Friday, 1 October 2010

It's Still Not Easy Being Green

There are three reasons why most people residing in the UK know the name Dick Strawbridge. He is:
1. The man with the best moustache on British T.V. (and possibly the world)
2. The man behind BBC hit ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’.
3. The man who was recently robbed of the winner’s crown on Celebrity Masterchef.

His eco house (complete with compost toilets, solar panels, windmill, chickens, and more) is based fairly near to my own home in Cornwall, so a few weeks ago when he popped into the bookshop where I work, my lovely colleague, L, lynched him and his son James (or, as he is widely known amongst the ladies working in our store, ‘Handsome James’) into doing a signing with us. And into judging our staff ‘bake-off’. And I lynched him into talking to me about plastic.

“We just take it for granted, it’s everywhere,” he tells me. “2010 and plastic’s all over the place.

“I’ve heard arguments where plastic can actually be described as being quite environmentally friendly. It doesn’t take a lot of resources to make something which is really quite capable – there’s not much plastic in a plastic bag, if you look at it as a single entity. Sum it up and we got a bit lazy.

“Nowadays,” Dick reminds me, “packaging is all. It’s the big P word; plastic and packaging come together. And it all comes together at a point where we’ve forgotten that is has an impact – and it’s got a detrimental impact, what we’re doing.”

In the Strawbridge household
The mission of Newhouse Farm, the Strawbridge smallholding, is ‘To live a 21st century lifestyle, but to produce little or no waste, and to remove our dependence upon fossil fuels’. With this in mind, I wondered how successfully he manages to avoid plastic creeping into the house.

“Do you know how it gets into our house?” he says. “The internet.” Yup, that sounds familiar.

“That’s a sort of stealth way of doing it. If I was in a shop and somebody tried to give me something, I’d say no; I just don’t even think about it. On the internet, you buy something, all of a sudden it turns up and you just wonder why the hell it came like that.”

I can definitely relate – I’m rapidly learning that, despite constant temptation, it is generally much safer packaging-wise to simply not buy from the internet – unless you contact the seller first and question their packaging policy, like I recently did with Natural Spa Supplies.

Curtailing the plastic mindset
“At the moment plastic is thought of as being cheap, when actually it’s a limited resource,” Dick comments.

Plastic manufacturers only pay for the resources that go into their product; they only consider this one cost of what they are making and sending out into the world, when the reality is that every given item costs the world – both people and the environment – a lot more than just the value of extraction, and manipulation, of resources. For instance, aside from the environmental costs of extraction, there are the costs for disposal of the product after its use: transportation, landfill or recycling, both in economic terms and environmental ones. Dick suggests that these costs be included in the original cost of the product.

“All the way through, these things have pennies and pennies and pennies added to them. Those costs, the person who doesn’t give a **** at the front end, the person who’s actually making it – charge them for the whole cost.

“There are alternatives, without a shadow of a doubt, to everything that we do, but at the moment it is the economics that are driving it. [Given current economic issues] can we afford to give businesses more limitations and make it more expensive?” he asks.

And: “I think actually we can,” he says.

This, essentially, is life cycle analysis. The producer should consider all the potential impacts of their product, and build the costs of those costs into the product. This may make everything a lot more expensive – but only because the monetary cost of what we’re consuming will more effectively reflect the real-world cost of that consumption. At the moment, what we pay for goods doesn’t reflect this. It makes so much sense the more I think about it. Perhaps by having to pay more for an item, it’ll make me question whether I really need it? More often than not, I don’t need it – I just want it, and that is something entirely different.

There’s no doubt that Dick Strawbridge has got a big personality. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of our small staff room, tasting the various cakes and bread that have been offered up by the booksellers for his scrutiny, he makes jokes, tells anecdotes, and discusses ideas; his thoughts seem to travel a mile a minute. But when it comes to issues of sustainability and being green, he’s extremely earnest.

“We need innovation,” he tells me.

“In October I’ll be launching at St Austell Asda the first paper two litre milk bottle. It’s got some plastic in it, but it’s mainly compressed paper, from the Green Bottle Company. I’m getting involved because I reckon that in four or five years the plastic milk bottle and plastic bottles could actually be on their way out. Because if this functions the way it should do, if it does the job properly, how do you justify using plastic? Very exciting sort of move. We need something like that; we need innovation.”

And finally… the three R’s
“The old mantra, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, it’s not very sexy anymore.”

Do they still teach this in schools, I wonder, or has it fallen by the wayside? Innovation is important, extremely important, finding new ways of making things, but perhaps more important than new technology is to change our habits.

“Reducing what we use in the first place is much better than saying, ‘Ah, I’ve got this compostable bag’. We have to get into the frame of mind where people are actually using less. We don’t need to come up with another technical solution, just don’t use as much. That’s the way forward.”

Learn more!
Dick and James Strawbridge's newest book, Practical Self Sufficiency, is out now. And if you want to learn hands on about making your own home more sustainable, the Strawbridges are running a selection of courses from Newhouse Farm, or have dinner cooked for you!

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