Attempting to live sustainably every day


In light of this year’s Earth Day (which was Saturday) and the UN’s Year of Living Sustainably, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on some of what we can do in our daily personal lives to contribute to a more sustainable planet. The UN has been publicizing their Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World, which, despite it’s patronizing title, is actually a handy list of everyday things people can be doing to contribute to environmentalism.

These things alone will not, of course, “save the world,” but it’s a start to changing behaviors that put together do have a major impact, plus it’s certainly more than many people are already doing. In my household, both Aaron and I work in environment and sustainability for a living, and while our work attempts to help address environmental issues at much larger scales, what we do at home matters, too.

The UN guide lists three different “levels” (gamification is a great tool for behavior change!) and I think we roughly meet most of what constitutes Level 3, but always more to improve! Below is a list of the activities we try to do roughly organized by category (though all the categories overlap…such is the nature of sustainability). Eventually, I or Aaron will probably write more detailed posts about some of the individual items, but for now, here’s the summary. Thoughts on way we can improve or questions about any of the items are welcome!

Water efficiency and integrated water management

Considering we both work in water, we must actually practice what we preach!

  • Low flow shower head (…sometimes I find it just a bit too low flow) and timed showers
  • Use a Samsung EcoBubble washing machine (which won a Waterwise Checkmark) and consistently use the EcoSaver setting, as well as only running a full load. People claim that it doesn’t wash as well, but we’ve never noticed a difference, only that it takes longer.
  • Use the EcoSaver setting on our dishwasher, avoid pre-rinsing and only run full loads of dishes
  • Though, as renters, we cannot disconnect our downpipes and connect them to water butts (rain barrels, for US readers), Aaron has created a makeshift water butt out of a dustbin. While it doesn’t provide any surface water management benefits, we are able to water the garden from the water collected, which reduces the amount of potable water used.
  • Our house is in an area at low risk of river flooding, but medium risk for surface water/stormwater flooding. The Environment Agency has updated their website, so it’s quite simple to check the flood risk of your address, too.
  • Aerator in our kitchen tap to reduce flow
  • Turn off taps when not actively using them (does anyone even really do this anymore??)
  • Occasionally in the summer we put the watering can in the shower to collect excess water to use in the garden. One time, a snail hitched a ride and ended up crawling across our bathroom floor!
  • Room for improvement: Unfortunately, we do not have water meters recording our potable water consumption, and because we are renters, we cannot get them installed. Not only do we not have any information on our actual water consumption, but we’re likely paying for more than we consume.
  • Room for improvement: Because we have an electric shower heater, we can’t install additional devices on our shower head that may change flow, such as the Amphiro device that records water flow and sends it to your phone (part of the DAIAD project Aaron’s working on).

Energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction

  • We both cycle as our main mode of transportation and commuting, either using our own cycles or the Santander cycle hire scheme. Our secondary mode of transportation is public transportation. We no longer own a car. Part of choosing where we live was to make sure we were close enough to central London to be able to walk or cycle most everywhere, including be within the Santander cycle hire scheme network (just barely! Our Doddington Grove station is the most southeastern station in our area). And if cycling in Central London sounds too terrifying to do (which it certainly did to me at first), I’d highly recommend cycle training, which most local councils offer for free. We took private courses through Southwark with Cycle Confident and it was game changing for my ability to cycle regularly.
  • We switched to Good Energy as our supplier, which provides 100% renewable energy for our electricity and carbon neutral gas that’s 6% biomethane for our heating. We haven’t noticed a price increase, though others have…we don’t have high energy use, though, so any increase may not be that impactful. If you’re interested in switching, let me know and I can share a code for £25 off.
  • Our biggest carbon offense is undoubtedly air travel. Considering we both live on separate continents from our families (mine in the US and Asia, his in Australia), it’s a necessary evil. However, we have from 2017 started carbon offsetting all our flights and intend to slowly offset our past flights over time. Additionally, when traveling within the UK or Europe, we try to travel by rail when possible.
  • We use an Owl energy display device to track our energy consumption. As is often the case with these types of interventions, we got the most benefit out of it at the beginning when it allowed us to notice which devices used the most energy and start changing our use patterns.
  • We have an instantaneous electric water heater in our shower to heat the shower water. I’m not sure I’m convinced of whether this is more energy efficient or not, but at the very least, since our electricity is 100% renewable, it’s using that instead of gas.
  • We’ve switched almost all of our lights to LED.
  • Air dry all our laundry (as an American, it’s taken me awhile to get used to this one…and I still miss a nice dryer for the towels)
  • Most of our windows are single-pane except for the double-pane in our conservatory. As renters, we can’t change the windows, but we’ve put in the plastic film that acts as secondary glazing to keep heat in and cold out in the winter.
  • We keep our boiler on a timer so that it’s not blasting heat unnecessarily all day.
  • The washer and dishwasher mentioned above are both energy efficient.
  • We always turn off lights, tv and appliances when leaving a room (though one of us is better at this than the other…). We’re lucky to have a good amount of daylight into our house, so we can often avoid turning off lights completely when there’s daylight in the summer.
  • Don’t pre-heat the oven or try to use the toaster oven if it’s not a large item.

Material resource efficiency and waste reduction

  • My second largest carbon offense is the amount of meat I eat. It’s not realistic for me to become a full-blown vegetarian any time soon, but I try to reduce my meat consumption, especially red meat, and when I do eat meat or seafood, I try to find sustainable/organic/free-range/etc. options. Still an area that for me needs a lot of improvement.
  • Record the expiration dates of all our perishable food on the fridge door to help use eat things on time and reduce waste. And we freeze things when we won’t be able to eat them before they expire.
  • Take full advantage of our local council (Southwark) regular recycling and food and garden waste recycling schemes. We end up putting very little (2-3 grocery bags a fortnight) into the waste bin.
  • In the garden, we use sustainable no-peat sourced compost
  • Use refillable water bottles and reusable coffee/tea mugs as much as possible
  • Always carry reusable bags in my purse and very rarely take new bags from shops
  • When we do have to get plastic bags from shopping, we reuse them as bin liners in the kitchen waste bin. Similarly, I use empty plastic packaging from toilet rolls as the bin liner for the bathroom bin.
  • Donate unwanted stuff to local charities or take to the recycling centre (though, it’s more difficult to do the latter now that we don’t have a car).
  • Use rechargeable batteries when possible
  • Reduce paper statements and cancel junk mail
  • When restaurants give out more napkins than I need, I always save the extras and we use them as our napkins at home. I’m kind of like an old lady packing these things away, but we’ve never had to buy napkins at home…and why waste??
  • We use hand towels to dry hands in the kitchen and got these reusable cloth towels to wipe up counters rather than using paper towels. When we do need to use paper towels, we only use half a sheet. For awhile, we bought those ones that were perforated into half sheets, but it was a waste. We now buy recycled paper towels and are perfectly capable of tearing them in half without perforations.
  • Room for improvement: UK groceries use a lot of packaging on things, so we end up with more packaging waste than I’d like (even if it’s recyclable, still better to avoid completely). They annoyingly wrap vegetables in plastic, so I would like to be better about buying from markets more often.

Ethical shopping

As much as it’s great to make all your own things and opt out of the consumer cycle, in a modern society, that’s not realistic. When we have to buy things, we do try to do so in ethical ways.

  • Try to buy local and independent as much as possible, including local markets and shops (like the Oval Farmers’ Market and East Street Market in our neighbourhood and shops on Walworth Road). We buy our honey from local beekeepers (BeeUrban or Walworth Garden) and our garden plants from Walworth Garden.
  • Research the sustainability practices of major retailers we use and shop with those that are better (for example, we don’t shop at Asda/Walmart and avoid Amazon)
  • Buy the organic and fair trade options as much as possible.
  • All of our cleaning products are natural or organic products. We’ve tried to make our own in the past, but realistically, we buy natural products. A large part of this is to reduce harmful chemicals in our house and in the environment.
  • We try to buy (or get through freecycle) used furniture. When we do get new furniture, we look for sustainably sourced materials.
  • We use cat litter made from wood pellets, which we can flush down the toilet. Not only does it mean less waste to landfill, but it’s a lot easier to keep clean.
  • Room for improvement: We’ve done research on ethical brands of cat food, but unfortunately, the cats are picky and didn’t like the top brand, so we stick with Hill’s Science Plan/Diet for now.
  • Room for improvement: At the moment, I use my work phone as my personal phone. This is less wasteful in that I don’t have an extra unnecessary smart phone around, but I’ve also been considering getting my own personal phone. I’ve been looking into ethical phones, such as the Fairphone.
  • Room for improvement: It hasn’t been a need yet, but if ever we need occasional use of tools or appliances, I’d like to look into using a Library of Things
  • Room for improvement: Google isn’t the best company out there, but it’s nearly impossible not to use their products. I’d like to look into more ethical email server companies in the future…but it’ll be a hurdle to move past Gmail!

Civic engagement

  • Share articles and information with others related to environmental policies
  • Volunteer with local community groups
  • Read local planning applications and formally comment through the consultation process on environment and sustainability issues
  • Vote! (alas, I cannot vote in the UK, but I still vote in the US and Aaron votes in the UK)


I find this to be one of the most excruciating life events, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. One part of it that can be really bad is the amount of waste that occurs. On our last move from West to South London, we took steps to try to reduce the impact of our move:

  • Used EcoMovers (certified ISO 14001, carbon efficient vehicles, etc.)
  • Used boxes from local shops, reused from previous moves and found more dumpster diving
  • Kept our existing things rather than throwing out and buying new (meant more effort packing and more things to move, but much less waste)

Could Home Quality Mark redefine what it means to have a sustainable home?

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

How can we make sustainable homes more relevant, desirable and beneficial to those who will actually live in them? This is question that has been on my mind for a while, but it was brought to the fore as I undertook the initial training for the BRE’s new Home Quality Mark (HQM) voluntary housing certification scheme. It appears that, at least in principle, the HQM rises above expectations.

HQM was developed as a replacement scheme for the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH), the government housing sustainability scheme withdrawn earlier this year. While many of the CfSH requirements have yet to be incorporated into building regulations, the BRE has stepped in to fill the gap with their new voluntary scheme.

HQM attempts to do more than just replace or even simply update CfSH, it attempts to redress the sustainability balance, moving away from a purely environmental focus with the ambition of making sustainability relevant to real people.

It is interesting to note that BRE chose to use the word “quality” instead of “sustainability” in part to get past that environmental focus. Some worry that taking sustainability out of the name means undervaluing the environmental impacts of development, but the scheme still considers the environmental aspects, albeit framing them in terms that the average person cares about such as health, comfort and cost.

The HQM training and consultation emphasises cross-sector coordination in an attempt to address the most common problems associated with delivering sustainable housing. There is an entire section of the scheme devoted to “Knowledge Sharing,” which focuses not only on measures to communicate with occupants, but also improving communication between industries to help address the performance gap. Even the implication on the financial sector was discussed, including what a “quality home” could mean for reducing insurance and mortgage interest rates.

One interesting opportunity is whether this new emphasis could stimulate broader investment by third parties in engagement-based services. Could more new businesses or social enterprises develop and professionalise resident services like building management, resident hotlines, post-occupancy evaluation, maintenance packages modelled after service warranties and web portals or apps? Similarly, BRE is considering pre-approval for certain aspects under HQM that may overlap existing processes. For example, prefabricated manufacturers could pre-certify their modules under the My Home section of HQM or developments participating in BREEAM Communities could pre-certify under the Our Surroundings section.

On the assessor’s end, there was welcome news about streamlining evidence collection and data entry. HQM aligns with BIM and SAP outputs and allows measurements taken for one credit to be cross-referenced in another, simplifying the amount and type of data collected. And there are now multiple levels of robustness for evidence, allowing partial credit for having at least some evidence.

Of course, it remains to be seen how easily the HQM’s well-intentioned ambitions can be implemented. How will this increased intention on consumer interaction be enforced and at what cost? Many of the additional issues being assessed are relatively new and untested, so the evidence required for compliance is flexible at this point. That’s good for early adopters of the assessment, but not so good for quality control. In addition HQM will be a voluntary scheme, carrying less weight than the government’s CfSH. Who will end up using it and would the energy required to get people to use the scheme be better spent trying to embed some of these issues into regulations?

Finally, it is still a certification scheme, which means it still has to make compromises between robustness and flexibility, cost and marketability. It will never be a replacement for the engagement, discussion and practical innovation that is central to sustainable development, but it is certainly trying to improve how the benchmark is set.

HQM should be out at the of November for beta testing and officially released at the beginning of 2016. We are looking forward to seeing the final scheme and how this broader focus could influence changes in the industry.