The Baby Stash

When I was pregnant with my first child, one of my girlfriends decided that her family was finished and it was time to get rid of all her baby things. Before I knew it I had plastic tubs filled with more baby stuff than I knew what to do with. There were clothes, wraps, cloth nappies, bottle sterilisers, food warmers, a bath, and a few things that I still haven’t discovered the purpose of. It wasn’t a complete set because she had already given away a few items, but in a single afternoon we had almost everything that we needed to be prepared to welcome our baby to the outside world.

Going through the boxes was thrilling. As I washed and sorted everything, I satisfied almost all of my nesting drive. I added a few items along the way from second hand markets and the occasional discount rack at the shops, but we saved a small fortune. Then our daughter was with us and suddenly we were receiving more second hand things from friends who no longer needed them.

By the end of the first year I had boxes and boxes of things that our daughter no longer fit into or needed. We didn’t want to get rid of anything, because we were planning a second baby, but it was taking up an enormous amount of storage space. Then someone we knew announced that she was pregnant. We asked if she would be interested in borrowing any of our stuff, and she said that she was. Suddenly we’d helped someone avoid quite a few small expenses and our baby clothes were being worn instead of clogging up the shed.

Tubs of baby clothes
Half of the stash

A few weeks before her baby was born, someone else that we knew announced that she was pregnant. This friend was also interested in borrowing the stash, as it had come to be called. There were six months between the births, which was more than enough time for clothes to be grown out of, washed and put back into the tubs. After picking up the stash from the first friend I dropped it with the second friend, so it didn’t even make it back to our house in between.

By the time we needed the stash back for our second baby it had clothed two other babies. Once I made a few small repairs everything was in good enough condition to be used, and a few new items had been added. Going through it was exciting with the blend of memories and discoveries.

Our second daughter barely had time to grow out of the clothes before they were off again to the next baby. This time I won’t even have to transfer the stash between mothers, because the mother who has them knows the mother who needs them next, so they’ll sort that out between themselves. It has now grown so much that it includes bassinets, prams and toys.

Reusing and sharing the things in the stash has helped us to collectively reduce our environmental impact, because instead of having five sets of things between this group of families, we’ve only had one. Some of those clothes and bottles will have been used by nine babies by the time they come back to me next. Instead of transporting a new item from a factory in the northern hemisphere, we’re transporting a used item from the next suburb. Best of all, seeing a friend’s baby in something that your baby wore not long ago really brings on warm fuzzy feelings.

If you’re playing along at home…

…and you have a lot of clothes in storage, that you aren’t ready to get rid of yet, do you have someone you could lend them to or swap with? Have you done something like this with your friends? Please leave a comment below telling us what you shared and how it went.

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.

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.