Tag Archives: less

This year I bought less and spent more time outdoors, away from the smells of Christmas cheer | Ben O’Mara

I’m no Scrooge, but this December, I kept my fake, plastic smelling Christmas tree and all its baubles boxed up in a drawer under my bed.

I inherited the tree from my grandfather. The tree is fibre optic and when it’s turned on twinkles red, green, purple, white and blue. If you lean in close, you can smell its branches – they have a faint but strange tangy odour and remind me a little of rubber, and glue.

When I smell plastic things like my Christmas tree, I think of my grandfather, and how I struggled to talk with him towards the end of his life. Sometimes, I tell myself that the emphysema made breathing and talking difficult for him and awkward for us both. But most of the time, normally when I’m putting up my fake little tree, I find myself wishing I’d had the guts to say more.

Real Christmas trees like pines release hydrocarbons into the air that help create a sharp and sweet smell. It’s a scent beloved by many, associated with the fun of decorating its feathery green branches with tinsel, or placing gifts around its trunk.

Of course, the smell of a pine tree is only one scent in the rich aromatic experience of Christmas. Many foods eaten at Christmas have distinctive scents. There is the meaty and fruity smell of honey glazed ham. Fresh lobster has a strong, fishy odour. And the smell of gingerbread is powerful and spicy.

The smells of Christmas trees and food reflect some of the best things about Christmas – of celebrating with loved ones as another year draws to a close, and of giving to others without expecting anything in return.

Not everything smells like Christmas cheer when Santa comes to town, however. In fact, many smells of December are downright rank. Like the acrid pungence of vomit from a drunk train passenger who had too much booze at a work Christmas party. Or the fetid stink released from garbage cans filled with large amounts of rotting leftover food. Just waiting in a shopping centre queue on a hot day can have its own oppressive odour as the heavy stink of sweating human bodies mixes together in the air. And few smells are more abrasive than the stinging whiff of urine soaked alleyways and gutters in the city after a night of Christmas partying.

Many smells of Christmas are on the nose, and they are visceral reality checks for when the forces of commercialisation overtake a time of celebration. Comfort and joy are not found with others, but in consumer goods, and sometimes to excess.

The world is filled with scents that might be doing us more harm than good, a phenomenon which Kate Grenville writes about in her book, The Case Against Fragrance. Grenville traces the business interests driving the development of products like air freshners, scented candles and incense, and the health risks associated with these products, noting that,

Aromatherapy has a lot to answer for: there’s a vague assumption that any kind of scent in the air must be good for you.”

Christmas has its own aromatherapy of sorts, one created from food and drink, decorations and presents, a smellscape that, when indulged too much, is all about money, and not the people close to us.

As trite as this sounds, this December I tried to buy less and spend more time outdoors, away from the smells of Christmas cheer.

I avoided the mouth watering aroma of cookies and cakes baking in the oven. I missed out on catch ups at the pub and drinking those citrus smelling craft beers.

Instead, I exercised as the sun rose, on grassy smelling fields near my home. I walked through the salty air on a warm, sandy beach. And I went bushwalking with someone I love.

We walked through the giant trees of the dense bush, up rocky paths, and to the top of a tall hill. The air was crisp and carried a warm hint of eucalyptus. We sat down and in silence stared at the tiny streets and buildings of the city far below us. I forgot about work, whether my family would like the presents I’d bought them, and my worries about money. The best and the worst things of a manic year seemed to fade away.

I felt grateful for my time in the rough beauty of the Australian bush with its refreshing, earthy aromas, and to simply be alive and present with someone who cared for me. It was one of the best Christmas presents I’d ever given myself.

I broke a tradition this year by not putting up my grandfather’s fibre optic plastic smelling Christmas tree. But I know he would understand that I needed more than a scent inspired, nostalgic connection to the past.

Christmas is over now, but I wish I could have just one more day with my grandfather spent walking in the bush. We wouldn’t need presents, or a Christmas tree, real or fake. Just each other.

Ben O’Mara is a Melbourne based writer and health worker

Budget’s £1.6bn cash boost for NHS less than half of experts’ advice

Philip Hammond has bowed to intense pressure to give the NHS more money in Wednesday’s budget, but produced less than half the £4bn the health service’s own boss said it needed to look after patients properly next year.

An extra £1.6bn for the NHS in England in 2018-19 will see its budget rise to £126bn, rather than the £124.4bn originally planned. Similarly, it will receive £2.6bn more than planned in 2019-20 to help it withstand the pressures of coping with the increasing demand for care.

The chancellor also promised £337m in emergency funding to boost NHS efforts to avoid its usual winter crisis in the next few months, in a move that underlines how nervous ministers are about a repeat of hospitals visibly struggling to cope during last winter’s “humanitarian crisis”.

He will also provide £3.5bn between now and 2020, as part of a separate injection of £10bn the NHS is due to receive to undertake repairs, build new facilities and modernise patient care. The other £6.5bn will come from selling off surplus NHS land and buildings.

But NHS England, which had warned that any increase short of £4bn next year would cause problems, reacted by claiming that it could no longer deliver all the care, services, waiting times and innovations that are expected of it.

Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, the organisation’s national medical director, tweeted: “Budget plugs some, but def not all, of NHS funding gap. Will force a debate about what the public can and can’t expect from the NHS. Worrying that longer waits seem likely/unavoidable.”

Prof Sir Malcolm Grant, NHS England’s chair, said the extra money “will go some way towards filling the widely accepted funding gap”, which experts expect to hit £21bn by 2022-23. But, he added: “We can no longer avoid the difficult debate about what it is possible to deliver for patients with the money available.”

The NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens


The NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, warned government the number of people waiting for surgery would soar without the full £4bn. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

In a pointed pre-budget intervention on 8 November that irritated Theresa May, the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, warned that the number of people waiting for surgery would soar and plans to improve cancer and mental healthcare have to be scaled back if it did not get the full £4bn, which three health thinktanks jointly said it needed.

“The level and speed of extra funding announced by the chancellor has exceeded expectations,” said Prof Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation. “The NHS was staring over a precipice – this is an important step away from the edge.”

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said the money will “bring respite for patients and NHS staff alike. For now, at least, we have dodged the bullet.”

Prof John Appleby, the trust’s chief economist, disputed the government’s claim – which Hammond repeated in his speech – that it is increasing the NHS’s budget by £10bn during this parliament. “It is still our view that looking at all the relevant budgets, the increase over the Five-Year Forward View period will be around £5bn – not £10bn at all.”

NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said the failure to stump up the whole £4bn meant that “tough choices are now needed” about what the public and politicians can expect of the NHS.

Hammond left NHS staff in the dark about how much they will see their pay go up by next year, despite having lifted the 1% pay cap. And it remains unclear if doctors will get a pay rise, too, or if that will be limited to nurses, midwives and other health personnel.

But NHS bodies and health unions welcomed the fact that, in a significant U-turn, he committed the government to meeting the full cost of whatever the increase turns out to be, once the NHS pay review body makes its recommendations. Previously, he had insisted that the NHS should part-fund the rise through improved productivity.

Labour said that Hammond’s extra spending “won’t fix the deep and severe problems facing the NHS”. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “There was no mention of social care, no news on mental health, and astonishingly, after months of hints from the health secretary, there is still no detail of a pay rise for NHS staff.”

Postnatal depression less likely after winter or spring births

Women who give birth in winter or spring are less likely to suffer postnatal depression than at other times of year, a study has shown.

Other factors affecting the risk of postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression (PPD), included the length of pregnancy, whether or not an epidural was given during delivery, and body mass index.

At least 10% of women experience some degree of anxiety or depression after giving birth. Symptoms include sadness, restlessness, and lack of concentration. PPD typically arises from a combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustments to motherhood and fatigue, said US researchers.

Dr Jie Zhou, from Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, said: “We wanted to find out whether there are certain factors influencing the risk of developing postpartum depression that may be avoided to improve women’s health, both physically and mentally.”

The team reviewed the medical records of 20,169 women who delivered babies between June 2015 and August 2017. Of the total, 817 (4.1%) suffered from PPD.

Why giving birth in winter or spring should have a positive effect is not known but it could be linked to the “seasonal enjoyment of indoor activities mothers experience with newborns”, said the researchers.

The study also found that a longer pregnancy reduced the risk of PPD, while not having an epidural anaesthetic during delivery increased it. White women were less likely to experience PPD than women of other ethnic backgrounds, the research showed. The mode of delivery had no effect.

The findings were presented at the Anesthesiology 2017 meeting in Boston.

Postnatal depression less likely after winter or spring births

Women who give birth in winter or spring are less likely to suffer postnatal depression than at other times of year, a study has shown.

Other factors affecting the risk of postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression (PPD), included the length of pregnancy, whether or not an epidural was given during delivery, and body mass index.

At least 10% of women experience some degree of anxiety or depression after giving birth. Symptoms include sadness, restlessness, and lack of concentration. PPD typically arises from a combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustments to motherhood and fatigue, said US researchers.

Dr Jie Zhou, from Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, said: “We wanted to find out whether there are certain factors influencing the risk of developing postpartum depression that may be avoided to improve women’s health, both physically and mentally.”

The team reviewed the medical records of 20,169 women who delivered babies between June 2015 and August 2017. Of the total, 817 (4.1%) suffered from PPD.

Why giving birth in winter or spring should have a positive effect is not known but it could be linked to the “seasonal enjoyment of indoor activities mothers experience with newborns”, said the researchers.

The study also found that a longer pregnancy reduced the risk of PPD, while not having an epidural anaesthetic during delivery increased it. White women were less likely to experience PPD than women of other ethnic backgrounds, the research showed. The mode of delivery had no effect.

The findings were presented at the Anesthesiology 2017 meeting in Boston.

Postnatal depression less likely after winter or spring births

Women who give birth in winter or spring are less likely to suffer postnatal depression than at other times of year, a study has shown.

Other factors affecting the risk of postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression (PPD), included the length of pregnancy, whether or not an epidural was given during delivery, and body mass index.

At least 10% of women experience some degree of anxiety or depression after giving birth. Symptoms include sadness, restlessness, and lack of concentration. PPD typically arises from a combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustments to motherhood and fatigue, said US researchers.

Dr Jie Zhou, from Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston, USA, said: “We wanted to find out whether there are certain factors influencing the risk of developing postpartum depression that may be avoided to improve women’s health, both physically and mentally.”

The team reviewed the medical records of 20,169 women who delivered babies between June 2015 and August 2017. Of the total, 817 (4.1%) suffered from PPD.

Why giving birth in winter or spring should have a positive effect is not known but could be linked to the “seasonal enjoyment of indoor activities mothers experience with newborns”, said the researchers.

The study also found that a longer pregnancy reduced the risk of PPD, while not having an epidural anaesthetic during delivery increased it. White women were less likely to experience PPD than women of other ethnic backgrounds, the research showed. The mode of delivery had no effect.

The findings were presented at the Anesthesiology 2017 annual meeting in Boston.

Postnatal depression less likely after winter or spring births

Women who give birth in winter or spring are less likely to suffer postnatal depression than at other times of year, a study has shown.

Other factors affecting the risk of postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression (PPD), included the length of pregnancy, whether or not an epidural was given during delivery, and body mass index.

At least 10% of women experience some degree of anxiety or depression after giving birth. Symptoms include sadness, restlessness, and lack of concentration. PPD typically arises from a combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustments to motherhood and fatigue, said US researchers.

Dr Jie Zhou, from Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston, USA, said: “We wanted to find out whether there are certain factors influencing the risk of developing postpartum depression that may be avoided to improve women’s health, both physically and mentally.”

The team reviewed the medical records of 20,169 women who delivered babies between June 2015 and August 2017. Of the total, 817 (4.1%) suffered from PPD.

Why giving birth in winter or spring should have a positive effect is not known but could be linked to the “seasonal enjoyment of indoor activities mothers experience with newborns”, said the researchers.

The study also found that a longer pregnancy reduced the risk of PPD, while not having an epidural anaesthetic during delivery increased it. White women were less likely to experience PPD than women of other ethnic backgrounds, the research showed. The mode of delivery had no effect.

The findings were presented at the Anesthesiology 2017 annual meeting in Boston.

Q&A: our plastic addiction is out of control. How can we consume less?

Tap water around the world is contaminated with tiny plastic fibres, the Guardian revealed this week, and other pilot studies have revealed microplastics in beer, sugar, salt and honey, as well as in seafood, in the air in cities and in homes. The impact on health of this apparently pervasive pollution is unknown, though microplastics do harm some marine life and scientists are calling for urgent research.

Where do the microplastics come from?

The biggest sources are synthetic clothing and dust from tyres and road markings. But all the millions of tonnes of plastic released each year eventually break down in the environment into tiny pieces.

Can I avoid consuming microplastics, say by filtering water?

“We can’t filter ourselves out of this mess,” says Sherri Mason, at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who conducted the tap water analyses. “Our study indicated that even water which undergoes filtration still has plastic. It is a ubiquitous contaminant, so if we really want to solve this problem, we need to start with our daily habits and [reducing] consumption of this material. I know this isn’t the answer people want, but it’s the inconvenient truth.”

How can I reduce my use of plastic?

As huge numbers of plastic fibres are released during every wash of synthetic clothes, choosing sustainable, natural fibre clothing is a good start, says Mason. Using reusable water bottles and avoiding plastic straws are also good steps, says Laura Grant, from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management: “Prevention is the best answer – to not use plastic in the first place.” Plastic bag taxes across the UK have already led to billions of single-use bags not being used and a forthcoming ban on microbeads in personal hygiene products will also help a little.

Can I avoid washing millions of plastic fibres down the drain every week?

Some fabrics are much worse than others, with acrylic the biggest shedder, says Plymouth University’s Imogen Napper, who did the first research on the topic. A standard load of acrylic clothes shed 729,000 fibres, with polyester shedding 496,000 and cotton-polyester mixes shedding 138,000. “There is room for improvement in the filters on washing machines,” she says, though finer filters risk getting clogged more often. But start-up innovators are beginning to tackle the issue, with the Cora Ball claiming to snag the fibres in the drum, while the GuppyFriend washing bag aims to contain them. Handwashing won’t really help, Napper says: “The fibres are still going to be there.”

One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash.


One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash. Natural fibre clothing would decrease the amount of plastic fibres entering our water. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

Could all plastic be done away with?

Not at the moment. Some packaging is needed, especially for food, which would spoil more quickly without it and add to the food waste problem. So there’s a balance, says Linda Crichton at Wrap, but people should complain to retailers about over-packaging and much more plastic needs to be recycled – currently it’s just 15%.

Can all plastics be recycled?

In theory, yes. Most important, says Crichton, is the message about bottles: “If it is plastic and bottle shaped it can be recycled.” That means shampoo and bleach bottles, as well as drinks and milk bottles, she says, with 97% of local authorities accepting them. Tubs, pots and trays are more complicated and Crichton says people in the UK should use the postcode locator on the RecycleNow website to find out about their area. She also says some supermarkets now collect thin plastics, such as bags and wraps, that are otherwise hard to recycle.

Little girl returning a plastic bottle


In Germany, consumers get a small refund when returning a plastic bottle. More than 98% of plastic bottles are returned. Photograph: Jeff Barnard/AP

What about a deposit return scheme for bottles?

About 400 plastic bottles are sold every second in the UK but only half are recycled. But in Germany, where people get a small refund on returning a bottle, more than 98% are returned. Scotland is now introducing a scheme and there is growing pressure for the whole UK to follow suit. But the widescale return of glass milk bottles could be tricky, says Crichton: “I am one of the few people who still gets their milk in glass bottles but a lot of that infrastructure has disappeared.”

How else can I stop plastic polluting the environment?

Making sure rubbish doesn’t get blown away by the wind is a simple but important step, says Grant, as this causes a surprisingly large amount of plastic litter. That means closing bin lids and tying bags properly. There’s also the big issue of plastic fibres from clothing.

What should I demand of politicians for the future?

Plenty. Household recycling rates in England have flatlined at 44% in recent years, so local authorities need to increase funding and ambition. A lot of research is needed on the impacts of microplastics and governments must then regulate or incentivise so the worst are better managed or replaced with new materials. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have already mandated that short-life plastics must be made from biodegradable materials, meaning even if they end up in the environment, they will eventually disappear.

Q&A: our plastic addiction is out of control. How can we consume less?

Tap water around the world is contaminated with tiny plastic fibres, the Guardian revealed this week, and other pilot studies have revealed microplastics in beer, sugar, salt and honey, as well as in seafood, in the air in cities and in homes. The impact on health of this apparently pervasive pollution is unknown, though microplastics do harm some marine life and scientists are calling for urgent research.

Where do the microplastics come from?

The biggest sources are synthetic clothing and dust from tyres and road markings. But all the millions of tonnes of plastic released each year eventually break down in the environment into tiny pieces.

Can I avoid consuming microplastics, say by filtering water?

“We can’t filter ourselves out of this mess,” says Sherri Mason, at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who conducted the tap water analyses. “Our study indicated that even water which undergoes filtration still has plastic. It is a ubiquitous contaminant, so if we really want to solve this problem, we need to start with our daily habits and [reducing] consumption of this material. I know this isn’t the answer people want, but it’s the inconvenient truth.”

How can I reduce my use of plastic?

As huge numbers of plastic fibres are released during every wash of synthetic clothes, choosing sustainable, natural fibre clothing is a good start, says Mason. Using reusable water bottles and avoiding plastic straws are also good steps, says Laura Grant, from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management: “Prevention is the best answer – to not use plastic in the first place.” Plastic bag taxes across the UK have already led to billions of single-use bags not being used and a forthcoming ban on microbeads in personal hygiene products will also help a little.

Can I avoid washing millions of plastic fibres down the drain every week?

Some fabrics are much worse than others, with acrylic the biggest shedder, says Plymouth University’s Imogen Napper, who did the first research on the topic. A standard load of acrylic clothes shed 729,000 fibres, with polyester shedding 496,000 and cotton-polyester mixes shedding 138,000. “There is room for improvement in the filters on washing machines,” she says, though finer filters risk getting clogged more often. But start-up innovators are beginning to tackle the issue, with the Cora Ball claiming to snag the fibres in the drum, while the GuppyFriend washing bag aims to contain them. Handwashing won’t really help, Napper says: “The fibres are still going to be there.”

One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash.


One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash. Natural fibre clothing would decrease the amount of plastic fibres entering our water. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

Could all plastic be done away with?

Not at the moment. Some packaging is needed, especially for food, which would spoil more quickly without it and add to the food waste problem. So there’s a balance, says Linda Crichton at Wrap, but people should complain to retailers about over-packaging and much more plastic needs to be recycled – currently it’s just 15%.

Can all plastics be recycled?

In theory, yes. Most important, says Crichton, is the message about bottles: “If it is plastic and bottle shaped it can be recycled.” That means shampoo and bleach bottles, as well as drinks and milk bottles, she says, with 97% of local authorities accepting them. Tubs, pots and trays are more complicated and Crichton says people in the UK should use the postcode locator on the RecycleNow website to find out about their area. She also says some supermarkets now collect thin plastics, such as bags and wraps, that are otherwise hard to recycle.

Little girl returning a plastic bottle


In Germany, consumers get a small refund when returning a plastic bottle. More than 98% of plastic bottles are returned. Photograph: Jeff Barnard/AP

What about a deposit return scheme for bottles?

About 400 plastic bottles are sold every second in the UK but only half are recycled. But in Germany, where people get a small refund on returning a bottle, more than 98% are returned. Scotland is now introducing a scheme and there is growing pressure for the whole UK to follow suit. But the widescale return of glass milk bottles could be tricky, says Crichton: “I am one of the few people who still gets their milk in glass bottles but a lot of that infrastructure has disappeared.”

How else can I stop plastic polluting the environment?

Making sure rubbish doesn’t get blown away by the wind is a simple but important step, says Grant, as this causes a surprisingly large amount of plastic litter. That means closing bin lids and tying bags properly. There’s also the big issue of plastic fibres from clothing.

What should I demand of politicians for the future?

Plenty. Household recycling rates in England have flatlined at 44% in recent years, so local authorities need to increase funding and ambition. A lot of research is needed on the impacts of microplastics and governments must then regulate or incentivise so the worst are better managed or replaced with new materials. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have already mandated that short-life plastics must be made from biodegradable materials, meaning even if they end up in the environment, they will eventually disappear.

Q&A: our plastic addiction is out of control. How can we consume less?

Tap water around the world is contaminated with tiny plastic fibres, the Guardian revealed this week, and other pilot studies have revealed microplastics in beer, sugar, salt and honey, as well as in seafood, in the air in cities and in homes. The impact on health of this apparently pervasive pollution is unknown, though microplastics do harm some marine life and scientists are calling for urgent research.

Where do the microplastics come from?

The biggest sources are synthetic clothing and dust from tyres and road markings. But all the millions of tonnes of plastic released each year eventually break down in the environment into tiny pieces.

Can I avoid consuming microplastics, say by filtering water?

“We can’t filter ourselves out of this mess,” says Sherri Mason, at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who conducted the tap water analyses. “Our study indicated that even water which undergoes filtration still has plastic. It is a ubiquitous contaminant, so if we really want to solve this problem, we need to start with our daily habits and [reducing] consumption of this material. I know this isn’t the answer people want, but it’s the inconvenient truth.”

How can I reduce my use of plastic?

As huge numbers of plastic fibres are released during every wash of synthetic clothes, choosing sustainable, natural fibre clothing is a good start, says Mason. Using reusable water bottles and avoiding plastic straws are also good steps, says Laura Grant, from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management: “Prevention is the best answer – to not use plastic in the first place.” Plastic bag taxes across the UK have already led to billions of single-use bags not being used and a forthcoming ban on microbeads in personal hygiene products will also help a little.

Can I avoid washing millions of plastic fibres down the drain every week?

Some fabrics are much worse than others, with acrylic the biggest shedder, says Plymouth University’s Imogen Napper, who did the first research on the topic. A standard load of acrylic clothes shed 729,000 fibres, with polyester shedding 496,000 and cotton-polyester mixes shedding 138,000. “There is room for improvement in the filters on washing machines,” she says, though finer filters risk getting clogged more often. But start-up innovators are beginning to tackle the issue, with the Cora Ball claiming to snag the fibres in the drum, while the GuppyFriend washing bag aims to contain them. Handwashing won’t really help, Napper says: “The fibres are still going to be there.”

One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash.


One study found that a fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibres per wash. Natural fibre clothing would decrease the amount of plastic fibres entering our water. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

Could all plastic be done away with?

Not at the moment. Some packaging is needed, especially for food, which would spoil more quickly without it and add to the food waste problem. So there’s a balance, says Linda Crichton at Wrap, but people should complain to retailers about over-packaging and much more plastic needs to be recycled – currently it’s just 15%.

Can all plastics be recycled?

In theory, yes. Most important, says Crichton, is the message about bottles: “If it is plastic and bottle shaped it can be recycled.” That means shampoo and bleach bottles, as well as drinks and milk bottles, she says, with 97% of local authorities accepting them. Tubs, pots and trays are more complicated and Crichton says people in the UK should use the postcode locator on the RecycleNow website to find out about their area. She also says some supermarkets now collect thin plastics, such as bags and wraps, that are otherwise hard to recycle.

Little girl returning a plastic bottle


In Germany, consumers get a small refund when returning a plastic bottle. More than 98% of plastic bottles are returned. Photograph: Jeff Barnard/AP

What about a deposit return scheme for bottles?

About 400 plastic bottles are sold every second in the UK but only half are recycled. But in Germany, where people get a small refund on returning a bottle, more than 98% are returned. Scotland is now introducing a scheme and there is growing pressure for the whole UK to follow suit. But the widescale return of glass milk bottles could be tricky, says Crichton: “I am one of the few people who still gets their milk in glass bottles but a lot of that infrastructure has disappeared.”

How else can I stop plastic polluting the environment?

Making sure rubbish doesn’t get blown away by the wind is a simple but important step, says Grant, as this causes a surprisingly large amount of plastic litter. That means closing bin lids and tying bags properly. There’s also the big issue of plastic fibres from clothing.

What should I demand of politicians for the future?

Plenty. Household recycling rates in England have flatlined at 44% in recent years, so local authorities need to increase funding and ambition. A lot of research is needed on the impacts of microplastics and governments must then regulate or incentivise so the worst are better managed or replaced with new materials. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have already mandated that short-life plastics must be made from biodegradable materials, meaning even if they end up in the environment, they will eventually disappear.

Russell Brand: ‘I was a needy person. I’m less mad now’

The last time I interviewed Russell Brand was in 2008, around the time of Sachsgate, and he was a handful. When I asked him, as a joke, if he was going for world domination, he replied, “Yes, that is what I will do. What am I going to stop for? I’ll just carry on until there’s nothing left.” Nine years on, he has changed in some ways, and in others, not at all.

He still looks amazing: tall, long-haired, Gypsy-George-Best handsome; a dandy highwayman in black leather trousers and goth jewellery. His mind still fires faster than a machine gun, and his speech is just as packed with flowery words and detailed explanations, peppered with references to what he’s read (Jung, Harari, life coach Tony Robbins). And he’s still funny. But Brand is different. His ego is less all-consuming. In 2008, he was difficult with the photographer (not today, he’s fine) and, during our chat, he kept moving his head so that, even when I tried to glance away, he was constantly in my sight-line. It was as if my eyes were the spotlight and his face had to be in it. No more.

“Yes, I’m less mad now,” he says, when I mention this. “I was a needy person. I mean, that condition abides, but I manage it better now, I think.”

Back then, he was also very much a girl-hound – “I love fucking,” he told me. “My house has a hot tub for damned good reasons, and none of them spiritual.” But these days he’s settled, living in the countryside with his new wife Laura Gallacher (sister of Sky Sports presenter Kirsty), baby Mabel, two cats, a brace of chickens and a “maniac” dog. Having burned through his marriage to Katy Perry in two years, and dated Jemima Khan, his relationship with Gallacher, on and off for years, is now settled and domestic. Career-wise, he’s still a standup – he’s on a 71-date tour that will take him into 2018 – but seems to have stopped acting, and has shifted a lot of his public work to activism. In 2014, he began posting The Trews, his political YouTube show, garnering more than 1m subscribers. He’s now studying for an MA in religion in global politics at SOAS University of London. He hosts a wordy, thought-provoking podcast, Under The Skin, where he talks to academics, politicians and writers about contemporary ideas. Is this all less mad? It’s an effort to be more serious, certainly, though his daft performer’s instinct can send him off course in search of the joke, so that he gets ridiculed on political TV shows.

Russell Brand with wife, Laura Gallacher


Brand with his wife, Laura Gallacher. Photograph: Alamy

Anyhow, all of this newfound stability and seriousness, according to Brand, is due to his 12-step recovery programme. Though he’s been off drugs since 2002, Brand’s addictive nature meant that his attitude towards sex, porn, money, relationships, food, fame – everything, really – was abnormally compulsive and got him into trouble. So, for the past four and a half years, he has been applying the steps across the whole of his life. He has found this transformative, and thinks many others would, too. In fact, he wants us all to be 12-steppers. “I think that this ideology needs to be proliferated,” he says, “and I think that the more access people have to it, the more people could use it. I’m fascinated by its potential.”

We are chatting in a beautiful hotel in the countryside west of London, not far from where he lives. On a side table, several necklaces have been laid out for Brand to choose from for his photo shoot. A hotel worker delivers avocado on toast while we talk before a vista of perfectly appointed gardens. It’s a setting unlike most representations of an AA meeting that I’ve seen, but let’s talk the 12 steps. The 12 steps form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and of all other associated groups (Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous). The first step is an admission of powerlessness over the thing to which you’re addicted. The steps aren’t hard to find, but there is a lot of related literature, too, and though this isn’t a secret, it tends to be passed only between those who attend AA meetings. This isn’t enough for Brand. He is so evangelical about the steps that he has rewritten them, in Brand-speak, for his new book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions.


I know I’m narcissistic. I’m no different from anyone with ego problems, going, ‘Love me, adore me, give me attention’

Aside from the foreword and conclusion, Recovery has 12 chapters, one for each step, and with each Brand takes the step’s essence, rejigs it, and uses his own life to explain what he means. So the AA step one, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”, becomes, in Brand’s reworking, “Are you a bit fucked?” AA’s step six, “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”, becomes: “Do you want to stop it? Seriously?” You get the gist.

The book is entertaining and easy to read. There’s a chapter about Brand’s daughter’s birth that is graphically real and very moving: “As if touched by the finger of creation, her eyes flash open and life possesses her and exudes from her. Like seeing behind the curtain as she moves from life’s shadow to life.” Still, I’m not sure how necessary the book is – surely, the existing steps literature works fine – so who is it for?

“For people who have drug and alcohol or sex or food issues, but find some of the literature too clinical, or Christian,” Brand says. “But also, I think it could be applied as a sort of model, because now my lens for living is this. I think it’s universal.”

He tells me about a professional, non-AA meeting he recently attended. He asked if anyone felt they were out of control over anything, and one person mentioned their phone use, another how possessive they were about their friends, another how they behaved when dating. These are the people he wants to read his book, he says; addiction is on a sliding scale, and we all, to a greater or lesser degree, display signs of addictive behaviour. “Addiction is just an extreme behavioural pattern, and we all have patterns.”

Russell Brand in a garden


‘People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.’ Photograph: Harry Borden for the Guardian

He may well be right: I just question whether Brand is the person to take us all through the steps. Also, there’s a point, surely, to the anonymous bit of AA? If the support groups aren’t anonymous, then people don’t feel free enough to talk honestly.

He disagrees. “That anonymity was necessary at the inception, I think, precisely because it was 100 years ago [AA started in 1935; the steps were written in 1939], and there were different social attitudes about chemical misuse and alcoholism. The fellowships themselves had a fragility, and needed to be protected from the idea that anyone could claim to be a spokesperson for them. But I think such anonymity now is preventing a technology that people would benefit from being proliferated.”

He points out how easy it is to order drugs, or indeed anything else, from the internet; how consumer culture is designed to make us think that if you don’t feel good, “there is something you can get to make you feel better and you can probably buy it”. Whether it’s the bump of serotonin you get from a heart on an Instagram post, or the one you get from winning an eBay auction, today’s culture is designed to make you temporarily euphoric through consumption, rather than fully happy because you have changed your habits.

“We’re reaching saturation of consumerism, and the antidote to all this needs to be accessible as well,” he says. “In a way, this book is a progression of the last book I wrote.” Revolution, Brand’s last book, was his call for a political revolution, based on destroying capitalism and getting transcendent instead. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) John Lydon called it idiotic, and even his friend Noel Gallagher, on hearing that Brand was writing another book, said, “What’s it going to be called this time? The Revolution That Never Took Place?” Still, Brand is persistent. “There’s an ongoing sense that this isn’t working. Really, I’d like to address the emotional and spiritual causes of dissatisfaction on a personal level.”


In 2015 he told fans not to vote, and is unrepentant. ‘I’m a trickster – I don’t need to know how the Met should be run’

Ah, the Big Idea. It’s easy to forget, when presented with a comedian who threw away several careers, not just his own, by leaving off-colour messages on the answerphone of a Fawlty Towers star, that Brand has always been interested in the Big Idea. In 2008, he said this to me: “The material world is a transitory illusion, and if it is, why organise your life around the systems that it imposes? Particularly if those systems have negative consequences for huge numbers of people, and the planet itself. I wonder if there are ways that that can change… and I don’t mean normal things like, let’s wear a ribbon – I mean the entire economic structure of the planet or the way we look at religion.”

He’s still thinking along those lines. His Under The Skin podcast is an attempt to get clever people such as Naomi Klein, Al Gore, Adam Curtis and assorted professors to explain their own Big Idea and unpick the systems we take as set in stone, whether those systems are economic or social. He’s searching for the meaning underneath. Brand used to be a Buddhist; now, he believes in a higher power, and the steps are his new faith.

“There was an important job that religion was doing,” he says, “but because of the bigotry, the outdated acculturation of the time of its construction, the casual and unaware attitude towards gender and race, we have, possibly quite rightly, rejected it. But the secularisation, the materialisation, the individualisation of the way we see the world now excludes us from a life that has meaning. And I don’t think pop culture can fill that gap any more. I don’t think art can do it any more. I think things are getting too serious. People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.”

Brand speaking at the End Austerity Now rally in Parliament Square, London, in June 2015


Brand speaking at the End Austerity Now rally in London in June 2015. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

This is pretty much what he was saying 10 years ago, I feel. It’s just that, this time around, Brand’s solution is different. For him, the 12-step programme “has the seeds in it, it has the code”. The meaning of life, the Big Idea. It may well do – the 12 steps have saved a lot more lives than me – but I have another issue with Brand’s book. AA and its associated groups are all free. Though there are those who pay to go into rehab, there are many more who just turn up to meetings and pay nothing at all. Brand will be charging money for his book. How much of his profits will go to AA?

“Some I’ll give to abstinence-based recovery,” he says, “but I’ve not made a devout vow to be a mendicant, you know? My hope is that I’ll become a person that lives entirely charitably and entirely philanthropically and entirely spiritually. And a significant percentage of what I earn – 10, 20% – goes into that kind of thing already; it has done for a little while. Aside from that, there is a 12-step message in this book, but it’s coming through me, it’s using me. It’s still me.”

Exactly, I say. The book is about you. It has a picture of you on the front.

“I know that. I know I’m narcissistic. I know I’m no different from anyone with ego problems, showing off, going, ‘Love me, love me, adore me, give me attention’, but it ain’t just that. It’s something else. And that thing, I’ve got to do something with it.”


I sometimes feel like a refugee in my house, living with this calm woman who doesn’t care what I do

I believe he believes this. But I still think it’s his ego. Brand is working hard on his narcissism, but not enough to stop him thinking he can save us all. And not enough to stop him making money by rewriting the programme that saved his life for free. Still, here we are. Before he decided to work the 12 steps throughout his daily existence, Brand spent a lot of time searching for how he should live. He read innumerable self-help books, hoovered up philosophy, puzzled away. He has the phone number of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power Of Now, and for a while would phone him up – “This living saint!” – with his love-life problems. One time, Brand was banging on about the troubles he was having with his then girlfriend, and at the end of his love tirade, Tolle said, deadpan, “Well, perhaps the relationship will work out. And then both of you will die.” This made Brand laugh, and makes me laugh when he says it.

His personal quest means he’s gone through umpteen therapists, regaling each with his admittedly eye-popping life story. It got to the point where it would almost be a performance. He would rattle through being an only child, his mum getting cancer three times, being sexually abused by a tutor, his relationship with his macho stepdad, his sexually profligate dad who took him to Thailand and ordered three prostitutes (two for him, one for 16-year-old Russell), his problems with crack, heroin, with cutting himself, with sex, with food. The therapist he liked most listened to it all and said, “Yes, but Russell, what is it? What. Is. It?”

What is it? In his book, Brand recalls a day he went to London to meet a theatre director. His tale is a litany of minor discomforts, the worst of which is that his phone runs out of juice and he can’t get a cab. For Brand, though, this series of very small annoyances is almost catastrophic. He cannot cope. His mind fires all over the place, taking him back to when he had nothing, flicking over his junkie past, speculating about strangers’ jobs, then painfully picking through small talk to a moment of joy with, of all people, the actor Zoë Wanamaker. As I read it, I was reminded that, in addition to his addiction problems, Brand has ADHD. It must be exhausting being him.

Russell Brand performing standup in Berlin in 2014.


Performing his Messiah Complex standup show in Berlin in 2014. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

In that chapter, what he’s trying to demonstrate is how emotional we can be when life bashes us about, but also how the steps can provide a form of mindfulness, a technique to deal with the mania and loneliness and resentment that can easily sweep through our system and knock us off course. Or, at least, knock him off course. What his story makes me feel is that I’m not like that; we all have days when everyone and everything is a wind-up, but usually I manage to shrug off the externals and get on with my life. “Yes, I think addicts are outliers, we’re so jittery about the external world that we’re like, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to find something to medicate and alleviate this.’ I know I’m a nutter.”

No wonder he lives more quietly now, though quiet is a relative term. He’s still making the odd Trews show – he’s just put one up about Sinéad O’Connor, sympathising with her mental illness – plus there’s the podcast, his MA, the book, and he’s doing three standup gigs a week. Performing comedy means his adrenaline is all over the shop; up late and wired, he has to sleep more during the day to keep himself steady. He’s trying hard to be reasonable, because “the more I hear myself being reasonable, the more difficult it becomes to transgress those rules and my own behaviour”.

And he likes living quietly. “I’ve never had domesticity before. Most of my life has been an extension of the grandiose idea of what glamour would look like if it had to have a kitchen. And I feel sometimes like a refugee in my house with this woman, this calm, beautiful woman, who in the most beautiful way possible doesn’t care about what I do. She’s not interested, in the most delightful way. ‘Oh, that sounds nice.’”


Like a lot of people who seem loud, there’s a fragility also in me. I manage it differently now, I’m not so self-damning

He’s enjoying having a daughter, too, though the lack of control takes some getting used to. He might have joked about raising her gender-neutral on Jonathan Ross’s TV show, but he’s pretty militant about Mabel’s privacy. He copes better when his little family are indoors; outside the house, things can get tricky, because he has trouble moving from a safe place out into a random world where he is not in command, but also because “I struggle with people touching the kid.” Plus, his celebrity can skew ordinary moments. He writes about being on a boat on a canal with Laura and getting papped and then getting into a row with the photographer – “My unstated plan is to get his camera… I settle for snatching his spectacles to barter for the film”; it doesn’t go well – and tells me of a time when he fell off his bike in Shoreditch and was lying sprawled on the ground, injured, as a selection of hipsters took photographs of him. “The fact that I was a famous person usurped the fact that I was lying on the floor, clearly in pain.” Only a group of older ladies bothered to ask if he was OK.

Sometimes I think Russell Brand is a cautionary tale, almost a mythological figure; a combination of Narcissus, Big Brother, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger – actually, all rock stars at once. But then I remember that, really, he is not like many other people. He’s not ordinary by any stretch: he’s a person for whom fame is like sunlight, who couldn’t have stayed in the shadows without dying. He is built to show off, and that has consequences.

“Yes, but like a lot of people that have access to extrovert behaviour and can seem quite loud and vivid, there’s a fragility also in me. I’ve learned to manage that differently, and I don’t feel so self-damning and self-condemning as I once did, because I’m more aware.” He knows, for instance, that The Trews began promisingly, but descended into political point-scoring, culminating with Ed Miliband visiting his house to be interviewed and Brand deciding that, actually, we should all vote after all, as long as we voted Labour. He admits that the attention the shows generated fed his always-ravenous ego, and he began to use The Trews to feel powerful and get approval. So he stopped. “I still have this tremendous ambitious drive, but now I know, if I give that drive to my ego to contend with, it wreaks havoc.”

Russell Brand interviewing Ed Miliband for his YouTube show The Trews in 2015


Interviewing Ed Miliband for his YouTube show The Trews in 2015. Photograph: The Trews/YouTube

He should stay out of conventional politics, I think. “Yes. I’m on the edge of the community – a trickster, a joker, a playful person – I don’t need to be working out how the Metropolitan police force should be run.”

When I remind him how, pre-Miliband chat, he told his many young fans that there was no point in voting in the 2015 election, he is unrepentant, because he felt, back then, that there was no real difference between the main parties. In the 2017 election, however, he endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, because he feels Corbyn is genuinely different from the Tories. But on the whole he doesn’t have much time for politics, because it gets in the way of individual spiritual awakening. He thinks Trump is an idiot, but questions how much he will actually get done during his term in office; he also remembers Obama’s failings in Syria. On his podcast, Brand interviewed Yanis Varoufakis and what he liked most was Varoufakis saying that when people are in powerful roles, their roles form the extent of their power – so that, in the end, they have no true power at all.

Time is up. Shame. I am enjoying our conversation. “So am I,” Brand says. “I’m happy in this conversation. I’m not threatened.” He has to do big talk, he can’t do small: it makes him nervous, and then he might act inappropriately. I say, “Well, you could talk about football, that’s Esperanto for most men.” But he can’t talk casually about football, either, or comedy, because he’s a nerd about both things. He can’t be casual about much, any more, not even sex.

“No. I want to know what is the mystery, what is driving us, where is this all going. The only line you can draw between any of us is between those that think it’s possible for the world to change and those that don’t. Those who think it’s possible for an individual to change and those who don’t. I can’t think, ‘Well, I’ll just wait out my days, I’ll do my cluck, I’ll do my rattle, I’ll do my bird, I’ll wait it out and then put me in the fucking turf.’ I feel it’s possible to change the world.”

Recovery is published on 21 September by Macmillan at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com, or call 0330 333 6846.

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