23 November 2017

Researcher Dr Rachel Marshall, from the Lancaster Environment Centre’s new Sustainability Group, explains how the group members took on the challenge of living a low impact lifestyle during ‘No Impact Week’ this autumn.

This summer staff and students from the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) decided to form a group to push for the department and its members to become more sustainable in the way we operate as an organisation, and as individuals. To get us started, we decided to take on the challenge of reducing our own environmental impact during No Impact Week - and it proved a valuable experience! 

No Impact Week is the brainchild of Colin Beavan who, following a year of living low impact with his family, wanted to encourage others around the world to follow the principals of low impact living for a week. Dates are set annually but individuals and groups are encouraged to take on the challenge whenever works for them. There is a free information pack detailing the concept and full of ideas to try.

A personal trainer for a low carbon cleanse
The guide aims to be your personal trainer for the week, helping to wean you off behaviours and technologies that result in significant negative impacts on the natural and social environment. Participants consider a different aspect of living each day and set personal objectives to reduce their negative environmental and/or social impact in that area. Each day builds on the one before so by the end of the week you are working on: consumption, waste, food, transport, energy, water and giving back.

The low hanging fruit
Collectively we found there were areas where it was easy to reduce our impact.  On day two, the focus was waste and we each collected a day of our waste with Ann collecting her family’s waste for a whole week in ‘the bag of shame’. We agreed that seeing our day’s waste demonstrated just how much of what we throw away comes from food packaging, almost 100% in my case. Seeing this I pledged to not buy packaged food for the rest of the week and did the rest of my grocery shopping in local independent shops where I could avoid unnecessary packaging.

This very naturally led on to a day of considering the impact of what we eat and where we buy our food. Many members of the group are already mostly vegetarian so a few tried to be vegan for the week with one family even making their own almond milk….which they report tastes a bit like cardboard.

Taking things more slowly
Travel for work is a big part of many of our jobs, with an expectation that people will fly all over the world for meetings and conferences. The week following our ‘No Impact’ experience, I was travelling to Northern Ireland for work. Instead of flying I decided to take the slow overnight ferry from Liverpool, which results in significantly less CO2 emissions. It also avoids the high altitude impacts, such as vapour trails, which are estimated to result in as much warming as the CO2 emissions themselves. There is always the risk of a bumpy night but I enjoyed getting on the ferry in Liverpool, the cruise down the Mersey and getting off in Belfast after a good sleep in my own cabin. 

And some challenges….
It was certainly more challenging to find easy ways to reduce our energy and water use as these are affected by the infrastructure and ownership of the buildings we live and work in. For instance, Ann, who owns her house, has a rainwater harvesting system and can invest in alternative energy if she wishes. Ali, who rents, wants to reduce her reliance on fossil fuels and increase energy efficiency in her house but this depends on the property owner being willing also. Perhaps a system where rental properties have to meet tougher environmental standards would help provide more energy and water efficient housing for all. 

That got us thinking about what is the rightbalance between individual, government and industry responsibility, particularly in terms of energy efficiency in housing and generation of low carbon energy.  We concluded that, even if we do have plentiful, low carbon energy in the future, people still need to be informed and educated to ensure our environmental resources are used efficiently. The positive side effects of No Impact week that we experienced, such as feeling healthier, being more social and learning new skills (more inventive cooking!) can be used to promote living a lower impact life. 

So what was the impact of No Impact week?
As individuals, we found that the week was a useful nudge to get out of bad habits we had fallen into.  It made us reflect on the choices we make and the impact these have. We agreed that it was increased awareness that was the main value of the week rather than the actual amount of carbon saved, as there was a considerable displacement of less sustainable practice to other weeks. The term ‘No Impact’ is also misleading….after all most human activity has an impact and some of the impact we have as individuals and groups is extremely positive.

What’s Next?
In 2018, we are inviting others across the Environment Centre and the University to join us for a number of weeklong challenges looking to live within the carbon budget for 2050… more information in the coming months.

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