12 December 2010

18 months on - progress report

I started writing this post in May, and just found it now in my saved drafts. Oops! I have updated and completed it, and here it is. Now titled '18 months on...' but initially '12 months on, as reflected in the intro.


Twelve months on feels like time to check how things are going. Did we keep up our commitments? How have they worked out for us? Are we going on with the project?

Weather sealing the front door - Yep, less drafty. My only comment is that it makes the door a bit harder to shut - if its not locked it sometimes swings back open.

Pipe insulation - It would be good to insulate the rest of the pipes but they appear to be unreachable. The insulation doesn't seem to be sustaining weather damage or coming away from the pipes.

Laundry & Dishwasher Powder - Right after we agreed to do this I accidentally bought a whole lot of regular laundry powder super cheap, and we had only recently purchased regular dishwasher powder, so we took a couple of months to work our way through that. The eco-friendly stuff seems to give an equally good clean.We buy either Earthchoice or Aware laundry powder and it is on special often enough that I don't have to pay the shelf price as quoted in my initial blog very often.

Hot Water Temperature - Cold weather came and went and our showers were still plenty warm enough in the morning.

Getting rid of 'standby' - It took a little while to get into the habit of switching the whole system off, but now it is second nature. The only drawback is that if we want to leave one thing plugged in, like a mobile phone charging overnight or a fan to speed up drying nappies in rainy weather, we have to leave the whole computer system on standby as there is only one power outlet in the office.

Shade Cloth on east wall - We considered rolling it up for winter, as the office got very cold  even during the day, but there is no direct sun on that wall in winter anyway, so we didn't bother. We wore ugg-boots and jumpers, wrapped blankets round our legs (well, I did - Tyson I think sees that as too much like a granny thing) and referred to the office as 'the icebox' for a couple of months. I seem to recall it was pretty cold in there the previous year too, so I'm not sure it was because of the shade cloth. Now its summer again and shade cloth is my friend.

Grey Water - All summer we carted buckets of water from the washing machine and showers to keep the garden alive. We didn't turn on a hose for the garden at all! When the rain started I didn't know what to do. It felt so wasteful to let the water go down the drain, but the garden didn't need it. We used the shower buckets to flush the toilet again for winter, but the washing machine had to just drain away. This summer we have enough water for the garden from showers and Eva's bath, as she is in the big bath now. Also, the buckets from the washing machine got quite grimey with soap scum and I haven't been that keen to return to using laundry water if we don't need to. Perhaps in the hottest months we will do it again. Tyson captured some laundry water last week when he needed to do five loads of washing in one day.
Irrigation - The system has been revamped for the new garden and works better than ever. As an added bonus, Eva loves the routine of carrying buckets outside and watching the water come around the garden. She has dug herself a lake under two spouters and watches it fill up and drain away every morning.

Heat Barrier Curtain -Still there, still working, no trouble at all.

Compost - Our tubs weren't working so well, and we got rats (which ATE OUR PUMPKINS!!! I can't tell you how cross I was, especially as I saw the last one get taken in front of me). Next we tried a pile in the garden, wrapped in plastic and hemmed in by bricks. We still got mice. Eventually we bought a compost tumbler. Tyson wanted one with a handle that goes round and round rather than end over end, but they are ludicrously expensive (about $800!!) and his friend who runs a hardware store assured him they rust out quickly. End-over-end can get quite heavy and awkward to turn, but so far not unmanageable. The only flaw in the system now is that we tend to be lazy about taking the scraps outside, and once the inside bucket is full I think organic matter does end up in the regular bin sometimes. 

Cloth Nappies - We are still using cloth. In the past year we have used about two packs of disposables (total 60 nappies?) plus a few disposable swimmer nappies. The system of cloth wipes only lasted about 6 months, though. I always felt like I was spilling water around the place, and the cloths seemed kind of scratchy for a little bum. At first I meant to replace them with softer fabric, but now I have admitted to myself that I am never going to do that, as disposable wipes are too convenient. But the cloth nappies... I am happy to recommend the brand we use (see original post) as we have had only one wet bed (and that was our fault for not getting the nappy cover on properly) and a handful of leaks of any kind.We had to buy more covers a few months back as the first lot were getting a bit small and their elastic was wearing out, and we will have to buy another round of covers before Eva is through with nappies, but the nappies themselves are lasting brilliantly.

Lighting - Still in place. No globes have needed replacement yet. I forget  they are anything but plain ordinary globes.

The Conversation -Its been a while since we revisited our commitment to living sustainably. But then, I think it has become embedded in our lifestyle, which was initially our hope in taking up the monthly challenge. We still like the idea but have trouble finding time to implement it every month. Its an ongoing but sporadic conversation now.

Now its December...

So as you can see, I have not been the least bit successful at keeping up with this blog. I have to confess that as we headed into the second year of our sustainability commitment we also began slipping away from doing something every month. Having said that, though, we are still averaging one thing a month and not naming it as part of the original commitment.

Things we have done this year since May:

Garden make-over. This involved help from about ten friends, bless them, especially the guys who forked a whole trailer load of woodchips in and then out of the trailer, and around the garden. The garden make-over was to reduce the water needed for the garden (and also to reduce the number of spidery corners as our little girl began to get mobile) and also, we hoped, to improve our vegetable returns. We installed a raised garden bed and Tyson reworked the gravity-feed irrigation system to service it. Most of the front courtyard was woodchipped to get rid of grass areas, and the remaining woodchips were used to mulch every pot and garden bed around the house. Initial time: one full working day with an average of five workers at a time, plus another day with two of us finishing things off. Initial cost: about $300 for sheets of corrugated iron and a few sturdy posts (all from the salvage yard), two trailers of good quality soil, and a donation for the woodchips that we collected from the front lawn of a church that needed to get rid of a large fallen tree. Ongoing cost: various bits and pieces, but no more or less that for any other garden - well, perhaps less, as vegetable seeds cost less than, say, pots of orchids, and the most successful vegies have been the ones grown from seed either harvested at the end of season or accidentally sown through the compost. Ongoing time: Less than for most gardens, as the woodchips stop most weeds and there is no longer grass to mow. Impact: Sorry, I just can't calculate that one. But I know that the new garden makes me happy, and I spent much of winter just enjoying looking at it out our windows.

Rugs and Carpets. Our living space is tiled, which in winter means it can get quite cold, but in summer it is lovely. This year we acquired two more floor-covering pieces for winter, making five rugs on the floor in winter. One was a second-hand piece from a nearby carpet store, which Tyson trimmed and turned around to fit under our dining table and chairs. The other was from his parents as they were replacing a large rug at their house. For summer we have lifted three of the pieces, leaving soft coverings only at the areas where Eva's toys are kept, so that she has some softer play space. Initial cost: zero (except maybe the $5 for a roll of duct tape for reshaping carpet pieces into the floor piece we needed. We didn't use the whole roll, of course) Initial time: about 15 minutes going through carpet off-cuts to find a decent piece; about 30 minutes for Tyson to work the carpet into a good shape. The rug given to us was no time at all! Ongoing time and cost commitment: about 5 minutes at the change of seasons to pull up and store or lay down again the rugs. Storing a couple of large rolled carpets through summer is also a bit of a space-taker. Impact: Its hard to prove whether we turned the heater on less in winter once the carpets were down, but I suspect we did, as my feet didn't feel cold when working on the laptop at the dining table. As for summer... Eva sometimes lies down on the nice cool tiles when it is hot but so far I have not got hot enough to shake off my social conditioning that says adults probably shouldn't be found lying on their kitchen floor.

Bamboo blinds for the back window.  We were given a couple of bamboo blinds so Tyson rigged one up on the back toilet window. This room gets the afternoon sun and absolutely bakes in summer. The blind fits perfectly and makes an amazing difference! Initial cost: zero, as the blind was a throw-away. Initial time: about 15 minutes to attach the blind - hooked into the small screen/vent at the top of the window with hooks Tyson made for the job. Ongoing time and cost: zero. Perhaps in winter we will decide to take 5 minutes and roll the blind up again at the start of the season. Impact: We never heated or cooled the toilet, but it was a very hot buffer between outside and inside temperatures. As it is now substantially cooler, the inside temperature is not pressured nearly as much from this side. Its also much MUCH nicer in there on a hot day - which, although it is not the toilet we mostly use ourselves, is a huge improvement as it is the room where nappies get dealt with.

Making Eva's Christmas present out of items salvaged from hard rubbish. The items: two dolls' houses. Tyson is in the process of renovating them, pulling bits off one to make the other perfect. So far everything he has done has used recycled materials from around our home, except for the rewiring of the lights. Initial cost: I think Tyson spent about $30 on wiring and little LED lights. He tells me he is working on a plan to put a solar panel on the roof and run the house lights that way. I'm not sure how serious he is. Initial time: Lets just say this is a labour of love for Tyson and he has spent many happy hours in the shed pottering about creating the perfect recycled dolls house. Ongoing time/ cost: hopefully zero, but probably a few repairs along the way. Impact: most of two dolls houses saved from landfill; numerous bits and pieces of household 'waste' saved from landfill (did you know a plastic honey sachet makes a great sink?); all of us saved from buying more stuff for Christmas for this one time, a tiny ripple against the great tsunami of Christmas consumption.

Shed vent. The shed is a tiny tiny place, from which Tyson has to unpack several items in order to have space for himself to get inside if he wants to use it as a work space. It is also extremely hot and humid, as it was built with no windows, vents, or openings other than the door. Tyson bought a vent and installed it so that hot air could escape into the roof space above the ceiling and thus through the tiles. I don't go into the shed except to reach in and get a broom or snail bait, but even those brief forays were unpleasant pre-vent. Tyson says the vent has totally transformed the place into a viable workspace. (For the record, no we didn't ask permission from the landlord. I'm sure he would have said yes - eventually. Everything takes forever on that front. We figure we've made an improvement, at our cost, so if he even notices the vent he surely can't complain). Initial cost: bout $15 for the vent. Initial time: I'm starting to forget details, but I think cutting a piece of ceiling out and fitting the vent into the space took about half an hour. Tyson is pretty handy. It would probably have taken me at least twice that long. Ongoing time/ cost: zero. Impact: we didn't heat or cool the shed, partly because there is no power point in there (you gotta love investment builders ... don't put anything in past the bare minimum specs if you won't be living there yourself!) but Tyson doesn't come inside wilting and need cooling down like he used to. Also I think it counts as a sustainable action to improve quality of living without increasing energy usage or global impact.

Better compost system. We decided to put some of the money left to us after Tyson's beloved grandmother died towards buying a decent (read: completely sealable) compost system. It works. It also seems to breed tomatoes, capsicums and pumpkins effortlessly. Initial cost: $200. Initial time: about an hour to assemble the tumbler, transfer the existing compost pile into it, and get the new tumbler settled into its garden home. Ongoing cost/ time: five minutes a day to put the scraps from the kitchen into the tumbler and give it a spin. Impact: great soil! and self-sown vegies. I don't think we will need to buy potting mix for a while. Also of course we are saving all that organic matter going into landfill.

Tarpaulin shading the northwest wall. In summer this wall soaks up heat in the afternoon, and transfers it pretty quickly through into the living area. Our clothesline is there, and last summer I had tried making sure there was washing on the line on hot days to provide some shading, but this was not really enough. This week Tyson has rigged up a tarpaulin to cover about half of the courtyard on that side of the house, shading much of the wall - and also a decent chunk of the shed. It is hooked into the gutters with metal hooks, and tensioned with shock cord (left over from earlier exercises in shading windows). So far we think it is helping reduce house temperatures. We haven't had a real heat wave to trial it on yet. Much of the clothesline is shaded now, but only the nappies really need direct sun and they can either go on the sunny bit or go on a free-standing drying rack out in the hot bit of the courtyard. Initial cost: zero (the tarpaulin was given to us by a neighbour who was getting rid of it; the shock cord was left-overs) Initial time: about half an hour. Ongoing time/ cost: this one will need to be taken down in heavy weather, as it blows around a bit. Its also quite noisy, so Tyson is thinking of ways to soften the scratchy noise of the hooks in the gutters. Even if it doesn't come down in heavy weather, it will need to come down at the end of summer.Impact: Reduced need for airconditioning in summer. Possibly also longer life for clothes that don't appreciate drying in direct Perth summer sun!

Front blinds. It took us ages but we finally found a spot suitable for the second of our donated bamboo blinds - a larger one. I was hesitant to allow Tyson to put the blind on the front living area window, as I love sitting in the lounge looking out at our front garden - especially since it got remade at the start of winter. However, we tested it out and to my amazement you can see right through bamboo blinds, much like a fly screen but not so grey! I'm sure everyone else in the world already knew this, but it was news to me. The blind is hooked into the gutter - no permanent fixtures. It can be retracted with a draw-cord, but so far we haven't bothered. Initial cost: zero (blinds were a cast-off gift). Initial time: about 15 minutes to put the blind up. Ongoing time/ cost: need for removal at start and end of season, and probably during heavy weather as they are loosely attached to the guttering. Its the lee side of the building, though, so not too punished by weather. Impact: I can have the inside venetian blinds open in summer without heating up the house dramatically - which is extremely good for my mental state when I am home all day with Eva on a hot day. I know shutting the blinds is good sustainability sense, but I get tetchy living in a cave. Somehow the sun still sneaks in the side of the blind until about 9am (later when its not the middle of summer), so the venetians are still shut then. Overall it seems this is making the room much cooler, hence less airconditioning. And the not-cave effect makes me happier about living in a shaded house.

Tyson's work. In October Tyson passed his 100th home sustainability assessment. That's something like 200 hours spent one-on-one educating people in their own homes about ways to reduce their impact. If everyone he visited reduced their energy bills by one unit per day (not an unreasonably estimate as an average) he would have taken about 21.5 tonnes of carbon out of the air (as of today). We heard yesterday of a family of four who he visited about six months ago who have since installed solar panels and made lifestyle changes so that their last energy bill was $1.05!

27 May 2010

May 2010 - Weather sealing the front door

The less drafts in a room the easier and more efficient it is to heat. Winter is approaching here and the cold air coming in around the front door was making it hard to keep the living area warm, so this month we added weather sealing tape to the front door to stop the drafts.

Initial Time: Ten minutes to cut and attach tape (Tyson adds: it would have been quicker if he wasn't carrying Eva on his back at the same time)

Initial Cost: Five metres of self-adhesive weather sealing tape cost $10.98, and was almost exactly the amount needed for one standard size door.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: zero.

Impact: It is noticeably less drafty - and also much quieter! Other external windows and doors to the living space were already weather sealed. I still prefer to wear warm clothes and have a window open as long as I can bear it, though - which is usually longer than everyone else around me. (One former housemate's boyfriend dubbed me 'the ice queen' because of this tendency...)

April 2010 - Pipe Insulation

Even the most efficient water heating systems still face the problem of water cooling in the pipes before it reaches the point of use. We collect about half a bucket of cold water in our shower before the hot gets there, and a substantial amount of cold water goes down the kitchen sink while waiting for it to warm up also. This month we decided to insulate the water pipes where we could get to them.

Initial Time: 15 minutes to cut and fit insulation piping on outside pipes. Tyson got into the roof space to see if the pipes were exposed there also, which was an additional time commitment, but after insulating a section of gas pipe by mistake he concluded that the hot water pipes are not in the roof cavity, so I won't count his roof crawling time here.

Initial Cost: We were given four metres of insulation piping free as a promotion from Environment House and bought some extra from Bunnings - $6.89 for a two metre section.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: zero.

Impact: We still run a lot of cold water in the shower before the hot kicks in, as it is on the other side of the house to the water heater. Its hard to say whether the temperature is warmer once it gets going, as we did this right on the change of season so the pipes are contesting with colder weather than before we made the change. In the kitchen, which is closer to the water heater, we have noticed that the water appears to have less cold delay, and is hotter when it arrives.  This is definitely true in the laundry, which is directly through the wall from the water heater.

I can't give a precise measure on any of that, though.

Update: Tyson has put some measurements in the comments. 

Also I think I should emphasise that even when you are not using any hot water, the outlet pipe from a storage hot water system acts as a kind of wick, drawing heat out of the storage tank. Insulating the pipes not only keeps the water we are using hotter, it also keeps the water waiting in the tank hotter.

March 2010 - Laundry & Dishwasher Powder

I had been getting uneasy about the amount of laundry powder that we are letting into the ecosystem, especially as we do eight or nine loads of washing a week keeping the nappies clean,and recycle much of the water onto the garden. This month we made a commitment to purchasing more eco-friendly washing powder. We have a couple of brands as Tyson's parents gave us some, and I also bought a wool wash for occasional use. While we were at it we added eco-friendly dishwasher powder to the equation for good measure.

Initial Cost:  1.5kg of Aware laundry powder costs about $8.40 if its not on special (and so far it hasn't been on special often). This compares with $1.99 for 500g of regular brands (the shelf price is more but I always stock up when its on special). EarthChoice dishwasher tablets cost about $15.80 for a box of 28, compared with about $13 for 1kg of powder from regular brands. I also investigated the products available at our local organic store, but although they were potentially better quality they were outside my price range.

Initial Time: zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: I estimate we use about 13.5kg of laundry powder a year. Using the prices above, this works out at $75.60 for earth-friendly powder or $54 for regular brands - an extra $21.60 per year. If we average three dishwasher loads a week, the EarthChoice dishwasher tablets will cost us about $95 a year. My rough estimate of how much I spend on regular dishwasher powder in a year came out at about $100, as we get less washes from the powder than from the tablets.

Impact: Its hard to tell precisely what chemicals we have been putting into the water. EarthChoice dishwasher tablets assure me they are biodegradable and phosphate free, but make no promises about their use of petrochemicals. The ingredient list is: sodium carbonate, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulphate, sodium silicate, sodium percarbonate, tetra acetyl ethylene diamine, sodium diethylenetriamine pentamethylene phosponate, glass protection additive, polyacrylic acid, polyethylene glycos, colloidal silica, enzyme, dye. I don't know what that means - but the regular brand I still have a packet of tells me nothing about its contents at all.
Aware laundry powder is also biodegradable and phosphate free, but so is the regular Duo that I still have a packet of. Aware contains no petrochemicals or palm oil (a major cause of deforestation) but uses coconut oils, sugar, citrate salt from corn, and cellulose colloids from cotton and wood pulp.
Mostly I think the impact of our change is to put 13.5kg less of petrochemical-based powder into the environment each year from the washing machine. I'm not sure the difference with the dishwasher.

26 April 2010

February 2010 - Hot Water Temperature

Heating water is one of the biggest users of energy in a house. We have a large storage gas hot water system. This means that it works all day to keep the 135 litres inside hot and ready to use. This month's sustainable action was to reduce the temperature that the water is heated to and stored at. As I sit to write about how much effort it took and how much impact it has, I can't believe we didn't do it sooner. The water is still easily hot enough to have a great shower, even on a cold morning (not that we have had many of those in Perth this year).

Initial Cost: zero

Initial Time: five minutes

Ongoing time or cost commitment: zero

Impact: I thought there would be a nice easy calculation for this - an equation of 'water takes x units of energy to heat to y temperature therefore a reduction of z degrees means an xyz reduction in energy usage'. Tyson sighed at me and said its not as simple as that. Each brand of water heater uses a different amount of energy when new, and then it depends how old the system is, whether we use our hot water all in one go or in little bits through the day, where the system is located (if its in the sun, it stays warmer. Duh. Why didn't I think of that?), what the climate is like, and so on. Also when we opened the box we found the dial didn't say what actual temperature it was set to. It was on the highest one - at a guess probably about 70-80 degrees C. We turned it down from '5' to '3', which we guessed would be about 60 degrees C. (It's not safe to store hot water at less than 60 degrees C as there is a danger of legionellas breeding)

BUT: Our recent gas bill was about one third less than the same period last year, and we only use gas for cooking and hot water, so even without a clever formula I can say that it is making a big difference!

08 January 2010

Actions that pre-date the month-by-month plan

I realised as I began writing this blog that there were actually quite a few things we had already instigated prior to beginning the ‘one act a month’ commitment. Here is the list of what I can think of that we were already doing at our house to try living more sustainably:

  • water saver shower heads in both showers (I was worried they would make the shower feel pathetic, but you can still get a good ‘big shower’ feel so I am happy to recommend them to others)
  • buckets in shower to catch as much water as possible, especially the few litres that runs out cold before the hot water gets there (Initially we were using this water to flush the toilet, but the toilet cistern was getting pretty gunky with the soap etc of the shower water, so now we just use it on the garden.)
  • toilet flushing limitations (Without being too detailed, you don’t need to flush every time – and certainly not with the full 10L of the cistern)
  • front-loader low water/ moderate energy washing machine
  • no clothes dryer (even super absorbent bamboo nappies dry within about 4 hours in summer and two days in winter – less if there is a heater on)
  • green energy (yes I know the actual electricity we use comes off the grid same as my neighbours’, but we pay the extra to ensure the amount of electricity we use is somewhere put into the grid from renewable sources. Its not ideal but it’s a start)
  • energy-saver light globes in the two main living areas

  • shade cloth to rear area, to shelter living area windows from afternoon summer sun 
  • minimal air conditioner use – only on REALLY hot days, and even then only for a few hours in the afternoon (in hot weather we close the blinds/ curtains/ doors/ windows to keep out the sun, open everything at night to get cross-ventilation, and use fans for most of our cooling, all of which dramatically reduces the house’s temperature without using the energy-guzzling split-cycle air conditioner.)
  • minimal heater use  - only on REALLY cold days, and then only for a few hours in the evening (In cold weather we put on more clothes, have rugs on the tiles and wear ugg boots. We don’t heat bedrooms at night, just have lots of blankets and snuggle up. I was hoping ugg boots might qualify as a sustainable measure for funding support, as they make such a difference to my use of the heater, but no such luck)
  • timer set on the oil fin heater in Eva’s room so that it runs only part of the night (We bought a 5-fin oil heater when Eva was due, as it was late winter and we needed some way to have a warm space ready for night time feeds and nappy changes. The timer was set so that the heater turned on and off every half hour, which took the chill off the room sufficiently. After about 6 weeks Eva didn’t need night time attention and the weather was getting warmer, so both the heater and the time were retired after only a short run)
  • air conditioner set to 27°C in summer and heater to 19°C in winter (Every one degree higher (winter) or lower (summer) a heating/ cooling system is set uses 10 percent more energy, so we aim to take the edge off the temperature without making it super warm or cold)
  • lights off during the day, or when we are not using a room at night (It was only when a house guest was here recently and left her bedroom light on all the time that it occurred to me that not everyone turns lights off)
  • one car
  • using public transport or riding bike for work and uni; walking to anything within about 20 minutes (one way) and occasionally longer trips, like the 35-40min walk to the nearest cafĂ© strip/ shopping area, when we don’t need to carry too much (mostly – it’s a bit trickier with a baby, but when she can sit up properly we’ll look at a seat for her on my bike)

  • enviro-friendly dishwashing and floor scrubbing liquid (We also tried toilet enviro-friendly toilet cleaner but it was useless)
  • using recycled toilet paper and paper towels
  • using recycled paper for the computer – both re-using scrap paper for drafts and purchasing recycled paper for good copies
  • ensuring that we put everything possible into the recycling bin supplied by the council, not into the general rubbish bin
  • minimal alfoil use (I was astonished to discover the amount of electricity required to produce aluminium. Alcoa uses 40% of Western Australia’s electricity! That’s outrageous! So, we still have alfoil in the cupboard, but we have found that a plate or tray over the dish usually works just as well in the oven, and gladwrap or baking paper works for most cold purposes)
  • free-range eggs and chicken
  • reducing lamb, beef and pork to only occasional mince or sausages, and choosing kangaroo or goat for other dishes (Australian red meat is not produced using as much energy as in Europe or North America, but it is still not the most sustainable land use – kangaroo and goat are much better)
  • fair trade coffee and some fair trade tea – or Australian-grown/ made if fair trade is not available (but I confess to not buying fair trade herbal teas most of the time, and I am mostly a herbal tea drinker)
  • careful seafood choices, especially no tuna unless specified as yellowfin tuna (I was appalled to discover that current rates of commercial fishing mean that within my lifetime wild fish stocks will die out completely. We try to base our choices on the seafood shopping guide. Tuna, being at the top of the food chain, are one of the worst fish to eat. I love tuna, especially those little sandwich tins, so cutting tuna out of our diet was challenging, and I confess I sometimes fall off the wagon when the little tins are 99c…)
  • cloth shopping bags, and some attempt to make purchases, food in particular, that have less packaging
  • worm farm
  • vegies instead of lawn in much of our front courtyard
Putting together this list has lifted my spirits considerably. Drawn into one place it appears we are actually doing quite a lot, even if each thing feels small.

We also attempt to build positive relationships with our neighbours. I don’t know quite how that fits with the list above, but to me it feels like a significant aspect of sustainable living to challenge the isolationist suburban box mentality that dominates much of our culture. We try to make our home a place of hospitality – having a spare bed and welcoming guests, inviting neighbours to dinner, making an effort to chat to people in the street rather than walk past, offering our living space as venue for various group events, attempting to be generous. Small things, I know, but for me it is not sustainable to decrease water and energy usage, reduce our waste, make considered choices about what and how we consume but live isolated from those around us. Christopher Jamieson, applying the wisdom of St Benedict for modern life, says ‘we get to heaven together or not at all’. It’s a tough call, but I believe the only real way to get to any sort of ‘heaven’, including the heaven of sharing the planet well, is to travel together as community.

January 2010 - Getting rid of 'standby'

One of the things Tyson learnt in his course was that electronic equipment left on standby uses 10-15% of the power it uses when turned on. Everything in our house is on standby! Most notably, the computer/ printer/ screen/ speakers/ backup hard-drive gobble up energy. This month we purchased a six-point power board that has its own ‘on/off’ switch. When the computer etc is off, rather than sitting on standby, we are now turning the whole powerboard off.

Initial cost: $20. There are apparently also a range of more expensive options, including one with a remote switch, for when your power points are in a weird unreachable position, so you can set the switch up somewhere easy.

Initial time: 15 mins to rearrange the electrical cables.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: An extra few seconds when shutting down the computer to press the ‘off’ switch’.

Impact: At least 16 hours per day that the home office is drawing no power, where previously it was using an estimated 15-20W to sit on standby.

December 2009 - Shade cloth

This month’s challenge: cooling the rooms on the south east side of the house, which get morning summer sun and heat up like an oven. We have no yard on this side, only the driveway through to the rear houses. Two years ago Tyson successfully installed a shade cloth across most of the rear courtyard, primarily to shade a glass sliding door and large kitchen window from western sun on summer afternoons, but also to make a more pleasant outdoor area. We couldn’t afford a big shade sail, and as renters are limited in what permanent fixtures we can install for anchoring such sails. Tyson’s method was to use shade cloth over timber battens, which fit inside the gutters and are wired to the gutter brackets, thus being entirely removable. This has proved very successful for the courtyard, so we went with a similar approach to shade the two windows on the south east wall, one of which has no eaves at all. The bottom edges are anchored with shock cord... and we did install two hooks into the brickwork (we’ll remove them when we go... don’t tell the landlord).

Initial cost: About $40 for timber battens, shade cloth, shade cloth nails and shock cord. 

Initial time: One hour.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Possibly occasional need to clean away spiders webs from the inside.

Impact: The third bedroom has been transformed from a room where you really couldn’t spend time on a summer afternoon without the air conditioner running to a pleasant space that is temperature-manageable with only a fan. The bathroom is no longer a sauna! Additional unplanned benefits are that the glare from the neighbours fence is much reduced, and the angle of the shade cloth acts as a wind scoop to catch the south or southwesterly cool breezes and channel them in through the bedroom window.

November 2009 - Grey Water

Now that we have an irrigation system up and running, the challenge was to find a way to use water from the washing machine – especially as it runs every day cleaning nappies. Again, being renters, we can’t retrofit a grey-water recycling system, or even cut a hole for piping to get outside from the laundry. Also, our laundry is at the rear of the house but the majority of the garden, including the vegies and the irrigation system, is at the front. Our solution: buckets. We now have three buckets in the wash-trough catching washing machine water. What overflows the buckets goes down the drain, except on rare occasions when I happen past the laundry between the wash and the rinse cycles and empty the first round of buckets in time to also catch the rinse water.
We already had two buckets catching water in our shower, and have now also added a bucket in my sister’s shower, plus the water from Eva’s bath, the nappy bucket, and any hand washing done during the day.

Initial cost: 10L buckets cost $2 each. We supplemented our existing supply with another four.

Initial time: 5 minutes a couple of times over while we figured out the best bucket configuration. (For the record, letting the whole wash trough fill and overflow into the overflow holes means the washing machine stops draining once the pipe-end is in the water. We have a front-loader. Messy.)

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Ten minutes per day emptying buckets of water – shorter when all the water goes into the irrigation; longer when some of it is distributed to the pots and plants in the rear courtyard. However, we no longer spend any time watering with a hose, so it evens out.

Impact: Each day approximately 10L of baby bath water + 20L shower water + 30L laundry water is put to good use rather than going down the drains (that’s a whopping 22kL of water saved every year!).

October 2009 - Irrigation

Last summer we spent a lot of time hand-watering our vegies, and still lost most of them in a couple of heat waves (OK, yes, and the final nail in their coffin was a week when, discouraged by the small harvest, we were just too lazy to water).

We had been talking about ways to do it better this year, and also I was disturbed at the amount of virtually clean water from Eva’s baby bath that we were pouring out each night. So when I spied a pile of polypipe being thrown out on hard rubbish collection it motivated Tyson to build an innovative irrigation drip system.

Initial cost: $26 worth of polypipe fittings and silicone sealant from Bunnings, some thrown out polypipe on verge collection day, an old recycling tub to act as a header tank, broken dining chair for a tank stand, some old shade cloth to keep out the leaves and act as a filter.

Initial time: 3 hours to fit, cut, glue and seal everything together.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: 10 min each morning to empty captured water into header tank. Periodic maintenance eg re-drilling the drip holes when they gunk up.

Impact: No mains irrigation needed to water the vegetables. Also the drip delivery means the water is delivered to the plant right at its roots under the mulch – less evaporation, less sprinkled in the vicinity of the plants to feed the weeds. Much water saved from going down the drain... which leads us to November...

September 2009 - Heat barrier curtain

Our living area is open plan and has no door closing off the passageway, or in turn the laundry, making an unnecessarily large area to heat or cool. Also the laundry has a glass external sliding door that gets afternoon summer sun and pours in heat. This month our sustainable act was to erect a thermal-backed barrier curtain where the laundry joins the rest of the house. If we owned the house we would put a door here, but our landlord will not even allow us to put in picture hooks, so a curtain rod held in place with a pressure spring was the next best option – and much cheaper.

Initial cost: $30 worth of premade curtain, curtain rod, spring fitting and curtain hooks.

Initial time: 10min to measure and cut curtain rod to size, 10min to fit hooks/rings to the curtain, 1min to fit.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero.

Impact: Saves afternoon heat entering the laundry from heating the rest of the house, thus significantly reducing our dependence on air conditioning and making it more efficient when we do run it. The curtain also saves heating the laundry in winter.

Although not part of the month-by-month sustainable acts, it is probably worth noting that Tyson also did two courses this month, one training to do home sustainability assessments and the other looking at decarbonising cities. Educating ourselves and sourcing creative ideas about how to make an impact are both crucial to our attempt at more sustainable living.

August 2009 - Compost

I grew up in a house that composted and have always made at least a token effort to get some food scraps into the garden, but somehow in this house we had never really got it beyond a token effort. This month we improved our system of compost and made a commitment to be better at composting whatever we could. We also used the ten days that baby Eva was overdue to get a hearty spring vegie crop into the ground. Our vegie gardening is not nearly successful enough to be considered an act of sustainable living, as any produce is used as surplus rather than replacing shop-bought goods (with the exception of the herb garden), but being in touch with the soil seems to be good for us. I would rather at least attempt vegies in our small patch of yard than maintain something purely ornamental. Except my native violets, the one thing that I have kept alive from house to house for nearly ten years: irredeemably useless, but pretty!

Initial cost: Zero – we used tubs that we already had around the house. To purchase tubs like we are using would be about $30 per tub. A proper compost bin is around $70 and a tumbler (the best option) starts at about $350 new.

Initial time: Half an hour to rearrange garden and get tubs in place.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: About two minutes a day to put the kitchen scraps into the outdoor compost; Five minutes every few weeks to turn the compost.

Impact: Saving about one kitchen bin worth of rubbish per week from going into landfill. Plus all the benefits for the garden of having good compost ready rather than having to keep buying soil enrichers.

July 2009 - Cloth Nappies

With baby due in August, we chose to purchase cloth nappies rather than go disposable. We chose Baby Beehinds Bamboo Fitted Nappies and are happy with them. We have also set up a system of re-usable wipes – squares of old-style cloth nappy in water with a tiny bit of antibacterial soap, with the water changed every day. 

Initial cost: Around $600 for 24 nappies and 6 nappy covers. We will eventually need some bigger covers but the nappies themselves adjust to be big enough to take a child right through the nappy years. Zero cost for the wipes, as a friend gave them to us (thanks Erica).

Initial time: Zero for nappies. About 10 minutes to set up a workable system for storing wet cloth wipes.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Washing costs of water, electricity and washing powder, and the time required to do one load of washing per day. However, as nappies only half-fill the machine, our own clothes etc go in too and as a result we now do about 8 loads per week where we previously did 3 or 4 loads. Five minutes a day to replace the water and stock it with fresh nappy wipes.

Impact: We are stopping 60 to 70 disposable nappies and about 150-180 wipes per week going into landfill. (Over the course of one baby’s nappy needs, it is estimated parents spend about $2500 on disposable nappies, so we’re making quite a financial saving in the long run also)

June 2009 - Lighting

Our June monthly act was fitting all lights in the house with energy-saver fluorescent light globes. There are 23 light bulbs in our house and we had been slowly replacing them. When we replaced the two in our kitchen dining area the drop in our energy usage was stunning! We still have two small halogen lamps which we try to limit use of, a couple of outdoor lights that we didn’t replace, and the laundry light. The first two we bought were 'cool white', which is very bright - suitable for our kitchen, but not so nice for a reading lamp, for example. After that we mostly purchased 'wamr white', which I much prefer. They don't feel 'fluoro' at all.

Initial cost: Individual globes can cost around $7 each, but we bought in packs of six, which were around $15-$20.

Initial time: About half an hour to go through replacing globes.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero time; ongoing replacement costs (minimal).

Impact: If every light in the house was on previously it would have been using around 1500 watts. Now it would use around 200 watts. Effectively we have dropped our electricity usage for lighting by about 85%.

May 2009 - The Conversation

Our first sustainable action was to have the much-needed conversation about sustainable living that set us on this course, and make the commitment to monthly actions. Does this count as a sustainable action? I think so, as it was an essential precursor to the whole thing. Besides, we only had the conversation in the last week in May, while on holidays interstate, so getting any other action into the month was far too challenging for me.


Global crisis talk overwhelms me. I know that things are not at all good, and yet when the conversations about emissions, sea levels, food shortages, climate change, peak oil, tipping points, food miles, crisis crisis crisis begin I find myself retreating into an inner hiding space, a kind of ‘la la la’ deliberate ignoring of the realities of the world I live in. It all seems too much. Reversing trends to save the planet seems impossible, and being the token few trying to make a difference feels like missing the party while things are good only to be left with nothing when things eventually fall apart. ‘La la la’ is much easier and happier and, frankly, changing my lifestyle just doesn’t appeal to me. I have never harboured desires to be a dreadlocked idealistic earth’s-own activist type. I just want to live peacefully and put my energies into building better relationships with my neighbours, friends and family.

Alas, my husband Tyson has recently completed a Masters in Sustainability. Saving the planet is not just an ideal, it is becoming his profession. Dinner conversations regularly raise global issues – not to mention more than occasional pillow talk that includes solar panels or transition towns or the like. Ignoring the crisis in our house is simply not an option. And, to be fair, it’s not an approach that is satisfying for me, either.

Adding to the tangle is that we live in rental housing, so many sustainable living actions (grey water recycling systems, solar panels, solar hot water systems, water tanks, insulation, etc) are not options for us. I have a long-running frustration about the way talk and action on sustainability generally appears to assume you own your own home, while the very assumption of universal home ownership is in my mind one of the factors driving Australia’s unsustainable lifestyle. Especially the cultural expectations of how large and overfilled with stuff our homes should be.

Linked with our rental accommodation is that our income is relatively small. Spending a lot of money to save the planet may be exactly what governments and big business need to do, but for our little family it is not feasible. There will be no Prius in the drive any time soon!

Several months ago the inner tensions of all this came to a head. Tyson & I had a long and fruitful discussion about how we were going to live. Tyson accepted that I could not cope with the magnitude of change required. I accepted that we need to be doing SOMETHING to live more sustainably. The outcome was that we agreed to implement one sustainable act each month. Indefinitely. These actions are to be cumulative, not sequential (that is, we don’t try one thing for a month then move on – we add an extra thing each month, retaining all that has gone before).

We’ve kept this up for eight months now. I am feeling much more positive about sustainable living as a result. Although I am not quite a green evangelist yet, I thought perhaps others might be able to use ideas from our approach, so have decided to blog them as we go. Also this is a way that I can gather up ideas for future monthly sustainable actions. Please add your suggestions or comments.