03 December 2014

Buy local for back-to-school supplies

Recently we went to visit Eva's school for next year and were given our 'booklist' for her first full-time school year ('Pre-Primary', in our system). We have committed to buying our school supplies locally, beginning with this list, and to ordering only what we actually need.

A 'booklist', for the uninitiated, is a list of stationery items that Eva is expected to bring with her on the first day of school, and does not actually include books. It is written with the sort of language you might find on a shopping docket (eg "Pencil Clrd Faber Castell Junior Tri') and the one we received added up to around $90. 

It also carried the company branding 'OfficeMax' and instructions for how to go to this company's website, enter the school name and password, click about three buttons (including credit card details) and have the whole list delivered to your door for a mere $8.95 postage (earlybird) or $18.95 (normal people who don't think about this until after Christmas).  

OfficeMax is an American-owned multinational corporation. Last year there were protests in South Australia when the company was awarded the contract to supply that State's education department's stationery needs, ousting a local cooperative of newsagents that had been supplying for 40 years, with an estimated 30% job loss within the cooperative as a result. 

We also have a fantastic local newsagent, McGhees, owned and run by local people. It might appear smaller than, say, an OfficeWorks store, but McGhees has a much wider range of products: because there is no corporate imperative to chuck away things no longer trendy, and shelves can carry one or two copies of ten or twenty different options, rather than fifty identical copies of the one or two items currently in favour.

Initial Time: Eva and I have started going for regular bike rides together, and this newsagent is a perfect distance and difficulty ride for her at present, so we incorporated our visit into a ride. It took me about five minutes talking to the assistant to give her a copy of our list (having crossed off the items we already have at home) and leave our details. They will call us when the order arrives and we will return to pick it up. If it was not part of our bike ride, the whole exercise may have meant half an hour (two fifteen minute trips) to arrange. But the whole point of buying local is that it is, well, local, so it is likely to be on your way to somewhere else rather than a special trip.

We also placed the order for another family attending the same pre-primary with whom we share buy-local values, so that family's time commitment was zero.
If you happen to live in the same area as us, McGhees has copies of the booklists for all local schools, so you don't even need to remember to take yours with you, and could place an order over the phone (this probably applies to your local newsagent wherever you are).

Initial Cost: McGhees did not have pricing yet for next year, but assured me they generally come close to OfficeMax's quoted prices. Plus there is the cost saving on delivery charges. 

Selecting only what we don't already have saved us about $10. The list might be hard to interpret, but its worth checking: do you really need another library bag? Another pencil case? Eraser? Ruler? Calculator? Lots of stationery items last a lot longer than one school year.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: We have committed to this for the duration of our school parent years: Half an hour a year for the next sixteen years. Eight hours between now and 2030. I reckon we can wear it, even if it blows out to (gasp) double that.

In future years, when I know more parents at the school, I hope to be able to place orders on behalf of a greater number of families, which may involve a little time organising a small collective effort.

Impact: Mega corporations are squeezing out local businesses everywhere. I recently read a fantastic article in The Monthly about the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths in Australia, which covers most areas of basic shopping, including stationery, and is squeezing both producers/suppliers and the small-business competition. An estimated 40% of all Australian retail spending goes to businesses owned by either Woolworths or Wesfarmers (Coles). With stationery, in addition to items available at actual Coles and Woolworths stores, it helps to remember that OfficeWorks, Target, K-Mart and Big W are also owned by the same two companies. Add to that the incredible dominance of foreign-owned OfficeMax, with its branded school-supplies lists, and it is amazing any local newsagents survive. Especially as sales of actual newspapers, the former mainstay of newsagents' trade, are dropping everywhere.

Back-to-school supplies are one of the most important sources of income for newsagents and other stationery suppliers. If we all choose the easy-click option of the 'chosen' supplier our school gives us, these wonderful local stores are in danger of being unviable.

As I described when I wrote about supporting local toy and book stores, buying local has huge social and economic benefits for our community. I happen to know that the proprietors are supporters of the drop-in centre up the road from them, which feeds and cares for the poor in our neighbourhood. The photos above and below show Eva participating in a free art activity that McGhees set up outside the store for the Council's annual Christmas Street Mall. These are just two concrete examples of the positive presence of a good local business.

11 November 2014

Washing machine

When Tyson's sister moved overseas earlier this year, she gave us her washing machine. 

Our previous machine was my first ever white goods purchase, to serve a student house share, and at the time it was relatively water and energy efficient. More than ten years later it was valiantly continuing to serve, but was no longer the most efficient option available - and getting a bit small for a family. (How do such little people make such large piles of washing?!)

In addition to using a more efficient machine, we are also using its multiple function buttons to override its less efficient features. We continue to choose cold water every time, and only run the machine if it is full. We also now have control of the spin speed, and (except on very wet winter days) reduce it from the preset 1000rpm to the minimum 600rpm. It is also possible to end the wash completely before the spin cycle is complete, and I do this when I walk past during the spin.

Initial Time: an hour or two relocating the machine 30km across the suburbs and reinstalling.

Initial Cost: zero (big thanks to Auntie L!)

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Clothes takes a little longer to dry if not spun fiercely for the full cycle - but for at least six months of the year (more like nine) they still dry in a day on the outside clothesline in the sun. In wet months I keep the long spin for nappies and heavy items, but short/600rpm spin for other things.

Impact: The advertised energy and water 'stats' of the new machine - an Electrolux EWF10831 - are about the same as the old (310kWhr/yr warm; 130kWhr/yr cold; 68L per wash).

However, the new machine can take 8kg, rather than 5.5kg. This means that the total number of loads is reduced from 5-7 a week to 3-5 a week, and this is where the big saving comes: the machine is using the same amount of energy to wash 45% more washing. Energy ratings are calculated assuming one wash load per day. If we do four loads a week, we use around 177kWhr/yr. If we do six loads a week, we do around 265kWhr/yr. So, we are potentially saving 188kWhr per year, a reduction of 154kg of carbon dioxide. (That's without any alteration to the spin cycle - we could not figure a way to calculate that)

Our observation is that the new machine uses about 60% as much water per wash. We catch the water, so can make a pretty good guess at this. Previously we used around 85L per wash; now we are using around 50L. Allowing for the reduced number of loads, that's a reduction of around 16,000L per year.

Before you race out and replace your washing machine, however, its worth considering the embodied energy involved: the energy (and water) used to manufacture and transport the machine, including the raw materials used to make the machine. In addition to the obvious plastic and steel, washing machines use copper, silver, gold, palladium and platinum. Although mostly used in small quantities in the machine's electronics, extraction of these metals is considered to have high environmental impacts. Even spread over a ten-year working life, the embodied energy in the production of a washing machine has been estimated at around 16% of its total environmental impact, with its disposal after use another 10%. That is, only three-quarters of the 'footprint' of a washing machine is the energy it uses to wash for ten years - the rest is its manufacture and disposal. Another website suggests a twenty-year life span (optimistic!) and has the embodied energy calculated as 5,681,430,000 Joules (1,578kWhr).

Which leads me to: We have a fully functioning 5.5kg front-loader washing machine to give away. If you or someone you know is setting up house or still needing to transition away from a top-loader, and could help spread the embodied footprint of the old machine over a few more working years, please get in touch.

Update: We gave the old machine away using 'GiveIt' and it is now heading for a family in need.

27 September 2014

Ethics in fundraising

I have made a commitment to work towards ethical options for fundraising in organisations I am involved with, and I'm delighted to share a current buy-local fundraising initiative I have arranged.

Last year, Eva's three-year-old kindergarten did a book fundraiser and bought all the books online. It was cheapest (they claimed). I suggested using our local independent specialist children's book store (Westbooks); the fundraising committee declined, despite the store offering a substantial bulk-order discount.

Later in the year toy catalogues were sent home for two online stores that give a percentage of sales to the kindergarten. I used my catalogue to browse for ideas then took it into our local independent toy store (Toys in the Park) and asked the manager, Jan, to order in a few items for me.

And of course there are the ubiquitous chocolate-sale fundraisers. Twice last year (two different groups) we were asked to sell Cadbury fundraiser chocolates. Both times I politely but firmly declined, on the grounds that I thought it was unethical to raise money to benefit my own children using products known to frequently be produced with the slave labour of other children. Both times I suggested using fair trade fundraising options (coffee or chocolate). One group got so far as to ensure their boxes included plain dairy milk blocks, the only Cadbury fundraising line that is certified Fairtrade, and noted this as a fair trade option in their promotional material.

This year, at Eva's four-year-old kindergarten (McDougall Park Community Kindergarten), I joined the kindy committee. The committee has opted for no fundraising chocolate drive at all. When the topic of online toy catalogues was raised I tentatively suggested approaching local businesses to see if they could offer us a similar deal and was given the go-ahead to at least try.

Both Toys in the Park and Westbooks agreed to assist with our kindy fundraising. I am even more pleased that our kindy committee decided to go with these offers and not send home the toy catalogues at all. (If you would like to participate, details of our fundraisers are at the bottom of this post).

Initial Time: Each time the issue comes around, there is a bit more research, a few emails and conversations, and for the buy-local initiative a bit of extra time in emailing and talking. Maybe an hour or two a couple of times a year?

Initial Cost: Zero. Buying local does not necessarily cost more, especially when the wider economic benefits to the local community are factored into the price. For example, some studies suggest local businesses spend twice as much of their income in the local community as chain-stores do (never mind online purchases, which don't have a local community at all!)

Ongoing time or cost commitment: As above.

Impact: Many, many sources show the social and economic benefits of shopping from local, independent stores: community well-being, healthy local economies, product diversity, better service, local employment, reduced environmental impact (transport costs etc). For books, buying local also supports the Australian publishing industry. For toys, buying from an independent generally means more thoughtfully chosen stock, less plastic rubbish and better quality items.

As for supporting fair trade, I will just refer you to the Fair Trade website, which says it comprehensively. In brief: my lifestyle should not be at the expense of the workers who provide it to me. For a clip on what might be in your chocolate if its not Fairtrade, see Heart of Chocolate.

If our thirty-one kindy families each spend $50 at both Westbooks and Toys in the Park during the promotional month (details below), that would be $3,100 spent locally instead of going into multinational pockets, and $465 worth of books and toys for a fantastic local community kindergarten. Some families are planning their whole Christmas shop to line up with our fundraiser; others won't participate at all; this is a guesstimate! I'll try to post in the comments later in the year what the actual numbers are.

Even when my actions didn't change the fundraising that was undertaken, raising the issue was an eye-opener for most of the people involved in the committees behind the decisions. On chocolate, in particular, most of those involved in choosing to sell chocolates had no idea child slavery was an issue in chocolate production and were grateful for having been informed. I am hopeful this might influence their future choices.


- Three slightly different but overlapping lists of reasons to shop local: One Two Three
- A similar list but with every item referenced to studies providing evidence of the claim (with an emphasis on local vs Walmart)
- Article arguing for supporting Australian independent book stores
Get involved:

In October, shop at Toys in the Park (403 Albany Hwy Vic Park 08 9470 3981 - featured in all the pics on this post) either in-store or online and mention McDougall Park Community Kindergarten and 10% of your sale price will be put towards a credit account for the kindy to purchase resources. If you order online, send an email through the contact form to ensure the kindy benefits from your purchase.

In November, try it at Westbooks for kindy to get 20% of the sale credited (although you may need an appropriate bit of paper in your hand - I am still working on details with the store, who are currently moving premises - contact me in late October if you would like more info)

22 August 2014

Goodbye phone books

Phone books make great door stops.

They also contain lots of contact details for people I don't know and businesses I will never use. So recently we opted out of receiving any for the next five years.

Probably in five years time I will get myself an updated business & government directory (White Pages) and then cancel for another period. I doubt I will ever opt back in to the Yellow Pages.

Initial Time: Five minutes to go online and opt out. Go to https://www.directoryselect.com.au/action/home

Initial Cost: zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: We do use our hard-copy phone books occasionally, and it generally takes a little longer to get the Yellow or White pages up on Tyson's phone than to flip open the book (or longer again if we have to fire up an actual computer) but its a few extra minutes a year. Updating the book every five years instead of every year would be enough to keep it useful.

Impact: Sensis, who print phone books for Australia, is 'proudly carbon neutral', encourages recycling and from what I could find prints within Australia, so it is doing its best. Nevertheless, millions of phone books are printed and delivered every year that are rarely or never used, and however you off-set it or recycle it, that is a lot of unnecessary paper. When the company changed from opt-out to opt-in for residential phone directories a couple of years back only 2% of suburban households requested to still receive books, suggesting a lot of people had little use for the ones they previously had delivered every year. I couldn't find a figure for how many books are currently printed but from various data about percentages in particular areas my estimate is around 15 million phone books in Australia each year. At 800-1000g each, that's approximately 13,500 tonnes of paper. If only 2% are actually wanted or used, that could be reduced to 270 tonnes. Even if I have wildly over estimated, it is still a lot of paper that could be avoided. And that is just the product itself - there are also factors like resources used to run the printing factories, wrap books in plastic, transport them and dispose of them at the end of each year.

(For those not in Australia: every household in this country until recently was supplied for free every year with paper phone directories - some years four fat volumes - as part of the main telephone provider's legal obligations to provide a directory service. White Pages books are alphabetical listings of all registered land-line phone numbers; Yellow Pages are commercial directories that businesses pay to be included in. In the four largest cities, which together account for over half the nation's population, the 'residential' volume is now opt-in, and the others have been stream-lined, but two volumes are generally still delivered)

07 August 2014

Hand warmers and hot water bottle

When working from our home office I have committed to, wherever possible, warming myself rather than warming all the air around me.

The office is often the coldest room in the house and I have spent a lot of time there this winter. Besides wearing warm clothes (including ugg boots) and often wrapping myself in a blanket, I also started to put a hot water bottle under my feet at the desk. I am amazed at how successful this is at keeping me warm. One hot water bottle, wrapped in a towel, lasts a whole work day.

I also purchased hand warmers from our good friend Megan of Granny Funk Crochet.

Sometimes I will also warm a heat pack in the microwave and sit it in my lap for a while in the morning when it is most cold, or if I am working at night. With these aids, I virtually never turn a heater on for the office. I think better with cool air on my face, so these are both sustainability and productivity measures.

Initial Time: Boiling a full kettle for a hot water bottle takes about 5 minutes. Purchasing hand warmers involved some emails with Megan and a few days to wait for delivery.

Initial Cost: Extra hot water bottles purchased recently cost $12.95 each. They now have covers made out of cut up old jumpers, and I also wrap my office foot-warmer one in an old towel - no cost. Hand warmers were $30. Or you could sign up for one of the Granny Funk crochet classes and learn to make them yourself.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Five minutes for the hot water bottle each time. A cost saving due to reducing the amount of energy used for heating (see below).

Impact: Boiling a full kettle of water (1.75L) when the temperature is 10°C uses approximately 661.5kJ of energy, or 0.184kWh ('units' in our system) - 184Wh, or about the same as leaving a 60 Watt light bulb on for three hours. (see my previous kettle post for the formulas). Microwaving a heat pack (wheat bag) uses around 42Wh to give warmth for about two hours.

When all attempts to warm myself with body heat, clothing and a hot water bottle fail, I use an electric oil-fin heater. This is a 1000W device, but as I would never run it flat out and it heats a confined space, the actual use is less than this. If I were to run it for nine hours of work day, it would use approximately 3.5kWh.

Using one boiled kettle instead of the oil fin heater for a day of warmth saves over 3kWh (units) a day, around 2.5kg of carbon dioxide every winter work day. 

Running the reverse cycle air-conditioner in our living area to warm enough house to reach the office is hard to measure, but the office is the far corner of the house from the aircon. A fairly conservative guess would be 5-6kWh per day to use the reverse cycle to heat the office, which is why we don't do that.

27 June 2014

Loft bed

June was Month of the Loft Bed.

If children's excitement could be linked to a battery, we would have been running off-grid all month. 

Tyson built this bed using mostly recycled materials found on verge collection. We gathered up an almost-complete single and queen bed frame. Some of the timber was too deteriorated to use. Other bits were joined together to make stronger posts and the dents and damage marks puttied away.

The sides from the queen bed were added to the single bed. Some additional new timber was also needed.


Tyson worked away at it for weeks, with some help and tool-loaning from his dad. As after five dry months it rained here nearly all of May, we re-purposed the carport (our only covered outdoor area) as a workspace.

Finally the bed moved inside, heralded with unbounded joy by its new occupant. 

And by her small accomplice, who learned to climb the ladder in about ten seconds flat.

This is a step for sustainable living on account of the recycled materials, but also as a way to use our existing space. It can be easy to see an overcrowded room and think it needs to be bigger. Or to anticipate two children big enough for their own big beds (not quite yet but coming soon) and assume they need two rooms. 

The loft bed has transformed a fairly ordinary room into a fantastic play space, with the under-bed area great for cubbies (with their own light!) and the increased floor space inviting more play in general. The lower bed (also an old verge-collection find) is not physically attached to the loft bed, to allow maximum flexibility as needs change. The ladder can also be easily moved, including going over the end if necessary.

Initial Time: Oh well. Lets just say a lot. Tyson has been full-time home dad the past few months and this was his main project, in between parenting, for weeks. Plus there were months of dreaming, thinking, planning, carefully watching the verge, bringing materials home, hiding a single bed frame under another single bed for six months while waiting for more, sketches, measurements...

Initial Cost: $200 for timber and assorted things like sand paper, screws, wood putty, etc. Especially for The Ladder (which is arguably the best bit of it all).

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero. While we could possibly have picked up a second-hand loft bed for around $200 on Gumtree etc, new beds like this cost $800-$1200, so it was a considerable saving.

Impact: Two beds saved from land fill, and equivalent timber, factory overheads, chemicals, transport etc saved from being made into a bed for us. The timber we bought was plantation pine, while many manufactured beds use rainforest timbers. One modest size bedroom has been made to feel bigger. And the joy... 

I'm also posting about it because I'm so darn proud of Tyson's efforts. And because Eva wants photos on the blog to show the bed to her beloved kindy teacher.

PS: I've added an extra photo of our boy playing in the winter sun to last month's post. For those of you in it for the photos.

31 May 2014

Winterise the house

Winter starts tomorrow (although it was cold enough for winter here today). Although our energy-saving efforts have been more directed towards passive cooling in summer, we do a few things to reduce our energy use for heating in winter too. Like wearing warm clothes and ugg boots at home.

That's sheepskin boots all furry on the inside, for those in other parts of the world

May has been the month to roll up the summer shades all around the house. We get so used to them that it has taken several goes, as we kept noticing one or two more we've forgotten. We added even more shades this summer - a big one along the southwest wall (Eva's bedroom) and a much improved one on the eaveless northeast bathroom window. 

Eva & Tyson building the new shade last November

As a result of all our passive cooling efforts, we only turned the airconditioner on for four hours all summer (half of that on the morning when it was already 39°C at 9am).

For winter we lay down an extra carpet to more than double the covered floor space in the living area. This gets morning winter sun and is a lovely place to play. 

We don't have a dryer. We line-dry our clothes outside any day we can, and use an indoor clothes rack on wet days. This gets sat where sun comes inside, or in the bathroom with a pedestal fan blowing on it. 

Our hot water system has its outdoor pipe insulated so that we don't lose so much heat into the cold winter air. I try to use the tap closest to the hot water system (laundry tap) when running warm water for things like wipes, to reduce how much water and gas is wasted getting just a bit of warm for what I need.

When I am working from home, I wear ugg boots and wrap in a blanket rather than having a heater in the office.   

Eva pretending to be me at work - note the full-body blanket wrap, my characteristic work attire

Perth has a mild winter, but can have comparatively cold nights. We often open all the windows during the day to get warm midday air inside. On really nice days, we put the bathroom and kitchen extractor fans on to draw in the warm outdoor air.

Around sunset, we close all the windows and blinds, especially if the oven is on, so we can trap daytime and cooking heat in the house overnight. We pull the heat barrier curtain to separate the laundry from the living spaces we are trying to keep warm. We have weather sealed the front door to keep drafts out. On really cold evenings we sometimes run a heater for a couple of hours after dark. Very occasionally. When its the reverse-cycle air-conditioner we set it to 19°C.

The children take a heat-pack or hot water bottle to bed on cold nights, as well as wearing warm jarmies and socks and having good thick covers. We don't have any heating running overnight.

I've written about most of these measures before, and a lot of them are pretty basic common sense. I recognise that in some colder climates, these measures would not be enough to keep you warm - but they might be a good start. I also acknowledge that I prefer a cooler house, and some of our friends do come to evening events at our home with coats to wear inside. They are quite happy with that arrangement.

Don't let the cold stop you jumping on the trampoline (fully rugged of course)

Initial Time: half hour to take up the summer shades; five minutes laying the winter carpet down

Initial Cost: zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: five or ten minutes a day opening and closing blinds etc; ten minutes per washing load pegging it out. As our winterising measures save energy, they also save us money.

Impact: We barely use heating in winter. We maybe turn a heater on 10-15 days in the year, and then only for an hour or two. If we were to run our 2.5kW reverse-cycle airconditioner as a heater for 1-2 hours every night through winter (still a lot less than many people in Perth), we would use approximately 230kWhrs of energy (230 'units'). If we turn it on only 15 times, we use approximately 37.5kWhrs. That is a saving of about 158kg of carbon dioxide.

A reasonably efficient clothes dryer uses around 3.5kWhrs per load. A pedestal fan can run for 20 hours before it reaches 1kWhr, but usually about twelve hours is enough to dry a washing load. Even at 20 hours, that's a saving of around 2kg of carbon dioxide per washing load.

[In WA at present, each kWhr of electricity uses 0.82kg of carbon dioxide, down from 0.992 four years ago. NSW & Qld levels are about the same; Vic is much higher (heavy reliance on brown coal), SA is lower (lots of wind farms); Tas is nominal (mostly hydropower)]

For blog readers in the northern hemisphere about to step into summer (bless you, I don't know who you are but apparently lots of you are reading this blog!): here's a bunch of posts about passive cooling measures: recommitting for summer; various temporary measures; pelmets; shading; more shading; shading again; grapevines for shading; shed vents and more shading; heat barrier curtain; bits & pieces;