World Earth Day


Saturday is World Earth Day, this year’s theme is “Climate Literacy” which is needed more than ever. I have been reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History which is scary warning for all that is going wrong with our natural environment.  It essential, if depressing, reading. So I started to look for some signs of hope, technology that is making things better, and simple ways to make my habits more sustainable.


One big impact on our environment comes from what we eat, the high level of meat in our diet has a negative effect in terms of land use, water use, pollution and green house gas emissions. Some experts conclude that we just need to eat less meat, according to Mark Bittman in a TED talk from 2007 “Less meat, less junk, more plants”. There are a couple of answers for the future that don’t require you to give up all the bacon.

Cultured Meat

Also called synthetic meat, fake meat, clean meat or in vitro meat, depending on the view of the writer. It has given rise to all those stories of the World’s Most Expensive Burger, tasty Chicken treats, and pet medication. As far as I know there’s no synthetic bacon that passes the taste test – yet.


I have eaten scorpion.

What we eat is largely culturally determined, and while in the west eating insects has a high cultural barrier around the world thousands of people eat insects – deliberately.

So where did I eat scorpion? In China, there was a translation issue, or a pronunciation issue since the word for scorpion (xiēzi) is quite close to the word from eggplant (qiézi). Or perhaps it was the waiter’s little joke on the foreigners. The scorpion is technically an arachnid, rather than an insect, but the idea is the same. They come deep fried, which denatures the poison and they’re, um, crunchy.

If you feel ikky about eating insects it’s a barrier you can overcome, indeed we may have to.

What can you do?

  • reduce the amount of meat you eat, experiment with meat-free Mondays, or only eat meat in the weekends.
  • pay attention to the source of your meat, if you’re eating less you can pay more for meat from animals that have been grazing outdoors.
  • learn to cook vegetarian meals, the lentil is your friend.
  • plan your meals so that you reduce food waste.


Fashion has evolved a ‘fast fashion‘ ethos, where we add to our wardrobe continuously with cheap clothes designed not to last. This consumes resources and creates waste as we throw away clothes after relatively few wears. The waste created is reaching crisis proportions, with Americans discarding 35 kilograms of clothing per year. Some estimates reckon that clothes on the fast fashion cycle stay in a woman’s closet just five weeks. There is a lot to think about in the quest to buy sustainable clothing.

coffee grounds

There are advances being made in the actual composition of the fabric used in clothing, using soy, recycled nylon, or coffee grounds.  Some of the companies are also developing closed loop systems so that everything developed will be recycled again.

There are also entrepreneurs working on new crops for fabric, bamboo is promising as a source but it’s manufacturing process seems to be a problem. Alpaca, wool and hemp also provide sustainable options, in each case you need to now about the source and the processing to be really sure.

What can you do?

  • pay attention to fabric type and source, avoid toxic fabrics
  • check manufacturing process, ask who made your clothes
  • when buying a garment ask yourself if you would wear it at least 30 times, this is the #30wears campaign started by Livia Firth. (Hat tip Mathilde Teuben)
  • repair your clothes, you should be able to sew on a button yourself, but there are tailors in every city. Two winters ago I paid for a winter coat to be re-lined, I think it cost 50 euro but that was cheaper than a replacement coat and it’s lasted two more winters.
  • consciously recycle, if you research where discarded clothing goes, it’s often landfill.


The two best options for large scale sustainable energy use are solar and wind.

Solar Power

Tesla Power wallTesla has created the Powerwall, a system to harness and store solar energy. Designed for domestic use sales were were high through last year, and this provides a good option for small scale use, but is limited when it comes to those of us living in apartments – I don’t have any roof space on which to install solar panels.

If solar panels on roofs aren’t a full at-scale solution what other surfaces could be used for solar panels? The Netherlands is midway through an experiment on using a solar bike path, results in terms of user testing are positive, although the surface probably isn’t strong enough for use on a roadway. However at a cost of about 3 million euro to build a 70m stretch of bike path we’re a long way from a convincing business case.

Wind Power

wind powerThe Netherlands has offshore windfarms, you fly over them if you’re arriving from the UK. I had naively thought that Europe was doing well on installing wind power as  form of renewable energy, but in fact China is doing better than any other country.

China is the biggest installer of new wind power capacity, installing about half of the new wind power capacity each year. In fact wind energy has become a major industry with at least six turbine companies.

We’ll need a much faster growth of renewable energy options in the west if we’re going to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbon energy forms. This matters for two reasons:

  • we will eventually run out of hydrocarbons, we’re already struggling to sustain supply without damaging our environment and resorting to fracking, arctic drilling and deep sea drilling in pristine environments.
  • the pollution from the use of hydrocarbons is poisoning our oceans, and our atmosphere.

What can you do? Reduce your energy consumption:

  • Take public transport
  • Ride a bike
  • Lower your central heating and put on a sweater
  • Insulate your house – even closing the curtains at night lowers the energy needed to heat your apartment.


We have known for a long time that plastic (incidentally often made from oil) do not biodegrade and that they create pollution.  Plastic is a major component of landfill, and in our oceans it has created a floating rubbish patch in the north Pacific. There are municipal recycling schemes in Dutch cities to encourage recycling of plastic, but total plastic recycled is still less than 10%.

Some work has gone into making biodegradable plastics or packaging. The latest is an algae membrane used to package single serves of water, the packaging is even edible. It works as a single serve option but it’s a flawed solution, and will never replace the existing options.

What can you do to lower your plastic use?

  • carry a shopping bag
  • shop at a market that doesn’t package fruit/vegetables
  • carry a water bottle
  • avoid drinking straws and plastic packaging (I am sitting in a cafe that is making the change to no plastic, starting with paper straws)
  • more ideas on the Trash is for Tossers blog


Companies and governments change on the basis of what people want, eventually. I know it may seem hard to believe some days. So tell them.

  • refuse the plastic straw at the bar and say why
  • buy from companies who are sustainable
  • talk to companies about what they could do better: by phone, letter, email, Facebook or twitter
  • boycott companies that don’t improve – and tell them
  • support an NGO that works on sustainability issues with a donation, your time, your voice
  • tell others about companies and initiatives you’ve heard of that are sustainable.
  • recycle your rubbish
  • call on your city to provide recycling measures
  • call on business to support recycling measures

The Answer

There’s no easy answer here, everything we do has an impact on the planet, all we can do is make choices to reduce our impact. Reduce what we consume, re-use items, re-purpose others, recycle as much waste as we can.

And speak up, tell companies that you expect sustainable products, tell your elected officials that you want a world for the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after…

Image:  Earth  |  Kevin Gill  |  CC BY-SA-2.0

Expo 2015

I’ve been spending time at Expo 2015 in Milan, where the theme is “Feeding the World, Energy for Life”. There are 145 particpating countries this year from Sudan to the Holy See, from China to the Czech Republic. Plus three international organisations, several food clusters, and a dozen company-based pavilions. So in four days I have only seen a tiny proportion of the pavilions.

The most successful brought together a country’s brand, a great user experience and the Expo theme in a visionary way and then executed that vision perfectly. Here are some highlights.

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Pavilion Zero

This is the pavilion developed by the expo’s organisers and the UN, showing the issues around food production and use. You begin in the hall of memories, constructed like a professor’s library with hundreds of drawers, see a movie of subsistence farming and walk through a history of food production. The next rooms get your attention; one draws your attention to the incredible amounts of food waste and the second to the commodification of food supply (as shown).

South Korea

The best concept on the theme of food and great execution, they showed Korean cuisine as more varied and interesting that I had realised, and they did it with technical savvy. They also managed the flow of the crowd in clever way, so that you felt that you got a good view of everything as you moved through the exhibition.

They showed that South Korea is innovative, creative and technology driven – they branded the country.

In one part of the exhibition, in a darkened room, there are 365 onggi pots, one for each dish of the traditional cuisine. These pots worked in a similar way to the Roman amphora, they were partially buried as a way of temperature control. The display cleverly used the top of each pot to display the famous dishes.

Bonus points to the South Korean team, their staff were helpful and spoke perfect English and Italian.

For me the South Korean Pavilion was the best of the best.


This was the most beautiful of all the pavilions I visited, taking you on a gentle journey from the Mediterranean to the Atlas mountains, to the Atlantic coast. Each section of the pavilion evoked a different region with a combination of images, artefacts, sounds and aromas. Throughout the exhibition were photos of Moroccan people in their various traditional dress, showing what a diversity of cultures exist across the country. Old and new cultivation methods were shown, and as you left you wandered through a small garden that had used the traditional method of irrigation.

I was left with the feeling that this is a rich and magical land, it made me want to visit even more.


The Kazakhstan pavilion took you through three parts. The first was a live show explaining the history of Kazakhstan … in sand. Using a lightbox, some sand and projector a woman created in real time a 3 minute history of her country. At the end there were shouts of “brava” from the mostly Italian crowd. In an world where everything is pre-recorded, perfected and digitised it was impressive to have a real performance.

The second part was information about food production in Kazakhstan. They grow a lot of wheat, which I think I already knew. What I didn’t know is that they have Sturgeon fish and harvest caviar; we saw some real Sturgeon fish, but no caviar. They have a lake – Lake Balkhash – that is partly salt water and partly freshwater.  Final fact – all the apples in the world originate from a type of apple tree in Kazakhstan.

The third part of the exhibition is more promotional, as Kazakhstan is the host of the next Expo in 2017, but oh, what a promotion! We took our seats in a small cinema and donned 3D glasses. The screen formed a dome above us and we began a virtual trip through Kazakhstan, flying through an apple orchard, diving into Lake Balkhash, soaring over galloping horses, and twisting our way through streets of Astana. Not only was the 3D well done the floor moved gently with the action so the effect was really impressive.  Even the teenager with us was impressed.

And again the staff of the pavilion were so helpful, speaking English or Italian as needed.


The Angola Pavilion was the first country pavilion I visited, and I think it provided the most information about the country, and contained a lot of activities throughout the pavilion and some special activities to help children learn.

Of all the pavilions this is the one I visited where people were the most present, and the majority of people depicted were women. In one way this makes sense as it ties to the food themes of the expo, however it’s rare – and in sharp contrast to other pavilions visited.

Before my visit the only two things I knew bout the country were – civil war and oil. But this country of 17M people has come a long way since the civil war ended in 2002. While there are still issues of corruption connected to the oil wealth, hundreds of thousands of people have resettled and re-cultivated the land and the pavilion was full of hope.


Of course a visit to the host country’s pavilion is a must. But be warned the queues are insane, it’s one of the most popular pavilions with people queueing five hours to visit it. My tip for getting to see it would be go early on a week day and go straight to the Italian Pavilion (it’s closest to the Merlata entrance and a half hour walk from the Rho entrance).

The most impressive piece of the pavilion is the hall of mirrors. Huge images from around Italy are projected on to walls and then endlessly reflected off pillars, the floors, the ceiling. Giving you the impression that you are standing in the middle of an astonishing and ever changing landscape. Even the local Italians were “oh-ing” in appreciation. Further halls focus on the beauty of architecture, and then a room focused on art – with mesmerising kaleidoscope effects.

Beyond this we entered a room focusing on Italy’s innovations in various fields of food production from sturgeon farming (using heat from a neighbouring steel plant) to bioplastics. Some truly clever people solving some of those tough problems, the Italians are rightfully proud.

Summary of the other pavilions visited

Emirates stunning architecture, followed by tiny artefacts in tiny boxes and a sentimental story about a girl who saves her grandma’s date tree.

USA still trying to save the world without mentioning those tricky three letter words; war and GMO

UK save the bees, by walking through a meadow and into a work of art. The info centre and its displays were too small for the crowds. Overall a triumph of design over sense.

Iran some stuff they had in a cupboard put on display in tiny cases.

Russia started with scientists and laboratories, ended with religious commentary on secular society.

Two that got away; Germany and Japan had queues in excess of 3 hours when I was there, but are both apparently worth seeing.