Saturday, December 01, 2007

The great plastic bag con.

Just recently the Prime Minister was in the news talking about introducing legislation to reduce single use plastic bags (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7101075.stm). Now I may be a cynic but I suspect he's more interested in the tax other countries have introduced on plastic bags rather than any real green motive.
Ireland has introduced such a tax and now charges 15 cents per bag. In the UK the tax would probably be 10p.

Now, admittedly the Irish tax has slashed the number of plastic bags used dramatically - by 277 million says the Irish government, but it's also raised 2½ million pounds in tax. In the UK if a similar pattern was followed it would raise 70 million pounds in tax. Now this is a drop in the ocean as far as UK tax is concerned - it would cost each of us in the UK just over £1.00 per year and would save 8.4 billion plastic bags each year! That would probably make our environment a lot tidier. But would it actually be much use as a way of combatting global warming?

Let's work it out:
On average each of us in the UK uses 150 bags each per year.
Each one weighs 8 grams - that's 1.2 Kg of plastic which if burnt would produce 3.7Kg of carbon dioxide.
Now that's not quite a true figure because a) CO2 is produced in the manufacturing process and transport of the bags b) many of the bags are disposed of in landfills where they do not decompose but instead remove carbon from our environment.
Let's take a worst case scenario and assume that all the bags are incinerated and that an equal amount of CO2 is produced in the bag manufacture. That would mean each of us is producing 7.5Kg of CO2 each year by just using plastic bags.

Now, let's compare that with other things.
An average motorist in the UK uses 1143 litres of fuel per year and produces 2700Kg of CO2 from it. By reducing his car use by just 0.3% (3/1000ths) each year Mr Average would save his 7.5Kg of CO2
If we all bought 0.3% more local products rather than foreign imports we could save ten times as much CO2 (from transport production of CO2) as we would use with plastic bags.
If we each used 900 fewer sheets of paper each year then that would save the same amount of CO2 as we use in plastic bags - That's equivalent to a magazine per month, two books less per year or just ten fewer newspapers. (Before you say it using recycled paper actually produces more CO2 since there are extra processing costs)

In fact we could produce less CO2 than we use in plastic bags by:

  • fitting a single low wattage bulb as a replacement
  • turning down the thermostat by just 0.3 degrees (wouldn't it be nice if thermostats were that accurate?)
  • fitting an extra 1cm of loft insulation (of course you can't buy insulation that thin so you'll save much more than this)
  • switching the TV off at night rather than leaving it on standby
  • recycling glass bottles
  • recycling aluminium cans
  • unplugging your mobile phone charger when not using it
  • fixing a sheet of aluminium foil to the wall behind your radiators (use Blue-tac).
There are lots of other ways - try a search for 'reducing greenhouse gasses' (Watch out for that misleading 'recycle paper' though)

Now what does this mean.

  • Putting a tax on plastic bags and pretending to be 'green' is foolish. It's easy to say, makes the government a little extra cash and achieves very little other than tidying the environment.
  • Shops like the idea. Those plastic bags cost them about 2p each. I find it interesting that firms like Tesco offer a 'green point' worth 1p every time you reuse a large bag which holds at least twice the amount you put in single use bags. (2 x 2p = 4p, less 1p for a green point = 3 p extra profit)
  • There are far more effective ways of reducing greenhouse gases and almost all of them save you money.

Having said all that - Lets get rid of the bags but only because of the litter problem they create not because of the greenhouse problem.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Goji Berries - I'm convinced


For about two years now my family has been eating dried Goji berries as a regular part of our diet after reading the many claims about them being beneficial to health. About a year ago we stopped using them for three weeks and quickly went back to using them. Apart from the fact that we like their taste here's what we found compared with the claim made for them:

Claim: It improves sexual libido (OK I thought you might want this first!)
I find: Yes - it's true! Gentlemen - feed your wife goji berries. But be warned you'll need to eat them yourself to keep up with her.

Claim: It improves circulation
I find: Also true. My wife had always suffered from cold hands and feet - but not when she ate goji berries. When we stopped for three weeks her cold hands returned.

Claim: It is beneficial for prostate problems.
I find: Not sure about this one, however after blood tests showed a higher than normal PSA count I recently underwent a prostate examination (that's another blog) and the verdict was - no sign of prostate cancer and why did my doctor ask for the test?

Claim: They reduce cholesterol levels.
I find: Another one I can't confirm but - in those blood tests my cholesterol level was found to be lower than normal.

Claim: They reduce joint problems.
I find: True. My wife had problems with her wrists, she has apparently bones which are too flexible and which bend slightly and bruise becoming painful. Since starting to eat goji berries the problem has been much reduced. I used to get periodic stiff necks. Not a trace of them since starting to take goji berries.

Claim: They improve eyesight.
I find: I think it's true. Both of us have stopped wearing glasses to read. When we stopped taking goji berries we had to use glasses again.

Claim: They improve the skin and make you look younger.
I find: Hmm. Can't be sure about this one but then we both signed the Peter Pan pledge years ago. I'm thinking of retiring and people keep saying ' Retire? Surely you are not old enough'.

Claim: They reduce inflammation more effectively than aspirin.
I find: I haven't noticed any such effect. Having said that the only headache I've had in the last six months was during the three week period when we stopped taking them.

Claim: They promote a general feeling of well being.
I find: I feel just fine but then I always did and can't honestly say I've noticed any difference. My wife however is convinced she feels better when taking them.

Now for the bits we've found out that as far as we can tell isn't recorded about the berries.
  1. They are very easy to grow yourself. Put three of the dried berries in a small pot of damp compost. Seedlings will grow within 3 weeks. Once they are 10cm tall transfer them to a bigger pot. They like practically any soil, shade or sunshine. You'll need to protect them from slugs - they love the leaves. Berries can start forming in the second year but you won't get a decent crop for several years. You'll need to protect them from birds and rabbits who also love them. We have ours where we grow roses and mixed in with hawthorn hedges.
  2. The berries taste great eaten fresh or can be dried for storage. We have a hot air drier which works well. You are not supposed to pick the berries by hand because they are very easily damaged (like ripe blackberries).
  3. Check your local chinese supermarket for a cheaper source of the dried berries, failing that try Holland and Barret or even Tesco as a source. Tesco is an expensive source however. If you live in South East England, especially Suffolk look out for them gowing in roadside hedges.
  4. Buy plain yoghurt and add dried goji berries. Leave overnight or for 2-3 hours. The berries will re-hydrate and taste delicious with the yoghurt. Some people may like to liquidise or chop the berries in the yoghurt before eating it.
  5. If you can't wait, add boiling water to dried berries. They will re-hydrate within 10 minutes and you can drink the liquid too.
  6. Cats love the dried berries. They make great treats.
  7. Dried goji berries are a great addition to oatmeal when making flapjack.
  8. The young leaves can be used to make a herbal tea.
  9. The roots of a goji berry plant can be washed, crushed and work well as an antiseptic for scratches.
  10. You can make a goji berry juice from the dried berries. Try adding a little cherry juice concentrate for extra flavour.
All in all goji berries are here to stay in my family. It's just a shame they are so expensive in the shops and as yet we haven't enough plants to supply all our needs.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Brain teaser

It was Jane's birthday and John heard her say -
"I'm twenty-eight today. Last year I was twenty-nine and in two years I'll be twenty. See?"

Everything Jane said was the truth.

Exactly how old is Jane really today?

Answer at the bottom of Sweet Choice

Friday, February 16, 2007

Big brother wants to watch you (even more) - UK Road Tax Scheme

The UK government has plans to replace the current road tax and petrol duty with a pay as you go road use charge. (If any US readers are about to move on to a different blog - don't - If this goes ahead in the UK, you're next!)

Here is an outline of the key points of the plan (taken from the BBC website):
  • Each driver would be charged for every mile of his or her journey.
  • Prices would start from as little as 2p a mile on quiet roads outside rush hours.
  • The maximum price would be £1.34 a mile on busy motorways like the M25 at peak times.
  • Current charges of fuel tax and road tax would be scrapped.
  • A pilot scheme covering a region or large conurbation could be operating "within five years".
  • If all goes well a nationwide scheme could be rolled out within 10 years.
  • A Department for Transport (DFT) feasibility study concluded last year that a national scheme had the potential to cut congestion by about 40% with "only 4% less cars using the roads".
  • He (Mr Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport) wants a decision on whether or not road pricing should be implemented "during the course of this parliament".
  • Mr Darling said new technology was already being used to "better manage road space" - for example a new system of "traffic management " on the M42.
Now let's take a look at how this would affect the 'average' driver using an 'average' car (A
petrol Vauxhall Astra 1.6).

According to government statistics Mr Average drives 15,872 Km (9,862 miles) per year and pays road tax of £175 ($350) and pays 84.4 pence per litre ($6.39 per US gallon compared with US price average of $2.34!)

Of that 84.4 pence per litre 47.1p is fuel duty and 12.57p is VAT. (in US terms that amounts to taxes of $4.41 per gallon). Minus just the fuel duty petrol (gas) in the UK would cost 29.1p per litre ($2.15 per US gallon).

Mr Average's Astra car uses 1143 litres of petrol per year giving him an average of 8.63 miles per litre (that's 32.7 miles per US gallon). At current fuel costs Mr Average's costs per mile travelled are:
  • 7.3 pence per mile for fuel duty
  • 1.8 pence per mile for road tax
Total 9.1 pence per mile. (18¢)

If the new scheme were to be adopted then both of these taxes will be removed (I know what you are thinking - yeah right) and be replaced with a charge per mile that you travel.

Now if you live in the country and only travel on minor roads at non-peak times that would cost you 2 pence per mile which represents a saving of 7.1 pence per mile or £700 per year ($1,368). But how many of us drive like that? Most of us work in cities and have to travel there at peak times. Some unfortunates could find themselves paying mostly £1.34 per mile travelled or £12,318 ($24,000) a year worse off!

Just what is meant by 'peak' times and which roads will get the high charges? According to a document I found at the Department for Transport website it means 7:00-10:00am and 4:00pm-7:00pm and no fewer than 89 major roads are probably due for the £1.34 charge. Here's the list I found:
A1; A1(M); A1033; A11; A12; A120; A14; A168; A180; A19; A2; A21; A23; A259; A27; A282; A3; A30; A303; A31; A34; A35; A38; A40; A404; A404(M); A417; A419; A421; A428; A43; A449; A452; A453; A46; A47; A49; A5; A50; A500; A5111; A5117; A52; A55; A556; A56; A57; A590; A595; A6; A616; A628; A63; A64; A66; A66(M); A69; A742; M1; M11; M18; M180; M2; M20; M23; M25; M26; M27; M271; M3; M4; M40; M42; M45; M5; M50; M53; M54; M55; M56; M6; M6 Toll3; M60 via Barton; M60 via Stockport; M62; M65; M66; M67; M69

Now what about the 'gas guzzlers'? According to the plan there won't be any advantage in choosing to use a fuel efficient car over a 'gas guzzler'. Does anyone really expect this to be allowed? It seems to fly in the face of our aims for reducing carbon emissions. Perhaps different charge bands will be introduced for different vehicles? Maybe that £1.34 is for an 'average' vehicle?

How's it going to work? It seems dependant on GPS technology. Now judging from the number of times that GPS loses a signal or puts you on the wrong road, I expect there will be a few problems here! It's going to involve a £200 ($390) 'black box'. Guess who will pay for that! Will it offer any advantages such as the box recommending which road to use? Will we trust it? Will we all take to the back roads and cause new congestion on roads less likely to cope? How long will it take someone to come up with a hack to reduce your charges? If your car is stolen do you get to pay for the miles the thief drives?

What about privacy? The system will record exactly where the car is and exactly what time it travels. Who will be able to access this information? The police could use it to cut car theft but who else will be able to get the information? Now I can't think of a genuine reason why I would object to the police knowing my position but I can't really say I would be comfortable with this! What happens if I inadvertently travel from A to B at slightly more than the speed limit? Would I get an automatic ticket or a warning from the black box to slow down?

All in all the system proposed has some good features but is far too complex, open to abuse, will probably cause an increase in carbon emissions and will be expensive to run. Although I hate the amount of duty w pay, it would be far better to leave the current system in place.

As to the road congestion problem I would like to remind the government that around 1900 there was a serious concern about the amount of horse s*#t on the roads and predictions that by 1920 we would be knee deep in it.

So what can we do? Sit there and take it? For the first time it's now possible to have an effect on the decision. In a stroke of genius (rare in government circles) our government in the UK is allowing us to make our voice heard by signing petitions online. Go to the site - http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/traveltax/ and sign it before the Feb 20th deadline. All you need is an e-mail address, house number and postcode. At the time of writing 10pm Friday 16th Feb 2007 no fewer than 1,535,803 people in the UK had done so. Tell all your friends to sign it too!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Don't print this!

I'm always complaining to students about the amount of paper they waste. By the time they print work a few times, use worksheets, exam papers, make paper airplanes and get newsletters they must be well on the way to using the average office worker's 10,000 sheets per year.

Paper is environmentally expensive to produce and most people are not aware of it's effect on the environment.

So lets look at this on a 'per sheet' basis ; (standard copy paper).
  • Each sheet weighs about 5 grams
  • Just over 15 grams of wood are used to make it.
  • For each sheet 5 grams of sludge is produced which has to be disposed of.
  • To make each sheet requires 200KJ of energy of which 95KJ are bought in as coal/gas/oil or electricity.
  • Each sheet produces 12.9 grams of carbon dioxide during it's manufacture, transport and eventual disposal by decomposition or burning.
  • Each sheet used adds 6.1 grams of carbon dioxide to global warming (the remaining 6.8 g is used by the trees grown for the next sheet).
  • Each sheet of paper produces 0.06 gram of sulphur dioxide and 0.04 grams of nitrogen dioxide in it's manufacture. Both cause acid rain.
  • Each sheet adds a tiny amount of nasties such as dioxin to the environment.
  • Recycling means less trees are cut down but does not significantly affect the amount of undesirable gases produced due to it's reprocessing costs.
  • White recycled paper adds a disastrous amount of bleach and sludge to the environment. The ONLY sensible way to recycle paper is to use it for unbleached cardboard. Somehow, recycled brown toilet paper just doesn't appeal.
Now since that average office worker is using 10,000 sheets of paper per year this means they are adding:
  • 61Kg of CO2 to global warming
  • Using enough water to fill a small swimming pool
  • producing about 130Kg of acid rain causing gas.
  • adding 45 grams of 'nasties' to the environment
Make what you will of this article. Just one thing - don't print it!

Useful websites:
Paper Vs plastic bags? http://www.angelfire.com/wi/PaperVsPlastic/
The paper calculator http://www.environmentaldefense.org/papercalculator/