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Where Are My Garden Tools From?

Where Are My Garden Tools From?
Posted on 18/02/12 | Posted by The Fat Gardener

I speak to many gardeners each week and get lots of questions (understandably) about garden tools. I am always being asked questions like ‘who makes the best secateurs?’, ‘where can my mum find a lightweight spade?’ and ‘should I buy an electric or petrol chainsaw?’

Most of these questions are easily answered and I am able to help the questioner find the right garden tools for the job, but when someone asked me this week ‘who makes the most environmentally friendly tools?’ I really had to think hard about it.

Garden Tools are mainly manufactured from refined natural resources, that is to say, wood and various metals. Over the years rubbers and plastics have also become popular not only in hand tools, but in power tools as well. But what environmental concerns should we take into account when we buy our garden tools and is it even possible to calculate the carbon footprint of each product?

I have spoken to a number of both hand and power tool manufacturers and one thing is very clear, no one appears to know the environmental ‘cost’ of manufacturing our garden tools.

So what factors should we consider when choosing our tools?
1. Transport is probably the biggest factor. If you buy a spade from China, apart from the journeys made by the components (timber and steel), your spade will go onto a lorry to be carried to port, shipped half way around the world, put on a lorry again before being delivered to your local garden centre (which you probably drive to in your car). This is why I support buying British made garden tools which may cost a little more, but only travel a very short distance to your local garden centre.
2. Fuel is used by all manufacturers to power their factories. Whether energy is provided by gas, coal, oil or electricity, the forging and cutting of steel, sharpening of blades and shaping of timber all requires power.
3. Plastics cause serious damage to the environment both during production and disposal. Being a non-biodegradable substance and composed of toxic chemicals, plastic pollution is a serious problem in my opinion. The noxious substances emitted during the production of plastic are synthetic chemicals like ethylene oxide, benzene and xylenes. There are also serious worldwide problems with safely disposing of plastic waste.
4. Timber should always be supplied from sustainable sources. Many shafts used in the production of garden tools available in the UK are made with FSC or PEFC certified timber. This ensures that any timber used is from renewable resources and is being managed for long term sustainability. If you are in any doubt as to the origin, ask your garden centre whether the timber in their tools is certified.
5. Employment conditions for factory workers are also worth considering. In Europe and the USA employment law restricts working hours, protects against child labour and ensures a minimum wage. There are some countries particularly on the sub-continent and in Asia where employment conditions fall far below these standards, so if in doubt contact the manufacturer directly to find out what standards they employ in their overseas factories. 
6. As well as the energy used in the manufacturing process, fuel is also used in the production of raw materials like steel, aluminium and timber. The carbon calculation often only starts ‘at the factory gate’ which means that the energy used in the origination of components is sometimes forgotten.

So which are the ‘greenest’ garden tools? To be completely honest I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else (including the manufacturers themselves) does either. The myriad questions that need to be asked and answered to find out the exact carbon footprint is far beyond my mathematical ability! However, I do think it is worth recognising that buying better garden tools will ensure that we don't have to replace them with new ones quite as often.

I think that my main advice would be that next time you need to buy a new pair of secateurs, a fork, saw or lawnmower, just ask yourself ‘where did this garden tool come from?’

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