A Challenge: My (Upcoming) Zero Waste Week

I’m always talking about waste. I hate waste – it’s such a…well, a waste. Plastic-free and zero waste; these are two of the ideals that I aspire to at home. The plastic-free thing I’ve pretty much got sussed these days, excluding the occasional no-option-but-to-get-it-with-some-kind-of-plastic-included or the arghh-there’s-sneaky-plastic-underneath-the-cardboard purchases. But zero waste? How am I doing with that?

When I first started living without plastic two years ago, the first challenge was to find alternatives packaged in glass, paper, tin and cardboard. It was easy enough, but the amount of recycling I was producing went through the roof! This was because I hadn’t actually cut down on my packaging as such, I’d just changed the materials my goods were packaged in – and these were a lot bulkier and heavier than the plastic had been. I may have cut out the plastic – but I didn’t feel much more sustainable.

Then there’s my love of simple living and my interest in minimalism. I like living in a small space, but I have a tendency towards hoarding. I hate waste, remember?! This means I hate to get rid of things. Storing things that might be useful needs space though, and creates more housework, clutter and time spent complaining about the mess. My conclusion: if I can’t get rid of things easily, I realised I needed to prevent them entering the house in the first place! And yes, that includes packaging.

When I found out that only 20% of the glass that is put into recycling bins in Perth is actually recycled (as roadbase – the rest goes to landfill) – well that was the final straw. It made me realise I needed to rethink packaging altogether, and my zero waste dream began.

Zero Waste Dreaming

I’ve made some great progress since those days. I made a worm farm to deal with most of my food scraps; I shop at the bulk bin stores (bringing my own bags, jars and bottles) and I use returnable containers as much as possible (this post is all about my progress towards a zero waste kitchen). We finally got a junk mail sticker for our letterbox to stop receiving all of those unnecessary catalogues.

Despite our progress, however, our recycling bin seems perpetually full. We also still need a bin for the kitchen, because the worms just don’t eat all the food scraps we produce. Partly because we produce too many, but also because they don’t like onions, citrus peel and eggshells. Fusspots.

I thought an audit of our waste might be useful, to see what we’re actually chucking away and to see if there’s anything we can do about it. Sometimes it’s good to question our habits, and see if we can make changes. If I can reduce our waste permanently as a result, then that would be great.

So next week I’ve declared zero waste week.

Open Trash by DGriebeling via Flickr

The goal is to attempt to produce zero waste for the week. Waste is anything that leaves the flat. This means rubbish (landfill) and recycling. Recycling is still waste, and we should all be trying to recycle as little as possible! Food waste given to the worms in the worm farm does not count as waste. In the interests of hygiene I can’t just refuse to empty my bin should it need emptying, so every day, starting from Monday, I’m going to record what (if anything) gets discarded. By Sunday I’ll have compiled a Wall of Shame with a list of all the things that I couldn’t deal with myself and had to dispose of…and that will give me some new goals to work towards!

It’s always nice to have company, and I’d love it if you joined me! I’ll be updating my progress on Facebook and Twitter, and if you want to give it a go I’d love you to share your stories too! Of course you can comment here as well, and if you just want to sit back and watch I’ll write another blog post once it’s over. But that would be boring!

What do you say? Want to give it a go? C’mon, it’ll be fun! Who’s with me?!

How I Quit the Supermarket

For a long time I was uneasy with shopping at the supermarket. I wanted to shop sustainably from independent producers, support local businesses, and buy ethically, yet quitting the supermarket seemed so… drastic. I wanted to divorce my supermarket. Split up with my supermarket. “That’s it! I’m leaving you!” Storm out of the door, dramatically, never to return. However much I might have wanted to, something held me back. Actually taking action seemed too overwhelming.

Yet I realised at the start of this year that I don’t really shop at supermarkets any more. As a couple, for every $100 we spend on food, we probably spend $1 in the supermarket. In the space of two years, I’ve gone from shopping there multiple times a week to maybe once a month. What happened?

I didn’t divorce my supermarket. There were no fireworks, no drama, no tears and regret. Things simply changed. We drifted apart. We had nothing in common. It was a gradual shift, so subtle that I didn’t really notice it, until one day I realised that we just weren’t doing things together any more, and I was free.

Here’s how I quit the supermarket.

The first thing was starting to buy my fruit and vegetables elsewhere. Supermarkets in Western Australia have very expensive fruit and vegetables, limited choice and almost no organic produce. I tried a few things – shopping at the local fruit and veg stores (cheaper but most produce was imported from China), before switching to Farmers Markets (more expensive but locally produced) and signing up for a weekly organic vegetable box delivery.

The second thing I did was to stop buying bread from the supermarket (it’s filled with additives, preservatives and palm oil) and start buying bread from a proper bakery. Nothing beats freshly baked bread! I also learned how to make my own sourdough, both to save money and so I could enjoy fresh bread when I needed it, rather than just on Saturdays.

Thirdly, I started shopping at bulk stores for grains, pulses, spices, nuts, and seeds. The prices here are far cheaper than the supermarkets and the choice is better. I have at least three very good stores close to me, and the more I look, the more I find.

Next, I gave up plastic. This meant not buying anything in plastic packaging. This was quite a big shift, and saw my supermarket consumption drop considerably. I found a local supplier of milk and yoghurt at the Farmers Market with products packaged in glass (and they collect empties for re-use). I also learned that is really simple to make yoghurt at home.

I discovered that it is possible to buy laundry and dishwashing liquid in bulk from the bulk bin stores by bringing my own containers. Rather than buy shampoo, conditioner and shower gel from the supermarket, I found a local artisan producer who used natural ingredients so I could avoid the chemicals found in regular brands. I now make my own deodorant and toothpaste.

You don’t need to buy expensive cleaning products from the supermarket either. Green cleaning solutions such as using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar work just as well, and are far safer than a lot of products for sale in the supermarket.

The next thing to go was switching from the supermarket service counters when buying fish, cheese and deli items. I found a local fishmongers; although the price is higher, the quality is infinitely better and the selection is amazing. We buy olives and cheese from a local deli rather than the supermarket.

From this point I was only stopping in at the local supermarket for odd bits and pieces, and the challenge now is to find alternative sources for these few things. We had a win recently with finding an alternative source for toilet paper, which was one of the last remaining supermarket staples.

Important note – this was not a quick process! It has taken me two years to get from where I was to where I am now! I started slowly and just chipped away until there was almost nothing left.

So…what is left now? There are a few things that I still go to the supermarket to buy. One is tins of coconut milk. I still can’t find an organic brand that I like, so for now, I sticking with the supermarket brand. It’s not a regular purchase though; I’ve probably bought 4 tins from the supermarket so far this year. I also bought a jar of black tahini recently as I’d read about it, wanted to try it and hadn’t seen it stocked anywhere else. Eventually I’ll find alternatives for these, too. There’s no point worrying about what is still left to achieve; it is far better to celebrate successes, and I’m pretty happy that I made it this far!

Have you thought about quitting the supermarket? Have you given it a go or do you find the whole idea of taking action a little overwhelming? Maybe you are you a pro with loads of tips to share? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Make Your Own: Plastic-free, Sugar-free Muesli

I used to be a huge lover of breakfast cereals. I’d hoard them. I actually had a cupboard dedicated to breakfast cereal. I liked to have a minimum of 5 different choices in my cupboard, and I remember once having 11 different types on the go. I’m not the only one either, it seems. In 2011 Australians spent $1.17 billion on breakfast cereal, and consumed almost 8 kilos per person!

My tastes changed over time of course – as a kid I loved Frosties (I cringe at that thought now), as a teenager my staple cereal was Fruit ‘n’ Fibre, and as an adult I fell for those luxury muesli lines with the beautiful packaging.

But then I began to fall out of love with cereals. Firstly there was the media reports revealing how cereals are way too high in salt and sugar. Low fat cereals are particularly high in sugar, and a UK study found cornflakes that contained as much salt as ready-salted crisps. Next was the constant bombardment of adverts and marketing. Oh we’ve made this new product. Oh we’ve made that new product. Oh we’ve made a chocolate version! A cereal bar version! A chocolate cereal bar version! I started getting cereal company fatigue. And then there was the packaging. Boxes that would appear enormous until I opened them to find the contents only half-filled the bag inside. Or packets that would declare “contain 20 servings”, only for me to discover that their interpretation of a serving was 4 teaspoons, and for my portions, the box contained nearer to four servings. Which actually made cereal a rather expensive habit.

And the final straw? Plastic. When I gave up buying anything in plastic, only a couple of options remained. Some super fancy muesli sold in glass jars for exorbitant prices, or plain oats in cardboard. The love affair was over.

But recently, I’ve started craving cereal again, and so I’ve started making my own using the ingredients I get from the bulk-bin stores. It’s super easy and there are limitless possibilities. This recipe is my current base.

I wanted to keep it sugar-free so it doesn’t contain any dried fruit. If one morning I fancy something sweet I add some fresh fruit, or blend a banana with some (cashew) milk and sprinkle the muesli on top.

Or I add a teaspoon of bee pollen or a tablespoon of cacao nibs. You can always add the sugar in, but you can’t take it out!

Recipe: plastic-free, sugar-free muesli

Ingredients:

3 cups coconut flakes
2 cups oats
1/2 cup brazil nuts
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup raw almonds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds/pepitas
80ml macadamia oil (or other high quality, flavourless oil)

Method:

[I soak my almonds and pumpkin seeds overnight to activate them and make them more digestible, and then dry them out before chopping and adding to the mix. If you can’t be bothered with this step or are short of time, just skip it.]

Roughly chop the brazil nuts, peanuts and almonds. Combine in a bowl with the coconut flakes and oats. Stir in the oil and mix well until everything is well coated.

Line a baking tin with baking paper. Spread the mixture evenly over the paper and bake at 100ºC for 30 minutes, until golden. Leave to cool.

Store in a glass jar. It will keep for a few weeks, but I think it is better to make small batches and more often to keep it fresh.

Enjoy!

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mueslijar

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This delicious breakfast was made using half a banana blended with half a cup of cashew nut milk to form the base, and topped with half a cup of muesli. I like doing things by halves, it seems!

Zero-waste kitchen

After my recent blog post on trying to make my own tahini, which was motivated by my desire to use less packaging, I thought I’d write about my quest for a zero-waste kitchen. Let’s be clear, though. I do not have a zero-waste kitchen. It is something that I aspire to, something I’m working towards, but I am not there yet. I might never get there completely either, but it’s something to strive for.

This is my journey so far.

My zero-waste successes

I predominantly buy my groceries from bulk-buy stores. I have a few local stores to choose from that sell nuts, seeds, flours, grains, pulses, beans, herbs and spices in bulk, and I store everything in the pantry in glass jars. I can also buy some condiments in bulk, such as tamari and soy sauce, and cleaning products like dishwashing liquid.

bulkRather than use the bags supplied by the stores, I take my own. I re-use old paper bags (I once read that a paper bag takes three times more energy to make than a plastic bag, so my goal is to use each bag at least 3 times), and also have reuseable washable cloth and netting bags. If reusing paper bags, it’s worth checking what was in there last time. Cinnamon-flavoured brazil nuts are a pleasant surprise, chilli-flavoured sugar is less delightful! I also have a rule that I can’t take any new paper bags from the shop – if I don’t have enough then I have to go without. It’s a good lesson in being more prepared next time!

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At my local farmers market there is an egg seller who takes back old egg cartons for re-using. I store my eggs in their boxes at home, so I have four of these so I can return the empty ones to swap with new ones without running out in between. We also have local olive oil producers at the market who sell oil in bulk and refill bottles.

eggs oilIt goes without saying that I only buy loose produce from the other stalls.

If I want to buy items from the deli counter or fishmongers, I take my own containers. When you do this, it’s worth making sure that the assistant weighs your container first – you don’t want to pay for the privilege!

As much as possible, I prepare my meals from scratch to save on packaging, because it tastes far better, saves money, is additive- and preservative-free and is FUN! As well as meals, that includes making my own bread, yoghurt, nut milk, dips… and I’m always interested in learning something new.

My Semi-Successes

We get most of our fruit and vegetables delivered via a local organic veg box scheme. The produce arrives predominantly packaging free, but usually there’s a paper bag in there with something inside. Typically the potatoes and carrots arrive bagged. This means that despite my refusal to pick up new bags at the bulk produce stores, I still seem to be gradually accumulating them. The company were very good about not putting any of my produce in plastic when I requested it – I wonder if I call and ask for no bags at all they will be able to accommodate me?

vegbox1finalThe boxes that the vegetables come in get returned each week for re-using.

I have struggled a little with pasta. I have found one shop that sell vermicelli nests in bulk, as it seems harder to find than rice and other grains. Maybe this is because it is bulky. Sometimes we are caught short, and this means we do buy pasta occasionally in cardboard packaging. We try to stick to spaghetti rather than bulky shapes because the packaging is smallest with this.

pasta(In the last month Barilla have been swept up in calls for a boycott after the Chairman said he would never feature gay families in his advertising, and if gay people didn’t like his message, they could eat another pasta. I’m on the fence about this. I like that they package their products in cardboard and support this, yet the idea of importing pasta to Australia from Italy does seem a little unnecessary. Really, I should make my own…or switch to eating potatoes.)

The first tip we picked up from taking part in Plastic Free July in 2012 was lining our bin with used newspapers. If you want to know how to line your bin, check my post about it here. With a zero waste kitchen we shouldn’t need a bin, but we have no composting facilities where we currently live and what we can’t feed to our worms (and what little plastic sneaks in) still goes to landfill.

We buy milk from a local producer called Sunnydale who take back the empty bottles for re-using. We get stuck with the lids (which we can’t return) but it’s pretty waste free. I have a friend who has goats for milking…maybe that is the next step!?

Things to Work On

There’s still things that we buy in glass jars and tins. I buy tinned tomatoes (I have had a go at canning my own once – it was time-consuming and messy, although successful – but I ended up with three jars. Mass production, I think, is the key. Maybe when tomatoes are in season this year I’ll buy a heap and try to can a shedload of them – not that I have a shed to store them in…). I buy coconut milk, and this is on my list of things to try to make. Tahini is another one!

We have just used up our last jar of olives and I want to start getting these from a deli in future, which should mean better quality as well as less packaging.

My boyfriend likes to drink the odd beer, and beer bottles (and occasionally wine bottles) end up in the recycling bin. These are not something we keep for re-using. On the list for the distant future (when we have the space), homebrew is something that I think he’d like to try.

What else? I recently bought some cocoa butter, which came in a plastic lined bag. I know that it is possible to buy this in bulk, but none of my local shops seem to sell it. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and I don’t want to compromise by going without trying new things. I try as much as possible to keep plastic-free and packaging free, but sometimes I get caught out. Unless I change my behaviour (or an amazing bulk produce store opens down the road) I will never be completely waste-free.

So I try to do as much as I can. I might not be able to achieve 100%, but I can get as close to that as possible. As we find a solution or an alternative for one thing, so I can focus on the next thing. Small steps, in the right direction.

Worm Farms…Tips and Tricks

After writing my post yesterday on how to build a DIY worm farm, I thought it might be useful to write another post explaining how to look after your worms, and also provide some reasons why you might consider worm farming in the first place.

In their National Waste Policy fact sheet, the Australian Government estimate that two-thirds of waste sent to landfill is organic. If you’re not sure what I mean by organic, it’s the waste that originally came from plants and animals which can be broken down. As well as the obvious grass clippings, food scraps and bones, this includes cardboard, paper and wood. In 2006-2007, Australians landfilled almost 14 million TONNES of organic waste. A full garbage truck holds 10 tonnes. Sending all that organic waste to landfill meant an extra 1.4 million garbage trucks on our roads. Even if you think Australia’s got the space, that’s a lot of unnecessary heavy road traffic, not to mention fossil fuel burning and airborne pollutants via vehicle emissions.

Next up, soil quality. Australia has some of the oldest land masses on Earth, and consequently they are nutrient-poor and with little organic matter. Perth has some of the worst agricultural soils in the world. (Someone once told me that it was officially the poorest soil in the world, but I can’t find anything that confirms it. However, ask anyone who ever tried to grow anything in the soil in Perth, and they’ll confirm it for you!) The sandy soil repels water and also nutrients. If you want to grow plants in Australia, you need to improve your soil by adding organic matter. And this is where the worms come in!

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Worms and their castings. Castings are the product created when worms break down organic matter, and contain nutrients that plants can uptake easily.

Worms eat organic waste and break into down into a product called castings. These castings contain beneficial nutrients that can easily be absorbed by plants. Their texture also enables them to retain water and so they are great for improving soil structure. And they won’t burn plants, as some chemical fertilizers do. Castings are also suitable for seedlings. Worms also produce a liquid that needs to be drained – worm wee! (Or more technically, leachate.) Some tips on using worm wee are provided below.

And keeping worms is fun! It’s free, they require very little maintenance, meaning you can go on holiday for weeks and they will still be alive on your return – how many pets can you say that about?

Tips & Tricks

So I’ve made the case for reducing fossil fuels, reducing landfill, improving your garden and having fun…so what’s keeping you from getting your own worm farm? Is it any of these?

1. Worm Farms smell.

Actually, they don’t smell if you look after them properly. Castings have an organic smell similar to the earthly smell of soil. The main cause of smelliness is too much food. It can be tempting once you set up your worm farm to add every single scrap of food to it immediately, but worms only eat their body weight in food every day, so you need to start small and increase the food once the worm numbers build up.

2. I don’t have a garden.

Neither do I! The worm farm takes up only a very small amount of space, and it will take several months to fill up the worm farm with castings. You can use them with house plants or pot plants and even if you don’t garden, you are bound to know someone who does so just give them the box of castings once it is full.

3. I don’t have time.

Seriously, how much time do you think you need?! Once the worm farm is set up, all you do is empty your food scraps that you would have thrown in the bin into the worm farm. It helps to have the worm farm nearby – if it’s located at the bottom of the garden you are far less likely to make the trip.

Problem-Solving

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully covers some of the more common problems that you might encounter.

My worm farm smells

Likely cause: too much food

Solution: STOP ADDING FOOD! Give the worms a chance to eat what they already have. Anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) can also cause this so give the top layer a stir to aerate.

My worms are escaping

Likely cause: If it is only a couple of worms, there is probably not an issue. If there is a mass exodus, then there may be too much moisture or too much food.

Solution: Add newspaper to reduce the moisture levels, and stop feeding if there are large amounts of uneaten food.

I have other pesties in my worm farm

Likely cause: Not all insects in your worm farm are problems, and you should expect to find other creatures making their home here. But some pests indicate problems.

Solution: Burying food should keep unwanted pests at bay. Flies indicate there is too much food, so reduce the feeding. Ants indicate that the conditions are too dry, so add water.

Other Things to Know

  • You need to use composting worms for your worm farm – varieties such as red worms or tiger worms, as these are adapted to the conditions of a worm farm, whereas ordinary earthworms are not.
  • Worms prefer cooler conditions so on a very hot day, add an ice pack above the worm blanket to keep the inside of the worm farm cool. However, freezing will kill them! (This is not a problem we have here in Perth but may be an issue in cooler climates.) If you are expecting a frost, bring the worm farm indoors.
  • Worms do not have teeth, but suck in food. The smaller the food particles are, the more they can eat. Blending or chopping helps, but if you can’t be bothered, freezing the food then allowing to thaw will help break down the cell walls and make it easier for your worms. And if you can’t manage that, just try to bury your food so it doesn’t attract pests.
  • Worms don’t like acidic conditions and don’t like acidic food such an onions and citrus. Avoid giving these to your worms.

Worm Wee vs Worm Tea

You may come across references on the internet to both worm wee (leachate), and worm tea. The two names are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they refer to different products. Leachate is what drains from the worm farm. Worm tea is a product made using castings, water and molasses, which are “brewed” for 24-48 hours. The main difference is that worm tea is aerobic, and so great for plants, whereas leachate can be anaerobic.

Leachate is fine to add to compost, but if your leachate is anaerobic it may harm your plants. I learnt this the hard way, diluting my leachate to a 1:10 ratio (1 part leachate for 10 parts water) and pouring on my seedlings, which caused them all to go yellow and die.

The way my worm farm is designed, my leachate does not have much contact with air and so will always be anaerobic. If your leachate drains freely into an open container it will probably be aerobic. You can try to aerate your leachate by diluting and exposing to air for a couple of days before using. However, always exercise caution when using on plants. Make sure you dilute 1:10 with water, and avoid using on seedlings, house plants or other temperamental plants.

How to Build a DIY Worm Farm

One of the first things I noticed once we stopped buying plastic packaging was that our rubbish bin was now filled almost exclusively with organic waste – vegetable peelings, fruit skins and cores, leaves and the like. In the UK our local council had provided a brown bin for organic waste, which was industrially composted, but here in Perth Australia it was heading straight to landfill.

This meant someone was driving a truck to our flat, picking up our organic waste, driving it to a landfill site, dumping it into a hole in the ground and covering it with rocks. With fuel and machinery costs, wages, increased pollution from vehicle emissions, and the resulting contaminated land, it seemed like a lot of energy (and effort) was being wasted dealing with something we could potentially deal with at home.

And so I built a worm farm! I use the term ‘built’ loosely, as there was no actual building involved. In fact, it is dead simple. Additionally, we spent ZERO! Nothing! Zilch!

How to Build a Worm Farm

What you will need: two polystyrene boxes, a skewer, scissors, junk mail or shredded paper, some worms, an old towel

We salvaged two polystyrene boxes with lids from our local supermarket. I just went to the Fruit & Veg section and asked a member of staff. In Australia, vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are delivered in these, and once emptied of stock, they are simply thrown away. The boxes need to be the same width and length, but the same depth is not necessary.

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Two insulated boxes, courtesy of the supermarket. The bottom box doesn’t need a lid as the other box sits directly on top.

The boxes will be stacked on top of one another, so if they are different depths, choose the shallowest to sit on the bottom.

The top box is for the worms, and so needs drainage holes. The bottom box will be used to collect liquid that drains from the other box, so no holes in this one! To pierce holes in the bottom of the box simply use a skewer, making the holes approximately an inch apart.

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Drainage holes allow liquid to drain away, and stop your worms from drowning. The liquid collects in the bottom box.

Place a layer of cardboard at the base of the top box so that the worms do not fall through the holes. Next, add some shredded paper to make bedding for the worms. This is a great way to get rid of those annoying supplements and catalogues that come in the newspapers, or in the mail.

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If you don’t have a shredder (I don’t) then you can make strips of paper for bedding by cutting slits in a newspaper at 1cm intervals along the spine, and then tearing.

Using a litre of water (ideally rain water of filtered water, if you have) pour carefully over the bedding to ensure it is wet. Any excess water will drain through to the bottom box.

And then…worms! I got mine from a friend but many community gardens offer them either free or for a small fee. You can also find them on gumtree or freecycle. If all else fails they can be purchased at the big DIY stores but be aware that these will have potentially been sitting on the shelf for a long period of time and may not be in very good health, so will take longer to get going.

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The worms in their new home : ) One fistful of worms needs one fistful of food per week. It’s important not to overfeed them as this means a stinky worm farm and can also attract other unwanted pesties who want in on the action.

Finally, cover the worms with an old towel, sack or carpet, or if you don’t have these to hand then use cardboard. This cover keeps the worms dark and damp, and keeps flies out. If you’ve used cardboard or something biodegradable you will eventually have to replace this as it will disintegrate over time.

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An old flour sack acting as a worm blanket, as I don’t have any old towels.

Lastly, replace the polystyrene box lid, after piercing a couple of holes for air, and place in a shaded spot. My worm farm lives on my balcony but it would be fine to keep indoors in a laundry or kitchen…if you wanted to! Do not feed the worms for a few days to give them a chance to settle into their new home.

And there you have it – a DIY worm farm that didn’t cost you a penny!