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Sustainability and ceramic cups at the Mosman Park EcoFair

This Saturday my boyfriend and I went to the Mosman Park EcoFair, which was just a few suburbs over from where we live. The fair takes place in the beautiful grounds of St Luke’s Church and community garden, and was a mix of stalls selling organic and fairtrade food, traders selling eco goods, seedlings, vintage clothing and all things green, and some great demonstrations and workshops. Combined with the perfect weather and fantastic atmosphere it was a really fun afternoon out.

I saw a great ‘Food Theatre’ workshop run by Chris Ferreira from The Forever Project and Hannah Sfornica from A Foodly Affair which combined sustainable (and water-wise) gardening with cooking and talked about the importance of good soil, the importance of organic and locally sourced food, how what you eat is made from what you put in the soil and your body is fueled from what you eat. Sustainability and real food, two of my favourite subjects! Hannah made the most amazing raw pumpkin soup for the audience to try. Both Hannah and Chris are fantastic presenters, and Hannah is both an inspiration and a wealth of knowledge and practical advice regarding ‘mindful’ eating, as she likes to call it. I would thoroughly recommend attending the workshops they run if you’re in the Perth area.

But my absolute favourite thing about the fair was that there was no disposable single-use plastic – no plastic bags, no takeaway cups, no plastic straws, no plastic water bottles and no plastic throwaway plates. And this was achieved in such a simple way – by having a washing-up station! All of the food stalls used ceramic plates and mugs, provided by the Church or sourced from various op shops, which were happily washed up by a team of dedicated Western Earth Carers volunteers.

It’s such an obvious concept really, doing the washing up, and the people who volunteered seemed to be having a great time in the sunshine, chatting to everyone that passed by and doing an awesome job of raising awareness of single-use plastic, and how easy it is to avoid with just a little bit of thought and effort.

And the result of their efforts was fantastic. The organizers were told they would need 20 bins for the size and length of the event (with over 65 stalls plus other activities over 6 hours) but instead, for the whole day, the waste that was generated filled just three recycling bins and one landfill bin. Result!

How to…Line your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, using each for only a few minutes. When you think that plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it seems pretty crazy to be using such a valuable resource to make something that’s only going to be used for such a short amount of time, and then thrown away.

A common argument – or even justification – for using these plastic bags is, oh but I do recycle my bags, I use them to line my rubbish bin. Thing is, that’s not recycling. It’s barely even re-using.

It’s still sending to landfill, just with other rubbish inside.

I have to confess, before I signed up to Plastic Free July I used to take the odd plastic bag from the shops when I needed to line my rubbish bin. I certainly wasn’t going to pay for virgin plastic to line my bin in the form of fancy bin liners. And what is the point in buying compostable corn starch liners when you’re sending them (and their contents) to landfill, where they won’t break down? Landfill sites essentially bury the waste and prevent exposure to air, moisture and light – and also the microbes that can break them down.

And then someone said to me, why don’t you line your rubbish bin with old newspaper? Such a simple and obvious solution! I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

How to Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

All you need is a few sheets of old newspaper. I use three sets of two sheets, and sometimes I’ll fold some additional ones to put in the base. It takes about a minute.

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When the bin is nearly full you simply roll over the tops to make a parcel and dump in your outdoor rubbish bin. The great thing is that newspaper is usually made from recycled paper so has already had a previous life (or several lives) before you send it off to landfill.

What are you waiting for?!

Fruit and vegetable shopping…the sustainable way

Wednesday night is vegetable box delivery night. This is a fairly new thing for us in Australia, although we had used vegetable box delivery schemes in the UK. Last night was our third delivery, and we’ve decided to make it a regular weekly thing.

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Our first veg box delivery. Completely plastic- and actually all unnecessary packaging- free!

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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

A word (or two) on recycling

Recycling. Almost everybody has heard of recycling. (Just in case you’re one of the minority that hasn’t, it’s the process of taking old materials and turning them into new products.) The number of households that recycle is on the increase and local councils are becoming more supportive of the idea, with collection points and kerbside collections in urban areas. In 2009, 99% of Australian households recycled and/or reused, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

(Reusing. That’s something different to recycling, although people often mix the terms up. If I finish a bottle of cordial, wash it up and then refill with water to keep in the fridge, then that is reusing. If instead I put the bottle in my kerbside recycling, and it gets collected by truck, driven to a recovery facility, sorted, cleaned, melted down and reshaped into a new bottle, then it has been recycled. The two are very different. Recycling uses energy to create a new product, whereas reusing does not.)

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A big heap of recycling waiting to be sorted. Yep, this is recycling!

So… back to recycling. If 99% of Australian households recycle, then that’s great… isn’t it? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. Whilst 99% of these households recycle, the ABS estimated recycling rates for Australia to be around 50%. In WA, the state where I live, recycling rates are only 33%. The other 22 million tonnes of waste are sent to landfill. So 99% of households may be recycling, but they’re not recycling 100% of their waste.

The other thing about recycling, it’s not the big green magical solution we’ve all been led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is great and we should all recycle what we can. But the idea that it’s ‘enough’ is a myth. Here are just some of the shortfalls of recycling:

Recycling still uses energy – in transport, recovery and processing of the materials.

Just because something is recyclable, it doesn’t mean it will get recycled. Different councils have different rules to what they accept and if you put something in your recycling box that isn’t on their list, it’ll get sent straight to landfill.

Products are often downgraded. In theory a product can be melted down and made into the same product, but this is often difficult and can be expensive, and it is more likely that the product is made into an inferior product, a process called downcycling. This is especially true of plastic which can only be downcycled.

Contamination can be an issue. You may have sorted your recycling out diligently, but if your neighbours have thrown pottery, lightbulbs and old pillows in with theirs, chances are the whole load will end up going to landfill.

Overseas processing– labour costs are often cheaper overseas (and labour laws are often more lax) so containers of materials can be often shipped abroad for processing, which adds an environmental (and financial) cost to the process.

Recycling is ultimately a business; the products need a market and it needs to be profitable. For example, plastic is bulky (so expensive to transport) and there are many different types meaning it requires sorting (another expense), and the end product has a fairly low value, which partly explains why plastic recycling is far less common than paper, aluminium or glass.

Recycling

This is just a fraction of the waste delivered to this site every day to be recycled. The vehicle at the back is completely dwarfed by the heap.

The shortfalls of recycling really hit home for me when I had the chance to visit a recycling facility last year. It looked (and smelled) like a rubbish tip. Less than 20% of all glass they received was recycled, the rest was sent to landfill due to lack of ‘business opportunities’. The glass they did recycle was used for road base. Any recycling that arrived in plastic bags was automatically sent to landfill – no time to open them, plus there may be potential hazards. Anything mixed with shredded paper went to landfill – it contaminated the other items and was difficult to remove.

It felt like recycling anything was far too much hassle for these guys, and that was their job! Bales of old newspapers sat in sea containers waiting to be shipped to Asia. Nothing about the experience felt particularly sustainable. Before I used to feel good about recycling. Not so much now!

The good news is recycling isn’t the only option. The traditional waste hierarchy has three principles: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. Recycling comes last. Before we even get to this we need to consider the others. First reduce, and then re-use. I’ve made changes to the way I shop, the products I buy. I’ve taught myself how to make things from scratch to avoid packaging altogether. And of course I still recycle…but there’s so much less than there used to be.

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.