Red squirrels’ return

For a while during the last year we were worried that building works opposite the house and work to restore the garden and interior of The Larches following flood damage had unsettled our resident red squirrels and encouraged them to move deeper into the forest.

We need not have worried. Two weeks ago we saw three separate red squirrels during the course of an hour or so between 7.30 am and 8.30 am; and have been seeing individual ones for some time.

If you are up about this time of the day you’ll have a good chance of a sighting either from the kitchen windows as they run down the stone steps from the forest or on the wooden steps to the back of the house. From the front windows in the sitting room they are also often seen crossing the road to the feeding box in the cottage opposite or running up and down the road looking for hiding places for the hazel nuts they have found.

The photo above shows one of the squirrels tentatively approaching the feeding box across the road, while the one at the bottom is of the same squirrel dashing back to the protection of The Larches’ garden.

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 is listening

After my blogging complaint a couple of months ago (January 25th) about wasteful packaging of a knife rack for The Larches, I’m glad to report the US manager overseeing the global packaging initiative at Amazon has written back to say that the UK team has taken up the complaint and looked at the processes involved with the supplier of the knife. She commented:

“They shared the blog with Kitchencraft and Kitchencraft is going to repackage their products for us using minimalistic cardboard box shippable without overboxing. Thx for the feedback!”

So for the future Kitchencraft will mend its ways and provide smaller packs for small items, reducing therefore the paper packing needed. This is good news for the environment.

But the package in question came with the usual Amazon badged box and packaging, so I had assumed that it had come directly from Amazon and from one of its own warehouses.

Amazon’s response shows I was wrong and implies that some and maybe a lot of Amazon’s inventory is sent to customers by suppliers not directly controlled by Amazon. What happens with these other suppliers?

It’s clear that Amazon is concerned enough about the issue of wasteful or poor packaging to have a policy and international initiative on the issue.

As a massive online retailer they should be, particularly since they receive a lot of complaints, like this broader one on an Amazon forum earlier this month “What’s Up with Amazon’s Poor Packaging Lately?“.

But it’s obviously not a simple matter. I’ve complained about wasteful packaging. Others complain about damage from too little packaging!

As a result of my complaint are we going to see a change in packaging policy across all Amazon’s sales, regardless of supplier or country or will this case be a ‘one off’ for the UK with one kitchen equipment supplier?

Ultimately it all depends on the control Amazon has over fulfilment policy and the training of staff across the whole of its operations including both those in Amazon warehouses and those in partner companies who supply goods.

One worry must be that a focus on getting the right packaging for the particular job will lead to slower delivery times across the board. Green policies do not necessarily lead to a faster service. With Amazon expanding its reach into more areas – like specialist sports equipment for instance – these issues may get harder to fix!

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.

Bassenthwaite secrets

Out yesterday in the late afternoon, I surprised myself how quickly I could get down to Bassenthwaite’s shoreline. Just 25 minutes walking from The Larches and I was looking across to Ullock Pike and Dodd Wood and facing a stiff wind from the NE, which was furrowing the lake’s surface and throwing up threads of plume as the waves hit the shore. A friendly greeting from a kissing couple was all but lost on the gusting wind.

It’s an easy walk to this ‘away from it all’ spot, with a footpath down from Pen Cottage at the Swan House apartments (formerly the Swan Inn), below Barf. I had never found this before and it takes you down through the old cottages at Powter How to the subway beneath the A66.

I knew the light was fading, but the latched gate to a path heading south down the lake drew my eye. “Why not explore a little further? It must lead to something” I thought and picked my way past two more gates and a ‘No dogs” notice.

Then I saw it – a low dark shape through the waterlogged trees. A plank with railing drew me on and I climbed the few steps. “Just slide the door” stated the notice.

Now I was inside this darkened capacious hide, with large illustrations of 33 different bird species, typical of lakes and marshland. Stools and a bench with four separate 12cms x 40 cms hinged observation flaps completed these wonderful facilities for bird watchers. Only the tea and kettle were missing!

This is part of the Bassenthwaite National Nature Reserve, where there are over 70 species of resident birds (See notice below). We owe a thanks for these free facilities to the Lake District Planning Board and other bodies like the RSPB, whose members support the programme and upkeep.