31 December 2016

Gumboot pots and Paper chains

Want to make your house pretty without consuming more, find creative activities for children that don't involve buying more, and/or re-use some of the stuff around your house that is no longer wanted? Here are two ideas that do all three.

Gumboots! There are so many cool kids' ones around but, no matter how funky, they still wear out or (if you're lucky) kids grow out of them. What to do with all that rubber-plastic prettiness?

A few spring flower punnets and an hour of working together and we have had these decorating our entrance for the last two months.

Although we did buy potting mix, more than half the soil was made up of our own compost. (We have three compost tumblers and our guinea pigs contribute substantially to this enterprise!)

Five of these six gumboots drained sufficiently without any help; the sixth needed a couple of holes added. Summer has nearly killed them off now and direct sun has faded the gumboots significantly, but we may get second season out of them and meanwhile, it has been a lot more fun than just binning them.

Your children might not rip through gumboots at quite the rate we do, but if you have anyone small in your house you are certain to have a pile of kids' artwork mounting up. And old posters. Calendars. Wrapping paper. (Most people I suppose have junk mail or magazines, but we don't receive them here)

Eva got inspired to make paper chains for Christmas and it was a great use for the build-up of paper.

Because they were using their own old artworks and posters they were willing to 'repurpose' things that I had not been allowed to throw away (sneaky, huh?!).

Note the hole-punching above. If you have someone who loves hole-punching, its not a bad way to add interest to strips from old calendars while keeping those hole-punching-hands from less productive outcomes.

They both loved making the chains and I am happy to have our living room decorated by their creativity and enthusiasm.

Initial Time: Both of these activities took about an hour. That was part of the point. We have no TV and its school holidays again. Creative, engaging, sustainable activities are what we need plenty of here. (I last wrote specifically about this when Eva was quite small but if you search the labels below for 'free kids activities' there are also other places it has come up as she has got bigger)

Initial Cost: Gumboot pots: about $30 for seedlings and a bag of potting mix; Paper chains: a couple of dollars for a big box of staples.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: We will eventually have to take both these things down and they will ultimately end up in the recycling (chains) or the general rubbish (boots).

Impact: It is impossible to really calculate an impact for these activities and, to be honest, it would probably be quite small anyway. But both are little bits of a bigger picture: finding ways to reuse everything until it really is beyond use, rather than chucking it out after its first purpose; avoiding buying stuff to meet a need (and considering whether it is in fact a need at all); helping children to be creative; celebrating colour and beauty and natural things; finding the quality in our own creative effort rather than needing a professional or 'perfect' outcome (often with associated waste) in order to be happy; sharing activities together and working collaboratively on a combined project.

25 November 2016

A visit to the super composter

This 'sustainability action' was one to educate ourselves.

We were given the opportunity to join a group from Uniting Church in the City for a tour of the Neerabup 'Resource Recovery Centre', which is operated by Mindarie Regional Council. Basically, it is a huge composting plant, taking the waste from general (green lid) rubbish bins and processing it to extract organic matter and make it into usable compost.

If this doesn't sound like fun to you, ask any pre-school child how they would like to see where the bin trucks go with our rubbish.

Our small boy was beside himself with excitement; our big girl was jealous because she had to go to school instead. The word 'grapple' entered our basic vocabulary and play.

The Mindarie Regional Council serves the local government areas of Wanneroo, Stirling, Perth, Joondalup, Cambridge, Vincent and Victoria Park. However, the bulk of the waste taken to the composting facility comes from Joondalup, Vincent, Wanneroo and Victoria Park. The facility processes 100,000 tonnes of waste a year; the seven councils that make up the MRC together put about 160,000 tonnes of waste into our general rubbish bins, so quite a lot still goes straight to landfill. About 30-40% of the tonnage received at the facility comes out as compost; the non-organic remainder also ends up in landfill. So, there is still lots of behaviour-change work to be done, but 30-40,000 tonnes of compost each year diverted from landfill is a great thing.
half the giant compost tumbler - waste takes three days to get through it

Here's the page that explains how the 'Resource Recovery Facility' actually works to extract compost from general rubbish. Or here for the commercial version.

Initial Time: Half a day

Initial Cost: $10 for the bus.

Tours are offered free, but you need to book. Here's the website with details for various tour options (I have heard there is more rubbish truck action at Tamala Park landfill, if entertaining children is part of your brief). Our tour was run by the inimitable Peg Davies, who I think does a great many of them. She really knows her stuff.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Continued sorting of rubbish into regular or recycling bins, with greater attention to keeping glass and ceramics out of the regular bin.

Impact: I learnt a lot. I also found it really encouraging to see the efforts being made to keep organic matter out of landfill. It helps me to keep doing our little things when I see organisational attempts at bigger things like this.

removed section of composter
The biggest learning was the call to keep glass and ceramics out of general rubbish. Put them in the recycling, broken or not. Glass in the compost is a major problem, because it is nearly impossible to completely sieve it out. I had not taken the notices about keeping glass out of general waste very seriously, because I couldn't conceptualise how general waste could be turned into compost anyway. Now that I have seen it in action I get it: If you live in Wanneroo, Stirling, Perth, Joondalup, Cambridge, Vincent and Victoria Park DON'T PUT GLASS IN YOUR GREEN-LID BIN. Thanks.

If you are in the East Metro Regional Council - Bassendean, Bayswater, Belmont, Kalamunda, Mundaring and Swan - planning for a similar facility at Redhill is underway, aiming to be operational by 2019. So when the 'no glass' notice comes around, take it seriously! 

If you are in another area - how about writing to you local council to let them know that you think these places are a good idea?

23 September 2016

Tip Shop

As our gorgeous girl approached her 7th birthday we decided her present would be a bigger bike.

Friends had mentioned that these were often available at the tip shop, so we set off to find a suitable machine to hide in the birthday wrapping (cloth, of course - which is much easier to wrap a bike in than paper would have been!)

We found a treasure-trove of bikes and much, much more.

The inside section was much like any op-shop, only with more electrical goods and hardly any clothes. A whole rack of vacuum cleaner cords, and a multi-level shelf of cordless drills. But the yard outside had everything you could possibly imagine.

Bathroom hardware? Check.

Law mowers? Check.

Screen doors? Check.

Internal workings of a life-size dinosaur model? Check.

Initial Time: Road trip to the tip shop: half an hour each way to reach the City of Armadale's Canning Vale tip shop. Time taken walking about resisting all the other good stuff: at least an hour. 

Initial Cost: One kids' bike in good condition cost us $10. Those in poorer condition were only $5. We stored the bike at Tyson's parents for a few weeks so it would be a birthday surprise and I believe Grandad quietly did some renovation works while it was there, which likely included a small cost for materials and some time but I don't know how much.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero. However, we will be considering donating items to the tip shop in future if they are not picked up before the truck comes on chuck-out day. I would like to have someone take them off our lawn for free, but once that truck comes they are crushed into landfill refuse, so better to reclaim them and take them somewhere they could be reused.

Impact: Australians, as I have noted before, each generate around one tonne of rubbish every year. Our rate of waste generation is increasing more than six times faster than our population growth. We desperately need to turn this around. The good news is that since 2005, in most parts of Australia, the total tonnage being sent to landfill has reduced, as rates of recycling have increased over the last ten years. (April 2016 article). However, these statistics should be held cautiously as firm figures on waste are very difficult to obtain and nothing solid on the matter has come out of the ABS for over six years.

I have known people for years who pick up 'treasures' at the tip and have always privately thought this a little kooky. My mental image has been something about rummaging through dirty piles to bring home broken things. Our visit to the tip ship was enlightening: it was clean, things were sorted neatly and although some things needed repairs on the whole items were in fair to good condition.

Basically we all need to both consume less and waste less. Supporting tip shops does both.

Where to find a tip shop:

Find where your local government sends rubbish to (it may not be near to you) and check if there is a tip shop associated with it. In Perth, your options are:

Canning Vale/ Armadale Lot 600 Hopkinson Rd Hilbert, Thurs-Sun, hours vary.
Cockburn/ Henderson 920 Rockingham Rd, Fri-Sun and public holidays, 8-4pm
Tamala Park/ Mindarie 100 Marmion Ave Tamala Park, Fri-Mon, 8-4:45pm
Balcatta/ Stirling (includes a cafe) 238 Balcatta Rd Balcatta, Mon-Sun 7:30-4pm

East Metropolitan Regional Council reports they are three years into a project to expand their facility at 77 Lakes Rd Hazelmere to include a re-use store, but this does not appear to be operating as yet.

24 August 2016


I live in my jeans. I work from home and often wear jeans every day of the week.

So when all three pairs came through the same washing load recently with irredeemable holes it was a small-scale clothing crisis. I had mended and patched my jeans many times over, but they had gone beyond repair. 

I have been vaguely aware that jeans have many levels of ethical concern. I decided that as this is an item of clothing I rely on so heavily, it was time to research properly and find ethical jeans. 

According to the Shop Ethical website, there are at least six areas of potential concern around jeans: transparency in the supply chain, use of sweatshops overseas, use of underpaid Australian outworkers, forced child labour in cotton production, excessive pesticide and insecticide use in cotton production, and toxic sandblasting in preparing denim. It was quickly apparent that if I wanted to attempt an ethical purchase on all six fronts I would need to purchase from a small operator, almost certainly online. If I wanted to walk into a store and buy jeans over the counter my best option looked like being Jeanswest (pretty good on addressing labour and supply chain issues; not so good on the pesticides/insecticides/sandblasting issues). 

The options I found online that looked reasonably sound were: Kuyichi (from the Netherlands), Nudie Jeans (Sweden) and Monkee Genes (UK). Australian brands Denimsmith and Nobody Denim (both Melbourne) are each accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia. However, this considers workers pay and conditions but not broader environmental considerations.

The only problem was: none of the jeans available through these companies was a style I was prepared to wear. The trend at present is for super slim legs and I am not of a build that takes kindly to skinny styling. Where I could find some looser designs the fabric was artificially 'aged' with fake wear and tear. Having spent plenty of time patching worn or torn knees I can't come at buying clothes with holes in them, however stylishly arranged.

In the end I chose to visit an op shop. There I found jeans in a size and style that suited me. Perhaps they were originally made in sweatshops using cotton doused in pesticides and picked by child slaves, but my money did no support any of those things: it went to the St Vincent de Paul Society, who provide services for the poor. Further, by supporting op shops I am encouraging recycling of clothing, hopefully reducing the demand for the blood-sweat-and-poison soaked clothing of mainstream stores. (Is that too dramatic? Over 10% of the world's pesticides and nearly 25% of its insecticides are used in growing cotton, of which jeans are made; in Uzbekistan, the world's 5th largest cotton exporter, the government enlists children as forced labour to harvest the material; thirteen other cotton-producing countries also use child labour, with children reporting health issues as a result of exposure to pesticides; silicon used in sandblasting denim causes emphysema; in sweatshops throughout Asia underpaid workers are crowded into unsafe conditions to sew Western clothing and periodically these conditions kill them)

Initial Time: researching online took a couple of hours; visiting the op shop took about half an hour. I find the lack of choice liberating: there were only about seven pairs of jeans in my size in the store; three were acceptable so I bought them. Simple.

Initial Cost: Had I been able to find a style that suited me, the online ethical options had jeans from about $100, with a wide selection around the $120 mark. Buying at an op shop is of course a cost saving. However, as I can afford to pay more than $4 for my jeans, I also made a donation to the store above the shelf price. It was still a lot cheaper than buying jeans new.

Ongoing time or cost commitment:
It is now over three years since I committed to twelve months of buying only ethical clothing for myself. In that first year I bought one jumper and a couple of bras. In both instances I used the Shop Ethical Guide to check that my purchase wasn't from a company with terrible human rights records, but I didn't got out of my way to chase up the most ethical option. I had some worthwhile conversations with shop assistants about ethics in clothing, raising issues with them that they had never had customers ask before. Those conversations were probably more important than the impact of where my dollars were spent.

Taking action about jeans is an outworking of that earlier commitment and will hopefully lead to other related actions.

Since the first year I have bought a few items from op shops, a few rounds of unconsidered underwear, and some clothes from Kathmandu (a big chain doing pretty well on several fronts: workers' pay and conditions, source of materials, and reducing packaging) and Nomad Gnome Fremantle (a local store personally sourcing from ethical small producers in Nepal). All up my 2013 commitment has, as I anticipated at the time, meant I have spent far less time and money overall on buying clothes. Never a big clothes buyer anyway, my acquisition is down to a trickle. It makes me happy not to be overfilling my wardrobe.
Nomad Gnome shirt with Op Shop jeans

It will be a few years before I need to buy jeans again, but I am committed to having another go next time at finding something ethical that I am also happy to wear, even if it means paying a little more (perhaps fashion will have changed by then). In the meantime I will tell my slender friends about the great online ethical jeans options they have available to them!

Impact: This has mostly been discussed above. I recommend the Shop Ethical Guide's discussion of ethical issues for denim (click arrows for detail on each issue) - this explains things clearly and concisely, so I have not repeated most of it here.

One area not mentioned is packaging. This is a concern of mine with online shopping, as everything seems to come packaged in plastic to ensure it arrives safely. Any store that is not producing on site is likely to use packaging in transporting goods - the more stages in the production, the more rounds of packaging. I put my unwrapped purchases in my bicycle basket to get them home: zero packaging.

And of course the carbon footprint of transporting from farm to fabric production to clothing production to warehouse (usually multiple stages of) to store is not insignificant either. Clothes at Vinnies may have been moved around the city a couple of times from donation bin to sorting centre to store, but its hardly comparable with the way new clothes criss-cross the globe, as raw materials, fabric and finished products. Opting for an op shop meant drastically reduced carbon footprint on transport and almost zero waste on packaging.

28 July 2016

New winter carpet

Winter has again seen us working at staying warm without turning on heaters.

Our winter floor covering had been getting increasingly threadbare. Last year we insulated it with a layer of padding underneath, cut from the base of a single bed that was on its way out (having been with me for about 30 years). This layer did help, but it covered only part of the area, and didn't address the holes developing in the old rug. When friends offered us a replacement rug that they were disposing of we jumped at the chance to upgrade.

With a nice thick layer to catch morning sun warmth and insulate us from the cold of the tile floor, we have been enjoying playing on the lounge floor with no additional heating. 

We also added carpet offcuts under both the lego table (the central item in our living space) and the dining area, which have added to the winter floor insulation. The thick white one under the lego table also cries out for cubbies to be made under there - a call to which the children readily respond. 

A few years back we had a go at carpet offcuts under the dining table. After one season they got shabby and didn't return the next year. It is a challenge storing them through summer. Hopefully we can manage it this year, but if not it is possible we could just get a fresh round of carpet pieces each autumn, as they are destined for waste anyway.

Initial Time:  ten minutes of lifting furniture to lay the rugs/ carpet pieces

Initial Cost: zero - carpet offcuts are free behind the carpet store; the lounge rug was a second-hand gift.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: ten minutes when the weather warms to take up and store floor coverings. If satisfactory storage for the carpet offcuts can't be found, there will be time next year making a trip to pick up some more from the carpet store - no more than half an hour, as it is not a long way to go.

Impact: Our most recent electricity bill, for May and June, showed we had used an average of 6.2 units (kWh) of energy per day, down from 6.6 units per day for the same period last year and 8 units per day the year before (but the previous three years we were in the 5.8 to 6.1 range, so it has not been all improvement!). By comparison, the average household use in our neighbourhood is 11.9 units a day, and 'similar houses' record an average of 13.1 units.

We have turned on the heating (reverse cycle airconditioner) I think twice so far this winter, each time for about an hour to take the chill off. Carpets are just one of the range of measures we take to warm ourselves without using electricity (see also May and August 2014 posts)

He has mittens on because they were new and he was enjoying them, not because the room was freezing. He was also bare foot when I took this picture.

08 July 2016

Special birthdays

When Tyson turned forty in June we wanted to celebrate him well, without massively increasing our footprint. 

The main agenda was to gather people together and enjoy each other, with good food. But here are a few things that also had an eye to our sustainability commitments:

We asked for gifts of sustainability actions in lieu of presents, and were touched by how many friends offered Tyson some idea of what they are doing to live within our earth's means. Some made new commitments; others reiterated choices already made. I was particularly moved by one (slightly) older friend who gifted to Tyson her decision to make more use of public transport, along with an invitation to ask her how it was going and an admission that the idea of using public transport scared her a bit. The traditional photo board included space for people to add notes about their sustainable choices.

Cooking one big roast dinner for sixty people used less energy than all those households cooking their own roast dinners at home (and was more fun!). We used about 15kWh of energy for cooking; a household roast dinner takes around 2kWh. The meat was free-range pork.

We borrowed cutlery and crockery from Tyson's parents to reduce our use of disposable items. We still have a pile of disposable plates, cups and cutlery in the cupboard from before we really got moving on this sustainability journey, some of which have been reused and returned to the cupboard several times, and these bumped up the numbers, along with some compostable plates. (I have my doubts about how they compost, though - I tore them into quarters and soaked them in water for a week and they were showing no signs of breaking down or being suitable for our compost any time soon!) Despite me encouraging guests to leave the dishes for us to run through the dishwasher in big loads the next day, a happy team got going in the kitchen and cleaned them all for us. They really did seem to be having a great time in there. Perhaps for some this was their sustainability 'gift', but most I think just enjoyed talking and laughing while working together.

We minimised our use of gladwrap and alfoil. So often at parties or events these are used to cover food for quite short periods of time. Instead, we used baking trays to cover salads.

We labelled our bins and encouraged people to separate out compost, recycling and genuine rubbish.

Eva made her own decorations. We also re-used the cloth bunting made for us by a friend last year, and ran one string of LED fairy lights.

Cards were home-made. The two gifts we did purchase were wrapped in cloth, one from each of the children. (We are not scrooges; its important our kids experience both giving and receiving. We encouraged them to be involved in choosing gifts that suited Tyson, to help them learn to think of someone other than themselves) The cordless drill set in particular will be put to use to facilitate many future projects along our sustainability journey.

Two weeks later my dad turned eighty, on the opposite side of the country. We celebrated by all my siblings (five of us) gathering, along with spouses and children, to share a holiday in the Grampians with my parents. The emphasis, again, was good time together. Bushwalking. Eating. Talking. Cuppas. A visit to the farm where Dad grew up. Grandkids' shenanigans. Reading books. Spotting wildlife. My gift was to arrange for my sisters and I to sing a couple of songs for Dad.

However, as we don't live near each other (not even all in the same country) a very great amount of fuel was used to bring us together. Would we have had less environmental impact if we had all sent my dad expensive presents instead? Maybe. But we would not have celebrated him well, and we would not have modeled for our children that people are always, always more important than stuff. 

Happy birthday to two of the finest men in my life.  

Some of the sustainability actions Tyson was gifted:

And finally from our small man, a gift not of sustainable actions but of hope: