A simple guide to sustainable fish – or perhaps not

A simple guide to sustainable fish would be useful, except the situation is very complicated and fish stocks keep changing. This means it’s difficult to work out the best thing to do, when you are actually in the shop (or a restaurant) buying some fish. The label about sustainability is only giving you a headline statement and some schemes are more reliable than others.

Current guidance in shops about whether a particular fish is sustainable are seen as too complicated but some of those are simplified and there are a variety of schemes with varying degrees of credibility.

To really get a handle on whether fish in the shops are sustainable you need to do quite a bit of research so the idea of some sort of traffic light label seems very optimistic. The Marine Conservation Society Good Fish Guide has a traffic light and 1-5 rating system but within these ratings for particular fish species and general geographic area there are variations depending on specific locations, methods etc.

The Marine Stewardship Council MSC blue tick relates to specific wild fisheries worldwide, based on an independent audit.

So perhaps our simple guide to sustainable fish depends on how we define the word “simple”…

Life-cycle assessment of coffee pods – one less thing to feel guilty about

Do you feel guilty about using your Nespresso machine? Life-cycle assessment of coffee pods shows they actually have less environmental impact than most other methods of making coffee.

They are actually better for the environment than other options, based on a rigorous life-cycle assessment of their total environmental impact. The popular belief that coffee pods are bad for the planet is really a misconception.

Taking into account the total life-cycle impact of bringing the coffee to the cup including waste, energy and recycling, other options such as drip machines or filters have a significantly worse impact. The (literally) unpalatable truth seems to be that instant coffee is the most environmentally friendly option, with capsule machines in second place.

As usual, it’s important to go beyond the obvious and superficial answers to really understand how to reduce our impact. Everything is complex and interconnected. The real answer may be counterintuitive.

So you don’t need to feel guilty about your Nespresso machine, but if you are now feeling guilty about your filters (unbelached or otherwise), or your drip machine, positive solutions are available.

Eating greener to reduce our impact?

Eating greener (not literally of course, despite appearances) can help reduce our impact on the planet.

“if everyone in the world was able to eat like us in Europe, the world would collapse immediately.” Not sure about immediately, as it would presumably take a while for everyone in the world to reach that stage and things would probably fall apart on the way, but the overall point is clear – the current system is not scalable across the whole planet .

You might get pleasure from your steak, but what was the environmental impact of its journey to your plate? Should we prioritise saving money on our food bill over saving the planet, if we can afford to make more responsible choices about what we eat?

Although you can make better choices, many of the problems are of course systemic rather than individual. Making the cheaper choices the healthier choices is perfectly possible. This would help the 8.5 million people in the UK who are currently food insecure, but doesn’t seem to fit in with current systems for food production and distribution, globally or nationally.

Climate change versus plastic pollution – environmental priorities

Climate change: obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges.

This article from The Conversation suggests that our reusable coffee cups may not quite be enough to save the planet – “We must reform the way we live rather than tweak the choices we make.”

Includes an infographic which attractively presents various priority issues – however the content is not so attractive, unless the situation has improved dramatically since 2009

Paper or plastic bags – which is really the better option?

Paper or plastic bags – which should you choose, in terms of their total impact on the environment?

Morrisons are trialling the use of paper bags instead of plastic bags, which seems like a good idea, provided the overall impact isn’t increased – the trade-off between the environmental (e.g. energy) cost of producing the paper bags versus the plastic waste from the existing ones seems to have been addressed to some extent.

Previous environmental concerns about this plan focussed on energy, although on closer inspection, the Environment Agency source material for these concerns wasn’t exactly recent.

Ethical dilemmas – 2

More ethical dilemmas…

Is it better to put window envelopes in the landfill rubbish or in with the paper recycling, if you don’t have time to tear or cut out the windows? But then if you stay up all night with the lights on, separating the envelopes from the windows, that uses more energy in your home.  How do you compare the environmental impact of not recycling an envelope versus the light being on for a few extra minutes  – and maybe the heating too if it’s winter?

What about disposing of low energy light bulbs which contain toxic chemicals? What is the total life cycle environmental footprint of a low energy bulb?

Saving fuel is good for climate change around the world, but what if that uek saving means you pollute the air with particulates, which could make people ill in the area where you drive?

Carbon emissions could be reduced by nuclear power but there’s the risk of a meltdown or leak, and waste that is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Which is worse? And what about the carbon footprint of building and maintaining the nuclear power station?

Is it better for the environment to buy non-organic local produce or organic produce from another part of the country, or abroad; or flowers grown in tropical sunshine and flown over, as opposed to being grown in a heated greenhouse in Europe?

Should you buy fair trade or organic bananas, if you can only find one or the other?

Ethical dilemmas – 1

Ethical dilemmas about the environment start with an apparently simple choice which quickly becomes very tricky.

Is the environmental impact of buying a small packet of beans from Africa worse than the impact of buying a bag of potatoes from continental Europe?

What happens to the farmer in Africa if you don’t buy the beans because you’re worried about food miles?

What happens to the farmer’s family? Will they need to make a living in some other way, that harms the environment even more?

How much packaging is too much?

How do you balance the total environmental impact of the food being damaged and wasted against the impact of manufacturing and recycling or disposing of the packaging?

Is carbon offset just shifting the problem somewhere else?

Should you fly on holiday? If your children see more of the world might they feel more responsible for it?

Can their improved social responsibility offset the air miles?

How far could you all travel?

How do you quantify social responsibility so you can trade it off?