Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Little footprints

Most of the time, when I write on WellUrban about sustainability, I concentrate upon urban form and public transport, since those are the topics that overlap most readily with urban design and architecture. However, there are plenty of other ways for Wellingtonians to reduce their ecological footprints.

A good place to start is by reading ShoppingFix, a local blog aiming to provide "a Kiwi flavoured look at the broad concept of sustainability" (mmm, Kiwi flavoured...). It's eventually moving towards a shopping rewards programme to encourage consumers to buy from responsible businesses, but in the meantime it's a useful resource for news, information and random tidbits.

Sustainable Future site logoThe site Sustainable Future has received some publicity recently. It's a portal for sustainability information, but it goes beyond the usual "list of links" approach by allowing you to search for academic papers, standards and case law, and on the less dry side it lets you shop online for NZ-made fashion. The editor, Wendy McGuinness, set up The Brown Paper Bag Company to help fund it. One could argue that the corporate gift business is inherently unsustainable, since such giveaways are an unnecessary use of resources, but the use of locally-sourced products and recycled packaging sends a good message, and themed packs like "Wellington, the Dark Side" show a lot of imagination.

On the subject of packaging, BagsNOT have started a campaign to put a levy on supermarket plastic bags. It's one of those things that we all know is bad, but if you're like me and do much of your supermarket shopping ad hoc, it's easy to forget to take a reusable shopping bag. A tax of 30c per bag might make us think twice, though, and a comparable tax in Ireland has apparently been a great success. In the meantime, a lot of companies and institutions are selling or giving away reusable bags: Workshop's is very slick and eminently useable, while it seems that the one to be seen with is the one from the City Library.

Let Use ItAnother way to encourage reuse is to make it easier to share goods between people. Let Use It is a new Wellington company that aims to be the TradeMe of hiring and lending, letting anyone offer goods for hire. It's early days, but already the goods available range from artworks and books to barbeques and snowboards. On a less formal basis, I'm waiting for someone to try this guerilla approach to setting up book & video exchange boxes. But the one type of asset that could provide the greatest environmental benefit from being shared is cars. I've heard that there are plans afoot to set up a car-sharing service in Central Wellington, a little bit like the well-known American ZipCar company. Wellington would be the perfect place for such a scheme, since it's compact and has relatively good public transport, and an initiative like that would enable many people who have only occasional need for a car to live without having to own one.

Clean Energy guide thermometerNew Zealand is lucky to have most of its electricity produced from renewable sources, but not all suppliers are equally clean. According to Greenpeace's Clean Energy Guide site, Wellington's energy retailers range from the fossil-fuelled Genesis to the only committed 100%-renewable supplier, Meridian. It's pretty easy to switch supplier online, and if you're worried about your pocket more than the climate, check Consumer magazine's Powerswitch site first: if you're a low energy user, Meridian may also work out to be the cheapest retailer, so there might be no need for a compromise.

Finally, a quick word about footprint calculators. And that word is: "crap". I haven't checked out all of the available online calculators, but the ones I've tried seem overly simplistic. For instance, if you use our own Ministry for the Environment's calculator, hardly any of the above initiatives would make any difference to the result it gives you. It makes no allowance for the source of electricity you use, the sustainability of the products you consume, the size of your home, or any personal efforts you take to reduce waste. It relies so heavily on assumed averages that even a strict vegetarian living completely off the grid would still use up 1.9 globes' worth of resources! Overseas sites can also be misleading, since energy sources vary so much. If anyone can point me towards a really good ecological footprint calculator, I'd love to know.


At 8:24 pm, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know anything more concrete about the car sharing service? I would so sign up the day they open.

We sold our car when we moved to the central city last year and overall I'm not missing it at all. But I'd love to have access to a car without having to rent one from normal car rental places for the occasional wine tasting weekend in the Wairarapa and such. Mmh. Wine tasting.

At 9:48 pm, February 01, 2007, Blogger Baz said...

The Warehouse sells reusable bags that are a lot smaller than the kind that supermarkets sell. These fold up quite small but would be suitable for a WellUrban shopping trip -- there's space for some bread, cheese, pickles, several bottles of vino, and a packet of Nurofen.

I recall an article in the Telegraph where James May pointed out that supermarket carrier bags make a man look emasculated. Here's an opportunity to market "manly" reusable bags, with images of military hardware, computer game graphics, distillers' logos and so forth: put out a few adverts implying that plastic bags are the hallmarks of the henpecked, and watch sales shoot up.

Personally I never use plastic bags unless the missus is monitoring me.

At 11:29 am, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best calculator that I know of:


It needs more detail, such as you suggest, the generation type of electricity.

I expect with further work & research, this could be easily refined to something that is genuinely accurate and applicable, rather than merely useful.

At 11:33 am, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 11:38 am, February 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Sibylle: it's still in the early planning stages, and the main hurdle seems to be getting the right consents and other red tape sorted. With any luck, the service should be up and running some time this year, but I'm not really allowed to say any more about it yet! I know that the guy behind it reads this blog, so I'm sure your enthusiasm will give him encouragement. Perhaps if you know others who would be keen on it, we could get a campaign together and convince the council to make it easier.

Baz: while I'm not planning to take fashion advice from Captain Slow, he does have a point. The Workshop one looks great and is practical for so many uses because it's black, has their logo (for a modicum of street cred), includes a velcro-fastened flap so it doesn't gape all the time, and uses a shoulder strap, all of which make it look more like a designer satchel than a "carrier bag". It is too large to carry a couple of things (phone, wallet, glasses case) without feeling silly, so I've been toying with designing a collapsible version that folds down to A5 size for small loads, but opens out to A3 for shopping etc. Bung on a few hip Craftwerk badges and it'll take you anywhere!

At 11:58 am, February 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Raffe: thanks for the link (I'll add it to the list, if I ever get around to editing Wikipedia). It does indeed seem more reasonable, in that it allows for the sort of lifestyle choices we can reasonably make, and is thus more likely to encourage people to make those changes than MfE's rather gloomy one. In particular, I didn't like the assumption that anyone who earns more money automatically damages the environment more! It doesn't make any difference whether you're spending it on going Tui-hunting in your Hummer or planting trees (or, god forbid, saving your money): if you've got money your killing the planet!

From that link, I can see that I can still do more to reduce the waste I generate: it's equivalent to commuting 10km a day in a big car.

At 11:59 am, February 02, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Oh yeah, and I should cut down on the imprted pineapples and rum :-)

At 4:31 pm, February 02, 2007, Blogger mikeymike said...

sibylle, the TripShare site is in its early days - but should be a ripper. I'm looking fwd to seeing it grow!

Other than the resources at ShoppingFix (cheers Tom!), if you're one of those with a propensity to buy stuff from Amazon - take a look at Alonovo. They are a feeder platform for Amazon, but they allow you to consider potential purchaces in terms of their manufacturers corporate values and donate part of the price to a (US unfortunatley) charity. It costs you no more than using Amazon directly.

Of course if it's a book you're after, you should head down to ArtyBees it 1st...

At 11:56 am, February 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: Great to hear that the car share service a concrete plan. I can think of several other inner-city dwellers who'd probably be interested and would definitely be keen to join a campaign to make this happen sooner rather than later.

guv: Thanks for the TripShare link. As a control freak prone to motion sickness I don't make a very good passenger :-) So I'm more after a model like City Car Share or Zip Car that Tom mentions in his post. But it's good to see a number of options emerging.

At 9:01 am, February 07, 2007, Blogger Mike Riversdale said...

One of the best Wellington postings I've read in a loooong time - awesome! and just so darned helpful


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