Monday, 23 September 2013

6 month roundup

Back in March, having read "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front" by Sharon Astyk, I started comparing my lifestyle with the average American, and the average Brit, and looking at the possibility of reducing our consumption by 90%. Ploughing through the figures made me realise really how difficult a 90% reduction in anything was going to be. My assumption that compared to the Americans we consumed less, so we would have a massive headstart, only panned out to be a small headstart. Still it was worth looking at what could be achieved, and it prompted a change in habits.

Reducing my impact in the food category, has involved increasing my home grown produce, shopping more locally and trying to avoid excess packaging. Free food has been available from growing more produce in my garden, helping at the Transition community allotment and sharing the harvest, and gifts or exchanges from family and friends. Along with my normal food foraging forays, I have been introduced to food rescued from supermarket skips. One bad pear in a bag of 6, results in the whole bag being thrown away. I am certainly learning and improving in this area, and there is far more potential for reducing the impact of our food than I had originally thought. Having only a small garden and little spare time have not been the limiting factors that I had expected. The image above shows all the free food from last weekend :)

Certainly on the 'stuff' level we have really achieved quite a big change. Looking back at the 'One Month Stuff' project, I can see several items that I have found ways to obtain for free. Some of it requires a bit of time and effort, or an exchange of goods with others, which is very sociable and can lead to making new friends. The local car boot sale has been a great source of low cost secondhand goods, and I have even managed to get myself clothes from there, which have quickly become my comfortable favourites. Cheaper and more fun than ebay! No fur or fringes like Macklemore yet :) I have never been one to rummage, but I am learning new tricks and really enjoying it too.

New stuff for the kids is a difficult area to tackle. Recently there have been new shoes, clothes and sports equipment, as it is the start of a new school year. Overall, questioning whether things are really necessary and if they can be bought more ethically elsewhere has been an easy habit to pick up. If I have to buy new, then there may still be ethical options, but they tend to have a higher pricetag, like this georgeous handcrafted cherry wood chopping board that I bought from the local Woodfair event. (Ok - impulse buy!)

Recycled waste has dropped by a third and non recyclable waste has reduced further. The recycled waste savings are partly business, with a reduction in cardboard scraps. Changing from liquid soap to bars of soap, and buying more goods from the market has cut packaging too. We only have about 2 carrier bags of non-recyclable waste each week, which is pretty good for a large family and 2 businesses. More food scraps and cardboard is now going into the compost bin. I was wondering if old cotton rags can be composted too, as I really can't put them in the textile recycling. Does anyone know?

My hubby has also been very good at repairing broken goods this month, such as replacing an iphone screen, which has saved on getting new stuff and reduced waste. He didn't even have any random parts or odd screws leftover at the end ;) What a pro!

Transport, though I never got round to comparing the figures, did show some improvement for a while over the summer. My youngest son started biking to school and tennis club, and I was walking to school with my youngest daughter. It seemed great, but then my son went over his handlebars...on two occasions! No serious injuries luckily, but I'm a bit concerned about a third time. The walking has been cut back too as it seems a bit cruel walking to school and back without bringing Lottie our dog, who is stuck at home.

Sitting in the car reading my book whilst my daughter is at dance lessons, halves the travelling back and forth, and we also give lifts to 3 other girls, reducing our share of emissions. But then add in the additional trips driving to the carboot sale, farm shop, weekly market, and community allotment, which are all further away, so I doubt there has been any reduction in driving habits over the last 6 months. Still, with no daily commute and most facilities close at hand we were already below the average mileage. Just a lot still to do to reach the 90% target.

Energy is my hot topic, and I was gobsmacked that the electricity company reduced our direct debit payments by 10%! Electricity consumption is so difficult to cut back on. All efficiency measures tend to be wiped out by the increase in number or size of gadgets. For instance, 15 years ago we had one landline phone that wasn't plugged in, but now everyone in the house has their own mobile too. I checked my energy data and we have only seen a 3% reduction in electricty consumption over the last year. This is dismal, especially since I was expecting savings whilst my eldest daughter was at Uni. The graph below shows the actual energy consumption as the red line, and the green columns show the cost. (The big column in 2009 shows how energy companies increase the price of your tariff
if you don't compare and switch every 2 years!)

We have been making small improvements, like disconnecting the modem at night, (although I always forget to plug it back in in the morning and wonder why there are no emails) switching off the landing light and having a very efficient nightlight (the kids bedroom is right in front of the stairs, so if they get up at night they could fall - safety before efficiency!) and more recently replacing some of the lights for LEDs. We have tried LEDs before and the light was so bad that we ended up taking them out again. The light from LEDs has improved greatly over the last couple of years, and these ones in our office should pay for themselves in about 2.5 years. Thank goodness, because they are awfully expensive to buy compared to standard lamps. Hopefully we will see reductions in consumption longer term.

Gas consumption for heating has increased, mainly due to the long winter. Adjusting for degree days the consumption would be about the same as the trend for the last few years, so there still would have been no reduction in consumption had the winter been milder. Actual annual consumption is shown below by the dark blue line, whilst the columns show the actual cost.

Super-insulating the house has got to be the best solution to reduce the need for heating. That way not only do you substantially reduce heating costs, but in the event of a supply failure you are better prepared to survive without heating. Dr Tina Holt is our local hero, for retro-fitting her 1930's house to passive house standards and promoting the work as part of the Hobbs report for Transition West Bridgford. It may be far more appealing to consider a new home built from scratch, but it is perfectly possible to retofit if you pay attention to the details. It certainly has the potential to give a significant proportion of the energy saving we are looking for.

What is quite clear is that these relatively small incremental steps can only take me so far towards a 90% reduction in carbon emissions, and a far more significant change is required to get anywhere near the 90% target. This could come about by moving to somewhere with more land and a woodburner, leading us to become more self-sufficient for food and heating, as Sharon Astyk has. Or by retro-fitting our current home, so it is super-insulated, with solar water heating and PV for electricity generation. These are the voluntary options, but there is also the possibility of rocketing fuel prices or financial collapse putting us in a position where we are forced to go without some of the luxuries we are accustomed to. If energy prices are high do you choose to keep your fridge running or watch x-factor? Do you heat your home or have a hot bath? Many people round the World live without any of these luxuries in the first place.

Personally I prefer the voluntary options don't you? Reducing my consumption levels now, may help to cushion the shock of changes that are coming. Even the small changes are adaptions that bring us closer.

It is so nice writing a good news post and sharing achievements, but I am warning you now that this isn't going to continue. It is a wonderful distraction to discuss my garden or secondhand bargains, but it is not the reason that I started this blog.

We are on the brink of massive changes and upheavals, peak everything from peak energy and peak debt to peak pensioners, climate change altering everything we thought we knew about seasons and weather patterns, and the massively unfair distribution of wealth sparking social discontent. Although we feel as if changes happen slowly and incrementally, history has been much more a series of necessary rapid adaptions to a sudden change in circumstances. It's scary and challenging and there is plenty to discuss in future posts to help become better prepared.


  1. Wow, Judy, that is a great semi-annual report! You keep such detailed records, and it's great that your family is getting on board. I fret about children's 'stuff' as well. I know my carbon footprint would be a lot smaller without them! However, I won't get rid of them for that reason.. and, it's not a competition, but a way to get us all to think about how we live. I buy lots of new things for the kids, not indulgent things (well, sometimes, let's be honest) but as you say, sports gear, uniforms, books. I could be more diligent and get them involved more in looking for alternatives. We have already had some good conversations along those lines.
    I looked at the Hobbs video, and that house looks amazing, but I question whether it was really a retrofit. Looks like they tore most of the house out, and are rebuilding it completely, keeping only the shell. That isn't really going to be an option for most families. We insulated really well as we have renovated, but the unrenovated bits are just going to have to stay as they are, because we are not going to pull all our walls down, insulate, and build them again! Having said that, our house is much warmer just for the parts we have done, which is encouraging.
    I do love your posts, they are very thought provoking and motivating, and I look forward to telling my parents they are peak pensioners!

    1. Thanks Jo. You are right, Tina's retrofit was quite a serious one. Passiv House standard originated in Germany and the result should be a building that requires no heating (Or just a tiny bit in extremely cold weather.) Imagine no heating bills for the rest of your life!
      It involves high levels of insulation and sealing the building so it is air tight, which is probably the hardest bit for an existing building. My home has insulated walls and roof, but I can still feel a draft at my feet, whilst I sit typing this, despite sealing up all the cracks around the skirting boards. I am hoping that we can get some thermal images taken this winter, which should show us where heat is escaping, so we can tackle some of the major areas of heat loss.
      We are working on brick houses here, but I believe your home looked like it was timber clad and possibly timber frame? The problems are different for different building types, but you are right gradually increasing the insulation levels is the best thing you can do and is much cheaper if it is incorporated as part of a refurbishment. Tina was having a new loft conversion at the same time, so it was going to be a big job anyway. All the extra time and money means she has a future-proof home, which will be very low-cost to run for the next 40 years or more, despite escalating energy prices. That is my ideal for our home, but we are still a long way off.

  2. I absolutely agree her home is brilliant, but yes, I think the closest most people could come would be upgrading during a renovation. Our home is timber, which means less insulating value, but much easier to insulate. I love the idea of no bills. Brilliant!