It is no secret that I have really missed bulk food stores since coming to Wales. There is something delightfully meditative about bulk food shopping, puddling about filling my own bags and containers is much more fun that rushing around a supermarket. Not to mention the environmental benefits of reduced single-use packaging.
I was pretty excited when I heard that a zero waste shop had opened earlier this year in Wales. The Natural Weigh is the first zero waste shop in Wales (although it is soon to be joined by a couple of others that I know of - Ripple and Viva Organic in Cardiff). It is located in Crickhowell - and being absolutely terrible at UK geography I had to look up where that was when it opened back in March. Turns out it is a three and a half hour bike ride from Cardiff (which after our trip to Brecon, I estimate might actually take me close to double that).
However, last weekend I finally had the opportunity to visit! My sister and her family were visiting us in Wales, so I sneakily navigated our weekend away to the Brecon Beacons via Crickhowell with the sole motivation of visiting the Natural Weigh. The rest of Crickhowell is rather lovely, so no one was complaining (just as well, because I spent far more time than necessary checking out everything they had in the store and chatting to the co-owner, Robin).
Some of my favourite things about the Natural Weigh are:
I have bulk shopped in quite a few places (in Australia, New Zealand and the US), but the barcode system at the Natural Weigh was new to me. Rather than noting down the container tare (weight) and product number, they have a nifty system that prints a barcode and then you scan it to work out the weight (and price!) of your food minus the weight of the container (that isn't a great explanation - I promise it is actually quite simple). It is much easier and saves time at the check out compared to manually entering the tare and product number for each item. On the downside, it does mean some waste is produced.
If you are in the area, I would highly recommend dropping in to the Natural Weigh to check it out, support some local businesses and (of course) avoid creating some plastic pollution.
I was home in Australia recently for a visit, planned to coincide with my nephew's first birthday. As has been the tradition in every Australian household for the last 40 or so years, I opened the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book to look for some inspiration. Not having looked at the book in 15 years, I was surprised by how outrageously gendered it was - the 'for boys' section had a truck, pirate and rocket, while the 'for girls' section had dolls, a sewing machine and a stove (I chose the classic swimming pool, which is apparently 'for everyone').
It isn't just cake that has had me thinking about gender and gender equality recently. Gender pay gap reporting, PROCESSIONS marking the centenary of votes for (some) women here in the UK, and conversations around International Women’s Day back in March, to name a few.
As a female engineer, I have been aware since the first time I stepped into a university lecture theatre that I have chosen to work in a pretty male-dominated industry. My university was so proud to have 20% females in the engineering intake the year I started. It didn't really bother me at all while I was at uni (to be honest it was a bit of a relief after spending high school at a gossipy all-girls school). And since starting work I have never felt at a disadvantage because of my gender, but every now and then something will happen that I find a bit concerning.
Concerning anecdote #1
Last year we had a big team building trip when my team merged with a couple of others. During the trip, one of the speakers asked all the females in the room to stand up. Looking around at all the others standing up I got super excited - there were so many of us, it seemed like about three quarters of this new team was female! But it turned out the gender split in the team was pretty much exactly 50-50.
It is a common phenomenon that people perceive there to be more women in a group than there actually are. In an interview with NPR, Geena Davis pointed out:
We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50. And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.
Within engineering, the environmental discipline seems to have the largest proportion of females. Yet when I have actually stopped to count the number of each gender in the supposedly ‘female-dominated teams’ of which I have been part, they are actually pretty balanced. Even as a female, I seem to suffer from the same unconscious bias as those men in the study.
Concerning anecdote #2
Earlier this year I attended some industry events around International Women's Day. Interesting, the gender balance at those events was very different to most events (i.e. majority were female). At one, the speaker asked two questions:
For the first time this year in the UK, employers with 250 employees or more were required to publish their gender pay gap. According to the Government Equalities Office:
In the UK today, women earn on average 18% less than men. The gender pay gap exists because women tend to work in lower-paid occupations and sectors, and occupy less senior roles. Many women take time out of the labour market and work part-time because of unequal sharing of care responsibilities. Stereotypes and workplace culture are also factors.
(The gender pay gap also exists in Australia - check out this informative data explorer.)
In large engineering companies that I have worked for both in the UK and back in Australia it is certainly the case that there are fewer women in senior positions than men. But there are other factors that contribute to the pay gap as well. In addition to the reasons noted above, an interesting one is that women tend to stay in the company longer than men, so don't have the larger jumps up the career ladder that likely accompany a new role. It isn't surprising that this is the case - I have spoken to women who are literally planning when to have children around the maternity leave policy of a company they have recently joined.
These are issues that concern women (people!) in all industries, not just engineering.
Concerning anecdote #3
Also during the industry events around International Women's Day this year - I realised I was becoming quite frustrated at the way many people (mostly, but not all men!) were talking about the difficulty of achieving gender equality in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, maths).
And I don't deny that there are difficulties. Issues raised included:
It took me a while to work out what was annoying me about these statements (not the italics, that is my mental commentary). While distractedly ruminating after an event it suddenly dawned on me - the most grating comments were all based around the fundamental assumption that with all other things equal, females would be less interested in studying and working in STEM fields than males. That even if we addressed all the barriers to entry, cultural norms and biases that are currently standing in the way - and waited 30 years for the next generation - that there still wouldn't be equal numbers of women in all levels of an engineering company because they just don't want to be there.
But I really don't believe that is true. Maybe because I love maths and science so much, I really can't comprehend that females are inherently less interested in STEM fields. Once I had distilled this very frustrating implicit assumption, I challenged other attendees with it. To my surprise some actually agreed with that assumption even when it was made explicit, but to my relief many others were just as outraged as me at the concept.
In her TED talk Reshma Saujani (founder of Girls Who Code) points out that girls are raised to be perfect, while boys are raised to be brave. Listening to it on my way home one day, I was struck by this observation:
Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. To smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then jump off head first. By the time they’re adults and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, men are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it...Our economy, our society, we’re losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.
Girls Who Code is a US non-profit organisation working to close the gender gap in technology - but I think Reshma's key points are equally applicable to STEM professions more broadly (and probably other industries too).
While there is a long way to go in resolving the issues surrounding gender equality and the pay gap, there is already much being done by individuals, businesses and non-profits like Girls Who Code.
So what can we all do to make a difference?
Encourage girls to be brave (and also take STEM subjects at school and look into uni courses relating to STEM fields). Let your child dream of being an engineer, fire truck, unicorn, marine biologist - no matter their gender. If you see something that you are uncomfortable with, call it out. Destigmatise paternity leave and male caring roles (and never, ever call looking after your own kids ‘babysitting’). Be transparent with hiring, promotion and pay decisions.
I’m sure there are a million other things that can be done, but at least this is a start!
Further reading, links and resources:
And some final notes:
Sometimes I get frustrated that other people don't do things that I see as very obvious (and easy) eco-friendly choices.
This is unhelpful for a couple of reasons:
It is more helpful to remember that everyone is on their own journey and at different stages along it. New ideas take time to sink in and result in behaviour change.
I know this from my own experiences:
But! It is still worth speaking up in a friendly and constructive way. A colleague kept asking me which bin to use for the packaging from his apples (to his credit, it was recyclable cardboard). After a couple of times I asked why he didn't just buy apples without packaging. The next day he very proudly showed me the naked apples he had purchased - for pretty much the same price as the packaged apples.
I need to remember to be helpful and offer suggestions. But always be kind.
(Photos of taken a few years ago at the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Gardens. Wales is lovely and green, but sometimes I really miss Australian flora.)
In my previous post I referenced an analysis of life cycle assessment studies which looked at the impacts of different foods across five different indicators. The first of these - greenhouse gas emissions - was probably pretty familiar. But what are the others and why are they important too?
Greenhouse gas emissions
What is it?
Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb infrared radiation and trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. These include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and synthetic gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). This indicator is a measure of how much of these gases are emitted to the atmosphere.
Why is it important?
Human activities such as burning fossil fuels and changing the way land is used (deforestation, agriculture) are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a far greater rate than would otherwise naturally occur. This is leading to what is known as anthropogenic climate change (and I doubt this is the first time you are reading about that one...).
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2eq). It is a measure of the equivalent global warming potential of all greenhouse gases relative to that of carbon dioxide. For example, over 100 years a molecule of methane will have 28 times the global warming impact of a molecule of carbon dioxide.
What is it?
This indicator considers the occupation of land to produce food. For this study it includes the following types of land associated with food production - seed, on- and off-farm arable and permanent crops, fallow land, temporary pasture and permanent pasture.
Why is it important?
For products like food, land use is a very important indicator. 'Ecological footprint' is often used as a measurement to indicate the area that is required to support each human, and it is currently about 1.7 times the area actually available on Earth! Expanding agricultural land threatens other land uses such as ancient rainforests and other fragile ecosystems.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in m2.year, which is a measure of the area occupied (in square metres) with consideration of the time that it is occupied for (for example, if there are two harvests per year, twice as much food can be produced on the same area compared to if there is one harvest per year - all other things being equal).
What is it?
Some gases that are emitted to the atmosphere combine with water to form an acid, which fall back to the ground as 'acid rain' (also called acid deposition). These gases, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, are released from fossil fuel burning and resultant acidic compounds can travel pretty far in the atmosphere before falling as acid rain.
Why is it important?
Some areas of the world are more or less susceptible to acidification. In Australia acid rain levels are low compared to the rest of the world because our coal has low levels of sulphur (uh, yay?) and the population is so widely distributed. However in places like Europe acid rain has resulted in devastating effects. It enters waterways and is toxic to aquatic life, and also damages forests and crops.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of grams of sulphur dioxide equivalent (g SO2eq). The impacts of other gases such as ammonia and nitrogen oxides can be expressed in terms of sulphur dioxide equivalence.
What is it?
Eutrophication occurs when excessive amounts of nutrients, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, enter a body of water. Usually plant growth is limited by the availability of nutrients, so when extra nutrients are available plants and algae start growing at a crazy rate which has all sorts of impacts on the ecosystem.
Why is it important?
Excessive amounts of nutrients enter water bodies through industrial and agricultural activities. One of the main sources of excessive nutrients is fertilisers on agricultural land that are washed into nearby waterways (fertilisers have high concentrations of nutrients on purpose, to help the plants that we want to eat grow). Eutrophication can lead to algal blooms and decreased water quality. When the algae dies and decomposes, the microbial activity can deplete the oxygen dissolved in the water and create a 'dead zone' where other organisms can't survive.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of grams of phosphate equivalent (g PO4eq). The impacts of other nutrients such as ammonia and nitrates can be expressed in terms of phosphate equivalence.
What is it?
This indicator considers the water required to produce food. For this study it includes irrigation withdrawals, irrigation withdrawals embedded in feed, drinking water for livestock, water for aquaculture ponds and processing water.
Why is it important?
Many areas of the world are facing water scarcity - the recent crisis in Cape Town highlighted this issue. Growing up during the Millenium drought in Australia I remember reading many stories about farmers struggling to keep their crops and livestock alive, not to mention controversy about allocation to agricultural, environmental and other uses. And climate change is just going to exacerbate the issue.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measures in kilolitres of water. A factor was also applied to weight the water consumption depending on water scarcity in the particular region (for example, consuming water in Australia is given a higher weight as there isn't so much of it there, whereas it would have a lower weighting in Wales because it is a very wet place!).
Hopefully that gave a little more insight into the indicators that were discussed in the Science paper and subsequent media reports (such as here and here). These indicators cut across a range of critical environmental issues that the world is facing from climate change to land use to water scarcity.
Want to learn more about life cycle assessments?
Photo credits: Unsplash
Recently it was my ten year vegi-versary. Becoming vegetarian was the first lifestyle decision that I consciously made myself to reduce my environmental impact (as an idealistic teenager still living at home I was less concerned with how it might impact my mother, who very obligingly catered for my decision...thanks mum!).
Especially in the early days I got pretty over-excited about telling people why they should become vegetarian too, but over the years I have become a bit more chill about it. The evidence is now pretty irrefutable that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. With all the publicity that recent studies have had, it seems more and more people around me have been either consciously trying to limit the amount of meat they consume or cutting it out altogether (yay!).
But while all my peers are excitedly becoming vegetarian (some for a second or third time), I have recently been reconsidering whether it is best for me. Here are some thoughts on why a plant-based diet is pretty great, why it might be less great, and where to from here.
Why a plant-based diet is pretty great
The evidence is pretty clear that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. I was planning to link to a bunch of sources that show this, but very conveniently a massive meta-analysis of 570 food-related life cycle assessments was published this month in Science.
(You have to pay to access the actual journal article, but if you have the means it is well worth a look! Articles published in Science are really short and accessible compared to other academic journals. If you want to nerd out over their dataset, you can access it here. It is worth a download just to see the amount of time, effort and rigour that goes into such a study.)
The whole article is full of fascinating insights that the authors have drawn from the data, but my main take-aways were:
Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion ha (a 76% reduction); food’s GHG emissions by 6.6 billion tons of CO2eq (a 49% reduction); acidification by 50%; eutrophication by 49%; and scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19%
(My next post is a follow up that discusses in a bit more detail what these indicators mean. Check it out here.)
Why just 'being vegetarian' is less great for me
For the last ten years, I have used being vegetarian as a bit of an excuse be lazy and not to look further into what the most sustainable and ethical food choices actually are. My one absolute criterion for deciding whether or not to eat something has been "Did an animal die? No. Ok good!" But as you can see in the charts above, the impacts of different individual foods can vary a lot depending on how they are grown, processed, transported and consumed.
I eat a reasonable amount of dairy, because halloumi (and also greek yogurt, and goats cheese, and blue cheese). But there are still impacts from keeping livestock to produce dairy. If you look at the charts above, while not as high as beef and other meats, the impacts of diary and eggs are still higher than most plant-based sources (and fish, which I don't eat). The arbitrary lines that I have drawn around my diet do not necessarily align with the impacts of the foods.
In recent years I have mentally given myself a free pass to eat meat while travelling because (a) I'm no longer a ratty teenager and don't want to put people out, and (b) there are lots of cultural experiences tied up with food and I don't want to miss out on those because of a self-imposed restriction. But! While there have been a couple of times that I have consumed foods with some meat in them for the first reason, I'm yet to really take myself up on the free pass.
This means that there have been times when it really would have made sense to eat meat and I haven't. For example:
In the back of my mind, I am conscious that I should probably do some more thinking about food, sustainability and whether I am really making the best choices. Meat is not the only problematic food source. Last year New Scientist published a list of '7 foods you should avoid to help feed the world', which hits a bunch of my other dietary staples (chocolate!). And since living in the UK, even my adored avocado toast seems like it will be causing issues (although perhaps that is not so tragic, avocados here taste pretty lacklustre compared to in Australia).
However, what has really prompted me to reconsider what I choose to eat was a recent failed attempt to donate blood. For those that haven’t done so before, when you go to donate blood they do a quick test to make sure you have enough haemoglobin. (In Wales the test is super cool - they look at whether a drop of blood floats or not in an iodine solution. In Melbourne the test is a much more boring digital reader.) I was so sure when I went along this time that my iron levels would be fine, because I’m pretty diligent these days at eating a variety of pretty iron rich foods. Since trying to donate a couple of years ago in Australia, I have made much more of an effort to get enough iron by eating lots of leafy greens and even taking supplements for a while. Fast forward a few years later and turns out I’m still iron deficient...boo!
Where to from here?
Well, the first step is going to a doctor and working out the whole iron-deficiency situation. But I have also been talking to lots of people recently about the balance between individual health and well-being, and choosing sustainable options that are better for the planet.
So going forward I am considering becoming less vegetarian but more vegan. That seems a bit odd, what does it mean?
Here are some thoughts:
Related reading and resources:
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My name is Kara and I created this blog as a way to document all the lovely aspects of sustainability. You can find out more on my About page.
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