The five most important things a family can do to reduce their impact on the planet

Filed in Blog by on October 16, 2017 12 Comments
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the strauss family my zero waste 2017 talk about how to reduce your impact on the planetAt the end of September, I was contacted by Hattie Garlick – journalist, writer and Telegraph columnist. She wanted to know how to reduce your impact on the planet.

She wrote “I’m writing a piece for the Telegraph on how to be a green family and wondered whether I might be able to include a little wisdom from you?”

A couple of days later, the following questions arrived in my inbox:

1) Is it harder to be eco-friendly one you’ve had kids? (I know I find it is, because they tend to leave food uneaten, want loads of plastic stuff, need regular baths etc etc)

2) Can you be a truly/responsibly green family without ‘opting out’ from mainstream society? (A couple of years ago, I went to stay in an eco commune where families were living truly off grid, but it was a full time job – they had to live in huts in the forest, couldn’t work regular jobs because it was so time consuming etc…)

3) Can you live comfortably (in a house that’s warm, dry, cosy and connected to the mains) and still be a green family? (I suppose lots of people worry they’d have to use an outdoor composting loo!)

4) What are the five most important things a family can do to reduce their impact on the planet?

5) where is your family, currently, with your efforts to be green and waste free?

As Hattie only had room to share a tiny bit of what I’d written, I thought I’d recycle my full answers into a blog post for you all to read!

Here goes:

Is it harder to be eco-friendly one you’ve had kids?

For me, it was having children that sowed the seeds for a more sustainable lifestyle. Prior to that I was pretty much oblivious to it all.

I found it was reasonably straight forward to be eco friendly for the first few years – until the end of primary school – because children basically take on board what is modelled at home, join in with your behaviour and any lifestyle choices you make are the ‘norm’. Once children get older they naturally begin to question things, notice that other families perhaps do things differently and form their own values and opinions.

Can you be a truly/responsibly green family without ‘opting out’ from mainstream society?

It depends what you mean by truly green. I think you have to question what ‘truly green’ means to you, then look at where you are willing to compromise and where you are not. I wouldn’t say for one moment that I’m completely green, there are certain trappings of 21st century living that I know aren’t sustainable, but I still like to indulge in – such as out of season food with airmiles and an up—to-date computer with wifi.

However, my message is always to focus on what you CAN do, to celebrate the small successes, build on them where you can and accept that if everyone does their bit, it can add up to significant positive impact. My lifestyle is definitely NOT about deprivation or opting out of mainstream society.

Can you live comfortably (in a house that’s warm, dry, cosy and connected to the mains) and still be a green family? (I suppose lots of people worry they’d have to use an outdoor composting loo!)

Absolutely. One of the wonders of our current lifestyle is technology. There are amazing things available to us such as wind, water, geo thermal and solar power. We have electric cars (which, if charged with green electricity can help reduce emissions), there are pellet fed stoves connected to underfloor heating, LED lightbulbs, washing machines that don’t use water. There are eco builds and passiv haus which are far MORE comfortable than some of the draughty Elizabethan cottages I’ve called home in the past!

What are the five most important things a family can do to reduce their impact on the planet?

Separate your wants from your needs.

According to “The Story of Stuff”, only one percent of the items we buy are still in use six months after they are bought.

In other words – 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process and transport, is trash within six months.

All the latest gadgets we can’t live without, the tools that promise to make our lives easier, the ‘must-have’ thing that guarantees us to be more popular / sexy / healthy  – the majority of them landfilled before six months.

One of the simplest ways is to write down the thing you believe you need, keep the list for two weeks, then reconsider. You’ll probably find you don’t actually want the majority of things anyway, once that initial fixation has worn off.

Reduce flights

Carbon emissions from aviation is still on the increase in the UK, yet it’s common knowledge that long haul flights have a significant impact on the environment. According to campaign groups, one transatlantic flight produces as much CO2 as you’d create by driving for a year.

If you jet off to the sun once or twice a year for a holiday, one of the simplest things you could do to reduce your carbon footprint is reduce flying. Why not reconsider somewhere closer to home or an alternative method of transport such as a train?

Insulate your house

You can have the most efficient heating system in the world, but if the heat you’re generating is escaping through windows, the loft space and walls, you’re wasting masses of energy. It’s a bit like filling up your car with fuel, even though there’s a split in the petrol tank. You can even keep it really green by finding a company that uses recycled insulating material such as those made from wool, hemp or straw!

Spread the word

This goes back to my belief that if everyone does their bit, it adds up to significant impact. Take the humble baked bean tin. If everyone in Britain recycled their tin, that would be 63 million (please check the figure for me!) less tin cans going into landfill.

Find creative, simple and non-confrontational ways to educate, discuss and debate. You could organise a talk for a school or join a local Transition / Friends of the Earth group but make this a normal conversation around the pub table too and lead by example. And don’t forget activism  – write to your local MP, add your voice to petitions and join in with campaigns. The Zero Waste Week campaign that I set up 10 years ago, now has a reach of over 56 million worldwide – that’s the power of social media!

And finally, the answer that no one wants to hear –

Have less children

This isn’t to send people who already have children on a guilt trip, but if you’re planning a family and care about the environment consider the impact of a large family before you start. It’s a deeply personal, and emotionally-charged choice of course, but we can’t ignore the impact on the environment and climate if we continue to increase the population.  Overpopulation is obviously a hugely controversial in the climate change debate but it’s also the elephant in the room that we need to bring onto the agenda.

Where is your family, currently, with your efforts to be green and waste free?

Waste is the area we focus on most the one we are most known for! For the past year we’ve fallen right off the bandwagon, but I used this year’s Zero Waste Week as my own bootcamp to get back on track. During September we’ve accumulated less than ¼ of a wheelie bin of landfill waste – so we’re confident we should be able to get through to the end of the year. We haven ‘t changed our shopping habits (I currently use supermarket delivery as it fits best with my current lifestyle) and haven’t done anything too arduous – we’ve simply diverted as much as we can from landfill by making the most of our kerbside collections, composting and reducing food waste.

We run a woodburner to heat water and radiators during the winter. Although we sometimes burn coal for convenience, it weighs heavy on my conscience and our neighbours regularly use as a drop off point for any spare wood they have! Wood ash makes a valuable addition to my clay soil, so there’s no landfill with that, and it’s a relatively ‘green’ way to heat our home.

I’ve had reasonable success with growing produce this year. I have a busy lifestyle running a business from home, so have switched from trying to manage six large beds to container gardening. This means everything is outside my back door, reducing my excuses for neglect! I now have a freezer full of stewed apples, green beans and tomatoes, onions hanging up in the kitchen, herbs growing outside the door and I’m experimenting with making fermented foods such as sauerkraut and beetroot. We keep chickens for eggs which is a wonderful way to get fresh food, manure for the compost heap and reduce food miles.

One really simple thing we’ve done which has made a massive difference to our draughty house is to line the curtains with cheap foil survival blankets! Ok, so the curtains rustle now, but I can’t begin to tell you how much difference they have made to the warmth of our house in winter and with insulating against sun in the summer. It’s a real game changer.

Other things include most of our lightbulbs are LEDs (and some are run off a couple of small solar panels), I use a library or charity shop for getting new books rather than buying new (my main hobby is reading!), we share newspapers with neighbours, we use sharing sites such as Freecycle or I sell unwanted items on eBay, I try to give experiences (theatre tickets, membership subscriptions) or food as gifts, rather than ‘things’, I make some of our cleaning products and of course, I share my ideas through writing blogs, newsletters and articles to inspire and encourage others.

There are other areas where we could improve greatly, but we can only do so much and I’m happy with where we are at.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. We all have our views on how to reduce our impact on the planet. What’s yours?

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (12)

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  1. Len says:

    Why don’t you think computers are sustainable? I feel like most computer parts are recyclable, but beyond the raw resources used to produce a computer, the connectivity they bring to the human race can trump any raw resource usage considerations.

    • Mrs Green says:

      Hi Len, yes I agree most parts of a computer are recyclable and the connectivity and ability to raise awareness blows me away. I guess some of the things that concern me are mining of precious metals, the huge amounts of e-waste that end up shipped abroad, causing negative impact to people and environment and my biggest bugbear – planned obsolescence. We can use them wisely, but there are those who get caught up by the marketing hype and think they ‘need’ to upgrade every year or so.

  2. Janet Holttum says:

    Good article. We do as much as we can, but find it hard to buy things that are not in plastic (meat, for hubby, I’m veggie, vegetables etc). How does a washing machine with no water work?

    • Mrs Green says:

      I’d love to try one of those washing machines myself; I remember seeing a prototype years ago and was intrigued. They apparently work with tiny plastic beads (there’s more plastic right there!) – I wonder if they’ll ever catch on. It is hard to find things without plastic packaging some time. Have you asked a local butcher if they’ll put meat in your own container? And have you ever considered a box scheme for veggies? It sounds like you’re already doing a lot to reduce waste 🙂

  3. Anna says:

    Great post. The small things definitely count, like the tin can example – such a small gesture that goes a long way if we all club together to be more sustainable and mindful about waste! Thanks.

  4. Philippa says:

    You’re an inspiration. Now if families weren’t so spread out now that too would make a lot of difference too. I’m now catching up and those curtain linings look interesting. I also keep on mending things I value instead of buying new. Have you heard of Re-start Parties? I can’t remember a post on them. We won’t have engineers if we don’t look at how things work!

    Re recycling the tins: I discovered that the carers visiting FIL only seemed to rinse out the tin and not the lid – they put that sharp bit of it straight in the bin. For years we’ve rinsed both immediately after emptying, drained them and recycled them by dropping the lid inside the can and squashing it enough to keep the lid in. No mechanical can crusher needed!

    If we used more tins eg if we fed cats and dogs as well then we would probably use a crusher – if you want to buy one (I remember Mr Green made one) you need to make sure that it will work on steel cans as many of them are designed just for aluminium which is so much softer. Or carefully stand on them in sturdy shoes (no flip-flops)! More space in the recycling box and they don’t roll around.

    • Mrs Green says:

      Hey Philippa, good to see you again 🙂 Thanks for taking time to comment. I think it would make a huge difference if extended families were the norm; I’d not really taken that into consideration. I should write about ReStart parties shouldn’t I?! I just assumed everyone knew about them, but of course that is a silly assumption.

      Thanks for the tip about can crushers too – I never knew that some were only designed for aluminium and not steel. You learn something new every day, right?!

  5. Philippa says:

    Yes, please write about ReStart parties. I just missed a local one. The others had been too far away for me. We need to spread the info about where we can get things mended and how we can find the bits and info to mend things ourselves. There are plenty of older people not on the internet who struggle with the way that marketing makes new models of things eg vacuum cleaners much more available than the bags for the working perfectly still older ones. Even if they are on the internet they may not want to buy things on the internet. Many just use it for research. Children should and could be helping their parents here. Parents should be asking. The youngsters would be able to locate generic vacuum cleaner bags really easily!

    Me, at the moment I’m looking for one (maybe two considering the hassle of finding one) machine screw for a kitchen cupboard hinge. I keep finding them being sold by the 100!

  6. Tim Jones says:

    I enjoyed this article. My heart goes out to you and All who take this lifestyle that I call “a challenge”. I too did not really get serious about sustainability until I had a child in 2004. There were just so many things I didn’t know at the time. And I have to say as my son is 13yrs old now,
    It gets harder not easier. Especially if you live in a urban center. I’m in Chicago. Yikes!

    • Mrs Green says:

      Hi Tim, it’s great that you and your family are on this journey. All we can do is our best and it sounds like you’re doing just that. At least you have sown seeds of a foundation with your son – it’s likely some of it will stick and come into play again as he gets older 🙂

  7. L says:

    Why no mention of going vegan? Animal consumption has one of the biggest footprints in day to day life and is completely unecessary (and very easy to have control over). That should be #2 next to not taking flights.

    • Mrs Green says:

      Hi L, thanks for sharing your opinion. There are so many things we *could* do. I was asked to list five and I wanted to give a wide range of ideas that people might feel inspired to try. I know there is a large sway towards veganism for the environmental benefits, so thanks for adding it to the list!

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