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August 2007 - Terra Infirma

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31 August 2007

So just what is waste?

The home page on the Terra Infirma website proclaims "waste is a verb, not a noun". This was a little catchphrase I dreamt up while facilitating Industrial Symbiosis brainstorming sessions. My intention was to get across the idea that most waste has an intrinsic value, but that we choose to waste it.

Unfortunately, out in the real world where environmental legislation applies, this is not the case. Legally, 'waste' is anything a company 'discards or intends to discard'. Once it is designated 'waste', it will not stop being waste until it becomes part of a new product (but not an intermediate). This means that if you make plastic products and you want to buy some clean, pelletised recycled plastic to use as a raw material, you will need a waste management licence.

Even the builders of the 'Brighton Earthship' building, made out of scrap tyres rammed with earth, had to get special permission from the Environment Agency, otherwise the building would be an illegal landfill...

The huge barrier that this puts in the way of recycling has been recognised. The Waste Protocols Project (WPP), run jointly by the Environment Agency and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), is developing standards for recovered product. If material meets the standard then it will no longer be waste and can be traded without further restriction.

In my opinion this process needs urgent accelerating if we are genuine about treating waste as a resource.

5pm Update: I've just heard via edie that Blast Furnace Slag (BFS) will no longer will classed as a waste but a by product. Three million tonnes of this material is produced annually in the UK and it can be used in all sorts of construction products. Very good news indeed.

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29 August 2007

The Winds of Change...

When watching footage of this month's Climate Camp, I couldn't help thinking it could be the mid-nineties all over again with the dreadlocked hordes descending upon a perceived environmental criminal armed only with some scaffolding poles, handcuffs and a vegan cookbook. Back then it was the roads, now it’s the skies.

The outcomes of such direct action are never immediate. Whether the topic is the environment, world poverty or war, protesters tend to lose the battle, but win the war. The bypass protesters of the 1990s undoubtedly changed Government road building policies forever, third world debt is being taken seriously to a greater or lesser extent, and I doubt the UK will be standing side by side with the US if they attack Iran. So what effect will the Climate Camp have?

A recent Government survey suggesting that 50% of Brits still don’t believe that their lifestyle is having an effect on the climate. Until very recently, politicians were happy to pontificate on standby switches, efficient lightbulbs and phone chargers left plugged in, but got nervous when asked the difficult questions. But this week the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats published quite radical proposals on the environment and sustainability.

Such big changes provide both big opportunities and big threats to business. Those who are flexible enough to change without losing their business nous will survive, but the dinosaurs and the naive will be left behind.

Will the Climate Camp change the world? Possibly, but more likely it was the sign of things to come.

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23 August 2007

Is life too short for life cycle assessment?

One phrase that immediately makes me suspicious is "A Life Cycle Assessment has shown that...".

If you haven't come across Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) before, it is a structured method of collating all the inputs and outputs over a product's life cycle and combining them into a single score. The results can be used either to identify the key environmental impacts over the life cycle, or to decide which of a number of products are most eco-friendly.

This sounds great until you actually try it. I've done two to a greater or lesser extent and reviewed many case studies. The reasons why I don't particularly want to do any more are:

1. Time, cost & effort - it takes ages to hunt down information and usable generic data is hard to come by. One major electronics manufacturer told me that they budget £10 000 per component for LCA.

2. Assumptions on the life cycle - so-called durable products tend to get binned when their owner decides to rather than when they actually break down and die. A mobile phone will happily last 10 years with a battery upgrade, but I replaced my last one after 4 years when I needed a new battery and I was fed up with younger colleagues laughing at it. So all those questions on how long the product will last, how often it will be used etc are very hard to predict and, as I discovered in my MPhil on the subject, it is these factors that often have most influence on LCA results.

3. WYGIWYN - What You Get Is What You Need - the tendency for LCAs to mysteriously back the product of the company sponsoring the LCA over its rivals...

4. The tendency for independent LCAs to find no statistical difference between completely different product systems, for example the paper/plastic bag and real/disposable nappy debates.

5. LCAs can't do some impacts very well - like losing the last tiger, or waste to landfill.

6. They only give you information about the current product - the time and money might have been better spent on finding a breakthrough solution.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against whole life cycle thinking, but I think practitioners are kidding themselves if they honestly believe LCA gives them the answer. An answer maybe...

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16 August 2007

The kids are alright

It's all a bit silly season here at Terra Infirma Towers at the minute - the usual series of holidays with sudden intense bursts of work in between, so service on the blog may be somewhat erratic until September. But, anyway...

Yesterday I was judging the entries for the Dott 07 Schools Eco-design Challenge. Schools from across the North East of England were invited to measure the ecological footprint of their school day and develop design solutions. Last year Terra Infirma provided technical support in the development of the teaching materials for the project and trained about 55 teachers in eco-design techniques, so it was great to go back and see the results of our efforts.

About 36 entries had made it through the initial screening and they ranged from an Eden-style bubble classroom to funky light switch covers to remind people to switch out the lights. I was particularly impressed with the toothbrush that stored water so you don't have to keep turning on the tap to rinse it, but simply squirted water through the bristles. The amount of work that had gone in across the board was astounding - the teams of pupils submitted photos, diagrams, models and even videos of their designs. I wonder if any of these kids will be inspired to become the eco-innovators of the future - I certainly hope so.

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13 August 2007

UK's renewables commitment looks doomed

The Guardian has a big splash on the UK's renewables target today - and how it is likely to be missed by a mile. We're heading for 5% renewables by 2020, compared to the 20% European target that Tony Blair signed up to this spring.

This is not a surprise as the Government has repeatedly signed up for headline grabbing commitments without a tangible plan to deliver them. And what has been brought forward has lacked oomph, for example:

1. The Low Carbon Buildings Programme (which provides subsidies for micro renewables) has been afflicted with all sorts of procedural problems and starved of cash. When I bought my solar hot water system, I didn't bother with the scheme as my preferred installer wasn't registered and at that time the grants were running out on the first day of every month.

2. The Government was also decidedly lukewarm about backing the Merton Rule, developed by the titular London Borough, which requires new developments over a certain size to source a certain amount of their energy on site.

3. The Renewables Obligation on large generators has helped expand wind power in particular, but hasn't had the effect that the much simpler German system has. It is also the reason why your 'green electricity tariff' isn't actually very green.

And that's about it.

Meanwhile, countries from Ireland to Latvia are tearing past us on their generation of renewable electricity, the latter almost hitting 50% in 2005 compared with our measly 4.3%.

If it can be done and must be done, why aren't we doing it?

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3 August 2007

Off on holiday for a week...

...more posts the week after.

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1 August 2007

Happy Birthday To Us!

Terra Infirma was established exactly a year ago today with the mission to bring sustainability to industry, communities and other organisations. In 12 months we have been directly employed by 10 clients ranging from Government Departments to micro businesses, worked with over 100 organisations face to face through those contracts, and communicated with many thousands of people through articles, blogs and on-line forums. The next year looks highly promising too with some fantastic projects in the pipeline.

Laying the self-congratulation aside for a moment, this success is probably not surprising given the UK's environmental consultancy market has risen to £1.5bn a year, pretty much doubling from 10 years ago (source: ENDS). The biggest contributor to the sector is land remediation, followed by waste management - suggesting that most money is still to be made cleaning up existing pollution rather than redesigning systems to avoid environmental problems in the first place, the service we provide to our clients.

This blog is one of the features that we will be maintaining into the next year - we hope you will keep reading and please do not hesitate to get in touch via if you would like to discuss any sustainability issue with us. Now where's that champagne...

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