Category Archives: Zero Waste

MM#16 – What We Could Learn at the Grocery Checkout

I find the supermarket checkout the most stressful part of the whole shopping experience. Hungry and bored kids hanging off me demanding more of the as-yet-unpaid-for food (this week we had a detergent leak and a biscuit spillage at the checkout), other shoppers trying to jump the queue, the constant fear that I’ll choose the slowest line. I’m feeling clammy just writing about it.

But the end is also the most fascinating. At the moment my point of interest is how efficiently (or not) the checkout person packs our re-usable bags. I’m sure I’m a bit off the bell curve because I linger a bit before I choose which checkout to go to – I’m surveying the speed at which each operator works, and watching how well they pack the bags. Sometimes I get it horribly wrong and watch as the line next to me moves at twice the speed, and I freeze as my optimism battles it out with my urge to switch. But I’m getting better with practice.


And here’s where the learning opportunity comes in. The good operators seem to have the following qualities [you can apply this to shopping bags or planning a building]; they

  • survey the ingredients and items first, before packing;
  • lay out the bags before they start on the detail;
  • pause a little to mentally plan their game, before moving;
  • pack the bags with the utmost space efficiency – you can barely wedge in whatever my kids have half devoured let alone more items;
  • their packing is neat, to the point of being artistic – it has a 3-dimensional logic to it.

I wondered if the checkout would be a good recruiting ground for architects and planners, or indeed even for sustainability consultants. Efficient, tight and then meaningful planning and arrangement of materials is in my experience a rare skill, and it relies heavily on a good three-dimensional understanding of the brief. I review around 60 building designs every year, and sadly many of those have inefficient planning that just hasn’t been packed well. They are excessive, and in this game that means wasted materials and money.

When we can ‘pack tightly’ we achieve one of the most effective sustainability measures – we use less stuff.

So this week, put a little time into stopping before you start – ask yourself ‘how can I do this more efficiently?’, ‘how can I use less stuff to get the job done?’ Imagine that you have a constrained volume to work within and you have to be checkout-operator clever with optimising how you use it.


Weekend Warrior #13 – The Life of a Coffee Cup

Every minute of every day we send 1 million disposable coffee cups to the world’s landfills. Talk about small actions adding up!

Here are some sobering facts about our disposable coffee cups;

  • paper cups can’t be recycled because they’re lined with plastic, and that plastic takes 50 years to break down in landfill;
  • each coffee drinker disposes of 2.7kg of plastic lids each year;
  • most ‘compostable’ coffee cups can only be composted by commercial facilities, not in your home compost;
  • many plastic lids are made from polystyrene [plastic type 6] which ‘aint so good for us when it’s heated


I got my own keep cup a short while ago after I posted about ‘naked food’. Since then, it’s paid for itself in the discount I get per coffee.

Keep Cups are made from plastic that is actually recyclable, and they last for around 3 years. So in ecological footprint terms and in cost terms, they pay for themselves pretty quickly.

So this weekend’s challenge, should you choose to accept it, is pretty simple: if you buy takeaway coffees, switch to a re-usable cup. Most outlets sell them now, and you’ll often get the first coffee to fill it free of charge. Ask your employer if they would consider purchasing or subsidising branded cups – you can have them made with your own design and logo. Check these guys out to learn more [] – this is where I pilfered the stats from;


These small actions are great in that they add up to big results but also remind us each day of our power to create change.

Which Uses Less Toilet Paper – Scrunch or Fold?

I’ve wanted to get to the bottom of this one for ages. I heard a few years ago of a debate that raged around whether scrunching or folding toilet paper was more environmentally friendly… and this took place during a green buildings training course (yes that’s how much we care).

At the time I didn’t know folding was even an option… that’s just weird.

Having thoroughly researched this topic now, I feel wiser and more informed. I’ve also had a terrific laugh and highly recommend that you find a quiet room to follow the links below and have a read.

scrunch or fold

Source; Andrex add campaign

So the conundrum is this; which method, scrunch or fold, uses less toilet paper over the whole sitting, and is therefore more environmentally friendly? Here are the key findings from my research;

  1. Folding is more popular than scrunching [or is it just that ‘folders’ are more vocal about the topic and ‘scrunchers’ are just laid back and cool?]
  2. There is no empirical data on male/female methods or ratios [apparently it does make a difference], although it is claimed that Americans lean to scrunching whilst Brits tend to fold, and older people prefer folding [might it be that our more frugal Baby Boomers already know the answer?]
  3. There is no empirical data on paper use per fold type, e.g. the simple fold uses less paper than the ‘mummy’ or the ‘crane’;
  4. There is no empirical data on how many transactions each method requires per sitting;
  5. Refolding a fold for another transaction is all sorts of wrong.

Some attempts have been made to test the above with more rigour, using porridge and pretend… er…, but the findings were inconclusive. We are therefore left none-the-wiser as to which method uses less paper.

Discovered during my research I highly recommend another blog titled ‘Do You Scrunch or Fold?‘. An insightful blog that also addresses critical topics such as ‘over or under’ [the under method clearly does use more paper] and ‘sit or stand’… you can’t argue how rigorous my statistical analysis has been.


Source: Scrunch or Fold blog

Other good sources of info;

  • CreateDebate – online debate forum. Some insight into the ratio of folders to scrunchers, and affirmation that there are lots of funny people out there;
  • SodaHead – as above;
  • Wattzon – embodied energy data on toilet rolls and per sheet [and according to the above sites there are ‘one sheet wipers’ out there… I doubt they drink coffee…]

OK, we’re trying to reduce our footprints here [or our bottom line] so how do we move forward?

Here are some workarounds;

  1. Conduct your own census, e.g. over a month, trial both methods for a 2 week period and see which consumes more paper. You’d need to allow for unfamiliarity with the method that is foreign to you [unless you’re one of the small group who use both], and also ensure that your diet remains consistent for that period;
  2. Use a bidet – this one gets tricky as far as embodied footprint goes, but it’s still an option. I’m sure there’s a study somewhere on this one…;
  3. Use junk mail – although ink marks, lack of requisite friction and poor flushability may all present problems; or
  4. Purchase 100% post-consumer recycled non-bleached locally manufactured toilet paper.

As tempting as the other options are I choose option 4 – the eco-friendly toilet paper. There’s something poetic about using recycled office paper to wipe our… er… anyway, it’s better than using our old growth native forests which is in my view a form of treason.

Only around 5% of the toilet paper used in Oz is made from recycled paper – the rest comes from trees [plantation and old growth]. And every tonne of paper recycled saves 13 trees. Sounds to me like we could wipe away both problems at once… simple supply and demand curve.

To source the friendliest paper; for the Australian readers the best data I managed to find was a study by Choice where they’ve listed the most eco-friendly papers. Some spot research has verified at least one of these products as being legit.


Background info on eco-toilet papers here;

So what’s the lesson here? Well, it won’t go down in the annals of history but at least we’ve shown there are some options for reducing our toilet paper impacts; reduce – yes to a point. reuse – well not really unless you’re one of those weird double-folders, and recycle – yep, that’s me all over.

Weekend Challenge #09 – Get Naked [With Your Food]

Despite how hard I try I’m really struggling to reduce the amount of apparently non-recyclable food packaging that I throw away each week. I feel bad every time I do it. But now, thanks to getting into the zone with this week’s WED posts, I think I’ve cracked it…

In part #06, the final installment of our World Environment Day 2013  ‘Think.Eat.Save’ theme we look at the environmental impact of food packaging, with the added spinoff that we can amp up on our health as well.

So what do I mean by ‘having cracked it’? Well, like all good problem solving, sometimes the best answer approaches the problem at a tangent. Rather than try to maximise what we recycle with food packaging – focus on our health instead. When we focus on increasing the portion of ‘naked food’ in our diet, the packaging decreases all on its own. No effort.

Naked Food is in essence natural produce that hasn’t been tampered with, processed or packaged – no chemicals and no genetic shenanigans… what our grandparents used to call ‘food’ ; >  Have a look at a cool site called ‘Jane Cooks’ – a Sydney local who’s doing some cool things in encouraging people to ‘go naked’. Worth a read and full of good tips.

The infographic below is a great re-cap on some of the key food-waste issues I’ve covered over the past week . Australian-centric, but typical of western consumers around the world… You’ll need to click the image if you want to see the whole thing [from ‘Lunchalot’];

food waste infographic01

So how do we crunch down on this packaging issue?

Here are my top 6 tips;

  1. Get the naked food thing going. It’s just the same attitude as reducing a building’s energy consumption – by reducing the demand first;
  2. Avoid over packaging; try to steer away from multi-layered packaging. I’m not necessarily saying ‘no packaging at all’ – some packaging ironically helps us reduce food waste. And bring your own coffee cup.
  3. Select packaging that is made from post-consumer recycled content [as with buildings, so with packaging];
  4. Select recyclable packaging; look for the numbers on the packet – no numbers means no deal. My four-and-a-half year old can read them now, so let’s get with the program. In Australia, Coles supermarkets now collect your plastic bags and flexible plastics and turn them into furniture – check out Redcycle.
  5. Recycle all of the waste; if you’ve followed the above tips, you shouldn’t have much, if any, non-recyclable packaging to deal with.
  6. Get worms; they eat not only food scraps but food-contaminated paper, cardboard and other plant-based packaging as well – the stuff we’re not supposed to put into the recycling bins.

So our weekend challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to have a whole day of nakedness – only have meals that use natural un-processed foods. I’m not advocating that you live this way forevermore – just give it a try for a day. And I didn’t say you couldn’t have a glass of red whilst you cook… and if this isn’t challenging enough, be a Locavore and find your local farmers market, make sure it’s organic, and tone down on [or avoid] the meat.

So, what a week – we’ve covered a lot of issues around food and its impact on people and planet. There’s a lot to do, and some awesome opportunities for us to reduce our footprints, save some cash and improve our health. Let’s dig in and get to it!

Will 3D Printers be The End of Landfill?

I’d been hearing about 3D printers for a while but had never taken the time to explore the applications. Now I have, and I’m amazed. It’s a bit like the early days of the internet when it was first opened up to the world – we had absolutely no idea of how diverse the ‘net would become. I think the same will happen with 3D printers.

A 3D printer in essence uses a physical material to print with – a ‘gunk’ of something that is glued together as it’s applied. So rather than print 2D on paper, a 3D printer can apply [or spray] layers of material to form an object [like lamination], or even physical extrusions of the medium [check out this video to get an idea of what goes on]. This means we can send via the internet, printing instructions for a 3 dimensional object. For example, many architects are now using 3D printers to print a full scale representation of a detail. Combined with the rise of BIM I guess this is the end of ‘model making’ huh?

3D printers have already entered the realm of printing machine parts, buildings, even human body parts and robots [now that’s freaky – robots printing robots…]. What has equally grabbed my attention though is this snippet out of New York Design week – some chairs that were 3D-printed using pulverised refrigerators and e-waste.


3D printed chairs by Dirk Vander Kooij during New York Design Week

I couldn’t help but think about where this one could trend…

So imagine this; a 3D printer that is robotic [the tech is already there] and mobile [robots have been designed for many mobile functions, including ‘worms’ that can find victims in collapsed buildings], can obtain whatever materials it needs for its recipe, and can print out some products at the end. They could even be distributed systems, literally, where a swarm of smaller scavenger ‘bots are tasked with mining the required material and bringing it back to the printer. [an end to ‘Clean up Australia Day’?]

We may well have robotic 3D printers that are semi [or fully?] autonomous, scouting landfills for materials and churning out products made from what we once called ‘waste’. I’d give it only 5-7 years before the technology is proven, but maybe some 15-20 years before it becomes commercially viable [unless carbon legislations or rising oil prices accelerate the return].

It’s the introduction of the new manufacturing technique that will enable waste to be re-used without high labour costs. We could have modules for building construction being churned out of landfills on order.

I’m not sure if I’d like the idea of my kitchen bench being made out of an old toilet [yes the devil is in the detail] but I’m sure we’ll iron out the glitches fairly quickly.

This would make a great design project for a group of engineering students…

[I made a cursory attempt at looking for some precedents for this to no avail, but if it turns out I’ve just posted an idea that’s already published then the coincidence is all mine]

Monday Motivation #08 – A Party Trick for a Greener City

If you were to have a race with a friend to see who could empty a bottle of water the fastest, which method would you choose? No tools or implements allowed [there’s a bar trick with a straw but this blog is rated PG].

Try this good ol’ science experiment; with your full bottle, quickly upend it then give it a spin – you’re aiming to spin up the water like a whirlpool. Only takes one or two circles, or even just a flick of the wrist. Once the water in the bottle is spun up, it will rush out about twice as fast as the two other methods you were probably thinking of. Because the water is moving in a natural vortex, air and water can trade places with grace and ease.

Charybdis – water sculpture by William Pye [click image for source]

Where else have you seen this pattern in nature?

In designing sustainable cities we need to find the same tricks. They’re all around us, they’re plentiful, and they’re without limit. We just need to see.

How to Give Away Furniture, Even the Sticky Couch

If you’re like me you may have offloaded the odd furniture item via the ‘kerbside recycling system’ in your city. In other words, you’ve taken the old couch outside after dark and left it on the side of the road, trusting that someone with poor eyesight and no sense of smell comes along…

Recently I started thinking about how we might take the model of a ‘furniture recycling room’ which we might design into a residential or retail building for example, and scale it up for a neighbourhood or city.

Initially I was assuming a linear solution, thinking I’d be able to find a large ‘leave-your-old-furniture-here-and-we’ll-pass-it-along’ centre. But as usual my research took me to a different solution – in effect a ‘distributed system’ where there is no centre; the internet.

So rather than leave your unwanted stuff on the kerb, there have emerged a number of cooler ways to move things on…  rather than just focus on ‘getting rid of’, we can now focus on giving to someone else, particularly through local charities. And let me be clear, the old sticky couch won’t be acceptable to these avenues – that would require new upholstery, a pair of rubber gloves and steely determination. Or you could give it to Uni students.

Here are two portals for the Australian readers  [I was a bit nervous about providing local links for readers in the US, South Africa and Singapore etc. without some local knowledge – you might use some of the following key words to search in your own region];


Givit is a national charity with a great online portal – connecting furniture items with hundreds of charities. You simply register, upload your furniture details and the charity does the rest, often also picking up. Make sure you read the Ts&Cs to see what they do and don’t accept.


GiveNow is a broader giving charity, which includes a portal to give away furniture and goods. The site includes links to Givit, plus links to the Salvos, Vinnies, Lifeline and Youth Off The Streets. Most of these groups will pick up from your place… but don’t give them junk. Give them what you’d be willing to receive.

ziilch final

Ziilch is another portal where you can post unwanted items or details of something you might need. Also has options for giving to charities.

If none of these guys like the squishy sound of your couch, your next step is furniture salvage shops where they might be keen enough to re-upholster, re-life and on-sell.

Given the amount of stuff I see out for hard rubbish collection in my own neighbourhood [and assuming there’s nothing extraordinary about where I live], I’m thinking it would be awesome for each local Council to go around and pick out the things that could be useful to someone else, and send it on to one of the above charities, or even store it at their own depot and liaise with the charities?

Hmmm, sounds like an opportunity for greatness.

And there really was a couch in my life… I can still picture the last time I saw it on the kerb that night… the next morning it was gone. *sniff*