Challenging Habitat Blog

Such are the entertainments during lockdown that I find myself staring into space wondering who made it.

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a deep discussion about existential questions: I’m looking at holes in the hedgerows, the kind burrowing creatures make, badgers and rabbits, mice and rats, spiders, beetles, bees and worms.

Trying to find out who occupies these holes is more difficult than I thought. But I came across a number of interesting websites, including one on identifying different bees, specifically solitary bees, how to recognise burrows of mammals, and a lot of sensationalist stories about venomous spiders not worth repeating here.

Not that any of this information stopped me wondering who lives in these spaces….and my dog T’isker keeps investigating for himself.

I’ve got an old wrapper from a packet of herbs bought in the Kleinmarkthalle (an absolute Frankfurt institution!), sometime in the 1980s. At the time, I had recently moved to Frankfurt for work and discovered Grüne Soβe for the first time through my aunt Brigitte. The city’s natives are very proud of this dish, as it was the favourite meal of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt in 1749.

It is delicious!

For a long time now, I’ve grown the necessary herbs to make authentic Frankfurter Grüne Soβe in my garden, although, living far from Frankfurt now, there is no need to take it quite so strictly.

The basic recipe calls for a combination of seven herbs, which are selected depending on what is in season at the time. You need about 150 g, according to the recipe, and I use several generous handfulls. You got the choice of:

  • parsley
  • chives
  • chevril
  • cress
  • salad burnette
  • sorrel
  • borretsch
  • dill
  • terragon
  • lemon balm

Thinking about foraging in the hedgerow, you could add to this list:

  • pennywort or navelwort
  • wild garlic
  • wild chives
  • young nettle leaves
  • young dandelion leaves
  • wild sorrel
  • ….?

Whatever you like, try it out. It will taste differently each time, depending on the seven herbs you choose and their relative amounts.
There is also considerable flexibility with the other ingredients:

  • chopped hard boiled eggs
  • chopped gherkins
  • chopped onion
  • mustard
  • lemon juice
  • grated zest of a lemon

The base could be a combination of:

  • home-made mayonnaise
  • soured cream
  • single or double cream
  • yoghurt

This is what you do for Goethe’s favourite version, which happens to be lactose-free:

Prepare mayonnaise from a small egg yolk, a mild oil and lemon juice. If you use a food the food processor for this, you can add fistfuls of the washed and coarsly chopped herbs to that and liquidise it all. Otherwise, finely chop the herbs and add them. Combine the mixture with two chopped hard boiled eggs, some chopped gherkins, one small chopped onion, a grated clove of garlic, mustard, pepper, salt, lemon juice and grated lemon juice to taste. Goethe enjoyed it with fish or beef.

Another recipe adds single cream to the above.

For a healthier option, use yoghurt or soured cream instead of mayonnaise (or to replace some of it).

In my book, this is a very flexible dish and so far, I’ve never done the same thing twice and it’s always been good. In fact it is so good, it makes a perfect meal just with boiled new potatoes. Add a little steamed fish or pan fried salmon, perhaps? And an absolute favourite of mine: Grüne Soβe with fresh asparagus (I grow my own) and a glass of dry, crisp white wine.

Just like the sun is obscured by these clouds, I couldn’t resist feeling the truth had been obfuscated once more by politicians and their spokes persons on this morning’s Today Programme (BBC Radio 4).

Perhaps they are all doing their best, but in the face of COVID-19 patients suffering and dying for a tardy response to the pandemic and NHS staff and care workers being exposed for lack of personal protective equipment, it is hard to think like that. Anxiety and frustration affects our mental and, ultimately, physical health. Perhaps their best is not good enough for the common good?

Where work is done, mistakes are made – that’s a given – and I acknowledge that this crisis is unprecedented and hence, difficult to handle. And I admit that it is easy to be an ‘armchair manager’ of this crisis with no responsibilities for health/life/death decisions.

However, brushing mistakes under the carpet indicates a degree of denial, and if that’s true, then the only benefit that comes from failure, namely learning to do it differently next time, is lost.

Apart from all this, I don’t like being thought to be stupid enough not to see a lie for what it is. Is respect for the electorate, honesty and transparency really too much to expect from those who govern a nation?

Recognising that anger and frustration threatened to creep into my mind and settle there, and how bad that is for me, I turned off the radio, had another coffee and wondered out into the morning sunshine….and a near cloudless sky….allowed my thoughts to settle….and enjoyed the moment.

cloudless sky


Look closely and discover exotic sights, even under lockdown, just three miles from my front door!


This extraordinary looking creature is an oil beetle, to be precise a male Meloe proscarabaeus. (I looked that up: males have kinked antennae)

I’ve seen quite a number of them over the years in nearby natural settings. Today I am happy, having spotted four of them in my garden!

I’ll leave him in peace – I know better than to annoy an oil beetle, as they release a smelly, oily fluid when stressed.

Oil beetles feature again in Outdoor Daily on 23April and 31 May.

One thing noticeable for its absence is traffic on roads and vapour trails across the sky.

I know that this spells hardship for the economy, business, workers, people stranded abroad and all of us wanting to connect with friends and family in person, but I can’t help appreciating the reduced noise and air pollution as a positive (if temporary) side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps, individually and collectively, we will learn something about organising work and leisure with less dependence on transportation, a more sustainable way of going about our days, that outlasts this crisis.

….for the back story, check out Sustainable Outdoor Clothing ?!?!

3) Elastane – Lycra – Spandex

As part of my forthcoming ‘Antarctic adventure‘, I am sharing my thoughts and insights while considering various aspects of sustainability for my planned journey. With respect to fabrics, two previous posts covered ‘oilskins‘ and clothes that keep me warm‘, but there is much more to say about sustainable outdoor clothing.

So, here I’ll cover the wonderous synthetic fibre that provides elasticity to so many of our ‘outdoor gear’. Elastane, spandex and lycra are all names for the same thing, a fabric made of a long chain polymer, polyurethane, or more precisely, polyether-polyurea copolymer. Technicalities aside, elastane offers high breathability and moisture-wicking abilities and exceptionally high stretchability (6-7 times its length). It is in trousers and tops, tights and socks, all sorts of sports, cycling, swim and yoga wear, leggins and underwear – basically anything that is stretchy, comfortable and functional.

Here are some of the environmental snags of elastane:

  • some potentially harmful chemicals are used its manufacture
  • it is prone to ‘piling’, which means that bits are likely to break off or detatch during wear, tear and washing
  • it doesn’t biodegrade
  • it is more often than not mixed with other fabrics, making recycling difficult.

I had a closer look at my favourite merino base- and mid-layers and found that most were 100% wool, while a few were composed of 98% wool and 2% elastane. The same is true for a number of my trousers and t-shirts, even those made from bamboo or organic cotton.

Before I put elastane on my ‘avoid if possible’ list, I want to explore in more detail how it performs environmentally.

Ingredients and Manufacture

In the manufacture of elastane, macroglycol and diisocyanate monomer are combined to synthesise a prepolymer, which is then reacted with diamine acid to produce chains of polymers before spinning fibres and curing it into solid strands. The material is finished with magnesium stearate or another polymer to prevent fibres from sticking to each other (Hodakel 2020).

While that information may not be useful to the lay person, the upshot is that the manufacturing process is energy-intensive and involves chemicals potentially harmful to humans, whereby the occupational exposure to isocyanates is higher risk than exposure to people wearing the final product. Factories should operate a closed cycle that prevents these chemicals from release into the environment (Hodakel 2020). Whether that is guaranteed in all countries where synthetic fabrics are produced, is another matter…

65% of all fibres produced (~65 million tonnes in 2016) are synthetics (mainly polyester), and these are almost exclusively derived from petrochemicals, and elastane is no exception (Common Objective). Being petroleum-based, these fabrics are part of the fossil fuel economy. Claims of manufacturers that their fashion synthetics are ‘sustainable’ are rarely related to use of non-fossil, natural resources, but to use of recycled fibres – and even that is only a tiny proportion of the overall synthetic fabric production for clothing (0.01%).

The development of 13 different brands/types of naturally based synthetic fabrics is underway (Common Objective), but I’m not holding my breath for getting my hands on affordable, high-performance ‘bio-synthetics’ any time soon. Another question is whether their environmental impact when mixed with natural materials, such as wool and cotton, will be any more favourable than current mixed fabrics.

Environmental Impact during Use

Elastane does not biodegrade and will gradually accumulate in the environment. Just under 60% of the plastic waste ‘soup’ in our oceans is composed of non-biodegradable fibres (Hodakel 2020). In addition to careless waste management (see below), the tiny particles of polyester, nylon and elastane released from our clothing during the wash cycle are the ‘hidden pathway’ we are only relatively recently began to understand (University of Plymouth). The impact on the marine ecosystem in all oceans and on the foodchain, all the way from tiny plankton to our plates is something covered in more detail in recent scientific research (e.g. Botterell et al. 2019).

Waste Management

An important component of sustainable consumption is what we do with ‘stuff’ we don’t want anymore or when it is worn out. Typically, we throw it in the bin or we pass garnments to a charity collection for re-sale or recycling and hope that it will be dealt with appropriately. Typically, we don’t know what really happens to our waste (any waste) in detail. Landfill? Incineration? Recycling? Export as ‘resource’ (what happens in the receiving nation)?

A circular design strategy would include using recycled material in the manufacture of new fabrics and garnments. Mechanical recycling of fabrics is more commonly used than chemical recycling, which is still in its developmental state. But chopping up fabrics means that natural fibres are shortened and damaged during the shredding process and it is difficult to achieve high quality without combining recycled material with high proportions of virgin material (Design for Lognevity 2020).

Blended fabrics containing nylon, polyester and/or elastane in addition to natural fibres have, so far, presented a challenge for recycling, but some progress has been made recently in a quest for circular economy in the textile industry (e.g. RE:MIX, SÖDRA). The aims here are to separate natural fibres for re-use and to produce pre-production pellets of synthetic materials that can be used once more as raw material. It appears that ‘thermochemical’ and ‘enzymatic’ separation processis are being pursued, which, of course, means the employment of heat and chemicals…which means added cost and sustainability issues that have to be assessed using life cycle analysis.

While waiting for a better alternative, and discounting landfill for reasons that are beyond this blog post, for garnments containing elastane that cannot be re-used in some way, incineration may be the safest avenue for waste disposal.

Alternatives to Elastane

At the moment, ‘sustainable stretch fabrics’ are containing elements of recycled materials, rather than naturally stretchy fibers. Synthetics sourced from natural materials, such as sugars, rather than from petrochemicals, are not widely available yet, and they are still ‘synthetic’. So, I wonder whether they’d just be ‘bio-elastane’ – i.e. chemically identical to elastane, and hence would present the same waste management challenges as the existing materials…

I could decide to live without ‘stretch’ beyond the natural stretch that knitware offers. Quite a number of my clothes are doing just fine without elastane. But some functional kit, such as swim suits or gym leggins, won’t function quite the same without elastane (picture it).

My Conclusions

  • If it has to be elastic for functionality, then I will continue to accept mixed fibres. But I’ll make sure that I’ll buy garnment made from pure natural fibres where a blend is not required for functionality.
  • I’ll go for longevity to avoid using resources than necessary. I aim to buy stuff that is high quality and lasts long.
  • I’m looking after my stuff and I mend it – after all, outdoor gear is outdoor gear and not a tuxedo or ballgown! Who cares if there is a hole, lovingly darned, in a merino baselayer? Or a repair patch on a pair of waterproof over-trousers? I’ve even go my hiking boots re-soled (thank you Meindl!!!) after the cushioning layer disintegrated and the soles quite embarrasingly disconnected on a rainy day on Dartmoor – but that’s another story.


Featured Image

“Wavy Lines Lycra” by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 


Botterell ZLR et al. 2019. Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: A review. Environmental Pollution. [accessed 23/02/2020]

Common Objective. Synthetics & Sustainable Synthetics: Global Production.  [accessed 01/03/2020]

Design for Longevity. Close the Loop – Design for Longevity., a blog site advocating circular economy. [accessed 23/02/2020]

Hodakel B. 2020. What is elastane fabric: properties, how its made and where. Sewport – a service company to apparel manufacturers. [accessed 23/02/2020]

RE:MIX. 2019. Separation and recycling of textile waste fiber blends.

SÖDRA. A sweater can become a sweater again. SÖDRA is an association of forest owners in Sweden, who are into R&D (research and development) of sustainable solutions.–a-sweater-can-become-a-sweater-again/ [accessed 23/02/2020]

Univeristy of Plymouth. 2016. Washing clothes releases thousands of microplastic particles into environment. University of Plymouth Website referring to groundbreaking research undertaken by Prof. Richard Thompson. [accessed 23/02/2020]

I am an environmental scientist and I have taken a decision that can be described as utterly unsustainable. I followed my dreams and in a completely self-centred moment, I have booked an adventure for myself on the other side of the globe. Not exactly opposite, but pretty close.  It’s going to take a long-haul flight to get there, probably several flights. It’s visiting a fragile ecosystem that is already under pressure from other people wanting their adventure holiday, from industry that exploits the natural resources in the sea, let alone the impacts of climate change. I am going to sail on the square-rigged tall ship Bark Europa to Antarctica – sadly not from the UK, where I live, but from the Terra del Fuego, where I will have to fly to.

I can’t blame you to call this frivolous, irresponsible, egotistical, hypocritical, after all I am talking and teaching about sustainability in my day job and doing THAT  in my private life! No, I’m not going to find excuses for this by offering “aren’t we all doing stuff that harms the environment every day, although we know better not to?” I am not letting myself off the hook that easily.

So, as environmental scientist, the least I can do is to share my research, my thoughts and my actions that will attempt to offset that massive carbon footprint I’m about to add to my life, which is, I assume, already sizeable, compared to the average for the 7.5ish billion global citizen. I have also offered to contribute scientific talks and discussions on board. I’ll get my head around the ecosystems I’m visiting and the pressures they are exposed to and will share my points of view. Hopefully, I will find a way to engage everybody in some citizen science and share observations in a meaningful way … I’ve got 10 months to prepare.

And, against all better judgement and rational thought, I’m excited. Very!

Watch this space.

….new post on Carbon Footprint added 14/02/2020!

An afterthought (edited 15/02/2020)

Some of you may wonder what I am on about…what has an environmentally conscious individual to worry about when planning a great holiday? Well, there is pollution in general and the impact of burning fossil fuel on land, in air and water, in general, and its specific link to climate change. I am going to explore all of these issues in more detail in following posts, but to you are unsure about climate change, I’d like to refer you to a series of resources that are a good starting point for adults and children:

  1. NASA. 2020. What is Climate Change? NASA Climate Kids. [accessed 15/02/2020]
  2. Project Learning Tree. 2019. 12 videos to help us understand climate change. [accessed 15/02/2020]
  3. IPCC. 2019. Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Growler in Arctic waters off East Greenland. (c) C Braungardt 2017.

Remembering my Arctic adventure with this image of a small growler in Arctic waters off East Greenland. (c) C Braungardt 2017.


Featured Image

Detail of iceberg photographed while crossing Sermilik fjord, Eastern Greenland, in the sailing yacht Aurora, August 2017. (c) C Braungardt.

For a change, something really positive here…

We are the business of inspiring young people to be curious and ask questions, to get into nature and experience the small and big wonders of it, to make sense of how the planet works and how we interact with it, to seek and find solutions for the mess we’ve made of it, and to feel empowered. In short: I teach environmental science together with colleagues of diverse expertise at the University of Plymouth, and we like to think that we are making an important difference, however small.

Pelican of London sailing off Plymouth, August 2019. (c) C Braungardt

Tall ship Pelican of London sailing off Plymouth, August 2019. (c) Charly Braungardt

In partnership with the charity Adventure under Sail, we’ve piloted an outreach initiative that makes a difference for teenagers: with ‘Sea the Future‘, we combine personal development through sail training with the exploration of nature through marine environmental science and simply being, now.

And nature rewarded us amply: a star-lit night, dolphins hunting, illuminated by bioluminescent dinoflagellates, they looked like ghosts in the water, leaving trails of silver as they swerved, leaped and dived. For some of the 20 teenagers, this was the first live encounter with dolphins, and for all of us it was special and unforgettable.

The week’s journey touched us in many ways and the direct experience of so much beauty (from tiny plankton to fish, birds and mammals) and so much evidence of our negative impact on the marine environment (from plastics and sewage to noise and over-fishing) inspired the young people to do more to protect the oceans…but that’s best heard in their own voices, summarised in Jamie’s video of our voyage by Shield Media Services.

Dolphin at the bows of Pelican

Dolphin in the bow wave of Pelican. (c) Charly Braungardt

And what better metaphor for the global community coming together to build a sustainable future, than working as a team on a ship, literally pulling on together on many ropes for one common purpose?

What we love, we are responsible to take care of !

Watch the video Jamie from Shield Media Service produced about this amazing adventure:

Learning and tests

I’ve been learning all my life (sounds obvious) and teaching for much of my professional life and I am increasingly frustrated with education institution’s obsession with assessments. In most countries, the obligation to spend a minimum number of years at school ensures that basic education is ‘enjoyed’ by all. That may or may not be much fun while you’re there but overall it is a good thing and I do understand the need for some sort of ‘standardised’ set of qualifications. However, further and higher education should serve a different purpose. I have long had the feeling that what our society does with young people at school is more about points, stats and targets than about the cultivation of a passion for learning and deep thought, critical thinking the development of an understanding of the bigger picture and the long view. My learning utopia dispenses with all assessments because the mere joy of expanding one’s mind provides sufficient motivation to engage people with all the learning opportunities around us…

Will Self’s ‘Point of View’ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 29th January 2017 expressed beautifully the consequences of ‘teaching to the test’ for the individual and society:

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