Ten ways green can set you free

1. Light up, grandmother
Households that rely on coal fires for cooking and heating can save money and reduce pollution with a technique known as basa magogo — which translated from Zulu means “light up, grandmother” — which reverses the traditional way of making a fire.

Instead of starting the fire with paper and wood beneath the coal, the opposite procedure is followed. The paper and wood are placed on top of the coal and the fire burns from the top downwards. But it must be done correctly.

The basa magogo method was developed in the late 1990s and is now earning credits on the voluntary carbon-trading market. It was named after community member Nebelungu Mashinini, who introduced and perfected the method at eMbalenhle.

Top-down ignition has been shown to save households on average more than R600 a year on buying coal. The coal also burns more than 80% cleaner than with the traditional ignition technique, cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions and helping to improve health conditions.

2. Wonder cooking
If you use an electric or gas stove, cut down on costs and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions with a Wonderbag. It is insulated with polystyrene and cooks everything from stews to rice and soups without artificial energy.

You simply bring a pot of food to the boil on the stove, kick-starting the cooking process, and then place it in the Wonderbag. How much time it takes to cook depends on what is in the pot. It saves a lot of stove time and can be a meal-saver when gas stocks run out or during electricity blackouts.

Developed in Durban, the bags are made by poor communities and are registered to earn credits on the global carbon market. They have been shown to reduce a family’s fuel usage by 30%, they save water because they are sealed and less evaporation occurs, and they also save food because no burning happens.

3. Critical Mass
We all know pedal power is carbon-free but cycling in the city can be terrifying. Join the Critical Mass movement, an informal group of cyclists co-opting the city grid, demanding dedicated bike lanes and raising awareness about riders’ rights.

The idea started in San Francisco in September 1992 and quickly spread to cities all over the world. Part protest, part social movement, for many it is also simply a celebration of urban spaces on two wheels in the company of like-minded people.

Cyclists usually gather on the last Friday of each month for a Critical Mass ride through Johannesburg, Cape Town and hundreds of other cities elsewhere. Rides are loosely organised, using reminders on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

4. Solar parking
If you must drive a car, look out for an electric one that can be plugged into a solar carport. The technology is new but ingenious. Solar carports not only provide a source of renewable electric energy, they also provide shelter from the sun and rain for the vehicles.

Covering parking spaces in driveways, shopping centres and office lots resolves the problem of plugging electric cars into the grid. It also helps to reduce the phenomenon of “urban heat islands”, which make some cities more than 10°C hotter than their surroundings.

5. Recycled waste
Biodigesters that break down waste and convert it into methane for fuel are available for installation in individual homes. Households in rural KwaZulu-Natal are successfully using animal dung in the biodigesters to produce gas for cooking, lighting and heating.

An engineering team from the University of the Witwatersrand and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation have also developed novel technology to turn biomass, agricultural waste, garbage and solid municipal waste into liquid fuel, electricity, waxes and paraffin. The model plant was loaded on to the back of a truck and driven down to Durban to be showcased at the COP17 climate change conference.

6. Sunshine schools
Remote rural classrooms no longer need to be prejudiced by energy deficiencies. A mobile solar-powered internet school in a container was recently launched by Samsung Africa. The 12m-long shipping container can accommodate 21 pupils and a teacher and is loaded with school-based content for grades 0 to 12. Fold-away solar panels provide sufficient energy to sustain the classroom equipment for a maximum of nine hours a day and for one-and-half days without any sunlight.

7. Waste not, want not
People who are careful about the packaging they buy, who reuse what they can and recycle or compost everything else can avoid a smelly mess when municipal services break down. Landfill sites are filling up and the problem of what to do with urban waste is growing.

But aiming for zero waste can be tricky when you need to dispose of organic matter in an urban apartment. Food waste disposers attached to your sink provide a solution: they shred and pulp organic matter into small pieces that can then be flushed down the drain.

The tiny food particles are easily digested by the biological action of waste treatment plants and septic tanks. Look out for units approved by your municipality and the department of water affairs.

8. Upcycling
This is the coolest concept for dealing with waste. It is about converting unwanted things into new materials or products of a better quality rather than simply recycling and reusing them. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things solidified upcycling in pop culture.

Look out for funky shoes, bags and soccer balls made out of old billboards and truck tarps by Crushed Lemon, for instance, or an old motor scooter upcycled into a swivel chair by Bel&Bel.

9. DIY wind turbines
Malawian William Kamkwamba put the wind in renewable sails with his book about how, at the age of 14 and in dire poverty, he built a windmill to power his family’s home. You do not have to possess the engineering prowess of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind to use it to charge your home. Small wind turbines are readily available from South African manufacturers and are being used for a range of energy needs, from charging off-grid homes to water pumps and security gates.

10. Feed yourself
One of the most popular side venues at COP17 was a rooftop garden on an eco-building across the road from Durban’s convention centre. The garden was more than 1 300m² and used various recycled materials, including tyres, pallets and drums, in its design to make the beds for vegetables and other plants. Solar geysers and panels harvested the sun’s energy, and rainwater was collected for irrigation. A worm farm added nutrients to the soil.

It demonstrated that growing your own fruit and vegetables can be done anywhere. You can save money, reduce carbon emitted in transporting food and you will always know exactly what has gone into what you are eating.

Fiona Macleod reports on the environment for the Mail & Guardian. Laura Grant is the newspaper’s chief subeditor

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.

Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.


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