Green living comes in a range of shades to suit you and the planet

It's easy to feel helpless about the the environment, Faith Glasgow says, but there are many ways to make a difference
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The United Nations Development Programme says 20 per cent of people use 86 per cent of the world's resources at an unprecedented and unsustainable rate. The consequences sound depressingly familiar: global warming, species loss, depleted resources, widening disparities between rich and poor nations.

The trouble is that the headlines sound so large-scale it is easy to feel isolated efforts to live more "greenly" are insignificant drops in the ocean. Not in the least, says Tony Juniper, executive director of the campaign group Friends of the Earth. "Everyone can make a difference, and that's demonstrated by successes such as the Household Recycling Bill, which was passed at the end of 2003 and obliges councils to provide recycling for every household in the UK by 2010."

He points to the popular reaction against genetically modified foodstuffs. "One of the main reasons why large-scale GM farming practices have been brought to a standstill in this country is because consumers refused to buy them."

As it is, one of Britain's most high-profile experiments in green living is being forced to end, by court order. Five years ago, Tony Wrench, now 55, built his grass-roofed, environmentally friendly roundhouse, at Brithdir Mawr, near Bridport, Pembrokeshire. Three other people built homes along the same lines and a green commune was born.

But Pembrokeshire National Park Authority objected because the builders did not have planning permission and took them to court.

Mr Wrench's roundhouse is 34ft in diameter, built from larch roof timbers cut from a sustainable wood culled from the surrounding area. The walls are made of logs, straw and mud and the turf roof was laid on a rubber pond-liner stretched over the timbers, with a skylight in the centre. A low, grass bank shelters it from prevailing winds.

The toilet huts stand away from the living quarters but sawdust is poured in instead of flushing. Months later, Mr Wrench says, they get "top-quality" manure. Electricity is provided through a combination of wind, solar and hydro power and the commune does have a television, video, computer (and a website) and mobile phonesbut there are no fridges, deep freezes, washing machines or microwaves.

That way of life will not suit many people, used to modern comforts. But are you concerned about the way we live, and just too busy, or not prepared, to reinvent your lifestyle? There is a spectrum of shades of green, and you do not have to become a card-carrying vegan or give up treats at Harvey Nicks to live a more planet-friendly existence.

For a start, try to avoid non-essential car journeys, particularly for short distances. Engines use more fuel when they are cold. Cycling is swift and reliable, particularly when the alternative involves fuming in a traffic jam. And it keeps you fit. Try to walk or use public transport where possible.

A small, fuel-efficient vehicle produces fewer polluting emissions than its bigger counterparts. Cleaner alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, are also available; there is plenty of information about fuels and grants to convert your car at the PowerShift website. Or you may be able to join a car-sharing scheme, or one of the pay- as-you-drive car clubs operating in cities including London, Edinburgh, Bristol and Leeds.

As a shopper, you can make decisions about the organisations and products you are prepared to support. Buy seasonal, locally produced organic food. Shop at farmers' markets or local shops in preference to the weekly supermarket ordeal. Shopping may take a bit longer, but it is likely to be more enjoyable. Keep an eye open for fair trade products, including coffee, tea, chocolate, orange juice and honey.

Useful specialist shops include the Green Shop near Stroud, Somerset, which has an online service. You can get anything from natural paints to organic tampons there, as well as eco-cleaning products, or even a wind turbine. Catalogues to look out for include Greenfibres, Natural Collection and Greenchoices. The bible of green shopping is the Good Shopping Guide, which details all the most environmentally friendly products and brands.

It is also possible to influence corporations as an investor, by putting your money into ethical funds which attempt to shape the policies and behaviour of the companies whose shares they hold. Information on ethical banking and investing is available from the Ethical Investment Research Service.

What about recycling? The average person in the UK throws out their body weight in rubbish every three months, according to Friends of the Earth. In the UK it is largely burnt or buried. Only 11 per cent is recycled, compared with 50 per cent in the Netherlands and Germany. Recycling is better than landfill or incineration, and less energy is needed to make products out of recycled rather than virgin materials.

"The best thing you can do is to buy less stuff altogether," Mr Juniper says. "If you've got some money spare, go to the cinema or out for a meal rather than going shopping." The reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, in that order, still makes a lot of sense.

'We need to be more responsible about the Earth'

Emma Parkin, a press officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Exeter, Devon, and self-styled compost queen, became environmentally conscious after going travelling when she was in her 20s.

She says: "Visiting places such as Nepal, where people live on practically nothing, made me realise we all need to be a bit more responsible about the Earth."

What does that mean in daily life? As a committed foodie, Ms Parkin is a firm believer in buying local produce. "I avoid supermarkets wherever I can," she says. "I support the local shops, which is much more pleasant. And I get a weekly veggie box from a local organic farmer, Martin Bragg. In fact, I now do his van deliveries in the Teign Valley."

Exeter has a kerbside recycling scheme which takes paper, card and plastic, and organic waste is composted in the household wormery. It means Ms Parkin and her housemate can keep their weekly offerings for the dustman down to an impressive, single Sainsbury's bag.

Exeter is an easy place to walk or cycle around, although Ms Parkin does own a small, elderly car. "I do like the freedom of a having a car to go away at the weekend," she says. "But a car-share scheme has started in Exeter and I'm interested in that as an option for when mine gives up the ghost."

Beyond that, she has signed up, appropriately enough, to Scottish & Southern's RSPB Energy. She also considered a solar water heater, but at £2,000 it just did not make financial sense.

"I'm not evangelical about sustainable living," Ms Parkin says. "But I do think everyone can do something, even if it's just trying to use the car less and avoiding extra packaging wherever they can."

FACT FILE: GOING GREEN

* The worst European polluters are Germany, UK, Poland and Spain, each producing over a million tons of sulphur emissions. Over 90 per cent of Norway's acid pollution comes from other countries.

* The human population of the Earth increases by one million every two to three days. As the population increases, so do environmental problems.

* It takes three million acres of good arable land to feed one million people - and yet we are taking vast acres of land away from agriculture each year.

* Average temperature will rise by between 2 and 5 degrees centigrade by 2020. Such temperature rises would cause flooding in coastal cities throughout the world, and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands may be completely submerged.

* One fifth of the world's land surface is desert, defined as an area which has on average less than 250mm of rain per year. More people die in deserts from drowning than from thirst.

* The sun burns 700 million tonnes of hydrogen every second in nuclear reactions producing temperatures of 14,000,000 degrees celsius at its centre.

* There are about 5,000 species of animals: 64 species vanished between 1900 and 1960, but only four species have become extinct since then.

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