A campground nudge that reduces water waste

zero waste camping

Showers on camping trips are a quick affair where I don’t bother washing my hair with soap. There’s no point when we’re in and out of the saltwater all weekend.

However, some campers take the longest showers imaginable, my bugbear. Long showers lead to water waste and lineups. So I appreciated this ‘nudge’ I noticed at a campground on the Central Coast of NSW.

A few years back economist Richard Thaler (who later won the Nobel Prize) and Cass Sunstein co-wrote a book called Nudge about choice architecture. The book examines the ways we choose from what is available to us, even if it’s not necessarily in our best interest. Our environments either discourage or encourage behaviours. The authors argue for adjusting defaults to encourage better outcomes where it’s very important for us to make better choices. Superannuation savings here in Australia is an example of this type of liberal paternalism. This water-saving camp shower setup is another.

water waste

The shower at this campsite is free for campers to use, but stops after four minutes. It only restarts after a three minute break. The sign communicates that it’s not broken when that happens.

Before, one could take an unlimited, uninterrupted shower of 10 or even 20 minutes. The tap was on until you chose to turn it off. The default before enabled water waste.

Now, the shower turns off by design after a reasonable wash time. Theoretically a long but interrupted shower is possible, if you’re willing to wait. We still have a choice, but the default is to be conservative with water.

zero waste camping

If we assume the shower flow is eight litres per minute – generous, given that many shower heads still use 12 – 22 litres per minute – a 20 minute shower would use 160 litres of freshwater. With the new defaults, it’s extremely unlikely someone will use more than 32L per shower. Small change, big savings. And all because we humans are wired to respond to the choices available.

Have you seen any good examples of nudges lately?

5 million reasons to get outside (and 17 Zero Waste hacks for your next camping trip)

Australia is as fabulous a country as they come for a road trip. Here you can find sunshine, small towns, and expansive beaches just an hour or two out of town. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the bright lights of the city, but nothing feels quite as good as leaving Sydney (and those five million other people) in the rearview.

Without too much effort, you might find yourself on a 7 mile beach, alone but for the dolphins. It’s bliss to have nothing to do but make a fire, read, surf, hang out with friends and take in the Milky Way (or debate which constellation is actually the Southern Cross).

And yet, have you ever noticed how a camping trip can quickly escalate into an environmental disaster? It’s usually food related. Processed foods, disposable everything, bottles of water, wasted food and constant trips to overloaded garbage bins after every meal. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are a few things I do to keep waste to a minimum while car camping:

  1. Make block ice ahead of time. This is where an old plastic container can actually be your friend. The ice will melt over the course of your travels, but don’t drain the cold water, and keep the lid of the esky closed.
  2. Freeze some food. If you have food you’re planning to bring along, freeze it overnight and pack it just before you head out so it performs the dual function of keeping your cooler cold, and later, feeding you.
  3. Stock up on whole fruit and veg. Although tip #1 is all about keeping your esky cool, #3 is about keeping food out of it to begin with (thus saving room for chilling beer). Whole fruit and veg don’t need to be refrigerated or bagged since they come in their own handy biodegradable wrappers.
  4. Take road snacks. Avoid fast food pit stops and their chemical laden wrappers by eating before you leave the house and packing a few snacks. It can be simple, like some fruit and nuts, or fancy, like chia pudding with luscious ripe figs and passionfruit. Your call. 
  5. Embrace the miraculous sealing powers of the mason jar. The two part lid system creates a trustworthy seal so it can be chucked into the cool ice melt water without waterlog. Excellent for those times when you’ve over-catered and need to store leftovers. It doubles as a spare cup! Just please don’t pour boiling hot liquid into a very cold mason jar – while made for canning, they don’t handle dramatic temperature changes any better than regular glass jars (just ask me how I know).
  6. Say no to disposable plates and cutlery. It’s the first thing and the worst thing many an infrequent camper thinks to buy. So unnecessary. Instead, score some lightweight plates, bowls and utensils from your local op shop and do a quick wash up afterwards.
  7. Wash your dishes with less water. Camping is a great context for figuring out smarter ways to do everyday tasks. You don’t need heaps of wash water or to let the water run the whole time.
  8. Check if where you’re going will have potable water. If it won’t, bring your own so you aren’t put in that awkward position of having to buy water from a store. A good water filter could do, but I don’t have one.
  9. Trade paper towels for tea towels. Too easy.
  10. Think ‘quick cooking’ to conserve fuel. Brown rice may be more nutritious, but it takes a long time and lots of fuel to cook (just ask me how I know this). Couscous is a quick choice. And when cooking veggies, cut them into small pieces.
  11. Drink beer from cans instead of bottles. Crack a tinny – aluminium cans are lightweight, readily recyclable, and easy to pack in and out. And you might have to pack it all the way back home, as many campsites still only offer garbage bins. 
  12. Use a thermos to keep hot water hot. If you boil water or stop at a highway reviver station, don’t waste that heat energy. Capture it in an insulated thermos in case you want some tea later, like even the next day. True story. Thermoses are also really good for keeping cold stuff cold. They are also one of the most common items you can find at any op shop.
  13. Recycle your metal bits. Foil bunched into a fist sized ball and empty gas cylinders are all recyclable in curbside collections in my council and many others councils in Sydney.
  14. Pack out your organics. I take a jar because I can’t, won’t, and don’t stop composting.
  15. Pack out your soft plastics. I try my best to avoid soft plastics, but sometimes bad plastics happen to good people. Take those chip and marshmallow bags to Coles or Woolworths and recycle them at the RedCycle bins at the front of the store.
  16. Shampoo less. Try a freshwater rinse and forgo the shampoo. Especially if you’re going to be in and out of the water. What is camping if not a chance to relax your routine a little.
  17. #Take3forthesea. The hiker’s playbook says pack it in, pack it out, but these days, with so many wild landscapes succumbing to pollution from single use litter, it’s more important than ever to take out more than you brought in.

How it’s your turn – what’s your favourite tip for Zero Waste camping, car-based or otherwise?

What camping taught me about washing the dishes

Big Sur camping

A dishwashing hack inspired by the great outdoors.

After a two month camping trip through the drought-stricken western US, where I saw firsthand how desperately low the water reservoirs had become, I became something of a dishwashing guru.

We made almost all our meals on that trip in a cast iron pan or a pot over a portable gas stove, and washed our dishes under headlamps in tiny, awkward little sinks. Sometimes we’d have to clean up by squatting beside an outdoor tap overtop a small mud pit.

It was here I learned to wash the dishes with extremely little water. The secret is to use an extra vessel to hold the suds so you can scrub everything with the same water before rinsing with fresh. The vessel could be a camp sink, one of your larger pots, etc.

Back at home, a double sink is an ideal setup for this – a smaller sink can hold the soapy water.

But we don’t always get perfectly formed double sinks in our small, rental apartments, now do we?

If you are among the sink-challenged, I offer you this suggestion:

Your slow cooker insert makes a great second sink.

Just another reason to love your crockpot.

(You’re welcome.)

Camposting – compost on the go.

Camposting is the art of composting while away from home (or while camping).

The thing about composting is that once you start, it feels so good and right that it becomes impossible not to do it all the time. But alas, compost bins aren’t (yet) on every street corner, or even hazily considered by the vast majority.

So then, what to do when you’re out and about and need to dispose of your food scraps in a way that will benefit future generations rather than contribute to methane production in landfill?

Pack it in, pack it out.

campost jar
Sort of beautiful, no?

In my dreams, city councils and businesses would provide compost bins for organics disposal.The contents would supply urban farms with nutrients to enrich growing soil, and we’d all eat hyper-local food without the need for synthetic fertilisers, which are an extremely potent driver of climate change.

Since this utopian dream is clearly not (yet) realised, composting on-the-go involves bringing your bits back home to be composted.

If you take a lunch to work (in a reusable container, obvy), just reuse it to bring scraps back home. If you camp, bring an extra container with a good seal to avoid leaks.

File this one under #tooeasy.