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.

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.

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.

Killing Vampires

Garage door opener
I want to suck your power.

When I hear of vampire power, it doesn’t conjure up images of my appliances sucking the life blood out of our planet. Alas, that’s pretty much exactly what it means. Also known as standby power, this is the power used by your electrical devices when they are in standby mode. This wasted electricity doesn’t come cheap, costing Australians “a combined $860 million annually” and “almost 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year”.

Now, stabbing your appliances through the heart with a wooden stake might be fun, but it’s a challenge that could see you electrocuted if you aren’t careful. Happily, there is an easier way to tame these vampires so that you’re only using electricity when you’re, well, actually using electricity.

Introducing: the off switch at the wall.Power switch

This little switch is a nifty device that stops your devices from drawing electricity, and it was an astonishing discovery – for some people in this house – that once they are turned on you can actually turn them off again. It requires the Herculean effort of reaching over and flicking the switch so that the little red line isn’t showing. We’re lucky to have these switches in Australia, because poor unfortunates in other countries have to go to the trouble of actually pulling the plug out of the socket.

Once I discovered how much vampire power was costing us, I was on a mission to turn off everything at the wall. Microwave, computers, stereo, it was all powering down. The data from our smart meter shows that this has reduced our base hourly electricity consumption from 0.1kWh to 0.04kWh per hour. That might sound trivial, but over the course of a year this is a change of 525.6kWh or 0.48 tonnes of carbon emissions. Did I really need to have my exercise bike drawing power all the time? Since I didn’t even know it was plugged in until I checked the points, I suspect that I didn’t.

Turning things off at the wall has led to some unexpected changes. Our reliance on electronic devices for entertainment has dramatically reduced. The children are stuck playing with each other instead of watching the television because I’m too lazy to turn it on for them, and their relationship has dramatically improved. I tend to look things up on my mobile instead of powering up my energy guzzling PC. Even my partner has discovered that he doesn’t need perfect WiFi signal when it requires walking all the way into the next room and turning on our signal booster.

If you’re playing along at home…

… what can you turn off at the wall or unplug that doesn’t need to be running all of the time? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Introducing Henrietta and Friends

Last year, we promised our daughter that we would get her some chickens for her birthday. Happily, we never specified which birthday that would be. It was one of those projects where the benefits were obvious: home grown eggs from chickens that were living healthy, cruelty-free lives. Life kept getting in the way, as it so often does, and her birthday came and went. The conversation about chickens, however, stuck around.

We recently found ourselves with a week without plans. The kids were stuck at home, bored out of their minds, and we urgently needed a distraction project. Our chicken time had come. It seemed even more important now because we are looking at ways to reduce our food miles – one of the biggest problem areas for us highlighted by our carbon estimate – and our worm farm wasn’t keeping up with the food waste from our garden.

It was important that Project Chicken didn’t break the bank while still providing our birds with a good amount of space and shelter. We looked at commercial chicken coops, but for the size we wanted they would cost around $2,000. Reducing food miles is important, but that much money would get us half way to installing a photovoltaic system, which would give us significantly better environmental bang for our buck. We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Building the coop and run took just over a week, and cost a total of $462.26. One of the ways we were able to get the price so low was by salvaging materials that my parents already had lying around at their house. The roof of the chicken coop is from metal left over when their garage was built, the door frame wood for the ramp came from an old wardrobe, and some of the wire is left over from an old aviary that has since been dismantled. Even half of the chickens are salvaged – they’re ex-battery hens.

Our coop is approximately 1.8m cubed. The chickens can go underneath the coop, so our run is 1.8m wide and 6.6m long, which provides almost 2m square per bird. There are six nesting boxes – one for each hen – and we can access them without going into the run. We painted it with British Paints colour Gracious – I swear I’m not the one who chose the colour – and we’ve left the inside plain because I doubt the chickens care as much as our five year old does.

Having the chickens around has caused some unexpected lifestyle changes. It took two days for our outdoor table and bench to be moved to the back yard. Other families were probably watching television while they ate dinner, and we were watching our birds. Our kids like walking the dog when they visit my parents, and now they’re looking for edible weeds while they’re on those walks. We also decided it was time for our oldest daughter to start earning pocket money, so her new jobs are tied in with caring for the chickens.

Of course, the main motivation for getting the chickens was to reduce our environmental impact, so how did that go? Well, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of food waste that we’ve been composting, because instead that is going to feed the chickens. We rarely use our green bin any more, because our weeds go straight to the birds, and it’s an incentive for the kids to keep up with weeding. On days where we haven’t had many scraps to feed them, we’ve harvested food from our vegetable garden. At first this seems very wasteful, but it turns out that we had a lot of vegetables in the garden that we planted as an experiment and quickly decided that we were never going to eat. Now that those plants are being removed from the garden we have more space to grow the things that we will eat. Our chickens are repaying us with manure that we can put on the garden much faster than with our compost. They were moulting when we got them, and it took two weeks, but now they’re laying tasty, fresh eggs that are beyond exciting for the kids when they find them.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have space in your garden for a chicken coop? Please leave a comment below if you’ve kept animals for food and let us know how it went.