Sustainable Living Actions


You have found an independent source of free public information, rare in a commercially-dominated world. No adverts here, just good ideas on what you can do in New Zealand to conserve valuable resources such as petrol and fresh water, help you seek a healthy lifestyle and perhaps cut some household expenses. Use the tabs above to see each topic introduced. Then go on to our downloads (8 learning guides) to read much more.

Margaret, pictured here, joined the Sustainable Living course to see what more she could do to save on heating and power costs. She already knew about double glazing and fitting linings to curtains, so was ready to explore new actions such as timers on radiators, fridge efficiency improvements and more. Sustainable Living endorsed her early actions and helped her, with her daughter, to take more actions, going well beyond changing her lightbulbs! She became more confident to take action and competent when doing them, as a result of what she learned and discussed in the group.

What are you doing already?  You've probably made a good start, so it's time to take stock and learn some more!

Our learning guides show what you can do

Our publications are virus-scanned, quite detailed and illustrated. They include web-links to other information providers but no advertising. Get them free within NZ from here once you have sign-on (free in NZ or from overseas you can pay a $39 one-year access fee for a personal password). They are published as PDF files, for which you will need to use the well-trusted free Adobe Acrobat Reader software, if it is not already installed on youir device.

Read the learning guides on-screen or you can save the file to your computer for later reference or for printing. You can share them freely with your local Future Living Skills class/study group but as they are copyright material, you may not re-publish or sell them.

We know that many adults prefer learning in a group setting, with discussion, so the learning guides are written to help you to host or facilitate a study group or class. There are supporting materials such as slide sets and group activities in the downloads area for facilitators, too. Give them a try! The combination of life experience of older learners (think 'nana') with the tech skills of younger learners (think 'nano') makes a powerful combination within learning groups.


Saving electricity


Margaret uses a thermostat and a timer on her oil-filled radiator to control exactly when it turns on and off, so that this room is warm before she arrives, without wasting electricity. Sometimes getting the right technology is a better investment for comfort and efficiency, than relying on remembering to turn heaters on and off. If she was investing in replacement room heating the same amount of power consumed by a heat pump would provide up to three times as much heating because it is so much more efficient. EECA Energywise website explains why.

Save on power bills

Energy use at home includes electricity and heating fuels.

Other easy actions to trim electricity bills include:

  • Checking that your current retailer is best value in your area. Try SwitchMe website or Glimp. Note that there may be cost penalties if you switch provider more than once a year! You may be able to use lower cost off-peak timed water heating, which also reduces carbon emissions as power can come from renewable sources such as hydro. (Fossil fuels are burned in power stations to meet peak electricity demand times such as early evening.)
  • Keep lids on cooking pans and pots; don't over-fill the electric jug - it takes lots of power to make steam, and then more for a fan to vent it from the room!
  • If rooms are overheating in summer, shade the West-facing windows instead of running an invertor heat pump as cooling.
  • Dry clothes outside on lines instead of in a dryer. The UV light helps kill bugs too but may also fade some colours.
  • Close curtains at dusk in winter to keep warmth in, and have them wide open on north-facing windows by day.
  • Ventilate bathrooms and kitchens to outside, to remove steam - dry air is easier and cheaper to warm than wet air, and you reduce mould too. Modern extract fans are power-efficient and bathroom fans can be run on delayed auto-switch off.

For many more possible actions, and details of how  to select small investments in equipment or materials that will pay for themselves (such as where to spend first on home insulation) see our Energy learning guide.

Eco-building is designing for sustainability


Your place might be a unit in a row, an old villa, a modern city apartment or a small rural eco-house (like this MasterBuilders sustainability award-winning Canterbury example) but whatever your type of home, the best opportunity to consider sustainability comes when it is renovated, repaired or designed from new.

Not all architects and builders understand sustainability principles, although many are learning, encouraged by HomeStar, the Green Building Council and the Master Builders/Resene Sustainable Home Award. As their client you have to know what to start asking for, such as:

  • Orientating rooms and roof North to benefit from winter sun's warmth, but protected from summer sum overheating at West
  • Including enough sun-lit solid stuff (thermal mass) to store heat overnight in floor or walls
  • Insulating to keep winter heat in - at a better level than the disappointing minimum of NZ Building Code
  • Designing-in the ventilation, to get rid of steam yet retain heat
  • Using clean heating and you'd know if you prefer radiant warmth (radiator, woodstove) or convected (air heater, heat pump) for personal comfort
  • Design that minimises waste and toxins during construction, decoration and in later use.
  • If water can be solar thermal or PV heated and what you will use to 'top up' the water heaing in winter

Our learning guide on eco-building and renovation takes you through some key steps and builds your confidence and know-how, ready for when you meet the trades people and builder. We help you to think about the whole system of the house, not just add expensive gadgets that a sales rep has promoted, regardless of your needs.

Sustainable Living course participant Susan incorporated energy efficiency ideas in the house she and her family built. One of the most unusual was insulating the foundation concrete with the trapped air in thousands of recycled glass bottles.


Water use efficiency and protection


Sustainable Living course participant Ruby likes herbs and Asian-greens as salads, and in summer she knows they need plenty of water (salads more than the Mediterranean herbs) so she waters her pots by hand several times a week.

"In Christchurch City it's easy to take a clean water supply for granted. It is so precious", says Ruby

Although water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, less than 3.5% of this is fresh, salt-free water and much of it is frozen in glaciers and ice-caps, leaving only 1% globally as potential drinking water in streams, lakes and in underground reserves. Much of this ‘fresh’ water is inaccessible to people or has become too polluted for use without treatment. Very few NZ homes collect and store rainwater - more could do so.

Did you know that we only drink around 5% of the water we use? The other 95% goes down the drain from showers, taps, laundries and toilets, as well as use in gardens (BRANZ Auckland water use study, 2008).

There are many ways you can reduce your household water use (and your water bill, if metered) and reduce pollution going into  waterways:

  • Wash the windows and car using a bucket and sponge, not a hose
  • Reduce stream pollution, from detergents and debris, by washing the car on a lawn or gravel area, not on the road seal. Road drains are intended only for rain, not detergent, oils, paints or cigarette ends...
  • Use less water when toilet flushing by reducing the capacity of the cistern - add a sealed container of water if you don't have a dual flush cistern installed
  • Check for toilet leaks - put a few drops of food colouring in the cistern and see if it seeps out into the bowl before you flush. If so, time for new washers. (Tip: Get any dripping taps fixed on the same plumber's visit)
  • Consider using dripper or porous hoses to irrigate favourite garden beds in preference to using sprinklers, and let lawns stop growing in mid summer - it is unnatural for grass to be bright green colour then! 

For more sophisticated water-saving and efficiency ideas, storage, gardening tips, grey water use options and recipes for DIY cleaning materials, see the  Water Learning Guide

Food purchases, use and storage


Sustainable Living course participant Lisa re-used empty glass jars with lids, for food storage. "Beats throwing them away, and reduces my need for new plastics" she says, "and I try to grow some food at home too".

Food choices have a much larger impact on the planet than we may realise. The energy required to produce, process, pack and transport some foods is huge, but their labels don't usually help alert us to this and origin is often obscure; we need independent background information.

Some types of packaging are re-useable, others recyclable but many just end up in landfill. How much does that comparison affect our weekly shopping list? What else might we consider:

  • Refusing a carrier bag at the checkout is the easy part, de-coding the labels and seeing through greenwash claims is harder!
  • There are useful checklists available to help you choose fish species considered 'more sustainable' within NZ fishery stocks;
  • Guides to avoid food additives that for can some prompt allergies or asthma;
  • Information on pesticides and arguments for eating organic produce
  • Websites about FairTrade and food ethics - important for a food exporting and importing nation;
  • Skills to learn about drying, freezing and bottling foods to preserve summer's garden surplus;
  • Tips on bulk buying, Farmers Markets, Community Gardens and foraging

Read more in the Sustainable Living learning guide on Food.

Take a look also at our organic veges action page, using tabs above.

Interest is developing fast in permaculture food  forests, in spray-free food from home gardens and community gardens.  John was encouraged by the Sustainable Living course and now his family has a productive home garden. He's also got involved in managing the Hawkes Bay Environment Centre.


Transport and travel options


These happy travellers, presenting their Christchurch Metro travel cards, were Sustainable Living class members about to hold an evening class on the Orbiter bus, as it made a circuit of the city suburbs. They debated alternatives to the car on the journey, and took a break half-way round at a cafe, finishing the bus circuit afterwards before 9pm (at no extra fare).

For some it was their first bus trip for years! If the whole group had gone out cycling instead the experience would have been novel for many, too. We are so used to using cars in NZ, for even the short trips of under 2km that could easily be walked or cycled. Rising fuel prices are beginning to erode that habit, but change is too slow to reverse the country's rising carbon emissions from transport. NZ is way behind Europe in this respect.

Whilst still car using, you could improve fuel efficienc and reduce carbon emissions:

  • Remove roof racks and boxes except when in use - cuts air resistance
  • Remove excess weight from the boot, apart from emergency tools, first-aid kit and spare tyre
  • Avoid idling the engine when stopped - it's an air polluter too
  • Keep tyres correctly inflated. Instructions may be inside door frame, or ask your supplier.
  • Keep cruising speed closer to 90km/hr than 105, as it saves fuel
  • Walk for short trips when there's not much to carry - leave the car parked, as short trips maximise wear on the engine.
  • Enjoy the walk too, as it is contributing to better heart health and warding off diabetes and Altzheimer's
  • Note that drivers are exposed to traffic fumes as much as pedestrians: fewer cars on less congested roads helps everyone. Diesel engines are the most polluting in city streets.

To learn more such tips and begin changing your carbon footprint from driving and flying; also about Global Peak Oil and the climate implications of burning the already-identified oil and coal reserves, read the detailed Sustainable Living travel and carbon guide, which can be downloaded from this website free.

As concern to limit carbon emission grows there are more reasons to get active in urban travelling - 'walking school buses' for kids instead of being driven through slow traffic, cycle commuting, walking to bus stop or train connection.  In rural areas sharing cars and communitry buses provide door to door transport with lower emissions. The learning guides have urban and rural sections.


Organics to grow veges and fruit at home


Here's a January day's harvest, from a Sustainable Living tutor's garden: potatoes, courgettes, peas, cauli, Mesclun salads, beetroot and carrots. All were compost-grown organically without chemical sprays or fertilisers.

Simply wash off the soil and enjoy great flavours; plus the significant enjoyment and some exercise, that came from growing them at home.  Your home produce quantity and variety could be increased by:

  • Converting sunny lawn areas into cropping spaces. Veges can be decorative and fashionable too: think French style Potager!
  • Adding some glazed, polythene or cloth shelter to extend the spring and autumn growing seasons and beat frosts
  • Growing only veges and fruit that you like and perhaps varieties that the shops don't often stock
  • making raised beds on areas where existing soil is damp or unsuitable surface such as concrete.
  • Making more compost volume by feeding the compost boxes with pea straw, newspaper, manures, neighbour's kitchen scraps
  • Saving rain water for irrigation, and/or using timers on hoses from the tap
  • Learning how to grow crops from seed and sharing seed packet costs with friends each spring
  • Learning about how to deter, divert or control pests without poison sprays
  • Bartering your surplus, or preserving it, in exchange for what neighbours grow.

Organic growing has always been one of the most popular Sustainable Living/Future Living Skills topics. You can download your copy free.

Waste minimisation


Lisa avoids waste. She's a recycler as well as a cyclist. This early Sustainable Living course participant had already labelled her mailbox 'NO junk mail' when she started the course, but learned lots more about how to avoid buying stuff destined early for landfill, about re-using and recycling.

Matthew Luxon, one of the 'Rubbish Free Year' pioneers, was also a Sustainable Living participant. He has edited and updated our waste minimisation topic, to ensure we can offer great advice and practical information. "About 93% of the raw materials used by humans get thrown away during manufacture and then 80% of the stuff we buy is thrown away after one use. New Zealanders throw away more rubbish per person than in most other developed countries." says Matthew, "It need not be that way. We reduced our throw away to landfill for a full year to just one carrier bag's content. Everything else was either avoided, or re-used or recycled or composted. No, it was not easy, but we learned lots!"

To start with, you could:

  • Refuse junk mail and advertising circulars at the mailbox
  • Take reusable bags to shops, and resealable clean food containers 
  • Buy in bulk withj friends,  sharing transport cost and price discounts
  • Identify new uses for packaging that you get regularly, or recycle it if its unavoidable
  • Buy a battery charger and use rechargeable batteries (NiMh preferred to NiCad)
  • Use washable nappies not disposables, if there's a baby at home

There is much more, plus video links and websites available to help your quest to reduce waste at home and work, in the revised edition of our waste minimisation learning guide here, free.

Matthew's partner Waveney also minimises waste and like him has made a career in waste minimisation, initially in Local Government. She publishes a podcast: How to Save the World


Resilient communities are more sustainable too


How well would you manage if the heating was off and the supermarket closed. Or if you were confined to home and needed handy garden produce and support of neighbours? Would you be able - for example-  to boil water, make leaf tea (pehaps even from your own dried garden herbs) and keep a teapot warm in a cold room? Simple when you know how and have the basic equipment -learning helps you 'get ready and get thru'.

Sharon would cope - she survived Christchurch earthquakes and had also learned skills from the Sustainable Living course, which has a 'community resilience' topic alongside the more obviously environment-themed ones. In 2011, Cantabrians found there is much common ground between the skills of self-reliance after emergency and sustainability. In March 2020 we are learning again - this time that a pandemic throws onto the generosity of others and our home-based resourcefulness.

In the year before 2010, two communities in Christchurch (plus some in Auckland) trialled this eighth topic in our sustainability series, designed to complement the advice of NZ Civil Defence.  Course participants in Sumner and New Brighton subsequently reported that it was really useful to have thought and prepared for water storage, food growing and preserving at home, house insulation, emergency cooking, sharing skills and garden produce with neighbours; even keeping a bicycle in road-ready condition. It helped them survive the tumultuous weeks following the city's series of big earthquakes. Being more sustainable was also more disaster-resilient.

This final topic pulls together what you have been learning about 'living lightly or simply' as a household in other topics and explores the wider community connections. For local government, with its Civil Defence responsibility, it shows that after the initial rescue stage, information is needed on skills for people to survive and thrive in constrained circumstances, sometimes for years.  Future Living Skills makes a useful and relevant skills contribution in this area. It also links with the Transition Towns movement (see a 4 minute video here)

Get the community resilience learning guide free.

Learning about sustainability in a group gives you a network of new friends, which in itself makes your household more resilient if any emergency arrives - be it quake, flood or power cut.