Monday, January 26, 2015

Canning and packaging

The energy to make things

An aspect of our consumption that is hard for people to understand is that of embodied energy. This is the energy that is required to make things and deliver them to us to use. It is difficult to estimate the embodied energy of a thing, because it's difficult to know where to stop.

Let's take a 2 L plastic container as an example. In Australia, these are typically made from HDPE or high-density poly ethylene. HDPE is an amazing material, and has many uses. It is a petroleum product. How much energy does it take to make a milk carton and get it to our home?

Obviously, we have the energy involved in the manufacture and delivery of the container -- but what about the supporting infrastructure? The more stuff like this that is transported, the heavier the burden on our highways (ie. a significant proportion of road upkeep can be attributed to the delivery of stuff). Also, since HDPE is a petroleum product, we need to include the raw oil that is destined to be made into our container. Also, we need to include (part of) all the ancillary machines and tools used to discover, extract, process, refine and distribute that oil. We also should really include (part of) the support infrastructure for all those machines -- how they are manufactured, delivered, serviced, repaired, and disposed of.

Clearly -- this is a bit of a rabbit hole. Where we draw the line (ie. where we stop counting) is a bit arbitrary, but we can be sure that we can't count all of the energy inputs that go to making a 2 L HDPE bottle.

I estimate that one 2 L HDPE container, such as those used for milk, has an embodied energy of at least 1 kWh [1]. 


This is a lot of energy. What is poorly understood is that, for plastics, recycling doesn't save that much energy.
Recycling plastic only saves about 1/3 the energy compared with making new plastic from oil [2]

To me this shows that disposable plastic packaging is very wasteful, even if it's recycled.

What to do?

Really, it's simple. If you want to use less energy, you need to reuse your packaging instead of throwing it away. This was normal only 50 years ago, so it's not really such a far-out idea.


Cook preserves (eg. jams, chutneys, stewed fruit) at home. If you find which neighbours have fruit trees, they will probably be happy to share their fruit with you when it's ripe -- particularly if you give them back a jar of preserve. I recently read that the cost of the jar is about 1/3 the cost of buying a jar of jam (can't find the reference, sorry). That's quite amazing when you think that people often buy cheap jam to save money. Making your own jam is really easy, it tastes better and you save money. Also, we're quite careful to make our preserves when our solar PV is producing, so we know that the electricity to make the jam is renewable(-ish) too.
Some of the fruit we gathered for free yesterday at a local park (beautiful nectarines)

Our preserves cupboard. The top jars are empty jars ready to be reused. The drawers have the beginnings of our preserving efforts. Very exciting!
Figs that we "gleaned" for free at the park yesterday. When we discovered this tree (almost a year ago) there were rotting figs all over the ground. There won't be this year!

Shop at places that allow you to bring empty packages to fill and reuse -- this is especially easy for dried goods (eg. beans, grains, flours, dried fruits, etc)
If you drink soy or nut milk, experiment with making your own (either from powder or from scratch) -- it's a lot cheaper too
Try making your own yoghurt -- it's about 1/2 the price of bought yoghurt

We do all these things at my place, and it's really not onerous -- it's quite fun. It's very satisfying to build up a store of beautiful home-canned fruits -- many of which we've got for free. Home-made jam is the best you can get, and you know exactly what has gone into it.



This article was written by Angus Wallace, and first appeared at

Friday, January 9, 2015

Progress report on water systems

Here is a brief update on how the water systems I've installed are faring.

Hot water

I have written articles about my hot water systems here and here.

The system was finalised at the beginning of September 2014, and has worked flawlessly since. We have not boosted it through Spring/Summer -- in fact, I have shaded the collectors to stop it boiling. Some things I really like about it:
  • I now have shorter "runs" of pipe between the hot water system and where I use the water, which means less waste
  • Because water is effectively heated instantaneously within the hot water system tank (discussed in previous articles), it has no taste, and so can be used to make tea and cook with. There is also no concern with Legionnaires' disease.

Rain water

I have written about our rainwater systems here and here.
We have been exclusively using rainwater since the beginning of September. This includes watering the garden, washing clothes and people, toilet flushing. At the beginning of September, we had ~35 kL of stored water of which I estimate about 30 kL is usable (due to the position of the tanks relative to input/output feeds, etc) -- this was not something I previously considered. Because the system was not completed until December, we did not capture the Spring rain maximally, and Spring rains were very sparse this year. It has been a relatively cool and dry Spring.
We have been very frugal with water, and have captured our washing machine grey water, and grey water from the kitchen for use on the garden (we don't keep washing machine grey water if washing nappies). Until last weekend, I estimate that we had used about 23 kL or a bit under 200 L/day.
I (very roughly)  estimate that this water is used as follows:
  • 6 - 8 toilet flush/day: 50 - 70 L daily
  • 1 load of washing / day: 70 L daily
  • kitchen sink: 30 L daily
  • garden direct watering: 50 L daily
  • bath/showering: 30 L daily
Clearly, the big users are the toilet and the washing machine. 


The toilet is a total loss, because that water goes straight to waste. I want to replace one of our flushing toilets with a composting toilet. This will save a lot of water, and also give us more compost.

Washing machine

Most of the washing machine water we use in the garden, though in a sub-optimal way. This probably seems like a lot of washing, but we have two young children, one of whom is in the process of toilet training (ie. we still wash nappies, as well as soiled clothing)


I generally wash in the shower every 2 - 3 days, and sometimes use the bath after the kids. They have a bath every 2 - 3 days. My wife often showers at work.

Lessons learned

  • Some water is easy to save, and grey water represents an easy saving if it displaces fresh water on the garden.
  • Timer taps make it easy to waste water on the garden. Also, it is hard to measure how much water is being used. I set up a timer tap out the back on the vegetables and fruit trees (separate circuits). Given the amount of grey water we have, it is almost possible to water all our trees and vegetables with grey water only (note that there are hygiene implications of watering vegetables with grey water -- make sure you do your research if you plan on doing this). In future, I will consider watering more by hand and less by the drippers
  • I accidentally let about 5000 L out of the tank via the vegetable drippers. I wanted to give the vegetables a bit of water before a very hot dry day, but forgot to turn them off until the next day. In future, I will never leave a tap running without an auto-off or an alarm to remind me.

Likely outcome for the Summer of 2014/2015

We will probably run out of water this Summer. I think we have about 5000 L (accessible) remaining in the tanks, which will last only about 25 days. I doubt we will get significant rain in that period. (We have had about 15 mm of rain in the last 4 days, which is very unseasonal, and is factored into this estimate). We are in the fortunate position to be able to switch over to town water easily.

Plans and thoughts for Summer 2015/2016

  • I would like to have one toilet replaced with a composting toilet by next Summer
  • I might add some extra sheeting to the pergola which will increase the rain collection area (very important for catching every drop of Spring rain)
  • We now have all the tanks installed and connected, so will maximally collect the Spring rains in 2015
  • I will try to do more to keep "dirty" clothes separately in the laundry, and wash them irregularly, keeping them for dirty tasks. This can hopefully ease the washing load


Water is one of those things that requires a whole system to perform well. Any compromises in subsystems will compromise the whole system. We are getting closer to the ideal that I modelled here, at which point I think we will operate (almost) solely on rainwater. I am hopeful that next Summer, even if we don't have a composting toilet, we will go a lot closer. Even this year we might well have made it through summer, had I not accidentally released that water. 
I think this system shows that it is possible to be self-sufficient for water with a relatively small amount of storage, however it does not leave any margin for error. In a fully off-grid scenario, I would want double the storage, even if it was rarely/never used. Of course, in such a scenario space would be less of a premium than it is in an urban environment!

This article was written by Angus Wallace, and first appeared at
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