Over a decade ago, after a cliche-ridden epiphany – think sunrise, yoga and dolphins – I relinquished life as a jetsetting travel writer in an attempt to make amends for a Yeti-sized carbon footprint. I decided there and then to turn down any press trips that involved flights. Given that my niche was the south Pacific, I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t being overly idealistic.
Now, instead of flying high, I travel at a snail’s pace. My home for the last 11 years has been a narrowboat on which I cruise the canals, slowly and occasionally, so as not to use too much diesel. I live as simply as I can, with most of my domestic power coming from solar panels. I cycle, I recycle, and when I shop I always visit the charity shops. And I’ve never been more content: time to stand and stare is indeed what life is about.
But there’s always more we can do. So, a decade on from my epiphany, I try to upgrade my green routine.
Cycling is already a healthy and green way to get about – but a bike frame made from bamboo goes the extra mile, as it absorbs carbon dioxide during its manufacture. I wanted to give one a go.
The bamboo bike is beautiful. And so lightweight. Within 10 minutes of its first outing, I have an admirer. “Lovely lugs,” says a man at Oxford station where I’m about to take the bicycle on the train. When I realise he’s talking about the moulded plastic joints that hold the bamboo frame together, I tell him that they are the first of their kind – 3D printed – an innovation in bamboo bicycle construction. This bike is a prototype, the result of a research project at Oxford Brookes University’s faculty of technology, design and environment.
“Bamboo is comparable in strength to steel, and lighter than aluminium,” says Dr Shpend Gerguri, who led the project, and who has loaned me the head-turning two-wheeler. Gerguri has previously ridden a bamboo bike almost 400 miles across the Alps. “It’s very comfortable and efficient to ride, damping vibrations that would otherwise tire you out,” he says.
Meanwhile, my admirer tells me he built his own bamboo bike during lockdown at an outlet in London. “It’s the best ride I’ve ever had,” he says.
I’ll definitely be looking at bamboo bikes when mine eventually needs replacing.
Making do and mending
Make-do-and-mend is a war-time slogan worthy of revival. But after 11 years of enduring a horrid kitchen on my boat, I’ve decided I’ve made-do enough. But how to make it over in a green way?
I long for better use of storage space and a worktop that I can wipe clean. But my first choice – a reclaimed timber worktop from a community recycling website – doesn’t work out. Instead I opt for a new bamboo worktop … possibly to match my future bicycle? This member of the “grass” family is known for its fast growth and sustainable harvesting methods.
Yes, there is the issue of transport emissions and all the adhesives, but my new tiles will be made in the UK by a ceramicist transitioning to green energy. And I decide to keep my ancient fridge after treating the rust on the door.
Now, feeling full of the make-do-and-mend spirit, my mind turns to my clothes. UK households throw away a huge amount of textiles each year – an estimated 3.1kg per person. I have a darning mushroom somewhere that I’ve never used. I hunt it out, along with darning thread and needles. It’s gently therapeutic sitting next to my log-burner, darning socks.
Green Savings Bonds
If we find that we have some savings in our pocket, then we should make sure that money is doing its bit. Green finance – where your money is invested in businesses and projects that are sound for the environment, be it funding wind farms to tackling plastic waste – is a growing sector.
And the government is now bringing a new green finance product to the mainstream. This is NS&I’s Green Savings Bond. This secure three-year, fixed-term government bond is available to buy online. I can invest as little as £100 and earn a fixed rate of interest for three years.
My savings will be held by HM Treasury and used to finance projects helping the UK meet its target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050; projects such as retrofitting buildings so they use less energy, carbon capture and storage, electric transport and tree planting.
The Green Financing Framework outlines where the money will go and the Carbon Trust has also approved the scheme.
It seems that my small savings can help make a difference. This area has always been a bit of a blind spot for me, but this sounds exciting.
Usually I shop in supermarkets where plastic wrapping is prevalent. I persuade myself that a few more grams isn’t going to make much difference. But more than 2m tonnes of plastic packaging is used in the UK annually, says the sustainability charity Wrap.
So what better place to start than a zero-waste shop? Violeta Martin Garcia and Dan Ludlow opened their zero-waste shop in Banbury two years ago, when the council offered them two months in Castle Quay shopping centre, rent-free as a trial.
“It was a success and we’ve been here since,” says Garcia. She weighs my empty jars and notes their weight on the base. She grinds me fresh peanut butter – roasted peanuts, no palm oil, salt or anything else. I watch as the level of peanuts in the hopper drops and a swirl of fresh nut-butter snakes into my jar. The machine adjacent makes vegan chocolate-nut butter. I have some of that, too. I grind coffee beans into a paper bag and inhale the aroma.
There are various dried foods – such as pasta, rice and oats – in self-serve dispensers. I spy dried porcini mushrooms, delicious in risotto, so I buy an empty glass storage jar and fill it with those. They’re much cheaper than buying them in little plastic tubs in the supermarket. My purchases also include a coir pot scourer, a compostable cellulose sponge and an all-natural scrubbing brush, fitting utensils for my future new kitchen.
UK households generate about 6m tonnes of food waste annually. Living on a boat, with no council refuse collection, food waste is even more of an issue. I have a kitchen wormery, so that I can feed tiger worms my peelings. It has been a bit hit-and-miss to be honest. The liquid fertiliser they produce has been magical for my tomato plants. However, at the moment the little wrigglers seem to be on furlough. Last time I looked, I could only see a few. I want to buy a fresh batch, but, unsurprisingly, there are no live tiger worms on the shelves in local shops. This means an internet purchase is in order. But even online searching has an environmental impact. All those servers whirring away and computing millions of bits of information don’t just power themselves.
So I use a search engine that powers its servers with renewable energy and donates 80% of its profits to nonprofit organisations that focus on reforestation. Using the search engine plants trees. Over 130m have been planted so far in more than 30 countries, from Thailand to Tanzania.
I browse a few possible suppliers of tiger worms and place my order. By the time I’m done, the personal counter on the search widget tells me I’ve helped to plant three trees. That’s a green result with no effort on my part. Now I just need to wait for my tiger worms to be delivered to a friend’s address. I wonder if I should warn him this time?
If nothing else, my few days of living greener have reminded me of quite how much there is to do. It’s also made me see that small changes can have a big impact and, what’s more, they often make life more enjoyable.
Find out more about Green Savings Bonds at nsandi.com