Single poppy in wheat field

The eco-living challenge

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Are you up for the eco-living challenge?


Not everyone inhabits a showpiece sustainable house in an eco-village, but regardless of income and lifestyle we all have the opportunity to ‘push the envelope’ towards a more ecological way of living. Such a positive shift is possible, both out in the bush and in a major city, whether in a higher-density living arrangement or, despite the challenges, in a tract of suburban sprawl. Just remember that nobody is perfect, and changes are best made in a series of planned steps rather than a chaotic rush.

Probably the most useful sustainability concept to grasp is the ‘ecological footprint’, a measure representing the biologically productive area required to support one individual. According to the latest figures, Australia’s footprint averages 7.7 hectares per person, while the planet can only provide 1.9 hectares. If everyone in the world lived like Australians, three extra Earths would be required to support us all.

Few realise that household consumption of fuel, electricity and water are all dwarfed by the greater demands on these resources coming from infrastructure needed to supply the same household with products and services. For this reason, rethinking consumption will ultimately have a greater impact on personal footprints than any other domestic-scale changes.

As the names suggest, conspicuous consumption and ‘retail therapy’ are often compensations to fend off unwanted feelings – insecurity, unhappiness, boredom and depression. To a greater or lesser degree, most people are engaged in a continuous quest to find something outside themselves. An alternative to this outer-directed impulse is the challenge of developing a rich inner world, perhaps involving meditation or a spiritual practice. Being content wherever you are with whatever is to hand is a great gift not to be underestimated.

Any attempt at environmental lifestyle change will be more successful if a positive state of mind is maintained. This may involve tuning out from the world’s troubles for a period and perhaps switching off the TV. Get inspired by focusing on ways to give and contribute, and identify a personal mission or purpose (even if only a temporary one).

Hidden cultural values strongly influence our attitudes, and consequently mass behaviour. Although these are changing in response to urgent ecological realities, society still regards frugality and conservation in a somewhat negative light. To some, it implies poverty, or alternatively self-denial, meanness or puritanical wowserism.

Ultimately, guilt achieves very little. The qualities that have the power to save the planet are inspiration, an openness to nature’s beauty, and the willingness to ripple forth a positive vision for the future.

Green food

For most people, food is the largest component of their personal ecological footprint, and a good place to start. With an increasingly globalised food supply, the average item of food is travelling further before it reaches a plate. This trend towards increased ‘food miles’ can be reversed by growing some of your own organically, even in pots on a balcony, and buying local from greengrocers and farmers’ markets. Food originating in your own state, or even Australia as a whole, is usually more environmentally friendly than imports.

Vegetarian (and particularly vegan) diets minimise land requirements, forest loss, energy demand and water usage – with the exception of Brazilian soya and its links to deforestation. Personal impact can also be lessened through buying certified organic food, choosing fewer processed products, and bulk purchasing where possible from wholefood stores (remember to take your own jars!). Plastic packaging worth avoiding is PVC (recycling code 3), and styrofoam, ‘blown’ with greenhouse gases.

To curb food wastage, try to avoid over-eating, save leftovers for a later snack, check use-by dates, and use up most of the fridge contents before going on another shopping trip.

Purchasing and waste

Nearly every purchase later results in an element of waste. While some waste products can be composted, others are less environmentally benign. This complex area is most easily approached via a checklist of decisions and approaches:

  • Before buying or replacing an item, could it be borrowed, hired or shared instead?
  • If going ahead with a purchase, think about ‘closing the loop’ by buying secondhand.
  • Look for recycled content in such products as toilet paper and kitchen paper.
  • For new purchases, look at recyclability and ease of repair.
  • Aim for long-lasting alternatives to disposable, one-use items.
  • Go for non-toxic options, particularly to cleaning products and garden chemicals.
  • Check out the Good Environmental Choice eco-labelling site.
  • Be aware of materials with a disproportionately high environmental impact such as gold and aluminium.

The primary strategy for tackling waste is to refuse it at source. Say “no” to plastic bags and avoid products that are overpackaged. Filter your water, or have it delivered, rather than buying it in plastic bottles, and look at reducing takeaway packaging. To avoid receiving advertising material, put a ‘No Junk Mail’ sign on your mailbox and register with the Australian Direct Marketing Association’s ‘Do Not Contact’ service.

Next down the waste hierarchy is re-use. As an alternative to throwing a serviceable item away, sell it, give it to someone, or donate to a charity shop. If no longer functional, see if it can be repaired despite the possible challenges this may entail. Milk cartons can become seedling pots and envelopes can be saved for a future mailout.

Waste already created can be recycled in most Australian cities and towns; this includes paper and card, steel and aluminium cans, glass bottles and jars, and PET plastic (recycling code 1). A full list of materials and locations is on the database Recycling Near You. Old mobile phones and their batteries can be dropped off at many phone retailers, or alternatively call Clean Up Australia on 1800 024 890 for a postage-paid mobile phone envelope. Facilities for recycling computer junk are limited, but they do exist. As these are becoming more widely available, consider stockpiling defunct equipment for a while.

Organic waste comprises the largest component of the waste stream, and when sent to landfill it decomposes to produce the greenhouse gas methane. To avoid this problem, vegetable scraps can be composted, added to a neighbour’s compost heap, or broken down in a household-scale worm farm. A growing number of councils provide green waste bins – ask yours to do likewise.

Watching the kilowatts

More than any other electrical appliance, the spread of the energy-hungry air conditioner is responsible for bumping up Australia’s greenhouse emissions. Green substitutes include eaves, window heat shields, air vents, roof insulation and heat-reflective roof paint. If you decide to go ahead with air con anyway, evaporative models are the most efficient, but are only suited to dry climates. Cooling one room is far more economical than installing a whole-house ‘ducted’ system.

Household emissions from electricity demand can effectively be reduced to zero by buying Green Power, while a second best options is to offsett emissions through a carbon-neutral program. If neither of these grabs you, then gas (LPG) is cheaper and greener than regular coal power. While expensive, solar photovoltaic systems slash power bills, and surplus energy can be sold back to the grid for the equivalent of its retail price. Solar hot water systems pay themselves back in about four years, and further savings can be made by turning down the tank’s thermostat to 60ºC or less.

Under the government’s Energy Rating system, most large electrical appliances including fridges, freezers and washing machines receive efficiency ratings between one and six stars, and require labels stating the annual power usage figures. An equivalent star and power usage label program extends to gas appliances.

Elsewhere in the home, large electricity savings can also be made by switching off TV, video and audio equipment at the wall when not in use to avoid wastage from standby power and ‘phantom loads’. Low energy compact fluorescent bulbs are initially more expensive, but save money in the long run.

Greenpeace believes that the best heating option is a well-maintained woodstove – for those with a chimney, living in a council area without a woodsmoke ban. Homeowners can insulate the roof, and in temperate climates block the incursion of cold air by installing draughtproofing, putting insulation film on windows, and hanging heavy curtains.

Conserving precious water

El Niño weather patterns, drought, and diminishing water reserves in major cities such as Sydney are pushing water conservation onto centre stage in a hurry. Fortunately the water crisis can be relieved by taking conservation measures in several areas around the home.

In the bathroom, install a water-efficient showerhead, and take shorter showers, saving both water and energy. Put in a rainwater tank and choose drought-tolerant native plants for the garden. Avoid hosing down hard surfaces, and wash the car on the lawn or at a carwash that captures and recycles its water.
Since last year, water efficiency labelling for appliances has been covered by the Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme star rating system, similar to the program for electrical appliances.

Getting around

The big transport issue is whether or not to own a car. While one may be nearly essential in some country areas, urban alternatives to ownership are worth considering. Public transport facilities in cities are usually good, and car-sharing businesses such as such as GoGet in Sydney and Melbourne, or even occasional car hire, offer mobility for less than the cost of a private vehicle. For some trips both non-car owners and drivers can walk, cycle or use an electric scooter. Ask the council to introduce cycle lanes if it has not already done so.

If opting to buy a vehicle, an important consideration is its fuel source. While diesels are substantially more fuel efficient, older models may emit harmful sooty particulates. A positive solution is to run a diesel on renewable biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil, in turn curbing tailpipe emissions. Petrol owners can cut carbon emissions by converting to LPG, and with a generous $2,000 Federal Government grant, the expected payback time is now minimal. When looking at secondhand vehicles the Fuel Consumption Guide Database is a useful source of efficiency data. In the case of new showroom purchases, the government’s Green Vehicle Guide compares fuel consumption for all current models, directing consumers away from guzzlers towards the most economical one. According to the Guide, the most efficient diesel is the Citreon C4 and the top hybrid is the Toyota Prius.

The impact of driving is reduced when lifts are shared, several separate trips are stacked into one, and unnecessary trips are minimised. Both drivers and passengers planning long trips can benefit from posting on a liftshare website such as, or

A fuel-saving driving style involves accelerating slowly, keeping a substantial distance from the vehicle ahead, and disengaging from the accelerator well before making a turn or taking a sharp bend. Other savings can be made through regular servicing, choosing silica tyres and installing proven fuel-saving devices.

Air travel is environmentally damaging due to its profligate thirst for oil, but, as with vehicle and electricity use, its greenhouse emissions can be neutralised through a carbon-neutral scheme. The most energy-hungry option by far is, believe it or not, travelling on a cruise ship.

Renovating and building

For anyone whose idea of a home differs from a Tuscan Villa McMansion in the outer suburbs, green construction is an option worth considering. The essence of sustainable building is to work intelligently in harmony with the climate, rather than defying it, maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature without the need for substantial energy inputs. A number of architects specialise in this area and can discuss your preferences in detail.

In some temperate climates, passive solar heating and cooling come into their own. Large north-facing windows can be designed to block out the hot overhead summer sun while allowing in low winter sunlight. In the sub-tropics and tropics, exposure to prevailing breezes should ideally determine the orientation. While in colder climates buildings need a high ‘thermal mass’, in tropical areas lightweight construction makes more sense.

When choosing building materials, look out for high quality recycled supplies, and consider other low embodied energy options such as mudbrick and strawbale.

It may be worth insulating under the floors and inside the walls of new dwellings in addition to the ceiling cavity. Under the Window Energy Rating System, most windows receive two separate star ratings; one for blocking out external heat and the second for heat loss insulation, enabling a good choice to be made in line with individual climatic needs. As rainfall is becoming less dependable, it would be wise to incorporate at least one large rainwater tank into a new project.

If demolishing all or part of an existing construction, make an extra effort to ensure that most of the building waste gets recycled. Such facilities exist in many population centres.

Don’t go it alone

We need to make a number of shifts in our lives, becoming leading-edge pioneers, and positive role models to a mainstream that has been slow to catch on. This challenge is easier to take on as a group than individually.

Environment centres and environment groups scattered across the country are a source of useful information. More locally, neighbourhood-scale ‘eco-living’ social circles could provide an environment for moral support and networking. A healthy and active community is also better equipped to oppose insensitive development and work together towards common goals.

Sustainability Street, one of Australia’s most inspiring environmental initiatives, is a model for turning suburban streets into de facto villages, building community and pursuing collective solutions. To date these have included community gardens, communal composting, tree planting days, and bartering surplus produce. Some further ideas are food co-operatives, ‘junk-swaps’ and seed-saving exchanges. Above all, Sustainability Street is about social interaction, celebration and having fun.

Ask your council to sign up immediately!



Farmers markets list
Australian Community Foods

Purchasing and waste
Recycling facilities around Australia
Registering no to junk mail

Energy issues
Electrical appliance energy ratings
Green Power
Climate Friendly (carbon neutral)

Water efficiency
Water efficiency labelling

New vehicle energy efficiency guide
GoGet (Car-sharing)

Green building
Window Energy Rating System

Community action
Australian Community Gardens Network
Seed Savers’ Network

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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