Tastex makes a move into solar-powered knitwear

A Tasmanian not-for-profit takes a leap where governments fear to tread.

Rob Manson of I Want Energy explains the finer points of solar power, watched by (left to right) Tastex executive officer Vicki Hawker, chairman Maurie Harris, and Andrew Wilkie MP, who launched the solar project last month. PHOTO Tastex

Rob Manson of I Want Energy explains the finer points of solar power, watched by (left to right) Tastex executive officer Vicki Hawker, chairman Maurie Harris, and Andrew Wilkie MP, who launched the solar project last month. PHOTO Tastex

Repeated policy failures and a blinkered fixation on the bottom line have taught us that the top levels of government and business aren’t good at leading progressive change.

But don’t despair. Not-for-profit businesses and community groups are stepping into the breach. Here’s a story guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Tastex produces knitwear in a humble cement-block factory in Glenorchy. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that employs people with a disability who would otherwise be unable to work.

If you think that means relying on charity and government support, think again. Tastex has survived over 45 years in the cut-throat textile market and won international certification for the quality of its products and service. It didn’t do this by sitting back waiting for handouts.

An expanding customer base and product line (including novelty soft toys stuffed with unravelled wool offcuts) attest to a lot of hard work by 25 staff under its fiercely dedicated executive officer Vicki Hawker. However you define “enterprising”, that’s Tastex.

But a long-running budgetary issue has had Tastex management stumped: the cost of electricity for its knitting, sewing and embroidery machines. The bill runs to around $14,000 a year.

Tastex board member Stuart Barry thought of solar panels on the factory’s large, flat roof, and sought the advice of Chris Harries, of the Waterworks Valley Community, and Jack Gilding, executive officer of the Tasmanian Renewable Energy Alliance.

Gilding estimated that the roof could accommodate enough panels to cut power bills in half. The company didn’t have the cash to pay for an installation, but Gilding put it in touch with someone who could help: Margaret Hender, founder and director of the Corena Fund.

Adelaide-based Corena (the name is the acronym for “Citizens Own Renewable Energy Network Australia”) is non-profit group which believes all Australian energy needs can and should be met from renewable sources.

Corena uses crowd-funding to raise money to distribute as interest-free loans to non-profit groups to install solar power or improve energy efficiency. Each project’s loan repayments are scaled so the borrower is ahead from day one, and repayments are recycled to the next project.

To reduce the size of its Corena loan, Tastex embarked on its own crowd-funding campaign, using the international fundraiser Chuffed.org, which charges no administrative fees for community and other not-for-profit groups.

The campaign was launched in mid-June by Denison MP Andrew Wilkie, who put up $500 to become its first donor. By last weekend it had raised about $13,000, over a third of the full cost of a 30-kilowatt rooftop system.

Among other benefactors is yet another non-profit group, Hobart-based Sustainable Living Tasmania, which has publicised the project among its many members.

Tastex still needs public support, but now the end is in sight. By next summer it will be using free solar power to offset energy bills and improve the company bottom line by $7000 a year

A visit to the Tastex factory last week convinced me that its good fortune didn’t happen by accident. This is a well led, highly motivated organisation that clearly thrives on creative thinking.

Importantly, it’s been able to draw on the energy and expertise of people willing and able to help at little or no cost – a wellspring of support that isn’t available for ordinary businesses and households. Which is where government needs to step in.

Full credit to the Hodgman government for its new scheme for interest-free loans to businesses and households installing solar panels and energy-efficient products. But it’s putting up only $10 million – a small fraction of what we paid for emergency diesel generation.

The government is falling into the trap of evaluating rooftop solar on the basis of its present scale, just 1 per cent of the state’s electricity generation, rather than where it could be with the right incentives. Experience elsewhere has shown how quickly that can change.

The strategic position would be to aim for household and business solar on a far bigger scale – eminently achievable if the feed-in tariff is based not on avoided costs to retailers, but on the long-term public benefit of distributed solar.

I can’t see that level of big-picture thinking happening, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Posted in business, investment, employment, climate politics, community action, economic activity, energy, energy efficiency, investment, leadership, local economy, solar, Sustainable Living Tasmania, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How the Coalition is awakening to a changing climate

The Coalition’s climate denial brigade should join the rest of the electorate and move on.

Senator Eric Abetz. PHOTO Andrew Meares, Sydney Morning Herald

Senator Eric Abetz. PHOTO Andrew Meares, Sydney Morning Herald

“Why did we not run on the carbon tax?” asked Tasmania’s senior Liberal senator, Eric Abetz, in an ABC radio interview last week.

It’s an interesting question. I’ll throw in a couple more: Why did the Coalition say so little about climate policy during the campaign, and why is Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, a long-time climate sceptic, now admitting that man-made climate change is real?

Clearly angry that his party’s campaign style was so different from that of his former (and preferred) leader Tony Abbott, Abetz raised doubts as to whether the Liberals could claim a win.

On the face of it, the close election might seem to strengthen the hand of conservative ideologues in the Coalition like Abetz, Cory Bernadi from South Australia and George Christensen from Queensland. For these, opposing strong emissions action has become an article of faith.

For a decade or more, as a steady stream of scientific data continues to strengthen the case for urgent action, holdouts in the Coalition have fed colleagues with their own steady stream of contrarian propaganda, funded in large part by US-based fossil-fuel interests.

The global campaign of denial isn’t going away soon, but all Liberal MPs know Malcolm Turnbull’s convictions about climate change. They know that while he’s leader, taking a contrary position could affect their careers.

There are tiny hints that growing numbers of Coalition MPs have grasped that this policy issue will only get bigger and more pressing as time passes and are beginning to shift ground.

The renewable energy industry has had to endure years of turbulence caused by changing policy, but that’s just part of the story. The energy industry as a whole now accepts that household solar and other disruptive renewables are here to stay, and is pushing for market reform.

The Coalition didn’t discuss climate policy during the election campaign, so no-one really knows what the government’s planning. More uncertainty, as if we needed it.

Business doesn’t care for ideology, especially where it stands in the way of making money for shareholders. Past ideological obstacles have tended to be thrown up by the left of politics, in the form of socialism and environmentalism. Now they’re coming from the right.

The Coalition has found it easy to ignore activist campaigns because it identifies them with left-wing politics. It’s still possible, though less so, for it to ignore moves by cities and towns and cooperative groups to develop low-emission strategies.

But for months now the Business Council of Australia has been calling for bipartisan climate measures, and that’s a group the Coalition can’t ignore.

There are other incentives for the Coalition to pursue stronger climate measures. The 2030 emissions target it committed to under Abbott isn’t much, but even so it won’t be easy to reach.

Ironically, one of its key tools will be a carbon price – not as we know it from the scheme Abbott axed, but a price nonetheless. With Labor and Green support it was legislated into law last December, and came into effect the day before the election.

The government’s safeguard mechanism requires 150 of Australia’s highest-emitting companies to cap emissions at their peak level over recent years. If they go under this amount they will win credit units, and if they go above they will have to buy enough units to cover their excess.

This scheme is far from a fully-fledged cap-and-trade scheme. It won’t raise revenue, and at least at the outset won’t be as effective in hitting emissions. But it’s cause for optimism that the party divide over climate will actually diminish in this term of office.

Who knows, we may be at the start of a new era of bipartisan climate policy. And if bipartisanship can deliver investment stability to the energy industry while fostering uptake of renewables, the Coalition diehards on the right will find themselves fighting shadows.

So there you have it, Senator Abetz. Your party opted not to run on axing the carbon tax because focus groups showed it wasn’t a goer. People have moved on, and you should too.

Posted in Australian politics, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, climate politics, community action, contrarians, economic activity, economic restructuring, electricity networks, emissions trading, energy, fossil fuels, future climate, international politics, investment, leadership, public opinion, renewable energy, social and personal issues, solar | Leave a comment

How polar-fleece turns out to be a health hazard

Those wonderfully warm synthetic winter jackets that have taken over from winter woollies are also a primary source of damaging marine pollution.

Polar-fleece is lightweight, warm, and cheap. It’s also a marine health hazard. PHOTO Seton Australia

Polar-fleece is lightweight, warm, and cheap. It’s also a marine health hazard. PHOTO Seton Australia

Along with countless millions around the world, I find a polar-fleece jacket an ideal winter garment. I’m wearing one as I write this. Cheap, soft, lightweight, flame-resistant and quick-drying, polar-fleece is of the big clothing success stories of our time.

Made from the same polyester compound as most plastic bottles, it also has green credentials: used bottles can be turned into polar-fleece.

So it was disturbing to come across a scientific finding that tiny fibres shed from polar fleece during washing pose a significant threat to life in our oceans. It’s the sort of research that often gets accused of targeting a product simply because it’s popular.

But that would be mistaken. The conclusion resulted from years of painstaking investigation of wastewater in Europe, the US and Australia, most of which finishes up up in the sea.

Plastic contamination of the ocean remains little-known to the general public, but it’s huge. A study published in the journal Science last year calculated that around eight million tonnes of plastic enters the sea every year.

In January this year the annual World Economic Forum heard that over the past 50 years production of plastics had increased over 20 times, and that plastic “leakage” to the sea was on track to double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050.

At that point, said the WEF analysis, there would be more marine plastic by weight than all the ocean’s fish.

In April the Senate environment committee received nearly 200 submissions and heard from 43 witnesses about marine plastics. Evidence included pollution by microbeads in beauty products which Tasmanian state MP Madeleine Ogilvie is seeking to have banned from sale in the state.

The committee urged government and business action to curb the amount of plastic waste and support research into its marine impact. Recycling, container deposit schemes, reduced packaging material and new fishing technologies featured in its recommendations.

A 2015 paper in Environmental Research Letters drew on ocean circulation models to work out the quantity and distribution of marine microplastic at the ocean’s surface. It found that in 2014 there was between 93,000 and 236,000 tonnes of it – many times more than previously thought.

That fits with a 2014 assessment of Australia’s busiest waterway, Sydney Harbour, that found microplastic particles in sediment approaching one in every square millimetre.

Tony Underwood and Gee Chapman pioneered a leading-edge technique at the University of Sydney to determine what tiny marine particles are made of. Their work attracted the attention of one of the key global researchers into microplastic marine pollution, Mark Anthony Browne.

Born and educated in the UK, Browne moved to Australia partly because of the world-class forensic tools available at the University of Sydney for identifying thousands of tiny fibres he’s found over many years in wastewater and 18 sites on the shorelines of six continents.

The fibres were by far the commonest form of plastic Browne recovered from the wastewater outlets. Analysis identified the main culprit: polar-fleece clothing that millions of us wear daily.

Looking at wastewater samples from domestic washing machines, the study found that one garment can produce more than 1900 fibres in a single wash. Ingested by small organisms, these particles are a pathway for toxic pollutants to enter the tissues of animals at the base of the food chain.

Ideally, a solution would come from improved laundry filtration, or a differently-formulated fabric that doesn’t shed in the wash. Browne has been the main driver of a new venture, Benign by Design, seeking corporate backing for developing environmentally-friendly products.

But the big clothing manufacturers have avoided committing to Browne’s initiative, claiming the evidence doesn’t justify the money and effort. We need to find a counter to the potent economics of supply and demand.

The marine environment is under increasing stress, and continuing to ignore this thoroughly-researched problem will just make the situation worse.

In the absence of cheap options I’m reluctant to give up my polar-fleece jackets, but now I’m going to start looking. I’ll let you know if I find a suitable alternative.

Posted in biodiversity, biological resources, ecology, environmental degradation, marine organisms, marine sciences, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment