My family’s footprint

Climate change is huge, it’s here, and it’s the largest threat mankind has faced for millennia. It’s easy to think that because of its scale, there’s nothing we can do as individuals that will have any impact and start to put the brakes on the climate change train. I disagree – I think each of us have the potential to reduce our environmental impact and give the planet a chance to slowly recover. Imagine if each New Zealander reduced their carbon footprint by 10% – and imagine this being repeated by 50 million, 500 million or 5 billion people all around the globe – what would that mean for the environment? And where is a good place to start? 

Before we get started, let’s clarify exactly what a “carbon footprint” is. Here’s the word according to the experts at NIWA: “A carbon ‘footprint’ is a way of describing what amount of greenhouse gases were added to the atmosphere as a result of some activity, as measured in the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide (CO2e). For example, the carbon footprint of someone who drives a petrol-fuelled car to work will be larger than for someone who uses a bus to travel the same distance, because the car drives just one person, thus using proportionally more fuel than the bus, who drives 20 or 30 commuters at a time.

I’ve always had a strong environmental conscience, maybe started by the early influences of the budding Green Party on my mother in the 1980s and witnessing the destruction of natural habitats in a densely populated country like Germany . Over time that’s rubbed off on my own family. Sometimes it involves doing more, but often it involves doing less – stopping doing the things that damage the environment can be even more effective than doing something new to save it.

From a young age, growing up in the 1980s in Germany, I have been aware of the environmental impacts humans have and my parents always encouraged me to be to energy conservative and use as little as possible. I’ve used muscle powered means of transport since I was 3 years old and still prefer my pushbike to a car.

Having an idea of your emissions is a good place to start. Along with finding out how you compare to others, you can also play with the calculators. Want to see what difference getting a hybrid car could make? Whether composting is cool? Or if it really is worth getting on your bike and taking the cycle lane to work? It’s easy to see where you can have the most impact, making it much easier to choose a place to start.

I’m going to start in the kitchen – because it’s the heart of my house. We’re a family of four, two adults and two children aged 12 and 15. We try and do just one weekly shopping trip to buy all our supplies, rather than many little ones, and then we try to cook from what we have. This eliminates extra trips in the car and it reduces purchasing stuff that you then end up wasting. Our diet is what I’d call flexitarian. We eat a lot of vegetables, with meat only appearing on our plates a couple of times a week. We buy our meat from the local butcher or farmers market because both use a sustainable approach, sourcing their animals from organic or regenerative farms in the North Island. Eating only a couple of meals of meat a week allows us to buy better quality without spending significantly more on it and is better from an environmental perspective, because animal farming for meat is such a huge contributor to environmental destruction and greenhouse gas production. I believe regenerative farming has huge potential to reduce the impact of agriculture on our environment. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about regenerative farming and its place in Aotearoa, have a look at this earlier Bread Politics post.

Local farmers markets are great sources of freshest quality vegetables, fruit and other food staples. Rather than leaving most of the profit in the hands of the distributers (supermarkets and their middlemen) they support local growers and producers and you get better value and more nutritious food for every dollar spent.

The farmers market also provides our eggs, olive oil, flowers , organic A2 milk and some delicious local cheeses. We grow some of our own vegetables, but supplement these with organic or at least spray-free  produce from the market. On top of the excellent quality you get at farmers markets, compared to supermarkets, another added bonus is the lack of packaging, we bring our own bags and produce nets, so no plastic bags at all! And none of those pesky little plastic stickers on fruit, which I absolutely loathe. Buying fruit and vegetables from the supermarket is a very rare occurrence. We’re lucky to be part of a local Facebook group for our street where we swap excess fruit and veggies, garden tools and other things – I borrowed a sander and a set of garden furniture I needed for a party once, rather than buying it new!

To prevent waste and have good supplies of fruit throughout the year I bottle a lot of the fruit from our trees, especially the pears, passionfruit and guavas and we use them on cereal and ice-cream. I also buy seconds at the market when in season and bottle those or turn them into jam or sauces. There’s nothing nicer in the middle of winter than opening a jar of your delicious homemade jam and letting last summer’s sunshine out – perfect on a slice of my delicious sourdough!

View of the inside of my pantry. I take the jars with me to fill up at bulk food stores, thus avoiding packaging.

Our bulk dry goods such as flour, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, sugar, oats, tea and coffee come from either the bakery, which of course is a privilege not many people have, or I go to the bulk food store. I take my own containers to save on packaging waste, which also makes unpacking much easier – things are ready to go straight into the pantry just as they are. With all these great ingredients, organic wherever possible, I make my own granola and muesli bars, biscuits and one of my favourites – homemade raw fruit and nut chocolate (see my recipe below).  Once a year we have a big clear out of our pantry, not buying any dry goods until EVERYTHING is used up. Usually the last bits to be used are rice, pulses, some weird tinned stuff, jams, flour and sugar…. It’s a great idea for preventing waste and pushing your recipe boundaries – some of our most interesting meals come at clean out time! Recently I’ve even been making my own sauerkraut (a German staple) and kimchi – both are easy to make and a really good way of preserving excess cabbage. The bonus is the boost they give your gut bacteria, and there are many advantages to keeping your microbiome in good health.

Of course we also shop at the supermarket, it is really quite unavoidable, and whether we’re getting tinned foods like tomatoes and chickpeas, dry goods like rice or pasta and even cleaning products, we opt for organic or made from plants without the use of chemicals whenever we have a choice. We also sometimes buy dairy products we can’t find at the market, and my one indulgence – European cheeses. They are different because they are made properly with raw milk and wild bacterial cultures and I miss them, so I sometimes treat myself and buy one. But most of the time we make sure we buy New Zealand grown and made. Because we don’t buy fruit and veggies at the supermarket, we don’t really get any imported stuff. Naturally we get all our bread from the bakery, so we know where all the ingredients have come from and that every loaf is as good for the planet as it is for ourselves.

We try very hard to have as little food waste as possible and what we do have never makes its way into landfill. We use it instead to feed our two hungry worm farms, and they in turn feed our garden. We also have a green compost heap, which gets supplemented by woodchips from our chipper – any fallen or pruned branches are soon turned into chip that provides the valuable carbon for our compost pile. Keeping green waste out of landfill is important – any kind of green waste that does end up as landfill generates methane as it breaks down, contributing further to emissions and their effects on our environment. 

Our veggie garden, two worm bins and little seed raising house.

Our garden generally has herbs, tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuces, spinach, passion fruit, pears, grapefruit, guavas, feijoas and when it feeds us we have our very own small circular economy, self-sustaining, economical and good for the environment.


The other things we try and keep out of landfill are recyclables. There are the obvious things – glass and plastics with numbers 1, 2 and 5, although this depends on where you live and what your local council is able to recycle. I separate soft plastics out and take them back to the supermarket. I am not entirely sure, if they actually recycle this all the time, but my feeling is that taking it back to them, at least forces them to deal with the huge problem all that excess packaging creates. Our blue 240L recycling bin goes out once a month – in summer it can be worse with beer bottles, although this year my husband (who does most of the beer drinking) has been buying cans rather than bottles and they are so much lighter than glass it is really noticeable. Aluminium is also infinitely recyclable and because of its reduced weight the trucks use less fuel in transporting the cans. In winter, when beer consumption is lower we can sometimes get by with sending the bin out only every 3rd fortnight. If you’re not sure which things go in which bin, there’s a handy guide called Recycle Right that should help you get on the right track.

With composting and recycling removed from our waste stream and because we buy very little packaged foods, we only need to take our red 120L landfill bin to the curb every 6 weeks, sometimes stretching it out to 8 weeks. I’d like to see Auckland Council introduce rubbish rates based on the volume or weight of waste each household sends to landfill – they say it’s possible in some parts of Auckland but sadly it isn’t where we live. This seems an effective way to incentivise waste sorting, waste and packaging minimisation and encourage people to reduce the amount of green waste going to landfill, where it decomposes and emits methane, further contributing to climate change.


Of course, one of the best ways to reduce what goes out of your house is to reduce what comes into it.  I make a real effort to only buy what we need, and this doesn’t just apply in the kitchen, but every part of the house, including my wardrobe. I think the fashion industry and its biannual cycle of new season clothes is hugely wasteful and if I can avoid it, I don’t want to be part of it. But of course everyone wants some new clothes occasionally, so luckily there are alternatives that give you something new, without it actually being new. Where I grew up in Germany flea markets were always part of my life, but when I moved to New Zealand and discovered op shops I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! I hardly ever buy new clothes, and am a real scavenger – about a third of my wardrobe is hand-me-downs from my mother or swapped with friends, then half from op shops and school fairs, with the rest new, and that’s mostly underwear and running gear.

The kids are the same – I buy a lot of their clothes at school fairs and while op shops can be a bit trickier for teenagers’ clothes, when they’re growing so fast it makes sense to buy second-hand. My husband isn’t quite so keen on op shopping, but he’ll wear second hand things if I buy them for him. His wardrobe may contain mostly new clothes, but he’s no fashionista and generally just does one big shop every couple of years, stocking up on shirts, pants, shorts, socks and undies all in one go and then he doesn’t have to bother with it for another two years.

Our house is an eclectic mix of collected, found and hand-me-down furniture and art. The kitchen table was a find on TradeMe, the chairs are from an op shop, the kitchen sofa was my mums and even the monstera plant was found by the side of the road, nearly dead, but it burst back to life as soon as it was repotted.

Our house too is full of treasure that was other people’s trash – it’s largely furnished from the inorganic rubbish collection, TradeMe, and op-shops and some really great hand-me-downs from my mother. Anything new is functional and mostly from Ikea. We use mix and match crockery, following a colour theme rather than everything matching. I collect Crown Lynn, so love scouring the shops looking for new bits to add to the kitchen. The few new things I’ve bought have been investment pieces, like my really expensive German cast iron fry pan that’s used all the time and designed to last a lifetime. Even my art collection is a mix of purchased pieces by artists I liked or that someone has given to me and finds from op shops. Most pieces carry the memory of a place or a person and that makes them special to me.

So, sometimes reducing your environmental footprint involves doing more, but often it really can mean doing less, and spending less too.

In my next post I’ll look at another area where we try to be frugal – energy consumption. I use a couple of really handy online calculators to measure our emissions, and have found that by tweaking our input, we can make big changes to our output.

Dark Raw Fruit & Nut Chocolate

Preparation time: 10-15min

Ingredients

  • 300g cocoa butter
  • 300g virgin coconut oil
  • 500g raw cocoa powder
  • 1tsp vanilla essence or scrape 1 vanilla pod
  • 1 big tbsp of sweetener (can be maple, agave, brown rice, or golden syrup)
  • 1 good pinch of seasalt
  • 400g of mixed dried fruit (I use a mix of at least three different ones, usually whatever I happen to have in the pantry: raisins, cranberries, sultanas, dried blueberries, currants, goji berries or dates)
  • 200g of mixed nuts (cashews, walnuts, macadamias or almonds)
  • 100g of mixed seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed)

Method

Weigh the chocolate ingredients into a saucepan and stir over low heat just until the cocoa butter and coconut oil have melted.

Pour the nuts, seeds, and fruit into a casserole dish. Mix them through and pour the chocolate mix over the top. Place in the fridge overnight to set. Cut into mouth size pieces with a hot knife.

You will need to store the chocolate in the fridge, as it has a relatively low melting temperature. It will keep for months.

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