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.

Reducing Refrigeration

At the start of this project I used the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. We scored well in some areas, but on refrigeration we did badly:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449

The reason we did so badly on this category is due to the fridge in our garage; it’s very old and very inefficient. We got it when we had additional people living in the house, and over time we became used to having it there. It was very convenient to be able to put meals in a second fridge instead of making space in our kitchen fridge or hiding indulgent treats from the children in a freezer that they can’t reach.

Even though we switched to 100% green electricity, and as a result our power company has to supply at least as much green energy to the grid as we use, ignoring high electricity usage areas is the wrong approach for our project. If we can draw less electricity from the grid then it will mean more green energy is available to everyone else who is still on a default plan.

The solution to this problem was obvious: turn off the damn fridge.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as quick as it sounds; there was a lot of stuff in that fridge. We needed to change the way we approached food shopping and storage. The following steps helped us transition from two fridges back down to one:

  • We composted any food items that were past their use by date.
  • We repackaged bulky, awkward things into containers that were easier to stack neatly into smaller spaces.
  • We moved all of the frozen meals that people weren’t keen on eating to the top of the pile in the freezer, which made them much harder to ignore than when they were down the bottom.
  • We finally cooked with those infrequent ingredients that were taking up a lot of space.
  • I sacrificed myself and finished off the half eaten tubs of ice cream. It was a burden, but I did it for the good of the planet. You can thank me later.
  • We changed where we stored things. Some items were moved from the fridge to the freezer, and others were moved in the other direction, which meant we were able to reduce a lot of cooking time and energy freezing and thawing food.

I’m pleased to report that the second fridge is now empty and turned off. Since we only have one fridge, and I know that it is rated at 388 kWh per year, I can use the formula at Cool Australia to work out that we are have reduced our emissions from 2.226 metric tonnes per year to just 0.454 metric tonnes. That’s a saving of 1.772 metric tonnes, and a reduction of nearly 7% of our family’s total estimated emissions.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a second fridge that you could turn off, or an inefficient model that could be replaced with an energy efficient one? There are a few charities and non-profit groups who are waiting to take your old fridge and give it a new, environmentally friendlier life. Please share in the comments below what you’ve done to reduce the energy you use for refrigeration and freezing.

Plant A Fruit Tree

One of the most obvious ways to offset our carbon emissions is to plant a tree; this is the basis of many of Australia’s carbon offset programs. When I think of planting trees, my imagination immediately goes to towering forest specimens that will live for hundreds of years. There is no denying the beauty of these majestic trees, just as there is no denying that our suburban backyard simply doesn’t have the room to plant something that will grow to be 75m tall.

We wanted to plant some trees in our garden, and our emissions calculator revealed that we were generating a surprising amount of pollution through how far our food travels to reach our plates. These two needs combined to provide an obvious solution: fruit trees.

I packed the kids into the car and we went to the nearest Bunnings. They had a modest selection of fruit trees, so we went a bit mad picking out a selection. We settled on a lime, two oranges, an apple, a pear, an apricot, a cherry with two grafted varieties and quite a few smaller fruiting bushes. The total spend came to just over $360, and incredibly I managed to get everything into the car without having to leave either of the children at the store.

Trees on the passenger seat of my car.
Getting this many trees into the car at once only worked because they were bare rooted.

At home we began the lengthy process of arguing passionately about where each tree should go. The lime went into the front yard so that our neighbours can steal as many limes as they like. The oranges were planted beside our deck to provide a visual balance and shade from the afternoon sun. The apricot will provide shade and privacy for our bedroom window, and the rest of the trees will eventually convert our open back yard into a shaded place for the children to play.

Even though we are very active in our garden, for the first time our plantings give it a sense of permanence. It will take years for these trees to reach their full height and fruiting potential but, when they do, they’ll more than pay for the purchase cost in fresh, delicious fruits that didn’t have to travel across the country – or the world – to reach us.

If you’re playing along at home…

Do you have space in your garden to plant a fruiting tree or bush? Many varieties do well in large pots, so renters don’t have to make a donation to their landlord’s property. If you are growing something, please share in the comments what you planted and if you think it was a good decision.

Switching to Green Electricity

One of the fastest and easiest ways that we can reduce our emissions is by being aware of the electricity that we use and where it comes from. As a nation, Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity, which provided 83.7% of our electricity in 2016 compared to renewable sources at 16.3%. We live in Victoria, which isn’t exactly dazzling in converting to renewable energy; in 2016 only 16% of the state’s energy came from renewable sources. The state government has committed to increasing renewables to 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2025 but, even if those targets are met, a lot of our electricity will still be coming from fossil fuels.

Even though the state grid has a limited amount of renewable energy being supplied to it, as a consumer we still have a degree of choice about how our power is produced. Electricity companies offer two types of electricity plans: green and default. The default plan that most homes sign up for allows the company to produce electricity from whatever source takes their fancy. The green plans require the company to produce a certain amount of your electricity from renewable sources. I’ve seen green plans range from 10% renewable all the way to 100% renewable.

Switching to a green energy plan can seem a bit superficial; the electricity that we actually use in our home is pooled, so just because we might pay for a green energy plan doesn’t mean that the specific electricity used in our home is green. The important thing here is the symbolism; companies like to follow dollars, and your dollars can speak louder than emails and phone calls will.

Finding a new electricity provider can involve a lot of research and ridiculous comparison websites. If you’re interested in shopping around, there’s a comparison page at the Green Electricity Guide that lists a lot of retailers I’ve never heard of before and a bit of information about their environmental credentials. It looks fancy and informative, but I’ve got a bit of a headache and I can’t be bothered, so I decided to just call our current company and switch with them. I signed up for a 100% green electricity plan, which took me 17 minutes on the phone, and I managed to negotiate a pay on time discount that fully offsets the slight increase in cost. Winning!

If you’re playing along at home…

If you aren’t already on a 100% green electricity plan, now is a great time to switch. With more and more companies realising the importance of offering green power to their customers, you might be able to save some money as well as the environment. Please share in the comments how much carbon you’ve been able to save and what sort of impact it had on your bill.