Ban on plastic bags – good news or bad?

November 16, 2007 at 9:14 am

They have been banned in South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh; taxed in Ireland; become the subject of much debate in cities from Edinburgh to San Francisco; and brought headline fame to the small Devon town of Modbury. There is no doubt about it: plastic bags have become a contentious issue.

It is estimated that, globally, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year. That works out at over one million each minute. The environmental impact is huge and the problem is not just the fact that many of the bags end up in our over-stretched landfill sites, or that the production depends on non-renewable sources such as petroleum and natural gas. What is significant is that the plastic used to manufacture the bags does not biodegrade but instead photodegrades, breaking down into ever decreasing toxic particles, which contaminate the world’s soil, water supply and end up in the food chain, being accidentally ingested by animals.

An estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic finds its way each year into the sea, with devastating consequences for marine wildlife. In fact, it was after the filming of a BBC documentary in Hawaii, that wildlife photographer, Rebecca Hosking, set up the campaign to ban plastic bags in her home town of Modbury.

Talking of the hundreds of dead albatross chicks that she saw, Miss Hosking said: “There were carcasses everywhere I looked. You couldn’t walk in a straight line without stepping on a dead chick. Plastic was bursting out of the bodies.” Modbury’s answer to the problem has been to sell paper or recycled cotton bags, but have they, and environmentally friendly towns like them, got it right?

Research carried out by the Government shows that 59% of us reuse our plastic bags for everything from disposing of our rubbish, “poop-scooping” when walking our dogs, wrapping up our baby’s dirty nappies, and disposing of our cat’s litter. When a tax was introduced in Ireland, the free supply of plastic bags dried up and people actually ended up buying more plastic than before the tax was introduced, in the guise of bin liners and nappy bags.

When retailers changed to paper bags, the environmental impact was even greater: it takes four times as much energy to create a paper bag than it does a plastic bag. The trees cut down to produce the paper are no longer able to absorb greenhouse gases and, when degrading, paper produces even more greenhouse gases. Paper bags also take up far more room in landfill sites because of their bulk, although they do degrade more quickly than plastic.

Cotton bags do not fare much better. A cotton bag weighs around eleven times more than the average plastic bag, creating a far bigger carbon footprint bearing in mind the need to transport it from the other side of the world. Consideration also has to be given to the poor working conditions and meagre salaries of those making these cotton bags.

All in all, the ban on plastic bags is a thorny issue. There’s a lot of money out there for the person who can invent a bag, which does not deplete our natural resources in its manufacture, and which disappears as if by magic, when no longer needed!

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Recycle your roof and the sky’s the limit!

November 9, 2007 at 8:48 am

Recyclenow are making an effort to justify their slogan of the possibilities are endless with a new recycling initiative.

Vinyl roofs made from PVC that are currently keeping the rain off our homes can actually be recycled and reused for various household and industrial purposes. The durable material from old roofs can be melted down and then made into things such as speed-bumps, curbs on pavements in car-parks and various other places where tarmac is used. The PVC membrane is also very useful as lining for carpets, traffic cones, road signs and barriers.

The business of roof recycling is thriving in Europe but here in the UK we are lagging behind somewhat. Gordon Harris, the Managing Director of Advanced Roofing, who are trying to lead the charge, said: “My view is that people who use the stuff will make this scheme work. Advanced Roofing currently recycles all its PVC waste. We know there are recyclers who will take all the membrane waste we can give them. If enough roofing companies take part, then I’m sure we could organise a workable collection system.”

The reason this hasn’t been a pressing concern for these roofing companies and for the individual home-owner is because the life-span of the PVC based material on the roof is around 50 years. So, for the most part, they are still up there and doing their job. In the next 10 or so years, however, this will all change and companies such as Advanced Roofing are urging us to be ready in time.

Mr Harris plans for the process of recycling to operate on a ‘chain’ type of system, or as he puts it, a ‘milk-round’. The roof cells will be gathered up by roofers and then stockpiled until enough is stored to necessitate another contractor then taking it away to be recycled. This will prevent the 1% that is currently already going to landfill becoming any higher.

This is a slow-burning area of the recycling world and, for the time being, it can afford to be this way to some extent. But within the next decade the after-life of old PVC roofs will shorten, they will need to be disposed of, and it will then become another recycling responsibility for us all.

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Recycle bins on our high streets

November 9, 2007 at 8:40 am

With the UK still possessing one of the lowest recycle rates in Europe, 2007 has been a big year for Gordon Brown‘s new government in terms of environmental and recycling initiatives. One of the latest ideas has come in the form of special ‘recycling bins’ being dotted along our high streets, next to the normal litter bins, clearly marked with what recyclable waste one can deposit. The bins aren’t only planned for the high streets themselves but all public areas around towns such as car parks, recreation grounds, entertainment venues and shopping precincts.

The idea has come out of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and their scheme this year called Recycle on the Go. Launched in Aug 2007, the scheme proposes a ‘voluntary code of practice’, as outlined in The Waste Strategy for England 2007 and is focused on encouraging and improving recycling in all public areas.

There have been ideas such as colour-coded bins, to help people understand where and what to recycle, but all of these initiatives will have to be taught to all of the individual owners of the public (or rather private) areas in our towns and cities. Advice will be available from Defra, who are working with the environment charity Encams, but one of the more obvious hurdles for this idea is where the funding will come from.

Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Environment Board Paul Bettison was sceptical, “The government have come up with this as a good idea but my concern is they have given no increase of assistance with funding.”

Techniques such as this are not a new idea in the UK and certainly not in Europe. Already a number of UK towns and cities have adopted methods to encourage their residents to recycle on the move.

  • In Norwich city centre there are a number of recycling bins and the local council plan to increase them to every street corner.
  • There are ‘commuter bins’ in the centre of London for all the thousands of free daily newspapers generated in rush-hour.
  • In Manchester airport there are similar bins for all types of waste.
  • In Chester they have designated ‘green spaces’ in the town to recycle waste around the river and park areas.
  • Bins already in operation in the London borough of Camden are likely to be a good bench-mark for the rest of the country. There are over 50 bins dotted around the borough; all made from 100% recycled plastic themselves and accepting all kinds of paper, cans, glass and plastic bottles.

The British public often generate as much rubbish when out and about as they do at home, so this idea seems to make perfect sense. It might all boil down to finding funding for it though, or it might be more about the local councils and landowners making the services easily available and understandable. Then again, it’s more likely to prove a success or failure if we, the public, make an effort to find these bins and actually use them.

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Vatican Commits to Carbon Neutrality

November 2, 2007 at 9:13 am

Leading the way in environmental concerns, the Vatican has recently announced its plans to become the first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state in the world. The plans come after a recent statement by Pope Benedict XVI, who, drawing on the teaching on stewardship in the Book of Genesis, emphasised the need of the international community to respect and encourage a ‘green culture.’

Pope Benedict’s own commitment to climate change reinforces that of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who in 2001 spoke out against the indifference shown by many to the world’s ecological crisis. The Vatican hopes that its pragmatic approach to climate change will usher in a new way of living, in which individuals and organisations will wake up and take responsibility for the survival of the planet.

To help realise its ambitious targets of carbon neutrality, the Vatican has selected the environmental initiative of KlimFa, a Hungarian company co-owned by Planktos Inc, which is working in collaboration with Hungary’s government, Academy of Sciences and National Parks Directorate. KlimFa is an eco-restoration firm that works with companies and organisations to accurately assess their carbon emissions, allowing those companies to offset the damage caused by their carbon footprint through large-scale reforestation projects.

In partnership with the Vatican, KlimFa has been working to create a Vatican Climate Forest, which has been calculated to neutralise the Vatican’s carbon emissions for an entire year. The forest has been created in Hungary’s Buck National Park, as part of KlimFa’s Climate Parks programme, which plans to transform over 10, 000 hectares of Hungarian soil into native mixed forests over the course of the next decade.

This will also aid in creating new jobs for struggling Hungarian communities, as well as bringing about environmental regeneration. By using a complex mix of scientific planting patterns, species selection and growth rate measurements, KlimFa are able to calculate accurately the amount of oxygen produced by the forests, which can then go on sale to the European community as carbon offsets. As well as working directly with the Vatican, KlimFa will also work alongside Catholic churches outside of Rome, to help calculate their individual carbon footprints and put plans in place for carbon reduction and offsets.

The exact dimensions of the Vatican Climate Forest will depend on the Vatican’s success in reducing its current emissions, so, as well as working closely with KlimFa on the large-scale reforestation project, the Vatican is making significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Next year the Vatican plans to replace the roof of Paul V1, its 6,300-seater auditorium with photovoltaic cells which will convert solar energy into electricity. It is believed that the introduction of solar panels onto the building will create enough energy to heat, cool and light the building, with any excess energy being used in the Vatican’s network. There are also proposals to put solar panels on other buildings although historic sites such as St Peter’s Basilica will be left untouched.

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