Sustainable Living Actions

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Here is an independent source of basic information. Good ideas on what you can do in NZ to save on globally-valuable resources such as vehicle fuel and fresh water, to seek a healthy lifestyle and perhaps trim some household expenses.

Margaret, pictured here, joined the course to see what more she could do to save on heating and power costs. She already knew about double glazing and fitting linings to curtains, so was ready to explore new actions such as timers on radiators, low-energy light bulbs, fridge efficiency improvements and more. Sustainable Living endorsed her early actions and helped her and her daughter to take more, going well beyond lightbulbs! She became more confident to take action and competent when doing them, as a result of what she learned and discussed.

What are you doing already? No doubt a good start, but it's probably time to take stock and be ready to learn more!

Our learning guides show what you can do

The publications are virus-scanned, quite detailed and illustrated. They include more web-links. Get them free once you have registered in a participating district or city; or for a fee if your council is not yet a member. They are PDF files, for which you will need to use the well-trusted free Adobe Acrobat Reader software, if it is not already installed on your computer.

Reading this material on-screen is possible, and you can save the PDF to your computer for later reference or for printing. We know that many people prefer learning in a group setting, with discussion, so the learning guides are written to help you to host or join a study group. 

Saving electricity

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Margaret uses a thermostat and a timer on her oil-filled radiator to control when it turns on and off, so that the room is warm before she arrives, without wasting electricity. Sometimes getting the right technology is a better investment for comfort and efficiency, than relying on remembering to turn heaters on and off.

Save on power bills

Other easy actions to trim electricity bills include:

  • Checking that your current retailer is best value in your area. Use Consumer Powerswitch or SwitchMe websites. There may be cost penalties if you switch more than once a year!
  • Keep lids on cooking pans and pots; don't over-fill the electric jug - it takes lots of power to make steam.
  • If rooms overheating in summer, shade the West-facing windows instead of running an invertor heat pump as cooling.
  • Dry clothes outside on lines instead of in a dryer. The UV light helps kill bugs too.
  • Close curtains at dusk in winter to keep warmth in, and have them wide open on north-facing wndows by day.
  • Ventilate bathrooms and kitchens to outside, to remove steam - dry air is easier and cheaper to warm than wet air, and you reduce mould too. Modern extract fans are power-efficient.

For many more possible actions, and details of how  to select small investments in equipment or materials that will pay for themselves (such as where to spend first on home insulation, and info on low-energy light bulbs) see our Energy learning guide. You have to be registered in your city/district first (add link)

Eco-building is designing for sustainability

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Your place might be a unit in a row, an old villa, a modern city apartment or a small rural eco-house (like this award-winning Canterbury example) but whatever your type of home the best opportunity to consider sustainability comes when it is renovated, repaired or designed from new.

Not all architects and builders understand sustainability principles, although many are learning, encouraged by HomeStar, the Green Building Council and the Master Builders Sustainability Awards. As their client you have to know what to start asking for, such as:

  • Orientating rooms and roof to benefit from winter sun's warmth, but protected from summer overheating
  • Including enough solid stuff (thermal mass) to store heat overnight in floor or walls
  • Insulating to keep winter heat in - at a better level than the minimum of NZ Building Code
  • Designing-in the ventilation, to get rid of steam yet retain heat
  • Using clean heating and know if you prefer radiant warmth (radiator, woodstove) or convected (air heater, heat pump) for comfort
  • Design that minimises waste and toxins during construction, decoration and in later use.
  • If water can be solar heated and what you will use to 'top up' the water heaing in winter

Our learning guide takes you through some key steps and builds your confidence and know-how, ready for when you meet the trades people and sales reps. We help you to think about the whole system of the house, not just add expensive gadgets that a sales rep has promoted. First you have to be registered at your city/district page. (link)

Water efficiency and protection

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Sustainable Living participant Ruby likes herbs and Asian salads, and in summer they like plenty of water (more than the Mediterranean herbs) so she waters her pots by hand several times a week.

"It's easy to take a clean water supply for granted. It is so precious", says Ruby

Although water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, less than 3.5% of this is fresh, salt-free water and much of it is frozen in glaciers and ice-caps, leaving only 1% as potential drinking water in streams, lakes and in underground reserves. Much of this ‘fresh’ water is inaccessible to people or has become too polluted for use without treatment. Very few NZ homes collect and store rainwater - more could do so.

Did you know that we only drink around 5% of the water we use? The other 95% goes down the drain from showers, taps, laundries and toilets, as well as gardens (BRANZ Auckland water use study, 2008).

There are many ways you can reduce your household water use (and your water bill) and reduce pollution going into our waterways:

  • Wash the windows and car using a bucket not a hose
  • Reduce stream pollution, from detergents and debris, by washing the car on a lawn or gravel area, not on the road seal. Road drains are intended only for rain, not oils, paints or cigarette ends...
  • Use less water when toilet flushing by reducing the capacity of the cistern - add a sealed container of water if you don't have a dual flush cistern
  • Check for toilet leaks - put a few drops of food colouring in the cistern and see if it seeps out into the bowl before you flush. If so, time for new washers. (Get any dripping taps fixed on the same plumber's visit)
  • Consider using dripper or porous hoses to irrigate favourite garden beds in preference to using sprinklers, and let lawns stop growing in mid summer - it is unnatural for grass to be bright green then! 

For more sophisticated water-saving and efficiency ideas, storage, garden tips, grey water use options and recipes for DIY cleaning materials see the Water learning guide, available to download free in participating cities/districts (add link)

Food purchases, use and storage

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Course participant Lisa re-used empty glass jars with lids, for food storage. "Beats throwing them away, and reduces my need for new plastics" she says, "and I try to grow some food at home too".

Food choices have a much larger impact on the planet than we may realise. The energy required to produce, process, pack and transport some foods is huge, but their labels don't usually help alert us and origin is often obscure; we need independent background information.

Some types of packaging are re-useable, others recyclable but many just end up in landfill. How much does that comparison affect our weekly shopping list? What else might we consider:

  • Refusing a carrier bag at the checkout is the easy part, de-coding the labels and seeing through greenwash is harder!
  • There are useful checklists available to help you chose fish species considered 'more sustainable' within NZ fishery stocks;
  • Guides to avoid food additives that for can some prompt allergies or asthma;
  • Information on pesticides and arguments for eating organic produce
  • Websites about FairTrade and food ethics - important for a food exporting and importing nation;
  • Skills to learn about drying, freezing and bottling foods to preserve summer's garden surplus;
  • Tips on bulk buying, Farmers Markets, Community Gardens and foraging

Read more in the new edition 2014 Sustainable Living learning guide on Food

No advertising, no additives and guilt free - download it once you have registered at your district/city page on this website (add link) ...then perhaps arrange an educational dinner party with your study group of friends?  

Take a look also at our organic gardening actions page.

Transport and travel options

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These happy travellers, presenting their Christchurch Metro travel cards, were Sustainable Living class members about to hold a 7pm class on the Orbiter bus, as it made a circuit of the city suburbs. They debated alternatives to the car on the journey, and took a break half-way round at a cafe, finishing the circuit before 9pm (at no extra fare).

For some it was their first bus trip for years! If the whole group had gone out cycling the experience would have been novel for many, too. We are so used to using cars in NZ, for even the short trips that could easily be walked or cycled. Rising fuel prices are beginning to erode that habit, but change is too slow to reverse the country's rising carbon emissions from transport. NZ is way behind Europe in this respect.

Whilst still car using, you could improve efficiency:

  • Remove roof racks and boxes except when in use - cuts air resistance
  • Remove excess weight from the boot, aprt from emergency tools and spare tyre
  • Avoid idling the engine when stopped - it's an air polluter too
  • Keep tyres correctly inflated. Instructions may be inside door frame, or ask your supplier.
  • Keep crusing speed closer to 90km/hr than 105, as it saves fuel
  • Walk for short trips when there's not much to carry - leave the car parked as short trips maximise wear on engine
  • Enjoy the walk as it is contributing to better heart health and warding off diabetes and Altzheimer's
  • Note that drivers are exposed to traffic fumes as much as pedestrians: fewer cars on less congested roads helps everyone.

To learn more such tips and about your carbon footprint, from driving and flying; about global Peak Oil and the climate implications of burning the oil and coal 'reserves' already identified on Earth, read the detailed Sustainable Living travel and carbon guide, which can be downloaded from our website once you are registered (add link)

Organics to grow veges and fruit at home

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Here's a January day's harvest, from a Sustainable Living tutor's garden: potatoes, courgettes, peas, cauli, Mesclun salads, beetroot and carrots. All were compost-grown organically without chemical sprays or fertilisers.

Simply wash off the soil and enjoy great flavours; plus the significant enjoyment and some exercise, that came from growing them at home. .

Home produce quantity and variety could be increased by:

  • Converting sunny lawn areas into cropping spaces. Veges can be decorative and fashionable too: think French style Potager!
  • Adding some glazed or cloth shelter to extend the spring and autumn growing seasons and beat frosts
  • Growing only veges and fruit that you like and perhaps varieties the shops don't often stock
  • making raised beds on areas where soil is unsuitabe, even on concrete
  • Making more compost volume by feeding the compost boxes with pea straw, newspaper, manures, neighbour's kitchen scraps
  • Saving rain water for irrigation, and/or using timers on hoses from the tap
  • Learning how to grow crops from seed and sharing seed packets with friends each spring
  • Learning about how to deter, divert or control pests without poisons
  • Bartering your surplus, or preserving it, in exchange for what neighbours grow.

Organic growing has always been one of the most popular Sustainable Living topics, and is revised for 2013 by experienced Hutt Valley gardening tutor Natalie Hormann. To download your copy you need to be registered here via your district/city page (add link).

Waste minimisation

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Lisa avoids waste. She's a recycler as well as a cyclist. This early Sustainable Living participant had already labelled her mailbox 'NO junk mail' when she started the course, but learned lots more about how to avoid buying stuff destined for landfill, about re-using and recycling, over the next few weeks.

Matthew Luxon, one of the 'Rubbish Free Year' pioneers, was also a Sustainable Living participant. He has edited and updated our waste minimisation topic for 2013, to ensure we can offer great advice and practical information. "About 93% of the raw materials used by humans get thrown away during manufacture and then 80% of the stuff we buy is thrown away after one use. New Zealanders throw away more rubbish per person than in most other developed countries." says Matthew, "It need not be that way. We reduced our throw away to landfill for a full year to one carrier bag contents. Everything else was either avoided, or re-used or recycled or composted. No, it was not easy, but we learned lots!"

To start with, you could:

  • Refuse junk mail and advertising circulars at the mailbox
  • Take reusable bags to shops, and resealable containers 
  • Buy in bulk, perhaps sharing with friends
  • Identify new uses for packaging that you get regularly, or recycle it
  • Buy a battery charger and use rechargeable batteries (NiMh preferred to NiCad)
  • Use washable nappies not disposables if there's a baby at home

There is much more, plus video links and websites available to help your quest to reduce waste at home and work, in the waste minimisation learning guide, to download at this site, once you have registered at the appropriate district/city page. A free registration lasts three months.

Resilient communities are more sustainable too

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How well would you manage if the heating was off and the supermarket closed. Would you be able to boil water, make leaf tea (pehaps even from your own dried herbs) and keep a teapot warm in a cold room?

Sharon would - she has survived Christchurch earthquakes and had also learned from the Sustainable Living course, which has a 'community resilience' topic alongside the more obviously environment-themed ones. There is much common ground, Cantabrians found, between the skills of self-reliance after emergency and the best practice of sustainability.

In the year before 2010, two communities in Christchurch (plus some in Auckland) trialled this lastest topic in our series, designed to complement the advice of NZ Civil Defence.  Course participants in Sumner and New Brighton subsequently reported that it was really useful to have thought and prepared for water storage, food growing and preserving at home, house insulation, emergency cooking, sharing skills and produce with neighbours and even keeping a bicycle road-ready. It helped them survive the tumultuous weeks following the city's series of big quakes.

This topic pulls together what you have been learning about 'living lightly or simply' as a household in other topics and explores the wider community connections. For local government, with a Civil Defence responsibility, it shows that after the initial rescue stage, information is needed on skills for people to survive and thrive in constrained circumstances, sometimes for years.  Sustainable Living makes a surprisingly useful and relevant contribution in this area. It also links with the Transition Towns movement (4 minute video link here)

To use the Sustainable Living community resilience learning guide you need to have registered first at your city/district page (add link). 

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