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September 2007 - Terra Infirma


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28 September 2007

Big Businesses Tackle Carbon Emissions

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP)'s fifth annual report into the carbon emissions of FTSE 500 companies shows that 76% of those who responded to its survey have put emissions reduction schemes in place, compared to just 48% last year. This is significant as the 383 companies who did respond are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions totalling almost 7bn tonnes per year - 14% of the global total. US businesses didn't fare so well, with only 29% of respondents reporting reduction schemes.

While this massive increase has to be welcomed, it doesn't reflect how effective these carbon reduction schemes are in practice. It still shocks me how much energy is needlessly wasted in industry - asking a production manager how often compressed air lines are checked, or whether he has a motor management procedure usually results in an red faced shuffle of the feet and a mumbled list of excuses. This is easy money to save - it is much harder to bring in additional sales to cover wastage costs.

In the UK, if you use more than £50k pa's worth of energy, the Carbon Trust may give you a free audit. They reckon they can save most businesses about 20% on their bill. Not bad for nothing.

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26 September 2007

The Downside of High Metal Prices

Edie is reporting today that soaring scrap metal prices have lead to thefts from recycling plants and buildings. This confirmed my suspicion that the market was experiencing a boom - in my neighbourhood, manhole covers have recently gone missing and a children's frieze cast in copper was cut up and removed from the local park. It seems a long way from a couple of years ago when the low value of scrap metal was leading to cars being dumped by the roadside by unscrupulous owners wanting to avoid small charges to dispose of their vehicles.

As well as encouraging crime and anti-social behaviour, these severe fluctuations in recyclate prices make operating in the recycling market difficult. Recycling companies keep their gate fees high to mitigate risk, leading to lower recycling rates. This is not well understood by waste producers - I often find myself explaining to small companies that there is little chance that recyclers will collect their waste for free.

Help may come from the Government's announcement of a steep rise in landfill tax - ramping up from the current standard rate of £24/tonne for active wastes (those that give off emissions) to £48/t in 2010/11. This will bring a large number of recycling opportunities into economic viability and, hopefully, help stabilise recyclate markets.

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24 September 2007

Environmental Management Systems Boom

Edie is reporting figures from the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) showing that the number of businesses in the UK holding an ISO 14001 certificate has risen by a whopping 15% in the first 6 months of this year.

ISO14001 is probably the most popular Environmental Management System (EMS) for business. While at first glance the standard may seem straightforward, the amount of time and effort required to get all the procedures and documentation together should not be underestimated. The most difficult requirement is probably for 'continual improvement' - those pesky auditors will expect you to be able to demonstrate year on year improvements in your environmental performance and many companies make the mistake of ignoring this until it is too late and scrabbling around for tenuous evidence of debatable relevance.

Terra Infirma doesn't 'do' EMSs - our focus is on more practical changes to environmental performance - but we recognise that a well designed EMS can provide a solid framework on which to build a sustainable business. An EMS won't give you a sustainable business - you will need to be much more radical than mere continual improvement and many find that challenging enough.

I do suggest you consider carefully whether an EMS is suitable for you (eg I'm not convinced an office based organisation needs one - others disagree), and, most importantly, whether you can resource it properly. Your poor Quality/Health & Safety/Whatever manager will not thank you for yet another job title. If you decide to commission one, make sure it works for you and not the other way around. Lastly: good luck!

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16 September 2007

Sustainability Lessons from Total Quality Management

One of the criticisms of Environmental Management Systems (eg ISO14001) is their reliance on mere continual improvement of environmental performance. It has always surprised me that environmental management has not pinched more ideas from its big brother, quality management.

The Total Quality Management (TQM) movement was conceived in the USA in the 50s but took off in Japan, where it has been credited with turning the phrase 'made in Japan' from shorthand for cheap tatty products into a badge of prestige. The motor industry in particular took it up with a vengance and ended the dominance of US and European models in the global market, until the West started adopting the same techniques.

TQM has two types of change:

• Kaikaku - big radical changes that align the whole system to deliver quality products.

• Kaizen - continual, incremental improvements within that system to squeeze the best performance out of it.

Kaikaku can be considered as 'doing the right thing' and Kaizen as 'doing things right'.

I strongly believe that industry should adopt a similar model for environment performance - big radical changes (like sustainable product development, adopting cleaner manufacturing processes or shifting to product-service systems) should be complemented with basic waste minimisation and energy efficiency techniques. If the success of TQM could be replicated in environmental management, we'd be a long way down the road to sustainability.

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14 September 2007

Biomimicry by Janine Benyus

Another TED video for a Friday (click here to watch).

Janine Benyus gives a stirring overview of her work on Biomimicry - the art of nature-inspired technical solutions. Nature tends to work at ambient temperature, atmospheric pressure and without highly toxic materials, so there are some massive environmental gains to be made if we can copy natural processes.

In her excellent book, Biomimicry, Benyus extends the natural metaphor to larger industrial systems which leads us to our old friend Industrial Symbiosis.

Note: make sure you watch until the end as there is a false ending before she is given extra time to finish her talk.

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Janine Benyus: 12 sustainable design ideas from nature

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12 September 2007

Anita Roddick: The Legacy

I assume that anybody reading this blog will already know that Body Shop founder Anita Roddick sadly died on Monday night at the age of 64.

I never met her personally, but I have spoken to several people who had worked for her at different times. "Force of Nature" seems to sum her up on many different levels - her unwavering commitment to the environment and trade justice, and her personality and business style. Rumours abound of multiple teams of Body Shop staff doing the same project because she had simply forgotten she had already asked someone to do it. She was also withering to anyone who dared question her or her business's integrity.

But none of this detracts from her colossal achievement - to put a 'green' business emporium on almost every high street across the Western world and beyond (2000 stores in 55 countries), mainstreaming environmental and ethical concerns into the life of the ordinary consumer. No one has done it since.

I believe her success is down to one of the key rules of running a green business - grasp the environmental agenda as an opportunity, but don't forget you are still running a business. She may have been chaotically disorganised but I am told she surrounded herself with people who really knew how to run a business. She then focussed her efforts on her strengths - particularly public relations. I heard an anecdote from one of her ex-employees that when she opened her first store in Brighton she would empty a bottle of essential oils over the pavement every morning to entice in passers-by. Not exactly eco-friendly, but very effective salesmanship.

She could never be accused of being afraid to make money - the press reported that events organisers at the Rio Earth Summit in 2002 were told an appearance by Mrs Roddick would cost them £30k plus 5 star hotel accommodation and a first class air fare. She saw no contradiction between such a lifestyle, being the figurehead of a global brand (which she then sold to L'Oreal), and joining anti-globalisation protests.

Love her or loath her, we've lost a true maverick genius in Anita Roddick - and green entrepreneurs could do worse than copy her wholesale.

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10 September 2007

Whose Carbon Is It Anyway?

There was an interesting piece in the Observer about Tesco being attacked for under-stating their carbon footprint by Christian Aid. The supermarket giant has come up with a figure of 4m tonnes CO2 equivalent per annum (more than Mauritius). Christian Aid say that if you include consumers driving to/from supermarkets and the activities of suppliers, Tesco's footprint could be up to twelve times this.

This is a very interesting question: whose carbon is whose?

A consumer can choose whether to drive to an out of town supermarket, or cycle to their high street. On the other hand, the out of town shopping centre was a fundamental part of the 'stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap' business model that lead to the supermarket boom in the 1980s and the decline of independent high street shops. So does that carbon belong to the consumer or the supermarket? Do we halve it between them or double count it?

I think the supplier issue is more clear cut - the choice of produce is a clear choice of the supermarket buyers who have a legendarily iron grip on their supply chain. By making low carbon choices, Tesco could make a huge difference to the food industry (which translates into about a sixth of your own carbon footprint). But there still remains the issue of allocation - if Tesco admits responsibility for the emissions, does that let the supplier off the hook?

This problem scales up to the global level as well. The UK Government is keen to state that the UK's carbon footprint is only 2% of the world's total, but, as we outsource much of our manufacturing, agriculture and tourism to other parts of the world, is that the full picture? China may be building huge numbers of new power stations, but the average Joe in China is not driving a 4x4, or sitting under a patio heater, eating imported food - China is manufacturing products for the rest of the world, including us.

We urgently need better allocation methods to reflect both production and consumption, or we'll never have a clear idea of where responsibility lies.

Note: apologies for the lack of posting on Friday - I had another great video for you, but ended up mired in sweary HTML hell. Will try to get it sorted for this week.

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5 September 2007

Blowing in the Wind?

Last week I saw a presentation from a representative of the New and Renewable Energy Centre, NaREC. They've been testing a Windsave micro-wind turbine on the roof of their building in Blyth, Northumberland. The results were not good.

The turbine was rated at 1.5kW, but the operational curve showed that this output would only be achieved in a Force 6 wind. Typical windspeeds in Blyth were about a third of this, meaning the output was closer to 300W. This isn't great, but not as bad as it might sound - according to my meter, our house consumes about this or less when we're not using the oven, toaster or anything else with an element.

The problem is that the operational curve is based on ideal laminar wind conditions. Being low down in a built up area, the turbine in Blyth was achieving less than half of what it should be as turbulence caused by other roofs caused it to oscillate from side to side on its vertical mounting, spilling the wind.

Apparently the manufacturer is adding some extra damping to reduce this effect, but I can't help thinking it would probably be better leaving wind power to the big guys for the time being.

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3 September 2007

New Recycling Support for SMEs

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has launched the Recycling @ Work scheme to help Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs)* find ways to recycle their waste. There is an advisor in each of the English Regions plus, N Ireland, Scotland & Wales.

This is great news as it can be extremely difficult for small companies to find cost effective collections - mainly because the amount of waste is too small to make it worth the while of recycling companies dispatching a wagon to get it.

I've always thought that a good solution would be to deliver waste collections at a business park level rather than firm-by-firm, so on one day the same wagon could pick up, say, cardboard from dozens of units on the same round, saving time, fuel and money. Someday I will find a business park owner who wants to give it a go.

* as a rule of thumb, an SME has less than 250 employees and is not part of a larger group of companies.

NOTE: The WRAP Website is down at the time of writing so links may not work... Update - now working fine!

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