21 December 2012

Christmas: small practical steps

We have taken quite a few small steps towards a more sustainable Christmas.

Many many online sites tell me that Australians use 4000 tonnes ('25,000 trees') of wrapping paper each Christmas, although I have not been able to find the actual source of this figure, so the historian in me is tentative about it. This year I have wrapped presents either in fabric pieces and ribbons from my sewing box or decorated brown paper wrap that Eva, along with other children from our church, was involved in preparing. The kids sold it to raise money for TEAR.

I am inspired by the Buy Nothing Christmas movement, but don't want to be quite that disciplined. Our gift giving is small scale: one present each in our household and one for each of Eva's cousins we will actually see (three, this year), and then only if we think of something the recipient will really want. Better to buy something next May that they really want than give them something now just to fill a place under the tree. And no present for the baby: he doesn't need anything, and he doesn't care. Our gifts have little or no packaging (most are books). I didn't blog about gifts back at Eva's birthday, but for that round we purchased Duplo second-hand from Ebay and, among many thoughtful gifts, were particularly thrilled with the play stove made entirely of recycled materials Eva received from her aunt and uncle.

I also liked the sustainable gift ideas posted recently by Tricia at Little Eco Footprints and was inspired to make playdough for a recent three-year-old birthday party Eva attended.
Card by Eva; ribbons cut from some garments that don't need shoulder loops

Because it us super easy and quick, here is my mum's playdough recipe:

1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup salt
1 cup water
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons cream of tartar (the magic that stops it going sticky)
food colouring
disinfectant (we use tea tree oil, a hearty dollop)

Mix all ingredients together in a saucepan. Stir over heat for about 3 minutes, until it starts to stick. Knead out, with more flour or oil if necessary. Store when cool in an airtight container. Lasts for months and months. Extra oil can restore it if it dries out.

Our Christmas tree is a live potted Australian native - Adenanthos sericeus (Albany Woolly Bush) - a gift from Grandma and Grandad (thank you!). We hope to keep it alive for years to come, although we are not extremely successful gardeners. We also have several large woolly bushes in our garden and have in past years made a tree out of prunings from these.
Live trees are not without sustainability issues, but they score better on production, transport and waste concerns.
Our decorations are the same each year. This is how I grew up and it was only in recent years that I discovered people actually buy new decorations each year. I remain baffled at this trend.
Eva and her grandparents also shared making some of our decorations together. Hopefully this is one more activity that will help her understand her own resourcefulness and that she doesn't need to go to a shop and buy something for every occasion.

We are not buying or sending Christmas cards. In fact we rarely buy cards all year, and certainly not if we will be saying nothing personal inside them. I struggle to understand the practice of buying cards with a standardised preprinted greeting and then only inscribing a name above and below the preprint. When a card is warranted Eva makes it for me and I try to make sure the words inside say something about why the recipient is of value to me.

We also don't tend to receive many Christmas cards, so it seems we have something of a 'don't send me a card' vibe about us. Either that or our friends don't really like us ;-)

It probably goes without saying that we are not running Christmas lights all over the outside of our house!

Estimates say we will throw away around 35% of the roughly $10 billion of Christmas food purchased this year. We are bringing the meat for Tyson's family Christmas lunch and have ordered it from  our local corner butcher, which stocks free range and local meats, and fits with my ethos of supporting small local businesses where possible. We have attempted to order an amount we will actually eat, to minimise waste, and will be keeping and re-using any leftovers. The local butcher is more expensive than a supermarket and I am OK with that. 

Its forecast to be 40 degrees (C - thats 104F) here on Christmas day. We won't be at home much on the day and intend  to close the house up early with nothing running. From the hum in the air on hot days it seems many around us choose to leave an aircon going while they are out. If you are celebrating somewhere hot by all means run air cooling where you are gathered (we will be!) but let one aircon serve several gathered families - don't cool homes unless you are actually in them.

And as I wrote yesterday, I'm also trying to change the way we talk about our seasonal celebrations.

Just in case you are left thinking that we are miserable scrooges about Christmas, here are a few pics from our annual Christmas Baking Day, held last weekend, when we revelled in luscious, delicious, gourmet goodies and an abundance of good time shared together, before giving most of the produce away.

two thirds of this year's produce - four more bowls to come

May your celebrations be joyful, your footprint light, and your vision into 2013 hopeful.


Instructions for gift wrapping with fabric

Sustainable Christmas ideas with a few more statistics on what we use and waste in Australia at Christmas: http://www.veolia.com.au/news-media/blog/another-christmas-gone-to-waste  

Planet Ark '12 dos of Christmas' and Festive Season Green Guide - the latter is probably the best and most comprehensive link if you only have time for one.

Someone else's blog post of green Christmas ideas

20 December 2012

Christmas: changing the questions

I struggle with Christmas. For me there are two completely separate festivals, both called 'Christmas' and celebrated on 25 December. 

One is a religious celebration of God sharing God's love by coming into humanity as one of us. This phenomenal miracle is profoundly significant to me and is, in my opinion, appropriately celebrated with prayer, reflection, community gatherings of praise and wonder, story, song and attention to the poor - those for whom God consistently shows the highest regard.

The other festival is a secular celebration of family, friendship and community (although many without family to share with feel the friendship and community aspects are not really celebrated by the majority, and as a result if is often a time of isolation and exclusion). It is celebrated with gift giving, eating and sharing time with loved ones. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a festival I don't feel very connected with. However, as it is a major festival of my culture and my families, I participate. I attempt to do so with good grace. I have a three-year old: I do not want to teach her to say bah humbug just yet.

The place of conspicuous consumption in the celebration of Christmas is disturbing to me for many reasons, not least because it appears contrary to the essence of the religious festival that it runs alongside, and is in my mind evidence of a deep spiritual malaise inherent in western culture. However, in the context of this blog my concerns are around its impact on our earth.

There are lots of practical ways to reduce your Christmas footprint, and I intend to write a separate post about some of the things we are doing here. The thing I am particularly committing to this year, though, is changing the questions I ask children (and others) about their Christmas celebrations.

The questions we ask teach others what we value. The most common Christmas question is What did you get for Christmas? I think this teaches children that we value hoarding stuff, even if in other ways we try to teach them other attitudes. This year I will be trying to not ask this question at all. Instead I will be asking:

Who did you spend time with this Christmas? What did you do together?

What was your favourite present you gave to someone this year?

What stories did you hear told at Christmas?

What did you notice that was beautiful?

And when the inevitable discussion of loot gathered arises: Who gave you [item under discussion]? What is your favourite thing about that person?

This takes no time and costs nothing. I am hopeful its impact is as one of the many feather strokes that form the character of my and others' children.

05 December 2012

Recommiting ready for summer

This is the time of year when a number of our water and energy saving measures need to be reinstated for summer. Doing so involves a recommitment to these actions and, for some, a small degree of maintenance.

So our 'action' for November was not a new action but a recommitment to many previous actions, and in some ways it was the hardest 'action' I have committed to in the three and a half years we have been doing this. Here we go again. Does it never end?? I think life at home with two small children may be shaping that reaction! It is more difficult also, in my experience, to do something again, when it is no longer new and interesting. This is particularly so when it is restarting something that I have failed to continue on with as I originally intended.

After a week of that summer heat smell in the air it was time for Tyson to unroll shadecloths around the house. 

So far we have no new ones this year, but are reinstating all of those from previous years.

One of those along the driveway remains furled as it broke its moorings in winter storms and needs a more permanent hook attached to the bricks to keep it secure. The shock cord for another had also worn through and the rear courtyard shade is definitely not still using the original ocky straps from six summers ago! Overall, though, the shades and their fastenings are holding up well.

The grey water wheelie bin has been brought back into service. I discovered that I cannot get it over the laundry threshold (or if I do I spill quite a lot in the effort) so Tyson sourced some grey water hose to create an extension out the door ($20 for ten metres).

The door obviously doesn't lock like this, but a chock to stop it sliding open any further makes us reasonably confident to leave the washing machine running with its outlet pipe through the back door when we go out.

The original tap connection on the bin had also given us grief last summer, periodically leaking or unwinding itself and falling off, so Tyson purchased a new tank outlet connector (about $8). 

This required sanding the hole for the pipe slightly larger to make it fit, but so far has been a very successful adaptation. The hose we attach to the tap got little holes drilled along it some time last summer to create a drip system for better coverage.

We also put the tubs back into our shower and have grey water on hand again for toilet flushing. This stopped not on account of winter bringing rain, but because somewhere midyear, in late pregnancy, a string of minor ailments over three months had me desperate to change anything that might be contributing and grey water standing uncovered in our bathroom seemed a potential source of winter sniffles. And then we had a baby and I couldn't be bothered with even the small additional effort of gathering and flushing grey water.

The basin in our kitchen sink comes and goes. We are making another attempt at it this summer. Periodically we get fed up with it not getting emptied outside, or getting too dirty, and it is abandoned. Hence it was definitely one of the actions for me that was a recommit, not a routine, as we approach summer.

Costs and times for these actions are detailed in the links above to where I wrote about them originally. Aside from fifteen minutes here or there for maintenance, recommitting doesn't add more time than the original commitment. 

It is much easier, though, to continue with actions that are simply ongoing than to pick up these summer-oriented actions at the end of spring each year. Part of me is tired and thinks oh lets just water with a hose/ flush the toilet/ blast the aircon like everyone else. It was 37 degrees here yesterday (Celsius - that's 100 degrees Fahrenheit, for you in other lands - what some here refer to as 'the old hundred') and the heat made me grumpy. I am home full time with a three year old and a four month old. I get grumpy plenty quick enough all on my own - I don't need any extra grumpifiers! But then... the house kept quite cool most of the day, and when we eventually turned the aircon on (we are not ascetics, after all) I was still grumpy about the heat, so I might as well be sustainable and grumpy. When I look at my reaction, it is being trapped inside that bothers me, and aircon or passive cooling both have that same result. Its grey and raining today... some respite for me to think creatively about ways to get outside as much as possible through summer so I don't get that terrible trapped feeling. Any ideas?

What are you needing to recommit to at present?

24 October 2012

Wiping bottoms the green way

One of our earliest monthly actions was to choose cloth nappies.

We also started out with cloth wipes, but soon gave these up and have had three years of disposable wipes for Eva. We continue to be big fans of the Baby Beehinds bamboo nappies we started out with, and bought another set for baby #2 (Eva's ones are still good but losing some absorbency over time, and in my opinion no longer soft enough for a brand new baby bum). I decided it was time to try again with cloth wipes.
Three years ago we used old terry towelling cloth nappies cut into squares, and kept a day's supply wet in a tub by the nappy change table. Terry towelling was not soft enough, or effective enough when faced with challenging nappies, and the tub of water bugged me. I'm a little embarrassed that it only recently occurred to me to store dry wipers and just wet them when needed.

After a conversation with Tyson's mum about potential fabric for wipes, she generously whipped us up a batch using an old flannel sheet. They are working exceedingly well. I virtually never need more than one wipe per nappy and they wash perfectly. We have also had no outbreaks of nappy rash.

Initial Time: Cutting the sheet into strips, overlocking, then cutting and overlocking as squares, took about an hour (but not of our time - thanks Grandma!)

Initial Cost: Zero - the sheet was old and spare. Old sheets can be found in op shops if you don't have any. Twenty eight wipes used about half a double bed sheet.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: The time commitment is miniscule - only the seconds it takes to wet a cloth, and adding a few small items to each wash load. However, it is important to get your wiper BEFORE lying the baby down and taking off his nappy... I can't tell you how often this simple step trips me up.

Having reusable wipes is a cost saving. At our rate of use, we have spent over $500 on wipes for Eva.

Impact: When using disposable wipes, we used about 10 per day. Over three years, that is around 11,000 wipes. 

The most immediate impact is, obviously, not putting eleven thousand wipes into landfill (they do not flush - the packaging says so, and the way they launder if accidentally sent through with the nappies confirms that they do not break down in water).

Disposable wipes are a blend of plastic and paper, a material the Huggies website calls 'Coform'. This is very slow to break down - some estimates say wipes may take 300 years to biodegrade.

While researching for this blog post I discovered that others use more like twenty wipes per day, and some over fifty (what are they doing?!). That makes 22,000 to 55,000 wipes per baby. In 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available), 297,900 babies were born in Australia. If all use twenty disposable wipes per day, that will be over six and a half billion (6,524,010,000) baby wipes into landfill by the end of 2013 for that cohort of babies alone*. Across Australia that would be about 105 tightly packed cubic metres of dirty wipes. 
However, its not just the landfill volume of disposable wipes that is detrimental. The Huggies wipes we use are made in the USA. This means the finished product has travelled at least 8647 nautical miles (for you, Hanna - 15849 km to everyone else) and probably considerably further. The individual components of the product also had to travel to reach the factory, very likely internationally, giving a considerable carbon footprint to the product.

Disposable wipes also have many additives. Listed on the Huggies box are: Water, Potassium Laureth Phosphate, Glycerin, Polysorbate 20, Tetrasodium EDTA, Methylparaben, Malic Acid, Methylisothiezolinone, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Tocopheryl Acetate.

What are all all these additives for? After entirely google-based research I offer you my best guesses:
Potassium Laureth Phosphate: could not find information to say what this does
Glycerin: lubricant and humectant (helps product retain water)
Polysorbate 20: wetting agent, surfactant, emulsifier (helps mix together normally insoluble liquids)
Tetrasodium EDTA: chelating agent (helps dissolve scale)
Methylparaben: antifungal agent
Malic Acid: tightens the pores in skin to make if feel soft and smooth
Methylisothiezolinone: biocide and preservative.
Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract: also known as aloe vera, it is used as a moisturiser and anti-irritant, although the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness suggest its prime function for Huggies is promotional
Tocopheryl Acetate: preservative, anti-oxidant, moisturiser... because it is Vitamin E to non-chemists.
In short, most of the additives seem to be about keeping baby wipes moist for as long as possible without them going feral.

Even after searching the internet I don't understand what most of the additives are, but I can tell you the majority are synthetic products that appear to be petroleum based. Even those that are naturally occurring (Malic Acid is the acid in apples; Methylparaben is found in blueberries) are not necessarily sourced naturally for commercial use. Methylparaben, for example, appears to be more commonly produced synthetically. More carbon footprint.

While of course all the ingredients have been tested for safety on baby's bottoms in the quantity they are present in nappy wipes, some are toxins in higher quantities. It is difficult to say how concerning this should be. The websites I could find that discuss toxicity all had a slightly hysterical paranoid edge to them, which makes it hard to take even their legitimate concerns seriously, if I could work out which were legitimate. Tests seem to have focussed on the safety of these chemicals at their point of use - that is, for wiping bottoms. I could not find much information about their safety as ingredients of landfill. Concerns have been raised about EDTA becoming a 'persistent organic pollutant', as it is used in so many products - in small quantities, yes, until you add them all together.

All this thinking about bottom wiping also has me asking why I am happy to use cloth wipes for my baby's bottom but not for my own. Poo is poo after all... but I balk at reusing wipes for myself. Is it the chance we might share wipes between the household? What if each family member had their own colour? Separate coloured piles beside each toilet? The main reason I won't go there is because it feels like a leap way across the eccentricity line - no longer 'pretty normal family doing a few interesting things' but into the territory of 'total weirdos who wash their toilet tissue and reuse it...'.

Toilet paper biodegrades, after all, and we use recycled paper. Its a lot of paper, though, which uses water in its production (around 31,000 L per tonne of recycled toilet paper) and has both production (~400kg per tonne) and transportation carbon footprints.

Estimates say Australians use 57 sheets of paper per person per day (20,805 per year) or 94 rolls of paper per Australian household per year. According to the ABS population clock the current populaton here is 22,792,013. Allowing for around 600,000 babies still in nappies, Australia is using about 1.3 billion sheets of loo paper every day, and around 95% of that is NOT recycled paper. On my most recent trip to the supermarket I was appalled to find that all the recycled toilet paper lines had been deleted. I spoke to a floor manager to ensure my concern at this was registered, and went to another store to stock up. I'm not prepared (yet?!) to use cloth wipes for my own toileting, but going the extra mile (well, about 500 metres) to buy and advocate for recycled toilet paper rather than settling for the non-recycled options presented is a commitment I will stick to. Even with two small children in tow who were well over shopping by then and not nearly as sweet about visiting another store as they look in this photo.

Tips from Environmental Working Group on how to navigate confusing lists of chemicals found in 'personal care products' (I love the fancy language used for the vast array of non-essential items sold as essentials in our culture)
Wipe for Wildlife campaign
Wipe It Out campaign
Info on recycling in Australia in general
20 easy ways to be a greener parent - I am proud to say we already do ALL TWENTY at our house!! It was nice to find a list like this that made me feel proud, not guilty, for a change.

* * * * *

* Not all the babies of 2010 will use their thousands of wipes. Despite one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, some babies in Australia don't see out their first three years. One of those 2010 babies was the daughter of dear friends and died at three days old. She will always be missed. I do not take for granted the incredible privilege it is that I am able to make choices about little things like baby wipes for my two healthy children.

More uses for seasonal strawberries...

Just in case jam is not your thing...

The week after our jam adventure we bought more strawberries. Tyson pureed them, strained out the seeds, and froze them. Frozen strawberry concentrate is good for adding to hot porridge, smoothies or home-made icecream.

Now, on to the blog post I REALLY sat down to write... which doesn't have nearly as fun subject matter for photographs...

28 September 2012

Strawberry Jam

Strawberries are in season in Perth. Last weekend we bought two trays (yes, TRAYS) from the farmers' markets and set about our first ever effort at making strawberry jam.

Pic taken by Eva. She's three. I'm impressed.

I liked the idea of making our own jam using bulk seasonal fruit. It was my idea, but Tyson did three quarters of the actual work.

I am blogging about this episode mostly because it was so much fun taking photographs of huge quantities of bright red strawberries. Possibly the only reason one might install a white plastic sink in a kitchen is because it looks good when full of big ripe strawberries.

We bought 7.5kg of strawberries, which once ends were removed and we had eaten quite a few put 6kg of fruit into the pot. Plus 1kg jam setting sugar, 6kg regular sugar and juice of six lemons.

The lemon rinds were cooked in the jam until it started boiling.

After standing at the stove stirring the simmering pot for quite a long time, Tyson told me I should write on this blog that having babies has addled my brain. I think I should translate that as: we are not making strawberry jam again.

Never mind, we have enough from this batch to last us about two years. Final quantity was around 11 litres.

It tastes delicious, even though it is a little runny. It was also good as an icecream topping - hot, straight from the pot.

Initial Time: About 4 hours. About half of this was preparation (washing & chopping fruit, squeezing lemons, sterilising jars, etc) and the other half cooking time. If the pot had not been quite so full we would not have needed to supervise it so closely to prevent it boiling over.

Initial Cost: We picked up two trays of strawberries for $18 (total). Sugar cost another $16. Jars were all recycled containers. As we forgot to pick up lemons from Grandma's we did spend $6 on lemons, but if we had been a tiny bit less forgetful they would have been free.

To purchase 11 litres of jam would cost, I estimate, around $70. If it was quality gourmet jam that figure could double. Making it ourselves is a substantial cost saving, even with over-priced lemons. I have begun giving jars of jam away to people who visit our house, though, so we are not really going to come out vastly ahead.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero. This was a once-off.

Impact: For ages I have had a pet peeve about sustainability blogs that are basically recipe sites, and now here I am writing two blog posts in a row about food. I can only say as I did with the plums: I KNOW this is not saving the planet, but it is one tiny tiny step. It is about shifting our thinking to include more than convenience and price when considering food.

Food sustainability IS an important issue - for reasons neatly summarised at this website. As far as I can tell, jam available in supermarkets in Western Australia is all imported - either from other parts of Australia or from overseas - although smaller outlets probably market the few local gourmet lines. When we committed to buying only WA cheese I discussed issues of sustainability for food transported to Perth, and they apply again here.

There is a certain trendy romance among 'sustainabilty types' (am I one of these?!) about getting into preserving seasonal foods. My mum alludes to another side of the story (and I preface by saying this is all my slightly fuzzy recollection of her stories which I have not checked with her. Mum - feel free to use the comments section to make amendments!). She grew up in rural Victoria, and her grandfather was an orchardist outside Melbourne. He planted a small orchard in their Wimmera backyard to ensure his daughter and her family always had fresh fruit, and they had it in abundance. He would also periodically buy up seasonal fruit that was available cheap at the Victoria Markets (where he sold his own produce) and put a crate of whatever was going on the train to mum's family. What did a rural family of the 1950s do with all this fruit? Preserve it, in a multitude of ways. While there were obviously many happy times shared over fruit preserving, it was not romantic or trendy. It was laborious work, in a hot kitchen, often through hot summer days (so many fruits are in season in summer!). The fruit, not the workers, chose the time of the labours. It was the women who did the work, including my mum and her three sisters. 

Whatever my concerns about unsustainable food practices, over-packaging, transport, preservatives, etc etc, I must remember that convenience is not always a dirty word. Mass production frees me to choose what I want to spend hours on. Women in particular are able to make all sorts of choices my mum and especially my gran could not make. If she were alive today I would hope my gran would never need to bottle another fresh fruit again - and that she might forgive the runnyness of my first over-ambitious attempt to do it myself.

06 September 2012

Freezing plums for winter

We continue to buy our fresh food at the farmers' market, which helps us to shop seasonally much of the time. However, both Eva and I prefer stone fruits in our winter porridge, so storing some for out-of-season eating was required.

Plum season is autumn, so as it came to a close we purchased about 3kg of plums to freeze for winter. That was 21 small plums and 13 large ones. 

They were diced and put into recycled take-away containers in portions each suitable for one serve of porridge. We filled seven containers, equivalent to 42 servings.

Through winter we have been thoroughly enjoying our plum porridge. The plum supply won't last us until summer fruits are in season (our freezer is not big enough for that!) but it has nicely tided us through the bulk of winter.

Initial Time: About two hours. This would probably have been considerably less if Tyson hadn't needed to make the PERFECT segment dividers for our plastic boxes (crafted from carefully measured pieces of plastic box lids)
Initial Cost: 3kg of plums cost us about $12 at end of season - we could have got them for less but chose to purchase organics. Keeping plums in the freezer costs us no extra, as the freezer would be running anyway. In fact, it may even save us money, as a full freezer reduces the amount of air that needs to be cooled (every time the door opens it needs to be re-cooled) and the thermal mass of the frozen plums assists with the overall cooling. 

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Making porridge with Eva helping takes no more than ten minutes in the morning. We don't do it every day, and I could do it in half the time without assistance, but it is a great kids activity in itself so why do it without her?