5 Big greeen ideas
Big ideas need not necessarily be a whistle-and-bells hi-tech response. At least one of our Big 20 can be described as an “ancient technique” on loan from the Aztecs. The modern genius lies in its rediscovery and deployment because, while it would be foolish to believe blindly in a silver bullet for all environmental problems, now is absolutely the time for faith in contemporary ingenuity.
1-The slow wardrobe
In a nutshell: Dump the concept of “McFashion”, rather than the actual garments.
The clever bit: How big is your fashion footprint? From 2003 to 2007, garment prices fell by an average of 10%, and over the past five years the rate of frenzied buying has accelerated. We make room for the new by discarding some 2m tonnes of the old every year, which goes into landfill. The slow wardrobe extends the useful lifespan of the threads already hanging in the national wardrobe while redistributing stockpiled fashion to those who will wear it, with the aim of decreasing today’s average annual consumption of 35kg of clothing per person to a more sustainable 7kg. Consumers prioritise longevity by buying trans-seasonal garments (such as a classic jacket) rather than pure fashion and by purchasing as far up the material food chain as they can afford. We also learn to wash and dry clean more sparingly (both decrease lifespans of clothes) and to use specialist services to refashion and/or mend older garments (just 2% of the annual fashion budget goes on mending or servicing clothes, so this needs to be increased). Meanwhile a 2008 YouGov poll found that there are an amazing 2.4bn pieces of clothing unworn for an entire 12 months (many possibly brand new) cluttering up the national wardrobe, which adds up to £10bn-worth of stockpiled fashion. This needs to be redistributed via a system of clothes swap parties and targeted donations before it is chucked in landfill.
In a nutshell: Organic pick’n’mix.
The clever bit: Organic production has lots of eco merits, but the thing that made organics the darling of the shopping trolley was the fact that their production ruled out pesticides. But however skewed the economics (critics contend that conventionally produced food does not reflect its true environmental cost), organic produce still attracts a premium. Strategic organic is therefore about prioritising which items need to be organic, and which non-organic (and therefore cheaper) products you can get away with. The bible of Strategic Organic, the US Environmental Working Group report published in October 2008, ranks fruits and vegetables by the amount of pesticides found on each and is based on testing 43,000 products. The 12 types of non-organic produce to be avoided (the “dirty dozen”): peaches are the “dirtiest”, followed by apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. Meanwhile vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus and onions have relatively low levels – so you can get away with non-organic versions. They are the “cleanest” foods, along with avocados, pineapples, mangos, frozen sweetcorn, frozen peas, asparagus, kiwis, bananas and cabbage.
In a nutshell: The future of sustainability.
The clever bit: Each year humanity digs up pristine ecosystems to mine and drill for resources. Less than 1% of these materials end up embodied in the things we use, whereas half a trillion tonnes of waste is chucked away to rot, pollute or belch out methane. You would hope there was a less braindead way of proceeding. There is, it’s called cradle to cradle (sometimes abbreviated to C2C), a holistic design system that models human industry on nature’s processes where there is no waste. How? Well whether you are constructing a running shoe or a brand new Chinese city, C2C dictates that all materials used conform to two types of nutrient classification: technical or biological. Technical nutrients are benign, non toxic synthetics that can be used in continuous cycles without losing their integrity while biological nutrients are organic materials that decompose into the soil, providing enriching nutrients. This is design for “all children, all species, for all time,” as US architect, William McDonagh who, along with German chemist Michael Braungart is one of the main C2C proponents, puts it. Their book, Cradle to Cradle was recently published in the UK and demonstrates contempt for the make-things-less-bad approach of the typical green movement. Admittedly the revolution is still focused on product design; to date Chinese construction projects, trainers for Nike, a car, aircraft seats and even nappies – but things are scaling up: the Netherlands government will make all its procurement orders, from cups to cars, C2C by 2012.
4-Hydrogen cargo ships
In a nutshell: Emissions-free shipping.
The clever bit: To produce hydrogen-hybrid boats that could turn global shipping and freight from an emissions juggernaut into a zero-emissions glide across the oceans. The unlikely vehicle of revolution – which admittedly is some way off a transatlantic sortie right now – is a former British Waterways maintenance vessel, converted by Birmingham University, named the Ross Barlow. Believed to be the world’s first hydrogen-hybrid canal boat, the Ross Barlow’s system works by storing hydrogen in lithium hydride powder, which can be topped up when it has been exhausted.
It’s clever stuff because researchers have already overcome the two main hydrogen stumbling blocks that have dogged the automotive industry in particular. First, making hydrogen is one thing; storing it safely is another issue entirely. Unlike hydrogen cars, the system on the Ross Barlow barge means that there is no need to carry high-pressure gas or liquid on board – while there has always been a fear that hydrogen cars might, literally, go off like a bomb, the threat of potential explosions has been removed. And there’s another advantage: in cars, hydrogen has always proved to be too heavy, but the genius of the boat idea is that heavy hydrogen, in the form of lithium hydride powder, doesn’t matter – ships need ballast.
In a nutshell: The end of eco-supermarket dilemmas.
The clever bit: Fish stocks are in famously poor health – only 10% of the top predator species, such as tuna, that swam the world’s oceans when industrial fishing began 70 years ago are believed to be left. All of which makes shopping for the right fish problematic. American consumers now have the answer to sustainable fish shopping at their fingertips, as the Fish Phone text service spares them from carting around a copy of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe – instead they text the designated number. The Blue Ocean Institute monitors 90 seafood species for up-to-the-minute sustainability ratings and will text back either a safe code “green” or a danger code “red”, such as for farmed salmon, along with the health advisory warning that indicates the possible presence of PCBs, dioxins and pesticides.