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How Getting to Know Your Neighbours Helps With Zero Waste Living

It’s easy to reduce the idea of zero waste living to thinking about the products we buy (or don’t buy) and the choices we make as individuals. But zero waste (and living with less waste) is a movement, and movements need people. We can only do so much when we act on our own.

Sure, zero waste living can mean shopping at bulk stores and making our own skincare products. That’s part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Ultimately zero waste about consuming less and buying less, and that means rethinking the way we use resources: reusing, making do, borrowing and repairing.

We think of bulk stores and libraries and Farmer’s Markets as great resources for living with less waste, and they are, but there’s a much less talked about asset almost all of us have access to: our local community.

It’s mentioned far less but is equally (and possibly more) valuable for zero waste living.

One of the most valuable assets for my zero waste journey has been my neighbours. I thought I’d share some of the ways we’ve helped each other reduce our waste, and hopefully give you some ideas for how you might be able to get involved with your own community.

What My Neighbourhood Looks Like

Just as a bit of background, let me tell you a little about where I live. I moved into my current suburb in 2016 from the other side of Perth – so I haven’t lived here for very long. My neighbours from four doors down built the property where I live, and I met them through that process back in 2014. I didn’t know anyone else when I moved in.

There’s 7 properties on my block, some rented and some owned, and residents have come and gone in the two years I’ve lived here. Our suburb is close to the city but not densely populated – there’s about 2,500 residents, with 28,000 in the local government area.

In short, I live in a city but it isn’t an urban metropolis: it has quite a suburban feel.

How I Met My Neighbours

There are probably three ways I met my neighbours. The first (and perhaps most obvious one) is seeing them at their front doors, in the garden, in the street etc, and saying hello.

The second is by neighbours introducing other neighbours they knew and I didn’t. This is both in passing and at various events in the town. Slowly the network spreads.

The third way (oh, how 21st century) is via the internet. One of the best tools has been our local Buy Nothing group, which operates using the Facebook groups function (more on that in a sec).

How My Neighbours Help With Zero Waste Living

Sharing Ideas

Sharing ideas has ranged from the big to the minuscule, and all are important. On the far end of the scale, my neighbour and I hatched a plan to turn the disused patch of land next to my block into a community fruit tree project.

I’d had the idea, and he’d the same idea, and once we got together and realised we both had the shared vision we started to make it happen. (You can read more about how we started our community food tree project here.)

We’ve planted around 24 fruit trees, and they should keep our neighbourhood in plastic-free locally grown produce once they’re a little bit bigger :)

From that, we decided we needed a little help with the tree pruning this spring, and invited the neighbours along so they could benefit from the knowledge.

Lathlain is now sporting the best pruned fruit trees in Perth, not just here but also in all the gardens of the people who came along!

On the other end of the scale, I showed my next-door neighbour how to make mint tea with fresh mint leaves. (It’s super simple – you literally steep fresh mint leaves in hot water. Taste sensation.) Now she does that rather than buy teabags.

She made the most delicious nettle soup I have ever eaten from stinging nettles from her garden. (Not something I’d ever have tried before, but definitely something I’ll try now.)

We’ve also had some good discussions about the in’s and out’s of establishing a functioning worm farm, what actually goes in the recycling bin and some of my neighbours are currently organising a street get-together.

Sometimes it just takes a conversation to spark a new idea or go one step further to changing a habit.

Sharing Resources

A spin-off from the food tree project has been our community composting bank. We share our compost bins with the neighbours, which means lots of food scraps diverted from landfill, and lots of compost we’d otherwise need to purchase. Most of our neighbours have found us through sharewaste.com.

Sharing the Work

The thing about projects led by a single person, is that when that person gets tired, sick, overwhelmed or otherwise occupied, the project tends to fall over.

One of the best things about our Food Tree Project is that there’s multiple people invested, so if one person is too busy, others can step up to keep it going. I’ve taken a step back this year as I’ve had too many other things going on. My neighbour, however, is taking a year off from work and has extra time to keep things going. Consequently the fruit trees look better than ever.

Sharing Stuff

With my closest neighbours, who I know by name, it’s easy enough to knock on the door and ask to borrow something. And I do, regularly. Garden tools, kitchen gadgets, ingredients when I realise I’m out of something mid-way through a recipe and the shops are shut.

Most recently I borrowed a coffee grinder after mine bust, and lent a book to the same neighbour who’d been contemplating buying one and seen (via social media) that I’d already bought it.

I also passed on the magazine to a different neighbour. Things are for sharing!

But when you don’t actually know someone, it’s a little bit harder to borrow something – and possibly a little bit weird to just bang on the door.

Thankfully, the internet can help us out.

There are plenty of online groups and platforms that allow neighbours to connect with each other, firstly on line, and then perhaps in person. The two groups that I use are my local Buy Nothing Group, and my local Swap Share group.

The Buy Nothing Project is a network of hyper-local community groups where people can give, borrow and accept items ,but no money changes hands. People are only allowed to join one group: the one where they live. Consequently the members are all neighbours.

The Buy Nothing group has been a great way to find second-hand items. I tend to give more than I take because I generally don’t need much stuff, but I have scored a few useful items. My two best finds: a pair of almost new trainers in my size, and a computer monitor to use with my (tiny screen) laptop.

Another great win via the Buy Nothing Group was borrowing a screwdriver to enable me to change the damaged/worn seal on my coffee machine. The guy I borrowed the screwdriver from was also kind enough to help me take it apart and gave it a good clean with an air pressure thing.

I purchased a new seal, and the machine is as good as new. The screwdriver was duly returned.

There’s plenty of other donating and lending/borrowing of things via the group. It means resources are much better used (things languishing in cupboards are being wasted) and it means people not buying new stuff.

If you’re not a member of your local buy Nothing group I’d suggest joining, and if you don’t have one, I’d recommend beginning your own!

The Swap Share group meets once a month, and is for people to donate and swap excess garden produce. There’s also been a great deal of swapping recipes and other goods: pickles, preserves, DIY cleaning products and more.

I had no idea pickled radishes were so delicious until I picked some up from a Swap Share get-together!

Without my neighbourhood network there’s no doubt I’d have purchased a lot more things and wasted far more time looking for solutions. Worst of all, I’d have missed the opportunity to get to know and help out the great people who live in my suburb.

Local solutions are almost always the lowest waste solutions. If we’re passionate about reducing our waste, getting to know our neighbours and exploring our neighbourhoods is definitely something to embrace.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you embraced any neighbourhood community groups or hyper-local networks? What have been your experiences? How have you met your neighbours and the people in your suburb – or do you not know them? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Community Composting (+ Tips For Better Compost)

One of my favourite things about living with less waste is that there is never a single solution. There are always lots of solutions. Different options work better for different people and different situations, but there will always be a way.

In Australia, 40% of our landfill bins consist of food waste. Trimmed off bits, peels, skins, seeds, cores, outer leaves, shells, things we left in the fridge a little too long, bad bits, leftovers.

We toss this stuff in the general waste bin, and off it heads to landfill. Which, contrary to what many people believe, isn’t a giant compost heap. It’s a tomb of waste, sealed by layers of rocks (or sometimes layers of plastic) in between the layers of rubbish, and slowly releasing methane into the environment.

At the same time as we throw our food scraps in the bin, we head to the garden centre to buy plastic bags of compost to help our plants grow better.

We’ve got it all wrong!

So what can we do with our food scraps instead?

Before I moved to Australia, I lived in Bristol (in the UK), and I was fortunate enough to have my organic waste collected by the council every week and taken to an industrial composter. This isn’t an option where I live now (although some councils are currently trialing it).

Even if it was, I wouldn’t use that service now. I would rather keep my food waste (it is a valuable resource!) and turn it into something I can use – or donate it to someone else who can use it instead.

I’ve talked about some different ways of dealing with food waste before: DIY worm farms, done-for-you worm farms and bokashi bins. If you’re just starting out on the living-with-less-waste journey, setting up systems at home can take a bit of time.

As always, there’s a solution. Community composting!

For anyone wanting an easy beginner’s solution, or for anyone without the time or space to set up their own systems, community composting banks are perfect.

What Is A Community Composting Bank?

A community composting bank is simply a location where members of the community can go to deposit their food scraps.

(They are not necessarily called “banks”. I was thinking about this word, and whether it was better to use the word “hub”, “centre” or “facility”. A phrase popped into my head that I’ve heard many times before: “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. If compost is what helps us to grow food, then I think bank is the best word after all.)

The best composting banks are those with capacity to handle the scraps they receive; those with unrestricted access; and those that are managed/overseen by someone to check they are working properly, not contaminated or full of pests.

By “best”, I really mean “easiest to use”. That’s not to say others don’t work well too. Given the choice, I’d prefer to turn out to a facility that is open/accessible, has space to take my scraps, and isn’t infected with cockroaches.

I’d still come back if I turned up to find the place was locked, or the bins were full, but not everyone will. To reach the maximum number of people, things need to be as easy as possible.

The other important consideration is location. A 24 hour access composting hub on the other side of town is less practical than the restricted access compost bins just down the road.

As with most community initiatives, the more local, the more useful and likely to be used.

How We Set Up Our Community Composting Bank

I run a community composting hub together with my friend and neighbour. Originally, both of us listed our home compost bins on the awesome website sharewaste.com, a free-to-use service connecting people with food scraps with people with compost bins.

Around the same time, we started a Food Tree project on the land next to my house, planting 34 food trees for our community. We realised that these trees are going to need a fair bit of compost.

We had space for compost bins and we knew plenty of people in our community would be eager to donate their food scraps to our bins.

We started with two bins, and have now increased to five (all donated or sourced second-hand).

As people contact us via Sharewaste, we ask them to bring their food scraps here, and started making compost.

Managing A Community Composting Hub

As with everything, the more people who get involved with something, the more likely it is that things will go awry. With about 20 families currently emptying their food scraps into our bins, we started noticing more and more that things weren’t quite as they should be.

I should add that this is not the fault of the people donating their scraps. As the managers, it is our responsibility to make sure it is all working.

If people haven’t had compost bins before, there is no reason why they would know what is good and what is not.

There were a few problems that we had in particular.

Fresh food scraps going in whichever bin.

This meant all five bins would have fresh food scraps mixed into varying degrees of compost – frustrating when we wanted to dig out the ready compost and there’s a bunch of veggies in there too.

We realised that whilst it might be totally obvious to us which bin was the one for new food scraps, it certainly wasn’t clear to everyone!

Too many veggies scraps (too much nitrogen).

Compost bins need a balance of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen-rich scraps are anything green and fresh; carbon scraps are anything brown or dead. Veggie scraps are high in nitrogen. If the only thing being added is fresh green nitrogen-rich scraps, the bin will get stinky and attract flies and other pests pretty quickly.

For all of the green scraps added, some browns (carbon) need to be added too.

Food scraps not being mixed in.

A big mound of fresh veggies sitting on top of the compost pile will not break down nearly as well as those food scraps stirred in, because that is where the microbes are – inside, not on top! Not to mention that food on top will attract pests.

Too much carbon.

Less of an issue as most people are donating food scraps (nitrogen), but we did find one compost bin completely filled with shredded paper – and nothing else. Without anything else, that would have sat there probably for years, breaking down ever so slowly. In the same way as there can’t be too much green, there definitely can’t be too much brown.

Setting Up a Composting System That Works

My neighbour and I talked about all the issues, and how to reduce them in future. Community things need to be easy, and we felt a big list of rules would be overwhelming and put people off – which is the last thing we want!

We worked through the issues one by one, and have implemented a system.

Firstly, we decided that it was too difficult to expect people to figure out which bin was the one to add their scraps to simply by looking.

We decided instead to implement a linear system, where the scraps always go into one designated bin, and then we will move into other bins along the line manually.

(This means we can also check there’s nothing strange being added.)

We also decided that to make it easy for people to add carbon to their food scraps, we’d set up a bin solely with carbon so they could simply scoop some in afterwards.

Then, we added some signage and labels.

We wrote up the basics on a sign, weatherproofed it and secured it to a post.

We wrote a document with more tips and tricks (the stuff that we’d like people to know) and added a QR code to the sign, so if they have a question, they can check.

We’ve also secured the aerator/composting fork to the signpost (and explained in the sign what it is for) so that it is easy for people to mix their food scraps into the existing compost.

We painted labels on the two bins that people need to use. When in doubt, always label.

In short, we’ve tried to predict in advance what could go wrong, and then solve it before it happens. So far, it seems to be working well.

Looking for a Community Composting Hub?

If you’re feeling inspired to hook into an existing hub or maybe start your own, my first suggestion would be see who else is in your area via sharewaste.com. My second suggestion would be to contact your nearest community garden.

If both of these fail, consider whether you could set up a mini hub at your place. Even if you only have capacity to take a couple of household’s food scraps, it all helps!

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you currently deal with your food scraps? Do you like your current system or would you prefer something different? Have you any experiences with community composting hubs – both good and not-so good? Anything other questions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How We Started an Urban Food Tree Project

Ever since we first moved to our suburb 18 months ago, I had my eye on the rather sad looking patch of land at the corner of the street.  Despite the weeds and bare nothingness (excluding the few surviving melaleuca trees around the edge), all I could see was the epic potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn this barren, weedy patch of land into a thriving community orchard?

My neighbours, and one in particular, shared my enthusiasm and vision. Almost as soon as we moved in, the conversation began. At the start of this year, the actual work began, to turn the conversation into reality.

The Initial Idea: Creating a Food Tree Project

Rather than planting an orchard where the goal is to maximise production, we wanted a balance. Growing fruit trees alongside natives and groundcovers creates a more aesthetically pleasing, biodiverse and dynamic ecosystem that will be more interesting to walk through, creates more learning opportunities and is more resilient to pests.

The name “Food Tree Project” rather than an “Urban Orchard” reflects that our goals were broader than simply planting fruit-bearing trees and producing food. The permaculture concept of “Food Forest” didn’t really fit either, because although I followed permaculture principles in the designing, there are too many human inputs to be a true permaculture food forest.

Food Tree Project felt best.

Our Vision:

Community: to provide a space for collaboration, learning, volunteering and sharing; to encourage residents to learn more about growing food and have access to locally grown fruit; and create an attractive and sheltered resting spot close to the train station.

Environment: to increase tree coverage, canopy cover and greenery; to improve the streetscape close to the train station; and to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for birds.

The Plan:

The plan was to plant around 40 fruit trees of varying species on the unused space on the corner of two streets in our suburb, with wide pathways between the trees to allow and encourage public access for community members to see the trees and learn about them.

We also planned to plant native species on the border to encourage biodiversity, and interplant nitrogen-fixing acacias and other ground covers to create a green space between the trees.

The property next to the block has a bore, we are extending the reticulation so that the site will have water access in summer (this is essential in Perth – no water means no trees).

Goals of the Food Tree Project:

There are a number of goals we hope to achieve with this project.

  • Create a welcoming and shady community space by planting trees, and to provide access for residents to locally grown fruit.
  • Provide learning opportunities for interested residents on growing their own food and looking after fruit trees, and to provide volunteering opportunities.
  • To provide a demonstration project and framework that other volunteer groups can take to their local council to plant more trees on underutilised spaces in their urban environment.

The First Step: Getting Council Approval

The scariest step is probably asking for permission. Have you ever heard the expression “ask for forgiveness, not permission?” If we asked the council for permission and they said no, it would be hard to go ahead and do it anyway.

Should we ask for permission, or just do it and hope they didn’t mind?

However, we want this project to be an example of what can be done, a demonstration project to encourage others to approach their councils to plant on underutilized spaces. That meant going through the official channels. So we put together our vision and arranged to meet a council member on the site to discuss our plans.

We met on the site and talked through our ideas. We asked what restrictions they had (for example, banned or unwanted species) and were willing to listen to any needs that they had. I’d recommend meeting in person rather than chatting via email. It’s so much easier to connect with someone when you are face-to-face.

We agreed to put together a plan of the site detailing the trees to formalise the project. I took a screenshot of the Google arial view of the block, then pasted that into Powerpoint. I drew lines over the roads, paths and boundaries, and put cloud shapes over the trees, then deleted the photograph to keep the outline.

The initial outline drawn using Google Arial View and Powerpoint…

…and one of the working drafts (of which there were several!)

On one hand, we were lucky that the council were so supportive. But on the other hand, it wasn’t really luck. My co-conspirator neighbour had been working with the council on a community sump revegetation project for a couple of years prior to this, and had been able to build the relationship with the people there. He had demonstrated his ability to listen, to work together with them to resolve disputes, and show responsibility.

Although it felt like we got approval very quickly, my neighbour joked that the work actually began in 2012. In truth, it probably did.

Step 2: Formalising The Project

As well as submitting a plan for the tree planting, we also had to submit a pest control plan detailing how we would manage the site and deal with pest issues. For this, I referred to the council website and Department of Agriculture website to find out current recommended procedures.

Initially, the plan was to lease the site from the council. This would have required insurance, which we were planning to get through the local community garden (of which both my neighbour and I are members). There would have been a small annual cost for this.

In the end, the plans changed and there is no lease: the land remains under responsibility of the council. Whilst this may seem less secure, there are advantages. The site actually had a road running through it prior to 1990 before the road layouts were changed, and there was road base right through the land. The council came with a bobcat to dig out the road base, which might not have happened had there been a lease in place.

Funding Opportunities

Needing funds to purchase the trees and the reticulation, we approached the local football team (the West Coast Eagles). They have just moved to our suburb and are constructing a new training ground and stadium, and in the process angered the community greatly by chopping down 100 mature native trees.

As they emphasize their commitment to community in their media releases we thought it might be a project they would like to support.

Initially they seemed keen to sponsor our trees, but over time it became apparent that they had ulterior motives. The council had stipulated that all trees removed whilst building the training grounds must be replaced and maintained, and the Eagles were hoping that they could fund our trees as a cost cutting measure. (Funding a few $30 fruit trees would have saved them the cost of sourcing, planting and maintaining mature native trees.)

Without going into details, the Eagles were not transparent with us about this. When we realised (several months later) that, rather than supporting our project because they saw the value in investing in community, they were trying to get out of their responsibilities (clearly a small citrus tree is no replacement for a large gum tree), we decided not to pursue this further.

All the messing around meant time was ticking. It was now the start of winter and we urgently needed to plant the trees if they were to survive the summer.

Preparing the Site, Tree Purchasing and Getting the Community On Board

In short, we didn’t receive funding, and decided we would have to buy the trees, reticulation and soil amendments ourselves. We’d decided that the upcoming weekend would be perfect tree planting weather, and we began sourcing trees. My neighbour purchased seven citrus trees and I purchased another six trees, and we began setting the foundations for the project.

We planted the first few trees ourselves to get an idea of time and how best to do it all.

Next we put it out on the Buy Nothing Group that we were beginning a Food Tree Project in the area, and would anyone like to come and help us weed and plant?

And something wonderful happened.

People said yes, but many also asked us if they could donate a tree, or provide funding to purchase a tree. We hadn’t asked for money, but it was so humbling (and immensely appreciated) that our neighbours wanted to contribute financially.

One tree is not expensive (the costs varied from $20 to $70 depending on the species) but 40 trees adds up. Not to mention the reticulation costs, which my neighbour funded himself. When there’s a whole community on board, that changes things considerably. After our initial tree purchases, the others were paid for by the community.

It also showed us that people valued what we were doing, and wanted to be a part of it. (Thanks to Jayne, Deb, Miranda, Kath, Marisa, Lindi, Kate, Lana and Toni for your contributions.)

Just as importantly, people came to our busy bees. We weeded the rest of the site, dug holes, spread clay and compost and planted trees. Then we installed reticulation, and mulched the entire site. What could have taken us months was finished in a three weekends.

We now have most of the trees planted.

(If you’d like to know more about the project, I recorded a 20 minute video with some details of how we got the project going, and also a walk through of the site and the different trees that we have planted. You’ll find it on my Patreon page.)

What’s Next for the Urban Food Tree Project

Our biggest job is to ensure that the trees survive their first year in the hot Perth summer. With the reticulation in place, this shouldn’t be a big job, but it is a job nonetheless.

One thing we are doing now is establishing a community composting bank. We’ve put two huge compost bins on the site and plan to add to this as we find more suitable bins on Gumtree. If we can get all of our neighbours dropping good scraps off, we will have a rich supply of compost to feed the trees with. Plus it is another way to involve our neighbours with the project.

When autumn comes round I’m keen to work on the shrub layer and groundcover. Having sunk a lot into the project this year, we didn’t have the funds or the time to do this before now, and summer is not the time to start. We are keen to plant herbs and natives, and as the canopy layer grows these plants will have more chance of success.

At the moment the site looks a little barren, but by next year it should be completely transformed.

Now I’d love to hear from you! There’s so much more I could share about the project, so do you have any questions? Is there anything you’d like me to explain in more detail? Do you have any tips or suggestions for me, or experience with projects of your own? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below :)