I caught up with marine biologist, wildlife photographer, sustainability proponent and fellow bicycle enthusiast Richard Lord to talk everything from electric bikes to waste recycling to childhood independence to home-grown melons. Read on for some fascinating ‘behind-the-headlines’ insights into some of the issues of sustainability facing Guernsey today.
“These things can’t be communicated in sound-bites, obviously,” Richard Lord begins, evidently not an aspiring politician.
“Nothing is black and white. I can talk about some of the complexities and some of the nuance.”
Let’s get started, then!
“For example, electric cars. They are three times more efficient than the internal combustion engine, but on the other hand the battery takes precious metals and things which causes resource demands that might create shortages in the future. There is actually a shortage of electric cars, there’s a lot of electric cars on the waiting list at the moment.”
What might be a realistic alternative to cars, then, if the electric car isn’t going to solve our sustainability problems?
“Bicycles at the moment are the perfect mode of transport for some journeys, and of course a lot of people are nowadays buying electric bikes, there are subsidies that Guernsey offered which have been very successful where people got a certain amount off buying electric bikes.”
In fact, the electric bicycle subsidies were all gone after one month. I’m just sorry that I didn’t score a subsidy, and now must suffer being overtaken by battery-powered pensioners on battery-powered bikes.
“I’m seeing more electric bikes on my cycling trips around Guernsey, particularly with families. I’m seeing mothers picking their children up from school on electric bikes. I’m seeing people with various reasons for using electric bikes, one for example with poor eyesight, he can’t get a driving license, and this allows him to take his children on the back. You see more cargo bikes.”
“Basically we’re picking up what’s going on in Continental Europe and the UK, we’re always just a little behind picking up any new technology. The mobile phone, you know, it came gradually and suddenly it was everywhere—we’re starting to see that with electric bikes.”
Indeed there’s been an upturn in cargo bikes, electric and otherwise. I’ve often heard people exclaim, ‘I wouldn’t take my children on one of those,’ and, ‘They seem so dangerous.’ But when one looks to cities like Amsterdam, every family member is on a bike, sometimes a single bike!
“The whole of the Netherlands has a comprehensive biking network. A lot of residential streets they slow traffic down, they put islands in them and plant things, they also take down a lot of street signage and they make them for multi-modal travel, so there’s kids playing in the streets.”
“This all went back to 1970 when children were being killed in the streets, run over by speeding cars. After the war they could have continued to build motorways, like the American experience, where you end up with huge traffic congestion, but the Dutch after 1970 with all the children being killed, they decided to stop, and got people in local politics to stop the development of a six-lane highway.”
Six-lane highways, thankfully, are not the issue in Guernsey, where many roads are the size of mainland pavements—or cycle lanes.
“There are lots of lanes in Guernsey, there are lots of opportunities to take side roads where the traffic is slower and the States have mandated that we should travel slowly on them.”
“Our children would have a lot more independence if our streets were safer. I mean, the reason that parents pick up their children from school, take them to all the after-school activities, sports, homework clubs, that generates a huge amount of traffic is because parents don’t feel comfortable allowing their children to travel on their own.”
Is it feasible to have schoolchildren travelling independently by bicycle, though?
“In the Netherlands children are allowed to travel on their own from a very young age, because the infrastructure is so much safer. To be fair, there’s not enough space here, but actually it’s just a question of reorganising the space we have, and where people are using transportation that could be dangerous we just make that slower, and then it becomes safer and parents might allow their children more independence.”
“I just met a family in the Netherlands and they allow their children to travel to Rotterdam and The Hague. The Hague’s about 9km away and Rotterdam about 15km away. These children just cycle on their own to these other cities, they’re not concerned about the road safety because they know they can take a cycle road. So I think it’s not just a matter of the form of transport you take, but about what you’re providing to the children, giving them freedom.”
Cycling 15km approximates a third of Guernsey’s 46km coastline. At what age would this become appropriate for Guernsey’s children, I wonder?
“If you go back to the 1950s and 60s children were much freer, they could travel independently for some distance out of their neighbourhood. And now—and this is something that’s been well reported—their range, their ability to be independent, has shrunk. It’d be lovely if Guernsey had some arterial roads for normal speed traffic, then a lot of quiet lanes that will give children priority to travel with their friends, to go to clubs, music lessons, all of that. I think that would make our community much happier.”
“I mentioned the family with a 13-year-old daughter and a younger son who travel independently by bike between cities in Netherlands, and I started reading up a little about it. Children used to be able to go 10, 15km away from their homes, independently, and as decades have progressed into this situation, children are given much less independence.”
“The thing is the tipping point: if parents would start feeling confident that children could travel safely on their own to after-school activities, and go to schools on their own.”
What kind of initiatives might encourage parents toward that tipping point?
“Thanks to Pat Wisher of Living Streets Guernsey, they had this walkway to St Sampson’s secondary school, and they worked very hard to develop that road so that children would be safe to walk down that path to that school without coming across any roads or motorised traffic. That worked to some extent and it was a very good initiative, but we just need to think like that more island-wide.”
“Main roads would actually have less traffic because there will be less parents taking their children to school and events by car, so it’s a win-win.”
“I just want to put that out there, it needs a lot of thought, and people can say, ‘Oh it’s fine in the Netherlands or in Denmark but it wouldn’t apply here’—actually, it applies anywhere in the world. In America, even though it’s a car-centric society, things are changing quite rapidly there, there’s a lot of developing cycling infrastructure.”
“And of course it benefits health, mental health as well as physical health, so there’s lots of benefits aside from the traffic side—the sense of liberation!”
Being regular sea-swimmers, my family, friends and I have cringed at the thought of the torrent of sewage being pumped untreated into our waters. Public interest has fluctuated, and we seem to be at a low point at the moment.
“Guernsey Water has this pumping station and this 6mm rotating drum that takes out rags and non-biodegradable sewage. It’s very important people don’t flush wet-wipes, tampon applicators and things like that down the sewage system because it causes clogging. Anything non-biodegradable causes problems.”
“I did attend a presentation from the people who recommended a longer sewage outfall pipe and took the outlet into the fast stream of the Little Roussel. The testing of the seawater was done and, basically, sunlight and turbulence provides the same treatment you would have through treatment works in terms of bacteria levels, even though there’s a bigger organic loading in Belgrave Bay.”
That’s pleasantly surprising to hear—more surprising than pleasant. How can such a mass of waste be treated, dispersed and rendered non-toxic, though?
“The new sewage treatment basically removes non-biodegradable material and sends a very liquidy sewage stream into the faster stream of the Little Roussel.”
The Little Roussel is the channel of water lying between Guernsey and Herm, notorious for its tidal range and concomitant currents.
“The sun and water turbulence does things that you’d have on a land-based sewage facility, so we’re very fortunate in Guernsey, we have very strong tides and strong water flows around the island.”
“The reason you have man-made treatment plants is because the effluence can’t go into rivers because it’s got too much biological oxygen demand, but the sea does treat it. Obviously you don’t want to be around the sewage outlet, but the gulls are gone. The old sewage outfall pipe you’d always see a slick on the water and seagulls congregating there, and that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Guernsey has also significantly increased its private waste recycling in recent months. What are your thoughts on this strategy and how it has played out?
“It’s efficient. The main problem is not with Guernsey. It’s with the way our food is packaged and the fact that we have so much single use plastic. I’m a regular beach cleaner and we find a lot of it in the springtime, particularly with onshore wind. Some of its food, some of its from fishing, and some of its from distant lands, deposited by merchant shipping.”
“The reason I mention that is because single use plastic accounts for about 8% of the global oil supply and at the moment that plastic is not being recycled. Some of it was going to China, who have said they don’t want to accept it anymore. You probably saw a documentary talking about the plastic epidemic, and basically you can’t recycle plastic indefinitely, so some of the plastic might be made into new plastic products like pens, but there’s an awful lot of plastic that can’t be recycled and goes up in the chimney, in a waste-to-energy plant.”
Recycling isn’t the issue, then, but plastic itself?
“The main problem is that we find plastic such a useful material in so many ways, we’re using it hugely with food and packing and carrier bags, things like that with a very short life. That plastic doesn’t go away, it’s very resistant to degradation.”
“There was another documentary on the BBC where they were digging into landfills. In the landfills from the Victorian era they found useful glass bottles, porcelain dishes, but as soon as you got to the plastic era, none of that stuff degrades, and all of the stuff we’ve put in there over several decades will still be there and fundamentally won’t have decayed.”
One can imagine a Victorian landfill being sprinkled with shards of porcelain, and green grass bottles, faded into a quaint obscurity with its era. Modern landfill is more of a mountainous mush of plastic bags and cardboard boxes, with the odd intact Christmas cracker toy.
“Our waste plant is very well managed, but the volume of waste that we produce is absolutely massive, and we’re just a small community of 60,000, there’s 60 million in the UK and 500 million in Europe. The volume of plastic that’s being thrown away is absolutely colossal, and there simply isn’t a recycling system for that volume of plastic. We really have to think about packaging that’s biodegradable.”
Have you seen some of the recent upsurge in anti-plastic campaigning and marketing?
“Yes I have. I’ve seen M&S have changed their tomato packaging, it used to be in a plastic tray with a plastic cover and now it’s in a cardboard tray with a plastic cover.”
Progress of a kind!
“Yeah, but it’s shampoo bottles as well, it’s household products, things in the kitchen. You saw that McDonald’s tried to change its straws from plastic to cardboard and then someone found out that the straws were not recyclable. The thing is cardboard takes a lot of energy to make, so it’s not in-itself a great solution because the energy used to make the cardboard can exceed the energy to make the plastic.”
Why the move from plastic to cardboard if the carbon footprint is as heavy?
“The difference is, hopefully, the cardboard can biodegrade and disappear whereas the plastic will remain unaltered for hundreds of years. Every year the global plastic industry is making 350, 400 million tonnes, and they think 8 million tonnes is ending up in the sea every year, maybe 10 million tonnes—we’re not a problem area, like countries with no waste management infrastructure.”
“India for example, a lot of problems. Caribbean has seen canals just filled with plastic all being swept out to sea. Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam; a lot of issues with plastic. There’s a very famous video of a scuba diver in Bali with a go-pro swimming under water, literally swimming through plastic soup.”
“The thing is that plastic is such a useful product that we need to find an alternative product that can be used and naturally decay. But now plastic is just filling up everywhere: it’s in the atmosphere, it’s in the water we drink, it’s in our bodies. Plastic microfibers have been found in the most remote regions in the earth, in the Arctic, in the Rocky Mountains, in the Pyrenees. It’s microscopic stuff, plastic is literally blowing in the wind and this has all happened over the last 50 years”
Tonnes of the stuff being produced on land before polluting our seas; the food we eat is wrapped in it and the air we breathe is filled with it. What do we do?
“One solution, for example, The Guernsey Weigh—fantastic! Great initiative, the shop in the Inner Market in town which is basically package free. I think we’ll be seeing more of that. Their fresh veg is absolutely fantastic, they have lots of grains, they have a lot of cereals, granola, things like that, and you just bring your own container.”
My partner and I have become regular shoppers at The Guernsey Weigh. Aside from being mostly package free, it is chock-full of goods that are not only good quality but often cheaper than their supermarket alternatives.
I would be remiss not to mention these striking images, taken by Karl Taylor. Would you give us some background to this project, what inspired it and the feedback received?
“This started in 2007. Rebecca Hosking made a film called Hawaii: Message in the Waves. From that day, I started beach cleaning. I’ve met lots of beach cleaners since: Dave De Lisle with the scouts, Ladies College, all the schools and teachers—it’s gathering apace.”
“More recently Sam Reoch set up this Facebook group called Found on the Beach in Guernsey where people are able to post pictures of the litter they’ve found. It generated interest and I used that group to find some of the bigger items that were washing up on the west coast, and I would collect fish pots and bobbles and nets and things like that, not local origin, mostly coming across the Atlantic.”
“To Karl Taylor, who’d done this brilliant photoshoot, I said, ‘I know you are a passionate scuba diver, love the sea, would you be willing to do a photoshoot of the litter we collect?’ He did it pro bono! He had total editorial control over it, and it got a lot of exposure, a lot of views on YouTube. Both pictures had a lot of impact.”
“I’m just one of many regular beach cleaners. Kristina Adams contacted me, who studied at Elizabeth College as an artist, and I had a load of litter from beach cleaning and donated it to them, and they made various sculptures and art with the litter that I collected. And I collected more litter, and with help from the Found on the Beach in Guernsey, Sam Reoch’s group and, particularly Janet Unitt who is an amazing volunteer who works incredible hard beach cleaning, and she gave me a huge amount of litter from the west coast. I would go to her home on the bus, sometimes twice a day, and when people found out about my project they started dropping litter off at my door.”
I wonder what your wife said, having litter delivered to your doorstep! But all for a great cause.
Time for some quick fire questions!
Best thing about living on Guernsey?
“The sea—haha! I mean, you have to pinch yourself, when you can be in the office one minute and in the next be sitting on an incredible sandy beach, and be on your own, which is fantastic!”
Isn’t it? Sometimes I only appreciate what we have through the eyes of visiting tourists, who are invariably stunned by Guernsey.
“It is magnificent, our island, we need to hand it onto future generations in the manner in which we found it. We have a few anti-social people, fly-tippers and people like that, but we have others like Sam Reoch and Janet Unitt and Raymond Brankett who regular go out and pick up litter. Paul Le Gallez, I met this guy, he shuns publicity and just does it out of the goodness of his heart, picking up all this litter. An unsung hero, I know the Guernsey Press and others highlight such people sometimes, but there are others who have no recognition as well, and they really keep Guernsey looking beautiful.”
Something Guernsey needs to work on?
“For me it has to be transport. I think the amount of vehicles, the excessive use of vehicles. We could enjoy the island a lot more and have less traffic congestion and have better air quality if we could just occasionally use other forms of transport, rather than focussing on the private car.”
“I was quite surprised reading one transport strategy, which was published in the last election race. They found out that 8,000 adults in Guernsey can’t drive. I’m one of them, actually, because I never really tried!”
“If you wanted to ask me another thing that I found wonderful about Guernsey, it’s cycling around the lanes at night. I just find it such a beautiful experience, especially if the stars are out. If you’re all alone in the lanes with just your front bike light, sometimes I have owls flying over me, hedgehogs on the road, all sorts of wildlife in the dead of night—tranquil, peaceful, quite special.”
A book or film that’s changed your perspective?
“Well I mentioned Hawaii: Message in the Waves [BBC Documentaries, 2007], and I think probably from that documentary, an hour long I think. That film did more to change my behaviour than anything else. There are lots of films that moved me, but I started beach cleaning because of that film.”
Have you any current or upcoming projects you’d like to give a shout-out soon?
“A person who still sticks in my mind is Dave Miller, who regrettably died of cancer some years ago, and wrote a paper called The Guernsey Ark. He looked at all the soil pipes in Guernsey and said, ‘How can we maximise food production on the island?’ During the occupation people were starving, we were probably short of food for most of the occupation, there were 13,500 German troops, 24,000 islanders perhaps, the population was much less than it is today, and they were really hungry.”
“I feel Guernsey is today generally needs to think about resilience. We’ve given up our warehouses. I guess all of it comes from the UK. We need to go back to the land a little bit and more of us need to think about growing food, just to supplement the food we buy in shops; try to make ourselves as resilient as possible, because I think climate change will have a big impact on food security globally.”
How do you imagine action being taken in this respect? Would it be a public scheme or more of a grassroots, localised thing?
“Interestingly enough I saw an Instagram post today that said school children should learn how to grow food, and I immediately liked it. I’m hoping that the school curriculum includes growing food, introducing children to veg and plants, but also cooking food because I think that’s one of the most important skills to have.”
“Unfortunately today’s processed foods, packaged foods, the ease of take-outs, we just lose that skill. And it’s a vital skill; in terms of health, eating a properly balanced diet and at the same time being able to grow. Tomatoes: you can grow them out of a pot if you don’t have any land. Potatoes grow in very small space. Also there’s a great pleasure in picking your own food. I grew a melon, and it was the best tasting melon I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
“I feel generally every income level and age group should try it really. Edible Guernsey and Jonathan Pettis is working with the guy who works with Rocquettes Cider, James Meller, looking at improving soil quality and replenishing it with organic matter.”
“Because industrial agriculture is adding the phosphates and the nitrogen and the soil is degraded, it doesn’t have any microbiological life, any worms, any critters, which are important. So they are using natural processes to enrich the soil and improve the soil health, which leads to better plant health. There might be a financial cost to that, but the economic system doesn’t sometimes truly reflect the value of things; and food, I don’t think you can put too low a price on growing food locally.”