Energy and our big screen tellies
Originally published in House & Garden
What’s not to love about a big-screen telly? No need to worry about climate change and the drought-stricken Murray-Darling basin when your behind is nestled in the comfort of the sofa and the cinema-like screen dances before your eyes.
But have you checked your power bills since the big telly wormed its way into your heart?
Large-screen televisions – particularly older-model plasmas – chew through the electricity in a way that traditional tellies and their handbag-sized screens never did.
In fact, it’s becoming so bad that experts like Keith Jones from Digital Cnergy Australia says the average household will use more electricity turning on their big tellies than they do powering energy-guzzling refrigerators.
“TVs have not historically been big energy users, unlike the hot water service or refrigerator, but because we are all upsizing that’s changing,” says Energy Australia’s efficiency guru Paul Myors.
Hooking up the big-screens to our stereos or home theatre equipment adds to the energy-gobbling ways of the equipment, according to RMIT university adjunct professor Alan Pears. What’s more, Energy Efficient Strategies consultant Lloyd Harrington has found 40 per cent of us leave our televisions on stand-by rather than turn them off.
Our big TVs could send more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than appliances like the dishwasher, clothes dryer or washing machine, especially if we haven’t been good little Vegemites and switched over to a green energy provider.
It’s fair to say that many big-screen televisions use four times as much power as the smaller Cathode Ray Televisions we used to watch, but power-consumption varies widely between brands and models.
“The best advice you can give a consumer is to switch to the newest televisions – all the manufacturers are environmentally conscious and trying to reduce energy consumption. An early generation plasma screen could use twice as much power as one that is being sold today,” he says.
Pears says television technology is changing all the time, with laser television and organic light emitting diode technology slashing power use by half to three-quarters of typical large-screen tellies.
“An LCD with a modulating backlight is the most efficient type of television I have tested. If you can buy a model with that particular feature, you won’t use as much power,” Jones says.
The clean green eco clean for your kitchen
Originally published in G Magazine
The kitchen is one of the hardest-working rooms in the house – so how do you keep it clean while staying green?
How we act in the kitchen can be contradictory. While we try to fill our fridges with organic, pesticide-free produce, we smear cleaning chemicals all over our food preparation areas, ready to ingest with our next meal.
We can’t help but be paranoid about germs and microbes lurking on our chopping boards, kitchen cloths and work benches – no one wants to eat gastro-inducing bacteria with their dinner. But instead of trying to kill every germ with disinfectant, it’s worth considering removing germs with hot, soapy water and wiping the surface dry with a tea towel.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends this cleaning method in its guidelines for childcare centres. And a Swinburne University of Technology study has found that using plant-based non-hazardous detergent in warm water is as effective in reducing surface bacteria as disinfectants.
Try these other tips for a clean kitchen that won’t hurt the planet:
It’s the kitchen sponge that commits the crimes against kitchen hygiene, with some alarmist studies showing an unclean sponge contains more bacteria than a whole bathroom. While it can be tempting to soak the sponge in chlorine bleach, there is a simple eco-alternative. Steam will kill bacteria, making the dishwasher the perfect place to disinfect not only your pots and plates, but also the household sponge. Oh, and run the dishwasher with a cup of vinegar instead of detergent once a month or so to keep it in sparkling shape.
There’s nothing like a shiny, silvery sink to delude you into thinking your kitchen is cleaner than it really is. To get the sink really clean without leaving an invisible layer of toxic residue, fill it up with hot water and let it sit for 20 minutes to an hour before draining and wiping with a small amount of bicarbonate of soda. For an extra shine, wipe with white vinegar, which is great for removing stains, dissolving scale and soap scum and polishing metal.
GREASE IS THE ENEMY
It’s the spatters and grime from preparing food that make the kitchen that much more difficult to clean than the lounge or a bedroom. While a chemical army is not necessary, most of us will need a cleaning product that can dissolve grease and lift away dirt. Using hot water with a squirt of plant-based detergent should be strong enough to cut through most kitchen grease. If you need to go the extra mile, there are plenty of kind-to-the-planet all purpose surface cleaners available (see opposite page).
SUBSTITUTE SAFE FOR SCARY
Avoid caustic drain cleaners, which can pollute the waterways. Regular drain maintenance is better than waiting for disaster to strike. Pour a half a cup of bicarbonate of soda followed by half a cup of vinegar down the drain once a month or so. Rinse with hot water. When a drain is sluggish, see if a plunger will unclog the problem. If that doesn’t work, buy a biological product such as Actizyme, which eats the organic material causing the clog.
SQUEAKY GREEN BABY STEPS
Look for cleaning products that list all their ingredients. In general, plant-derived ingredients are better for the environment and human health than petroleum-based ones. Try these:
MCKENZIE’S BI-CARB SODA
This is one of the best products for cleaning sinks and stove tops. Use an old plastic container with holes poked in the lid (try a yoghurt container) to sprinkle small amounts of bicarb on the surface. Remember – never use too much of a good thing! Less than a teaspoon of bicarb is all you will need to clean a kitchen sink or stove top. Using too much bicarb creates unnecessary work wiping away chalky residue.
B_E_E MULTI-SURFACE CLEANER
This one smells disinfectantly delicious, no doubt because it uses essential oils of lime, lemon, orange, lemongrass, mind, eucalyptus and pine. The New Zealand manufacturers say the cleaner has been dermatologically tested to be kind to skin, plus it carries NZ’s Environmental Choice tick.
SEVENTH GENERATION AUTOMATIC DISHWASHING GEL
The bad news is that this is made in America and imported to our shores, but the good news is that this is one of the few dishwasher detergents that is phosphate and chlorine-free. This detergent relies on acrylic polymers and a low-sudsing surfactant to disperse dirt and prevent water spots. It claims to have a green apple fragrance, but is not especially enticing to sniff.
ECOSTORE AUTO DISHWASHING POWDER
No one seems to have succeeded in creating a dishwashing detergent that isn’t poisonous, and this New Zealand-made powder is no exception. However, it isphosphate, ammonia and chlorine-free. Ingredients listed are palm and coconut surfactants, silicates, carbonates, citrates, sodium meta silicate, cellulose, fatty acid derivative, citrus oil and protease. It’s super-concentrated, so you need only use 15 mL per load.
CINDERELLA PINEAPPLE PUNCH DISHWASHING LIQUID
The smell and colour of this product are deliciously enticing and the Australian manufacturers say the fragrance is derived from natural and renewable sources. This is a concentrated dishwashing detergent (10 mL per wash) to use in a sink rather than a dishwasher.
Designing a lower carbon footprint
Originally published in House & Garden magazine
Passive design may sound like it can’t stand up for itself – yet, it’s the easiest way to stomp down a home’s energy-guzzling carbon footprint.
Designing a building according to passive – also called passive solar – principles is ancient: when cave men chose a north-facing cave rather than the cold, dark south-facing cave, it was passive design. It’s all about letting nature do the hard work to create a great living space, rather than relying on expensive fittings and fixtures.
Passively designed buildings harness solar heat and light in winter to keep a house warm while cutting out hot sun and encouraging natural breezes in summer to keep a house cool.
It may sound as contradictory as scoffing ice cream and losing weight at the same time, but a passively designed house is warmer in winter and cooler in summer, leading to lower energy bills and less greenhouse gas emissions.
“Orientation of the building and designing for the local climate are two of the most important techniques,” says University of NSW Interior Architecture head Kirsty Mate. There are a range of complex design techniques to harness the winter sun – which is lower in the sky – and cut out the harsh, west-facing sun in summer to ensure a house remains comfortable all year round. “Another thing you can do with large living rooms is choose a dark stone like a slate, instead of carpet – the dark stone absorbs the sun during the day and let’s off the heat at night,” Mate says.
OTHER PASSIVE DESIGN PRINCIPLES INCLUDE:
shading west-facing windows and walls;
planning a home’s rooms according to their orientation – north for living, south for sleeping, and east and west for service rooms like laundries or bathrooms;
having high windows that open, with low-opening windows on an opposite wall to create cross-flow ventilation;
maximising sunlight to minimise artificial lighting and heating;
choosing insulated lightweight materials rather than brick for second storey additions to keep upstairs rooms cool;
designing to the local climate – small brick houses work best in the cool climates like Tasmania while open, lightweight shaded buildings work best in the tropics.
“If you have a house or apartment with good cross-flow ventilation then it’s possible to keep your home comfortable with ceiling fans. You could run an air conditioner on really hot days rather than every day, which is what you have to do in badly designed homes,” says Energy Australia’s efficiency guru Paul Myors, who estimates that heating and cooling make up around 30 per cent of an average household’s energy bill.
“Living in a passively designed house doesn’t mean you can let the house do all the work – you have to be a competent user of the house,” says RMIT adjunct professor Alan Pears, one of Australia’s best energy efficient building experts. “You can have the best passively designed house in the world, but if someone likes to leave all the windows open in winter, then it won’t be much good.” Oh.
Insulation: the unsexy eco helper
Originally published in House & Garden magazine
It sounds unsexy, but it’s the greenest thing you can install in any house or apartment to immediately improve its environmental performance – insulation.
Put it in ceilings, walls or around hotwater pipes and you’ve got your house the equivalent of a warm woolly jumper in winter or an esky in summer, not to mention plenty of enviro-Brownie points to help you feel smug about the state of your Green-ness.
Effective insulation saves on electricity consumption, making a home more comfortable to live in and paying back the initial installation cost within a few short years, according to energy expert Bruce Taper from Kinesis.
“In terms of dollars spent, insulation is the cheapest thing you can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.
Insulation installer Justin Beck says ceiling insulation – either loose fill or fixed batts – is the most effective way to reap immediate comfort and energy-saving benefits, with the average house costing between $800 and $1200 to insulate.
KNOW YOUR R VALUES
But RMIT adjunct professor Alan Pears says householders would reap immediate benefits by going the whole insulation hog and putting it in walls, ceilings and floors.
“There is an art to insulation,” he says, explaining that all insulation products offer a thermal rating – or R value – which must be correctly aligned with the local climate.
Sydney homes have a different R value to homes in Hobart, for example. There is also a range of products – from wool batts to bubble wrap to blow-in fill to suit ceilings or walls without easy access.
“Insulation has a cascading effect on the environmental efficiency of a house,” he says. In other words, the better insulated a home, the more cost-savings the owner will reap.
“Installing lagging around the hotwater pipes that run between the hotwater system and the bathroom is one of the easiest, cheapest forms of insulation. The minute you do it, you don’t have to pay to heat as much water and you don’t let as much cold water run down the drain,” he says.
Regard your yard to improve the environment
Originally published as The Green House column
Weed it and reap – that garden outside your back door is an easy path to green. Even when you don’t have much space.
A common variety garden can be everything from an energy efficiency tool, food source or even a carbon sink to lock up greenhouse gasses before they can warm the atmosphere.
“Domestic gardens are useful on the recycling and water management fronts and can definitely contribute to a better environmental mindset,” says Greening Australia’s Justin Johnson.
Plants can shade buildings, create sound insulation and cool the air in summer through “evapo-transpiration”, which is like air-conditioning for the outdoors. There’s also the bonus of providing a space to grow food that won’t create any transport emissions to arrive on the dinner plate.
“Vertical gardening or ‘green walling’ is becoming the hot topic – you can grow three to four times as much per square meter and they look great,” says Neco’s Jeremy Davies. “You can have them right up close to the outdoor living area – imagine the beautiful thick aroma of a wall of basil as you enjoy a glass of wine on the deck?”
And while most of us love the look of a well-kept expanse of green lawn, we can’t score any environmental brownie points for maintaining that water-hogging lawn.
“I’m a lawn-avoiding citizen, I have converted most of it into food -.a lot more fun,” says Jenny Allen, the author of Paradise in your Garden. “It is best to grow a garden that you can manage. Start close to your hose with herbs and then move out form there. Some people may only be able to manage a herb garden.”
“A well-planted tree will absorb much more carbon than lawn, use less water and soil nutrients,” explains Johnson. “A mix of mature trees, seedlings and low vegetation with minimal lawn is good. On the carbon sequestering side of things, fast-growing trees absorb more carbon.”
And don’t forget the power of recycling food scraps into compost heaps or worm farms.
“Composting builds soil, it fixes carbon and effectively creates a closed loop where the organic waste is returned to soils to provide and sustain natural fertility and the ecological balance,” Davies says.
Giving your fridge the cold shoulder
Originally published as The Green House
Open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little slap! Green fridge, green fridge, best of all – give yourself a clap!
Refrigerators may not be the household’s largest energy guzzler (that’s hot water and heating) but the appliance is the most all-consuming, churning electricity 24-7.
CSIRO authors Paul Holper and Simon Torok say fridges are the most energy-hungry household appliance, accounting for around 16 per cent of the average home’s energy usage.
Fridges more than five years old also tend to have dodgy enviro-credentials, requiring more electricity and containing more dangerous CFCs to cool our food.
Energy Australia’s Paul Myors says it can be worth outlaying more money to buy a new, four-star refrigerator as energy savings can pay for the purchase within five years.
“Anyone running a second fridge – which is likely to be old and inefficient – is better to switch it off when they don’t need it. You can waste a tonne of CO2 every year just running a second fridge,” he says.
Ecospecifier’s David Baggs says greening your refrigerator is one easy way to reduce a household’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“You’re always better to make sure the old fridge is recycled – and make sure it’s not trashed because you don’t want any of the HCFCs to escape,” he says.
Neco’s Jeremy Davies says there are three easy ways to make your fridge more efficient:
make sure it’s in a cool part of the home (rather than facing a west-facing wall, which makes it work harder),
vacuum the coils at the rear of the fridge every few months,
check the door seals work (a piece of paper shouldn’t be able to get through).
“There are newer, more efficient fridges coming on the market all the time,” he says. “Head to www.energyrating.gov.au and make sure you understand how much energy a fridge uses before you fork out for a new one.” It’s child’s play.
EASY GREEN FRIDGE TIPS
Set the fridge at 5 degrees
Open the door as little as possible and don’t overstock
Regularly maintain the rear coils and door seals
Think about installing ventilation around the floor or rear of the fridge to help it run better
Downsize your fridge for easy energy-saving gains
Switch to 100 per cent accredited green power
Saving energy to lower our impact
Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald's Essential liftout
Writing about how to save energy is like sticking curly CFL light bulbs in your ears and yelling “party trick”. It’s forced.
It’s not that we don’t want to save energy, the planet or our wallets but it’s like trying to eat five serves of vegetables a day: worthy but too hard.
NSW electricity bills have risen by 20 per cent and talk of melting polar caps, rising sea levels and the end of the Great Barrier Reef should be enough to make us that weeny bit inspired to reduce our household greenhouse-gas emissions.
Now three CSIRO scientists have written a tome called The CSIRO Home Energy Saving Handbook, which is full of tips, climate science and advice to explain why we need to stop burning fossil fuels, such as the coal and gas for our electricity, oil for transport and natural gas for heating oh, and the energy it takes to make all the shoes, clothes and handbags we buy.
Author and social scientist Peta Ashworth says it’s the baby steps we take towards saving energy that make the whole exercise easy (and less annoying).
“So much of it is about how energy efficient your house is to start with but then there’s also behaviour and engaging people to make changes,” she says, suggesting we start by creating our own household energy-saving action plan.
Ashworth and her co-authors explain the action plan can be more successful with rewards along the way, such as spending the cash you save or planting a tree for every “energy infringement”.
THE ACTION-PLAN TIPS INCLUDE:
Start small Although the book tells us we need to act immediately to reduce greenhouse gases, pick easy actions to start with, such as changing light bulbs or taking shorter showers.
Don’t try to do it all at once You can’t expect to change everything in your home immediately. Reducing your carbon footprint may take several years but the most important thing is that you are starting to change.
Allocate responsibilities The best chance of reducing a household’s carbon footprint is for everyone to be involved. Include all the members of your household, especially children.
Display the plan Busy lives mean it is easy to forget, so display the list of actions where everyone can see it as a daily reminder of their commitment, like on the fridge.
Track progress Set up the plan with dates to commence and complete each action and track the progress. This might be once a month or once a quarter, depending on the actions.
Check your energy bills Another way to make sure your action plan is on track is to check the greenhouse-gas emissions shown on your electricity or gas bill.
Graph your results You may like to graph your progress and display this on the fridge. Hey, it works for some people.
SMART WAYS TO SAVE
Switch incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or energy-saving LEDs or halogens.
Use task-based lighting like desk lamps rather than overhead lighting and replace low-voltage halogen downlights with energy-efficient alternatives.
Overhaul the house to include more skylights and windows to maximise natural light and reduce the need to use energy for lighting.
Take advantage of the $1600 grant for home owners to install insulation or the $1000 grant for renters to do the same and reduce energy costs of heating and cooling by up to 45 per cent.
Insulate the pipes that run from your hot-water service to the bathroom and kitchen taps to reduce heat loss.
Draught-proof windows and doors and insulate the walls and floor of a home to create enough thermal mass to keep perfect temperatures all year round in the house with little need for artificial heating or cooling.
IN THE SHOWER
Install a AAA-rated shower head and aerators on taps to reduce water usage.
If a family of three reduces seven-minute showers to four-minute showers, the CSIRO says it’s the equivalent of taking one small car off the road for a year. So get yourself a timer and take shorter showers.
Install solar hot water to power your showers and take advantage of generous federal government rebates and reduce the emissions created by convection electric hot-water heaters. Alternatively, take what the authors call a “submarine shower”: get in the shower, turn on the water and wet down. Turn off the water, soap down and shampoo your hair. Turn the water back on and rinse off. You need really good taps to control the water temperature quickly and easily or be really virtuous.
Natural swimming pools
Originally published in House & Garden
Who knew the backyard swimming pool or spa could turn your environmental footprint into a ruinously large stomp of reckless water and energy use?
“The water use of a pool owner could be 30 per cent higher than the average,” says Kinesis environment consultant Bruce Taper.
But all is not lost. Savewater Alliance chief Nigel Finney says there IS such a thing as a water-neutral pool, provided the pool owner takes steps to ameliorate the resource guzzling.
Most swimming pools require 50,000 litres of water to fill and could lose as much as 20,000 litres each year to evaporation and backwashing, according to the Swimming Pool and Spa Association of NSW. “Covering the pool with a blanket is the best thing you can do,” Finney says.
Pool covers or blankets – which cost between $500 and $1500 – are mandatory in some areas and will not only prevent evaporation and water loss, but also reduce the amount of chemicals needed to treat the water. The blanket has the added bonus of saving energy, as pumps and filters don’t need to be turned on as often.
Finney also suggests installing a cheap stormwater diversion device to top up the swimming pool with water collected from the roof of the house.
“It costs less than a hundred bucks to buy one of these things from the hardware and connect it with a hose into your pool,” he says. “Running the water into a rainwater tank and storing it is better.”
Lastly, he says installing new cartridge filters to replace old sand filters – which require extensive backwashing – will save hundreds of litres of water a year.
Energy Australia’s efficiency expert Paul Myors says spas and heated pools are massive energy guzzlers, with water-heating bills of $1000 a year or more not uncommon.
“That’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. Solar is the cheapest form of heating, but is not as instant as gas heating or electric heat pump. He suggests buying Green Power to offset the emissions, and running the heating system only when absolutely necessary.
Is there an eco-friendly way to renovate?
Originally published in Inside Out
Newsflash: today we present an important breakthrough from renovation experts predicting how kitchens feel about going green.
“Erk, terrible colour,” claimed Granite Benchtop.
“I much prefer deep red,” chimed in Timber Cabinet, failing to realise that she wasn’t Forest Stewardship Council-certified and perhaps out of touch with what green really means.
Ecospecifier founder David Baggs says the hardest working room in the house can have a massive environmental impact, generating 23 per cent of domestic greenhouse gasses through cooking and refrigeration. The kitchen is also responsible for creating around 13 per cent of the average household’s water use.
So the green kitchen rules are:
DON’T REPLACE THE KITCHEN UNTIL YOU HAVE TO
“The average Australian kitchen has a lifespan of seven to 10 years, which isn’t very long,” Baggs says. Because most kitchen cabinets are glued and created from laminates and melamines, they are almost impossible to recycle and re-use. It’s best to hold on to the kitchen you have and make decorative changes with paint, splashbacks or a new benchtop rather than rip it out and start afresh. If you do want to start from new, Baggs suggests building a solid timber kitchen, which can be re-assembled or re-painted at the end of its life.
MAKE IT WATER AND ENERGY EFFICIENT
There are simple spray attachments you can attach to your kitchen tap to reduce water usage. Connecting to natural gas for cooking will immediately reduce your greenhouse gas impact by one-third, compared to electricity. But new technologies like induction cooking and microwaves are even more energy efficient. Work out what you want, how you cook and which appliances will be most efficient for your kitchen.
A VOC may sound like a deadly alien, but the kitchen is full of them. It stands for Volatile Organic Compounds which are associated with paints, glues and the sturdy finishes required in the kitchen. Haymes Paint technical and development manager Elizabeth Salter says there are now VOC-free paints that can be used in kitchens without compromising paint quality or durability. “Some VOC’s can trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions in susceptible individuals and some VOC’s contribute to greenhouse gas formation and climate change,” she says.
The greenest thing any kitchen-lover can do to make their favourite room in the house more sustainable is this: waste less.
“I have been meaning to make my waist narrower,” Granite Bench Top says.
“Vanity! It’s a curse” snorted Timber Cabinet, proving once and for all that she is in touch with her roots as a sustainable material.
“Separate rubbish for recycling, start a worm farm or compost heap for food scraps and use your kitchen more wisely.” Now that’s environmentally sound.
The air conditioning conundrum
Originally published in the Sun Herald
Keeping a house cool in summer is only easy if the heat doesn’t activate your inner worry wart to agonize over the greenhouse gas emissions and extra electricity costs of running an air conditioner.
CSIRO research found a two-star rated air-conditioner could create 18 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over a 10-year operating life – which is more than four times as much as an average family car produces in a year – not to mention adds hundreds of dollars a year to electricity bills.
But there are ways to keep a cool head in a home that won’t pillage the environment to remain habitable during a heatwave – and according to Ric Butt, the principal of Strine Designs, most techniques involve keeping the heat out of your home before you start getting bothered.
“When you buy a house, don’t buy a hot box. Buy something that doesn’t turn into an oven during summer. A thick-walled, well-shaded house will work best in most parts of Australia,” he says.
Other ideas to cool a home without increasing your electricity bill include:
– drawing the blinds and curtains in the morning and leaving them shut during the hottest part of the day;
– opening the blinds and windows at dusk to cool the house with cross-flow ventilation from the evening breeze;
– shading west and north-facing windows with plants, awnings or blinds;
– having a light-coloured roof and blinds to reflect the heat rather than absorb it;
– installing insulation in ceilings and ideally walls and floors, too.
EnergyAustralia’s efficiency expert Paul Myors says ceiling fans are a great cooling technology that requires as little energy as running a light bulb to keep cool by.
Your Home principal author Chris Reardon recommends evaporative coolers in dry parts of Australia which keep homes cool using less energy than traditional air conditioners – but can use more water.
The Australian Government’s greenhouse office says insulating your house not only saves on energy bills but can halve the greenhouse gas emissions from heating and cooling – in fact, insulation is one of the cheapest things you can do to improve the environmental efficiency of a home.
Oh, and not all air conditioners require a flashing warning sign that reads “environmental rapists live here”. If you want to rely on AC for the hottest days of the year, invest in modern, efficient technology with a high star rating and place it in a well-insulated room.
“If you do have an air conditioner, don’t use it every day. And get used to wearing summer clothes around the house. If we all stripped off a little more, we wouldn’t find our houses so hot,” Butt says.
Renovating to create a greener home
Originally published in G magazine
Houses are made of stuff, contain stuff and may, on occasion, stuff up. Paying a little extra attention while buying all that stuff could transform your home into a virtuous Green Palace.
The materials selected to renovate, decorate, build and clean a home with make a difference to its environmental footprint – that’s a measure of the natural resources consumed, not shoe size – according to Ecospecifier founder David Baggs.
“It’s not just the tiles you might choose in your bathroom, it’s the timber furniture you bring into the house, the paint on your walls or the synthetic backing on your carpet that you need to think about,” he says.
“All materials have an impact on climate change and biodiversity, then you need to think about the health and toxicity impacts of these things on your family.”
He suggests selecting renovation materials that are natural, easily renewable or sustainable – for example choose bamboo over hardwood – and materials which don’t require large amounts of transportation before purchase.
Neco’s Jeremy Davies says people who renovate and build with organic and natural materials create homes without any tell-tale ‘new house smell’.
“That new house smell is actually a cocktail of noxious chemicals that are off-gassing from all the new materials in the house,” he says. “People who use tung oil instead of polyurethane varnish and milk paints instead of enamels end up with a house that smells of nothing but fresh air instead of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).”
University of NSW lecturer Kirsty Mate says the skill is to choose “low-harm” materials such as Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber, natural fibres and stone to build or renovate with – then when it’s time to buy new homewares or extra “stuff” to fill up the house, make sure it is chosen on the same low-harm basis.
“Avoid compressed timber boards like MDFs and particle boards, many of which contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen,” she says. “Anything stain resistant usually contains strong chemicals, so they might be worth thinking twice about.”
She recommends two websites for renovators and decorators – Good Environmental Choice at www.geca.org.au and Ecospecifier at www.ecospecifier.org – which rate materials on environmental criteria and allow home owners to make an informed choice before selecting something for their home.
“There are so many factors to weigh up that it can be confusing,” she says. “But sticking to the simple criteria – safe, non-toxic and durable – should see you through.”
Greenwashing: the better way to do laundry
Originally published in G magazine
If clothes are a second skin rubbing against you all day long, how clean are they really? If the smell of laundry powder permeates your clothes, you could be snuggling up with surfactants, scents and salts from laundry detergent residue. Most Australian laundry detergents are thankfully not hazardous to your health (unless you suffer from eczema or skin allergies)…but they aren’t as kind to our environment.
As Lanfax Laboratories – who regularly test Australian laundry detergents – say, “the use of the term ‘environmentally friendly’ should not be used for laundry detergents or other household cleaning agents. Every powder and liquid carries some environmental hazard.”
Many laundry detergents contain phosphates, which can contribute to algal blooms in our waterways, and scores rely on petrochemical surfactants, which are not renewable.
What’s more, garden-lovers who want to use the grey water from their laundry to water gardens need to take extra care with their choice of laundry cleaners. Those detergents with a high pH or salinity level could easily kill plants or damage the organic matter in the soil.
Here are some more top laundry tips:
1. LOSING WATER
With most liquid laundry detergents containing more water than dirt-fighting cleaning agents, it makes sense to buy powders in concentrate form. Why pay for packaging and transport emissions if a laundry liquid is only 40 per cent detergent? More water means you also have to pay for more plastic to make the giant bottles that could end up in landfill once you’ve finished with them.
2. WASH WHAT YOU NEED
Most of us are too lazy to hang up our clothes at the end of the day, throwing things in the laundry basket that might be clean enough to wear again. Laundering clothes unnecessarily wastes not only time, but precious energy and water. Do a whiff test of that blouse or jumper before throwing it in the wash – you might be able to wear it again!
3. LEARN TO LOVE THE COLD
Up to 90 per cent of the energy used in the average washing machine is in water heating. The best way to save the planet in the laundry, then, is to use detergents that wash well in cold water, as opposed to those that rely on a warm or hot wash to work.
4. BUY ONLY LEAN, EFFICIENT LAUNDRY MACHINES
Appliances that use less water and electricity are always a good thing! Front-load washing machines use around a third less water than top-load machines, and the newer the machine, the more likely it is to be efficient. If you’re buying a new machine, look for high star ratings: a 7 kg washing machine with 1-star water efficiency uses about 210 litres of water per wash, compared to the 35 litres needed by a 6-star water rated machine.
5. MAKE YOUR OWN
Laundry detergents can easily be made at home by blending washing soda with soap flakes in a food processor and storing in an airtight container. A DIY detergent won’t make the same suds or have the heady scent of a store-bought version, but will save plenty of money. You can add a dash of borax or essential oils to your home-made laundry soap to add more power and scent to the clean.
GLOSSARY: A surfactant is short for “surface acting agent”. It’s the name given to a group of chemicals that lower the surface tension of water. You’ll know them as the bit of your detergent that makes suds.
TRY THESE ECO-FRIENDLY LAUNDRY PRODUCTS:
AWARE LAUNDRY POWDER Created by Planet Ark, this laundry powder is grey water safe and biodegradable. It has some of the best environmental credentials on the market, and comes in a low-allergy version for those with sensitive skin.
SONETT STAIN REMOVER AND BLEACH Chlorine is one of the most damaging elements found in our water supply and anything we can do to reduce its use is good. This oxygen bleach certainly works well, but requires warm water to activate. Only one teaspoon per wash is needed. You can find it at selected health and organic food stores.
BOSISTO’S EUCO-FRESH LAUNDRY POWDER Nothing smells better than the fresh zing of the Australian bush – and this powder concentrate is one of those laundry powders with a great essential oil-powered smell. Made without fillers, the powder comes in recyclable packaging and can be used in top- and front-loading machines.
ECOSTORE FRONT & TOP LOADER LAUNDRY POWDER This New Zealand-made powder cleans well and is concentrated so you don’t need to use a lot. It’s plant-based and can be used in grey water (although Ecostore do recommend their laundry liquid over their powder). Get it at selected health food stores.
SEVENTH GENERATION NATURAL LAUNDRY DETERGENT This one is a liquid, so it comes in a large, partly recycled plastic bottle, but the American manufacturer is known for its planet-friendly ingredients. In this case, the detergent is made with coconut-derived surfactants and has natural scents from petitgrain, neroli, bergamot, blood orange and nutmeg.
Lightbulb moment: better paths to cleaner living
Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald
It could be a lightbulb moment for environmentally friendly house design, if only we all knew which light bulb to choose.
With the government banning old-fashioned incandescent bulbs from 2010 and experts decrying halogen downlights as energy-guzzling eco-demons, most homeowners are in the dark about the right lighting choice.
Those curly wurly compact fluorescent bulbs (also called CFLs) get the Green tick of approval, with experts like RMIT adjunct professor Alan Pears saying they are the cheapest, easiest solution to create energy-efficient lighting without the expense of altering light fittings.
Installing CFLs should slash your yearly lighting bill, with energy-savings of up to 80 per cent compared to incandescent light bulbs.
But others say newer lighting technology known as LED – light-emitting diodes – will become the energy-efficient household’s lighting style of choice.
“LEDS will be the future – they last longer and the manufacturing process isn’t as harmful as CFLs,” says University of NSW’s Kirsty Mate. LEDs give a softer light and are currently used in traffic lights and swimming pool lighting.
But Bright Lights’ lighting designer John Ghetto says that while LEDs are excellent choices for energy-efficient outdoor lighting, the technology is not advanced enough – or cheap enough – to light up inside homes.
“LEDs are very efficient and have a long life – if the standard incandescent lasts 1000 hours, a CFL might last 10,000 hours but an LED will last 50,000 hours,” says Energy Australia’s efficiency expert Paul Myors.
“But an LED downlight can cost as much as $115 just for the lamp so they are expensive but don’t deliver the same amount of light as a compact fluorescent, which is cheaper. As costs come down, LEDs will be the best."
Pears says the banning of incandescent bulbs – which give off more heat than light – might not be such a worry, as new guidelines propose incandescent bulbs that offer more than 15 lumens per watt will still be manufactured and sold.
“Incandescents and halogens are both poor lighting choices because they make light by heating wire,” Pears says. The extra heat forces air-conditioners to work harder and guzzle even more electricity.
Halogen downlights are particularly inefficient, with large en masse installations required to light large rooms and the low-voltage transformer above the downlight guzzling extra energy.
“The Melbourne Fire Brigade has acknowledged that a significant number of houses burn down each year when the halogen downlight transformers interact with insulation material and start fires in the ceiling,” Pears says.
Hmm, a house on fire … could that be considered an energy efficient form of lighting? “Not likely,” Myors says.