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.

Read, recommend, repeat: good books for green minds

If I go missing, look for me at a used bookstore, in the non-fiction section

I was lucky to grow up in a house with overflowing bookshelves in every room, and parents who encouraged me and my siblings to become readers. On our bookshelves you’d find everything from Martha Stewart to D.H. Lawrence and The Economist to Cosmo.

While I love all books, I reach for non-fiction the most. I enjoy finishing a book feeling like I know more about myself or the world around me.

Fifteen books that influenced my outlook on sustainability

I offer you a summary of the non-fiction books I find myself repeatedly referencing, recommending or rereading. Environmental issues are rooted in the social, the economic, the scientific and the cultural, and my list reflects this.

The Ecology of Commerce
Paul Hawken
Hawken makes a convincing and rational argument for building natural capital into the existing economic model of capitalism. He posits that capitalism isn’t the enemy, false capitalism is. We can operate within the laws of nature to create a circular, rather than extractive economy. In other words, Zero Waste. Anything Hawken writes should be considered required reading.

This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein
Klein is the ultimate hubris-buster and critic of capitalism. She debunks the wishful thinking that geo-engineering, offsetting or wealthy entrepreneurs will save us from climate change. It’s a difficult read that challenges us to question whether the thinking that got us into this mess is realistically going to get us out of it. It’s not all gloomy though – her point about fertility as a primary measure of health resonated with me and inspires me to think about how I can not only do less harm, but perform restorative activities too.

Plastic Ocean
Charles Moore
I first learned of the Great Pacific Ocean patch in 2008 after watching a Vice documentary starring the Captain himself. His book is rich with information about the toxicity, prevalence, and ubiquity of chemicals in plastics as well as in our environment.

The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wade Davis
Wade Davis, the anthropologist and Canadian treasure, explores the ethnosphere in The Serpent and the Rainbow. It reads like fiction – you will find it difficult to believe his mind boggling tales of Voodoo and Zombies. Why does this matter? It speaks to the need for culturally sensitive and appropriate approaches to sustainability. All of his books are fascinating, and he is a wonderful storyteller should you get the chance to hear him speak.

Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin
A deeply affecting and true account of a white man going undercover (in plain sight, by his own account) as a black man in the divided American south of 1961. This work more than anything has helped me to understand the concept of privilege and systemic bias.

Lean In
Sheryl Sandberg
If we want to address inequality, gendered or otherwise, we have to acknowledge our own biases, and those that are built into the system. The meritocracy is a nice idea, until you see how that concept has been used to justify the status quo. Don’t skip this one because you think you know what it says – that would only serve to illustrate Sandberg’s point.

Jared Diamond
What happens when closed system loses equilibrium? Collapse. Jared Diamond looks at societies that imploded when resources were overexploited. Culture isn’t possible when our environments can no longer support it. Sobering, because I like culture and society very much and would like to keep them. Especially dinner parties and holidays.

1491 & 1493
Charles C. Mann
Our idea of ‘unspoilt wilderness’ is a Western construct that overlooks that we humans have been shaping our surroundings for eons. Without me knowing it, this book was preparing me for the permaculture principle ‘everything gardens’. The setting is pre and post Columbus exchange. 1493 is the sequel.

The Black Swan
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A challenging read about risk and our human tendency to believe we can predict the future. Spoiler alert: we can’t. Taleb tells us to build robustness and failsafes to prepare for things we cannot predict. Sounds reasonable. Let’s build earthquake-proof buildings to prepare for earthquakes in fault zones. No! Earthquakes are known unknowns silly. Taleb is referring to unknown unknowns, which is what makes the book a brain stretcher. You can’t predict what you can’t think to predict, but you should not be so arrogant as to think that something you can’t predict could never happen. Got it? Good. The book is essentially a heavy duty supporting argument for the precautionary principle.

Thinking Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman says what I’ve been saying ever since my first economics class at university – humans are irrational and lazy. Only he has the evidence to prove it. Our brains have fast and slow thinking modes, and we’re not always in the right gear at the right time. Dismissing or working against human behaviour is like paddling upstream with a hungry bear chasing you. A must read for those interested in communicating critical information with the intended effect.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan
Intensive agriculture, factory farms, and declining human health – it’s all intertwined. Some would say you ‘can’t be an environmentalist and still eat meat‘, but avoiding meat alone won’t put us back in black, and Pollan explores why. The setting is the United States, but with the consolidation of farms happening around the world, and politicians continue to say yes to free trade deals, it’s going to become more true for other countries.

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon
A self-explanatory premise and a satisfying journey. The narrative alternates between the two authors (a couple) as they navigate a year of local eating. This book added another layer to my own understanding of food ethics. It also made my heart burst with gratitude to be able to live in Vancouver, with access to possibly the best food in the world.

The Art of Fermentation
Sandor Katz
I’m ever grateful to myself for impulse buying this beautiful red hardcover. It currently lives in Canada with my sister-in-law, and I miss it dearly. Katz’s writing style and explanations of the history of fermentation and methods gave me the confidence and the cultural rationale to start fermenting foods at home. It’s been going gangbusters ever since.

Giulia Enders
A delightful book about the human digestive system, written by a German medical doctor. Rather than taking an academic approach, she writes with a winning blend of fact, wit and charm. Goofy illustrations throughout make it appealing even to those who aren’t big readers.

Wardrobe Crisis: How we went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion
Clare Press 
Who makes your clothes? And what does that have to do with the environment? Why do we care so much about clothing anyway? Australian fashion journo Clare Press takes a peek behind the curtain of one of the most polluting industries on Earth to ask, why did we go from Sunday best to fast fashion? And what did we lose along the way? Whether we consider ourselves fashionistas or utilitarians, we all ‘consume’ clothing, and how we do so matters for the environment and from a human rights standpoint.

Enjoy, and I’d love to hear your own most recommended.

Thoughts on my new safety razor

safety razor

Waste-free shaving is possible with a safety razor

When my last two disposable cartridge heads bit the dust I took a leap and invested in a safety razor. I’d put off the decision for some time and stretched those last cartridges over nearly two years while I deliberated.

Safety razors looked awfully…sharp. I certainly didn’t want to invest in something I’d end up hating or that didn’t work, or worse, cut my legs to shreds. Reviews around the web seemed uniformly positive, but still I waffled.

In the end, with no other appealing hair removal Plan B, I finally went ahead and bought one. I went with the Merkur Solingen Long Handle Classic Double Edge Razor (23C). I chose the long handled version, which isn’t exactly that long.

safety razor dissassembled

It wasn’t completely waste-free purchase, as I ordered online and received a cardboard box with tape and the usual shipping paraphernalia (including a very small amount of soft plastic that came with a blade sampler pack). I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the use of water soluble packing peanuts, which can be composted. Single use is never going to be perfect, but I thought it better at least, and I recycled the small amount of soft plastic through Redcycle.

The nuts and bolts of the safety razor

The razor cost $55 (that’s AUD, and things in Australia are often dearer than in North America), but the blades themselves are cheap – roughly a buck apiece. Compare that to disposable cartridges that run $3 – $6 each! This means I’ll break even after somewhere between 10 – 20 blade refills.

The thing itself is beautiful to look at. Gleaming, retro and modern all at once, with an air of permanence. The razor comes apart into 3 pieces, minus the blade. You would only disassemble to change a blade or perhaps clean the razor.

How well does the safety razor work?

The razor works fabulously. I get a close shave with no irritation. I shave exactly the same way as I used to and it takes no more time overall. Bam.

So let’s talk details…

Shaving cream

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have particularly sensitive skin or coarse hair, but I’ve never been a careful shaver and I don’t follow all the rules. One of those implied rules is to use shaving cream. I replaced this chemical-laden and generally over-packaged drugstore purchase long ago in favour of unpackaged bar soap.

The very few Youtube videos I found about safety razors that were geared towards women’s shaving recommended methods borrowed from the men’s department i.e. a boar brush, a special shave soap and dish, lots of frothing, and a method of short strokes, light pressure, and meticulous care.

I gambled that I could continue to use my lathering soap instead of cream with my new and possibly murderous tool, and feel vindicated to be able to say yes, it works completely fine.

The blade and you

The blade is not nearly as exposed as I expected. I had trouble taking a closeup shot of the blade, but it sits between the rounded top piece and the pronged bottom piece of the razor handle.

When you shave, you drag the blade at an angle (30 degrees or so), and what you’ll feel is the top and bottom piece against your skin. The correct angle allows the blade to make contact. Angle the handle too far one way or another and the blade won’t actually touch. Very safe and simple to figure out. You’d have to press pretty hard to have a problem.

Disposing of spent razor blades

The razor blades are made of steel, which is a recyclable material. However, most recycling facilities don’t deal well with tiny pieces of material. And I state the obvious when I say that no one, at the recycling facility or elsewhere, wants a run in with loose razor blades.

To make my shaves waste-free, I’ll save my blades in a blade bank. These are small containers with a one way slot. You can buy them, or make them yourself. When full, recycle the whole thing.

For my DIY method, I will try using a steel food can.  I don’t eat much tinned food, and yes I know all about the BPA lining, but I still do eat some, and one tin is all I’ll need to safely store quite a few razor blades.

To make your blade bank, carefully slice a slit into the top with a knife you don’t love too much, or a multi-tool, puncture a small hole on the other side to relieve the pressure, and drain the liquid from the can (use the liquid). Sounds easy, right? I’ll let you know how that goes, ha!

Sidebar: this is also a good trick for recycling bitty bits like steel caps from beer bottles and the like, except instead of making a slit, you could open the can the normal way, fill, then crimp when full. Sort like with like, metal-wise. If you’re not sure if you’re dealing with steel or aluminum, use a magnet: a magnet will stick to steel, not aluminum.

A few more ways to reduce the impact of your shave: 

  • Turn off the tap when lathering up and shaving.
  • If you use a disposable head, try keeping it for longer than the ‘recommended’ number of uses.
  • You could try stropping to hone the blade so it lasts longer. I really can’t say I notice a difference.

Yes, I can safely recommend this razor.

Let this be a record that I tried, I liked, and I do recommend the safety razor. I’ve invested in something I hope to have forever and also looks pretty schmick. There’s been no difference in the time I spent shaving, and I expect a cost saving over the long run on new blades.