Shrinking Our Bins

While sorting out paperwork for our solar panels, we needed to get a copy of our rates notice from our local council. They weren’t able to provide the actual rates notice on the day, but they were able to provide a costs summary. The following caught my eye:

Service Rates & Charges $525.70

For the mathematically inclined, this was almost 30% of our total charge from the council. I pondered this line, and realised that it was the cost of our wheelie bins. This comes in two parts:

  • $380.20 for a 120L rubbish and a 240 litre recycling bin service
  • $145.50 for an optional garden waste bin collection service (green waste)

We’ve used the garden waste bin once since we bought this house, and that was when we put it out the first weekend after we got the keys because it was still full from the previous owners. Since then we’ve been composting all of our garden waste at home. For anyone wondering if composting has a financial benefit, apparently it’s worth a whopping $145.50 per year!

Our current rubbish bin is usually half full on a bad week, and considerably less than that on a good one. Looking at the site, I noticed a second option for this:

  • $302.70 for an 80L rubbish and a 240 litre recycling bin service

By doing a trash audit and working through that process, tiny changes to our habits have the potential to save us an additional $77.50 per year if we downsize the bin. With the garden waste bin, that’s a combined saving of $223.00 per year, just for being conscious about the amount of waste we produce.

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Cancelling our garden waste bin and downsizing the rubbish bin was incredibly easy. I just emailed a request to the council and everything was taken care of for us, including the adjustment to our rates fees. All we needed to do was put out the bins on their regular collection day and the changes were made.

While my enthusiasm for doing this was distinctly financial, changing our day to day options like this holds us more accountable in the future for the amount of waste that we generate. It’s going to be harder to back slide when our bin has shrunk by 1/3, and our neighbours aren’t going to be able to use our empty bins to grow their own capacity for waste. This change also covers half of the annual repayments for a solar system loan, which makes it that much more achievable.

If you’re playing along at home…

…are you able to save a lot of money by making the decision to reduce your waste? What could you afford to do if you weren’t literally throwing your money into landfill? Please share in the comments below what your council offers as an alternative for people who are a bit more mindful about what they throw away.

Compost From The Worm Farm

Last year in October we set up our worm farm. As with many projects in our lives, this was one where the amount of love and attention it received started out with great enthusiasm and then dwindled rapidly. We got lazy about flushing the farm with fresh water, feeding them became erratic once we got the chickens, and honestly I’ve spent the past few months convinced that they’re all dead.

The soil at our new property can best be described as a sandy disaster. In three months of exploring the garden, we have found a single wild worm. We’ve spent weeks digging out building rubble from what was probably intended to be a garden bed, and there hasn’t been a scrap of organic matter in the mix that we didn’t dump there from cleaning the chicken coop. “Barren wasteland” springs to mind as an appropriate description.

We really needed Schrödinger’s Worms to be in a living state.

I chose a day when I was home alone to tackle the worm farm. After a few years of gardening I’m finally at a point where I can handle touching a worm if I’ve got gloves on, but the idea of sorting through trays full of live worms was seriously creeping me out. I also don’t handle dead things well, and I knew there was bound to be a bit of squealing involved either way. No witnesses seemed ideal.

The first step was taking off the lid and cautiously peering in. There were plenty of worms on the lid and around the edges, so I shoved the lid back on and tried to lift out the first tray. It was heavy, and there was no way that I was getting it out full. I grabbed a bucket, put on my big girl pants, and started pulling out the food scraps at the top.

After about 30 seconds it was obvious that the bucket strategy was an epic fail. The farm isn’t big, but the worms were compacting the material in those trays beyond my wildest expectations, and moving it was just aerating it. This called for a wheelbarrow, but at this point I was covered in worms and not sure how to move the wheelbarrow without killing them all. Wiping my gloves on the grass seemed to do the trick, and I got the top tray empty enough to pull it out of the farm.

compost from our worm farmInside the bottom tray was amazingly rich, black compost that seemed to be half compost and half worms. I had planned to try and put most of the worms back into the worm farm, but there were just so many that I didn’t bother. I scooped out the goo that had fallen into the collection tray, put the working tray back into the farm, and dumped the finished tray into the garden bed. Once it was empty I put it on top of the worm farm, transferred the scraps from the wheelbarrow back into it, and put the lid back on.

I was a bit dismayed by how little coverage I was able to get from the tray in the worm farm. In our previous garden that much compost would have fertilised an entire bed, but here I was barely able to spread it over half a square metre before the organic layer became too thin. This compost will be incredible for our garden once we’ve established it, but to begin with we’re going to need to bring out some bigger guns.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you gone beyond creating a compost heap or worm farm to actually using the compost that it produces? Please share in the comments below how these processes have changed your garden.

Moving Closer

Three months ago we bought our first family home. Prices in the area we most wanted to move to had plummeted in the previous months, there was uncertainty in the market due to the election, and competition was thin on the ground. We ran the numbers and, if we bought something small, we were in a position where we could pay less in interest than we were paying in rent. It was now or never, so we chose now.

Since starting this project to curb our emissions, we had a few new criteria for buying a house that we wouldn’t have considered a few years earlier:

  • Within walking or bike riding distance of our daughter’s school;
  • Good access to public transport, shops, and other amenities;
  • A building where we could make energy efficiency improvements and not somewhere that they had already been done;
  • Small, properly sized for our family, and not a McMansion; and
  • Space for a vegetable garden and our chickens.

The biggest surprise in our search was what a limiting factor the chickens turned out to be. While they’re permitted by the local council, almost half of the properties we were initially interested in had covenants that prevented owners from having a wide range of pets, and chickens were often on that list. It’s possible to get a covenant removed, and I suppose we could have just ignored one, but it’s not a fight I was particularly interested in having. Many gardens were so small that it would have been vegetables or chickens, but definitely not both. We were happy to leave those properties for people who don’t want the hassle.

soldAfter a lot of drama, a few tears and several lawyers, we ended up finding the perfect property for us. It was a stretch for our budget, but we settled on a property that is only a five minute walk to the school (ten with our toddler). Eliminating our car for this commute will save approximately 7,000km of driving per year. The house is approximately half the size of our previous home, and we’re dazzled by how much less cleaning that involves. Since the local supermarket is next to the school and there’s a bus stop at the end of our short street, we’ve got all of the convenience we could have wished for.

Our new house is at the bottom end of the market because it’s very worn and tired. The wooden stumps had almost rotted away, so they were a major structural defect, and getting them replaced chewed up the budget that we had for our solar panels. That repair work has cracked the walls and ceilings, but it’s an opportunity to take down the damaged plaster and put some insulation in the external walls. We’ve decided to view every problem with the house as a challenge that gives us the potential to create something better than we might have otherwise had. There’s an enormous amount of work ahead of us, and it will probably take years to complete, but we know it will be worth it.

If you’re playing along at home…

…how different could your life be if you were close enough to walk to the important places instead of driving the car? If you’ve moved closer to where you live, please share in the comments what sort of impact that decision had on your every day life.

Goodbye Old House

At the start of the year we decided to buy a house of our own, which meant saying goodbye to the home that we had started to transform into a more sustainable place to live. There were a surprising number of comments about how it seemed like such a shame to abandon all of the work that we had put into the property over the previous two years. We were encouraged to dismantle a lot of what we had built on the assumption that nobody would want to take on the workload of an extensive vegetable garden, fruit trees or chicken coop, and that by taking materials with us we could recover a lot of our costs.

As we prepared to leave, we did take some of the plants with us. These were mostly plants with sentimental value and the trees that weren’t thriving in their initial locations. However, the garden beds are all still there, the structural modifications are intact, and there is still a chicken coop with run bolted to the back of the house. For the first inspection, it even contained the chickens.

for leaseThe real estate agent was sceptical that anyone would be interested in what I considered the key selling features of the property, but she agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to leave them there and let potential tenants know that they could be removed at will. This was our chance to test a theory that maybe – just maybe – there were other renters out there who would appreciate what we had created.

The response from those potential tenants blew us away. None of the advertising for the property mentioned established fruit trees, energy efficient construction, the gardens or the coop. Nearly everyone who spoke to the agent wanted to know if the chickens would stay with the property, and they were disappointed when they were told that the chickens were moving on.

A family leased our old home at that first inspection, and we couldn’t be happier. They’re keen gardeners, and they’d never expected to have the opportunity to indulge that passion while they were renting. Their son is bursting with excitement at the thought of having chickens of his own, and their daughter can’t wait to make soup from the pumpkins that weren’t quite ripe when we moved out. Our landlords picked up a considerable rent increase from tenants who definitely plan to be of the long term variety. Most importantly for us, we have validation that there are people who would love to have a bit more sustainability in their lives if they just had the chance, and that knowledge is worth more than what we left behind.

If you’re playing along at home…

…is there something that you could create for someone else that will help them reduce their environmental impact? Please share in the comments below what you’ve been able to pass on to enrich someone else’s life.

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.