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Old timey lady carrying a paper bag of groceries

Recycle our grandparents’ ideas and make a difference

Image credit: Dreamstime

Nostalgia for Britain in the middle of the last century has put the spotlight on some habits and choices that could hold the key to reducing our individual carbon footprint by 2050.

There was a noticeable ‘reset’ for the environment during this pandemic’s early lockdown. As well as less traffic on the roads, reduced noise and air pollution, we saw people looking to local, community-based pastimes, such as baking and gardening.

Wanting to maintain the ‘slower’ pace has generated growth in shopping locally, which was common in 1950 before the advent of supermarkets. Analyst firm Kantor reported that local corner and independent grocery shops saw a 63 per cent increase in trade from March to May 2020 as shoppers stayed away from city centres. Many would have walked to the local shops and, like shoppers in 1950, would have brought some form of reusable bag or basket to carry home their purchases.

In his book ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’, Mike Berners-Lee, a fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, calculates the carbon footprint of everyday items and activities. For example, a disposable plastic bag has a carbon footprint of 3g, while a reusable ‘bag for life’ has a carbon footprint of 50g, based on the CO2e (CO2 equivalent) of the manufacturing process over the useable lifetime of the bag. The CO2e figure includes all greenhouse gases (e.g. nitrous oxide and methane).

In 1950, the UK was just emerging from the austerity of the Second World War; there was still rationing for meat and bacon until 1954. Many people grew their own fruit and vegetables, which meant that they ate only what was grown locally and in season. Today, we are used to eating fruit and vegetables out of season, but the cost in terms of carbon footprint is making some people re-evaluate their habits and return to locally grown, seasonal food.

For example, lettuces are grown outdoors in the UK in the summer months and either grown in a greenhouse or imported from Spain in winter. Considering the refrigeration and air-freight emissions, importing a Spanish-grown field lettuce produces 0.4 to 0.5kg of CO2e. To grow it in a UK greenhouse during the winter produces 1.5 to 3.7kg CO2e. Refrigerated transport accounts for 42.5 per cent of those emissions and energy to heat a greenhouse in the UK to cultivate the lettuce accounts for 84.3 per cent of emissions.

Locating greenhouses in urban areas may be one solution. Ian Hart is business development director at engineering services company adi Group, which is working with local growers to build urban greenhouses. “The key thing is to reduce transport costs; that’s where we really see the advantage. Flying those products around the world in the middle of winter does not make a lot of sense,” he says. There are also ethical issues of using water in areas where water is scarce, putting pressure on local resources and the cost of water treatment. “[Low-carbon agriculture] saves refrigerated trucks and aviation air miles,” he adds.

Urban farming can reduce the transportation distances from crop to customer, and low-carbon farming can further reduce emissions. For example, a greenhouse built next to a water treatment plant can transfer heat in a closed-loop system to maintain the correct temperature and reduce the use of fossil fuels for growing the crop. Water collected from the roof of a building can be treated and re-used in an industrial-scale equivalent of the gardener’s rainwater butt.

An IET survey conducted by independent market research agency Opinium into environmental behaviours and attitudes, found that people aged 18-34 were more likely to avoid buying fruit or vegetables imported from other countries than those aged 35-54 and 55 years and over. Over half (53 per cent) were more likely to avoid buying products with unnecessary packaging.

The survey also found that while the majority of people of all age groups wanted to change behaviours, they needed a pragmatic reason to do so. For example, among those who had installed double glazing, the motivation behind the decision was its cost-saving benefits (67 per cent) rather than wanting to reduce their carbon footprint (17 per cent).

Asked about transport choices, 73 per cent said they would prefer to drive for 15 minutes rather than take public transport, which would take 45 minutes. The survey also found that for those without a car, the main reason was cost or that the transport links were good, rather than a desire to reduce their carbon footprint.

A booklet issued by the Ministry of Information in 1943, ‘Make Do and Mend’, included design ideas to repair and re-use clothes. “The average person in the UK now buys 60 per cent more clothing today than 18 years ago,” says Dr Nicole Koening-Lewis, associate professor in marketing at the Cardiff Business School. She was speaking at Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ assembly to discuss the UK reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The production of over one million tonnes of clothing purchased in the UK in 2016 incurs CO2e for manufacture as well as water and air pollution, yet 300,000 tonnes of clothing is sent to landfill every year, says Koening-Lewis.

Repairing or reusing clothes and other items reduces the manufacturing CO2e. The Repair Café is an initiative which takes place once a month in around 200 locations across the UK to help people extend the working life of products. It is run by volunteers, and people can bring household appliances to be repaired, free of charge, or clothes, for example, to have a zip replaced, because people don’t often have the time or the skills for these repairs.

Each Repair Café can save 24kg of CO2 emissions. “If you multiply this by 12 times a year, 200 locations, that would be around 60,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions which could be prevented,” says Koening-Lewis. “Everything we share, everything we reuse, [means] we don’t need to make these things new using raw materials.”

Last year, the European Environmental Bureau evaluated the economic and environmental impact of manufactured goods, in particular washing machines, vacuum cleaners, notebook computers and smartphones. It assessed the CO2e of production and transportation of new goods and their typical lifespan. While newer models have introduced energy efficiency which can offset some of the CO2e expended in manufacture, it found that the majority of the global-warming potential is accounted for in the manufacturing process. This can range from 10-31 per cent for vacuum cleaners to 51-92 per cent for smartphones.

The ‘Cool Products Don’t Cost the Earth’ report calculated that if the working lifetime of all the washing machines, notebook computers, vacuum cleaners and smartphones in the EU was extended by just one year, it would save around four million tonnes (4Mt) of CO2 annually by 2030. This is the equivalent of taking more than two million cars off the road for 12 months. For vacuum cleaners and smartphones the savings would be 1.6Mt and 2.1Mt CO2, respectively, per year by 2030.

There are lessons to be learned from how our grandparents lived. For example, using local amenities and walking or cycling to get around all reduce an individual carbon footprint. Repairing and re-purposing items extends their useable life, which means that the carbon footprint required to produce them in the first place is extended over a longer period of use.

Rather than reset to 1950 living, in 2020 we can use the advances in technology to make sure that these practices are efficient. Apps such as Freecycle can connect people locally to exchange household goods, while others, such as Vinted, specialise in second-hand clothes. Car-sharing apps can be used to reduce the number of cars manufactured around the world and our reliance on car ownership, and other 21st-century innovations such as online banking and video meetings all reduce the amount of travel required to conduct our daily lives.

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