In the print studio, guesthouse and homes we are continually looking at ways to be more environmentally sustainable. Here are some of the environmental efforts that we have made, please copy at will and let us know how we can improve.
STUDIO: Printing involves the use of solvents, acids and chemicals, we try to use as little as possible and are always on the lookout for processes that use the least amount of toxic ingredients. Our lithography presses are hand-operated and many of the methods that we use are centuries old and thus are not heavy on dangerous chemicals. We use a solvent called Oil Med Eco as it is less toxic than regular solvents, you can get it from The Italian Art shop in Cape Town.
Profits from the studio are spent on expensive environmental initiatives such as installing the solar power and the micro-hydro plant.
What follows is a list of things that we as a family of four have done to live a little more sustainably. It has been an exciting road to travel along and instead of lowering our standard of living it has vastly improved it. We have become rather evangelical about what we have done because it makes so much sense globally and is saving us money.
The idea with this list is that hopefully you will copy it, tailor it to your world with your inputs and forward it to friends and family. It would be great if local lists like these start popping up all over the place. This one focuses on the Lowveld and on White River and Nelspruit in particular.
The building that houses the turbine is built out of sandbags, citrus fruit bags filled with sand from the site.
ELECTRICITY: We read a short article in the Farmer’s Weekly many years ago that mentioned that the amount of coal burnt to create the electricity to heat water for the average bath is about 50kg of coal per bath. Relaxing in the bath with the image of a huge pile of coal next to one was enough to make us want to give up hygiene altogether. And so we started looking at ways of reducing our consumption.
We use electricity for the following: our main house, one guesthouse, one double story house, one workshop and two apartments/cottages and mowing the grass (about 1 hectare in total).
Prior to refitting and rethinking how we use electricity our consumption from Eskom was an averaged 4000 kWh per month (April 2003 to March 2004)
After changing light bulbs, installing solar geysers, removing kettles, switching to gas cooking etc we averaged 1660 kWh per month. Once we installed our micro-hydro turbine and our initial solar panels we bought our consumption from Eskom down to under 300 kWh per month. This is a 90% reduction in what we were using when we moved onto the property.
We have built a micro-hydro turbine station that is driven by water from our dam, once the water has run through the turbine it rejoins the canal and flows back to the Sand River. It took us four years (from mid-2008 to May 2012) to get the turbine running. We decided that developing local capacity was the best move, which turned out to be a very expensive and exasperating mistake. We paid a large chunk of money to the Clackson Power Company from Nelspruit who claimed to have all the expertise that we required. Three and a half years later and four failed turbines (that looked like bad prep school projects patched together with re-spray painted bits and pieces) all we had was the pipe from our dam, some cable and a turbine house. We searched the internet and eventually decided on an Italian turbine.
In October 2012 we ordered our micro-hydro turbine from Sandro Fattore in Italy. Many broken English/Italian emails flew through the ether and in March our beautifully made and functional turbine landed (duty-free as it is sustainable technology equipment).
During the spring of 2016 and Summer of 2022, we topped up our electricity needs by installing seventy six solar panels, two inverters and a battery bank. All done through Current Automation in Nelspruit. We are off the grid and it all works really smoothly! We are looking forward to the day that we can buy an electric car to replace our diesel one, which will mean we are effectively filling up on sunshine and canal water. With the current escalation in electricity prices, we will pay off the investment in our system within a few years. As we have disconnected from Eskom we do not have any loadshedding.
The micro-hydro email group has been an invaluable source of info and guidance for us. If water fires you up then join them! Contact us and we will give you the email details.
The building that houses the turbine is built out of sandbags (citrus fruit bags filled with sand from the site).
STOVE: We cook on induction stoves, gas and use electric ovens. To cook without using any heat source we are delighted to have two Wonderbags in our kitchen. These are snazzy updated versions of the hay box. You cook your food briefly on a stove top and then transfer the hot pot into the Wonderbags that then seals the heat inside the pot and cooks the food for you. It is brilliant for cooking beans, samp, mielie pap, stews etc. They are made by Natural Balance. These make great gifts for friends, family and staff.
SOLAR WATER HEATERS: Our adventure started in earnest in 2007. There was only one supplier of solar water
heaters in the Lowveld then and they only installed the flat plate
heaters. We patched together a system and after much agony (via Gauteng)
installed our system that uses vacuum tubes. We decided on tubes as
they are more efficient, the tubes can be replaced as singles if
something goes wrong and they are more resistant to breakage (we have
had some hectic hail and all our units are still fine). The geysers that
store the water are ultra high-temperature ones used in industry
(Ngodwana uses them), the reason for this is that solar heated water can
get really hot, much hotter than a regular electrical one. Luckily a
number of suppliers are working in the Lowveld now, do an internet
search to see who is working in your area.
HEAT PUMP: One of the buildings on our property is thatched and we were unable to put solar heating onto it. After consulting with a local plumber we decided to put a heat pump in. It works by taking the heat out of the air and using it to heat the water in your existing geyser (a bit like air con in reverse). The great thing about it is that it works through the night and on cloudy days as well.
LIGHTS: We have installed LED lighting in all the houses on the property and
we have replaced the standard fluorescent tubes in the workshop with an LED tube retrofit. This saves us about 10kWh per day.
LAUNDRY: We don’t use a clothes dryer, the sun does the work for us. Hot water for the washing machine comes from the solar water heater.
FRIDGE: We replaced our fridge with an eco one (available at all appliance stores). One can easily do without a huge fridge/freezer.
WASHING: We wash dishes by hand; we do not have a dishwasher. We do not buy the argument that two sinks of water and teaspoon of dish washing liquid are heavier on the environment than a dishwasher with its detergents, electricity usage and manufacture.
OTHER APPLIANCES: It is estimated that 10% of household electricity is used to keep appliances on standby (computers, TV, CD players, DVD players, toothbrush and cell phone chargers etc). Either get rid of the appliance or discipline yourself into switching off at the wall. You can also buy wall wart controllers that will do this automatically for you.
SECURITY: The only lights that we leave on for security are three LED lights on the workshop stoep and we have no electric fences. Our neighbours floodlight their properties at night. Some of our neighbours also have electric fences. They get robbed we do not..... We have wireless camera traps in the garden (great for wildlife spotting too) and when we need to investigate we use LED torches with a powerful beam. So far so good.
SWIMMING POOL: Experiment and work out the minimum time that you need to run that pump. We got sick of running the pump and adding kilos of toxic chemicals to the water and at the end of 2013 turned it into a green pool. We now have fish and plants in the pool and have built a filtration system using plants and sunlight to clean the water. The bonus is that after a dip you do not smell like a chemical factory and the kingfishers have a reliable supply of guppies.
The filtration zone made up indigenous water plants has replaced the pool pump and chemicals.
COOLING DOWN AND HEATING UP: All our roofs are insulated with Isotherm, a South African product made out of recycled soft drink bottles; you can buy it from most hardware stores. This means that we do not need air conditioners. If the weather is really hot, open windows and doors at night, to allow the cooler air to bring the temperature of the building down. In the morning close it all up and keep the heat out and the cool in (this really works, promise!)
We have painted our workshop's corrugated iron roof white to reflect heat. It means that the building is about five degrees cooler in the summer and is a great passive way of cooling things down. This has worked so well that we have painted our house and one cottage roof white too.
In cold weather, we make a fire in the lounge (far more romantic than an electric heater). The wood we use comes from invader species that have been cleared from our garden or from trees and branches that have fallen down.
Use hot water bottles instead of electric blankets.
Wear jerseys and invest in a warm duvet. In summer we sleep with the doors open and our security gate closed.
One of our chicken tractors in action.
DRINKING WATER: Our water comes from our borehole and we get it tested each year and it is treated with UV light. It is better than bottled spring water that you buy (taste wise, contents wise and environmentally). Refill the plastic bottles that you may have bought if you need water on the go. The reason we have installed a UV system is that our water tests showed up E.coli, after years of having pristine water, things went downhill in 2009.
Using a water chlorinator is not great for one's health and also has environmental side effects. Contact H2O in Nelspruit 013 752 4228 for UV units if you want to install one on your water system. To test the quality of your water take a sample in a glass bottle that has been rinsed out with boiled water to Labserve 013 752 4745 in Nelspruit.
COFFEE: The Lowveld is blessed with a great coffee producer, so you can get a caffeine kick that has not got thousands of air miles attached and that provides employment for people in our community. Call Sabie Valley Coffee 013 737 8169, cell 082 751 3400.
And while on the subject we got sick of replacing our glass coffee plungers, which seem to break so easily. We were tipped off by Harrie’s Pancakes that they get their stylish stainless steel, insulated plungers from Sabie Valley Coffee or else go online and look for Legend Kitchenware. They ship anywhere in South Africa. They are expensive but they will outlast your need for caffeine and along with your pet parrot can be put in your will.
FOOD: We grow as much of our food as we can and it is totally organic. Working in the veggie garden is good exercise (we cancelled our gym membership in 2002) and it is also a great way to de-stress. We buy seedlings from Ezigro 013 750 1429 and Brian Law Seedlings 013 751 5088, both White River companies that supply farmers and small fry like us and their prices are really affordable.
On the studio stoep we have a stackable worm farm. The red wrigglers supply us with constant worm tea and incredible compost from time to time which has is essential for growing decent sized garlic. You can also buy vermipost and compost from Davely Organics in Nelspruit, their website is fantastic, take a look at Davely Organics
CHARCOAL: We have read about ancient human improved soils in South America and West Africa, also known as terra preta. We have noticed a great improvement in soil quality (ability to regulate water, deal with plant pathogens and take up of nutrients) since we started adding charcoal to our vegetable garden. We make charcoal from waste wood and bamboo in a homemade charcoal burner. The charcoal from this is split between artists (we are the main supplier for William Kentridge) and the garden.
Firing up the charcoal burner (the wood that becomes charcoal is inside the sealed off drum).
We have started our food forest, which is a permaculture concept. In our garden, we have macadamia and pecan nut trees, guavas, limes, various citrus (which are a challenge to grow organically), figs, pomegranates, mangoes, litchis, bananas, tamarind, cinnamon, Kei apples, moepel, and stamvrug.
Digging over vegetable garden beds is hard work and can play havoc with ones back. We got a local engineering company J6 Engineering in White River to make us a broadfork (you can order directly from them). Developed by a French gardener in 1960's it a brilliant tool also known as a Grelinette. It loosens up the soil to a much deeper level than a regular fork or spade and does not churn the soil over. This means that the soil is aerated and loosened without disturbing the layers within the soil and the delicate balances of nutrients and microbial life. It is also easy on ones back and means that you can watch birds and listen to podcasts with ease whilst at work.
The broadfork in action.
Part of the permaculture concept is a chicken tractor. We have made our tractor out of white electrical conduit with a welded square bar base frame. We used bird mesh shade cloth to cover it with and have made the perches out of thin bamboo. The idea is that you move the chicken tractor onto veggie beds that have reached the end of their usefulness for harvesting. The chickens eat the remaining plants, weeds, slugs etc and turn the soil over whilst fertilising it. A laying box in the tractor means that eggs are easy to collect. Most of our chickens are hardy “indigenous” ones. We buy our chicken feed in 40kg bags from Alzu in Nelspruit.
Locally made chicken tractor.
For veggies and fruit that we do not grow ourselves, we try to support our local farmers as much as we can, especially those who are organic. We also support the vendors who sell along the sides of the roads and on pavements. Their quality is usually excellent (nothing like dealing with your customers face to face) and the prices are low. A favourite is the vendors who sell fruit near White River Primary. The Fountains Farm products are great and they run a veg box scheme. The Plantsman on the back road to Uplands College run an honesty stall with a good selection of fresh produce, preserves and honey.
Coriander, garlic, fava beans and peas from our garden drying in the sun.
We are vegetarian, giving all animal protein a skip (except for yoghurt, and eggs from our hens) which has resulted in us losing weight, getting some of that energy back that seemed to flee when we turned thirty and a bonus is that we get sick less often. Animal farming contributes more to global warming than all the forms of transport, combined (yes, that means eating corpse, drinking milk, etc etc is heavier than aeroplanes, ships, cars, trucks ...)
We buy as much local produce as we can, fresher, less packaging, lower food miles and supports the local economy. For items that are not produced in our neighbourhood, we buy South African where possible.
We are olive and olive oil addicts and buy in bulk from Willow Creek, a Cape-based olive oil producer.
After hearing what gets put into commercially produced bread we decided to start baking our own sourdough. With growing veggies and baking bread, our trips to the supermarket are a lot fewer, which means that we do not end up making lots of unnecessary purchases, good for the pocket and the waistline! You can buy organic flour in bulk from Wensleydale in Gauteng. We have taken bread making one step further and have bought a small (and good looking) flour mill to make our own stone ground flour. It is a Fidibus XL one made in Germany and we bought ours from: Go Natural
Earth Wise is a fantastic little shop and is the only reason we ever
enter the palace to consumerism that is Ilanga Mall. Hester and her team
stock hard to get in the Lowveld items like raw cocoa, miso and organic
rooibos. She also has a full range of non-toxic body care products
and good for the earth home cleaning stuff. Take a look at their website
We harvest honey from our bee hives. There is something magical about watching the golden sweetness ooze from the comb on the frame.
Some of our veggie beds. The hoops and nets are to keep the birds from decimating things like brocolli and beans. The newsprint paper is waste from the print studio and works really well as a weed supressing mulch.
We make our own dog food which means we know exactly what goes into it and save on packaging and transport. We got our recipe off the internet (written by a vet), and we make up a batch every few months and freeze it to use as needed. The dogs love it and are looking better than they did on the expensive cubes we used to buy them. We make a meaty mix which is served with a bowl of rice.
We buy frozen chicken from Mikon (locally produced) and mince it by hand with a mincer. To the minced whole chickens (bones and all), we add Vit B, Vit E, fish oil, chicken liver, eggs and salt. Mush it all up and freeze. If you want the specific recipe, email us.
BODY CARE AND BATH SOAP: Three friends have been through the breast cancer mill and having girlfriends facing this nightmare led to looking at all the delicious things we lather ourselves with. As a (former) devotee of mainstream “natural products” I thought that was enough. From reading books and articles it seems not. Read the labels on what you use and research what they mean, you are worth it.
We buy all our
soap (used by ourselves, in the guesthouse and in the workshop) from
Rondavel Soaps in KZN. They only use organic and sustainable ingredients
and their packaging is also a win. They make deodorant too and it is the best that we have found; if it can cope with lowveld humidity it can cope with anything.
A reed frog takes up residence in a clivia in the garden.
In Nelspruit Victorian Garden products are available from Earth Wise at Ilanga Mall. The shampoo, soaps, body butter, body lotions and face oil and moisturisers are divine and when compared to big name, toxic imported brands cost almost nothing. They also sell the Earth Sap shampoo and conditioner which wins the organic and local hair care race for us. Local is very lekker.
MENSTRUAL CUPS: It is a more or less totally taboo subject but.... the waste from female sanitary products is huge (why is it that we find it much easier to moan about disposable nappies...). A menstrual cup is about the best personal item any menstruating female can have. They are secure, totally comfortable (unlike pads and tampons you do not feel them at all) and last for years. No more running to the cafe in the middle of the night to stock up on environmentally unsound pads and tampons, and also none of that toxic shock syndrome stuff.
TOILET PAPER: On the waste subject we have discovered a locally made unbleached toilet paper. It is made out of sugar cane waste and is a much sweeter option. You can buy it directly from Must Paper Industries in Nelspruit. Call Francois on 013 752 3950. Ask them for their green/enviro paper. It costs less than half of what you pay at the supermarket.
CLEANING MATERIALS: We use a combination of vinegar and bicarb to do most of the cleaning in our house, the guesthouse and studio. To mix put the bicarb into a mixing jug and slowly add vinegar, mixing all the time (it foams!!!), mix to a runny paste and use. You can add a few drops of essential oil and sunlight liquid soap if you like. When cleaning your bath give the container (hopefully a recycled one) a good shake to mix up the vinegar and bicarb.
To clean windows use vinegar diluted with a bit of water, effective and safe (the vinegar smell does evaporate).
LAUNDRY: The detergent that we use in the washing machine is called Triple Orange. Made in South Africa it works well and is not bulked with shredded newsprint (the secret ingredient in commercial detergents.) We do not use a tumble drier (ridiculous in the South African climate), the sun and the wind do the job for us. A ¼ cup of bicarb added to the final rinse replaces fabric softener.
CARPETS: All our carpets are made by local rural women out of renewable grass using a traditional Swazi technique. When they are worn out they get tossed onto the compost heap. In the workshop, the printers have them next to presses and they work very well to cushion hard-working feet. Industrially produced carpets are full of toxic chemicals and can take 20,000 years to decompose in landfill sites. Roadside craft sellers in the Ezulwini Valley in Eswatini and at the Kruger Park's Numbi Gate sell the carpets that we buy.
FURNITURE: We buy locally produced furniture directly from the carpenter when we can; otherwise we buy second hand, a major depression was induced by missing out on a fabulous art deco suite that someone else had snapped up at the junk shop in White River. A psychological balance was minimally restored by finding four deco chairs a few months later at Die Kraaines in White River. For standard cupboards and shelving buy SA pine products and paint them to suit the room.
FLIES: A few years ago we had a horrific fly infestation thanks to the unhygienic practices of a local egg farm and we were buying and filling up red top fly traps faster than they could supply them in the local shops. So we went online to find something a bit more industrial and made a trap that works better than anything that you can buy. We used a recycled paint bucket and eight plumbing elbows and clear plastic for the top with a piece of string to hold it in place. The bait for the trap can be anything that really smells, dead rats, roadkill, chicken liver... The flies swarm in and cannot get out. Once the bucket is full dig a hole and dump the waste in, it will make great compost. Refill with bait and start again.
One of our homemade fly traps, made out of a recycled paint bucket.
GARDEN: We have felled most of the alien trees on the property and when we buy anything new for the garden it is indigenous (except for fruit trees for the food forest). We do not use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. This means that the bees, bats, predator insects, frogs and birds do the work for us. When we have termite and ant infestations we soak them with water.
While on holiday in Kosi Bay we came across some well designed and very sturdy garden furniture made out of recycled plastic (lasts 20 years and needs NO maintenance). It is available in a range of colours, we chose a brown which looks like sunbleached teak. Do a google to find a local supplier.
RECYCLING: As we live twenty-five kilometres out of town we recycle as much as we can. We take our plastics, paper, cardboard, metal and glass to Greens Waste/ Remade Recycling in Nelspruit. If you want they will pay you for your recyclables. Tel 013 755 1276.
This is an excellent guide to recycling in South Africa https://treevolution.co.za/downloads/files/RecyclingGuide2018.pdf
Some Pick 'n Pay Supermarkets and Spar have recycling bins at the entrance to their stores for recycling ink cartridges, batteries, plastic bags and best of all CFL light bulbs.
RUBBISH REMOVAL: As we live out of town there is no municipal waste removal service and for years we sneaked our unrecyclable rubbish into pavement bins in town - which can be stressful. Then we were told about Sagewood Waste who collect rubbish once a week from your property, it costs virtually nothing and is well worth it. They take the waste to a properly managed municipal waste site. Contact Lucielle on 082 377 8680. They are also happy to take stuff for recycling that is clean and has been separated.
BURNING RUBBISH: We live on a small holding and after years of asking a big industrial farming neighbour to stop burning its waste (the stench made us retch, even from a few kilometers away) we reported them to Mbombela Environmental Affairs, speak to Herbert Mbuli 072 080 1821, he and his team are fantastic. The stinky business now has to dispose of their waste in a municipal site. We can breathe again! It is totally illegal to burn your waste in an open pit, so if you are doing it, stop now.... you might live next to someone who gets fed up and reports you.
Greens Waste/Remade Recycling centre in Mbombela.
Since 2006 we have been involved in protesting against pollution from the Sonae Arauco plant in Rocky Drift (6kms from us) who produce MDF, chipboard and melamine. We have been successful in getting them to start looking at complying with environmental legislation but the battle is far from over. A bit like trying to stop the fat boys running the school tuck shop. We have organised protests, print and radio media attention, meetings with relevant governments departments, contacts with South African and European communities fighting the same company for the same reasons and even managed to get the European Investment Bank (who lend Sonae money) to come out from Brussels to listen to our concerns (they have listened and are taking action).
KIDS SCHOOL: In 2008 we managed to get the children's school to set up an environmental committee which falls under the Parents Association and we drew up an Environmental Management Plan for the school. Schools are slow moving places though and extremely conservative, so load up on patience before you start! Our son was head of the school's environmental committee and used some of the money from a linocut print that he did of the school to buy the first six solar panels for the school. The panels cost R 35 000 (2015 prices) and over their lifetime of twenty years plus will generate savings of more than R 90 000 (calculated at 2015 electricity prices).