A Beginner’s Guide to Outreach Events: greenSTEMS at the Festival of Ideas

If you walked into the big white tent in front of M&S in York’s Parliament Square on 3rd June, you would have found an unusual range of activities of offer, from archeology exploration to Lego construction. Right at the heart of it all was our greenSTEMS stand with volunteers in white lab coats and hand-on lab experiments waiting to entertain and educate the public.


But how did we get involved in this event? Well, it all started with an e-mail call for the Festival of Ideas participants, which was forwarded twice before reaching us. When we received it, the application deadline was almost 2 months in the past. Luckily, there were still places available for the Science out of the Lab event, as we found out when we reached out to the coordinator.

At the greenSTEMS meeting, I volunteered to organize the event. It was my first time organizing an outreaching activity on my own, and I only had one month to prepare everything! The first thing we need was an idea for our booth. It wasn’t easy to associate the event’s theme “The Story of Things”, and the type of science out of the lab activities we could do on the date. The inspiration came from a viral Youtube video that describe the connection between consumerism, capitalism and environment. Our objective would be to make this story more sustainable by using renewable feedstocks instead of crude oil to make all the “stuff” we use. We had a title: The Sustainable Story of Stuff.

One thing was sure, I could not do this event on my own! My next step was recruiting volunteers.  I looked for volunteers within my MSc. class and even my housemates. In the end I mustered seven volunteers scientists. If you are looking for event volunteers, I highly suggest talking to societies and groups involved in outreach at your local university or community, such as the YSOC- York Science Outreach Centre at UoY. You will find the most enthusiastic people! You can also emphasize what volunteers will get from the event; for example, improve their employability or communication skills. Do not forget to chat with your colleagues and friends about your event; many will do what they can to support you.

2017-06-03 14.12.42

Next, we needed to plan our activities. I was quite lucky that as part of my MSc. I had a module on outreach and learned a couple of experiments aimed at the general public, specially kids. Louise Summerton and Tom Dugmore from the Green Chemistry Centre were very helpful in organizing my out-of-lab experiment. They kindly lent us the green chemistry materials and equipment for the festival. We chose two experiments related to renewable materials: making plastic from potato starch and making glue from milk. Both can be found at the Royal Society of Chemistry website and are suitable for young kids (though adults will also enjoy playing with the goop!). Find this and more experiments here http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource .

The plastic from potato experiment was an organizational challenge for the event; it required a heating plate, more than 20 minutes of work and low concentrations of acid and base. We solved this problem scheduling especific times. We would have one plastic from potato starch experiment per hour. The glue from milk experiment, on the other hand, was much faster and less hazardous, so we decided to run it continuously.


We organized a meeting for all volunteers to get the experiment procedure and fill our schedule for the day. We divided tasks such as printing the handouts, cutting out title and figures, carrying the materials to the spot, setting up the booth and packing up after the event.  The event ran for five hours. We planned to have always three people (me included for the whole day) on location during the festival, and added 1 hour each for setting up and packing up. Moving everything into place was not an easy task! We had three bags of around 10 kg, and getting a car around York city centre on weekend is very nearly impossible. greenSTEMS treasure- Tabitha generously offered her flat as storage before the event, so we only had to walk a short distance.

The setting up took longer than we planned. We had scheduled three volunteers for that one hour task, but delays slowed things down. I would suggest giving plenty of time for this task, maybe 50% more than you think you need, and always have a plan B for the decoration, because the provided booth might be quite different than you imagined. Don’t forget to bring some extra tape, scissors and glue; it can save the day.

The event itself was a success. The interest and curiosity of the kids (some as young as four) was rewarding. We also had adults, university students, elderly people, and young professors coming along. People had varying levels of interest and knowledge, so we needed to make a different pitch for each person that came to us. While it was mostly kids trying the experiments, we had a few adults getting messy and having fun. Our best idea was to have a real use for our glue from milk. After making the glue, each kid could choose their own picture and glue it to our “sustainable world” poster. At the end, we had a colorful globe which doubled as a metric for how many people tried our activity.


One of the highlights of the day for me was when one of our visitors said she remembered making glue from milk when she was a kid, and told us her story of how she would make her own glue for school in the time of the war, because no market had it. It was a surprise for me; I had never heard that despite reading about the milk glue activity. I went to the event expecting to teach people about the use of renewable materials, but did not expect to learn something about the experiment I was presenting. Now I believe that it is the whole propose of outreach, not to only teach others, but to learn from the audience.

Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. We had some surprise delays and the flow of people was not steady, so at times we felt overwhelmed. In addition, we run out of coffee filters for our activity, so had to go buy it during our outreach event. Make sure you know where you can buy some extra materials if needed during your outreach event. We had initially planned to provide kids with lab coats that were generously provide by Annie Hodgson, but there was no time for that when it came to the actual event. Our other problem was the washing up of our plastic beakers and spoons; it took unexpected time and left us with a box full of water and residues to dispose. Nevertheless, after leaving our materials back at Tabitha’s flat, we celebrated our success.



Living Smaller, Living Greener – greenSTEMS Social Symposium Recap

One Planet Week was full of interesting events to attend, all supporting a better world and a better life. GreenSTEMS could not be left out of this inspiring week! Our Living Smaller, Living Greener symposium was a success and we had great feedback. If you enjoyed this afternoon and want a bit more information, or if you couldn’t attend, keep reading for a summary of the talks.

Matthew Redding educates the audience about Passivhaus and sustainable architecture.

The afternoon started with Jonathan Avery from Tiny House Scotland giving us an introduction to the concept of the tiny houses movement and its spread across the world. Tiny houses are not just gorgeous, they are also movable, greener and more affordable than normal houses.  Jonathan gave us a tour of his own tiny house, Nest House, and mesmerized all of us; after all, the best things in life come in small packages. If you want to learn more about this new housing concept and admire truly stunning photos of minimalist homes, check out Jonathan’s website at https://tinyhousescotland.co.uk/.

Jonathan Avery’s NestHouse takes advantage of natural lighting and clever storage solutions to make a tiny space into a cosy home.

Our second speaker, Matthew Redding, opened our eyes to a unsettling truth: it’s not just our housing that needs to change, it’s our lifestyle.  Matthew walked us through the ways we can achieve sustainability with architecture and introduced us to the concept of Passivhaus, a set of architectural guidelines for building or retrofitting low-impact buildings. Then, we learned about LILAC, a low impact living affordable community. The LILAC project is an inspiring community in west Leeds, just a short train trip away, so don’t miss the chance to learn more about it and visit it. Check http://www.lilac.coop/ for more information, or explore this map of UK Passivhaus buildings to see if there’s one near you: www.peterwarm.co.uk/resources/passivhaus-uk-map/.

The leading members of YorSpace devote their free time to pushing for low-cost, sustainable community housing in York.

The afternoon moved on from architecture to community-based change with a talk given by Sue Bird and James Newton from YorSpace. YorSpace is a group of York friends and neighbours who are working to provide low-cost, sustainable, cooperatively-owned housing, with a cohousing concept similar to LILAC. We were all inspired by the sense of community and equality of this wonderful project, and excited to hear about their future success. If you want to be a part of YorSpace or learn more, just go to http://yorspace.org/.

Our next speaker, John “Compost” Cossham, shared with us the secrets of low carbon impact living. He has an impressive (and enviable) low carbon footprint; such a great achievement might have you thinking that you cannot do the same…Calm down! Making small changes in your daily life can make a lot of difference. Some of those simple ideas are: turn off electronics before go to sleep, and use a lid when cooking. Cycle or walk to work instead of using the car. Recycle as much as you can and compost your organic waste. Care about where your electricity is coming from, getting energy from reliable companies is a good step forward. As John said, “it is all about reducing the bad and increasing the good”. Check his blog for more information http://lowcarbonlifestyle.blogspot.co.uk/.

Simple steps to reduce your “foodprint” echo the advice given by the North Yorkshire Rotters.

The next talk, by Ian Clare from North Yorkshire Rotters, was dedicated to another issue: food waste. It was shocking to hear that on average, we each throw away six meals per week! Students in particular waste a lot of food… However, this can be avoided by simple changes. Go to the market more often if you can, or plan two weeks of meals before shopping if you can’t. Another important thing is to keep track of the expiry dates. Make a list of what you have in the fridge and the use by date, it is not much work and will save you a lot of money too. In a pinch, you can freeze food up to 24 hours before it expires to make it last indefinitely! Finding ways to use leftovers is another important step, you can find great ideas at https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/.

Finally, we were introduced to two lovely initiatives at the university. York Edible Uni, as their secretary Apple Chew told us, aims to grow fresh, free vegetables for students and staff on university campus. They have built volunteer garden allotments on campus, and everyone is free to pick anything they find growing there. You can also come get your hands dirty at their weekly gardening sessions on Wednesdays. Have a look at  https://www.york.ac.uk/students/campus-city/sustainable-york/get-growing/edible-uni/  and find where the gardens are located and how to get involved. The university’s Green Impact team aims to reduce every department’s impact on the environment. It works through a set of tasks to be achieved annually and gives golden, silver, or bronze awards to the departments. Ask your department if you are already involved and find out more at https://www.york.ac.uk/about/sustainability/get-involved/greenimpact/

greenSTEMS committee members Anna and Tabitha (right) with Sue Bird, Matt Redding, and Jonathan Avery (left).

Thanks again to all of our speakers, and the sustainably-minded folks who came out to East Campus to learn, and contributed diverse viewpoints to the discussion. Hope to see you next time!


Sustainability in Space – UK Space Agency Outreach Day

GreenSTEMS aims to spread the sustainability message as far as possible and what better way to get people interested than space?

The UK Space Agency organised an outreach event for the general public at the University of York on November 6th to coincide with Tim Peake speaking in York . There were a range of talks and activities available, from learning about space missions to launching rockets.winogradstkycolumn

At the greenSTEMS stall we were interested in ‘Sustainability in Space’. The main feature was a Winogradsky column which attracted disgust and delight in equal measure (see left). For those who aren’t familiar with the Winogradsky column, it is a clear plastic tube, sealed and kept completely airtight. Inside are pond mud and water, paper, eggshells, and egg yolk. When placed in sunlight and left to their own devices the bacteria in the column form a self-sustaining system, separating out into layers depending on the different nutrients they use.

We used the concept of being space-scienceself-sustaining to get people thinking about how space ships need to operate as a closed system – what is waste and what is a resource when you’re travelling in space?

We also asked the public to guess which everyday technologies, such as Velcro and mobile phone cameras, had come from space. Many people were aware of how much technology used in day to day life was invented as a result of space travel but some items, including biro pens, which weren’t invented for use in space caused some debate.
It was a delight to see parents as excited by the event as the children. Thanks to all the volunteers who helped with set up and manning the stand on the day!




Behind the threads: unraveling the sustainability of the clothing industry

A few weeks ago we held our first social seminar of the year, “Behind the threads: unraveling the sustainability of the clothing industry”. Each year in the UK alone around 350,000 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill but changes are being made in the fashion industry1.

We were given an overview of sustainable fashion by Justina Adomavičiūtė, who professes not to be an expert in the area despite blogging about it! Twenty minutes isn’t enough time to cover everything but Justina made a valiant effort and received some interesting questions about the psychology behind fast fashion and consumerism.


Next we learnt more about innovation in textile design from Laura Morgan, a PhD student at the University of Loughborough. Laura’s research concentrates on lasers and the various ways they can be used in textile manufacturing, from the lace-like designs we might associate with laser technology to new and unusual uses such as producing an already washed look on jeans. Lasers reduce waste and energy use in the creation of certain designs so their widespread use could help make some aspects of manufacturing more sustainable.

Paul Yuille, a PhD student from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion talked about fast fashion and how we could move towards a more sustainable fashion industry. As Paul pointed out, change isn’t going to happen overnight but are the methods we are currently using the most effective? Talking about sustainability often makes people feel guilty so if we could teach people to associate how much they are paying for a garment with how many wears they will get from it, for example, this might lead to consumers being willing to pay more for clothes.

After the break we heard from Mark Sumner, a lecturer at the University of Leeds. Mark raised some similar points to Paul using an example from his research involving a coat made from recycled jumpers sold by M&S. Whilst focus group participants liked the coat initially, hearing about what it was made from made them step away in disgust! Mark previously worked for M&S and it was interesting to hear about moves towards sustainability in the commercial world.


Charles Ross, from WRAP, impressively managed to condense an hour’s presentation into 20 minutes. His talk centred on the production cycle using technical or ‘outdoor’ clothes as an example. Whilst they might be associated with being closer to nature, the production of these garments certainly isn’t doing anything to help the environment; the number of countries and distances that garments travel before they reach their final destinations is astonishing.

To finish off our sustainable fashion event we learnt more about reusing clothes that already exist. Helen Moreton is Retail Manager at St Leonard’s Hospice, a local York charity and she told us about how donations to charity shops are collected, sorted and sold.

Thank you to the GSA community fund and Magic Rock Brewing for making this event possible!

1 http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/valuing-our-clothes

A burning issue behind York’s floods

Floods in York and the North of England made the headlines over this Christmas break, when many lives were threatened and local households and businesses suffered an estimated £1.3 billion of damage [1]. The University of York was not directly affected and we hope that all York students were safe and nothing but witnesses to this event!

Speculation and investigations into the origin of this serious incident and questions as to who should be held responsible have been raised promptly by the national media. Ill-design of the city’s flood protection barriers, mismanagement of water-streams and farmland, irresponsible decision-making and subsidy allocation, and ultimately climate change, have all been mentioned as critical contributors to the making of this tragedy.

One of the potential causes of flooding is degradation of habitats which could otherwise hold back large quantities of water. In this blog article, we wanted to take the chance to discuss how bogs perform this function and why some bogs are not in a state to do this effectively, a subject that is currently being investigated at the University of York by Phoebe Morton, a PhD student based at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s York branch (SEI-Y).

I recently had the opportunity to join her and the team on a three-day field trip taking environmental measurements over a number of locations on moorlands in Northern England. As a chemist, I am used to experiments being carried out in a very confined, conditioned, and reassuringly neat environment, only a few steps away from my computer and a warm cup of tea! The experience of volunteering on this project was an eye-opener into the world of outdoors data collection and environmental experiment design.

Each site we visited was a grouse farmland that at the time of our visit in August was beautifully covered in purple heather, the main source of food for the grouse. As pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian [2], this land that is very profitably dedicated to grouse hunting is often managed with little regard to the long-term sustainability of its supporting ecosystem, which comes at the expenses not only of the environmental value of these lands – e.g. for carbon fixation, emissions retention, soil structuring, biodiversity preservation – but also of the safety of the human settlements downstream, as we seen in York.

In those three days, I gained a direct insight into the issues and consequences of various moorland management strategies, and witnessed with my own eyes the difficulties underlying both the impact assessment as well as the development of an ultimate solution to the problem. Phoebe has shared some more details about her project with us, keep reading below to find out more!


As Giulia has pointed out, all three sites are managed as grouse moors. However, all are (or were depending on your definition) bogs. A bog is an area of wetland which has an underlying soil of peat and is usually covered in a carpet of Sphagnum mosses. Peat is excellent carbon store because the wet conditions slow decomposition down to the point where peat depth can increase up to 1 cm in 5 years (that’s incredibly quick for soils and represents about 4 kg of carbon per square metre!). The bogs are so wet because Sphagnum mosses have large spaces in between their cells which can fill with and retain water. As the peat is composed largely of semi-decomposed Sphagnum, it also has the ability to hold vast quantities of water which drain very slowly.

Whilst it may be in many people’s interests – and indeed the world’s – to manage bogs for maximum carbon storage and minimum water release, grouse moors are managed for grouse. Landowners and gamekeepers (and often the local rural economy) want to manage the land for maximum grouse numbers in order to provide a surplus for shooting.

Naturally this creates a conflict of interest: in order to maintain an actively growing bog, Sphagnum needs to be present at in high quantities, to retain moisture and form the peat. Cotton-grasses are required to aid peat formation and prevent soil erosion but instead moorland managers demand vast swathes of heather (Calluna vulgaris), the predominant food source for red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus).

Whilst the project on which I work is not directly investigating flood risk, it could impact indirectly on flood mitigation. We are investigating the effects of different types of heather management on bogs managed as grouse moors. The typical management is to burn areas of heather by rotation over 10 to 20 years to encourage new shoots of heather for the grouse to feed on. The burning also dries the peat and can destroy Sphagnum plants. We are looking predominantly at whether mowing the heather is as detrimental to the bog ecosystem as burning. The hope is that the peat will remain wetter, will retain more carbon (we measure both carbon dioxide and methane fluxes), there will be more Sphagnum, and less water runoff during heavy rain. Currently the results look encouraging although the project is ongoing.

As well as being able to retain water and release it more slowly, hopefully reducing flood risks without the need of large concrete barriers, the peat in fully functioning bogs filters and cleans the water as it trickles through. Few people are aware that about 75% of the UK’s drinking water is filtered through peat before it even reaches a water purification plant. If the peat the water runs through is in good condition, it is likely the water companies will have to treat it with fewer chemicals before we can drink it. This is beneficial for us, both for our health and the price of drinking water!

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35277668

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/29/deluge-farmers-flood-grouse-moor-drain-land)

Contributed by Giulia Paggiola and Phoebe Morton


Giulia is Founder of the greenSTEMS group and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence. In her research she collaborates with Stockholm Environment Institute at York and with European pharmaceutical industries urging the adoption of renewable and safer solvents in drug manufacture.

Phoebe is a PhDSEI-Staff-York-Phoebe-Morton-120x179 student at SEI York, working with Andreas Heinemeyer on a Defra project on peatland management and ecosystem services in the UK. She is specifically looking at the effects of different types of heather management on peatland vegetation, carbon dynamics, greenhouse gas fluxes and water quality.

Phoebe has a BSc in Biology (with a Year in Industry) from the University of York. Her undergraduate project focussed on investigating how mycorrhizas and biochar (charcoal) affect greenhouse gas fluxes from forest soil. She worked for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in the Scottish Highlands for a year as a placement student, which included work with gamebirds in a wide variety of upland habitats, assessing vegetation changes and habitat mapping.


“Feed bellies, not bins!”: TRJFP AGM Meeting – Leeds, 12-13 December 2015

The second Annual General Meeting of ‘The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP)’ was held on the 12th and 13th December at the Richmond Hill Primary School in Leeds, with representatives of pay-as-you-feel cafés from all over England.

During his long experience in the food industry Adam Smith grew sick and tired of seeing the huge amounts of edible products wasted in landfill. In 2013 it led him to create “The Real Junk Food project” (TRJFP), the aims of which can be perfectly described by the motto “feed bellies, not bins”. This project’s goal is to reduce food waste, by recovering outdated – but still edible – food products from the supermarkets and recycling them into healthy meals served in dedicated “pay-as-you-feel” cafes. Learn more about the project here: http://therealjunkfoodproject.org/about/.

Here in York, at the Tang Hall community centre, we have “YourCafé”, a “pay-as-you-feel” canteen connected with TRJFP, founded by Margaret Hattam in March 2015. In the month of October alone, more than 100 meals and 500 refreshments were served by Margaret and other volunteers, using 166 kg of intercepted food waste from local shops!

greenSTEMS at YC

GreenSTEMS visited the café and enjoyed a delicious three course meal, with soup, vegetable curry and apple crumble! For more info about the cafe’, and opening times and how to get involved, visit http://www.yourcafe.co.uk/.

My interest in YourCafé began after attending the greenSTEMS’ social symposium on food sustainability (“Food sustainability: a hot potato?”, 27/05/15).

heatherTo promote this initiative to the student community I helped bake muffins and cake out of scrap flour and loads of apples previously donated to the café; these were served at the Fresher’s Fair this past term. It was great being involved with YourCafe especially with the greater goal of saving food from being wasted.

After taking part in this event, I was invited to represent greenSTEMS at the TRJFP AGM. At first we listened to introductory speeches by the main committee, unveiling how the founder of TRJFP, Adam Smith, started the organisation [1] as well as the future goals of YourCafé: to open a restaurant alongside the existing café. It was immediately clear that the people who are a part of TRJFP are very passionate about what they do. After these presentations everyone participated in ice-breaker activities, where we introduced ourselves and discussed the hurdles in maintaining the cafés and the extensive work involved in handling scrap food. Later, we were invited to split into groups and the directors and trustees of TRJFP talked about their parts in the project.


My group was led by the head teacher, Mr. Atkinson, the founder of one of the first ‘pay as you feel’ cafés at Richmond Hill Primary School. He described how he started by using school funds to create the café and began by recalling how one of his students broke a window in one of his classrooms. This was his moment of awakening as when asked for the reason behind the vandalism, the student said it was because he came to school thinking he was going to receive a hot lunch when in fact it was cold. From this moment on, Mr. Atkinson made sure all his students could access hot meals.

In order to do this in a sustainable and affordable manner, he started collecting unwanted food items from local shops which could then be used to provide breakfasts and lunches to the students. The school has since found signs of improvement when it comes to student behavior and participation. Studies have underlined the importance of nutrition for growing individuals and how this affects learning performance[2].

Another interesting initiative created by the school is a website where easy and affordable recipes using a range of ingredients are collected. After this session, we had a very tasty vegan lunch provided by the ‘Life is Sweet – Potato’ organisation. During the meal we had the opportunity to network and get to know each other. An exciting variety of people were present, from lawyers and retired folks, to young men and women who simply wanted to take part in a good cause. At the end of the AGM, a member of TRJFP presented the statistics concerning the food collected and used at the café, who donated food, and how the food was used. Following this, we were all invited to raise topics to discuss as smaller groups. Topics included how to record analytical data, what will happen when food waste is no longer an issue (if this ever happens), opportunities to reach out to a wider audience and increase awareness on the cause, and tips on how to improve administrative operations.

My initial attendance at this meeting was purely for interest, I had no idea how the meeting would commence or what would be discussed. Overall, I enjoyed the people I met and what I learned about the different groups taking part in this cause. I felt part of a very important movement in history for the future of food-use and the economics of food supply. One of the members of the group from the AGM meeting intends to move to the US, where I come from, and open his own pay-as-you-feel café. I would really like to help his mission by providing him a few personal contacts.

It would be great to see such pay-as-you-feel cafés spread throughout the US, as  a way to raise awareness on the great amount of food wasted everyday as well as teach how to be creative in the kitchen!

Contributed by Heather Tanner

heather photo

Heather has just completed her MA in Landscape Archaeology at the University of York.



[1] Mr. Smith on TEDx at https://youtu.be/HcwCt_8pXb4.

[2] https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/pubs/learning.pdf

COP21 from a junior researcher’s perspective

On December 12th 2015, almost 200 countries agreed that it is time to act against climate change, as a result of the COP21 – 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

roberto at COP21.2

The COP (Conference of Parties) is an annual event that aims at conveying within two weeks the attention of policymakers and other institutional actors on climate change challenges that humankind has been facing since the last century. The 21st edition of COP took place in Paris and expectations were high on the outcome of this conference, after the major failure for countries all over the world to find a common solution to climate change in previous COPs, especially the one in Copenhagen 7 years ago. During COP, there are not only negotiations between countries about actions to be undertaken in addressing climate change, but also exhibitors areas (from both organisations as countries’ delegations which are called countries pavilions), talks, presentations, and many other side events.

Roberto, a member of greenSTEMS, had the chance to be at this history-making event, as the organiser of an official side event in the EU pavilion. Here he shares his experience with us on what it means for an early researcher to participate in such an important conference.

roberto at COP21

I am working on a European-funded project called GreenEcoNet – which stands for Green Economy Network – at the University of York. This project aims at creating and establishing a platform of small- and medium-sized businesses[1], researchers/academics, and policy-makers to support the transition towards a greener economy by sharing solutions and tools developed or adopted by businesses across Europe (and soon across the globe). Part of the project also involves organising workshops during which the different actors of the platform seat together and discuss with an audience of experts, the most relevant topics for businesses and the green economy. This summer, with the help of the project partners, we applied to organise an official side event within the EU pavilion during COP21 and with much of a surprise from our side, we obtained a time slot during the second week. 

roberto's stand at COP21

Once you have the accreditation to enter in the so-called “Blue Zone”, where the negotiations are, you start to behave like a kid in a candy shop. I have attended as many events as possible, while interacting with exhibitors and other delegates on the interest of both the GreenEcoNet project and the side event.

Thanks to this experience, I was able to attend in person high-profile discussions, seminars, press releases and any other form of event that you can imagine with speakers like Ban Ki-Moon (UN General Secretary), John Kerry (Vice-President of the USA), Ségolene Royal (French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and the Environment), Sir Nicholas Stern (author of what some people call “the sacred-text of climate change”) and last but not least Al Gore. 

After one week of being in the same room with such key figures, you still get the giggles when meeting them and listening to their motivating speeches and statements, which are going to be stored in my memories linked to this experience, for many years in the future.

However, participating to a COP, is not only about meeting and taking pictures of the “VIPs”, it is also about having the great opportunity to attend very interesting discussions with best researchers and academics that are willing to share their most recent and interesting work with the whole community.

The bottom line is that young researchers like myself should all have the opportunity to participate to such high-level and large conferences for their own professional and personal development. For this reason I really hope that the organisations for whom they work will be able to provide the funding to attend events that make history.

[1] Therefore less than 250 employees and €50 mln annual turnover. 



Contributed by Roberto Rinaldi


Roberto is part of the GECO group (Green ECOnomists) at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York. As a Research Associate, he collaborates on the creation and implementation of low-carbon development strategies at local scale economy. Roberto is also involved in European-wide projects, being recently appointed Project Officer for the EU FP7 funded GreenEcoNet platform.


  • Learn more about the COP21 here
  • Read the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s comments on the Paris Agreement here
  • Have a look at The Fragile Network , a special Nature comic by R. Monastersky & N. Sousanis explaining the long-lasting quest towards a climate agreement


GreenSTEMS at the launch of Road Safety Week 2015!

As students and researchers we all dedicate some time in our everyday lives to about how we’re going to get to and from the university. Maybe we’re concerned about the time of the day (Will be there be traffic on the way? Will I need to put on the lights? What time is the bus coming at?), the weather conditions, and so on. We were thinking the same things at greenSTEMS and two weeks ago we were invited by Brake to the launch of  the 2015 edition of ROAD SAFETY WEEK!


Together with the York Cycling Club we met up with representatives from Brake, a road safety charity, to support their “Drive Less Live More” initiative. We love the sustainability angle on alternative means of transport, and were blown away by the stats presented in Brake‘s press release. It was stated that driving can have devastating health effects, with an estimation of more than 52,000 deaths related to air pollution and an average of 5 deaths and 64 accidents daily on the road in the Yorkshire and the Humber region! This campaign is asking people to consider other methods of transport like biking and taking the bus, while emphasising safety.

On Monday 23rd November greenSTEMS co-chairs Maria M. Razalan and Jen Chapman, along with sustainable transport enthusiast and greenSTEMS member, Richard Randle-Boggis, met up with the representatives from Brake, UYCC bikers, and York bus companies (seen in picture above) to support this important awareness campaign.


The unique opportunity brought together bus drivers and cyclists. To really understand each other they even swapped places! We put the cyclist in the bus drivers seat and vice versa. Do you know where the bus diver can see you on your bike? Learn more about road safety week here. We are so thrilled to share our experience and help us built a more sustainable and safer York!


15-21 Nov: GreenSTEMS @ Science Week

This year saw Science Week, a celebration of scientific research at the University of York, run for the second time. Ten student societies and groups helped to organise a range of fascinating events.

Each day of the week featured an evening event, organized jointly by two societies. Among these was “Sustainable Chemistry and Beyond”, an event run by greenSTEMS, in collaboration with ChemSoc, on Friday 20th November.

Tom and Erin, despite some technical and organizational issues, managed to put together an interesting mix of talks and live experiments!

Dr. Ian Ingram from the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) demystified the “traditional” way of classifying products and processes as “green”, analysing some real life examples of good and bad practices in the field. At the end of the talk, Tom showed how, simply using microwaves, some components from orange peels can be extracted and used as precursors for the production of bioplastics, in a completely petroleum-free process!

Nichola Egan, a PhD student also at the GCCE, took the audience on a  journey towards the sustainable production of antioxidants from discarded lignin-rich materials.

The event was concluded by Dr. Tim Doheny-Adams, who works at the York Environmental Sustainability Institute with Professor Sue Hartley. Tim’s work is fascinating, investigating greener plant defense systems as an alternative to the use of environmentally harmful pesticides.

In light of predicted climate change effects on crop productivity and of issues with feeding the growing global population, the importance of finding resilient, safe, and sustainable strategies to ensuring food supplies is critical. In his presentation Tim described some of the common issues with current practices, presenting examples of agrochemicals which contaminate soil, and affect our safety and those of pollinators, key players in plants reproduction and biodiversity.

The alternative he suggested is a technique called biofumigation, which consists of dispersing a solid glucose-derivative (glucosinolate) on the soil surface. This bio-derived compound would gradually hydrolyse and liberate isothiocyanates, reactive gasses which have been proven to kill pests in the concentrations of study. The residue remaining in the ground is a sugar-like structure which is easily biodegradable and not a risk for water fields or soil ecosystems. Tim’s presentation received a great response from the audience, with loads of challenging and curious questions! Let’s hope this technique gets taken up soon!

Minas Gerais: The Mining Disaster in Brazil

On Thursday 5th November 2015 the collapse of a dam in Minas Gerais (Brazil) created the worst mining accident in the history of the country. Now, almost one month after, the damage continues to grow.

B1On the 5th of November two mining dams at Minas Gerais, Fundão and Santarém, collapsed discharging 62 million cubic meters of mud over the small village of Bento Rodrigues and into the river Doce, Bento Rodrigues. The homes of 600 people were destroyed by the mud. The disaster left 13 dead and 7 missing. Those who survived had their homes and lives destroyed. The Company Samarco, owner of the two dams, will have to provide new homes and compensation for the victims who have lost everything. Many also lost their livelihoods. They were farmers or fishermen and depended on environmental amenities that no longer exist. The families are now living temporarily in hotels in the district, and although no home can ever replace Bento Rodrigues in the inhabitants’ memories, a new definite home must be provided as soon as possible.

The impact of the dam burst did not stop there. The mud made its way into the river Doce affecting its aquatic system, flowing for more than 500 km, crossing the states of Minas Gerais (MG) and Espirito Santos (ES), until it reached the sea. Doce is one of the 100 largest rivers in the world and it is home to several endemic species not found anywhere else. Some communities got together to collect fish into tanks in an attempt to save some of those species at risk. Ibama, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, reported the death of 3 tonnes of fishes in the river.


Moreover, the water supply from the river Doce was interrupted temporarily due to the unknown composition of the mud. This created a great mobilization effort to donate and send drinking water to the cities affected.  The analysis of water samples collected at Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais, showed shockingly high concentrations of iron, arsenic and manganese, but the risk of contamination by mercury and lead was excluded. The water treatment had to be changed but now the water distribution system is operating again.

B3A major risk was the mud reaching the sea, because several environmental protection areas are located close to the river mouth and they could be damaged. Authorities required a plan from Samarco to contain the mud and avoid a disaster in the sea. The response was a buoy containment barrier at Regência, a method used conventionally to limit oil spills. However, it only avoids the dispersion of materials that are lighter than the water and are in the surface; therefore, it is not really useful for the mud which is dispersed through the water column. The mud flowed 10 km into the sea and has moved over 43 km North pulled by wind and water streams. Estuaries, where rivers meet the ocean, are known as the cradles of marine life. Many species use these areas for their reproduction and any environmental impacts might put several species at risk.

This is the case of sea turtles: for them the disaster could not come at a worst time. November is the turtles’ spawning month. Turtles always come to the same beach where they were born to give birth. The leatherback sea turtles, which are under the risk of extinction, choose the Regência beach to lay their eggs. The Tamar Project (http://www.tamar.org.br/interna_ing.php?cod=63) promotes the recovery of the five endangered sea turtle species that occur in Brazil.  To save the species from the mud contamination they transported the baby turtles from the original site to southern uncontaminated beaches where the turtles could be released. This might not be enough, but the biologists affirm that it is better than no intervention.

Samarco is facing charges for all of the damage to people, economy and environment. Ibama studied the impacts on the environment and identified that the mud destroyed 100,000 km2 of vegetation, including permanent preservation areas and over 77 kilometers of rivers. Therefore, the fine for the environmental damage to Samarco and it owners, Vale and BHP Billiton, was evaluated in R$ 1 billion (approximately $ 260 millions). However, this does not represent all the total damages. The damage to the cities, the population and economy will impose a heavy charge to the three companies. The amount is not small and it was argued that this burden on the mining sector is going to affect the country’s already fragile economy.


President Dilma Rousseff said this Monday at the COP21 that “the irresponsible action of some companies caused the greatest environmental disaster in the history of Brazil in the area of the River Doce.” However, a question that has no answer yet, is the actual cause of the disaster. Historically, many other mining dams collapsed over the world for many different reasons. The dam in this case was built with compacted soil and the main concern for this kind of dam is the effects of erosion over time. However, the reason for the catastrophic rupture has not been firmly linked to erosion.  There are many questions, but one thing is agreed: maintenance and supervision are essential. In Brazil, the security policy for dams was established only in 2012, but most of the country’s supervisory bodies have not regulated their application yet.  Perhaps some of the responsibility for the disaster should be addressed to those ineffective supervisory bodies.

The State of Minas Gerais is an important mining region in Brazil and there are many other mining dams, increasing the concern of a second disaster in the region. Certainly, a better integrated monitoring system is going to arise from this accident and hopefully this tragedy will not be repeated.

(Sources: http://g1.globo.com/index.html , http://www.tamar.org.br/interna_ing.php?cod=63)

Contributed by Ana Patricia Pacheco



Ana has just obtained her BSc in Environmental Chemistry at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. In the last academic year Ana visited the University of York, working at the Green Chemistry Centre for Excellence on alternative bio-derived solvents.