UK drivers the best in Europe – it’s official!

An in-depth study conducted by Fiat into driving techniques across Europe, which is apparently the first of its kind anywhere in the world, proves two quite remarkable things:

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Do we Have the Stomach for Renewables?

I have written about David MacKay’s work before [update: David is now Chief Scientific Adviser to Department for Environment and Climate Change (DECC) – so there!], when I highlighted his experiment involving a power meter and mobile phone chargers. This showed how very small the power used by each one when the phone isn’t attached to it really is (less than 1 watt) and how public messaging campaigns which focus on this are essentially a waste of time.

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Renewable Heat with a 12% Rate of Return… Nice!

The UK Government has (finally) announced the details of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and it’s good news for businesses and organisations. Unlike Feed in Tariffs for renewable electricity, the RHI provides an income for generating heat from renewable sources (such as biomass boilers etc). The domestic sector will just have to wait until next year to benefit from the RHI, and there are no guarantees that the levels will be so generous.

A wide range of technologies and fuel sources are supported, including:

  • Ground-source heat pumps
  • Solar thermal
  • Biomass boilers

The tariffs (shown below) have apparently been calculated so are cost effective: not only bridging the gap between the cost of the new technology and traditional technology but also offering a rate of return of around 12% (6% for the more established solar thermal), so it sounds like a no-brainer if your business has the capital to invest. It also compares favourably with the 5-8% rate of return you get through the renewable electricity Feed in Tariffs.

It’s worth noting that if you already have renewable heat installations which were installed after July 2009, you are likely to be eligible for the RHI payments so it’s definitely worth a look.

These tariffs apparently offer a 12% rate of return...

Further information can be found here.

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Waste of Time No. 2: Switching off mobile phone chargers

A practical experiment by well respected environmentalist David McKay caught my eye recently. It highlights the absolute nonsense of promoting very low carbon saving actions to help people feel better about their otherwise high carbon lifestyles.

The prime example of this is switching off mobile phone chargers when they’re not in use. As David shows even a multiplug adaptor with six (six!) chargers plugged into it (not charging anything) uses less than 1 watt.

Six Chargers: 0.1 Watts! Oh the horror...

As David says, people like us banging on about phone chargers is a bit like trying to “bail the Titanic with a tea strainer”. Indeed.

This is one reason why we have started calculating the carbon of the actions we recommend to businesses and households. It means we can place greater emphasis on those actions that genuinely avoid carbon emissions. Things like driving, flying, heating your home, the food you eat, the things you buy etc. It’s a much more challenging conversation but it’s also the only conversation worth having.


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Waste of Time No. 1: Which is lower carbon: paper towels or hand dryers?

Hand dryers (Airblades or Xlerator in particular).

Now here’s why it doesn’t matter:

The carbon emissions of drying hands is between 3 and 20 grammes of CO2e (all greenhouse gases converted into a carbon dioxide equivalent). Assuming you wash your hands on average twice a day whilst at work (and that you work for approx 245 days a year) the annual handwashing carbon emissions of each employee will be between 1.5kg and 10kg each year.

Now consider that the average carbon footprint of an employee whilst at work is 5 tonnes (worked out as the business’s carbon footprint divided by the number of staff working there). That’s 5,000 kg. So handwashing represents roughly 0.1% of an employee’s footprint.

For an average business each Airblade will cost around £30 a year to run (each unit uses around 349 kWh per year, or 1 kwh per day according to this information).

So really, the question shouldn’t be which is lower carbon out of paper towels and hand dryers. The question should be what is more important than either of those things in terms of business carbon emissions and costs. And the answer is almost everything.

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How to Avoid the Risks of Recycled Cardboard Packaging

Bad news for environmentalists. The law of unintended consequences has struck again as it turns out that food packaged in recycled cardboard boxes, including most cereals, is potentially contaminated with toxic chemicals (mineral oils) which somehow migrate from the cardboard to the food (even through plastic inners) and then into our bodies. According to this page on the BBC website, where I first read the story:


Exposure to mineral oils has been linked to inflammation of internal organs and cancer.

Oh joy. Now we have to worry about recycled cardboard?!

Apparently most of the cardboard packaging used in the UK contains at least some proportion of recycled material because virgin cardboard is now too expensive and rare to use exclusively. Which would be good news were it not for this apparent transfer of nasties from the cardboard into our food.

So what can be done? Kellogg’s and Weetabix are looking into how they might reduce the mineral oil content, perhaps by using cardboard that isn’t made from old newspapers. This is relevant because appears that most of the oils come from printing inks in newspapers. It strikes me that there should be a process to extract those inks from the paper during the recycling process. Either that or we pass a regulation banning inks based on mineral oils (cue business lobbies vigorously defending their right to use mineral inks!).

When I got the welcome booklets and flyers for the Alliance printed I used a company that only uses vegetable based inks, which in my view look much brighter, more natural and generally nicer than the mineral equivalent as well as having the added benefit of being recyclable without worrying too much about their ability to pass on toxicity to the food chain. I was extremely pleased with the results. Another benefit of vegetable based inks is that they don’t release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) during production and use. Here’s some info from A Local Printer’s website:


The removal of IPA alcohol and use of vegetable ink has virtually eliminated our emissions of VOC’s – Volatile Organic Compounds – into the atmosphere. These VOC’s are a major source of ozone pollution and are a potential a health hazard to our staff.

Back to the cardboard packaging, how about going even more radical and getting rid of cardboard altogether? When I ran a food shop I sold some cereals made by a company called Rude Health who put their cereals in plastic bags without external boxes. However, there were issues with displaying the packaging effectively on the shelf and I had to use a range of solutions to stop wastage, which I suspect would be beyond your average supermarket. It appears they still produce their cardboard free cereals.

I think it might be beyond the bigger companies to stop using cardboard altogether as it’s one way they can be sure their products will look good on the shelf and then tempt us to buy it. But you can imagine a shop display devoted to, say, corn flakes where individual bags (i.e. no cardboard) are positioned within a purpose-built structure so they both look good and avoid the packaging. A bit like Waitrose have done with their beef.

In any case, let’s hope the boffins can find a sensible solution soon as a public backlash against recycled cardboard packaging wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests. The last thing we need is to reverse the general trend in recycling which has seen more of us in Scotland sorting our rubbish than ever before. In the meantime, Jordans (who have a strong environmental policy) has announced that their cereals will be packaged in virgin cardboard, which is recyclable at the other end.

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George Monbiot Bashers Get Another Chance (in Stirling)

I have just found out that the well known and respected environmentalist George Monbiot is coming to Stirling, as he has extended his “Left Hook” tour to include our fine city. So anyone who fancies a bit of verbal jousting with a committed lefty should book their seat today.

It's a good job this is a cerebral battle...

“George Monbiot’s Left Hook” will be held on April 1st in the Cottrell Building of Stirling University.

Info from the promotional website:

“The gloves are off for a barnstorming evening of topical debate in which our man Monbiot selects a hot topic for his first half lecture and then invites members of the audience to contest this with him.

In the second half, he throws down the gauntlet to all comers and will take any subject from A to Z as the audience pit their wits against him in bouts of verbal fisticuffs.”

Whether you support or disagree with George (or do a bit of both), this is a rare opportunity to come face to face with one of our pre-eminent thinkers and activists.

Tickets cost £10 and can be bought directly from the MacRobert Centre (01786 466666) or via the Albert Halls booking office (01786 473544) or theTollbooth (01786 274000)

For more information about Mr Monbiot please visit this link.

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