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Archive for the ‘Home’ Category

Paint

We’ve had new windows installed. The ones I mentioned on this blog several months back. They look good but it made a bit of a mess having them put in. Which means we now need to redecorate. So I’ve been looking into paint.

In the UK we use 83 million litres of paint every year. Nearly half of us purchase interior paints once a year or more. But paint can be nasty stuff. Far more nasty than some of the other domestic chemicals that many of us now try and avoid.

Most paints contain volatile organic chemicals otherwise known as VOCs. These include benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene and ammonia amongst others. All of these are known to be carcinogenic and can irritate eyes, nose, throat, skin and cause respiratory problems. Not nice.

That unmistakable smell of fresh paint is in fact the volatile organic chemicals reacting with the air. And when VOCs react with oxygen they create surface ozone. Surface ozone is also known as ‘bad ozone’. This is because it is, er, bad. It can damage vegetation, contributes to the greenhouse effect and helps to destroy the ‘good ozone’ higher up in the atmosphere – the famous hole in the ozone layer. Around 5% of all VOCs emissions can be attributed to paint.

The good news is that the EU has been getting pretty hot on VOCs in recent years and most paint manufactures now specify the VOC level on their tins. Most paint also now tends to be water-based rather than solvent based which is much better.

However, there are many other heavy metal, solvents and other nasties as well as VOCs. These are probably fairly harmless in small quantities but long-term exposure could be problematic for professional painters and decorators. The fumes from paint are also thought to be responsible for Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). This is headaches and other side affects brought on by a specific building and is a condition that is officially recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Making paint also produces a lot of waste. Producing one litre of paint can produce up to 30 litres of chemical waste products

So what paint should you buy?

Well, there are a number of eco paints on the market. The main producers are: Auro Organic, ECOS, Ecotec Paints and Nutshell.

They vary widely. Some contain synthetic chemicals such as vinyl and acrylic which are by-products of the petrochemical industry but no solvents. Others are far more natural, using plants as pigments. However, in general the greener the product, the more expensive it is and the more limited the colour choice. They also aren’t very widely available. Not many high street retailers stock them. And some don’t have a great reputation for how well they work. And a product that doesn’t work isn’t very eco.

If you don’t fancy the deep green option and prefer to stick to the big DIY stores, then B&Q’s own range of paints are very low in VOCs. B&Q are seen as being very progressive for their size and were one of the first to start labeling their paint with VOC information.

B&Qs bigger branches also stock the Fired Earth range. These are also very low in VOCs, manufactured in the UK and their paint cans are made of 25% recycled steel. They are also working to reduce their waste emissions. They are owned by Aga and also have a number of their own shops.

So go for paints labeled low, very low or minimal in VOCs. Buy water-based emulsions – don’t buy gloss, which are generally solvent based. It’s also probably worth avoiding the big paint manufactures that are owned by chemical companies. For example Dulux is owned by ICI, which is a company that has come in for a fair amount of stick from green groups.

And decorate less. If we didn’t redecorate so often, we’d use less paint. So on that basis, it’s probably worth going for a darker colour. It’ll be more interesting than off white too. You could even paint it green.

Useful links

Ethical Consumer Magazine paint comparision

Ecologist Magazine on paint

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Washing with Ecoballs

ecoballs

We’ve got another eco gadget. Ecoballs. They are plastic spheres with what looks like gravel in them and a spongy disc around the outside. And you can use them instead of conventional washing powder.

If you use normal washing powder, all of that frothy detergent gets washed down the drain. And ends up doing nasty things and polluting the environment. Environmentally friendly washing liquid like Ecover is of course one solution to this problem.

An even better solution is not using detergent at all.

So how do Ecoballs get your clothes clean?

Well, the pellets on the inside contain non-toxic mineral oxides. These make the water more alkaline. When they’re alkaline, water particles are smaller and therefore much more soluble. They can permeate fabric much easier and dislodge the dirt. Alkaline water is also antibacterial. Which is a similar to what normal detergent does.

And they do appear to work.

With things that are really dirty, like wiffy towels, you might want to stick to the Ecover. But for your average wash of shirts, jeans and pants they’re absolutely fine.

Initially it’s a little strange as your clothes come out smelling of nothing but water. We’re used to smelling detergent, which makes us think clothes are clean. But then you realise that it means you’re not rubbing weird chemicals against your body. And that that’s probably a very good thing. Particularly if you have sensitive skin or are allergic to some washing powders.

They cost thirty quid but claim that on average they only need refilling every 18-months and can save you up to 80% on your washing bills. It also means that, if your washing machine lets you, you can skip the rinse-cycle because there is no detergent that needs to be rinsed out. This means that you can also save a lot of water and electricity.

I bought ours online – there are loads of places that sell them – but you can also get them from places like John Lewis. And I’d say they’re certainly worth a go.

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Smart meter

Smart MeterI’ve just bought a new toy. It’s a smart meter. It tells us exactly how much power we are currently using. In pounds, watts or, if you so desire, CO2 emissions. And it’s surprisingly fascinating. Honestly.

It was dead easy to install. There’s a sensor which clips around the cable that goes into you electricity meter. This sends a signal wirelessly to a reader which tells you how much power your using. You enter in how much you pay per unit and it tells you how much your currently spending. And that’s basically it. It cost £30.

On the box it suggests you can save up to 25% on your electricity bill. If that’s true, it means it will pay for itself in four months or so. And having had it for a couple of weeks, its easy to see how.

During the first week we had it, we found ourselves playing a unusual new game. Guessing what appliance has just been turned on by seeing how much the smart meter reading went up by. You could see how exactly how much energy everything you did used and how much money it was costing. I lost a good hour going around the flat turning stuff on and off just to see what it did. Sad but true.

It’s astounding how much energy a kettle uses. It appears, on an average evening with a few lights on and perhaps the TV or radio, we use around 4p of electricity per hour. Put the kettle on and suddenly the meter leaps up to 35p.

But it’s also the little things that also make a difference. Our remaining normal light bulb uses loads more power than the energy saving ones. It appears they’re dead right about TVs and stereos on standby still using a fair amount of power. Unplugging mobile phone chargers when your not using them and turning off the wireless network when you go to bed means that you’re spending pretty much nothing instead of several pence an hour while you sleep. And I guess it all adds up.

And that’s the thing about it. You read these things all the time. But it’s actually seeing the proof as you go about life that brings it home. Quite literally. And makes you realise how easy you can cut back just by getting into the habit of turning things off. And of course, changing your light bulbs. And only boiling as much water as you need. Etc. etc.

If you ask me, rather than imposing a windfall tax on energy companies, instead they should make them install smart meters in every UK home. A bit like when Channel 5 had to retune everyone’s video recorder – remember that? That way people would see how much power they’re using. See how they can use less. And how they can cut their bill by a quater. That’s a much better idea than using the money to subsidise people  to carry on using electricity unnecessarily. Empower them by giving them information to see how they can cut their bill. And make the energy companies invest their huge profits into renewable energy instead.

There are probably loads of places you can buy a smart meter but I got mine from the Ethical Superstore. But if you buy one, don’t say I didn’t warn you about losing an evening to switching things on and off.

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wind farm

Pretty much every electricity supplier offers a green electricity tariff. So are they all as green as each other? If not, which is most green? If I switch, am I really using renewable energy? And will they invest my money into building more wind farms and other new sources of renewable energy? I wanted to find out.

Obviously when you switch electricity supplier, it doesn’t affect the actual the power that comes into your home. It all comes from the national grid. But switching your supplier does affect where the electricity on the national grid comes from.

If you have a green tariff, your supplier is obliged to match the power you use by producing the same amount of renewable energy. So by paying a little more for a green tariff, your supplier has to invest in enough renewable energy to meet your demand. So in theory, if everyone in the UK switched to a green tariff, suppliers would be obliged to provide the whole country with renewable energy. Which would reduce the UK’s total CO2 emissions by a third.

So switching to any green tariff is good, right? Well yes. But unfortunately it’s a little more complicated than that. Here’s the depressing bit, but it’s followed by pleasing alternatives so keep reading.

Since 2006, all electricity providers in the UK have been legally obliged to buy a proportion of their power from renewable sources. It’s known as the Renewable Obligation or RO. Catchy eh? In 2006 the RO was 6% and it rises every year until 2010, when it’s 10%. That seems like very good news.

Unfortunately, only about 4% of electricity customers in the UK are signed up to a green tariff. This means that when you sign up to one of the green tariffs offered by one of the big energy companies, all you’re doing is helping them meet their legal obligation. Their obligation is now 9.1%. That means they have to provide over twice the amount of green energy as there are customers paying for it.

So on a standard green tariff you’re not actually creating any new demand for green energy. Or forcing your energy supplier to invest in new wind farms or tidal power or any other form of renewable energy.

And this will always be the case until the number of people signed up to green tariffs is greater than the amount of green power that power companies are legally obliged to supply. Unless the law is changed so that the Renewable Obligation is in addition to the demand from customers on green tariffs, which in my view it should be.

Seems a bit of a swizz eh?

So what are the alternatives? Are there any green tariffs that will help increase the demand and where your money will be invested into new renewable energy? Well fortunately there are companies offering solutions to this problem. Here’s the top three.

Good Energy

Good Energy supplies nothing but 100% renewable energy. It doesn’t actively invest in new renewable energy projects but buys all its energy from small providers. It also – most significantly – retires Renewable Obligation Certificates or ROCs. So what are ROCs?

Electricty providers get one ROC for every megawatt hour of renewable energy they produce. That makes ROCs valuable as they are the proof that energy suppliers have met their legal obligation to supply renewable energy. They get fined if they can’t produce them.

It’s legal to buy and sell certificates. This means that even if a supplier provides its customers with 100% renewable energy, if they sell their ROCs to other energy companies, the overall supply of green energy in the UK will remain the same. And most of them do sell their ROCs.

What Good Energy does is retire 5% of its ROCs so other companies can’t buy them. And the result is that it creates more a little more demand for renewable energy. And therefore, investment in it. Good eh?

So why don’t they retire 100% of their ROCs?

Well ROCs are currently worth over £50 each. Good Energy sells these and use the money they receive to subsidise their tariffs. They argue that if they retired all of their ROCs, their tariff would end up being be far too expensive – over £200 a year for the average household. Which seems fair. Currently Good Energy are the only supplier to provide 100% renewable energy AND also retire ROCs.

Ecotricity

Ecotricity are the only UK energy supplier actively developing new wind farms. If you sign up to one of their tariffs, then your money is being invested in a new source of renewable energy. They claim to have invested over £550 per customer in 2007. They don’t retire ROCs but argue that it’s better to invest the money they receive from selling them into new renewable projects.

Green Energy

Green Energy have two tariffs. Their dark green one provides 100% renewable energy. The light green provides 20% renewable energy and the other 80% from providers credited with producing energy very efficiently where they convert excess heat into energy. They don’t retire ROCs. But they intend to invest 50% of their profits in renewables.

Unfortunately all of these tariffs are more expensive which at a time of rising fuel prices perhaps makes them less attractive. Good Energy (the most expensive) is significantly more expensive than other providers. However, the difference works out at less than the price of a pint of beer per month. And signing up to one effectively reduces your carbon footprint by around a third. This is far better value than any carbon offset scheme and has the advantage that the carbon doesn’t need to be offset in the first place.

In my mind, the extra couple of quid is almost like one of the good causes that I give to on a monthly basis. It’s also worth noting that The Energy Saving Trust reckons that the average UK household could cut its energy use by a third by becoming more efficient and reduce their bills by an average of £250. More on that in my next post.

So we’ve switched to Good Energy. It’s debatable as to whether the best way to stimulate demand for renewables is to retire ROCs or invest the money you make from selling them in new sources. ROC retirement seems to be what many experts are currently suggesting is best, which is why we plumped for Good Energy. However, either option seems worth a couple of extra quid to me.

Switching was dead easy, only requiring us to fill in a form and give a meter reading. If you want to compare how much each of the tariffs would cost you, switchandgive.com will tell you. And if you do switch, they give their affiliate commission to a charity of your choice. Which is an added bonus. Go on, switch.

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window

I’m intending to put up some kitchen shelves this weekend. What are the environmental issues I should be considering before buying shelves or indeed, other items of furniture?

Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Buy natural

For exactly the same reasons that I talked about in my post about eco windows, natural materials are the only eco option.

PVC, vinyl and other man-made chemical products are generally made from oil. Oil isn’t sustainable. Their production also releases lots of nasties into the world. And disposing of them is difficult. They don’t rot and if you burn it, they release yet more bad stuff.

So the best you can hope for is landfill or toxins once you’ve finished with it. Any thoughts of retro sixties vinyl or furniture with fake-wood veneers should be dispelled from the mind if you want to do the right thing environmentally.

So for my shelves, it means buying wooden ones. As well as being natural, wood is also the most efficient material to produce. Even more than other natural products like metals.

Buy Forest Steward Council-certified wood

The Forest Steward Council (FSC) logo – featured at the start of this post – tells you that the item your buying is made from products that come from a sustainable forest. It can be found on furniture, books, magazines, newspapers and even condoms. Condoms are made from latex and latex is made from rubber and that comes from trees.

FSC-certified forests are well-managed forests – when trees are cut down, they plant more. To be certified by the FSC, a forest must also conform to strict guidelines regarding the rights of the indigenous people and the forest workers. So FSC-certified wood is also fair-trade wood.

Buying furniture made from wood sustainably farmed means that the carbon the tree absorbed during its life stays locked up in the wood until it’s disposed of. Meanwhile, more trees are planted and they absorb more carbon. Buying wooden products from sustainable sources is a good way of making sure more forests are planted. Which is a good thing for the planet.

FSC-certified products are now widely available and stocked by many retails from small furniture boutiques to big retailers like B&Q and Homebase. Look for the logo. And in case you’re worried about extra expense, they shouldn’t cost you anymore.

Don’t buy tropical hardwood (made in china)

In Britain, we buy three-times as much wood as the world-average. And we import four-fifths of it.

At least 60% of tropical hardwood we buy – woods such as teak, mahogany, redwood, rosewood and merbau – is felled illegally. Much of this comes from China.

Half of all internationally traded tropical hardwood passes through China. The country is the leading exporter of plywood, furniture and flooring. Pretty much all of it is illegally cut down in the rain forests of Indonesia and Papa New Guinea. In Borneo, an area the size of England has been cleared in the last decade, at least half of it illegally.

And a good chunk of wood “made in China” ends up in UK builder’s merchants, DIY retailers and furniture stores.

Deforestation has a huge impact on climate change. It’s estimated that chopping down and burning trees contributes some 8 billion tones of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. That’s more than 16 per cent of total human green house emissions. More than either transport or agriculture. If we stopped destroying forests and planted more instead, we’d be a good way to solving the problem.

So unless the source of that mahogany bed, worktop or shelf is clearly certified then it’s probably best not to buy it. Particularly if it has “made in china” on it.

Scandinavian is good (including IKEA)

The Scandinavia’s farm trees like we farm crops. The Finnish in particular plant huge numbers of trees in well-managed forest. Hardwood from Scandinavia is therefore generally more likely to have been felled sustainably than elsewhere in the world.

And love it or hate it, IKEA is well rated for its clear policies on wood sourcing. The Swedish retailer doesn’t use any wood from old-growth forests and much of the wood it does use is FSC-certified. It also has a long-term plan to stock only FSC-certified wooden products. Unfortunately, they don’t label which products are currently FSC, as they want the IKEA brand to be known for sustainability.

If you’re looking for a bed, Warren Evans is an excellent option. They are the only bed maker in the UK to be certified by the FSC. They also source their wood from the forests of Scandinavia. Other environmental good activities include heating their premises with a biomass boiler using chipping and waste produced by their workshops. They use no packaging, delivering your bed wrapped in a blanket instead. And they recycle old, unwanted beds. Having owned one, I can vouch for their extreme comfyness too.

So furniture is pretty easy to buy sustainably. And if we do, in effect we’re helping to plant more trees. Which is very good.

Right, I’m off to buy some FSC-certified shelves.

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window

Our flat was very cold this winter, so we’re buying new windows. New, double-glazed windows – as pretty much everyone knows – are better for the environment than old single glazed ones. They make your house better insulated and therefore you use less energy keeping it warm. All good.

So we had a man come round to talk to us about what sort we’d like. I was quite keen on the idea of wood. It looks nicer than ugly plastic stuck in the eyes of your home. And my gut reaction was that it had to be better environmentally.

However.

The man from the window company suggested that his PVC windows were far more energy efficient than his wooden ones. And that we would be wise to go for those. His wooden ones were more expensive, so we believed him.

After he left, I couldn’t help but think that it must be more complicated. Plastic must be more energy intensive to produce. It is also man-made, which can’t be good for the environment.

So I’ve done some research. And it appears my gut reaction was right.

Wood is more eco.

And here’s why…

PVC’s biggest component is oil, which is a non-renewable resource. Products made from non-renewable resources cannot be sustainable to make. Timber from a well-managed, FSC-certified, forest is genuinely renewable. You just plant another tree.

Apparently it takes eight times as much energy to make a PVC window. And the production of it releases five times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as a wooden one (49.4kg compared to 5.7kg).

Then there’s how long it lasts. The average hard wood timber frame lasts 60-years. A PVC one on average, only last 25-years. So a good wooden frame will do you pretty much for life. PVC ones won’t, which means that you need to buy – and make – some more. Wooden frames have a bit of a reputation for needing maintenance. These are the soft wood frames that we have traditionally used in Britain. Good Scandinavian hard wood requires much less. So they might be a fraction more expensive and require a lick of paint every now and then but over their life time they workout up to 25% cheaper than PVC. Nice.

And when you throw them away, PVC windows generate nearly twice as much waste as timber windows. Wood is far easer to recycle, reuse or, if you have to, burn.

82% of PVC waste becomes landfill and because it’s plastic, it doesn’t biodegrade. Wood, being trees, rots.

15% of PVC that is thrown away is incinerated and this releases greenhouse gases into the air that have been locked up in the oil that made it for millions of years. If you burn wood, you’re only releasing back into the atmosphere what the tree had absorbed and so as long as you plant another tree, it’s carbon neutral. Burning PVC also produces a lot of other nasties including dioxins. Dioxins are bad. They’re a bit like evil hormones and can cause cancer and be very harmful to reproduction. Not nice.

And then there’s the efficiency. Was the window man right to say PVC is more efficient?

Well it appears that PVC windows are fractionally more efficient. But only very slightly.

You measure the efficiency of a window by its U-rating. This is how much the window conducts heat. The lower the U-value, the better the insulation. New timber and PVC frames, with double-glazing and argon gas (which is a good insulator) in between the glass, in fact have a very similar U-value.

And, if you include the CO2 created during it’s production, over the lifetime of a window, wood emits an average of 15% less than PVC. So the small benefit in efficiency that PVC windows have is gone several times over before it’s even installed.

Apparently, taking this into account means that if the whole UK switched from using PVC to timber windows, the effect would be similar having 69,446 less cars on the road. That’s a lot of cars.

So given that it makes very little difference to the the efficiency rating, uses a lot less energy to make, doesn’t release cancer inducing nasties into the atmosphere when you burn it, is far easier to recycle and rots if you do chuck it in a landfill site, I reckon wooden windows made from sustainable FSC-certified hard timber are the way forward.

They look much nicer too.

Marvellous.

Useful links

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