Monday, 30 January 2012

Should I get Down? - Down vs Synthetic Sleeping Bags

This is a caring travellers conundrum which I feel represents a painful dilemma: Is it better to negatively affect certain living beings in the short term or the whole planet in the long term. In this case geese killed for their lightest insulating feathers; down, or more synthetic materials; plastic, in the world. Maybe by comparing how down is collected to the impact of the alternatives on the environment we can make an educated and sensitive decision.

But first lets make a comparison of the two in terms of their qualities and benefits in a finished sleeping bag. Down feathers are one of natures great moments, they are beautiful to look at and can simply hang in the air, they weigh so little we can not tell if we are holding one in our hand or not. They are so effective at insulating that no man made object can match it weight for weight. Each down feather is made up of many filaments which radiate from their central shaft, this creates loft which allows for air to be trapped and warmth kept in. 

The alternatives to down are made from synthetic (man-made) materials mimicking natures design; polyester fibres set in wiggly single threads or fanned out designs. Some are better than others but nothing as yet matches down for insulation by weight or compression. Meaning that your sleeping bag can be lighter and smaller with down. But bear in mind that down can absorb a lot of water and is very slow at drying out, while polyester can dry out quickly. 

A more detailed comparison, pitting natural down against its polymer imitators, can be found here (Source

Where is down coming from?
In most cases down is plucked from geese killed for their meat, therefore down could be seen as a byproduct. Apparently some are plucked alive, (Source which must be like having your hair pulled out, conversely it is possible to collect down from the ground or nest after it has naturally fallen off the bird. 

About 65% of down is coming from Asia (Source where avian consumption is high, and animal living conditions are often poor. The rest are coming from Europe where “Fois Gras” and other ‘delicacies’ are made from geese and ducks by force feeding. So there is a fair degree of suffering in the donors life.

Yet the very highest quality down comes from mature birds in the wild who moult it naturally when the weather warms and it is collected from the ground or nests. The down from Eider geese in Norway is collected by this method, it’s more labour intensive and Eider down is more expensive partly for this reason. It is positive to see there is an “ahimsa” (non-violent) solution, because generally birds are killed around 4 months old.

A clarifying (over rationalising?) question might be “How many geese are needed to make a down sleeping bag?” 
An approximate answer will be 8, although it is actually quite complicated to calculate exactly. Down is measured in “fill power” per weight, the fill power is higher for down that creates more loft, meaning it fills more space for its weight. Typically these range from 400-700 inches per ounce. Because down varies in “fill power” the number of geese needed to make the down sleeping bag also varies. 
Wild Eider in Norway produce around 1.5oz (42g) per nest per year. (Source This is the highest quality down so a light weight filling would be possible. If your bag is taking 300g then it would take 8 birds. (8x42g=336g)
Presumable more weight of down will be collected from a dead bird or one plucked alive (which thankfully is outlawed and represents only 1% of all “harvested” down (Source But the fill power from a young bird will be less and more weight will be needed, I’m guessing that this may balance out and 8 birds may still be enough but it could be many more.

So what should we do if we need a new sleeping bag; synthetic or down? 
A synthetic bag generally will be heavier and larger when packed than a down bag of equivalent warmth, but maybe not by much if you use the latest technologies. If you get your bag wet you’ll be glad you bought a synthetic. Down bags usually cost more than synthetic.
From a practical perspective down is better unless you’re going to be in a wet climate.

If your bag is filled with regular down the geese will most likely have led a factory farming life and have been killed in the first few months of their existence. From the animal rights perspective down is an inexcusable abuse of an animals right to a free and natural existence.

A down bag will remain functional longer than a synthetic one, the plastic is more fragile than feathers, and the down once disposed of will return to nature quicker, while the polyester components will take thousands of years to break down fully. From an environmental perspective down is better; its components will return to nature easily. (Although the nylon shell of your bag will be blocking drains and filling the gills of a blue whale for millennia.)

A more ethical solution would be to ensure that the down filling your sleeping bag was collected from wild geese living a natural life, or a polyester filled bag made from recycled plastic. If you know of anyone manufacturing a sleeping bag to either of these ethical criteria let us know in the comments.

A down sleeping bag is the superior choice for most situations, being lighter smaller and warmer. It also has a lower impact on the environment as a whole. If you are able to live with knowing that the beings who grew the downy feathers that will keep you warm lived short torturous lives then it is a clear favourite. The alternative is to continue our addition of polymers to the world's ecosystems. This is continuing at a pace already and perhaps one more sleeping bag of polyester is negligible. What do you think?

I hope the exploration of this issue was informative and useful, feel free to leave comments, corrections and feelings below.

Bottling it - Packaged water and its environmental impact

This time I want to look at the issue of plastic waste creating by drinking water from bottles.
I am writing from South India, and the content of this post is based on experience of travelling here, but the point should be applicable to anywhere where bottled water is available in plastic: It is creating waste regardless, even when it is recycled. (More about recycling and its efficiencies and inefficiencies, in another post)

 If you have spent anytime in a country, like India, without a centralised waste management system and recycling plants, you will have seen an enormous pile of empty plastic water bottles. It is a dramatic sight not easily forgotten; sometimes tumbling down a small cliff in front of a perfect sunset, sometimes clogging up a blackened water way. These are the scenes of tourism outside of the tourist’s health’s comfort zone, the understandably poor meeting between western digestive systems and water systems less clean than they’re used to.

It is also a startling glimpse through the doors of perception. The huge amount of waste we create on a daily basis is dealt with very tidily in the west. We can ignore it, along with our mortality. In India there is a destabilising honesty to it, there is nowhere for your waste to go. It will pile up around us, then probably be burnt.

The water in many countries is not going to be perfect for many of us when it comes out of the tap. Depending on where you are the cause for concern will vary, in Israel you may be wanting to filter out heavy metals while in India it’s micro organisms. Naturally enough this is something we would want to avoid, but due to the impact mentioned above, buying bottled water is not the best solution, filtration and treatment is.

Here are some alternatives to buying bottled water when the water is not clean enough;

  • Purification tablets.
    • You will probably need to arrive with enough for the whole trip. The best chemical purifier is iodine, yet it is not to be used by pregnant women or those with thyroid problems.
  • Water Filter or Sterilisation, 
    • With a small pore size less than 4 microns; it needs to be effective against both bacterias and parasites. Water filters come in travel size also.
    • Using ultra-violet rays to kill all micro organisms. This is common in many multifunctional household filtration systems, and it also available as a Steri Pen for travel purposes.
  • Buying Processed water 
    • Boiled and Filtered or Mineral water bought in bulk. In many towns you can find places to fill up water. And if you’re staying for a week or more you can buy water in bulk, filling up this way is more sustainable as the large plastic containers of 20 litres (5 gallon US) will be reused many times.
  • Drinking the water in Cities 
    • I don’t actually recommend this, but some feel it is fine. The levels of chlorine and other disinfectants and anti-bacterial additives from the water treatment plants make it safer. Bear in mind that water contamination is mostly invisible to the naked eye, and much water is stored in tanks on a roof before it is drunk.

You may have strong digestive system with guts made of iron. If so feel free to drink from every tap in town. Some do. The above advice is just that advice, do as you feel. But if you have a digestive system as sensitive as your ecological conscience then the goal of safe water and a clean environment is possible.

Let me know in the comments your thoughts, feelings and solutions to this situation.

Friday, 27 January 2012

A Declaration of Interdependence - General Sources of Inspiration

I am not who I was, I am a part of something greater that is always changing.

I take the view that we should live lightly on the planet, with the aim to pass this beautiful planet to future generations in better condition than we ourselves found it. Yet the likelihood of this coming to pass is poor. The human species has probably already changed the face of the planet in ways that will take millennia to rebalance. We have added more carbon to the atmosphere than there has ever been, and added polymers to delicately balanced eco systems.

But in light of this great failure I plan, through these blog posts, to explore the ethical, spiritual and practical dilemmas (or trilemmas; when adding the Buddha’s middle way to the mix) of being a modern human. Trying to live with wisdom and compassion while being one part of the most destructive force of nature ever to have walked on the planet’s surface.

Before I get going I want to apologise, briefly.

I know that I shall fail to reference all the sources of knowledge that substantiate this blog. Many things I have read will come out through these words, even an idea that feels original to me will no doubt have been formed by other’s ideas I have consumed along my path to make sense of being human. It is not in arrogance of thinking myself original that will lead to the lack of accreditation but a poor memory. I will update this page’s list of the dominant influences as soon as I remember, while within each post I will provide links to the specific influences for that topic.

I have been touched and inspired by reading “The World without Us” by Alan Weisman. The book envisions a world suddenly vacated by the dominant species of humankind, exploring how our influence diminishes, whether slowly or quickly, across many spheres of life. The cities we’ve built dissolving, the transport systems collapsing, the cultivated plants reverting to the wild, and the atmosphere, last of all, reabsorbing all the extra carbon we’ve released through our excessive use of fossil fuels.

I am inspired also by the wisdom of ancient and modern spiritual teachers, Ken Wilber and Alan Watts come to mind first. Because for me they have crystallised wisdom teachings and found vibrant and accessible means to communicate it. One thing I would like to share from their over flowing pots is this. If you are able to see a situation you are no longer stuck in it. There is a freedom in knowing that we are stuck. This is not the time to feel sorry for being stuck, or beating ourselves for being where we are, now is the time to act, to move forward.

May we all seize this opportunity to benefit ourselves, our friends, our friends to be, all living beings, and ones to come, this fragile yet resilient earth, and all that is beyond the knowing of this complex being that is just coming and going.


Monday, 23 January 2012

Why is SanghaSeva starting a blog?

We already have a website that is offering all the functions that we need. A place for people to stumble upon the retreats we offer; Meditation in Action (for short). A place where people can learn about these events and even register on the site.
But right now we want something a bit more interactive, we want to explore the themes of our everyday impact on the world. From all angles if possible; both rational and spiritual, being realistic without losing touch with the dream, aiming for the sky with our feet in the dirt.
This is all part of the path of getting as free as possible because "Daily Life Matters"

Hope you will join us,

With Love,
SanghaSeva Team