The year that was 2017

In 2017 I welcomed many thousands of visitors through these pages. I even met a few of you in person and it made my day. I enjoy writing as a creative outlet, and because I feel compelled to explore the idea of waste and share what I learn. My enthusiasm outstrips my talent and I have 41 posts from last year to prove it, on worm composting, food experiments, food waste hacks (here, here, and here for example), energy savings, my Plastic Free July, how to make beeswax wraps, and fermenting. I also celebrated hyper-local foods like the neighbourhood olives I foraged, processed and made into tapenade. I let you in on you how I take care of my hair (i.e. barely), my trusted deodorant recipe, a neat trick to make your toilet bowl gleam, and a super simple lip balm recipe. I read some interesting books which I haven’t yet posted about, but will shortly. I started posting a few things that made me happy and didn’t create waste to share outtakes from the day to day, and I also started rounding up quick links and long reads that I thought you might also like to read.

Lots more happened that I didn’t get around to writing about. Little successes, big ideas in the works, community collaboration projects, and more. At time of writing, I have over 80 posts in draft – that’s more drafts than articles published all up, and there are even more in my head. Many are ready, but for some decent imagery. Some others are halfway formed thoughts or outlines for posts. The thing about writing, when you can write anything you want, is that some posts flow out of the brain and onto the keyboard like sweet, sweet honey, and other don’t. The latter are those where the topic is big and my words seem imprecise. I’d love to finish them all and push ’em out, but time remains a challenge. It turns out I’m at my most productive when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Or sometimes the inspiration strikes when I’m nowhere near a screen, so it’s jotted onto a scrap of paper, or into Wunderlist. I work full time, am active in various other community sustainability initiatives, and face the usual demands of friends of family. Also, the lighting is rarely good in my apartment to get those pics. On the plus side, these mild constraints are good training in letting go and hitting publish – a form of resilience therapy for the type of perfectionism that never involves making anything perfect and often involves avoiding something altogether out of fear of imperfect. A discipline that I assume will eventually make me a better writer and thinker.

And then there’s always the balance of doing and enjoying vs. doing and documenting. I enjoy documenting (if only so I can remember what I was up to) but we all need to live in the present. Over the summer break, closing out 2017 and transitioning into 2018, I made a point of staying away from the computer and the phone, and instead spent time in nature, with people and playing in the kitchen.

If you’re reading this, thank you for visiting. In 2018, you can expect more posts about compost, food, experiences, local resources and really any old thing that seems related to reducing waste that I get around to posting about. How To topics were quite popular, and I hope very achievable for anyone who tried making anything I wrote about, so I’ll carry on when I think there is a recipe or a technique that I’m excited about. I’ll always try to keep it as simple as possible, because low waste living should be easy, if not fun.

Happy 2018 friends.

Quick links and long reads

Happy Sunday folks.


Noticing nature, even in small doses, improves one’s “willingness to share resources and the value placed on community” says a new study out of UBC. Here’s more from different research into the relationship between wellbeing and indoor plants. As if I needed another excuse.

Did you hear about the surfer who built a surfboard with 10,000 cigarette butts? Here’s a video if you want to see how he did it. 

Paris has been making other cities look bad since way back, and now again by putting sparkling water fountains around the city. It’s part of an initiative to encourage Parisians to choose tap water over bottled. Sydney, let’s do this!

A good example of the value of tapping into existing motivations, rather than trying to change a person’s motivations, or ‘motivate’ them.

Return and Earn – the container deposit scheme for NSW kicks off next week!

It’s been a year since California kicked the plastic grocery bag habit and here’s what’s happened since.  And here’s what changed in Canberra in the five years after the ACT banned plastic bags.

Impress your friends with water kefir

A long time ago, I used to drink Diet Fresca. Today, water kefir is my obsession. 


Water kefir is a delicious, zero waste drink

If you enjoy drinking any sort of probiotic drink, you might try making it yourself, since $5 a serve is not affordable, no it’s not. If you are also someone watching their household waste you will almost certainly brew at home. It’s a great way to reduce packaging and the load on recycling systems. Whether glass or plastic, the more we reduce, the better.

I started with kombucha, the gateway ferment. Ubiquitous, and in theory, easy. In reality, I made some good batches, but mostly a lot of vinegar (useful, but not the point). So when my kombucha SCOBY faded out last year, I quit the ‘booch and went with water kefir instead.

Compared to kombucha, I find the taste of water kefir to be more crisp, less vinegary, and importantly, fizzier. It’s also more abundant, since I can make a new batch every one to two days rather than the 7 – 14 day brew time for kombucha.

I drink it chilled, add it to bircher for soaking (including the spent fruit pieces), or as a mixer for spirits.  If you’re champagned out during or after the Aussie silly season, it’s a refreshing alternative to champagne all by itself.

Water kefir is easy, fast and fizzy

After being inspired and convinced of a certain ease by this article, I acquired some grains at a food shop in Bronte and got started. Water kefir, also known as tibicos, has nothing to do with milk kefir except that the SCOBY is also grain shaped.

I had immediate and sustained success. My water kefir is reliably fizzy, low sugar (confirmed by a diabetic friend, who now also makes her own), and takes flavouring better than kombucha ever did for me.

My favourite water kefir flavour combos:

  • Mulberry or plum + cardamom + vanilla (tastes like cream soda!)
  • Raspberry + rose water
  • Lemon myrtle + raspberry
  • Cardamom + anything!

I won’t rewrite the method here, as it’s well explained in this Milkwood recipe (though I still use sugar, not honey). It’s a bit like a sourdough, and uses a simple backslop method where you pour off the majority of the the mother to make each flavoured batch, but retain and keep feeding that small amount. The word backslop sounds pretty gross, but it’s all very tidy and less visually disturbing than a kombucha SCOBY. It’s easy enough that I can eyeball the volumes and process a new batch in about five minutes.

Helpful tips for making water kefir

  • Don’t fret if all you have are metal utensils. Some people say this weakens the culture, but I use a metal strainer and utensils with no trouble.
  • My grains do best when I feed with a slice of fresh fruit, a piece of dried fruit and some sliced fresh ginger along with their sugar water.
  • A nice bit of fizz means it’s all alive and well.
  • Expect more fizz and faster brewing in the summer, less in the winter.
  • If I don’t get around to making a batch after a few days, I will pop in another slice of fruit. It just seems to work to keep things balanced with the yeasts.
  • If I’m away for more than a few days I feed, then refrigerate.
  • I use water that’s been filtered with a binchotan stick. I don’t notice a difference in the taste of the water I drink, but it made a dramatic difference to my ferments when I ticked over from non-filtered.
  • You can speed up the process by dissolving the sugar into a small amount of boiled water, then adding the hot water to room temp filtered water, rather than boiling the entire amount of water to dissolve the sugar and waiting for the whole volume to cool.
  • I cover the jars, but not super tightly, and I make sure to release built up gases if I see lots of fizz in warmer weather.
  • I like keeping the starter/mother in a wide mouth mason jar – It’s easy to get fruit in and out and measure the liquid.
  • If you prefer flip top bottles for the second ferment, they are cheap and plentiful at the op shops.
  • A bottle tastes best within about a week in the fridge, but we would rarely ever have it around that long.

Need to find a SCOBY? Try here if you’re in Sydney, the Crop Swap Facebook group is a good resource. This Pinkfarm online community lists those who are willing to swap cultures. I found water kefir to be more elusive, and actually bought my grains from Star Anise Wholefoods.

If you brew water kefir, what’s your favourite flavour combo?

Lessons in sustainability with off-grid guru Michael Mobbs

Michael Mobbs lives off grid in the heart of Sydney – yes that city of 5 million. I share what I learned at a recent workshop. 


While most of us spend at least few hundred dollars each quarter on household utilities, Michael and his family of four has spent less than $300 a year in energy and water bills for the last 20 years. His property has also captured and processed 2 million litres of sewer water on site.

This has been achieved through a combination of smart system redesign, energy efficient appliances and choice of materials, rather than intense personal sacrifice. To see where he lives, you can visit the Powerhouse Museum’s Ecologic exhibit, which features a replica of his terrace home, or take a house tour when offered. The kitchen (heart of any home I want to live in or visit) is bright, large and dispels any idea that living sustainably means a trade off between function and aesthetics.

I jumped at the opportunity to attend a workshop he was giving at the Barrett Sustainability House in Randwick, hosted by Rhubarb Food Coop. A group of us gathered – some renters, some owners, some renovators – to learn from one of the best. And learn we did. I could’ve listened and asked questions for much longer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of all the others present. For me, taking this workshop was less about bills today and more about up-skilling for the future, wherever I might be living. Rates are rising – here is some background. The best thing we can do is require less energy.

We can’t all immediately go off-grid, but there are plenty of low tech, common sense ways to help our homes use less energy and water. Michael covered a number of them (LED lighting, smart pantry layout, magnetic strip cheats’ double glazing’, making electric water heaters more efficient, etc.), but I wanted to share some of the big picture ideas, as he calls them. Here are some of the highlights of my morning with this local legend.

1. Saving water saves greenhouse gases too

When a household is charged for water, we are paying the base rate, i.e. the privilege of being connected, plus a variable rate based on how many litres we pipe in for taking showers, flushing toilets, washing dishes, cooking and so on. But that’s not the whole story. Water also has an energy footprint that is connected to volume.

Although pipes are a more efficient way to get water around town, rather than say bottling water in plastic and trucking it, it still takes a lot of energy to pump water to and from our homes. Potable water comes in, sewer water leaves, and rather unfortunately gets discharged into Sydney Harbour. It follows that Sydney Water is a major user of GHGs. The energy impact doesn’t stop there. In the shower or while washing the dishes, the water is usually 50-70% heated. The more we use, the more energy we use. Luckily there is a less masochistic way to address this than taking cold showers. Retrofit the shower head to use much less water. Aim for a flow rate of 7.5L per minute and you could achieve financial pay back in a matter of months. Not to mention, you’ll be mitigating the amount of sewage flushing into the ocean, and coal being burned on you behalf. Renters can take faucets with them when they leave. If you want a so-easy-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that way to test the flow rate, set a bucket under the tap, capture all of the water that comes out for 10 seconds. Measure how many litres come out, then multiply by 6 and that’s your L/min.

Anyone looking to go further in the water saving realm could either look to Michael’s layered multi-tank water capture and recycling system or communist Hungary (a fellow workshop attendee shared this story of his visit to relatives in Hungary and the rather resourceful way they made every drop count). Both are examples of where water is/was intentionally slowed and recycled as it travels through the home landscape. The latter by using plugs to capture anything obtained from the tap so that if could be manually trafficked to laundry, toilet flushing, etc. In both systems, the sequence of use matches the priority for potable water. Shower and cooking water is reused for clothes washing and toilet flushing. The output from that feeds the garden. Oh and the water comes from the sky, for free. Low tech stuff. I do my own version of this, especially during the summer.

2. Solar: buy the performance, not the hardware

Solar energy is undergoing a boom. Prices are down, installation is up. With that comes the challenge of understanding whether your solar installer is well-qualified. The best will take their cues from permaculture (observe for over shadowing and so on), the middling may simple design an inefficient system where batteries wear our prematurely, and the worst (including some of the largest and longest in the business) might not even manage to connect your panels to the house at all.

Resist the urge to focus on the hardware, says Michael. It doesn’t matter if you invest in the best solar panels in the world if they aren’t compatible with your inverter or commonly these days, your battery. Instead, focus on making sure the system is operating as proposed. Ask for a chart of the projected annual energy production and hold your installer to it. Specifically, negotiate up front to that 10% of the fee will be withheld until several weeks of successful system output. That timeframe should reveal any major issues that can be rectified without hassles like contract disputes and lawsuits.

3. Change is happening very quickly

LED lightbulbs are vastly outperforming CFLs. Try replacing these next time a bulb burns out. Sydney Opera House is doing this and will transition from a 3 month to a 13 year replacement rate!

The cost of solar panels is plummeting too, while output is rapidly improving.

Michael encouraged anyone renovating to future proof their homes by installing additional pipes to facilitate sequenced greywater use, using curved not right angled joints, and generally avoiding ‘baking in’ systematic inefficiencies. Future inhabitants will be able to tap into the design already there without re-renovating and creating tonnes of additional landfill waste.

4. Eat local 

The conversation veered towards food and specifically Michael’s aha moment. He described the moment he realized his home was sustainable, but he wasn’t, after meeting a chef at Google who was passionate about local food. What he learned was that while the average Sydneysider uses 260L of water a day in the home, an average meal consumes 1000L. And most of us eat three times a day and waste significant amounts. Consuming locally grown food not only connects us with the natural limits of our own land, it can save considerable resources.

How can we recognize local food? Short of growing it, the best way is to step outside the supermarket. Consider that labels and packaging may be thought of a way to broker trust between unrelated parties trading through long supply chains. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s hard to shop without packaging in the supermarket –  most of what’s on offer is not in season, and comes from far away. Farmers markets and food co-ops are incredible resources and we will lose them if we don’t use and value them.

5. Saving resources is not always about personal sacrifice

I half expected the workshop to be filled with the kind of lectures my Dad would give us: ‘put on a sweater!’ ‘ where are your slippers?’ ‘close the blinds!’ and so on (side note: Thanks Dad! You prepared me very well for Australian non-insulated homes.) The workshop was not focused on changing personal behaviours, but instead on smart system design, which is basically biomimicry, or in fact permaculture. Taking a shorter shower will have even more impact if you have a shower head that doesn’t waste water in the first place. Fans of Paul Hawken will recognize similar concepts from his book The Ecology of Commerce. He calls it radical resource efficiency. It’s not just about cycling resources for reuse, but reducing the need for those resources, while accomplishing the same or better results. Michael Mobbs’ sustainable home makes radical use of resources to slash his energy and water footprint, and yet he lives in abundance.

6. While we’re still on the grid, there are better energy suppliers

We had a group discussion about energy providers. On moving to Sydney, I chose to go with Powershop based on this Australian focused Greenpeace electricity guide. I can contribute a bit more and fund green and community energy projects, or just pay the regular rates and know that I’m supporting a better company. They also provide a tracking app and benchmarks to let you know whether you’re doing better of worse than the average for a similar sized household. If you’re in NSW and want to switch to Powershop, use this link to get $75 credit on your first bill (I’ll get a credit too).

Low bills and life skills

When we think of saving, there are grim cultural connotations of pain and sacrifice. And yet when we save money on energy, we have the capacity to invest in other areas of our lives. We can eat well, save for the future, take a job for the right reasons not for the money and spend more time with loved ones. None of us benefit from spending too much on inputs that flow rapidly in and then out of our homes as a result of endemic poor design. While some of us will be able to afford the high cost of energy as rates rise, pensioners, students and others on fixed or low incomes will feel the pinch rather strongly. I want low bills for me, and for everyone else too. For more inspiration, please check out Michael’s blog. If you have the chance to meet him or tour his home, consider it an excellent investment in the future.