14 February 2011

The 'No Rubbish' Challenge

We've just returned from two weeks in Victoria with my family. My brother and his wife, who have a two year old and are expecting a baby next month, are attempting to produce NO household rubbish. My immediate thought was that this must be part of one of those internet/social/group 'challenge' things but no, they just decided it was something important for them to do. They recycle, compost and reuse. Anything that can't be used in one of these ways they try not to purchase. They said they are getting it down to about half a kitchen bin per week of rubbish.

What impressed me about their effort was that the thinking involved came not so much at the point of throwing away but at the point of purchase. They take tupperware containers shopping and buy whatever they can loose by weight rather than in a packet. They seek out brands that are in recyclable packaging - pasta, for example, is available (at a higher price) in cardboard boxes. They bake their own bread. They don't buy some items that can't be sourced rubbish-free. They visit several shops to get what they want rather than settling for the rubbish-wrapped options at a single store. Its amazing how much rubbish you can avoid if you put your mind to it. Perhaps its a little easier if you live, as they do, in East Brunswick, with all the unusual shops and food sources around that neighbourhood, but options other than Coles and Woolworths are within reach of most suburban dwellers now. I didn't ask them how they get on with kids toys (although they buy many of these second hand, so I guess that means no wrapping) or things people give to them. I am discovering that the packaging that comes with kids' toys is outrageous! And much if it arrives in our home as part of the generosity of others.

Currently our rubbish is at about one bin bag per week. We haven't taken on the no rubbish challenge as yet, but it has made us more aware of the rubbish we are producing and we are doing our best to keep it to a minimum.  Being at my brother's house where I felt like the bin had a big 'do not use' sign on top also made me aware of how often I do things like put tissues in the bin instead of the compost, empty little bits of scraps (the end of Eva's dinner, the sink strainer, etc) into the regular bin instead of the compost, or put recyclables like toilet rolls into a regular bin because I am at the wrong end of the house to be near the recycling when I am throwing them away! I'm cutting down on these little things at least for now. Addressing what I buy will hopefully come a little at a time. We do use cloth bags, reuse all plastic bags we acquire, and avoid bags completely for much of our fruit and veg... but I'm not yet at the stage of paying more for my pasta etc so I don't get it in a plastic packet, or avoiding altogether foods that only come packaged.

... and while I'm talking about being inspired by other people having a go at sustainable living, I was put onto this blog recently http://littleecofootprints.typepad.com/ which I am finding challenging, inspirational and fun.

Jan 2011 - Does it need to be washed? Does it need to be hot?

In January we had a water main replaced in our street. Aside from many hours of entertainment for Eva watching diggers, trucks, concreting, workers etc right in front of our house, it also gave me cause to reflect on how I use water. We were asked to turn our water off for a day. This required us saving water to use during the time it was turned off, including putting a bucket of water in the kitchen sink to use for the various bits of washing we do all day. I was confronted by how often I just reach for the tap without thinking, and as a result the first part of my sustainable act for January was to become conscious of tap use and try to ask the question: does it need to be washed? For example, I found I washed mushrooms and carrots I was going to peel anyway, and rinsed vegetables from our own garden that I knew for certain had never been touched with a pesticide.

Because our sink has one tap that swivels between hot and cold, it is often left in the hot position. I takes a while for hot water to come out, so I had got into the habit of turning it on whichever position, doing the quick rinse I needed before the hot got there, and turning it off. In effect I was heating water all day that I didn't even want to have hot. Also I was doing things like putting hot water into the nappy bucket, which at best would affect one nappy before it cooled off. So the second part of my January resolution has been to ask myself: does it need to be hot? 

The third part of this action has been putting a bowl into the sink to catch rinse water, and emptying it onto the garden through the day. Last time we attempted something like this we used a fairly large wash tub and the water got gross quite quickly, so we gave the practice away after a while. I'm finding a smaller container (about 2-3L at a guess) gets full before it gets dirty.

Initial Time: Just some effort to think about my actions. Emptying the bowl takes about 2 minutes each time - more like 30 seconds if I water the potplant right by the back door! Even with this tiny amount of time, it is still so tempting to just tip the water down the sink sometimes. How lazy is that?!

Initial Cost: Zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: The bowl-emptying is an ongoing time commitment that adds up to at most 15 minutes per day. I am considering putting a small sign near the kitchen tap that says 'Does it need to be washed? Does it need to be hot?' to help me remember my commitment.

Impact: Tyson tells me 1 unit of energy will heat about 16L of water in a domestic hot water system, give or take a couple to allow for the miriad of varying individual factors (which let me assure you he CAN AND WILL explain to you if you let him!). I get close to using that amount of water in dribs and drabs through the day, especially keeping up with wiping up after Eva. If all of that water I am allowing to heat but not using as hot water, because it just gets into the pipe and cools until I next turn the tap on for a quick burst, by paying attention to turning the tap to cold I am saving 1 unit of energy a day - 3.6 megajoules.
Being conscious of the questions means I am using less water. Also, because there is relatively clean water in a bowl in my sink most of the day, I turn the tap on less - so often I just need to dip  my fingers in the bowl for a quick rinse and that's enough.

Christmas Baking Day

Christmas Baking Day is an annual baking extravaganza held at our house. This year we had about 22 people, other years it has got up closer to 30. Kids and adult come together. It includes a wide range of friends and family, many of whom don't know each other as we have so many circles of contact from which to invite people. I provide all the ingredients, and I make people work really hard all day baking gourmet biscuits and confectionery. There is a lot of chocolate involved and, I discovered this year, a lot of nuts (amazing what a friend with a nut allergy will bring to light!).


Is this a sustainable act? We use the oven for up to 6 hours straight and make the poor fridge work harder than it does any other day of the year. However, our energy bill for the period didn't have a spike, so this musn't be too much of a strain on our overall usage total. We end up with quite a lot of packaging rubbish, but we re-use washed and saved take-away containers (saved all year) to package up the resulting goodies. Many of the ingredients I cannot guarantee are fair trade. The chocolate in particular (this year close to 5kg worth) is not fair trade sourced - mostly because I have not found a fair trade source for decent cooking chocolate that melts and resets appropriately. 

The reason I have included Christmas Baking Day as part of this blog is that I believe it does contribute towards sustainability in a number of perhaps more subtle ways than changing light bulbs or taking shorter showers.

Firstly there is the basic good of many people coming together to share work, food and conversation. I see Christmas Baking Day as a living experience of what might happen if we let down our barriers a bit and got involved in each others' lives - stuff I consider essential for living sustainably together on our planet. 

The Day also contributes to sustainable thinking about Christmas, as it provides nearly all of what we give as gifts, and models to others a way to make gifts with our own hands, rather than buying manufactured items. We don't wrap the biscuits we give out, and many of those who bake bring their own container to take their share home in. 

Over many years I have also overheard some quite remarkable conversations taking place around the baking tables, including friends opening up concepts of justice, equality and the mess we have our world in with others who have had less experience of these issues. It seems such conversations are easier to have while working alongside one another elbow-deep in chocolate - perhaps less threatening? Perhaps less needs to be defended? 

And then there is the value of sharing an experience of abundance and generosity. Not just that we are being generous in offering to our friends the space and the ingredients, and most of the produce, but the generosity of our friends in giving us their time and friendship and hard work and joy, all of which are essential to the day. Generosity I think is also essential for sustainable living.

Finally I think it is important to demonstrate that living sustainably doesn't mean being misers and doesn't mean having no fun. I suspect some of our friends or family sometimes think our life choices and attempts to live sustainable must make our life awfully drab, tight and limited. Grey. Christmas Baking Day is the antithesis of grey, and I delight in sharing that with my friends, especially those who think our lifestyle is perhaps just a little odd.

Initial Time: About 4-5 days. We rearrange our entire living space to fit in 20+ bakers. Sorting out an ingredients list and doing the shopping is another day. The actual day is a marathon beginning about 8am and often not finishing until we collapse into bed about 10pm. Delivering goodies afterwards takes varying amounts of time depending on how far away people live this year. Lets just say that cleaning up a living space after it has hosted 20+ bakers, including children, is no quick nick around with a broom either!

Initial Cost: Around $300.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: zero (until next year...)

Impact: I guess that's what I've been trying to tease out above. Also I think I put on a couple of kilos each year in the week following...