How do I become more sustainable?

Big subject we're tackling this time. Sustainable, such a buzzword currently - it's like mosquitoes during the summer: Practically everywhere! 

First lets start with some terminology, just to make sure we're talking about the same thing here: 

Sustainable

  • Able to be sustained for an indefinite period without damaging the environment, or without depleting a resource; renewable.

Now that we have a definition we can clearly answer the overarching question in a very unsatisfying manner:

How do I become more sustainable? - You ensure your depletion of resources is offset by addition of resources.

Anti-climactic, yet awesome - as we now have a definition we can work from. As such, I present you an overview here of how to become more Sustainable with a focus on 3 areas:

  1. Food.
  2. Amenities.
  3. Economy.

I have separated this into these three subjects as they are large areas of being ecological: The amount of food we eat, the amount of amenities like water and electricity we consume and how much stuff we buy.

Food.

Vegetables in a basket

Food provides distinct problems when it comes to ensuring a yearly growth as winter periods are incredibly hard to grow plants in, however it can be offset with some clever tricks and spreading of ones dietary preferences. For the sake of this section I will be basing the information on a diet consisting of both meat and vegetables - you are of course welcome to discard the information that doesn't apply to you.

First step: Figure out what plants and vegetables you enjoy eating.

There is no point in planting anything you don't enjoy. FOMO is not a thing when it comes to gardening, as the timescale is too large so focus mainly on the stuff that you and your family enjoys. Its a good idea to spread out the kind of things you are planting for some variety, both because its better for the plants and ground as it wont deplete the soil nearly as bad, also because eating only potatoes and broccoli for 4 straight months gets old really quickly.

The only exception to this is if you are planting for selling, in which case you should look at what vegetables / plants sell best in your area.

As such, the first step in becoming more sustainable with food is making a list of your chosen plants.

Second step: Determine the planting and harvesting time of your chosen plants.

Two things that cannot be rushed: Nature and printers. Each plant has a seeding period, a growing period and a yield period. You can make use of some really cool online resources like this neat planting calendar here to help you determine when to plant and harvest your food. So for this step simply take a look at what plants you'll want to eat during a year, write them down, find them on the planting calendar and write down when they go in the ground and when they go up. I personally like to use the calendar on my phone to remind me about these things, but you do you.

Plants need the following things:

  • Nutrients
  • Water
  • Sunlight
  • Space

It is different what kind of nutrients the individual plants need, the amount of sun and water as well -  and there are a bunch of cool things that can be done when it comes to planning a garden to be more sustainable, while also reducing your workload. We'll be looking into this more in a dedicated article, but overall it involves looking at things like raised beds, high-yield plants, how to plant things like potatoes on very little space with a massive yield and lastly how to make use of your old plants as fertilizer for the new.

When planning your garden to becoming more sustainable, look at the following things:

  • What area am I in (called the Hardiness zone)
  • What kind of soil do I have
  • What plant grow natively here.

Different plants need different amount of each of them, so check with your local gardener.

From there, you'll want to ensure the following:

  • Growing food you like that can be eaten all year round
  • Growing food that grows in different seasons.
  • Having a plan for preserving the food.

You can artificially extend the growing time of foods by using a Green House, which you can read waaaaay more about in the link at the bottom of this post, but the basics of a greenhouse are these: You provide an artificial environment in which the plants can thrive in, by trapping heat and moisture in a structure that sun can permeate.

Now for the interesting part: Since food spoils, and some rather quickly (looking at you Avocado), its a good idea to figure out how you can preserve it. There are multiple ways this can be done, my favorite however is jarring. I have added a link to some excellent reading / Youtube video's at the bottom of this post, however the short and curly is laid out below as well on various methods.

Preserving food

Food preservation relies on a simple concept: Reducing bacteria growth. What makes your food spoil is bacteria growth due to the food being a good environment of bacteria growing; as it does so, mold forms and the food spoils. To avoid this happening, we need to change the rules of the game.

  • Canning
  • Freezing Vegetables
  • Dehydrating Fruits & Vegetables
  • Root Cellars
  • Pickling
  • Making Jams & Jellies
  • Salting Meats
  • Smoking Meats
  • Fermentation and Fermenting

These methods rely on 2 different methods of preserving the food: They either kill of the bacteria or the put the food in an environment where the bacteria can't grow. Not all methods works for all types of food. Some works best for meats, some works best for vegetables - as such, I've separated the methods into the two groups so it becomes easy for you to know which one applies to your situation.

Meats:

Preserving meats has historically been done with a few methods, most notably curing the meat with a mixture of salt, sugar, nitrate and nitrite  - history of meat curing process and curing and smoking meat - or through smoking the meats which kills bacteria through heat, subsequently the chemicals in the smoke acts as preservaties and it dries out the food so there is less moisture for bacteria to grow in.

Using a freezer

Self-explanatory. Putting your meats in a freezer provides them with an environment where bacteria cant grow, so the meat stays preserved.

Curing:

Curing the meat involves preserving it in a containers with salt. Essentially you cover your meat in salt in room-temperature for about a day, which will dry it out nicely. The downside to this method is the excess amount of salt it will use.

The alternative method to curing with a lot of salt is using a vacuum-sealed bag. For this method you weigh your meat, then add 3-4% of the weight of the meat in salt to the meat and then vacuum seal it with a vacuum sealer. The vacuum sealer removes the risk of external bacteria coming into contact with the meat. You then let it sit in the fridge until all the salt is absorbed, which can take 4-5 days for small meats and 2-3 weeks for large meats.

Hot smoking

The sources cited above, specifically the one on Curing and Smoking Meat, makes mention of a kiln, electric or regular, where the meat is smoked.
What you will need is this: A rudimentary kiln, stone - cob - something similar, with some ways where you can have the meat hanging so fats can drip off. From there, place the thin cuts above and the fat cuts below. Coat them beforehand in whatever mixture you like best. Ignite a fire in the bottom, let it burn for a couple of hours, 2-3 usually does it, and your meat will be both cooked and smoked simultaneously.

Cold smoking

Cold smoking, as opposed to hot smoking, requires much more time. As the meat will spend a lot of time in the temperature danger zone of microbial growth (40-140 fahrenheit / 4-60 celsius), you'll need to have fermented, salted or cured the meats beforehand. For Cold Smoking you need the same kiln as before, hang the meats up but this time only use smoldering heat - below 85 degrees fahrenheit (or 30 degrees celsius) for 12-24 hours.

Vegetables:

Preserving vegetables is a more precarious matter, as you can't just dump them in a salting / curing solution and call it a day. A freezer is ofcourse great, and keeping the food at lower temperatures works wonder, however the most effective ways to preserve vegetables and be more sustainable are the following:

Canning

Canning involves storing food in an environment that lacks bacterial growth or is hostile to bacteria. There are two methods: Boiling water method and pressure-canning method. They differ in what they can be used for but they use the same equipment at the endpoint: A jar with a special lid that allows steam to escape.

  • Hot water canning - acidic foods (fruit jams, jellies, salsa, tomatoes and vegetables with the addition of vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid
  • Pressure canning - low acidic foods, most vegetables and meats.

Hot water canning should not be used for meats as it doesn't get hot enough to deal with bacteria that can be present in meat.

Of the two methods, Hot Water canning is the easiest to get into, as it doesn't need any special equipment. Pressure canning is a bit more tricky, as it is altitude dependant, IE your altitude will change the amount of pressure needed for the jarring process. I will link some resources below that can tell you more about this, as well as a future article that will explain the process clearly.

Dehydrating

Dehydrating involves removing moisture from the vegetables. It can be done slowly by hanging the vegetables in a window or laying it on a window-still, or it can be sped up with a hot-box, which is essentially a box with a glass / plastic lid and some holes for air where the vegetables / fruits can be placed inside. Its incredibly efficient for preserving the food as snacks, however it works best for things that doesn't have an enormous water content, so I would avoid using cucumbers and melons for instance.

Amenities.

Waterdrop

Amenities are split into two separate entities: Water and electricity.

Conserving water is much far more important than conserving electricity, after all: The human body can live without electricity, but it cannot live without water. Its still nice to be able to have a lightbulb go off when you get a great idea, so lets not skip on the electricity part just yet.

Water

Water is a funky thing, as the body is picky about what water it can use. It requires the water be clean from contaminates, which means the water has to be filtered. It cannot contain a large amount of salt, so saltwater is immediately out, and it also should be relatively cold - although that is not a direct requirement. To be ecological about the water, it's a good idea to use it more than once. Water can be used several times, as long as you have the right setup. A very cool implementation of this is done in Earthships where the same water is used four times:

  1. First it is drinking water, being clean enough to be consumed.
  2. Secondly it is used as showering water, as it's not quite clean enough for consumption, but still plenty clean for showering.
  3. Third its used for toilets.
  4. Fourth its used for plants.

This is done by filtering the water through several layers of organic filters, such as plants, dirt, rocks, sand and similar. I'll leave a link further down with a very handy video on the subject, as well read more about it here: How to reuse water

Before we get into the more nitty-gritty subjects, lets take a look at what is needed to actually start reducing and reusing your water. To begin harvesting and reusing water, you will be doing things in four steps:

  • Harvesting the water
  • Storing the water
  • Filtering the water
  • Moving the water.

Harvesting the water.

Harvesting rain-water is done in different ways depending on location. If you have a large roof you can install a gutter that leads into a tank where the water can be harvested. Alternatively, you can use spring water, well water or even river water.

The main important things about harvesting the water is this: Whatever method you're using to harvest it, be it well-water, rainwater or similar, you need to ensure the surface you're harvesting from is relatively clean. We're not talking "you can eat off of it" clean, but at least free of moss and debris, as bacteria can grow on those in the very wet environment that water is.

Storing the water.

The next step is to store the water.  There are two methods to use here:

  1. Well
  2. Container, probably made of plastic.

Both solutions suffer from the same problem: The water can potentially build up algae and similar from the bacteria that is within it. To solve this issue you'll need a purification method or a filtering method, as well as avoid sunlight from hitting the storage container. There are a bunch of different filters out there that are useful, all of which has multiple layers to their filtering to remove as much contaminant as possible - a quick google search for "off-grid water filtration" will help you find one that is good.

I do want to make one recommendation here though: If you're using a storage tank, dig the bottom 60-70% of it underground, to keep the water cold but not freezing.

Filtering the water

Filtering the water involves running it through multiple materials - the most typical is running it through several layers, going from the most course to the finest. At the top of the layer are the fine rocks, think pebbles. Then comes sand and lastly charcoal powder. I've linked a very helpful video on the subject in the Links section at the bottom.

Moving the water:

A hose is going to be all you'll need here. Hoses are cheap and very durable, lasting several years without issues. You can also move your water with PVC pipe which is sealed using the typical methods of sealing to avoid external contaminants entering the pipe. A gravity-fed system is the best here. This is a very fancy way of saying: Have your water higher than your place you need it, so the water will flow down with as much pressure as you need.

Electricity

Solar and a windmill on a winter day

Electricity is the last amenity we'll be looking at. Since this is simply an overview post, I wont be going crazy with the details, instead this will be a brief overview telling you what you'll need to generate power and store it.

Generating power.

Solar panels is all the rave today, with prices plummeting for various reasons. As their efficiency increases, they become a better and better investment, but they are not the only method to generating power. In general, you can generate power through 3 obvious methods:

  1. Solar panels
  2. Windmill
  3. Water turbine

The methods each have their pro's and cons, and not every method is equally effective as they are location-dependent. That means the very first step is to identify what you have available: A good-sized area with space for solar? Do you live in a very windy region, or do you maybe have a source of high-volume water on your land? Depending on what you have, different options become available.

Solar.

When it comes to solar, its a very straight forward case of: Do you have an area that gets a ton of sun mostly year-round? Slap a solar panel on it. You can use an online calculator to determine how many panels you'll need for your home. From there you just need to set it up and you're golden -ish. You still need some way to conserve the power, and some way to draw it.

Positives:

  • Can generate a lot of power over a lot of time.
  • Low maintenance.
  • Relatively stable, also functioning on slightly overcast days.
  • Easy to expand.
  • A lot of companies can help setting them up for a fee.

Negatives:

  • Doesn't provide power at night.
  • Unsurprisingly: Requires sunlight.
  • High initial investment.
  • Can be difficult to set up on your own, though there are guides available.
  • Requires a frame for optimal use, as you need them to be angled between 30 and 45 degrees.

Windmill.

If you live somewhere with a lot of wind, you can get a lot out of using a windmill. It functions the same as any other turbine: You spin a turbine which generates energy. Windmills only generate power when the wind's blowing, however it does so regardless of time of day, making a windmill pretty effective in conjunction with solar or water turbines. There are a couple of different windmills, basically separated into whether they have a rotating base or not, which makes them able to angle themselves based on the direction of the wind.

Positives:

  • Works at all times of day.
  • Can provide a fairly stable power source.
  • Very good at topping batteries during the night.
  • Some models can angle themselves to increase efficiency.

Negatives:

  • Provides no power when there is no wind.
  • Appearance. A lot of people don't like the look of windmills.
  • Can be against regulations in your city / area - check with the local planning department.
  • Can be costly.
  • Maintenance is not nearly as easy.

Water turbines:

There is something about using water to move a turbine around that simply makes me happy. The concept that a force as powerful as water can be harvested for power is, quite frankly, awesome. This is typically done in 2 ways: Either a pipe is run from a spring with a high volume of water moving through it at a good speed down to a turbine - see Kris Harbour's video playlist linked below, or a turbine is built directly into the spring - Sort of like this: DIY Water turbine by Daniel Connel.

Positives:

  • Can be a very constant power source in some areas, specifically mountainous regions with flowing creaks, rivers and springs.
  • Output is based on water level - increased power after it has rained.
  • Can be very cheap to set up - see the video above costing only 50$.
  • With a bit of DIY: Can be made from an old washing machine turbine.

Negatives:

  • Requires a body of water moving at a high enough speed and volume to be useful.
  • Output is based on water level - decreased output during dry periods.
  • Maintenance requires know-how of machines - nothing that can't be googled, but can be scary to some.
  • You're gonna get wet. No way around it.

Links.

Food.

Curing and Smoking meats:

Water

Filtering water

Rainwater harvesting

Electricity

Hydropower: