How to recycle beer caps

If you drink beer from glass bottles, you can recycle the metal lids.

Each beer or kombucha lid is approximately 3 grams of steel. To put this in perspective, my favourite kitchen knife is also made of steel, and weighs 124g. A mere 41 bottle caps to make a knife!

For every tonne of steel we recycle, we save*:

  • 1,131kg of iron ore
  • 633kg of coal
  • 54kg of limestone

Trouble is, metal beer lids are too small for many recycling facilities. The best way to recycle them is to collect them in a larger container of the same material to ensure they are captured and processed by the sorting equipment. But what could that be?

The way to tell if something is steel is to see if a fridge magnet sticks.

Food cans are made of stainless steel. I know, I know, BPA. Living dangerously, but realistically over here. We eat canned food occasionally. If you don’t have a tin around, I’m sure there’s one in your neighbour’s recycling.

We use an empty food can to collect beer caps. When the can is half full of lids, crimp the top to secure the contents and pop it in the curbside recycling bin. The concept of like-with-like works for aluminium as well.

recycle metal beer lids


200 wears: Nudie jeans

nudie jeans repair

This is the story of three pairs of jeans, two broken zippers, countless holes and one responsible denim company: Nudie jeans. Nudie has fixed my jeans over and over again, for free.  

This is not a sponsored post whatsoever. I paid princely sums for two pairs and scored a third for cheap at a sample sale. I overpay for this denim because Nudie’s Skinny Lins fit me perfectly and are made with GOTS certified organic cotton. Good On You rates them ‘Good’, so tick. You can even have a browse of where and how their clothes are made.  

nudie jeans repair

I’m a repeat Nudie customer because I know I’ll be wearing them for a long time, by virtue of quality and repair. Production is such a significant part of a garment’s overall environmental footprint that regardless of the material used, keeping clothing in circulation is the most powerful way we can reduce our fashion waste. One researcher proposes that we should aim to use each piece of clothing for 100 – 200 wears. This amount of use would help offset the significant pollution created during the production step and would ideally result in a reduction of new clothing production.

Where #30wears asks us to reconsider impulse purchases and consumption as a hobby, 200 wears asks us to revisit our own drawers and closets to experience our weathered, familiar clothing a little differently. Perhaps with more leniency to small deficiencies that can be readily fixed. Clothing ourselves with people and planet in mind is not straightforward. However, wearing things we already own more often and repairing them when they break is within our sphere of control. 

Nudie repair Sydney

When you take your jeans to a Nudie store for repair, they’ll email a reference number and also notify you when the job is ready for pick up. Nudie’s CEO Bryce told me they’d repaired 63,000 jeans in 2016 alone. The repairs to my jeans are all but invisible, by the way. My jeans still look nearly as new as the day I bought them. To do my part to keep these in rotation, I rarely wash them and line dry when I do. 

I’d like to see more brands taking responsibility for the quality of their garments beyond the usual two year consumer warranty period here in Australia. Besides Nudie and Patagonia, have you noticed any others offering free lifetime repair?

Your regular pen might be secretly refillable

refillable pens

Sometimes cheap everyday pens can be converted into refillable pens. Here’s how.

I need the touch of pen to paper. I’m always jotting down notes and leaving to-do lists everywhere. Pencil? No thanks. I resent the the carbon smudges, the ever-in-flux nib diameter and the need for a sharpener. Also, did you know that erasers are often made of vinyl? The pen is my tool of choice, and a necessary evil at work and in my day-to-day.

zero waste pen
Hey look, my pen matches my reusable coffee cup!

I say evil, since many pens are made cheaply of plastic and designed to be tossed once the ink’s run dry. The exception are those marketed as refillable (and perhaps fountain pens). I use a refillable model from Parker.

To reduce waste to landfill at my workplace, we collect spent pens for recycling into a Terracycle box bought from Officeworks here in Australia. It’s an additional cost to the business that luckily doesn’t have to be done often.

Refillable pens are everywhere, if you know where to look.

I recently discovered this clever little hack care of my coworker, a man who’s used one leather-bound Faber Castell refillable pen for the past twenty years. One day he sorted through our pen recycling box, and from the hundred or so dead pens in the box, he brought three to my desk and showed me a neat trick.

He unscrewed each one and placed the ink cartridges side by side. Even though the pens all looked different on the outside, the ink cartridges were all the same design. Furthermore, they were exactly the same as those in my refillable Parker pen. They were all secretly refillable!

Radical resource efficiency and less plastic. 

I marked the three rescued pens as refillable and now we only need buy the refill cartridges instead of recycling the whole pen. Although Parker refill cartridges aren’t the cheapest at about $9 each, they do write beautifully, last a while – for a writing distance of 3500m to be precise. They’re made mostly of metal, which means they’ll be more valuable when recycled at their end of life. After daily use for nearly a year, my pen has only recently run out of ink. This is not an ad for Parker and I’m certain there exist other high quality brands made of metal.

Refilling our pens reduces material use, plastic production, and our pen recycling cost, without requiring much of a change in behaviour – we will still buy office supplies after all. In Paul Hawken’s language, it’s radical resource efficiency.

The next time you run out of ink, check inside to see whether it can be your new refillable pen. And if this idea sounds like a bridge too far, another innovative solution is the recycled and recyclable Enviroliner pen from Close the Loop. The pen is made with the plastic and leftover ink from printer cartridges collected by Planet Ark.

Now you tell me – what’s your favourite way to minimize waste in the office?

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.