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Minimalism, Mortgages and a Green Swing

Last year I touched on one of the major reasons behind my decision to take on full-time employment. I’m a huge advocate for working part-time hours and one of the best decisions I ever made was going part-time back in 2010 when I first started consciously journeying towards simple living.

However, situations change and last year Glen and I made the decision to buy an apartment. It was not a quick decision – in fact it took us several months to finally commit and sign the paperwork. It wasn’t any apartment we were after, but a specific one… more on that in a sec. The decision to buy somewhere meant that I needed to find employment in order for us to save the deposit.

Taking on a mortgage seemed at odds with our commitment to live simply. One of the biggest attractions is the freedom that comes with having few possessions and having few financial obligations. Neither of us want to feel like we have to go to work just to pay for the stuff we’ve bought or to pay off debt. We’ve pared down our expenses so that we can survive on the salary of one person. It means that if one of us was made redundant (as happened with me a couple of years ago) it doesn’t have a life-changing impact on our spending or standard of living; or if one of us hates our job so much we want to quit, we have that choice. It’s a pretty powerful feeling, knowing that if you wanted to, you could walk away from it all.

However, a mortgage will potentially change all that.

What about the alternatives to house-buying? One of the big lifestyle ideas that’s come out of the simple living movement is the idea of tiny houses – houses that can be less than 10m². Often built on trailers, they don’t require a mortgage and provide debt-free living for converts. We love the idea, but neither of us have any DIY experience – I’ve never even put up shelves! We don’t have any land to park a tiny home. With temperatures in Perth exceeding 40°C in summer, I’m not convinced it would be a comfortable solution. Plus despite our minimalist intentions, we are not ready to fit into a space that small.

Tumbleweed Tiny House

A Tumbleweed Tiny House from the USA. And people do actually live in them!

Another option would be to carry on renting. And actually, I’m a big fan of renting. I find it frustrating when people say “oh, renting is just throwing money away!” How so?! You get somewhere to live in exchange for your rent money – sounds like a pretty good deal to me! Plus when things go wrong, it is someone else’s problem (and expense) to fix them.

So why did we choose to go down the house-buying path? Well, a lot of it was to do with the place we decided to buy. It’s an apartment…but with some differences. It’s part of a project called the Green Swing which has been set up by two couples in Perth. Fed up with the current urban design in Perth, which features huge houses and tiny courtyards, double garages with large driveways, and buildings not adequately designed for the Perth summer heat, they set out to do things differently.

Their focus is on creating small-scale inner city living environments that are high quality and made with recycled materials where possible, promote building community, make proper use of solar passive design to dispense with the need for air conditioning, and have other green features. They started with their own homes, building four dwellings on a block that are centered around a community garden (you can see two of these houses in the featured picture at the top of this page).

They are now working on their second project The Siding, and it is this one that Glen and I are buying a unit from. We first heard about the Green Swing just as the first project was being completed back in 2012 and were really excited that someone was out there doing things differently. When the second project launched on a block four doors down from the original, we wondered if it was something we should buy into…literally!

We thought about it for ages. I’d met Eugenie (one of the Green Swing owners) at a Community Garden open day in 2013 and invited her to speak at the Less is More Festival, which she did. We went to look at Eugenie and her husbands’ place a couple of times and had many discussions about what they are doing, and why, and how. The more we got talking the more we felt that their vision is similar to ours, and the project is one we want to be part of.

So what were our doubts? I’ve already talked about the mortgage. We also held back because it wasn’t… ideal? There are solar panels on the roof, but I wanted a bigger solar PV system. There is a rainwater tank, but it’s small and shared amongst the three units in our building so will only provide token rainwater. There’s no grey water system. The community garden area is smaller than I’d like (I’d have less houses and more garden!). But then I caught myself. Why did I want everything bigger and better? That’s not a very minimalist approach! Plus, whilst I might have done things differently, it isn’t my project. This project isn’t about being the most sustainable community-oriented project ever. Sustainable and community-oriented, yes, but within what’s practical and what’s possible.

Eventually we cast our doubts aside and decided yes. Whilst we like living in our current flat, we are ready for a change. We want to be able to grow our own food. We love the community aspect of the new place – and the whole suburb has a real community feel. Glen is excited that we will no longer have to store our bikes in the bedroom. We love that it will have solar panels and rainwater and we won’t need to retrofit (something we wouldn’t be able to afford if we bought an older property). It has a 10-star energy rating. There’s lots of other great features like communal veggie beds and shared bike storage. And we’re really looking forward to having like-minded neighbours!

The Green Swing – The Siding

The project is still under construction, so we won’t move in until the end of the year. (Hence the new job – we’re saving hard for the deposit.) I’ll share some more info about the building and its green features once it’s completed and I can take photos. You can always have a look at the Green Swing website is you’re really interested (or nosy!)

What I will share is the site plan. Needless to say, I’m really excited about being to grow more of my own food! There will be lots of fruit trees. I’m even wondering if we can get some chickens on that patch of lawn!

Green Swing Site Plan

This is the site plan. Our unit is number 3, in block 2. It’s the ground floor flat. The orange blobs are the community veggie garden beds. It’s no coincidence that our unit opens directly onto it!

 What do you think? Do you like the new place? What about the balance between the desire to living simply and the need for money? What choices would you have made? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

Plastic Free July 2013 Breakfast Launch

This morning I was invited to the breakfast launch for the Plastic Free July 2013 campaign. Not only that, but I was asked to share my story about my Plastic Free July to the group, as a participant from last year’s challenge.

Plastic Free July is an initiative of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth, WA, developed by the Western Earth Carers, and this year will be its third year. The challenge went from just 40 local participants in the first year to a few hundred last year, mainly due to the hugely successful Plastic Free July facebook page and other social media.

This year, we’re hoping it’s going to attract thousands of participants, and there’s been considerable interest from people in the States and Canada as well as across Australia. The challenge is simple: go without single use plastic for the month of July.

I’ve talked before on the blog about how the movie Bag It and the Plastic Free July Challenge were big motivators for me to make some changes to the way I live, and what really started me on the sustainability journey I’m currently treading. So to be able to talk about my Plastic Free July journey to a packed audience, and hopefully inspire some others to take up the challenge this year, was pretty exciting!

It was really well received, which was fantastic, and I also had the opportunity afterwards to be interviewed by RTR FM for a radio programme that will be airing in June, although I don’t know the day or time yet. I’ll make sure I find out though; I’ve never been on the radio before! I thought it would be great to share what I talked about here on the blog too.

Before Plastic Free July

Looking back, my awareness of my plastic consumption was pretty low. I would take my own shopping bags to shops and generally refuse bags at the checkout, only taking a plastic bag if I needed to line my rubbish bin at home. I also used to buy fresh produce loose, rather than in bags, but everything else came in packaging.

My plastic-free consumption today

I would say that today I am pretty much plastic-free! I don’t buy food products in plastic packaging; I don’t buy cleaning products, cosmetics or toiletries in plastic packaging. Pretty much, if it comes in plastic, I don’t buy it. The main things I have issues with are plastic lids that come on glass bottles, which I cannot always avoid. Medicine comes in plastic, but I avoid anything excessive like boxes wrapped in cellophane.

What I did during Plastic Free July

The big message from Plastic Free July is that the challenge isn’t about going without, it’s about finding alternatives. One simple alternative to using a plastic bag to line your rubbish bin is to use old newspapers. I found a local dairy that sells milk and yoghurt in glass bottles and jars that can also be returned to the dairy for re-use. I started taking my own re-usable fabric produce bags and containers when I went shopping, and I started shopping more at markets and bulk food stores.

I also changed some of my habits. I now take my own reusable takeaway coffee cup when I want to grab a takeaway coffee, and if I’ve forgotten it, I’ll dine in (provided they use proper cups of course!). I also opt to eat in more than takeaway now to avoid all the unnecessary packaging. If I’m buying an ice-cream, I’ll always chose a cone rather than a tub, and avoid the little plastic spoon.

What I found difficult

The hardest thing at the start of the challenge was knowing where to find these plastic-free “alternatives”. But as more people took up the challenge it became a lot easier. The Plastic Free July facebook page was a great resource for seeking knowledge and support, and a useful tool to share great finds. At the Plastic Free July 2013 launch today, WMRC announced their new website www.plasticfreejuly.org, which is full of useful information.

What I learned

The biggest thing I learned was how much plastic exists in our lives. It’s quite scary when you think that every single piece of plastic that has been created since plastic was invented still exists in the world today. This stuff takes hundreds of years to break down.

The second biggest thing I learned was how, with a little bit of effort, you can eliminate a lot of it from your daily life…because it’s unnecessary. So much of the stuff we buy is completely over-packaged. As I mentioned before, going plastic-free isn’t about going without, it’s about finding alternatives. And I learned that there is a plastic-free alternative to almost everything.

Some people who talked about going plastic free told me that there is nothing that you can buy from your local supermarket. But that’s not true. Alternatives come in glass jars, bottles, tins. In my local supermarket I can buy pasta in cardboard boxes, cordial and fruit juice in glass, toilet roll wrapped in paper. The one thing that you can’t buy plastic-free is junk food. If it’s filled with synthetic ingredients, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup, it’ll come in plastic packaging. So if you stop buying plastic, your diet improves straightaway.

I also learned that most people react positively. At the deli counters, even the supermarket ones, the staff are more than happy to use my containers rather than their plastic bags. I just have to remind some of them to weigh the container before filling it so I’m not charged for the weight of the container too! People are interested in why you don’t use plastic, and most people think it’s a great thing to be doing.

The other thing I learned since going plastic-free is that I spend less on food. Some things do cost more. The milk and yoghurt I buy in glass bottles is more expensive than milk in the supermarket, and cheese from the deli counter will cost more than the mass-produced cheese that’s vacuum-packed. The quality, however, is infinitely better. And these expensive items are offset by shopping more in markets and bulk food stores which are cheaper than the supermarkets. But the biggest saving comes from not buying junk.

Why I’d recommend Plastic Free July

There are so many reasons why Plastic Free July is an amazing experience, but I’ve kept it to just a few.

  1. It’s a real eye-opener in terms of the amount of plastic in our lives, especially UNNECESSARY plastic.

  2. It’s a great way to create awareness of the issues surrounding plastic, simply by doing your shopping.

  3. It’s fun! It’s a great way to try new things and change old habits.

  4. You’ll eat much more healthily.

  5. You’ll probably save money.

  6. You’ll be supporting local businesses and local producers rather than buying mass-produced rubbish and lining the pockets of the big multi-national companies.

If you’re interested in signing up to Plastic Free July, or even just finding out a bit more information, check out the new WMRC website at www.plasticfreejuly.org.

“Think about it. Why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever, and you’re just going to throw it away? What’s up with that?”

-Jeb Berrier, Bag It Movie