4 Juni 2004

How to survive without oil


The celebrity antithesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gas-guzzling Humvee is Sting in his Toyota Prius. No vehicle in recent memory has enjoyed such celebrity endorsement. At the Academy Awards, Robin Williams, Sting, Charlize Theron, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were among the guests who abandoned their traditional stretch limousines in favour of hitching a ride in a Prius as part of a “Red Carpet – Green Cars” campaign organised by Global Green USA.

The Prius, launched last October, delivers twice the mileage of a similar sized vehicle thanks to its hybrid engine – part petrol and part electric. In order to reduce oil consumption, the car can accelerate using the petrol engine and then maintain its speed using electric power. While hybrid cars have been around for years, this is the first vehicle to capture the public’s imagination. In America, 10,000 orders were placed before it even hit the market. The car, priced £17,495, was launched in Britain in March and makes for a grander alternative to the Sinclair C5.


Petroleum jelly may not disguise its origins, but many beauty products prefer to leave their oil-based ingredients in the small print. Countless brands of shampoo, shaving foam, moisturising cream, perfumes and body lotions are manufactured with oil industry bi-products. Mineral oil is a commonly used petroleum ingredient which coats the skin just like a plastic wrap. Baby oil, for example, is 100 per cent mineral oil. One solution is to track down products made with animal or vegetable oils. Blu Emu is an Australian brand of beauty products that uses emu oil, inspired by the aborigines who used it to treat burns and soften skin.


In the past ten years passenger numbers at UK airports have doubled from 84 million to 160 million. More travellers mean more flights which in turn means the consumption of more aviation fuel. In the past, regular travellers such as Pink Floyd have assuaged their conscience at participating in the build up of greenhouse gases by planting trees, which will help reabsorb the carbon dioxide produced by the vapour trails of their jets. This, however, will do nothing to reduce the world’s actual oil consumption, but a self-imposed ban on any non-essential air travel will. The prospect of a sodden summer in Scotland may be distinctly unappealing, but we can offer one suggestion: visit the Borders Forest Trust and their Trees for Transport site.


For a generation it coated our kitchen work surfaces and table tops, but now is the time to exercise our ethics. Formica and its chum melamine are, like many kitchen utensils, including coasters, Teflon-coated pans, egg cartons, meat trays and pudding moulds, made using oil-based products. On grounds of taste alone, Formica should be banished to the skip, but now concern for the planet and the price of petrol should force your hand. Invest instead in a wooden table top – but then be careful what preservative or varnish you apply, for there again lurks our precious oil. Alternatively, if you are the proud owner of new Prius, blow the money you save on petrol bills by splashing out on a granite or marble counter top. Conservation should have its own rewards.


Biodiesel, made from vegetable-based oils such as soybean, rape seed or sunflower, is increasingly being used as a cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to conventional diesel. Now some oil companies are starting to market a biodiesel mix from their pumps, usually containing no more than 5-10 per cent biodiesel, but it is perfectly possible to run conventional diesel vehicles on cheap, home-made biodiesel from used cooking oil, though care is required with the other, volatile ingredients, which include methanol. “We know people who collect used oil from their local chippy or from the doughnut ovens at their local Asda,” says a spokesperson for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Powys, Wales, which is running a biodiesel-making course in November (see www.cat.org.uk).

The island of Bougainville, off Papua New Guinea, runs vehicles and generates electricity on coconut oil. But perhaps the best-known showcase for biofuels was the 1994 round-the-world voyage of the Sunrider, a 24ft, 27hp Zodiac Hurricane rigid inflatable boat which ran on soya-based biodiesel.


While most paints in any DIY store are derived from petrochemicals, there are alternatives, based largely on natural ingredients such as linseed oil, or other tree oils such as citrus or the ubiquitous soya. They tend to be more expensive but, according to Construction Resources, a London-based company supplying materials for sustainable building, are generally better quality and provide alternatives for every type of painting, exterior or interior.

Many of them, says Richard Handyside, Construction Resources’s managing director, are modern reformulations of paints which have been used for centuries. And they are catching on; they’re now available from numerous stores or mail order sources around the country, he adds, with even DIY chains such as B&Q and Ikea starting to stock them.

Another major domestic use of petrochemical based products is in insulation. However, alternatives are available, particularly using traditional materials such as flax, sheep’s wool or recycled cellulose. Again, they tend to be more expensive but, says Handyside, may offer better performance.


It will be a major challenge to wean industry off the fossil fuels it has hitherto taken for granted, but Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who recently hosted a conference entitled Keeping the Lights On Without Warming the Planet, believes historical evidence suggests industry is capable of changing its energy source without massive economic disruption, as long as it does so through planned transition. From finite fossil fuel reserves, he sees industry looking to renewable energy sources for electricity, biomass fuels (using forestry products or other crops) and other biofuels and, in the longer term, probably the use of hydrogen as a storage medium for electrically generated energy. “Evidence suggests that in almost every sector there are massive energy efficiency savings, most of which are cost-effective,” he says. “The problem is that for business people at the moment these savings remain low on the list of priorities for their time and effort.” Recent warnings, however, that the government is going to raise energy taxes may well prompt the industrial sector to embrace energy efficiency in a big way.


While the use of petrochemical products in nylon, polyester and many other aspects of our clothing is not as environmentally damaging as burning oil for fuel, like almost everything else we use oil for, there are usually traditional substitutes, some of which have been tried and tested over thousands of years. More than 60 per cent of fibres used in the European Union are synthetic, but substitutes exist in wool, cotton and linen. Viewed as one of the most environmentally sound alternatives to conventional clothing is hemp, traditionally known as a tough fibre (hemp rope and canvas was once used on sailing ships, while hemp also helped give the original Levi’s jeans their much-vaunted durability). Hemp clothing is reputedly cooler in summer and warmer the winter.

Source: Scotsman.com vom 2004-06-02.

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