"Whilst working in retail in 2003 I spent a week-long holiday living in the Findhorn community in North East Scotland. It was during this week that I decided to change career path completely and try to get people thinking more about their relationship with the planet: quite a departure from a job that mainly involved encouraging customers to consume as much as possible of things they didn't really need!
Project Carrot, which aims to link land, food, health and society, was the perfect course for me. It's run under the umbrella of University College Worcester and is based on a renovated farmhouse on the organic 224-hectare Pound Farm at Holme Lacy, South Herefordshire. Advantage West Midlands, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Bulmer Foundation and the Pershore Group of Colleges all integrate and work together to fund, facilitate and deliver the course.
The course is certainly demanding, but very rewarding: I have already formed a network of links with sustainability specialists and interested groups.
The placement at Birmingham FoE is one of four I will complete, and aims to provide first hand experience of how a media and campaigning group works to influence sustainable development. I used my time at the Warehouse to work on raising awareness and promoting the use of biodiesel in the West Midlands. Under the guidance of James Botham and Dave Clare, I visited local biodiesel producers both large and small to form a detailed picture of the development of biodiesel within the region.
The West Midlands is an important player the biodiesel trade, with two local companies currently processing waste vegetable oil on an industrial scale: BIP Chemicals at Oldbury and Green Biodiesel of Brownhills. Pelican Foods, a smaller firm in Bewdley, Worcestershire, delivers cooking oil and collects waste oil to make its own biodiesel.
The original solar power
Plants' efficient conversion of sunlight into liquid energy makes vegetable oils the original solar power. Burning fossil fuels releases ancient stores of carbon dioxide, causing global warming. In contrast, burning biodiesel releases the same amount of carbon as the plant 'fixed' when alive, making biodiesel 'carbon neutral'.
Biodiesel is a renewable and sustainable alternative to fossil fuel diesel. It can by produced from virgin vegetable oil from crops such as oilseed rape, or from waste cooking oil from your local fish and chip shop or restaurant. Obviously, it's better to 'recycle' used oil in this way rather than taking up precious agricultural land that should be growing food in order to grow fuel crops.
To make biodiesel, vegetable oil is put through a simple chemical process called 'esterification' to remove the glycerine, which would otherwise gum up the diesel engine's injectors. This conversion process was ably demonstrated by Matthew Flynn and Ian Moore when Birmingham FoE hosted a biodiesel workshop last year (see Action Briefing Aug-Sept 2004).
Blend of the road
Biodiesel can either be used blended or fully substituted without requiring any modification to your diesel engine. Biodiesel B5 is a 5 per cent blend with normal mineral diesel which can be instantly used by all diesel vehicles. However, some vehicle manufacturers' warranties do not cover biodiesel use above a 5 per cent blend.
B5 blend increases engine lubricity and reduces tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide by about 4 per cent compared with conventional diesel. It can also improve fuel economy by 1-3 per cent.
There are only five biodiesel forecourts selling B5 in the West Midlands: three in Shropshire, one in Staffordshire and one, Fillongley Garage, on the edge of Coventry. I decided to promote Fillongley Garage on account of its location within the West midlands conurbation. The Heartland Evening News, Coventry Evening Telegraph and Radio WM for Coventry and Warwickshire picked up and ran with my story.
Overall, the project has given me a fascinating insight into Birmingham FoE's work, especially with the media: FoE clearly has a good reputation, judging by editors' reaction to my FoE-branded press release, and I was encouraged by their keen interest in a story about climate change and energy use, two issues of vital concern for now and for the future.
I would like to thank everybody at Birmingham FoE for helping me expand my learning, and for their friendliness, time and approachability."