Buckets In The Shower

If you’ve ever tried to grow a vegetable garden in Australia, you’ll know that it isn’t as easy as it first appears. Even if you plant your spring vegetables at the very start of the season they’ll be trying to ripen during summer. If a solid heatwave sets in you can admire lush vegetables in the morning and dead plants in the evening. We’re in Melbourne, which has permanent water restrictions, so even if we could afford to water our garden all the time we wouldn’t be allowed to.

One of the benefits of this house is that it was built during a drought. As a result it has approximately 10,000 litres of water tank capacity underneath the deck, and the entire roof area feeds into it. We connected the whole vegetable garden to the tanks with an irrigation system, so we can literally run out into the heat, turn the system on for five minutes, and hide back inside our cool house again. Our vegetables survive and we can eat food that hasn’t got any attached miles of transport.

The problem for us is the pump. It might help us collect and save water, but it’s at the cost of electricity. I have no idea if the emissions from running it are more or less than the emissions generated by how far our food travels, but I do know that it’s noisy and irritating to run.

Buckets in a shower

We need to find a better solution to the electric pump, but in the interim we’ve got a wall of buckets in the shower. They’re old yoghurt containers that we’re reusing, and each has a 2 litre capacity. In winter we just have a couple on the floor of the shower and we scale up for the summer months where we end up with as many buckets as we have in the house.

A secondary benefit to the buckets is that we can fill the first one with the cold water in the hot water pipes. We’re not wasting hot water waiting for it to get warm, or the energy used to heat it, because as soon as I sense the temperature difference I can turn the tap off. It makes showering easier on the days when I have the kids in with me, because I can sort out one thing at a time and I know that when they’re ready we can just get in to water that’s already going to be the right temperature.

By using water from our showers we are not only able to reuse our water, but we can also reduce the electricity from the pump. We can water just the plants that need watering, and therefore not turn on the pump at all, or we can pour the water into a 60 litre bucket that sits underneath our laundry window and also feeds into the irrigation system. We’re less likely to empty the water tanks, which happened last year, and more likely to get through the hottest months with our garden intact. It’s a small change, but it has a big impact for us.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you reuse the water from your showers or elsewhere in the house to water plants? Please comment below if you’ve found another use for the grey water from your showers or a better alternative to buckets.

Switching From Tissues to Handkerchiefs

If you live in a house with small children, avoiding the cold and flu season feels impossible. During those years where cold and flu season stretches into hay fever season it is game over for the sinuses. The combination of colds and pollen was particularly bad for us this year.

When we got our new worm farm, I decided to start putting the used tissues in with the other waste. Seeing our tissues for just half an hour piled up high in the worm food bucket was a revelation. I knew we used a lot of tissues, but it wasn’t until we collected them that I realised just how habitual they had become for us. Runny nose? Grab a tissue. Small spill on the table or floor? Grab a tissue. Child with a dirty face? Grab a tissue. I was even blowing my nose because I was walking past a tissue box, not necessarily because I needed to do it.

The obvious solution to this problem was to switch back to old fashioned hankies. It had been so long since I last used any that I didn’t know where you could even buy them anymore. I knew that they were still around somewhere, because our oldest daughter had been given some as a gift, but those had also been sent from overseas.

When I asked my mother if she knew where to buy them, she said that she still had all of my grandfather’s hankies in a drawer that we were welcome to take. I said yes, so the next time I saw her she brought around the surplus. Some of them were still in unopened packets, the tape so old that it stained the fabric yellow.

As soon as I had the hankies in my possession, I immediately remembered why I switched to using tissues. I first learned how to iron by ironing these hankies and, as I threw them into the washing machine, all I could think of was how many hours of my life were going to be dedicated to this chore. Then it dawned on me that if I didn’t care whether they were ironed or not then there was no need for me to do it. My partner saw me folding them and putting them away – unironed – and was weirdly excited that we had made the decision to skip ironing.

Once it came time to use the hankies, I found myself resistant to making the switch. The texture on my face was different, I wasn’t throwing it away as soon as I had used it, and it took me more than a week to get past the ick factor of reusing it. However, as soon as I realised that since I’m the one washing them I can swap mine as often as I like, it immediately stopped bothering me.

Hankies

Getting to the point of happy hanky use took me longer than anyone else in the family. The kids like the colours and patterns of the hankies far more than the plain white tissues, and my partner really couldn’t give a stuff either way. Where the change became real for me was when I went through the house and literally hid all of our tissues in a cupboard so that I wouldn’t use them. I now have a few strategically placed collections of clean hankies where the tissue boxes used to be.

By switching from tissues to hankies we’re saving about $100 a year. Our laundry costs haven’t really changed because the hankies are going in with our regular load and washing them takes less time than buying tissues did. Then there is the obvious environmental benefit from eliminating a type of single use item from our lives. Most importantly for me, the skin around my nose has stopped cracking and peeling the way it does when I use too many tissues.

If you’re playing along at home…

…how can you reduce the amount of tissues that you use? Please let us know in the comments if you have switched to hankies or found another alternative.

Reducing Plastic Bags

This year two of the major supermarkets in Victoria stopped providing shoppers with single use plastic bags. They’ve replaced these throw away, thin grey bags with sturdier plastic bags that cost 15c … and will probably be thrown away because who wants to reuse such an awful bag? Then there are those other thin bags that are everywhere in the fresh food section, and they’re such a convenient temptation that I’m sometimes filling one before I even realise that I’ve taken it off the roll. When you step out of the supermarket and into the other stores, it’s still a plastic bag free for all.

Plastic bags are habitual, but they’re also a major problem for several reasons:

  • They need to be manufactured, transported, and all those other energy using activities;
  • They’re clogging up land fill – if we’re lucky;
  • They’re clogging up the oceans and being eaten by marine wildlife – because we’re not that lucky.

We’ve all heard about bringing green bags with us to the shops, but there’s a big gap between buying a reusable bag and using a reusable bag. No plastic bag that enters our house is single use any more. Changing this behaviour was surprisingly easy.

Reusable bags and plastic bags.
The green bag on the left contains our reusable bags, and the plastic bag on the right contains all of our remaining single use bags for more than a year.

We have a space in our pantry where we collect our bags. The reusable bags are folded as soon as we unpack our shopping and put inside the green bag. Inside this bag is also a zip lock bag that has all of our single use bags from the fresh food section. We simply shake them out when we get home, fold them up, and put them back in for the next trip. Whenever someone is going to the shops, we take this bag on our way out the door.

Since remembering to bring the bags is sometimes difficult, we have a small supply of bags in the glove box of each car. These bags are for those days when you’re already out of the house and you realise that you need to pick up something on the way home.

Because I’m a paranoid sort of person who doesn’t trust her ability to remember anything of any importance when dealing with small children, I also have two small bags in my backpack. These bags tend to be what I use if I’m shopping outside the supermarket. I keep them next to my purse, which makes it easier to refuse a plastic bag at the cash register.

There are a lot of times when getting a plastic bag is unavoidable. Sometimes you just don’t have enough reusable bags with you. Friends and family will bring things to you in a plastic bag. I’ve even seen single use plastic bags used as padding inside a parcel. We just collect these bags in a central location and use them for taking things back to family and friends, holding wet clothes if the children need to be changed when we’re out, and as bin liners. If our pile of bags gets too big then we pack them up and take them to a bag recycling drop off point.

If you’re playing along at home…

… where do you keep your reusable bags so that you don’t forget to take them to the shops? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Worm Farm

Last month we were at a community event where Frankston Council had a stand about environmentalism. Since that’s something I’m currently interested in, I decided to sign up for their e-newsletter. Everyone who put down their email address went in the draw to win a worm farm or a compost bin.

Yay for winning!

Normally I avoid entering competitions because I deem the risk of winning and having to deal with unwanted crap to be too high, but this time I was stoked. As in, there was dancing in the kitchen and the four year old ended up crying because Mummy had won and not her.

I couldn’t organise a time to pick up the worm farm fast enough. We already have a compost bin – more about that in a later post – but the worm farm was something we had been talking about and never quite getting around to. Our composting system wasn’t working as quickly as we needed it to, so the timing for this was absolutely perfect.

Worm farm

The worm farm came with a collection tray and two working trays. The collection tray is where the water drains into and the working trays are what house the worms and food.

To begin a worm farm, you need to prepare a bed for the worms to live in. This consisted of taking the cardboard packaging that the kit came in and stuffing it into the base of the first working tray. There was a block of shredded coconut that needed to be soaked and spread out on top of the cardboard once it had absorbed enough water. The worms were then dumped on top of that and food was dumped on top of the worms.

A worm farm will apparently house 5000 worms happily if it is managed well. We decided to start with 2000 live worms and an additional 1200 worm eggs. Because we have our own vegetable garden – I sense another later post – we have quite a lot of organic waste. You can also add things to a worm farm that we weren’t already composting, such as paper towels and weeds, so we definitely have enough to keep 5000 worms well fed.

We need to expand the worm farm to have room for two additional working trays based on how much is already going into the farm. Other than that one problem, which isn’t exactly an issue, the system is working very well. We started getting liquid fertiliser out of it almost immediately, we’ve reduced the load on our compost heap, and the kids finally have pets. This has meant we reduce what we send to land fill even further and the way we’re breaking down this waste should mean we’re releasing carbon instead of methane. Even though we’re attempting to reduce carbon, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you considered getting a worm farm to deal with your organic waste? They take up very little room, so they can be used in small spaces. Please share your experience with worm farms in the comments.

Reducing Postal Mail

For quite a while, I used to keep our recycling bin on the front porch. I would come home, empty the mail box, and dump wads of paper into it before I even made it into the house. Things became so extreme that at one point I had taught our most frequent guests to do that recycling for me.

Now that we’re trying to get a bit smarter about our impact on the planet, we want to reduce and hopefully eliminate as much of the paper that we receive in our mail box as possible. There are two things that we receive:

  1. Junk mail such as catalogues, pamphlets, and brochures pretending to be legitimate letters; and
  2. Letters and packages that we actually need or want.

According to 1 Million Women, junk mail in Australia accounts for 6% of our annual paper use at a cost of more than 100 million trees. They also advise that eliminating 1 tonne of junk mail saves 17 trees, 2.3 cubic metres of landfill, 31,400 litres of water, 4,200 kilowatt hours of energy, 1,600 litres of oil and avoids 26 kilograms of air pollutants. If I have a choice between my grandchildren being able to see an old growth forest or me seeing a catalogue filled with crap I don’t want to buy, this is an easy choice to make.

Happily, reducing your junk mail is as simple as putting a sticker on the letterbox that says “No Advertising Material” or “No Junk Mail”. Cleanup Australia advises that you can get one for free by contacting the Distribution Standards Board. You have to post them a stamped, self addressed envelope and they’ll post a sticker back to you. Since that was too ironic for me to deal with, I just picked up one from our local hardware store for less than $5.

Reducing the mail that we want to receive was slightly more work, but just as easy. All of the companies that we do business with offer email bills and statements, and making the switch was as simple as a phone call or logging in to their online portals. We have eliminated paperwork from our banks and utility companies. This has benefits beyond the environmental: it will now be much harder for anyone to use the contents of our mailbox for identity fraud.

But the biggest improvement for our quality of life? Now there is just so much less cleaning to do.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you take any steps to reduce the amount of paper coming into your mail box? Please share in the comments any additional tricks that you and your family used to reduce the printed materials you receive.

Mowing The Lawn

When we first moved to this house, the biggest job in the garden was keeping the lawns mowed. It was winter, so the grass was long and lush, and it seemed as if my partner was out there every weekend trying to keep it under control. We didn’t own a mower at that point, so we had borrowed an old one from relatives. It had a pull cord to start it, two stroke to fuel it, broke down more than it worked, and my partner seemed to spend more time violently swearing at it than he did mowing the lawn. The edge trimmer was even worse.

Standing on the deck holding the baby and watching this was hilarious.

After a few weeks of this, he finally reached the snapping point and wanted a new mower and trimmer. We had barely any money in our budget, but new tools were probably going to be cheaper than the required counselling sessions if I made him keep using the old ones.

Once the decision was made, we had to decide what type of mower and trimmer to buy. At the time I had been flipping through a book in the library that recommended getting rid of lawns around the home to improve your environmental impact. This seemed counter intuitive to me, but the book went on to explain that the amount of energy used to maintain them more than outweighed any environmental benefit to having them. With two young children we didn’t want to convert their play area into a hard surface or cover it with plastic grass, so it was time for better alternatives.

Initially we were looking at an electric lawn mower and an electric trimmer. These options seemed better than the petrol ones, because we wouldn’t have the hassle of jerrycans and trips to the petrol station to fill them. When we got to the store, we discovered that not only did they have electric mowers, they also had push mowers. The push mower was tiny compared to the mower we had been using, and the lack of an engine meant that it was light weight and easier to move.

I’d like to claim that it was environmental diligence that inspired us to buy the push mower, but it was our budget. At less than half the price of the mowers we were initially looking at, a push mower and electric trimmer combination meant that we could afford both, while staying with the more common petrol equivalents would have meant we could only afford one.

Push mower and electric trimmer
It came with a grass catcher, but catching grass is too much work on any mower.

The reaction from friends and family when they heard that we had bought a push mower was pure astonishment. We were told by many people that we’d be back to a regular mower within weeks. Strangers have stopped on the footpath to watch my partner, amazed that our pathetic little mower works so well. Thanks to our push mower, we got to know some of our neighbours, and we’ve built a reputation of being amazing gardeners as a result. One guy said our lawn looked so good that he wanted a bit of grass to try growing it at his place, so we switched from the edge trimmer that weekend to a shovel and he happily took home some of the grass roots that had grown out over the footpath.

Despite its many benefits, there are a few disadvantages to the push mower. Obviously the power that we get out of it is the power that we literally push into it. If we let the grass grow too long then it doesn’t cut as well as it does with more frequent cutting. Weeds can also be a problem if they are supple enough to flex around the blades, and if we push over something long it can wrap around the cutting bits and they get stuck.

We made that purchase about a year ago now, and we have no intention of going back to a petrol mower or trimmer. The drawbacks are negligible or easily solved, and the switch to something that gives us healthy exercise while being quieter and cleaner more than outweighs the negatives.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you found any techniques to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that you use to maintain your garden? Please share what worked and didn’t work for you in the comments below.

The Toy Library

If you have young children, then you know that certain areas of a shopping centre are guaranteed to cause financial disaster and ruin for your family. Retailers aren’t stupid, and they know how to arrange a wall of monster trucks and Frozen merchandise for maximum pester power. Kids aren’t stupid, and they know how to say “Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum” until Mum snaps and buys yet another God forsaken My Little Pony figurine.

According to an article on Kidspot, you don’t need to feel alone if this happens to you, because some Australian families can apparently “save $1,000 a month if they stop buying unnecessary toys for their children”. I copied and pasted that because I was having a bit of trouble typing in that number. The article goes on to say that some families are spending as much as $5,000 a month on toys. To help you with the maths, that is a cool $60,000* per year.

I don’t personally know any families who have $60,000 to spend on toys – mostly because I don’t know that many families who have $60,000 available for anything after tax, rent and food – but, regardless of the dollars, there are two main environmental problems with this rampant spending:

  1. How much damage is caused creating these toys?
  2. What happens with these toys when the kids have stopped playing with them?

Manufacturing toys doesn’t come cheaply for the environment. The materials used to create the toy need to be grown or mined, and energy is used in those processes. Then the raw materials are transported to the factory, which uses more energy, before the manufacturing and packaging process begins. Waste products need to be disposed of somehow and then the toys need to be transported to the shop where you buy them. Your kid plays with the toy for a few hours, possibly a week or two if you’re lucky, and then the toy sits around the house before you eventually get rid of it.

We’ve almost completely stopped buying toys for our children during the year and instead we’ve bought a membership to the local toy library. It costs $70 for an annual membership – that’s less than the price of a Cook ‘N’ Grow BBQ Grill by Little Tikes, which you can borrow for up to two weeks. Our girls borrow that particular toy two or three times a year, play with it for three days, and then we take it back for another child to play with. They have over 12,000 toys available, and for an additional fee (I think it was $15) you can borrow a party pack.

I no longer dread going past a display of toys in a shopping centre now. If my oldest daughter sees something that she would like to play with, I suggest that she sees if one is available from the toy library. She’s very happy with that answer because I’m not telling her that she can’t play with the toy, and I’m very happy because I haven’t been stung $20 for something that will probably sit on our shelf at home. We aren’t adding packaging to landfill, the girls play with a much broader range of toys than I could ever afford to buy, and we don’t have nearly as much stuff that we have to find somewhere to store.

If you’re playing along at home…

…is there a toy library in your local area that you could join? The people who run our library were happy to let us look at the toys on offer before we made the decision to sign up. If you live in a different area, please share a link in the comments to your local toy library for others who live near you.


*If you happen to have a spare $60,000 lying around that you’re blowing on toys, feel free to give it to me and I’ll happily spend that money on something useful. There’s a set of solar panels that I’ve got my eye on, and I’m even happy to use that money to install them on your roof.