GREEN GAUGES

TRIED & TESTED How far do environmentally friendly products measure up to their claims? We put seven of them to the test
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The Independent Culture
GREENHOUSE gases, acid rain, polluted beaches and rivers, streets choked with carbon monoxide - the systematic destruction of our environment makes depressing reading, and often the problem seems too vast for most of us to do anything about it. Some hope is offered to consumers by organisations like Friends of the Earth, who together with Ecotrade produce a mail-order catalogue of environmentally friendly products, including gadgets which supposedly help us to "go green".

THE TEST

We asked Martin Wright, a writer on environmental affairs and the editor of Environment Digest, to assess a variety of these gadgets in terms of their ecological correctness. I acted as the mildly concerned consumer: keen to do my bit, but with an eagle eye for aesthetics and the effort required. For the most part the gadgets were too expensive, too troublesome or too ugly. The good news is that essential items like detergents and light bulbs are now being produced to meet environmental needs, and can save you money as well.

*TUBIPRESS

pounds 2.99

"No more wrinkled half empty tubes!" is the promise of this German gadget designed to roll up toothpaste tubes with a key and stand. Wright was dismissive: "A typical example of manufacturers finding a market for something that we can do perfectly well for ourselves - it isn't hard to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out. They claim they're helping you to be green, but in fact they're consuming energy to make a redundant product." This proved a theme for many of the products we tested. In practice, the Tubipress was redeemed by the fact that it actually works. "It does stiffen the tube nicely," Martin Wright conceded, awarding it one star for "entertainment value". The plastic design put me off; this isn't the sort of thing you see in House & Gardens, so it wouldn't get any shelf space in my bathroom.

CAN CRUSHER

pounds 15.95

Another unaesthetic plastic tool which has to be displayed prominently on your kitchen wall in order to save space in landfill sites by crushing both steel and aluminium cans. Martin Wright was doubtful about the concept. "If people want to help the environment, why are they eating so many things out of cans? Most foods are more wholesome and cheaper bought fresh," he pointed out, agreeing that the can crusher is "very ugly - it looks like a loo brush". We borrowed a tuna can from a neighbour; it turned out to be a steel one that wasn't even dented by the appliance, no matter which way we put it in. As most people are capable of crushing aluminium drinks' cans with their hands, this rather expensive gadget seemed completely useless. "Try opening both ends and jumping on the can instead," suggested Wright. "It's better than kicking the cat and feet come free."

****LOW ENERGY LIGHTS

Globe pounds 13.95, Circolux pounds 19.95

After such a depressing start to our trial, Wright was relieved to be presented with these energy-saving light bulbs, available in many different shapes and working on as little as 20 per cent of the wattage used by regular bulbs. He acknowledges that the cost is high. "It's a leap of faith to invest in these bulbs, but they last much longer and are brighter than ordinary light bulbs and you do save money through reduced household bills in the long run. They are big, though. What's needed now is for manufacturers to take up the challenge of using recycled materials in lamps made to go with them." If you're wary of the initial outlay, he suggests buying the bulbs for the rooms in your home you use most.

LOG MAKER

pounds 24.95

This gadget sounds simple and fun, something we couldn't wait to try out in our house - until we read the directions. The handsome red and black steel Log Maker requires you to soak your newspapers in water for one to two days (where - in the bath?), stirring the pulp from time to time with a broom handle (like a witch at her cauldron, my flatmates thought). You then put the sodden paper into the mould and squeeze it into shape. The filthy water runs everywhere and the resultant brick has to be dried out for another day or two in the airing cupboard. We don't have a fire in our house, but a friend who had already tried this gadget said her logs didn't burn at all well. Martin Wright was sceptical, too. "It seems like a lot of hard work for a dubious result. Frankly, this sort of thing verges on the hairshirt school of environmentalism which only appeals to the guilt-ridden middle classes," he mused. In response to the central issue - whether burning paper is better than recycling it - he commented: "It's better than sending it to landfill."

***SAVAPLUG

pounds 25.95

Like the low-energy light bulbs, this energy-saving plug for fridges and freezers impressed Wright by making a product we already use more environmentally friendly, "It's a sensible substitution of energy by sound technology," he said, adding, "If we had a government with a flicker of vision there would be tax breaks for products like this as a step towards taxing energy instead of labour." The plug works by matching the amount of electricity supplied to the fridge or freezer to the amount needed - normally these appliances waste up to 20 per cent of the energy consumed because they use more power than is needed over the cooling cycle. Wright conceded that the Savaplug's price was too high for most people, however - especially as you can save a lot more energy by investing in the low wattage bulbs

.

**SOAPSAVER

pounds 3.95

The Soapsaver, a simple plastic cylinder with two lids that you twist in opposite directions in order to mould your slivers of old soap into a new cake, has many of the drawbacks of the Log Maker. You have to soften the old soap in hot water for 10 minutes, resulting in a saucepanful of lump-filled slime. After you have squeezed this into shape, it's hard to get the new soap cake out of the gadget without it breaking up, and you have to dry it out for a day before use. That said, we awarded the Soapsaver points for being a simple, inexpensive tool with creative possibilities. Children would probably love it, and it doesn't take up much room. The remoulded soap looks and feels horrible, but surely you can't expect to save the planet and suffer no inconvenience whatever? Martin Wright approved of the Soapsaver since it encourages people to save rather than consume. "It's always better to reduce than recycle," he advises.

**BLO-D

Washing Powder, pounds 5, Fabric Conditioner pounds l.75

We tried out these biodegradable washing products (which contain no chlorine bleaches or optical brighteners) on several washloads of different colours and at different temperatures and they were completely satisfactory. The products are also less viciously perfumed than many mainstream brands, so I didn't sneeze as soon as I opened the packet. Wright applauded the results, since in the past, he said, some green household products didn't work. "There's no surer way to alienate consumers than expecting them to put up with lower standards of cleanliness at higher prices. It means being green is equated with not working." On the other hand, he disapproved of the fabric conditioner. "It's a completely redundant product that we've been duped into thinking is essential," he said. "We do need washing powder; but not fabric conditioner. We need to condition our sense of need rather than our fabrics."

SUPPLIER

All the products tested were supplied from the Natural Collection mail- order catalogue. Products featured may be slightly more expensive than similar items bought locally; the difference is to help Friends of the Earth in research and campaigning work. For a catalogue, tel: 01672 542266.

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