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.

Patch It

If you’re a woman above the age of puberty, one of the most soul destroying activities you can engage in is shopping for new jeans. You’re usually helped by another woman who has inexplicably managed to find a pair of jeans that fit her perfectly – probably because she works there and tries on every piece of new stock the second it arrives – who tells blatant lies such as “those look great on you” when you’ve got saggy bits at the back, bulging bits at the front, and camel toe that makes you question your future reproductive health.

Jeans with a ripIn light of the excitement that is jeans shopping, when my favourite pair of jeans developed an epic hole there was a bit of depressed whimpering. I tried to sew the rip closed, determined that they were still good, but it wasn’t going to work no matter how deeply steeped in denial I was. It was looking like the worst had come, and I was going to have to face the trauma that was jeans shopping.

Despair is a beautiful motivator, and as I was working on another sewing project I realised that I had a lot of small scraps that would normally go in the bin. I collected them all, set them aside and then, when I had a moment to concentrate, I looked at the scrap pieces and compared them to the hole in my jeans. One piece was a perfect fit.

Hole in jeans edged with zigzag stitch.I started the repair process by doing a zigzag stitch with my sewing machine around the edge of the hole. The zigzag stitch is great at locking in fraying threads and stopping that part from getting worse. It’s a simple way to make the fabric more stable without having the bulk of a hem. I don’t have a clue of this step is actually necessary when patching something, but I figured I could do all the sewing in less time than it would take me to turn on the modem to look it up online. I then did a zigzag stitch around the piece of fabric that I was planning to use for the patch, because it is necessary for that step.

Jeans with a patchOnce the jeans and the patch were ready, it was time to put them together. This was tricky because the patch is fairly narrow and the hole wasn’t in a straight line. I tried to pin all the way around in a single go, but the fabric was shifting and then I started stabbing myself. To get around both of those problems, I pinned and stitched along the bottom edge first because it was the easiest, straightest side. Once that was sewn on, I was then able to smooth the patch over the rest of the hole and make sure that everything lined up properly without odd ripples in the fabric.

When I triumphantly brandished my patched jeans at my family and asked for their opinion, my five year old immediately pointed out that I’ve sewn the patch on upside down. Sometimes I really hate it when my kids are right. The other observation was that the jeans are obviously patched and that this clearly isn’t in pursuit of a new fashion trend that I’m trying to set. To solve that problem I’m going to find a few other pieces of scrap fabric and sew them on in a random pattern, making sure I get parts where the denim is starting to look a bit delicate and also parts where the condition is fine.

Patching and mending clothes can seem a bit pointless, but from an environmental perspective it makes sense. Before trying to reduce our footprint I would have thrown these away and bought a new pair of jeans. I also would have thrown away the fabric that I used to patch them instead of finding another use for it. Clearly both of these will eventually end up in landfill when the jeans are past the point of patching, but if I can double the life of my jeans then I can significantly reduce my reliance on the fashion industry. That’s important, because the fashion industry currently uses an estimated 2% of our global carbon budget, and is projected to consume 26% by 2050 at the current rate of expansion, on top of all the other pollution it causes.

If you’re playing along at home…

… can you extend the life of your clothes with some creative patching? Please share in the comments below any other tips or tricks you have to extend the life of your clothing.

Roof Vents

As I write this today, it is currently 40.3°C outside, with a projected top of 42°C. For those unfamiliar with Australian slang, this is what we like to refer to as a scorcher. A hot wind is pounding the house, and I’m praying that the ice blocks I put in the chickens’ water this morning keeps them alive until the promised cool change sweeps in.

Welcome to summer in Melbourne, global warming style.

Despite the heat outside, inside the house is still relatively cool, and it is after 1pm. We have a new air conditioner, and I haven’t felt the need to turn it on. While I have no scientific data to back this up, I think the change is due to the roof vents we installed a few weeks ago.

Roof ventThe vents are a simple piece of technology, and because we bought a cheap version ($69 each) they are entirely wind powered. The basic idea is that the heat from the sun is warming the cavity between our tiled roof and the internal ceiling. As the space up there warms, heat starts penetrating our ceiling insulation and warms up the rooms below. By installing these roof vents, the heat trapped in the roof space is able to rise out of the roof and escape, rather than being forced into the area below.

A house the size of ours requires three of these vents, but we only installed two because we don’t want to block any roof space that might be needed for our future photovoltaic system. They work better on a house like ours because we have a pale green roof instead of the more popular black roofs that are sweeping the city, which means some of the heat is reflected instead of being absorbed.

In winter we might end up with the problem that we’re extracting heat that we would prefer to keep in the house. The nice thing about this installation is that it only took about an hour to set everything up, and we still have the missing roof tiles stacked out of the way. If they aren’t working for us during the cooler part of the year, we can simply take them down again and store them until next summer.

If you’re playing along at home…

… are you able to install roof vents in your home to keep it cool during the summer months? If you have already done this, please share in the comments below how well they worked for you.

Our First Electricity Bill

We started working on reducing our carbon footprint in September this year, and we have now received our first electricity bill that has been generated entirely during this project. From when we moved into this house our usage had been consistently increasing, so we were all curious to see whether or not we had been able to change our behaviour and curb our consumption. The snapshot below is from that bill.

Our daily electricity use has dropped by 24.62% since last year.

We now pay an additional 5.10 c/kWh for 100% renewable energy, which only added $18.20 onto the bill. By managing to bring our consumption down so low, we were able to get our bill well under $200 for three months. At a time when Australians are suffering severe financial strain due to energy prices, this isn’t putting a significant financial burden on our family. The following table compares our summer usage to that of other households in the area.

Our electricity usage is significantly lower than comparable households.

As you can see, our four person household is using significantly less electricity than a one person household in our area. We’re really proud of ourselves for cutting back where we could and offsetting what we couldn’t reduce. At this point it would be easy to say that we’ve gone as far as we can and that now it’s time to sit back and relax, but that defeats the spirit of this challenge. We’re working on a lot of ideas that will reduce our household consumption even further – we still need to get through next winter in a house warmed by gas appliances – and I can’t wait to share with you next year some of the creative ideas that we’re testing.

If you’re playing along at home…

…please share in the comments below some of the emissions that you’ve been able to reduce this year. How far have you been able to come with your electricity bill? How far do you still have to go? What is your baseline for making 2019 better for the planet?

Build A Garden

When I think of a suburban vegetable garden, I immediately think of a rectangle of land in the back yard. In my imagination it is a separate, utilitarian area that sacrifices aesthetics for practicality. It provides a lot of benefits through fresh, healthy food and reducing the family’s carbon footprint, but at the cost of a play space and relaxation area.

It has taken us over a year, but we’ve finally finished building the garden beds for our home. Our block is 632 square metres, and the vegetable garden takes up just over 100 square metres in addition to the fruit trees in the lawn. Instead of being that dedicated rectangle behind the house, our garden has become a key design element, something that enhances the available space.

We’ve been able to spread the vegetable garden out over the block because the house is positioned so that garden beds can wrap around it. There is a deep bed against the front wall in the north, beds along the fence in the east, and a series of beds in the west. On the south side the garden beds run along the fence where they aren’t shaded from the sun.

Our garden is an interesting space to move through. When we started I was worried that we would be removing most of the children’s play area. I always believed that children need large open spaces to run around and ride bikes. It turns out that if we leave the paths wide enough they can still do those things. Thanks to the wildlife attracted to our garden, they can also chase butterflies, hunt caterpillars, or watch bees collect pollen. Adults are also drawn to our garden, and almost everyone who visits for the first time comments on our use of space.

Vegetable garden growing corn and squash in a narrow passageway.The area that I am most pleased with is the narrow strip of land between the house and the eastern fence. In most homes this would be an unusable part of the garden, overgrown and considered too small to do anything with. It gets a lot of shade, and several people told me that it would be impossible to get anything to grow out there. It’s currently planted with corn and squash, all of which are doing well.

By having so much space available for food crops, we can potentially become self sufficient for certain types of vegetables. Growing everything that we need would completely eliminate our food miles for those vegetables. This aspiration is very much a work in progress, but we’re hopeful that we can learn how to make it work.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have a space where you could tuck a vegetable garden? Please share in the comments below the best or smallest places at your home that you’ve found for growing your own food.

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.