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Archive | Guides and Tips

How to get off the grid with solar energy

solar

It’s now more achievable than ever to go “off the grid”. In the sustainability world, going off-grid means becoming self-sufficient power-wise, independent of the mainstream energy system, and severing your ties with fossil fuel electricity, in some cases making money along the way by feeding power back into the gridEven if you don’t own your own home, more options for home solar are now available, thanks largely to recent developments in battery technology.

Michael Mobbs of Sustainable House owns what is arguably Australia’s first truly sustainable home. In this post, he takes you through his solar set-up, reviews the performance of his gear, and makes recommendations.

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Voting with your dollar: Otter’s guide to boycotts

By Tony Ryan. 

We owe the word “boycott” to Charles C Boycott, but Charles didn’t stage the first boycott in history, or popularise the practice – he copped the boycott that gave boycotting its name. An English landowner in Ireland, Boycott was economically shunned by his entire community in 1880 after he evicted tenants who couldn’t pay.

Boycotts can be personal affairs, as with my own (mostly) steadfast refusal to eat fast food (12 years running, if you don’t count one regrettable, alcohol-soaked lapse).

Charles may have been incensed that his name was borrowed that way, and, being an old-timey member of the landed class, he may have been the kind of bloke to be equally angered that boycotting caught on as a popular mode of activism – the most popular form, if you ask George Monbiot. Since Charles’s day, boycotts, mass refusals to patronise a company – or even a whole country – on the grounds of its behaviour, have been many and various: they’re prompted by concerns ranging from animal welfare and workers’ rights to environmental degradation. They can be well organised, as with the famous Delano Grape Strike of the ’60s, in which over 14 million Americans refused to eat grapes produced by the labour of underpaid workers in the States, or they can peter out with a whimper. They can span hemispheres and beyond, as has the decades-long fight over Nestlé’s sales of baby formula to developing countries, and they can be personal affairs, as with my own (mostly) steadfast refusal to eat fast food (12 years running, if you don’t count one regrettable, alcohol-soaked lapse).

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Saying no to products made for the bin

By Tony Ryan. 

new phone

One day when I was in high school, a friend told me, in an urgent, conspiratorial tone, that his parents’ washing machine had broken down the day after the warranty expired, suggesting it had been programmed to do so by the manufacturers.

The makers of that washing machine almost certainly didn’t design it to conk out as soon as they were no longer liable for repairs or replacement. But I discovered years later that there’s a name for the practice of creating products that are designed to quickly fall apart or be superseded by a superior version: planned obsolescence. “That’s a thing,” as we say now. (As we also say, you know something exists when it’s been satirised, and planned obsolescence had the piss taken out of it artfully by The Onion.)

To keep you buying, manufacturers, particularly producers of electronics, often design smartphones, tablets, laptops and the like with the next, better version of their gadgets in mind. But these “better” versions are often not really better at all, as witnessed by countless technology reviews. Companies also build disposability into the physical gadgets themselves, publish software upgrades that don’t work on old handsets, and make their devices next to impossible to open for repairs, all of which are strategies aimed at getting you to shell out for new stuff.

Consumers are relied on to keep our economy going, and retailers and manufacturers are keen to meet their every whim with a saleable product. Problem is, this economic model comes from a time when the resources used to make these products were assumed to be infinite (when they were thought about at all). We now know that the ecosystems on which we depend can’t cope with the amount of garbage and pollution necessitated by the constant production and disposal of products. As George Monbiot recently put it, “Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction”.

However! We’ve started to wise up to the situation, and consumers are turning to products that aren’t headed so quickly to the tip, easing the load on our environment and on our hip pockets. Governments are beginning to catch on – in France, planned obsolescence is a crime punishable by jail sentences –  and there are a number of things you can keep in mind to help number its days.

Can you fix it?

There’s a growing movement devoted to fixing, rather than ditching, our broken possessions. Australia’s first repair cafe, in Marrickville, opened in 2014, and others followed. (There are now repair cafes in Sydney, Melbourne, Albury-Wodonga and Mullumbimby). Ifixit.com is the Wikipedia of the self-repair community, with nearly 20,000 free repair manuals for over 5,000 devices. And anyone can contribute to it, hence the Wikpedia comparison. They’ve even produced this fixer’s manifesto:

repair

Photo credit: Duncan Hull (Flickr)

Buy built to last

Some of the lightbulbs manufactured around the time Thomas Edison invented them are still in use! Light bulbs are notorious in the literature on planned obsolescence as the first and perhaps the most well-known instance of the practice. From the 1920s to the 1940s, lightbulb manufacturers actually made their products worse, reducing their lifspans from an average of 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours in a bid to drive sales, which is now known as the lightbulb conspiracy. If you haven’t already, install LED lights – they last a lot longer and consume far less energy.

Today, many producers are more conscious of the community and the environment than the lighbulb barons of yore. For example, Buy Me Once is an online store that sells products that are made to last (and they have a wonderful tagline: “Because throwaway stuff is rubbish”).

Also, look for lifetime warranties and products with replaceable parts.

Buy second-hand

‘Nuff said.

Wear old, unfashionable clothes in the hope they’ll become fashionable again someday

This one’s kind of a joke, but seriously, that’s how fast-fashion chains like Topshop and Zara work. They belt out new styles so quickly for a reason, earning them the description “planned obsolescence in action”. When it comes to fashion, you could do what I do: wear flares until the cycle of fashion inevitably swings around and they’re in vogue once again. It’ll happen.

Or you could make your clothes last.

But, do you actually need it at all?

But before any of the above comes into play, that’s the question: can I go without this? Buy Nothing Day, which was initiated by Adbusters magazine, has become an emblem of anti-consumerism, and has sparked Buy Nothing Christmas, Buy Nothing New Month and the Buy Nothing Project. Despite the “Buy Nothing” motif here, anti-consumerism is a broad church, and most of its adherents acknowledge that buying nothing at all in the long term is hardly feasible (though some people give it a shot for a good length of time). It does, however, encourage a thoughtful approach to consumption that considers the true costs of buying.

Photo credit: top, Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures cc, middle, Duncan Hull cc

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Growing in small spaces

By Gavin Webber.

balcony

Photo credit: Marcel Oosterwijk (Flickr)

We all have tight spaces around our yards. You know the ones. It’s the little nook or cranny that gets some sunlight during the day that is lying dormant, overgrown with weeds. Others may just have a little space that has been allocated for an outdoor living area.

Believe it or not, these areas are perfect for growing a large range of food, mostly in containers, or in existing landscaped garden beds.

Not all vegetables need full sunlight; in fact, some actually suffer or bolt to seed when they get too much. Lettuce varieties are a good example. They love partial sun and a couple of hours are all they need.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Here are three ways to start growing in small spaces.

Growing in Containers

Just about anything that can hold soil can be used to grow food as long as you can ensure adequate drainage. You can reuse some of the most unlikely items such as old buckets, laundry tubs, bathtubs, or make your own portable planter boxes. Of course, you can buy large pots as well, but sometimes cost is an issue. I tend to stay away from plastic pots because they don’t biodegrade, and exposure to UV light makes them brittle and break. I have many glazed clay pots of various sizes, the larger the better. The larger the pot, the less likely the soil will go dry in between watering.

While we are talking about soil, the nutrients in potting mix tend to become exhausted after each season, so before replanting, I refresh it with a couple of handfuls of homemade compost and a handful of blood and bone or pelletised chicken manure then dampen with water. I ensure that it is well-mixed and rested for a week before planting seeds or seedlings. By using this method we have healthy potted herbs or vegetables every year.

Herbs in a row

Mini wicking beds

Wicking beds are becoming increasingly necessary in our hot, dry climate. With little spring rain, we have to use methods that preserve and minimise water usage, all the while keeping crop yield steady. Portable wicking beds are very simple to make, and prevent your soil medium from drying out.

A wicking bed can be as simple as getting a plastic tub or large wooden planter and lining it with pond liner or builders’ plastic sheeting, then laying in a watering pipe and overflow pipe, half filling with scoria or gravel or even sand, adding a non-degradable textile layer, then filling with compost or good potting mix. I’ve even seen polystyrene boxes used as mini wicking beds, though I haven’t used these myself as they’re not recyclable.

Stapling the liner to the wicking bed

You can see an example of in this post titled “Building a Wicking Bed on Concrete“.  Just scale it down to container size and you get the general idea. It works really well and is shaded for half the day, so salad greens thrive in this bed because there is a continuous supply of water. Veggies planted in this bed tend to be slow when bolting to seed so you get longer cropping.

Wooden Pallets

Using wooden shipping pallets is a great way to upcycle and grow some food. I’ve seen excellent examples in small gardens of these being used for planting out herbs and salad greens.

These pallets just need to be stood vertically, have a bottom placed across each section of board and have a few drainage holes drilled, and it’s ready to plant out with good potting mix or compost.

Here are some fantastic step-by-step instructions for a Pallet Garden from a TV show, Growing a Greener World, that I follow via the web. Definitely a great idea for those who are pressed for space around their garden.

I’ve also seen wooden pallets laid down on the ground, filled with soil, and used as a raised garden bed. Just make sure that the pallet is not made of treated pine (CCA) or otherwise you risk copper and arsenic leaching into your soil.

Give it a go

So, there are three methods of growing vegetables in tight spaces that are cheap to implement and easy to maintain. The only thing I have to add is that you need to ensure that the soil is kept moist, otherwise your plants will struggle to draw up nutrients. Oh, and keep them close by so that you will remember to pick your produce often. Think of this type of gardening as Zone 0 in your suburban permaculture garden!

This post was originally published on The Greening of Gavin

Photo credits: top, Marcel Oosterwijk cc; others, Gavin Webber.

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Ethical fashion blogs: the best around

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Photo credit: Dave Gingrich (Flickr)

 

Who hasn’t heard something about ethical fashion one day, only to have it contradicted by another source the next day? There’s a wealth of blogs about ethical fashion on the web, but which are the best and most trustworthy? Jess Noble has you covered. 

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Santa’s sustainable gift selection

Photo credit: Jon Newman (Flickr)

Photo credit: Jon Newman (Flickr)

The silly season is just weeks away, bringing with it a gift-hunting and Christmas shopping frenzy. This doesn’t mean your environmental and ethical conscience needs to go out the window, though. Jess Noble rounds up the best eco-friendly and fair trade presents around, for everyone from your nana to your furry friend.

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