understand the issues: HOME
Home is where the heart is, goes the old saying; but it is also the source of a lot of carbon emissions. The residential sector accounts for 15% of the UKs greenhouse gas emissions – largely the use of electricity and natural gas for heating, hot water and cooking. The level of these emissions has risen lately, heavily influenced by seasonal and extreme weather caused by climate change.
The richer we are the greater our impact on the planet and this is true across a range of indicators. A Joseph Rowntree report for the Centre for Sustainable Energy in 2013 on the distribution of UK household carbon emissions found the top 10% of earners emit 43% more carbon than the bottom 10%. The wealthier you are the larger your house, the more you overheat and cool it and the more you buy and discard household objects.
The way our homes are designed, constructed and heated accounts for the majority of the carbon emissions from each household. The UK is lagging behind other countries with far higher water consumption than many European countries and around 4.5million homes overheating, even in cool summers.
According to the UK Committee on Climate Change, the technology to create and adapt houses to become low-carbon and resilient exists and the costs are not extreme. Despite this, home insulation installations have stalled, the use of water efficiency devices and window shading are weak or non-existent and UK building standards are inadequate, overly complex and not enforced.
GREATER URGENCY ON CLIMATE RESILIENT HOUSES
According to the CCC all new homes should be low-carbon, energy and water efficient, and climate resilient. Getting the design right from the outset is far cheaper than retrofitting later. From 2025 at the latest, no new homes should be connected to the gas grid. They should be heated using low-carbon energy sources, ultra-energy efficient and be timber-framed wherever possible.
THE ZED FACTORY
Architect Bill Dunster founded the ZED Factory in 1999 a practice dedicated to zero-carbon development. It’s eco-friendly housing development BedZED in Sutton won a RIBA sustainability award in 2003 and was nominated for the Stirling prize. Today they are leaders in the field of zero-carbon design and development globally, even developing a low-carbon and low-cost kit house that can be assembled swiftly. The team work with academics and consultants to model predicted energy consumption and production and whole life cycle carbon costs of each of their designs.
For those able to buy or renovate a house, ensuring it is efficient and climate resilient is a must. The capital expenditure required to do so will be paid back over the next decade through reduced energy and water bills. REAL’s top tips:
- Insulate both lofts and walls and make use of low-carbon sources of heating such as heat pumps.
- If using boilers, ensure thermostats are set at a constant level. Consider ripping it out and going gas-free. Electricity is rapidly becoming more carbon efficient as the national grid uses more renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power.
- Install LED lighting systems and switch off lights in rooms that are not being used.
- Install water saving appliances in showers and toilets.
- When renovating houses ensure contractors are sourcing sustainable materials and disposing of them responsibly as these can also be associated with high carbon emissions and toxic waste.
Home builders and developers are often focused on profit margins and many incorporate only the minimum levels of energy efficiency required by building regulations. Many scrimp on meeting even these and rely on councils being underfunded and overworked to enforce planning penalties. However, as less people can afford to buy their own houses the increased rental market could lead to different business models that are already beginning to emerge in commercial real estate and the retirement sector. Those building houses should consider longer-term contracts where money spent to build is considered the up-front cost required for profits made back through rental and service charges.
The world’s forests are disappearing faster than ever. In 2017, the world lost an area of forest the size of Italy to deforestation. As well as producing oxygen and providing valuable carbon sinks, forests are the habitat for many of the world’s most incredible species. Our influence on this should not be underestimated. The amount of wood used in products inside our homes is often higher than we assume – from furniture to cardboard packaging to toilet roll and printer paper. The demand for teak furniture, for example, is fuelling illegal forestation in Myanmar where logging of the rare and slow-growing trees is banned. Despite this, they are frequently cut down illicitly and taken across the border to China where they are made into redwood chairs, tables or chests.
Destroying forests to produce single use products such as toilet paper is difficult to justify when recycled wood pulp could be used instead. Even for products with a longer life span like furniture, it isn’t necessary to destroy forests to produce them. Buying antique furniture or upcycling existing furniture is a often a great way to still own unique pieces that help our homes express who we are.
WHO GIVES A CRAP
Who Gives a Crap is a toilet paper and tissue manufacturer with an ethical focus – they donate 50% of profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. Toilet paper is made only from recycled paper and tissues are made from bamboo and sugarcane.
Recycled wood, paper or cardboard products should always be preferred over those made from virgin wood pulp. If this is impossible then always look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo on products to ensure it is sourced from forests managed with consideration for people, wildlife, and the environment. Try to avoid buying new furniture wherever possible and look for alternative options such as using artisan furniture repairers, reclaimed timber or used furniture shops.
Businesses need to inspect their supply chain and ensure the proper due diligence checks for importing wood are in place. If you use teak, ensure that it comes from a sustainable plantation that has been in existence for some time. Interior decorators should look to source products that are reused and recycled wherever possible and check the certifications of any furniture used.
TOXIC CHEMICAL POLLUTION
Toxic chemicals are present in many household cleaning products. From phosphates to enzymes, a wide range of harmful ingredients find their way to the consumer. And while they may make dishes and surfaces sparkle, many also contribute to indoor air pollution, are highly poisonous if ingested and can be harmful even if touched. In the USA, cleaning products are responsible for around 10% of toxic chemical exposures reported to authorities. Some products contain chemicals that do not break down in sewage treatment, endangering fish and wildlife. There is substantial evidence that chemical contamination from cleaning products may interfere with the breeding cycles of fish.
Chemicals that are a threat to human health or the environment – like parabens, triclosan and phthalates – should be phased out of ingredients lists. The rise of ecological cleaning products that don’t contain some of the most harmful substances show that alternatives are possible. What’s now needed is for major producers to take notice and commit to real change.
Greenscents is an organic, natural cleaning products company that takes a hard stance on toxic chemicals. All their products are free from parabens, triclosan and phthalates. However, they are just one of a number of companies whose commercial success is proving that natural ingredients can be just as effective at cleaning as those using harmful chemicals.
With a bit of elbow grease and a coarse sponge, you can do most household cleaning jobs using harmless ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, citric acid and lemon juice. For cleaning jobs which require a little more, consumers should avoid products that have labels marking them as hazardous or dangerous. And instead of vague terms like “ecological”, look for specific statements like “paraben free”.
Where toxic chemicals are used, the utmost possible should be done to remove them from ingredients. This may mean totally reformulating products, but as the consumer landscape changes it can be worthwhile doing so. Consumers are increasingly conscious of the health risks associated with toxic chemicals and many consciously seek to avoid them.
INEFFICIENT AND DISPOSABLE APPLIANCES
Household appliances can be an ethical minefield for those trying to reduce their impact on the planet. The energy inefficiency of old appliances needs to be weighed against the planetary impact of producing a new one, which involves the consumption of huge amounts of minerals, water and sometimes unethical employment practices. Repairing household appliances is often expensive because manufacturers refuse to share information with independent repair agents. On top of this if household appliances and batteries are disposed of irresponsibly (such as by fly-tippers) it can contribute to poisonous toxins entering eco-systems and the soil.
BETTER INFORMATION AND LABELLING
More energy efficient and longer lasting appliances are often far more expensive than those with a higher planetary impact. However, there is little awareness of the issues to help challenge consumers on the need to spend more. Research by Ethical Consumer for example found that a A+++ rated fridge costing £599 would have a total lifetime cost of £917.50 over 13 years. A £399 fridge with an A+ rating conversely would cost £1,128.82 over its lifespan through higher energy use.
Liebherr is an international company that manufactures a range of products. They produce some of the most energy efficient household fridges on the market. Their CNP4868 fridge is A+++ and consumes just 140 kWh of electricity a year. This compares to 401 kWh for a standard A+ rated model.
Consumers should try to make existing products last as long as possible. When replacing household appliances ensure they are disposed of responsibly via councils and replace appliances with the highest energy rating where possible. Although such products may cost more initially, they potentially make up their extra cost in electricity bill savings as well as lasting longer, reducing the amount of new appliances needed over time.
Businesses supplying household appliances should develop alternative models such as leasing and hiring systems. This would incentivise the production of high-quality, long-lasting appliances able to be repaired. Businesses such as Forbes Rentals refurbish and hire electrical appliances and IKEA are trialling the leasing of office furniture.