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.

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.