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.