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How to Read Your Gas Bill + How I Saved $300 a Year

I have a confession. I actually enjoy receiving our power bills. It’s because I’m a bit of a nerd and I like to see how much energy (and money!) we’re saving by being as energy-efficient as possible. Today we received a new gas bill in the post, but when I ripped open the envelope my heart almost stopped because I saw the graph:

Graph on gas bill

Energy usage graph on gas bill

How on earth had our gas usage skyrocketed that much?

Before panic ensued, I checked our average daily consumption in units. This information is always included on your bill. It turns out that we hadn’t used many more units than the previous bill after all. Phew!

Gas bills for new flat

For this billing period we used 4.40 units per day, compared to 4.12 units per day on the previous bill.

The new bill confirms that we’re using less than half the energy we used at the previous flat. That sounds pretty impressive. This works out to be a saving of $300, which, I think you’ll agree, is even more impressive. So what is the secret?

First up, I’m just going to explain how to read your gas bill. It’s vital if you want to know how much energy you use and how much it’s costing you! It also means you can compare your usage with similar households to find out if you’re actually paying more than you should be. (Extra bonus –  knowing how to read your bill also prevents heart-attacks when you receive misleading graphs!)

A Quick Guide to Reading Your Energy Bill

  • The first thing to check is that the bill you’ve received correlates with your meter! (This isn’t likely to be a problem unless you’ve just moved, but it’s worth mentioning.)
  • Secondly, check if the bill is based on a meter reading or an estimate. If the bill is estimated, the amount may be very different to what you’ve actually used. You can usually contact your energy company to give an accurate reading and receive a new bill.
  • Be wary of graphs! The energy companies can use data to manipulate what you see. The reason my graph had such a huge change was because I moved mid-way through a billing cycle. The first bill I received was for 44 days. The second was for 89 days. It stands to reason that my second bill will cost twice as much as the first bill – it’s for double the amount of days!
  • Look for the average daily consumption, measured in units. That tells you how many units you are using every day. Energy is priced per unit, so the cost to you is the amount your company charges per unit multiplied by the number of units you have used.
  • If you can’t find your average daily consumption, it’s easy to calculate by finding the total number of energy units used and dividing by the number of days in the billing period. For my latest bill I used 391 units over 89 days, which is 4.39 units per day.

How I Saved $300 a Year in Gas Bills

This isn’t the part where I tell you I switched providers, and offer you a nifty little affiliate link like you’ve no doubt seen a gazillion times before. Nope. Sadly the gas company in Perth has a monopoly on the supply, so I’m stuck with these guys for now. I saved that much money without switching providers. I’ll tell you how I did it.

I moved house.

Not to a smaller house. I moved to a bigger house.

I moved to a bigger house with an additional demand for gas over the previous house (this place has a gas oven; the previous place had an electric one).

I might also add that the flat I moved to is in the same complex, made from the same materials and with the same insulation (or lack of).

Despite all of things thing, my gas bills have halved. See?

The daily energy use at my old flat was between 9 and 11.49 per day compared to less than 5 in the new flat.

The daily energy use at my old flat was between 8.9 and 11.49 per day compared to less than 5 in the new flat.

Do you know what made all that difference?

This guy.

New Boiler

This 5 1/2 star energy rating boiler that doesn’t have a pilot light meant my gas bills halved…without me doing a thing!

The boiler.

Compared with this guy:

Boiler with a pilot light

Meet Mr Inefficiency: Boiler with a pilot light

I did everything in our old flat to reduce our gas use (that’s why the unit consumption dropped a little during the year), but there was one thing I couldn’t get away from. The pilot light. That boiler burns gas even when it’s just sitting there. Even when it’s 40ºC day and you really don’t want any kind of heat at all. Our new boiler, by comparison, only burns gas when it’s ignited.

That’s all it’s taken to cut our bill by $300.

We didn’t install the boiler ourselves, it came with the rental, and in that regard we’ve been lucky. However, it has also highlighted to me the importance of fuel-efficient appliances, not just for the emissions they produce but also the cost savings they provide.

You may not be able to change your gas boiler, if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck with an inefficient one (but if you are, here’s one idea for reducing how much energy it costs you). There are, however, plenty of other appliances that use energy that you do have control over. Think about all the other energy drains in the home: the heating, lighting, washing machine, dryer, the vacuum cleaner, small kitchen appliances, fridge and freezer, and other electrical equipment. Next time you need to change something, don’t just consider the initial cost, because in the long term it may end up costing more than you think.

Are you a homeowner who has installed energy efficient appliances, or are you a renter who is stuck with rubbishy inefficient junk that your landlord installed to save himself a buck or two? Are there any other appliances you’ve switched to energy saving and know have saved you money and cut your bills? Do you have any tips or experiences to share? I always love to hear from you so don’t forget to leave a comment!

My Fridge vs The People of Africa

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting graph showing the energy consumption of some guy’s fridge. The owner of the fridge was Todd Moss, a senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Development. He purchased this new fridge for his single-person household, and was shocked when he compared the energy use of his fridge with the energy use of an average citizen in each of six African nations. He made a graph to show just how much more energy his fridge was consuming.

Here’s the graph (you can read his blog post here):

Source: Todd Moss |Centre for Global Development

Source: Todd Moss | Centre for Global Development

I think it’s pretty shocking that a single appliance uses this much energy. Imagine how much energy he uses when you add in all those other appliances! It got me wondering…how much energy does my own fridge use?

Ours is a 400 litre fridge which was given to us by my boyfriend’s parents when they bought a new one. It was originally purchased in 2002 when energy efficiency ratings weren’t so much on the radar. We were pretty sure it uses a lot of energy – but how much?

When we moved house our neighbour left her old fridge behind as she no longer needed it. At 180 litres it is significantly smaller than the other one, so we decided to try it out and see if we could manage with the reduced size.

Big Fridge Small Fridge

Our old fridge is the bigger one on the right (around 400litres), and the smaller one was our neighbours (around 180litres).

In addition to trying it out for size, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to measure the energy consumption and running cost of both fridges, and borrowed an energy meter from a friend.

How to Use a Home Energy Meter

The meter I used was a Power-Mate PM10AHD. You plug it into the wall, and plug your appliance or device into the meter, and you can read energy use via the screen.

Power Mate Energy MonitorWith a fridge or an appliance that runs continuously, you need to wait for 24 hours before reading the data as the energy use will fluctuate throughout the day.

The meter measures a few things, but the interesting ones are power (measured in Watts), time (hours) and energy (kWh – which means kilo-watts per hour).

It is possible to calculate how much an appliance is costing you to run if you know what your energy company charges per unit. (You can find this information printed on your bill.) My energy company charges me 23.55 cents per unit (a unit of energy is kWh), plus a carbon component of 2.36 cents per unit, which means I pay 25.91 cents per unit of energy I consume.

The meter I used had a handy function for inputting how much my energy company charge ($/kWh), and then it calculates the energy cost per hour, day, quarter and year for me. It’s a pretty simple calculation though: energy used for one hour x cost for one unit will give you the cost for 1 hour. Multiply by 24 and you have the energy cost for 1 day; multiply this by 7 for the cost of one week and so on.

The Results:

The Small Fridge:

The small fridge uses 0.0375kW per hour of energy.
The energy use per day is 0.90kWh.
The energy use per year is 328kWh.

The cost for running the fridge for a day is 23 cents. For a quarter it costs $21.27 and for a year it costs $85.11.

The Big Fridge:

The big fridge uses 0.0728kW per hour of energy.
The energy use per day is 1.75kWh.
The energy use per year is 639kWh.

The cost of running the fridge for a day is 45 cents. For a quarter it costs $41.32 and for a year it costs $165.29.

The Difference:

The big fridge costs an extra $80 per year to run at current energy prices!

Here’s a graph showing how my two fridges compare with Todd’s fridge and the 6 African nations:

My fridge uses more energy than the citizens of 6 African nations combined : (

My fridge uses more energy than the average citizens of these 6 African nations, and almost as much as the energy of all six average citizens combined : (

The smaller fridge still uses more energy than an average citizen in each of these countries, but is far more modest than the big fridge, for which the energy consumption is ridiculous. I’m quite embarassed that I have such a power-puzzling monster in my kitchen. Whilst it’s a big fridge, it’s not unusually big for Australia and plenty of people have double-door fridges which guzzle even more energy – not that I’m trying to justify it! My one consolation over Todd’s fridge is at least ours serves two people.

I would like to tell you that we decided to keep the small fridge, but it was just a bit too small. The way we shop, with our fortnightly vegetable box delivery, and my constant baking and making-enough-leftovers-for-the-rest-of-the-week way of cooking, it just didn’t quite work. The minimalist in me is not impressed. We know the big one is too big, but it still works and for the short-term we’re resigned to keeping it.

We sold the smaller fridge on Gumtree (with our old neighbour’s permission); they guy who bought it wanted a second fridge to go in the garage…as a beer fridge. Yep, a separate fridge just for his beer. I wonder what the people in those African nations would think of that?

Have you ever checked the energy consumption of your electric appliances? Were you surprised with the results? Or have you never even thought about it until now? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Choosing Electricity that’s Greener (Sort Of)

One of the first things we did when we knew we were moving was to revisit our energy bills, and look into green power. Now you might be thinking, surely we were already buying green power? But actually, no, we weren’t.

When I lived in England I had both my electricity and gas supplied by Ecotricity. Ecotricity describe themselves as Britain’s leading green energy supplier, and when they launched in 1996 they were the world’s first green electricity company (you can read more about their history here). They supply UK households with electricity made from wind and solar, and they are looking into using wave power too. They are also looking into producing green gasmills that use renewable sources to make gas (such as organic material and algae). They have planning permission to build their first green gasmill, but in the meantime they promise that all gas supplied will not come from shale, meaning it is frack free.

Moving from the UK to Western Australia, however, meant I no longer had this option. In fact, I had no options at all. Energy supply is heavily regulated here, meaning there is only one electricity company and one gas company. They don’t even offer a range of tariffs. The electricity provider, Synergy, is actually owned by the Western Australian government and they offer one plan – the (uninspiringly titled) Home Plan.

Alinta (the gas supplier) don’t offer any green options at all, but Synergy offer “Green Energy”. It may sound good, but we’re not talking solar power or renewables From Synergy as such. We’re talking certificates.

As Synergy tell me on their website: “When you choose to purchase EasyGreen or NaturalPower, Synergy will use your premiums to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) from nationally accredited GreenPower renewable energy sources. The RECs purchased will match the amount of your EasyGreen or NaturalPower contribution.”

My understanding of what this means: Synergy will continue to burn fossil fuels to produce my electricity, but they’ll spend the extra that I’m willing to pay on pieces of paper (RECs) that “prove” that Synergy are being green (after all, they’re getting a certificate – what says proof more than that?). They get these certificates by giving my money to other companies who produce green energy (according to this list Synergy don’t own any green power generators themselves). These pieces of paper are issued by the government, and Synergy are buying these certificates with my money – so effectively I’m just reimbursing the government and Synergy is getting the credit. I wonder what the government does with the revenue from these certificates…dredge the Great Barrier Reef to sell more coal?

Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the scheme. Have a look at the explanation GreenPower have on their website for how the scheme works:

How GreenPower WorksCould it be any more complicated and confusing?! I have no understanding of what this means either, but I’m not getting good vibes from this diagram! Seems like too much regulation and too little action to me!

In spite of my distrust for these certification schemes, I’ve signed up for NaturalPower anyway. Why, if I’m so skeptical?

  • It may not be Ecotricity, but its something, and something is better than nothing.
  • I need to make the best of what options are available to me.
  • I want to send a message that renewables are something that I support, and something that I want to see more of.
  • I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t have a roof to install my own solar panels (ah, one day…) so this is how I can contribute.

The NaturalPower scheme that Synergy offers means we can contribute up to 100% of our consumption to purchase RECs. We’ve opted to contribute the full 100%. We use 5 units of electricity every day, which will mean our bill will go up $1.76 a week.

Green Power Square Image

Now I don’t like paying more for energy than I have to… who does?! But I also believe in using our money to shape the kind of world we want to live in. I’m happy to pay the green premium, but I still want to pay as little as possible. In order to get my bill down I need to look at my electricity usage and see if there’s any way we can reduce it further. We’re already pretty good in this department, but a fresh look at everything won’t hurt! I’ve got a blog post coming soon on ways to reduce your electricity consumption in the home, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

My thought for the day: Don’t let the pursuit of perfection hold you back from taking action. Synergy’s NaturalPower scheme is definitely not perfect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction…

Right, I’m off to dream of off-grid living and solar panels!

What do you think about green energy tariffs? Do you think they’re a scam or do you think they’re helping renewable energy become more mainstream and accepted? Have I totally misunderstood the REC scheme?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

An exciting letter in the post…

I’ve been excitedly waiting for the gas bill for a couple of weeks now, and yesterday it finally arrived! Yep, you read that right. I was excited by the thought of receiving the gas bill.

Three months ago we decided to be pro-active about reducing our gas consumption because we realised our gas bill was unusually high for such a small flat, and being conscious of our environmental footprint, we decided to do something about it. Living in a rental, we couldn’t do much about the rubbishy cheap inefficient boiler with the gas-wasting pilot light that the landlord had installed. What we could do, and what we did, was reduce the pilot light to the lowest setting and lower the temperature setting so that we no longer need to add any cold water when we shower. Read more

A simple way to use less gas (and save money)?

Last week we received our quarterly gas bill. Normally I just groan and pay the money that’s demanded, without really thinking any more about it. (In the UK the gas companies estimate the meter readings so I’d always go check to see if it was actually right, and if it wasn’t I’d call them and ask them to adjust the bill, but here in Australia they actually read the meter before sending you the bill, so there’s no need to double check.)

However, a couple of weeks ago we discovered that our gas usage (and hence our gas bill) is surprisingly high. Have you ever looked at your actual daily consumption? According to our bill, we use 11.49 units a day. That didn’t mean anything to us until we were able to compare  with some other bills, and we found that ours was much higher than others who live in bigger houses and appear to use far more gas.

gasbilljpgWhat are we using gas for in our home?

We have four gas stove tops, but the oven is electric. Our water is heated by gas (although not the washing machine) but we’re pretty good at having 4 minute showers. And that’s it. There’s no gas heating, no other gas appliances. I do a fair bit of cooking, but still, why is it so high?

With the hob, I always put lids on my saucepans, and I always use the smallest ring I can, so there’s not much I can change, other than cooking less.

Which means it must be the water.

Ever since we went to that water workshop and dismissed water as not particularly important (perhaps motivating is a better word), we’ve been plagued by situations that have made us notice how much we take it for granted. I wrote this post about how the next day our water was disconnected for the entire day. Over the following two weeks it was disconnected twice more, both without any warning. Apparently the problem has finally been resolved, but there’s nothing like being without water to make you realise how important it is.

Back to the gas. We are using gas to heat the water we use to shower, to wash our hands and to do the washing up. We don’t feel like we’re using excessive amounts of hot water, so one issue must be how hot we’re heating the water. The thermostat.

To make the shower a comfortable temperature, we turn on the hot water, then add cold water to get it to the right temperature. We’re heating the water using gas, and then cooling it straight back down again. How ridiculous is that?!

Prompted by the gas bill, this weekend we decided to investigate the water boiler. We live in a rental, and had to get a new boiler installed three months after we moved in when the old one exploded. (Literally.) Being a rental, the landlord installed the cheapest one possible. Interestingly, our gas bill jumped up after the new boiler was installed. At the time we assumed it was because it was winter, but now we’ve got a year’s worth of statements we can see it’s definitely the new boiler. This one has a pilot light, whereas the old one didn’t, and pilot lights burn gas, and are not energy-efficient. (If you’re interested in the physics of it all, check this out!) We can’t change our boiler, but we can change the settings to try to reduce our gas usage.

boiler1When the cover’s taken off, there’s two adjustable knobs. One is for the pilot light, and the other is for the water temperature.

boiler2That big blue flame in the middle is the pilot light. The slide-y knob below it adjusts the pilot light – supposedly. We slid it as far to the left as it would go. It didn’t appear to make any difference, but hopefully it did something. It makes sense to keep the pilot light as low as possible, so it burns as little gas as possible.

The round knob at the bottom is the temperature setting. We turned that down and then tested the temperature of the water in the house, so it was low enough that the water was still hot, but there was no need to add cold water.

I couldn’t believe how much gas is used when the boiler is fired up to heat the water.

boiler3Having seen it in all its blazing glory, we’ve also agreed not to fire the boiler up unnecessarily. No post-dinner, pre-washing-up rinsing of dishes in hot water. No running the hot tap too long.

Hopefully our adjustments will save us some gas, and hence some money. It will be interesting to see if it makes a difference (and how much of a difference) when the next gas bill comes in three month’s time.

If you’ve got a gas boiler, have you checked your thermostat recently?

The JOCO cup: a reuseable coffee cup made from glass

It’s not often that I see a product that I think is worth raving about. After all, we can’t save the planet by buying more stuff, no matter how great the eco credentials claim to be. But when I came across the JOCO cup I thought it was worth sharing.

I’ve talked before about how takeaway coffee cups are made from fossil fuels (yep, that’s where plastic comes from) and are creating a huge landfill problem. The same goes for those biodegradeable ones that actually need commercial composters to biodegrade (you can read that post here).

The way I see it, there’s two simple solutions. Dine in, or bring your own reuseable cup.

I bought a KeepCup, which is made of durable plastic. I’ve used it countless times. I was torn between buying the KeepCup, which appealed to me because its cups are standardised sizes (8oz, 12oz and 16oz, the same as disposable coffee cups), and buying a non-plastic alternative. I would rather have purchased a stainless steel one (or even ceramic) but they all seemed to come in bizarre and impractical sizes. (If your takeaway coffee cup is too tall to fit underneath an expresso machine, it rather defeats the point of having it, don’t you think?!)

The downside of the plastic KeepCup is that it does retain the taste and smell of the previous drink. No matter how many times I wash it out. Soaking overnight with a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate does a pretty good job of removing it, but wouldn’t it be better if I could wash it once and be done with it? The plastics used in the KeepCup are polypropylene for the cup (type 5) and LDPE (type 4) for the lid, which are both considered safer types of plastic. They thought that about plastic with BPA and phthalates once though. This type of plastic isn’t easily recycled either, so disposal will be an issue at the end of its life. Reuseable plastic is better than disposable plastic, but the best would be no plastic at all.

So I’ve been quietly waiting for KeepCup to bring out a stainless steel alternative.

It seems like JOCO have beaten them to it. Not with stainless steel, but another non-toxic material – glass. I wish the JOCO cup had been around when I was in the market for one. It truly seems to be the best of both worlds. The JOCO cup is made out of glass, with a silicone band so your fingers don’t get scalded. It’s the only glass coffee cup I’ve ever seen. Plus they come in proper barista sizes: 8oz and 12oz. And they’re easy on the eye, if stylishness is your thing.

JOCO cupThe other thing I love is that they sell replacement glass, bands and lids so if you lose any of the bits (or the glass breaks) you can replace them without having to buy a whole new one. This may seem obvious, but often companies make it very hard to buy replacement parts. If you’ve ever broken the glass in a coffee plunger and tried to buy a replacement you’ll know exactly what I mean.

I don’t have a JOCO cup, and I haven’t tried using one. I won’t be getting one either, because my KeepCup still has plenty of life left and to get rid of it would be wasteful. Discarding old products to buy new ones, however green they may be, is not the sustainable option.

But I know there’s a few people out there who are taking part in Plastic Free July, and maybe haven’t got round to buying a reusable coffee cup of their own yet. In which case, here’s another option for you to consider.

The power of nanna-technology

You’ve probably heard of nanotechnology. Well this post has absolutely nothing to do with that. I’m talking about nanna-technology.

Our tiny flat is leaky. In winter it leaks warmth. Australian houses just aren’t built to stay warm in the cold months, they leak warmth, letting the heat out (but letting it all in during the summer, when everyone is trying to keep cool). In our tiny flat, there are gaps between the door frame and the wall where you can see straight through to the outside. I’m not talking about the gap between the door and the door frame, although of course there’s a gap there too, but a gap between the actual door frame and the wall. Crazy. There’s also a space of about an inch under the front door, and another at the balcony door. The windows are single glazed. Even when they’re closed I can feel the cold air breezing in. And the window in the bathroom actually has a three-inch gap where there is no glass at all.

gapsinwalljpg

I’m not joking either! The gap at the bottom of the door is big enough for me to put my whole hand underneath, right up to my knuckles! And these gaps mean cold air coming in.

All this means that in winter inside the flat it can get quite cold. You may think of Australia as sunny and warm (I thought that before I came here), but in Perth in winter 2012 the minimum temperature averaged 6.7°C at night, and some temperatures were below zero (statistics here).

We rent our flat. We can’t just replace the door frame, install double-glazing or add roof insulation to make the place warmer. Even if we didn’t rent, these things can be expensive to install. But if we don’t do something, we’re going to spend a fortune trying to heat the place, and the heat is just going to escape outside through all the gaps.

So this brings me back to nanna-technology. If you’re suffering from the same problem as me, don’t just admit defeat and crank up the heating. Ask yourself, what would Nanna do?

You don’t always need to spend money to find solutions. Don’t let expensive solutions that you can’t afford be a reason not to do anything. Just try to find solutions with what you have. After all, if your house is drafty you’ll spend a fortune in electricity or gas trying to heat the place up by burning fossil fuels.

To help plug the gaps under the doors, I’ve made two draft excluders using some spare towels and a few elastic bands. They may not look catalogue-perfect, but as long as they’re doing their job and I’m not cold, I don’t care!

towel2jpg

towel1jpg

Just looking at these guys makes me feel warmer!

Last winter was my first winter in Perth, and I wasn’t prepared for the cold or the drafty-ness.  This year, I say bring it on.

Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

I don’t like plastic. I avoid buying it and I talk a lot about plastic-free living on the blog, so I thought it might be useful to provide some background information on plastic, and some of the reasons why I decided to give it up in the first place. There’s so many reasons why plastic is bad (for our health, for the environment, for our sanity) and I’m not going to talk about them all now. I’ll stick to just one – waste.

Plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, either oil or natural gas. It doesn’t just come from the magic ‘plastic factory’. And the problem with this is that once the non-renewable fossil fuels run out, we don’t have any more. But it’s not even the running out that matters. The problems will begin when production hits its maximum rate, because after this oil prices will increase and production of oil-based industries (transport, agriculture, production) will begin to decline, and continue to do so. And if you think that’s way in the future, think again. It’s happening now. Some people think it may have already happened (in 2006). Have you noticed the prices of fuel at the petrol pumps seem to be on an ever-upward spiral?

oil production

This graph shows the discovery of oil deposits and oil production over time. I found it on Wikipedia but if you search the internet for ‘oil production’ images you’ll find hundreds of similar graphs.

There are, of course, people who claim that peak oil (which is what it’s called, by the way – the point of maximum production) will never happen, or at least for a long long time. But whether they’re wrong or right isn’t the point. Both sides agree that oil and fossil fuels in general are a valuable resource that we rely on to keep civilization going. In fact, we are completely dependent on them.

So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?

There’s no doubt that plastic can be useful, for example in healthcare, medicine and construction. The problem is that it’s become totally ubiquitous and is used for everything – and a lot of these uses are completely unnecessary and a waste of a valuable resource.

The other important thing to remember is that every little bit of plastic ever produced since that first piece is still around. This stuff doesn’t decompose, instead it creates huge amounts of landfill – or worse, makes its way to the oceans where it’s unwittingly ingested by unsuspecting sea life.

So why not cut down the amount of rubbish we sent to landfill and save the fossil fuels for the stuff that we actually need like fuel? Why not stop using fossil fuels so wastefully to make disposable items that we’re just gonna throw away?

But what about plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling is a bit of a con. It makes us feel better about our consumption, because we can put our empty plastic containers in the recycling bin and feel that they will be magically transformed into new plastic containers. But that isn’t what happens. Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled. This means it’s made into a product with inferior quality or functionality. Secondly, not all plastic is equal, and different plastics are processed differently. For some types it is very difficult to make back into useful products. Thirdly, just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it. What happens to your plastic depends on the number on the bottom, written inside what is thought of, ironically, as the recycling arrow.

plasticsymbolsjpg

Some of the numbers you find on the bottom of plastic containers, which tell us what type of plastic the container is made of and whether/how it will be recycled.

There are 7 types of plastic, which are numbered 1 – 7, and not all are commonly recycled. (Technically 1 – 6 are different specific types, whereas 7 is a collection called ‘other’.) It’s easy to assume that if there’s a recycling arrow on the bottom of a container then it will be recycled, but actually only types 1 and 2 are commonly recycled. My local council collects types 1,2, 3 and 5. Any other type of plastic collected in my area is heading to landfill. You can check with your local authority to find out which types they will recycle.

Think it’s not too much of an issue? Here’s some figures for you.

  • In the USA in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated and only 8% of plastic was recycled. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Just under half of this plastic (14 million tons) was food containers and food packaging. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
  • In Australia in 2007, almost 4 billion lightweight single use plastic bags were used. Almost 3 billion of these came from supermarkets. Source: Australian Government
  • In Australia in 2002, 50-80 million of these bags became litter in the environment. Source: Australian Government
  • The amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag could drive a car 11 metres. Source: Australian Government
  • In the UK, 3 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year. 11% of household waste is plastic, and 40% of this is plastic drinks bottles. Source: University of Cambridge
  • In the UK in 2005, 414,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled (around 20% of total plastic waste). Of this, 324,000 tonnes of plastic was exported to China, over 8000km away, for recycling. Source: WRAP UK

So a large part of this plastic problem comes from food and drink packaging, which has been driven by our desire for ‘convenience’ and made us into a ‘throwaway society’. But it doesn’t need to be like this – a lot of this packaging is avoidable, and with very little effort. Whilst I don’t want to list of all the things you can do (it would triple the size of this post! – so I’ll save it for another time), most of the solutions are really quite simple. Taking your own bags to the supermarket reduces the need for disposable plastic bags; using tap water (you can treat it with a water filter to remove the chemicals) and carrying a water bottle from home stops the need to buy bottled water; and buying your fruit and vegetables loose rather than prepackaged in cellophane wrap and polystyrene trays cuts out heaps of wasteful and unnecessary packaging. And just refusing to buy things that are ridiculously over-packaged.

Let’s face it. Plastic is rubbish.

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Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

The perils of takeaway coffee

I’m a coffee fan, and I like to treat myself to a proper coffee-shop coffee now and then. Nothing beats a decent cup of coffee served by a barista – and unless you have a coffee machine in your kitchen that cost the same as a small car, it’s just not something you can recreate at home.

I’m generally more of a dine-in kinda girl. I like the experience of just sitting there, maybe reading the paper, chatting with friends and family, watching the world go by. But there are times when I get takeaway. When there’s no tables, for example. Or no papers. Or I want to take my coffee with me on the train, to my desk, or to the park.

I’ve always been suspicious of takeaway coffee cups. Even before I knew about plastic, I wasn’t a fan. With their lids that often don’t fit properly, their flimsiness (squeeze too hard and you’re wearing the coffee) and their non-recyclability, nope, I wasn’t a fan.

But bio-degradable takeaway cups? Now they seemed different. Made of renewable resources, and with their promises of sustainability and compost-ability, they seemed to be the answer.

But then I looked into it a little more.

From a environmentally-responsible and sustainability point of view, traditional takeaway coffee cups are bad. At worst, they are made of styrofoam (polystyrene), which is a plastic foam packaging that is rarely accepted for recycling. Even the takeaway coffee cups that are seemingly made from paper or card contain plastic – they have a polyethylene lining – which makes them non-recyclable. (How else could they be waterproof?!) And plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels like oil.

So what about biodegradable takeaway coffee cups? Well these are free of plastics made from fossil fuels. One company that make these cups is BioPak: instead of using plastic from fossil fuels, they use a plastic called PLA made from cornstarch, and state ‘compostable and biodegradable’ on the packaging.

However, actual compost-ablility of some of these brands is questionable. I have friends who have tried composting these ‘eco’ cups and putting them in worm farms, and months later they are still completely intact. But even for those brands which will compost, they won’t break down if they’re sent to landfill. The conditions of landfill sites mean there is no oxygen, so microbes cannot break down anything that would normally be biodegradable. There’s nothing sustainable about using a compostable cup unless you are actually going to compost it. In fact, on their website BioPak acknowledge that their cups will only break down in a commercial compost facility, and are more likely to end up in landfill.

So the main benefit to using these cups is that they aren’t made of plastic from fossil fuels. They use other virgin materials though, it’s likely they still use fossil fuels in their manufacturing processes, and they still cause the same problems with landfill. And another interesting thing I learned from the BioPak website, is that PLA is made from genetically modified corn. So this raises other environmental issues. Whatever they may claim, it’s hard to think of these cups as a real environmentally responsible solution.

But what about when you want to buy a coffee?

Ask yourself, are you really in a hurry? So much so that you can’t spare five minutes to sit down, drink your coffee and then go on your way? I’ve seen so many people buy a takeaway coffee and they’ve drunk the entire thing on the two minute walk back to the office before they’re even back at their desk.

Oh. You are in a hurry.

So what’s the solution?

Buy a reusable takeaway coffee cup.

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There’s a few different brands on the market, but I bought a KeepCup. Yes it’s plastic, but it’s durable and I’ve used it numerous times. (I bought it after I gave up single-use disposable plastic, but before I started questioning the other plastic in my life.) I love it because it’s the same size as the standard takeaway coffee cup sizes, meaning it is accepted everywhere, I don’t get short-changed at the shop, it keeps your coffee warm longer than disposable takeaway coffee cups do, and it’s waste free!

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A sustainable coffee-shop run at the office! (And the cardboard tray has been reused too – extra points!)

I would love it if they brought out a stainless steel version, but they haven’t as yet. If you don’t want to buy plastic, there are other companies which sell ceramic and stainless steel alternatives, although the sizes aren’t standardised.

I aim to take my KeepCup with me whenever I go out. Even if I don’t want a coffee, it’s useful for using at water dispensers to avoid plastic disposable cups. And what if I want a coffee and I’ve forgotten my cup? I dine in.