Banning the plastic bag

It’s hard to get away from them. They’re a ‘convenience’ item used by shops and especially supermarkets round the world. We take them for granted, without thinking about their disadvantages.

Usually that is, but here in Seattle, where we are staying just now, with our daughter Chloe and her husband Henry, things are different.

Plastic bags are easily discarded, hard to recycle when mixed with other items and disfigure the environment, as they never rot down. In New York amazingly 100,000 tons of them are disposed of in landfill sites every year at an annual cost of $10 million. (Source: New York Times, 18 May 2013)

Over the years we’ve been visiting Seattle, we’ve often been offered a choice of paper or plastic bags at the supermarket checkout. In 2007 the City Council tried to introduce a 20 cents charge on each bag, but the American Chemistry Council financed a referendum in the city, which voted out the ‘bag tax’.

Times change though and attitudes too. When a new scheme was proposed in 2011 by the City Council, it went through unopposed (New York Times, 20 December 2011) and was implemented exactly a year ago on 1st July.

Plastic bags are now outlawed in the supermarkets and shops of Seattle and a minimum 5 cents must be charged for each large paper bag. The purpose of this is to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. Full details of the scheme can be found here.

“Is it working?”, I asked Sarah Jane one of the assistants at Trader Joe’s supermarket this week. “Yes, we’re seeing a big difference”, she replied, “we now have to order in 50% less paper bags than a few months ago; and of course plastic is not allowed.”

The new law has been successful with us too! The photo opposite shows our return to the house with four reusable bags, full of food and produce from Trader Joe’s for the week.

Several other US cities have already or plan to adopt similar schemes. Could a scheme like this work in the UK? Do we also need a change of culture to recognise the need? Comments or information on this question would be very welcome.

Amazon’s reach and waste

We are always glad to have suggestions for improvements at the Larches and rapidly decided we needed to get two new knives – a bread knife and cook’s knife – when our New Year guests commented about the existing ones.

Antique? Well not quite but old, pre stainless steel certainly and quick to rust, if not dried after use.

But the decision made us also think about how best to store all the knives for easy retrieval. So this last Sunday after a lunch time discussion of alternatives, we decided on a magnetic knife holder.

They work like magic. I’d always fancied one but we’d never had the right space for it.

So log on to Amazon – yes we could have one and at 3.32 pm an email confirmed the 40 cms long rack had been dispatched with free next day delivery.

As promised, the van drew up a little after 2.00 pm on Monday and the parcel was handed over and signed off.

Amazon had got the rack selected, packed and delivered to a country area in under 24 hours from a Sunday start. Impressive.

No complaints there. This is online shopping at its best and saved me a lot of time.

But the box (opposite) was a different matter!

Slitting it open I wondered first if there was anything there. Loads of brown scrumpled up paper tumbled out, but no sign of the rack.

Finally I found it at the bottom, well packed in its own box. It measured 2 x 5 x 47 cms, so it didn’t take long to work out the Amazon delivery box (11 x 35 x 55 cms) would have held easily 34 of the racks – if I had wanted that many!

And that scrumpled up paper? On inspection it turned into a long seamless sausage-like creation, which flattened out into one continuous length of paper over five metres long by 38 cms wide.

For just one knife rack they had needed, because of the over large box, a length of packing paper that stretched from the eaves of the cottage to the flower bed – as you can see in the photo at the top of the page.

I’m a fan of online shopping because it can save on ‘travel to search’ time and costs. But the calculations from this example about use of resources are pretty scary. Just a hundred similar Amazon deliveries would use up 500 metres of the packing paper, which would either be thrown away or recycled at best. How many trees do you need for this and for the over large packaging?

The knives look great now and I had them installed on the new rack by 3.30 pm on Monday. That’s good going – a 24 hour turn round for job completion is fast. But isn’t it time Amazon looked at its wasteful packaging policies? No gold stars here for good environmental practice.

Web ad or card box?

The digital era is impacting on everything we know – shopping, travel, politics, news, social networking, film, music, house purchase, learning, books, advertising; and now the web is increasingly going mobile. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau 41% of the UK population have a smartphone. By 2020 it’s thought there will be 10 billion mobile devices worldwide.

This revolution is particularly affecting communications and the transmission of information, shaking up industries like newspapers, publishing, book selling and telecoms. But will all the old ways just wither away? We think not and here’s an example in advertising of what we mean.

We like people to stay at The Larches because it’s a great place with an intriguing garden and belvedere. We tell the world about the cottage and facilities through our website and via the agents. But now we have hit on a simple non-digital idea: a card box for passers-by at the front of the cottage. The photo opposite shows the box by the road with the belvedere in the background at the top of the fellside garden.

Anyone interested in staying here and liking the look of the place can simply take a card with the address, postcode and booking details. A blended solution, mixing the old with the new!

And what’s so special about the card box? Made of recycled wood, it has a 20 mms thick perspex block at the front, enabling the cards to be seen but crucially kept set back from a possible wet front. [The close up photo below shows the rain on the lid.]

The lid lifts up to enable you to get your hand in to take the card; and there is a 15 mms deep wooden block above the sloping roof, which sheds the rain away from the hinge and area where there might be leakage.

Screwed to the gate post, the back base is made from waste oak flooring, with glue channels at the rear to allow the rain to drain down behind. All very practical and environmentally sound! We will have to explore patenting it.

PS We’re not forgetting the digital world completely! Just type “Lakeland belvedere” into Google maps and you’ll get full directions, telephone etc for The Larches. And if you have stayed at the cottage, you can write a review.

You can click on to get our latest tweets.

We’re also looking at the use of QR (Quick Response) coding with these cards. QR barcodes are easily created and can provide information (URL, location, contact number etc), which can be read instantly by a smartphone.

Recycle now please – URGENT

Thanks to the writing on a recyclable cardboard soup carton, I learnt last week that there’s a great DEFRA website (, with lots of information about recycling. 

This includes a searchable database. You can type in your postcode and find out more about local practice and the policies of your local authority for the recycling of different kinds of materials. This is useful because these are changing as new techniques of sorting enable more to be collected and saved.

Allerdale local authority had managed in 2009 to achieve a recycling rate of 45%, but last year the figure dropped to 44%. When I asked Stephanie Fleming, Allerdale’s recycling officer about this, she replied “the weather’s got to take the blame here”. 

With so much flooding in November, the Council was overwhelmed with the sheer task of getting areas cleared and houses habitable. Water was covering huge areas and recycling for a while had had to take second place. Hard to argue about that!

But there is a bigger question here we need to ask. The EU has set a 50% target by 2020 for household recycling for the UK as a whole, but both Scotland and Wales have set their own higher targets of 70% for 2025. With no targets set for English authorities does this mean, say Friends of the Earth that we’ll shelter under the skirts of the Scots and the Welsh and lag behind? 

We know this Government is averse to the ‘nanny state’, but let’s see a bit more forceful direction on this front! Surely we need this if we’re going to create a green economy, which Ministers tell us they want.

Two other good Government websites on green issues are worth looking at. A more technical waste data flow site, ( provides additional information about waste management across the country.  You need to register to get access to the data.

The second is for the Department of Energy and Climate Control  (http://www. This includes information about the Government’s Green Deal programme, with more details due out soon.

New roof for The Larches

P1020106 Over the last five weeks The Larches has been surrounded by a girdle of scaffolding.   We’ve known we really needed to have the house re-roofed for over a year. Trying to hold many of the lower slates in place proved impractical. The result was leaking from the gutters especially at the back and the danger of slates falling in high winds.

A new year’s resolution got us finally to move! And when the roof was stripped the rotten soffits and some defective joists proved how right we were. 

It’s been interesting to pull back the curtain of time to get a glimpse of how the house was built over 125 years ago and to see how roofing techniques while modified, still retain much of the traditional practice. Perhaps the biggest difference comes with the weather and wind proofing. 

The old roof was sealed throughout by parging. This is a method of coating the batons and the undersides of the tiles with parget – a mortar of lime and horsehair. Nowadays this has been replaced with a much simpler and quicker method, where a breathable membrane sheet is secured under the batons and the slates are nailed to the batons.       

Fortunately the original Borrowdale slates (about 10 mm thick) were strong and of good quality, as Frank the roofer had predicted, and the majority could be resized and reused without breakage. In this way the vernacular style of a graduated roof can be retained with the largest slates being used at the bottom and the smallest (and shortest) ones covering the top rows of the roof. Replacement ones are primarily for the bottom rows.

Since modern slates are almost invariably thinner (to reduce costs), second hand Borrowdale slates, suitable for environmentally sensitive areas and similar to the ones we have, are hard to come by and now sell at a premium price of £3,000 a ton.

The photos below show the back roof ready for the slates, the roofers working up the rows from the bottom, the look of the completed roof after a chimney has been removed and finally the filled lorry after the scaffolders have spent a morning dangling acrobatically from poles as they dismantled the scaffold and boards. It’s been fascinating to walk all round the house at roof level to see the work, but now we’re glad to be back to normal.

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