How to clean the glass of a wood burning stove

I was looking for a way to clean soot off our stove last year but couldn’t find much advice apart from to use scrunched up newspaper.  Now, thanks to the chap who came to service the stove last week, I have a much better answer.  Metal polish, applied with a toothbrush works like a dream.

Now that the summer is more or less over, I can’t wait for the first fire of the winter.  It’s also a pretty sustainable option in terms of heating the house as well, and cheaper than gas or electricity.

Thursday afternoon links

If you haven’t seen Annie Leonard’s brilliant film, the Story of Stuff, treat yourself.  Make a nice cup of tea, find a comfy chair, sit back and enjoy.  It is 20 minutes long, so you’ll need that cup of tea, but worth every second.  A brilliant explanation of why sustainability matters.  If you’re in the UK, it’s probably raining, so what better way to spend your afternoon?

If you’re into green buildings, this one is awesome.  Proof that size doesn’t matter – it is possible to build sustainability into a 200,000 square foot colossus.

Finally, some beautiful photographs of Ecuadorian hummingbirds, and:

Coop of the week! Michael Thompson’s amazing project to convert a 1970 Morris Traveller into to a hen house for four ex-battery chickens in the heart of the Norfolk broads.

Wonder product of the week! Footprint multi-pack reusable shopping bags.  I bought a four-pack of these a month ago and use them all the time.  Genius.

Transition Town Tooting’s great unleashing!

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the transition network 'unleashing' Tooting with Lucy Neal, co-founder of Transition Town Tooting

Last night, Transition Town Tooting was unleashed.  The unleashing point for a transition town can be several months or years after transition activities start, but it marks a point at which the town feels it has gathered sufficient momentum to celebrate.  The town hammers a metaphorical post into the ground which says: here we are, this is what we have achieved so far, what shall we do next?

The unleashing date is then used in other activities as a point to measure from.  For example, when people get together to envision their town in 30 years time, they often then work backwards to the unleashing date, so that the intermediate steps which need to be taken become clearer.

It was an evening full of inspiration, potential and promise.  Rob spoke about the challenges of peak oil and climate change and the various groups involved in Transition Town Tooting took to the stage to let us know what they were up to, and what progress they hoped to make in the future.

There are now several groups within TTT which will all be making plans for the town over the next few months.  There is a group looking at housing, training local people to make their homes more energy efficient.  There is an economy group, which will consider creating the Tooting pound, and look at opportunities for community held assets or microfinance within Tooting.

There are youth and education groups, hoping to engage young people with transition activities and get more schools to look at how they can be more sustainable.  There is a transport group which will be promoting cycling and walking locally.  There is a food group, which will be hosting the third Tooting Foodival in September, encouraging local people to grow and cook their own food at home.

The great thing about the transition movement is that it can encompass whatever people are passionate about.  I’ll be fascinated to see how the groups progress over the next few months.  For more information on transition and transition towns, have a look at Rob Hopkin’s great blog

Biodynamic farming

I had a look round a biodynamic farm in Essex on Saturday.  Biodynamic farming is based on the principles of Rudolf Steiner, a 19th century Austrian philosopher.  Farmers seek to create a balance between plants, animals, humans, and the needs of the soil they work.

The farm is seen as a closed unit, where the waste products generated can be used to provide for needs elsewhere.  All the animal feed is grown on the farm. Manure is used to add fertility back into the soil.  Rainwater is harvested and used to water the crops.  If there are so many animals that it is necessary to buy feed in, then a more realistic ratio of plants to animals must be achieved.  This particular farm had seaweed growing on it as it borders the Thames estuary, so the farmer chose to farm seaweed eating sheep from the island of North Ronaldsay, rather than traditional breeds.

There are certainly some bizarre aspects to biodynamic farming.  ‘Preparations’ are produced using similar techniques to those used in homeopathy.  Cow horns full of dung are buried underground, before being dug up and made into sprays for the plants.  Planting, sowing and harvesting is done in accordance with the position of various heavenly bodies.  I wouldn’t subscribe to these ideas, but the principles of ‘closing the loop’, putting the waste materials of the farm into other areas to provide the essential nutrients needed makes sense.

The farmer, Spencer Christie, will often walk vast areas of the 250 acre farm on foot.  If there is a spray to be applied to a crop, he won’t use a tractor.  He will walk the rows, spraying by hand.  This can take several times as long as doing the job with a machine.  But Spencer feels that by walking the farm on a regular basis, he can learn more about the land he cares for.  “The best fertiliser a farm can have is the farmer’s footprint” he says, borrowing from an old adage.  He finds that he notices problems more quickly, and identifies opportunities on the farm by observing it closely like this.

Observation is also the first principle of permaculture.  Permaculturists would advocate observing a piece of land for a year before doing any design or planting on it.  By looking carefully at the land at all times of day and in all seasons, we gain a greater understanding of how we might optimise the use of the space.

I think it was Penelope Bennett’s book The Windowbox Allotment that first alerted me to the enjoyment that can be had from slowing down and observing things.  She describes a packet of tomato seeds from planting to fruiting in minute detail, noting every stage of their development.  At one stage she describes rushing home from a party because she has left her precious seedlings outside on a window ledge.

In order to slow down and observe, it is necessary to take the time to do it.  Life is insanely busy and the idea of taking half an hour out to just go and look at things in the garden seems like a huge and unaffordable luxury.  The good news is that it is probably good for your soul as well as your garden.  It may even create enough head space to throw new light on a problem, or generate a new creative idea.

Friday afternoon links

A few links I thought were worth passing on this week:

First of all a couple of brilliant videos from The Big Lunch, one on how to make bunting out of plastic bags, the other on how to carve snails out of courgettes and radishes – awesome!

Which reminds me, of this post from the wonderful My Paper Crane on making mushrooms out of radishes.  Radishes, it turns out, are the sculpting material of the vegetable world.

Secondly, have a look at, because I discovered it this week and I LOVE it.  All kinds of tips on how to unclutter your life, which is a bit of a pet subject of mine.  The good news is that uncluttering your life can involve buying more pairs of scissors!  Hurrah.

Finally, cut your carbon by 10% in 2010 with 1010, and finally, buy a bike made of bamboo!

Have a lovely week-end.

The Trashcatchers’ carnival!

When it comes to sustainability, it’s not always easy to get people’s attention.  However if you’ve got a 20ft, animatronic, carrot wielding giant on your side,  it’s hard to be missed.  The Trashcatchers’ carnival blew into Tooting this afternoon in a whirl of colour, sound and excitement.

Everything in the carnival had been made out of ‘trash’.  Project Phakama, Emergency Exit Arts & Transition Town Tooting have been working together to make the various carnival characters along with over 800 local residents, school children, members of community groups and clubs.  In all, they used over 1 million plastic bottles and shopping bags, half a million crisp packets, half a ton of renewable willow and half a ton of other materials.

The star of the show had to be the awesome gardening giant, but the carnival also featured an enormous turtle, elephants, fish, foxes, birds and insects.  The whole procession was led by the beautiful Sankofa bird.

The Sankofa bird is a particularly fitting symbol for the carnival, and for Transition Town Tooting in general.  She is an ancient West African creature who looks forward and backwards in a single glance.  She reminds us that sometimes we have to go back to our roots to move forwards.  This is the message of the carnival.  Even in a large urban town such as Tooting, we can take steps to overcome our oil

The Sankofa Bird

dependence and our waste problems by going back to our roots, slowing down, and taking a fresh look at how we consume food and goods.

The carnival will act as a powerful reminder to all who witnessed it that the people of Tooting are creative and flamboyant enough to rise to this and any other challenge.

Lucy Neal, co-chair of Transition Town Tooting said:

Individually we may seem insignificant, but when we connect up in a community, we are very strong, we can make a huge difference. We are thrilled at how well it’s come together and amazed at the support we have received from the people of Tooting.

The powered vehicles in the procession were fuelled by recycled vegetable oil.  Many of the vehicles were powered by bike.  Hundreds of fantastically attired carnivalistas danced the route on foot.

The event finished up with a sharing picnic in Fishponds playing fields.  By the time the last float arrived, there were hundreds of people there to welcome them and continue the carnival spirit with some locally made spicy potato curry and elderflower cordial.

I don’t know how much the amazed spectators would have known about the carnival and what it stands for, but I hope they will be inspired to search for it online and find out more.

The day was a huge success and a really incredible spectacle – huge congratulations to all the organisers and all of those who took part.  Tooting has never seen anything like it!

One thing is for sure, the momentum gained over the last few weeks and months will certainly spill over from today into ongoing projects.  This heightened visibility on Tooting’s High Road must raise the profile in the area and help all of Transition Town Tooting’s causes.

Transition Town Tooting is planning a Big Launch on the 12th of July, and a Foodival later this year.  See their website for more details.

Ecoworrier 3 – Plastic

Him Indoors gets home from work to find me standing in the kitchen, staring intently at a yoghurt pot.

HI: Problem?
Me: I can’t recycle this.
HI: Nope.
Me: But why?
HI: Cos it’s made out of polystyrene or something, probably.
Me: Why can’t they recycle polystyrene?
HI: Dunno.
Me: And then there’s margarine tubs, what are they made of?
HI: Dunno.
Me: And then there’s…
HI: Can we talk about something else now?

Understandably, this does not make for an inspiring conversation when you’ve just got home from work. But I’m annoyed by the seemingly arbitrary rules about which plastics can be recycled, and which can’t.

Wandsworth have a great recycling scheme, in that you can just bung everything in an orange sack, and they’ll take it away and deal with it. No sorting into five different bins, for which you need a specially segmented drawer and a metal detector, it’s really straightforward. Except for the fact that there is a list of plastics which they don’t recycle, including yoghurt pots, plastic bottle lids and margarine tubs. This is confusing to a bear of very little brain such as myself, because they look pretty similar to bottles to me.

Happily, the labelling on food packaging has recently been simplified. Rather than a confusing combination of triangles, numbers and initials, you now get a breakdown of the packaging components and a grid telling you whether each bit is “widely recycled” (65% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items), “check locally” (15% – 65% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items) or “not recycled” (less than 15% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items.) Admittedly if you were really interested this is less useful than finding out exactly what your packaging is made from, but frankly, life is too short.

So what is it that makes some plastics recyclable, and some not? First of all, there are some lovely videos at about how plastic bottles and various other things are recycled in the first place.

It seems that bottle lids must be removed not because they’re made from plastic which can’t be recycled, but because they are made of different plastic from the rest of the bottle, and so would contaminate the plastic if still attached to the bottles as they go through the recycling plant.

As for margarine tubs and yoghurt pots, these are currently not recyclable because they are made of mixed polymers, which are much more difficult to identify and separate efficiently, and would again contaminate the rest of the plastic if they were melted down along with all the bottles.

If it were possible to make bottle tops, margarine tubs and yoghurt pots using the same processes as bottles (i.e. blow-moulding, I think) then I guess they could all be made out of the same plastics and melted down for recycling together. Also, if there were a market for the recycled plastic that these items are currently made from, then the infrastructure would gradually be put in place to enable this to happen.

As it is, there’s not a lot we can do except to (a) wait for better recycling technology to come along (b) support the market for recycled plastics by buying loads of lovely recycled stuff (c) buy fewer items made of these ‘non-recyclables’ in the first place and (d) use margarine tubs and yoghurt pots as plant/seedling pots and craft materials for the time being, so that at least they don’t end up in landfill.