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.

The good, the bad, and the economics.

Conch shell

I like frameworks and theories and ideas that can be plotted into a grid. They offer me a chance to unpack things in a methodical way and search for the gaps in my thinking.

Frameworks are filters with which we can view the world.

I picked up a lot of these during my undergrad at a top business school, well known for churning out accountants and financial types. Our course load included plenty of math, statistics, accounting, and several flavours of management economics (yeeeew!).

In our economics classes, we learned about game theory, economies of scale, diminishing marginal costs, the difference between normal returns and profit, and the like. Useful stuff for understanding the way world markets function. I say function in the operational sense – I do not claim they function well.

We are taught these theories because they prepare people like me to keep accumulating wealth for our employers or ourselves to keep the societal status quo in balance. You know, be successful.

It’s not just employers and the government who want this either. We all want to be useful, earn a living, be able to feed ourselves and participate fully in society.

Extractive economics: tradeoffs vs. false choices

What I didn’t fully realize ’til later on is that the type of economics I studied is just a small area of the overall field. In fact, we mainly learned theories based in extractive economics. The macro side focused on the way banks work and the methods the Bank of Canada uses to manage inflation, and so on. The micro side on how best to reduce the cost of widgets, scarcity and demand, and how to operate within various market structures (and so on).

We learn not necessarily that greed is good, but that growth is.

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I had one class  – Business and Sustainability – that would plant seeds (pardon the pun) within me that would take some time to germinate. But the mainstay of my formal education was to learn economic theories to apply in extractive scenarios, which is to say: to make things efficiently to make a profit.

What I do appreciate about economic theories in general is that they help us dispell blatant wishful thinking.

i.e. Basic economics tells us that money comes from somewhere; one cannot just print money to become richer. Ergo, if a politician promises more money to a ministry or project, we are justified in asking where money will be removed from, and how the system may rebalance (or not). It also helps us understand the basic mechanisms of subsidy and taxation as rather effective monetary instruments. We learn about tradeoffs.

But while tradeoffs will always exist, false choices are the result of too narrow thinking. 

Extractive economics is a pyramid scheme

We take new materials from the ground and sell them once, so profit depends on an ongoing supply, and someone is always losing.

The world (and neighbouring planets) are of finite composition. Which means we will run out of new materials eventually. They didn’t talk about this at business school, which is why we should not be surprised that most people who operate in businesses or government today do so by making use of economic theory grounded in extraction. It’s a narrow view, but the prevailing one.

Enter the circular economy

I actually did first learn about the circular economy in that Business and Sustainability course I took way back when. I learned that most wealthy countries are so because of extraction of natural resources, and that their dependence on it creates significant risk in comparison to knowledge economies.

I learned that endless growth is actually impossible within a closed system, like our Earth.

But it’s easy to forget. Or to bury. In our modern world, success is culturally defined by having wealth. We strive and compete and earn and shut out the inequities of our arbitraged global economy. Not all of us are prepared to live off the grid.

The circular economy offers some hope that we won’t have to.

The circular economy asks:
  • how can waste from one process must become fuel for another, just as it is in the natural world?
  • how can we create quality of life without relying on a cycle of endless growth?
  • how can we debunk the idea that accumulating financial wealth is the only form of success?

Taking back our economy.

You can be progressive thinking and still find the field of economics incredibly useful, just don’t fall into the trap that our leaders do that growth is the only measure of economic strength. They may tell us that extraction of resources is the only way to create prosperity. We can disagree.

For more, I highly recommend the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken, which I ever so fittingly found in a secondhand bookstore.

It’s a book about economics even an environmentalist could love. And vice versa. In it, he explores why we need to move beyond extractive economics, and why a circular model that respects the laws of nature holds so much potential.

The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken
The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing city trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!

Waste = food

All living things produce waste.

Within a system in equilibrium, the waste from one process provides food, or fuel, for another. Nature is the ultimate recycler.

Waste = food.

This is the simple logic that underpins the philosophy of Zero Waste.

Through the lens of Zero Waste, the issue of waste isn’t so much that people produce it at all, but that we produce so darn much of it, and in such a manner that it resists reabsorption into the natural cycle.

So while humankind has forever thrown things away, it’s only recently that this detritus has become synonymous with trash, garbage, or landfill.

Garbage is a design problem.

When we can’t recover waste materials, and they become garbage – that is, they become un-useful for anything else – it’s because of bad design.

We either designed a product with the expectation it would end up in landfill (and we were okay with that) or we simply didn’t consider its end of life at all.

Garbage often happens when products are:

  • made with hazardous materials.
  • made of more materials than necessary.
  • made of materials that are not easily recycled.
  • made of a combination of materials that are difficult to separate.
  • difficult to repair.
  • designed for single use.
  • unnecessary.

There are ways to tackle these issues:

  • design with the end of life waste product in mind.
  • use materials that generate useful waste and eliminate the rest.
  • find ways to use the waste that already exists within the system.
  • design products for long term use or reuse.
  • use the least amount of resources possible.

Truly sophisticated design will bring us closer to the natural cycle from which we’ve become disconnected. ‘Send to landfill’ isn’t a plan anymore.