lights about to show, or an imminent change in your positioning; carry out your manoeuvre”. I think this makes perfect sense, and I don’t find it a hassle to check my mirrors and indicate before slowing down or making a turn. I need to know that it is safe to brake before actually doing it, and I make sure it is safe by having a look around me.

It is no different for cyclists. They might not have a mirror, but there are other things that can be done in place of this, I am sure. Though there will be some cyclists who can’t be bothered to signal, just as there are some motorists who don’t signal when they should, I wonder if failure to signal might be linked to not feeling very confident cycling. I have often seen people remove a hand from the handlebar to signal, and wobble a bit, only managing to signal insufficiently.

I am annoyed by cyclists who seem to have no confidence in their legitimacy as a road user, cyclists who move out of the way of the traffic behind them, closer to the kerb, even though they will have to move out again in a few seconds because of a parked car. I think people should be required to take lessons of some sort, and these lessons would tell them to stand their ground. In driving lessons, the instructor should be teaching the new driver never to feel intimidated by other road users; I definitely was always told this.

3. Luggage.
Panniers and baskets is where your luggage goes. If you have a lot of things to transport, or something particularly bulky, that is where a trailer is useful. It’s not a good idea to carry your shoulder bag on your shoulder, where you might have to keep making sure it stays on your shoulder, thereby removing your full attention from the road. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to carry a bag full of tennis rackets across the body; it’s not energy efficient, anyway.

If people are required to have some education about cycling before doing any cycling, it would include something about types of bicycle. That way, people would know what sort of bicycle to purchase to properly meet their needs; they would know to buy a touring bicycle, perhaps, if they needed to transport a lot of shopping, or a utility bicycle. To be honest, I really don’t know how I would transport bag of tennis rackets, since a trailer would be too much. Perhaps somebody who knows they will carry such big or odd-shaped bulky items would opt for a freight bicycle with a big shelf on the front where a big basket can go, then whatever the item is could go into there.

I think luggage is best left off your person, so get some panniers. It might make for a more comfortable ride.

4. Recklessness.
Recklessness is using earphones or headphones whilst cycling; cycling and using a telephone at the same time; overtaking when it means squeezing past a parked bus and traffic going in the opposite direction; cycling on the pavement; going through red traffic lights.

I don’t think the first three need justifying, but…

A girl was killed by a car because she was listening to her iPod. It was agreed that somebody with normal hearing would have been able to hear a car driving at the speed the car was doing and, therefore, it was the use of her earphones that caused her death.

Texting diminishes the ability to brake or swerve if necessary, and might mean you are not looking where you should be looking.

Impatience is probably not the best way forward. I really wouldn’t recommend squeezing between traffic because you might not know when the traffic going your way will start to move off again. If it is a bus, you might be more likely to be in a blind spot than if it is a car.

As a road user, it is important to think for yourself and to try to anticipate the road. To anticipate, you actually need to be paying attention in the first place. Anticipating is to say that you can think what another road user might do next, and it is very helpful; rather than something surprising you, you are prepared for it. Do think if you overtake traffic. Think if the vehicle will make a right turn, think if you will see its side indicator lights if it will make a manoeuvre.

Cycling on the pavement is illegal. Wheels go in the road, legs go on the pavement. I haven’t seen a car driving towards me on the pavement, because they don’t belong on the pavement. Nor do bicycles belong there, just as I don’t walk along in the road. If you insist on cycling on the pavement, please don’t ding me, because I have the right to actually be there. Also, if you do insist on cycling on the pavement, I think it would be a good idea to recognise that you are not meant to be there, maybe by getting off the bicycle rather than riding very slowly behind the pedestrians in front of you because you can’t get by.

If you are on the pavement through a genuine fear of the road, I would suggest cycling lessons to gain confidence on the road. I think it’d be a good idea to think about where you want to cycle, and plan your routes in advance so that you have the chance to avoid very busy sections of road if necessary.

As with helmets, going through red lights is something that divides people, I believe. I don’t like when any vehicle ignores traffic lights, but there are safety considerations. With driving, it is not always safe to stop, although drivers should be taught to anticipate the change from green to red. It’s not difficult to do after you have spent a few hours on the roads. Eventually, you learn that the lights stay green for a finite amount of time, and (assuming you have been looking at the road) you will know if it has already been on green for a long period. In this way, it is possible to anticipate the change and be ready to brake.

I assume it is exactly the same for cyclists in that it might not always be safe to brake really hard simply to obey the law. However, some cyclists go through red lights because they don’t want to lose momentum; I prefer not to have to brake unnecessarily, but I don’t do this in favour of obeying the law.

Cycling with no hands on the bars, with hands stuffed into coat pockets because it’s cold (get some cycling gloves) and wearing a hood that obstructs vision count as recklessness, too, for obvious reasons.

So, as long as this essay is, really the point quite short and simple.

1. We are not yet at the point where cycling and walking is put before using a motor vehicle and, whilst cars and bicycles and pedestrians have to share a space, it is going to be a lot safer for everybody if we all use the road in as safe a way as possible.

2. There ought to be a way for every new cyclist to get free instruction and advice so that they can learn to be as safe as possible and to get the most out of cycling. (I have wondered if cyclists, like motorists, should have to take a test to get a cycling licence. My opinion is different now. I now wonder if optional, but rigorous, testing would be a good idea. That is to say that a cyclist can choose to take a series of lessons that would cover all aspects of cycling – or choose not to – and take a test afterwards. Cyclists who pass well could be accredited in some way. If there were decent benefits for having the accreditation, perhaps there would also be a way that any cyclist with it seen doing something silly could be cautioned, since they couldn’t claim they didn’t know they were doing something silly having had lessons and taken the test. That it would be optional would mean that anybody who would feel it’d take any joy out of cycling could just not take the test.)

3. I didn’t say this earlier, but I think there should be some space for cyclists to make unforced decisions on wearing a helmet and going through red lights. I noticed a campaign to get cyclists to stop, as they should, at red lights. Rather than insisting all cyclists stop at the red lights, why not allow them to make a decision for themselves, based on an assessment of the road. If they really care so much about having to push off from a standstill, they can check if it is safe to go through. If it isn’t, they should stop, but if it is actually safe, they can decide to go through. If this leniency is granted, though, there can be no retribution if the cyclist has an accident because of it.

As for helmets, the cyclist should be encouraged to know the reasons for and against wearing helmets, and should be fully aware of the possible consequences of each.

That is all.