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Turn over a new leaf: How to live more sustainably

It seems like we hear and read about sustainability, climate change, greenhouse gases and global warming almost every day. Fiona Carruthers explains the issues and offers practical, easy tips on what we can do every day at home to make a positive impact on our planet.

Sustainability, as the word  suggests, is about being able to support and provide for life on an ongoing basis. We human beings have an unavoidable impact on the environment around us. So living sustainably is really about balancing growth, economic development and consumption with the need to protect and enhance the environment we live in, so it will still be around when our children and grandchildren are grown.

The world is warming up; 0.7°C in the last 100 years, and a lot of this is because of human activity. Only last week as I was gazing at the spectacular sight of the Tasman Glacier under Mt Cook, newspaper reports warned of our glaciers shrinking. Twelve have passed their ‘tipping point’, melting faster than they are growing, including the very one I was admiring.

We’ve contributed to this and other warming impacts by producing more greenhouse gases, partly through the use of fossil fuels. But hold on, there’s that jargon again. What does it really mean? Greenhouse gases include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and are so-called because, like a greenhouse, they make the air warmer by trapping the sun’s heat around the earth under a ‘gas blanket’. Carbon dioxide is the one we influence the most. In an ideal world, while we are busy breathing out carbon dioxide, plants breathe it in, removing it from the atmosphere. So cutting down trees or deforestation is one way we are increasing carbon dioxide levels. The other is to burn fossil fuels, which are just that, i.e. those made from fossils – coal, petrol and natural gas. (These are also what’s known as ‘non-renewable’ resources: once they’re gone, they’re gone.)

Many people around the world live in what we consider hot climates, so why are we concerned about the earth heating up? Isn’t it nice if things are a bit warmer? In reality, it’s ‘weather’ not ‘climate’ that affects our temperature on a daily basis. An increasing global temperature of only fractions of a degree can result in more extreme weather conditions, threatening food production and water supply through droughts or floods, as well as damaging the coastline and potentially displacing millions of people as the sea level rises. Warmer weather might be attractive, but a warmer climate is not.

Making a difference to the global problem of climate change might mean signing the Kyoto Protocol if you are the Prime Minister, but what can you and I do on a day-to-day basis to contribute towards securing NZ’s future? According to an on-line survey I completed, if everyone lived like me, we would need 11 planets.  Whilst it made huge assumptions based on very little information, it did make me think. I take reusable bags to the supermarket and turn off appliances at the wall when not in use, but do these small efforts pale into insignificance every time I jump into my car or step on to a plane? The latter certainly use more energy than the former, but as Dr Maureen Howard, sustainable living facilitator in Dunedin says, “These aren’t ‘either/or’ activities.  We shouldn’t think if we are required to fly for our work there is no point turning off our appliances. Everything we do counts.”

So: here are some small changes that can make a big difference. There are changes we can make at home, out shopping and in the way we travel, but the important point is they are achievable. Start with those you find easiest, and it will lead you on to those requiring a bit more effort.

Many of our power-using gadgets and appliances are in the kitchen, so big savings can be made in this labour-intensive area of the house:

  • Only fill the kettle with as much cold water as you need, and use this to boil vegetables, rather than starting from cold in the saucepan.
  • Keep the lid on your saucepans, especially when boiling vegetables, and turn down the heat. Water boiling furiously isn’t any hotter than when it’s simmering.
  • If your hot water takes ages to run hot, boil the kettle instead, or save the ‘wasted’ water for drinking and watering the plants.
  • Run the dishwasher only when it’s full, on an economy cycle. This can be surprisingly efficient. Pre-rinse in cold water, if at all. Using hot water to rinse can use more power than a whole machine cycle.
  • When you hand wash, try to use as little water as possible and avoid leaving the tap running when rinsing dishes. Using a plastic bowl in the sink can reduce water use even further.
  • Find out if your fridge is working efficiently by checking the door seal: close the door on a piece of paper, and if you can run it around the edge, the seal is not working properly.
  • Don’t leave the oven door open longer than absolutely necessary. Every time you open the door, the temperature drops by 20 degrees.
  • Try using a microwave instead of the stovetop.
  • When choosing a new appliance, compare the energy ratings before you buy. Visit www.energyrating.gov.au or www.energywise.govt.nz for a really useful guide to appliances and their energy use.
  • Compost your food and garden waste. It reduces the amount of methane in the atmosphere and is good for your garden, too. Up to 40% of rubbish can be composted.
  • Try growing your own vegetables. There’s nothing more delicious than vegetables fresh from the garden.
  • Water your garden at dawn or dusk so less evaporates than it would during the day, but soaks into the soil where it’s most needed.

Outside the kitchen there are still plenty of savings to be made in every room:

  • Turn off the light when you leave the room; and when a bulb blows, replace it with an eco-friendly one.  Eco-friendly bulbs last longer, use less power and result in less waste so are of benefit to you and the environment.
  • Turn appliances such as televisions, videos, stereos, mobile phone chargers and computers off at the wall when not in use. Even in ‘standby’ mode they are using a surprising amount of power. 5-20% of your power bill could be from appliances you’re not even using.
  • Check your water thermostat is around 55°C. Every 10 degrees higher uses 10% more electricity.
  • Insulate your hot water cylinder; and if you’re going away for a while, turn it off.
  • Fix leaky taps, particularly hot water ones. This could save you about $30 a year per tap.
  • Insulate your home wherever possible – walls, the roof and under the floor. The roof should be your priority as approximately 40% of heat is lost this way, 25% through walls and around 10-12% through windows and the floor.
  • Close the curtains/blinds at dusk to retain the heat and use a thermostat on heaters, so they come on and off only when you need them.
  • Like the dishwasher, run your washing machine with full loads and use cold water. It uses about 90% less power than a hot wash, and on a 5kg load this can save you almost 50c per load.
  • Dry your clothes on the line whenever possible. It really only takes a few minutes longer than putting them in the drier.
  • Recycle wherever possible. Up to 30% of our waste can be recycled. Even Telecom is doing its bit now, offering to take your old mobile phones, chargers, modems and home phones. About 90% of a mobile phone can be used again.

Sustainable shopping doesn’t just mean in the supermarket.  Everything we buy has an impact.

  • Plan ahead and go shopping with a list.  This helps cut down the number of visits to the supermarket, which most of us do by car, as well as reduce the amount of wasted food at the end of the week.
  • Keep a supply of re-usable bags somewhere handy, and use them.  If you travel to the shops by car, leave them by the door when emptied so they go straight back where they’re needed for next time.
  • Buy locally produced food if possible, or at least from NZ. This will mean buying fruit and vegetables in season when they taste best anyway. Support your local farmers’ market if you have one; there are about 40 throughout the country.
  • When buying produce in the supermarket, not every apple or banana needs to go in a separate plastic bag. Leave them loose where possible. If you do have to take a plastic bag, find ways to re-use it, e.g. for sandwiches, in the freezer or covering food in the fridge rather than using plastic film.
  • Buy large packs/containers where possible and decant into smaller, reusable boxes or pots, e.g. chips, yoghurt, fruit juice drinks.
  • Re-fill water bottles with tap water, rather than buying bottled water. Just wash and dry bottles between uses to ensure they stay clean and safe.
  • Look for products with as little packaging as possible. Recycle as much packaging as you can at home.
  • Think about what you’re buying. If it’s not a food item, ask, “Do I really need this?” Try and buy things that will last a long time and wear well, rather than disposable things that will wear out and have to be replaced. And consider recycled or secondhand items.

This is the big one. Our gas-guzzling cars and powerful jets are really rampant fuel consumers, so what can we do to lessen our reliance on transport and reduce our fuel consumption?

  • Before even getting behind the wheel, there are several points to check which could increase or decrease your fuel consumption. Are you tyres correctly inflated?  Under-inflated tyres require more energy to move. It’s also worth checking the alignment and engine tuning.
  • A vehicle fitted with a roof rack, ski box or cycle rack uses 5-10% more fuel, so remove them when not in use. The same goes for the golf clubs in the boot., as extra weight in the car increases the fuel needed.
  • Once on the road, the faster the drive, not only the more dangerous you become but the more gas your car will guzzle. The same is true for accelerating and braking. Drive as smoothly as you can.
  • Over a third of car journeys are less than 2km. If you gave yourself a bit more time, could you walk those 2km?  As well as saving fuel, a brisk walk helps keep you fit. If you do need to take the car, maximise the journey. A cold engine uses more fuel, so it’s worth doing all your errands in one go.
  • Consider a hybrid car when it’s time to change cars. Or go to something smaller with better fuel consumption.
  • At lower speeds, it is more efficient to open the windows rather than using the air conditioning, but over about 80km/h, it’s worth switching back to air con as the open windows increase wind resistance.
  • Air travel is a harder one to tackle, as many of us are travelling for work. But do we really need to attend a meeting in person? Although face-to-face meetings can have benefits, consider video/teleconferences, particularly for regular meetings where participants know each other.
  • Try to book several meetings in the same place to minimise flights. It’s cost- and time-efficient for you, too.
  • Book a direct flight if possible. Taking off and landing uses the most fuel, and how many of us enjoy hanging around in airports anyway!
  • Fly economy if possible. Not only does it save you money, but it’s more fuel efficient, too. Based on the number of passengers a plane can accommodate in each cabin, first class travel can produce up to 2.5 times the CO2 emissions of economy.

Fish and seafood are full of health-boosting nutrients and it’s recommended we all eat fish regularly for good health. What ‘sustainable’ means in the world of fisheries has been the subject of some recent debate.

The Royal Forest and Bird Society of New Zealand publishes a Best Fish Guide, which it says shows how fish rank on a scale of sustainability from best to worst. According to their most recent guide, there are no NZ fisheries that qualify as sustainable.

The Ministry of Fisheries says the Best Fish Guide paints an “inaccurate and simplistic view of the management of New Zealand fisheries”. Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton says: “Most New Zealand fisheries are sustainable and in the case of the few that are below sustainable levels, the Government is taking action to address the falling stocks. Consumers can have confidence when they are buying New Zealand seafood.”

New Zealand seafood is caught according to a quota management system that is owned and managed by the Government. This sets limits on the amount of fish allowed to be caught for each species. Our system is acknowledged as one of the best management systems in the world; catches are monitored so sustainability issues can be identified. Quotas are adjusted from time-to-time by the Ministry, as recently happened with hoki and orange roughy. Recently 30% of NZ’s Exclusive Economic Zone was closed to bottom fishing in a Government partnership with the fishing industry.

Our advice

  • Stick to local NZ seafood and you can be reasonably sure it’s been caught sustainably.
  • Ask your fishmonger if you’re not sure of the origins.
  • Farmed seafood such as mussels and king salmon are also sustainable choices.

At the present rate of environmental decline, and with doom and gloom scenarios constantly in the media, it’s hard not to feel down about what the future might hold, and it can seem like it’s too big a problem to tackle. But if we do want to leave behind a world worth living in, we have to be prepared to make changes to our current lifestyles. And they don’t all have to be difficult. Let’s be inspired by the world’s best-known naturalist, Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Go for some environmentally-friendly resolutions this year, and make them ‘sustainable’ – helping yourself and all those around you to a more certain future.


The four Rs of living sustainably

Some simple rules to help us lessen our environmental impact:

  • Refuse what you don’t need
  • Reduce what you do need
  • Re-use as much as you can
  • Recycle whenever you can

Super green tips

  • Talk to your kids about what you’re doing and why, whether it’s using public transport or not buying strawberries in winter. They’re the ones who are going to inherit the planet from us, so get them into good habits early.
  • Always carry a re-usable bag with you for those incidental purchases. There are some great ones that fold down small and can be kept in a pocket or handbag.
  • Need clothes, furniture or household goods? Consider buying secondhand. ‘Vintage’ is trendy and means you and your home will have a unique style!
  • Use your consumer power. Ask retailers, manufacturers and suppliers where things come from and how they’ve been produced, and explain why you are (or aren’t) buying something when you do.
  • Buy local and seasonal as much as you can. You’ll save money, have a more interesting diet, become a more creative cook and when things do come into season, you’ll really enjoy them.