I felt I was a typical member of my generation, as much as one analyses these things at the age of ten or eleven. So how is it that as my generation have grown up and entered the spheres of industry and politics, that in a lot of places we've lost our way so desperately? We can pat ourselves on the back for cutting out CFCs, but think about some of the ways we have moved backwards:
- Doorstep deliveries of locally produced milk, fresh every morning, in bottles which were sterilised and reused, have been replaced by plastic bottles picked up in bulk weekly from the supermarket.
- Instead of drinking soda from glasses, poured out of deposit bottles that could be returned to the newsagent for reuse by the drinks company, we grab plastic half-litre bottles of Coke or our sugary poison of choice, which are more likely to be thrown away than recycled.
- Unnecessary packaging has increased almost everywhere you look, it's almost impossible or at least prohibitively expensive to buy vegetables by weight in paper bags as we used to, with the majority picking up their (already impervious to contamination by means of their skins) fruit in plastic trays, wrapped with more plastic. That's if people are eating fruit and vegetables at all, when processed foods with huge carbon footprints are so much more convenient and often cheaper to live on.
- I don't know anyone locally to me who has a compost heap in their garden. In fact I only know one or two people who grow any food, or feed birds, rather than leave their garden as a close-cut lawn or something even more sterile featuring vast quantities of gravel.
- Modern children have more toys than ever, scores of brightly coloured plastic objects which often see little use before being discarded to make room for the latest flavour of the month.
This is all more on my mind than usual recently, as on Friday I took a trip with the Housing Association panel I'm on, to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. It was a return journey for me: I have visited once before, with my family, when I was about thirteen or so. I delighted in rediscovering the place, especially its ingenious cliff railway powered by gravity and rainwater (two things there are no shortage of in the Welsh mountains!) and astonishing engineering. You can see some pictures from my phone here, if you wish.
It was heartening to wander around with the Director and the new Manager of Pembrokeshire Housing, who have always been concerned and conscientious, on the lookout for yet more green initiatives they could incorporate into their policies, their existing stock and their new build houses.
The atmosphere at CAT is great, people there are doing positive things, from volunteering and living in a low-impact way to undertaking hugely impressive postgraduate research. You can't help but come away thinking. The idea is that you go away inspired and energise, I think, but I have to admit to feeling a little troubled.
As I said above, it's profoundly ironic that all the time we have been becoming more 'environmentally aware' this past couple of decades, we have also been consuming more, and doing so less responsibly on the whole. I am proud to be a Liberal Democrat for so many reasons, not least of which is our green credentials as a party: in the areas where government can change these things, we aim to (see the Green Tax Switch for a prime example). In many places where we lead councils you can see the difference, with better public transport and provision for pedestrians high on the agenda (try google searching for "Liberal Democrats pedestrians" and watch the number of campaigns that come up all over the country), and better, properly separated doorstep recycling facilities.
But we can't expect to come in as politicians and make everything better overnight. The mess we're in is up to all of us to take care of, and the eleven-year-old me is still in there somewhere dying to nag you so here goes...
While it is laudable that much is made of recycling up and down the country now, and almost everyone has some form of doorstep recycling scheme, I can't help but think that it is being regarded quite wrongly as a panacea. Sure, it's not entirely greenwash. I would rather see a recycled drinks can than one which is made by mining bauxite and using 95% more energy, that's not in doubt. But people seem to forget that recycling still uses energy and resources to achieve. Here are just a few things that will reduce your waste output in an even more green way than recycling:
- Buying less, and buying ethically with reducing waste in mind wherever possible, ideally from places that use less packaging or biodegradable packaging - farmers' markets are an obvious example, you could see if there's a local 'box scheme' to get fresh fruit and veg delivered to you in season, and away from food I'm a particular fan of Lush (bath and beauty products) for their commitment to this ethos of minimal and degradable packaging. If you aren't frightened of looking eccentric, as it's so rare to find people doing it even now, you could try doing what Ben Bradshaw was urging two years ago and dumping excess packaging at the checkouts. If we could all do this and successfully encourage others to do it, there would come a tipping point where the retailers had to rethink their attitudes.
- Swapping. Oh yes. I have actually done clothes swapping parties and it's a much greater fix than buying a new outfit, because you don't spend anything, you get rid of stuff you don't wear any more, and you get new-to-you stuff that you'll love.
- Composting there was a tiny part of the vast array of displays at CAT that really impressed me and taught me something I didn't really know the extent of: they had two vegetable beds, side by side, into which they had planted precisely the same varieties of seeds. On the left, the weediest little runts of leeks, barely thicker than a pencil, struggled to survive. On the right, the beefiest, biggest leeks I have ever seen stood proud of the bed and jostled for space. The only difference between the two tiny plots was a layer of home made compost. This is an awesome way to cut down your household waste, it's really easy to get started and you can even use waste paper, especially newspaper, in your compost bin.
- Selling things. You might think of eBay or Amazon marketplace immediately, but it's not all about getting the highest price for your limited edition books and music you no longer want! There are still places that will pay to take empty cans off your hands: try looking here to see if there's an alupro centre near you.
- Re-using items, either for their intended purpose or any variety of new ones. Pretty craft projects are great and you don't have to be handy with that kind of thing, everyone can make a lemonade bottle bird feeder! And it's not only on this kind of small scale you should think about reuse of your junk - next time you're throwing out shelves or a microwave, don't just skip them, find out if your local authority has links with charities for such things to be repaired and resold cheaply. In Pembrokeshire, Frame perform this function, and provide work and training to disadvantaged individuals into the bargain. It's where most of my furniture came from :)
I know I sound like an idealist hippy. I know these ideas are still not mainstream. I know we're all very used to life moving quickly and everything being available and disposable to us. I'm as guilty as anyone of all the worst excesses of 21st century life. But we desperately need something politicians are hard-pressed to provide or impose, and quite probably shouldn't in some areas. We need a massive culture shift. And it's been twenty years or more coming. Let's help it gather speed.