Friday, December 28, 2012

'Eco' is almost always Thrifty, but...

Contrary to what some people may argue, making ‘eco’ choices are almost always also thrifty choices. I have provided dozens of examples eco-thrifty decision making in this column over the last eight months. The most recent one last Saturday profiled our daughter Verti’s first Christmas present: a second-hand bicycle trailer spruced up by a local mechanic.

Keeping the holiday theme going for another week, I’ll focus on our two eco-thrifty Christmas trees: indoor and outdoor.

If you are a frequenter of the website Pinterest, you may recognize our Pinterest-inspired driftwood Christmas tree. We walked to the beach from our home just behind Seafront Road, and collected two armfuls of weathered branches. We carried them home, cut them to length, and tied them into a triangle with yarn. Finally, we hung the branches from another piece of driftwood with roots forming a self-supporting base.

Oh, and I almost forgot! Then we put on Neil Diamond’s Christmas album and decorated our eco-thrifty-beachy tree! I suspect it is easy for anyone to recognize the eco-thriftiness of this tree, although it is probably not to everyone’s aesthetic. That’s perfectly fine. To each their own.

But some readers may be surprised that our outdoor Christmas tree - the humble yet effective solar clothes dryer  - has been outlawed in many towns and suburbs across America. This is not a joke. But the States are not necessarily known for their eco-ness or thriftiness.

Using a washing line rather than an electric dryer is like riding a bicycle instead of driving a car: any way you slice it, the former is always both eco-er and thriftier than the latter.

These days, our washing line is decorated with colorful cloth nappies – another example of a choice that is both eco and thrifty. It may be easy to recognize the environmental benefits of cloth diapers, but there are also considerable cost savings over the long run. This brings back the concept of payback period that I’ve written about regarding everything from light bulbs to solar hot water.

The following information comes from (Sorry, this is in US dollars.)

For a period of two and a half years, the calculated cost of disposable nappies is $2,577 (3,123 NZD) averaging 36 cents (0.44 NZD) per change. By comparison, the following versions of reusable nappies offer the following savings. (Includes washing costs).

• Pre-folds and covers: $381 (462 NZD). Savings = $2,196 (2,664 NZD)
• Fitted nappies and covers: $1,263 (1,532 NZD). Savings = $1,314 (1,594 NZD)
• AIO nappies: $1,413 (1,714 NZD). Savings = $1,164 (1,412 NZD)
• Combo cloth nappies: $1,468 (1,780 NZD). Savings = $1,109 (1,345 NZD)
• Pocket nappies: $1,677 (2,034 NZD). Savings = $900 (1,091 NZD)

The website also points out the obvious regarding cloth nappies: they can be used for another child or sold once your bubs is potty trained. Both options increase the potential savings, which build and build over time.

Once again we see that the most ecological choice is also the most economical choice in the long term. This is also true for insulating and draft-proofing a home, energy efficient light bulbs, bicycle trailers, laundry lines, and solar hot water. However, all of these things share one or both of the following characteristics: 1) they require an initial investment of funds; 2) they require an ongoing investment of effort.

For various reasons, these conditions appear to be significant barriers to many people adopting sustainable behaviors. As a social science researcher, these barriers and potential strategies for overcoming them fascinate me. But that, my friends, is a discussion for another day.

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

One of the adjustments of living in New Zealand so far has been seeing Christmas decorations around town in the middle of the summer. It does seem that far fewer Kiwi households decorate like they do in the states, but there are some here who really embrace the holiday spirit. These pictures are from a house down the road from Dani and Nelson. There are some angels, reindeer and sled, a snowman (strange when it's 25 degrees out) and, my favorite, a surfing Santa Claus.

In our house, we've drawn holiday inspiration from the beach. Nelson had conveniently dragged a large, free standing piece of driftwood up from the ocean before we arrived. I'm not sure exactly what he had in mind for this furniture sized piece of wood, but it served our purposes beautifully. We went back to the beach and retrieved several more driftwood sticks then threaded them so that they would hang from Nelson's makeshift tree trunk. All that was left was to decorate our beachy Christmas tree!

Not wanting to culturally exclude our Jewish residents, Molly and, perhaps, Billy T the cat, I also took the opportunity while at the beach to grab a piece that would work as a menorah. Drilling nine holes into the wood was an easy operation and, just like that, we were celebrating Chanukah! The only drawback of this tasteful menorah is that it does tend to catch on fire when the candles burn too low. Nelson was glad when Chanukah was over so he could go to bed without fear of his house burning down... Molly and I also made a giant batch of latkes and broad bean felafel for the holiday.

A very beachy Christmas and Chanukah to everyone!
Jessea and Molly

Friday, December 21, 2012

Eco-Thrifty Thinking

Although our daughter, Verti, came into this world a fortnight late, her first Christmas present arrived two weeks early. As parents, we do not intend to shower her with colourful plastic toys, especially a certain anatomically impossible doll that drives a pink Corvette. (At least she used to in the 80’s, the last time I checked.) So far, her favorite toy was homemade from driftwood – her eco-thrifty play gym – 

and we hope that her vehicle of choice is more of the green, two-wheeled type. All of this is a long way ‘round to her Xmas pressie: a bike trailer.

It is also a way to present another case study on eco-thrifty thinking. Everyone loves a good Christmas story, so here is:

Verti’s First Eco-Thrifty Kiwi Christmas.

Once upon a time in the magical kingdom of Whanganui, there lived a bald little girl called Verti Feliz. She was born on a cold winters’ night in an ancient hovel in the shire of Castlecliff. Ok, enough of that…

I’ll use this case study to remind regular readers and introduce new readers to the characteristics of eco-thrifty thinking (ETT). Eco-thrifty is not eco-chic (think Good Magazine), nor is it cheapo-thrifty (think Dollar Store). ETT seeks a middle ground between being kind to the Earth (Middle Earth?!?) and keepin’ it real regarding affordability. The central mandate of ETT is low-investment and high-performance. This mandate can be quantified using a concept known as ‘payback period.’

Back in April of this year, I introduced payback period in my first column. Put simply, payback period is the time it takes to recoup an investment in energy efficiency in actual savings. For example, the payback period for a compact fluorescent light bulb is 6 months to a year depending on usage. That means that within that time period (6 to 12 months) you’ll save the initial $5 investment, and during every subsequent interval of that time period you’ll have an extra $5 in your pocket.

Verti’s bike trailer represents an investment in energy efficiency in that it allows us to pedal her around town instead of driving her. The IRD mileage rate for self-employed people and reimbursing employees for 2012 is 77 cents per kilometre. What this is meant to represent is the total cost of driving: petrol, insurance, WOF, repairs, etc. For us, that means a round-trip to centre city sets us back about $11. So, people, get your calculators out.

If the purchase of a second-hand baby trailer is $125, and it costs an additional $60 for a local craftsman to rebuild the wheels, then how many round trips from Castlecliff to city centre – at a savings of $11 each – would it take to recoup the investment? (Send your answers to before 31-12-12. A randomly selected entry will receive a free home energy audit.)

Beyond the financial savings associated with pedaling bubs about town, Verti’s first Xmas pressie also satisfies other characteristics of ETT: reduce, reuse, and support local businesses. We bought the trailer on TradeMe from a Wanganui family that originally bought it from a local bike shop. They benefited from the sale by earning some cash from something they no longer use, and we benefited from a low-cost / high-quality investment. The trailer is a quality brand – Giant – and is built primarily from aluminium and rigid plastic, which suits our coastal position in terms of rust-avoidance. However, a number of the spokes were broken, so I dropped off the wheels at Green Bikes...

where Jonah the Whizzard of Whanganui turns trashed bicycles into two-wheeled treasures. In an especially amazing wheet of Whizzardry, Jonah had them finished and delivered before sunset on the same day. 

This meant the following day Verti could go for her first bike ride with me on the green bike that Jonah built for us over four years ago. Thanks Uncle Jonah! Chur. 

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eco Design Advisors are Super Heroes!

I had the great good fortune recently to spend a lunch hour with Richard Morrison from Kapiti Coast District Council (KCDC). On the surface this may not appear exciting, but the meeting had two things going for it: the lunch was free (thanks to Judith Timpany at the Whanganui Community Foundation), and Richard is the Eco Design Advisor for KCDC. Sharon Duff, from the Primary Health Organisation, invited me to the meeting that was also attended by two representatives from Wanganui District Council, a pair of local builders, herself and Judith.

There is a phrase in our household we use to describe special people: “She/he is the real (sometimes additional word inserted here) deal.” Richard is all that and a bag of chips.

He is passionate, knowledgeable and generous with his time. Richard took an entire day out of his busy schedule to travel to Wanganui and share his perspectives on warm, healthy, low energy homes.

Our patch before

 Our patch after

As I’ve tried to emphasize in this column, Richard’s presentation highlighted the economic savings associated with eco-design. Rising power bills concern us both. While I have written that electricity rates are on track to double in the next 10 years, Richard shared information that they could double in as little as eight! In in the case of our household, a rise from $22/month to $44/month would not break the bank, but for families paying $300, a rise to $600 could be devastating. When this is added to the recent radical increases in homeowners’ insurance, the effects could be profoundly negative for local businesses due to less available ‘disposable income’ of the average Wanganui resident.

And beyond that, as electric rates rise, more people may choose not to heat their homes because they cannot afford to. This would exacerbate an already major challenge facing New Zealand: health problems associated with cool, damp homes. Here is some information from the Eco Design Advisor Network (Participating Councils: Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Kapiti Coast, Lower Hutt, and Nelson):

New Zealand homes are generally cold, damp, unhealthy and inefficient in energy and water use:
• NZ homes are on average 6 degrees Celsius below World Health Organization recommended minimum temperatures in winter.
• 80% of NZ homes are inadequately insulated.
• 45% of NZ homes are mouldy.
• NZ has the second highest rate of asthma in the world, and an excess winter mortality of 1600, a much higher rate than other OECD countries.
• Cold, damp homes pose serious health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in the community who spend the most time at home.

Unhealthy homes clearly cost the health system, but also cost the economy through lost productivity due to worker illness.

Sustainability is often presented as a triangle including environmental quality, human needs, and economic viability. This is a model I have used as a teacher for 20 years. 

But the more I learn about the majority of housing stock in New Zealand, a different triangle comes to my mind – a sort of Bermuda Triangle where things such as money and health disappear. The three points of this sub-standard housing triangle are: Unhealthy, Inefficient, Wasteful.

The Eco Design Advisors are doing amazing work to combat the Bermuda Triangle of New Zealand homes, and rescuing families from the netherworld of cold and mould. Learn more at their website:

Thanks again to Richard for taking the time to share his insights with our community. Chur, bro!

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Retrospective #31Paradox, Smartphones and Spontaneity

As an on-again, off-again, part-time student of Eastern philosophy, I have always been intrigued by the role of paradox. Wikipedia defines paradox as: “A paradox is a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which (if true) defies logic or reason, similar to circular reasoning.” From my observations, Taoism and Buddhism are full of paradox.

“If you could not laugh at it, it would not be the Tao.”

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Herein is the paradox that I see relating to the Chinese intern who worked with us during February, March and April of this year. Ji Qiao is a Chinese citizen who attends university in America. The private university he attends charges tuition around $50,000 (US$) per year. That university has an overseas programme in New Zealand. The programme used to be centred in Christchurch, but since the earthquakes it has been centred in Wanganui. Part of the programme engages students in two-days-per-week internships.

Put another way, this Chinese young man’s family pays $50,000 (US) per year to a university in the states for him to work for me in Wanganui for free.

Although this is an unfair characterization, it emphasizes the paradox of the situation.

The next paradox is that although Ji Qiao had never swung a hammer in his life, he was an AWESOME intern. Herein lies the tale of Ji Qiao, his Smartphone, and a pile of wood.

Throughout February and March, Ji Qiao and I worked on various little projects around the property, but he kept reminding me that the one he was looking forward to the most was “paving” – as he called it – the kitchen floor. Finally, following his “spring break” trip to the South Island, the time had come to pave the floor!

What made Ji Qiao such an amazing intern was his genuine enthusiasm and willingness to learn. He used his Smartphone to take notes on new words he learned – plies, bearers, joists – and on one sunny April day, to add up the linear metres of Tasmanian oak I bought on TradeMe (see last week’s Chronicle), and calculate the square metres of coverage we could get out of the random lengths of timber stacked under roofing iron in the yard.

Together, we stacked the oak in groups of lengths within 200 mm of each other. I measured the size of the kitchen while Ji Qiao listed the quantity of boards in each grouping. Then he used his mad maths skills to spin his arith-magic. According to his calculations, we could get 15.2 square metres of coverage from a total of 15.5 square metres of random-length stock. This may not sound impressive on the surface, but what it means is that the total off-cuts would be 300 mm, or 0.02%. That’s low.

The way we were able to achieve such a small amount of ‘waste’ was by matching short and long lengths, and medium and medium lengths, to the near-exact total lengths required for different parts of the floor. The easiest place to visualize this is to look at the photos in last week’s Chronicle. Barring that, I’ll do my best to explain.

The largest section of floor to cover measured 2.9 x 3.4 metres. We laid the boards in pairs that measured nearest to 2.9 metres, and alternated between short-long, medium-medium, and long-short for the best visual effect. This part of the job went quickly once we had a system in place. But after that, we had to change our strategy as the dimensions of the flooring needed changed around the Shacklock 501, the kitchen bench, and a short entryway. Despite the slowdown, we nearly finished the job in one day, much to the surprise of my wife Dani who returned home from work at 5:30 pm not knowing the floor was on the schedule for the day. And she says I’m never spontaneous! 

Peace, Estwing