Mulching The Garden

Over the summer months, we conducted an experiment with our pumpkin plants. They’re all planted in two large garden beds that are directly beside each other. The plants have the same amount of sunlight, irrigation, rain water and shelter from the fence. The only difference was that one half were mulched thickly with bark and wood chips, and the other half were left to grow in the bare earth.

At first there didn’t seem to be any noticeable difference between the plants with and without mulch. They grew at a similar rate, and we lost a similar number of the transplanted seedlings to the same problems in each bed. A bit discouraged by the initial mulching results, and deterred by the increasing heat, we abandoned the mulching project as a failed experiment.

Then we hit a heat wave.

We would turn on our irrigation system at night, and within a few hours of the sun rising in the morning our pumpkins without the mulch were limp and wilting. Beside them, the pumpkins that were mulched provided a dramatic contrast. I would pour buckets of water on the wilted ones and they would revive for a while, but by the evening they were wilting again. The pumpkins with the mulch, which had not received any water in the morning, were still lush and strong.

Growing pumpkin.With every round of punishing summer heat, the difference between our plants became more pronounced. The mulched plants now have twice as many pumpkins as the others, and the fruit is noticeably larger and riper. We don’t water as often, and some days the water we collect in the shower is enough that we don’t need to turn on the irrigation at all. Increasing our yield means we’re able to reduce our food miles and associated carbon footprint even further.

As we started to notice the difference between the pumpkin plants caused by the mulch, we refined our approach. For the later beds we placed the mulch over the irrigation pipe. It’s light enough that the weight of the mulch doesn’t collapse the pipes, but thick enough that the water doesn’t immediately boil out of the ground and away from our plants. The garden looks nicer with fewer weeds, there is less maintenance to do, and our plants that had been struggling are now producing significantly larger harvests.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you use mulch to improve the water retention and health of your garden? Please share in the comments below any tips and tricks you have found to improve your food yields and associated carbon footprint.

Secret Women’s Business

Whenever discussions about changing the GST come up on the radio, someone will inevitably mention the tax on disposable menstrual products and loudly protest that this is a tax on being a woman. My initial reaction is always to snort and shake my head, before I remind myself that many women don’t know that there are easy and considerably cheaper alternatives are out there. These alternatives aren’t going to see a woman handing over money month after month, and so we don’t have to pay a tax for our fertility.

Cloth Menstrual Pads

Cloth Menstrual Pads.I bought this set of cloth pads nearly 15 years ago. There were four of the small pads, four of the medium ones, and two of the long ones. The wings on them have snap studs and fold around the outside of the underwear to stay in place. The smaller pad is shaped while the two larger sizes fold out so that an additional piece of towelling can be added for days when it is needed. The longest one is for sleeping and very heavy days, although I have rarely needed to use them.

Keeping them clean felt daunting when I first started to use them. Now I just throw them into a bucket of cold water – usually saved from the shower – and dump the whole lot onto the floor of the shower when I’m in there. The running water rinses out pretty much everything, and I can throw them into the washing machine with a regular heavy load.

When I bought them I paid $130 for the set. How I can remember that is beyond me. A quick check of current supermarket prices suggests that the current disposable pad price for a period is roughly $5 each month. Not only have I saved hundreds of disposable pads from being manufactured, transported and disposed of, but my cloth pads paid for themselves in two years. When the time comes to replace any of them, I plan to carefully pull apart one of each and use it as a pattern to make some replacements, which should save me a lot of additional money.

Menstrual Cups

For women who prefer tampons instead of pads, the reusable alternative is a menstrual cup. I haven’t used one of these myself, but they’re quite popular. The menstrual cup is inserted just like a tampon. The blood collects inside the cup, which can be removed, emptied, and reinserted. They cost around $35 dollars per cup and have a life expectancy of around 10 years. Based on current supermarket prices, you’d financially break even at around 100 tampons, notwithstanding the environmental difference in using a reusable product instead of disposable ones.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you tried reusable products to manage your periods? Please share in the comments below how the experience differed from using disposable products and any lessons you learned in the process.

Go Shopping In Your Wardrobe

It’s hard to research ways to reduce your environmental impact without coming across minimalism. There is a wealth of great ideas in the minimalist community, and one that has continually caused me mental pangs has been reducing one’s wardrobe down to the clothes that one actually wears. This is a practical step, and it makes perfect sense, but getting rid of my clothes when nobody is threatening me with bodily harm? Madness.

In the interest of growing as a person – or some crap like that – I decided to face my fear and at least look at my wardrobe with a critical eye. I know that there are probably only 20 items that I wear on a regular basis, and there are many, many more items than that gathering dust up the back. Perhaps the minimalists were onto something here, and it was time to let go.

With an increasingly heavy heart I started to pull out clothes that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. I came across dress after dress, each one loaded with sentiment and memory. They were fun, bright, and reminded me of a version of myself that was also fun and bright, a version of myself that was getting to see the light of day about as often as the dresses were.

I had stopped wearing fun clothes during a period of my life that had savaged my self esteem. There would be occasional days when I could overcome the mental blocks that I had created for myself and wear them, but those days were memorable because they were an act of defiance. Standing there in my wardrobe, surrounded by things that I didn’t have the confidence to claim for myself even though they were mine, I realised that I was faced with a choice: let go of things that I wasn’t using and send them on to somebody who could, or reclaim the part of myself that I had been suppressing for years.

Apparently, cleaning out my wardrobe was going to lead to personal growth after all.

Two dresses.It took a while, but I made the decision to wear each item for a whole day before parting with it. A quick try on would let me dodge how I really felt, but a full day out where others could see me and I could reacquaint myself with that positive side would probably be enough to decide. And the most amazing thing happened: not only did my ex-husband fail to appear and criticise how I dressed for half the day, but my daughter started to tell me how pretty I looked. She was able to see a side to her mother that she didn’t see often, and she loved the change.

The change stuck.

I’ve spent years being unhappy with the way I dress. My active wardrobe had become a thing of great practicality, where in the past I had always used my clothes to remind me that there was more to me than my ability to be practical and organised. By embracing what I already had but wouldn’t allow myself to wear, I’ve been able to reclaim part of my personality, and the almost desperate desire to go clothes shopping has become a thing of the past. Fast fashion no longer has any appeal, because anything new from this point on needs to last long enough to develop the sentimental pull of my existing clothes, and something that will fall apart after a few washes isn’t going to cut it. I can reduce my reliance on an industry that is a heavy polluter, both in terms of emissions and more mundane forms of pollution such as toxic waste and pesticides.

If you’re playing along at home…

… are you buying things that you don’t need to soothe an emotional pain? Do you already have what you need tucked away in a corner where you aren’t using it? Please share in the comments below your consumerism of choice.

Elimination Communication

When you’re a first time parent, one of the popular games to play seems to be calculating how many nappies you’re going to be changing during your baby’s early years. For most parents the pain point seems to come in the form of either bodily fluid or money that is basically getting flushed down the toilet. According to the folks over at lovetoknow – who clearly spent far too much time playing with the diaper planner – a baby will go through 2,500 disposable nappies in their first year and 1,500 – 1,800 disposable nappies every year after that until potty training is finished.

As if the pain of spending so much money and the pain of what on earth have you eaten?!? isn’t bad enough, there is an environmental impact to nappy usage. Reusable nappies take 0.3-0.5GJ of energy per year per infant, and disposables bump that up to 1.2-2.5GJ per year, according to the Australian Nappy Association. Add in all of the other environmental costs to nappies, and keeping baby clean and dry can feel like an enormous ask.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to using this many nappies that doesn’t involve leaving your child in their own filth or sending them outside to run around naked all day. This is where elimination communication comes in. Popping your baby straight onto the toilet or a potty is quick, easy, and requires considerably less cleaning and waste than waiting until the mess is already there.

Toddler pottyWhen most people hear about elimination communication for the first time, they immediately think of early toilet training. It isn’t that at all, unless you think of early toilet training as training yourself instead of training baby. The general idea is that you become attuned to your baby’s needs and learn to read their signals when they need to go and make sure they have a chance to get there before it’s too late. If you don’t read them correctly then it’s no harm, no foul. You aren’t trying to be perfect, you’re just trying for a success rate higher than zero.

Our household can be chaotic and hectic on a good day, and we stand little to no chance of picking up on the signals from our baby all of the time. However, every kid has predictable times, and ours is no exception. Babies always need to go when they wake up from a nap. Some of them like to go right after a big feed, when you’re half way through putting a clean nappy on them, and about 20 seconds into the climactic fight seen at the end of your movie.

By giving our baby a chance to potty at the times when she is most likely to need it, we can typically reduce our nappy usage by several nappies every day. If you can cut back by just one nappy a day, that’s 365 nappies each year. For cloth that is quite a few loads of washing. For disposables, that’s a fair whack of cash. For the environment, it’s a priceless gift.

If you’re playing along at home…

… how much can you cut down on nappies by gently helping your baby to use a potty before you start toilet training? Please share in the comments below if you’ve tried this with your baby and how it went.

Recycle With REDcycle

Like many Australians, we’re keen to recycle as much waste as we can. Unfortunately, our local council recycling collection isn’t able to accept soft plastics such as shopping bags, cling wrap or bubble wrap. As a result, we were putting these items into landfill because we didn’t know what else to do about it. Then we found out about the REDcycle recycling program for soft plastics.

Based in Melbourne, RED Group has started the REDcycle program, which aims to solve this problem. They have collection points at Coles and Woolworths supermarkets in our local area. Like us, a lot of people seem to have noticed them as points where supermarket bags can be recycled, but they’re actually able to accept a much broader range of plastics such as chocolate wrappers, zip lock bags and clear plastic wine bladders. The general guide is that if it’s plastic and can be scrunched into a ball, it’s probably suitable for the program.

Soft plastics for recycling.In our pantry we now have three areas where we gather and sort our waste: our garbage bin, a box for council recycling, and an additional plastic bag where we collect our soft plastics. When I do a supermarket shop I take as many items out of their plastic packaging as I can and immediately scrunch it up for our REDcycle bag, which helps me to make sure I don’t inadvertently put those plastics into landfill. When we go back to the supermarket, we take that plastic bag with us and drop it into the collection bin on our way into the store. We seriously have to walk at most 5m out of our way to do this, because the collection bins are right at the entrance; participation really is that effortless.

The plastic collected through REDcycle is sent to Replas, who then recycle it into new products. According to their website, the program has so far recycled 380 million pieces of plastic weighing 1525 tonnes. For our family, the change has roughly halved what we were putting into our rubbish bin in a standard week.

Recycling these plastics is great because it diverts waste from landfill and redirects it to where it can actually be used. Not only does this reduce the problems involved with rubbish going to landfill, but it also helps to reduce emissions because recycling a product requires less energy than extracting and processing raw resources. According to Sustainability Victoria, “recycling one plastic drink bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes“. Granted, that type of plastic can’t be recycled through this particular program, but it does provide a rough idea for how much energy can be saved through REDcycle.

If you’re playing along at home…

…are you able to reduce your household waste through programs such as REDcycle? Please leave a comment below if you know of other programs that can extend recycling beyond what your local council can support.

Reducing School Consumption

Our little girl is starting school next week, and I’m not sure if that’s a bigger change for her or for me. It’s an exciting time for all of us and, as with many exciting changes, it’s an opportunity to go crazy with shopping. There are uniforms, book lists and accessories, and the sky is the limit when it comes to what a proud parent can spend. When the school happily gave us the uniform price list I took it home, read it, and had an actual panic attack.

When I calmed down enough to think, I decided that my mission was to carefully go through both the uniform and book lists, and work out what we really needed to buy and what was optional or could be substituted. It isn’t that money is tight and we can’t afford this stuff new so much as the planet can’t afford for us to be buying this stuff new.

The uniform was the easiest point to work on. At the school is a second hand uniform shop. The stock comes from lost property that is never claimed and donations from parents whose kids have outgrown the clothes. Every piece costs $2, which was music to my ears given a new dress costs $48.95. The range is obviously down to chance, but I was able to find five school dresses, two school jackets, and a long sleeve t-shirt with the logo on it. Some things need to be mended, but that is within my skill set. Total cost: $16. I don’t have to worry about my daughter getting paint or ink on her brand new uniform because most of the items already come with some.

To round out her uniform, I bought a few items from clearance racks at the discount stores. By shopping here I was able to save money and buy things without the logo, which means she will be able to wear these clothes as part of her regular wardrobe outside school. She doesn’t need a perfect colour match for shorts to wear under her dress, because close enough is good enough in this instance. I also bought a size too big for most items so that she can wear them for longer.

When it came to the book list, I was planning to substitute as many of the paper items for recycled versions as I could. Unfortunately I didn’t have a clue what most of the items on the list were. The only substitution I made this year was the ream of paper that we needed to buy; we already had an unopened ream at home, so she can use that instead. The school couldn’t believe that I was making a change that would only reduce our bill by $4, but they accepted it and I was able to reduce our acquisition by 500 sheets of paper. It might not be much, but every bit counts.

Backpack and hatThe final area where we had the potential to over-consume was on her school accessories. Excited relatives gave her a lot of things for starting school, such as backpacks and lunch boxes. They aren’t in the school colours, and it turns out that I just don’t care. If or when her things wear out I can replace them with the versions the school wants, but until then she can enjoy her gifts. She doesn’t even need new hair ties or pins, because she prefers liberating mine from the cupboard.

Compared to our initial expectations, we have been able to dramatically reduce our consumption as well as our costs. I did feel disappointed that I wasn’t continuing rituals with my daughter that my mother did with me until I realised that we’ll be doing the same things, just in a modified format. It has also been an excellent opportunity to talk to her about our throw away culture, reusing resources, and to teach her that new activities don’t always mean we need new things.

If you’re playing along at home…

… are there areas with your child’s education where you can cut back on consumption without compromising results? Please share the changes you’ve made in the comments below.

Shower Timers

One of the great luxuries in my life is a steamy hot shower. Between my exceptionally well-developed allergies and a lot of muscle and joint pain, more than one person has referred to the shower as my “safe place”. It’s somewhere that I can go and feel like a human being again. I take the kids in with me and wash them while I get myself sorted out, which reduces our family’s consumption since we share, but the showers had reached a length where it was time to acknowledge that my behaviour wasn’t sustainable.

The first thing I did was take note of how long I need to stay in the shower to get the health benefits. It actually isn’t long at all compared to how much time I was spending in there. The next thing I did was set a timer on my phone that would give me enough time to ease my muscles and sinuses, plus a couple of spare minutes to sort out the kids. I start the timer, get the water running, and when the alarm goes off we get out.

Our first few showers were a source of significant outrage for the girls. “But we just got in,” was protested loudly and with vigour. They made sure they blocked me from getting to the taps. They dragged their feet getting in with the hope that a slow start would make for extra time. Somehow they lost the ability to rinse themselves. I was fairly proud of their ingenuity.

Over the following weeks the protests slowly stopped. We got into the habit of having shorter showers. My girls started pointing out to me that the water needed to go off when the alarm started. Once their expectation for the length of a shower aligned with the timer, I started to casually reduce the time by a few seconds each week. We’re about half way now between what I’ve timed my body needs and where I started our timed showers.

When our latest gas bill arrived, I was genuinely shocked at the difference compared to last year. We only have three gas appliances in our home: our stove top, our gas central heating, and the hot water tank. Since we have solar hot water, and the gas is more of a booster than anything else, I expected this to be an insignificant change given the summer months. As you can see from our bill below, I was completely wrong.

48.71% decrease in gas usage

Because our usage is now so low, rounding means that I can’t see what our actual emissions were on the bill. Thanks to the calculator over at Carbon Neutral, I know that our carbon emissions for the two months were only 0.04 tonnes. That’s great, but what I’m really looking forward to now is seeing the drop on our next water bill.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can a timer for your showers help you to reduce your energy consumption? Please share in the comments below how much you’ve been able to reduce your environmental footprint through timers and what you used those timers for.