LESSONS FROM THE ELF: INADVERTENTLY BECOMING MORE ECO-FRIENDLY

It was Earth day on Monday so it is a good time to write about this topic. I don’t pretend to be any sort of shining example of virtuosity, but I care about nature, I believe there is no Planet B and I want to minimise my impact. Motorhome living means being pared down living in lots of ways and has highlighted a few lessons. Here’s a few ways we’re doing things differently:

  1. Water. I’ve worked out we use about one quarter of what the average person in the UK uses. The Elf can carry 138 litres of fresh water This is for all our drinking and washing needs. We have found that we can last two days on this, or three if we use bottled water to drink or really make an effort to stretch it out. The average daily individual usage in the UK is 140 litres (and that was probably us too when we lived in a house). Apart from the most obvious things (like we have no garden to water and no dishwasher or washing machine), we are very economical with our showers and use only what we need for washing up and drinking. There isn’t much water-waste at all.
  2. Solar-powered electricity. We have a modestly sized (roughly 1.5ft x 3ft) solar panel on the roof which – when it’s sunny – can provide us with many of our electricity needs. This powers our water pump, lighting, TV, and a 12v socket from which we can charge all our stuff. The only thing we can’t run off our leisure batteries (and hence solar power) are: microwave, heating, fridge and for charging power-hungry items like e-bike batteries and our Dyson rechargeable hand-held vacuum cleaner. We’ve gone as long as 20 days without electric hookup so that’s amazing. We’ve not tested this out in the UK though. If it clouded over we’d only get an amp or less and that wouldn’t be enough to recharge the Elf’s leisure batteries, so in the UK and other Northern-European countries we would probably have to hook-up more.
  3. Gas. We use LPG gas for the fridge, cooking, heating & hot water. We’ve had LPG gas cannisters fitted which means we can refill them across Europe rather than buying bottles, of which there are many sizes & types. We use about 30-40 litres a month which is about 245 Kilowatt hours. The average yearly household consumption is 17,000 Kilowatt hours so over a year we’re saving 14,000 Kilowatt hours – WOW that is a lot better than I expected. Furthermore we pay no more than £35 per refill so that’s a saving of at least £900 pounds!
  4. Stuff. In the confines of the van, we simply don’t have room for anything that’s not useful. (Exceptions are my Moominpapa teddy, some fairylights and bunting. But these things weigh next to nothing.) Tim will tell you I have too many pairs of shoes but I wear all of them (I swear !) This means that we don’t buy anything you might normally get when living in bricks and mortar – such as interior decorations (what Tim refers to as knick-knacks), new this, new that etc. I used to feel the pull of interiors shops like gravity and was always thinking ‘ooh that would look nice in my kitchen/living room/bedroom…’ etc. etc.). But this no longer happens and I must say – it’s a liberating feeling. I also have what you might call a ‘capsule wardrobe’ and that’s not a problem for me as I’ve never had a bulging wardrobe and in fact there’s some things which I will not bring next time as I don’t wear them. I just don’t think about stuff as much as I used to because I’m not bombarded with advertising all day and I simply want less. I notice when I go back to the UK that I start wanting more things again, and that is down to advertising and perhaps wanting what my peers have.
  5. Recycling. We’re dependent on the local facilities for whatever recycling we can do – and we make an effort to separate out what we can. I love it when we have a parking spot near a full complement of recycling bins as we have nowhere to put it in the van, so two trips a day is normal. Luckily Europe is very good on this front so 95% of the time I would say we recycle glass, plastics, cartons and metal. The continent is much better than the UK at providing battery disposal points too although most devices we own are rechargeable.
  6. Single-use plastics. We don’t buy bottled drinking water to avoid single-use bottles and we have a Brita water filter jug which lasts a month and which we use to filter our fresh water for drinking. It’s also a lot more convenient. This has served us very well across the continent on the whole. Once or twice there has been times when the local council has been a bit over-enthusiastic with chlorine (once to the extent I would get a slight burning sensation in my throat – ughh) and we have resorted to large water bottles temporarily.
    • In the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, there is a deposit scheme on plastic bottles. They have ingenious machines which you put the bottle in, it works out if it’s acceptable, compacts it, and then give you a discount coupon to spend in that store. It seems like a no-brainer, this NEEDS to happen across the WORLD and the UK has NO EXCUSES.
    • My one concession with regard to single-use plastic bottles is fizzy water which I add to wine. At home I would invest in a Sodastream to make fizzy water but there is absolutely no room in the van.
    • Another wine-related environmental boo-boo (although unwitting on my part) is the plastic cork. Having said this, it’s not possible to tell before you take the lead top off, whether it will be cork or plastic, so that is something the industry needs to address. As a consumer, I should be able to choose more environmentally friendly packaging. The screwtop hasn’t caught on yet in Europe,. so we Brits are doing our bit in that way, even if the rest of Europe looks down their noses at us !
  7. Food storage. Another inadvertently eco-thing we have had to start doing is using reusable tupperware boxes for storing all our food in the fridge. This is because no matter how carefully you pack things in the fridge, it will all rearrange itself while on the move, and probably spill all over everything else as well as probably fall out of the fridge in a cascade when you open the door again. So air/liquid-tight containers are non-negotiable. This has meant we use hardly any clingfilm or foil to store foods. I also have some beeswax & cloth foodwrappers which I must say have worked really well on the occasions that I have used them, and are an excellent alternative to cling film.
  8. Household cleaning products. The funny thing about motorhome bathrooms is that you’re not supposed to use any conventional cleaning products on them. I once used some lemon juice on the washbasin to clean it and even then was worried if that was too harsh. Since then, I’ve found that a good old e-cloth works wonders in the bathroom and shower, so that’s all I use. As long as you have a bowl of warm water to rinse the cloth in, then another cloth for polishing afterwards it all comes up amazingly well. I can’t think of any reason why this approach shouldn’t extend to conventional bricks and mortar bathrooms, so will try it as and when we have one again. Fridge-cleaning-wise, I have heard of other people have used bicarbonate of soda to clean the inside, but I haven’t tried that yet so will have to add it to the list.
  9. Fuel. So this is where it gets interesting. Our lovely Elf uses diesel to the tune of around 28 miles to the gallon. So far not so great. However, she is fairly recent, so has a category 4 catalytic converter which is better than either of our 10 year old cars had before we sold them. Also, our mileage is actually relatively low.
    • Last year we travelled 14,000 miles which I have entered into a carbon calculator (7000 miles on a 28mpg diesel car as I couldn’t find any details for our motorhome model) and this comes out at 2.99 tonnes of C02 each. Hmmm, that’s not at all good.
    • But hang on, what’s that ? No flights you say? Well I suppose its true that I haven’t flown since June 2017. Which is very nearly two years ago. That’s got to be one of the single biggest C02 contributors to avoid isn’t it ?
    • I’ve looked it up on a carbon calculator. A London to Lisbon return flight is 0.27 tonnes. In my recent past I used to do on average around four short-haul European trips per year which is an estimated 1.08 tonnes in total per year. So if you add to that the C02 I would have generated using my 10 year old diesel car in which I drove about 6000 miles per, which is 2.28 tonnes, then things start to look more positive, but not flying has made a lot less of a difference than I expected. Or maybe the difference is not so great because driving any private vehicle (especially a 4.5 tonne home on wheels) is more emissions-intensive than I previously thought. 
    • PREVIOUS TOTAL C02 EMISSIONS: At least 3.36 tonnes
    • NEW TOTAL C02 EMISSIONS: At least 2.99 tonnes
    • Happily this year is set to be a lot less miles on the clock, as we relax, go slower and resist the urge to charge around Europe like demented kids in the travel version of a candy shop.

So as you can see, motorhome travel has a bit to teach us (or at least raise our awareness) in helping reduce our carbon and chemical footprint.

What could I do better ?

  • Move to using 100% eco-friendly washing up and shower products instead of conventional brands (need to persuade Tim they are just as effective)
  • Eat less meat. I’ve been trying to do this for a while and have embraced Deliciously Ella’s yummy vegan recipes. However, one of us (and I don’t mean Bodger or Charlie) is a confirmed carnivore and that can be challenging when shopping and deciding what to cook. Lets just say it’s an ongoing conversation!
  • Try shampoo and conditioner bars rather than in plastic bottles
  • Find and stock up on a supply of recycled plastic refuse bags before we leave the UK
  • Install a SOG unit on the toilet cassette instead of using chemicals. (A SOG unit gets rid of smells, sorry if this is too much information !) or else change to a more eco-friendly chemical. (conversation with Tim required in both cases).

They don’t yet make electric-powered motorhomes but I would bet money that it will happen in the future, although I’m less sure they will make any that are affordable in my life-time.

If you’ve got any further suggestions please let me know!