Sustainability workshop

Figure 1: Palm oil fruits and seeds (NB: It is now used for a lot more than just lubricating railway axles!

This week I’ve been busy preparing items for an A-level workshop based upon sustainable consumption.  This is an area that I am particularly interested in; and is something that I can only see increasing in importance as the recession continues its stranglehold upon many of the world’s economies.

The objects that I’ve been lifting out cover many themes.  I started by lifting out sheets from the Leo Grindon collection of cultivated plants to do with the theme of allocating alternative uses for things so that they don’t go to waste.  The students will be asked to pick-out examples of alternative use from the newspaper and magazine cuttings that Grindon made at the time.  Did you know, for example, that you can transfer all those unloved marrows left to grow during the summer into jam?  Or that you can make wine out of turnips (those crazy Victorians)?  If you have any crazier ideas about alternative uses for food-stuff then let me know!  (but try it yourself first maybe!)

Figure 2: Marrow jam anyone?

Another theme I’ve been focusing on is more sustainable alternatives for things.  For example, growing cotton is very bad for the environment.  Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop (EJF 2007).  It’s also very thirsty; the Aral Sea is now 15% of its former size mainly due to extracting irrigation water for cotton (People and Planet 2012).

Figure 3: Hemp: a sustainable alternative to cotton?

Crops like hemp (Cannabis sativa), ramie or ‘China grass’ (Boehmeria nivea), and jute (sometimes known as hemp jute) (Corchorus olitorius/ capsularis) are more sustainable options than cotton as they don’t require as much water nor as many pesticides and fertilisers to generate a good crop (organic cotton is another option but still requires more water to grow).

Finally, I considered how palm oil has become so ubiquitous in many of our products and how it sometimes isn’t even labelled as such (coming under ‘vegetable oil’). It’s in bread, cereal, soap, cakes, chocolate…and I’m as guilty as anyone for not considering whether or not palm oil is present in my food purchases.  Sadly, most of the palm oil we consume comes from unsustainable sources (i.e. a rainforest has been chopped down to make room for the oil palm Elaeis guineensis) to grow.  If you’d like to find out more about sustainable palm oil please look at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil website: and let’s hope for some legislative change soon to make it easier to chose products from sustainably-sourced oil palm plantations.


EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK.

People and Planet (2012) The cost of cotton.  Available at [accessed 24.05.12].


About Trainee Curator

I will be writing a blog about the next twelve months spent as a trainee biological curator based at Manchester Museum.
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2 Responses to Sustainability workshop

  1. Dina Newton-Edwards says:

    Marrow jam is delicious if made with ginger.
    As for fibres, I’ve been interested to see that knitting yarns are being made out of bamboo [fairly commonplace], banana fibre and sugar cane. I don’t know how eco-friendly they are as I noticed that a yarn I used was made in China, then shipped to Chile where it was dyed, before being sold in the UK. However, I do like the idea of these fibres being used to make yarn, if they are waste products.

    • Hi Dina,
      Thanks for the marrow jam tip! In respect of fibres, you’re right about them being potentially sustainable if waste products but the ‘hidden costs’ of shipping etc. are so prevelant with so many things thesedays I think it’s impossible to ever be 100% confident in the sustainability of a product.

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