Saturday, September 29, 2007

The great nappy debate is long decided, it's just that some don't want to hear about it

Every now and again we read in the newspaper that "the great nappy debate" was not decided yet and that life cycle analyses of cloth nappies (diapers) and disposable nappies showed they had a similar impact. I was always wondering about this, but as I was using disposable nappies with my first two kids, it seemed a good enough argument to defend using disposables.

With baby number three we are now using cloth nappies and I decided to have a closer look at the research into their environmental credentials. After reading a recent newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I realised that the research quoted by the SMH was based on a range of assumptions that seemed somehow skewed in favour of disposable nappies, namely

- people will buy new cloth nappies for each child so there is significant impact from the production of those nappies; and

- people will soak the nappies in huge amounts of water, then wash them in great, inefficient washing machines at very high temperatures with copious amounts of bleach, followed by drying them in an electric dryer. This would result in a high use of water, energy and chemicals. 

Neither of those assumptions have to be true. For example, the nappies I use I inherited. I think ours might be the third or fourth baby using them, and they will be good for at least another baby or two after we are through with them!

It further seems to me that the main difference between disposables and cloth nappies is that with disposables, there is little the end-consumer can do to reduce their impact - apart from maybe leaving the poor little ones longer in their soiled nappies, which is not really a solution. However, with cloth nappies, parents can make a big difference in the way they treat their nappies. Here are my experiences in dealing with dirty nappies:

It is absolutely no problem to "dry stack" nappies in a bucket with a lid until they get washed. Heavily soiled nappies can be cleaned with a squirt of water in the toilet. 

Unless the baby had some gastric problem, 60 degrees Celsius is perfectly sufficient to clean most nappies. There is no need to use bleach or any other special detergent, just standard washing powder will do. One can also wash other clothes (eg underwear etc) in the same wash to fill up the machine.

I use simple, old-fashioned terry towelling nappies which dry very quickly so there is absolutely no need for a dryer. In fact, hanging nappies out into the sun to dry helps to kill the last germs.

I have about one and a half to two extra loads of washing a week because of using cloth nappies. That adds up to between 60 and 120 litres of water a week. Given that a single 8-minute shower uses around 70-80 litres, I don't think that washing nappies uses all that much water in comparison!

So if cloth nappies are supposed to be on par with disposables when treated in the outrageously profligate manner assumed as the basis for the comparison, surely second hand cloth nappies treated in a more frugal way must come out way ahead in the life cycle comparison. In fact, according to the UK Women's Environmental Network (WEN) using cloth nappies in a sensible way leads to a 24 per cent reduction in the impact on climate change compared to disposables.

Overall, using cloth nappies is a complete no-brainer. It is easy once one has set one's mind to using them, it is much cheaper than disposables and I believe the environmental debate is clearly won.

What goes for bub also goes for mum...

What applies to nappies also applies to women's personal hygiene items. Not only is it much cheaper and better for the environment to use washable cotton or hemp menstruation pads, it is also healthier (no toxic chemicals, no synthetic fibres) and far more hygienic (no more smelly bathroom bins filled with soiled rubbish). Menstruation pads are easy to make yourself (there are a range of online patterns available to get you going), or they can be bought from a number of online suppliers.

Menstrual cups made from natural rubber or silicon are a safe, long-lasting and hygienic alternative to tampons approved by health authorities in the US and in Australia. For more information, including links to suppliers see the article on "green menstruation" published by "Aussies living simply"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Looking after your body the gentle way

Cleaning your own body might be bad for you if you suffer a reaction to the many chemicals used in soaps and shampoos.

The good news is that we do not need to use harsh chemicals to clean our bodies. I use plain soap for my hands, a small amount of "soap-free" soap for my body and water only for my hair - no shampoo necessary! By not using shampoo, I can cut out the lengthy rinse under the shower which also saves water.

I also realised that I had long been misled by toothpaste advertisement into believing one had to use a great amount of toothpaste (enough to cover the whole brush!) to clean one's teeth. Most of that surplus toothpaste just ends up in the drain. In fact, no toothpaste is necessary to actually clean our teeth, however, a small amount of fluoride is useful in strengthening the enamel. Now I use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste which is perfectly adequate. I find that we now use less than half a tube of toothpaste per person per year and we still have clean teeth.

In the cosmetics department all I need is a small amount of moisturising cream. It was great to read in the newspaper today that skin experts agree with me on this one: The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Professor John McGrath, of the St Johns Institute of Dermatology in London: "The message is harsh and sceptical, I'm afraid - rubbing these creams and potions on your skin might make it feel nice but chances are they are doing nothing. [...] A good diet, simple moisturiser, abstaining from smoking and avoiding the sun [are] the most well-proven anti-ageing measures, but people [seem] to be bored of hearing this."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cleaning the house the green way

Less is more when it comes to cleaning detergents.

For a while I had a lovely friend help me clean the house for two hours a week. The place always smelled beautiful when she had finished. I just found that she would happily go through a bottle of general cleaner and another bottle of floor cleaner a month, I could hardly keep up with buying more and more of the stuff. Now that I am staying at home with the children, I do everything myself and I find that I use far less. In fact, I haven't bought any chemical cleaners since.

Simple baking soda makes a great cleaner for cook tops and for general cleaning purposes.

Vinegar is an effective cleaner for floors and surfaces.

We try to use the minimum possible amount of dishwashing and washing powder.

I find that dishwashing detergents tend to be far too concentrated. However, we are all used to putting a good squirt of detergent into the dishwashing water and it seemed just too hard to re-educate everybody in the family and change our bad habits. Now I water down our dishwashing detergent by dividing it between two detergent containers and filling the remainder up with water.

Plastic bags, including freezer bags, get washed and reused until they fall apart.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

How Green are your Clothes?

Clothes seem to me another area where society has gone rather crazy. Over the last five years I had three children so I was always either pregnant (and therefore not in clothes-buying mode...) or else whatever was in fashion was so awful that I just couldn't bear the thought of wearing any of these things. That has given me a totally new perspective on clothes and fashion. I also realised that it does not matter one bit whether I wear something something fashionable or new - as long as I feel comfortable in it, nobody takes much notice anyway.

So now, instead of buying new, I use second hand clothes. I have always worn many of my clothes for years and I make many things myself. My children wear mostly pre-loved clothes. My grand total expenditure for my own wardrobe this year was approximately $20.00 - and I am wearing perfectly normal clothes, nothing that would make me stand out as odd or different.

I wear my shoes until they fall apart. I find it is worthwhile investing in a good pair of shoes. My last pair of shoes I bought four years ago and they have lasted well until now.

My favourite spring jacket is about 20 years old but it is still doing a fine job and I see no need to replace it. I even have a lovely jumper that dates back to the early 1980s (it was hand-made by a friend of mine) which has just come back into fashion! The key is to buy things that will last longer than just one season, both in terms of style as well as quality, and to look after things, treat them kindly and keep them in good shape by fixing any damage as soon as it appears.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Reduce the Carbon Footprint of your Food!

I always thought it was crazy to transport food half around the world if the same can be grown nearby. I noticed during my last trip to my parents in Germany that almost all the potatoes and onions sold in the local supermarket came from Australia! I don't think the price of food reflects the true environmental cost of transporting the things we eat. We clearly need a world-wide carbon tax and a greater awareness among consumers as to the impact of food production and transport.

I grow most of our vegetables in our garden and preserve the surplus. This saves transport costs, ensures that we have fresh, organically grown produce all year round and it is also a major money-saver.

I always cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. I reckon this is a good way to lose weight or stay slim - eat whatever you like as long as you make it yourself and grow most of your own produce. You get plenty of exercise in the garden and there is a limit to how much you can actually make to eat...

I use the least amount of water possible to wash vegetables and to cook.

Once the cooking water for eggs or pasta has reached boiling point, leave the lid on but turn the heat right off, at least on an electric cook top. There will be enough heat left to cook the pasta and boil the eggs. In fact, this is the best way to cook eggs as they will be perfect each time and they are far less likely to break in the process!

We have significantly reduced the amount of meat we eat.

I make good use of my slow cooker and the pressure cooker, both of which help conserve energy when cooking. Leaving the lid on while cooking is another important way of saving energy.

I make enough sour dough bread for one week in one sitting, thus reducing the use of my oven. Sour dough bread keeps well outside the fridge if kept in a cotton bag or a clay pot (a "Römertopf" is perfect). I will publish some bread recipes in later posts.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Water, water, everywhere? Not in this part of the world!

Water is such a fundamental and precious resource. Anybody living in southern Australia - or any other dry part of the planet will appreciate how significant it is. Without water there is no life - we cannot grow anything, we cannot drink, we cannot survive. Yet, we still waste so much of this resource, even in this part of the world! Living in an area where the town water is absolutely awful (bore water very high in minerals), we mostly use tank water in our household. Unfortunately, with the very little rain we have received over the last two or three years, our tanks have not been full in a long time and we have to conserve as much water as possible in our household.

Using water also means using energy: we have to use electricity to pump the water from the tank to the house and we have an electric storage hot water heater. The electric storage hot water heater will have to go at some stage and be replaced with a solar-powered heater. To reduce our energy use, we use as little water as possible.

We installed "triple AAA" rated shower heads when we moved in. They reduce water flow to 8 litres per minute.

I only have a shower once a week (one can wash oneself perfectly adequately with a flannel every day) and when I do have a shower, I keep it to two minutes, just enough to wash my hair.

The children have a "proper" bath once a week, otherwise they also get washed with a flannel. The bath is always a great event - three little boys in a bath tub together is great fun and they all get really excited when it is bath day again!

The toilet only gets flushed when necessary ("If it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down!") - bad smells can be avoided by adding a small amount of vinegar to the toilet bowl and keeping the lid down when not in use.

We do not pre-rinse dishes before putting them into our dishwasher, instead, we scratch left-overs off. When we got the dishwasher I did a lot of reading on whether it is more efficient to wash dishes by hand or by machine. My conclusion was that if using an energy- and water efficient dishwasher, the machine is definitely the way to go. I have not regretted my decision, neither in terms of water savings nor in terms of saved labour! This of course only works if the dishwasher is full when it is being put to work.

The same goes for the washing machine. There are some fantastic models out there that use a very small amount of water and are very energy-efficient.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

There is no time to feel hopeless - so let's start working on our lifestyle today!

The sheer size of the problem of climate change makes me feel dizzy. Sometimes I think it is all too hard, and when I look around and see the incredible madness of our consumerist society, I also feel it is an impossible task to change the way we live. I feel despairing but I cannot afford to despair as I want our children to have a future.

The tree in the image is on our property. It was a big, well-grown eucalyptus tree, with wide branches. All of a sudden it died and fell over. We were not sure whether the drought had killed it or what had happened to it. It had clearly come to a tipping point. We cut down the remains and to my great surprise, the tree came back from its roots! We have staked it to make sure nothing (kids, dog etc) will destroy it on its way to recovery. To me, this tree is a symbol of hope, and I visit it when I feel overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

I believe that we cannot stop climate change without major changes to our lifestyle. This will not be an exercise where we can wave the technological wand and all will be well. We cannot wait for the climate on our planet to reach various tipping points and hope that it will just resurrect itself somehow in the same way my tree did. We will have to make changes to the way we live and we will need wide-ranging technological investments to counteract the damage we have already inflicted on our environment. However, I do believe that if we get going and do make the necessary changes, our beautiful earth will bounce back and once again provide us with the most wonderful home we could possibly have.

I really like the ideas of Linda Cockburn and Colin Beavan aka No Impact Man who try to set an example by going to extraordinary extremes (Linda and her family went without spending money for six months while living in suburban Queensland, Colin is currently trying to have a zero net impact for one year while living with his family in an apartment in New York). Particularly Linda has been a great inspiration!
However, in the end what we really need is a permanent change to our ordinary lifestyles.

I am working through every area of our life to see where we can cut back, use less resources and be more frugal. We have already implemented many changes. It is interesting to note that initially most of these changes required an adjustment in attitude. Yet once they were put into place they became a natural part of our life and we no longer felt "deprived" only because we did not have something any more. It seems that it is just as easy to get used to less as it is to get used to ever more consumerism. I am sure I will find more areas where change is possible!

Note beforehand:
We do not own some of the energy-intensive gadgets that now seem so commonplace in many households such as a clothes dryer, air-conditioner or a wide screen or plasma TV. I cannot say I miss any of them. Air conditioners and the new gigantic televisions use outrageous amounts of energy.

Of course we still have our share of electronic gadgets left - computers, fridge, freezer, stove, oven, toaster, small TV, video, DVD player. Quite amazing to think we believe we need all of this. I don't think I would miss TV, video, DVD - I hardly ever watch much anyway. However, a life without computers and the Internet would be much more of a challenge. I have been reading about the $100 laptops Nicholas Negroponte has been developing for his "One Laptop per Child" project. These laptops use "innovative power (including wind-up)" so they need no fossil fuels to keep them going! That sounds like the way of the future to me.

So over the next few days I will have a look at areas where we have made changes so far. Some changes (energy efficient light bulbs, reduced heating, turning off freezer, turning off appliances at power point when not in use) were already listed in my previous blog entry "energy audit". All changes listed below can be done without any major financial outlay so there is absolutely no excuse for not doing any of these things. In fact, many of our changes have saved us money so that despite a tight budget I was able to sign up to the "100 per cent renewable energy" option of our energy provider.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Will run-away climate change make drought permanent?

According to a new study funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which appeared in the 20 July 2007 issue of the journal "Science",

"Overwhelming odds point to global average temperatures that will rise 4 to 7 degrees over the coming century, according to a new probability analysis by scientists in the United States and Europe. As early as 2030 the planet is likely to heat up 1 to 2 degrees, say the scientists. A one-degree temperature rise was observed over the past century."

Most scientists argue that we need to stabilise global temperature rises at or below 2 degrees Celsius to stop irreversible climate change which could threaten the very basis of our survival. 2 degrees Celsius may not sound like much, however, this refers to mean global temperature rise. Many areas of the globe will experience far greater temperature changes.

In South-Eastern Australia, many inland areas are already experiencing even greater temperature rises. In the region around Canberra, minimum average temperatures over recent years have risen by several degrees Celsius while maximum average temperatures have risen by up to two degrees compared to hundred-year averages. At the same time, rainfall levels of recent years were around 50 per cent or less of the 100 year average rainfall for the region.

The head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and other Australian water and weather experts warned this week that we may need to stop talking about the ongoing dry weather condition as a severe drought as this may be the new normal weather.

We are clearly not facing the THREAT of climate change, we are already in the middle of a climate change crisis!

Yet, does that compel politicians at any level of government to act?

At the local level, many regional Councils continue to foster unsustainable housing developments as if there was endless water available. They pay lip service to climate change issues but do not consider it at all when debating and approving development applications.

At the state level, the NSW government is considering building coal fired power stations as if more carbon pollution is not an issue. At the same time, the NSW government has now let their carbon trading scheme falter.

At the federal level, the Australian government has done all it could to hinder international efforts to curb carbon emissions by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Ten years ago, Australia's renewable energy sector was leading the world. Today, some companies have left Australia and are now investing overseas as the Federal Government has failed to create the framework necessary to allow renewable technologies to compete with polluting energy industry giants. Now, the Howard government talks about undefined "aspirational targets" at a time when we need really tough targets. We even need targets much tougher than even the 60 per cent reduction promised by the European Union. George Monbiot convincingly argues that we need to reduce emissions in developed countries by 90 per cent to stop run-away climate change. If only we had started acting when scientists first alerted us the issue of climate change over twenty years ago! And why don't we act now, immediately, without delay?

Instead, on every level we see governments that put a lot of effort into creating the perception that they are doing something to tackle climate change when really they are still not all that interested.

Yet, in a democracy, governments are accountable to their people. It is time the people demand action and vote for politicians who are likely to deliver real progress in tackling climate change. It is also time we all start doing our bit.

It is easy to blame governments. However, as long as we, the people, believe that we have a right to live in abundant luxury, eat fancy food imported from all over the world, live in over-sized houses, drive polluting cars, buy new clothes for every season and travel around the world just for fun, we are no different to the politicians who represent us.