Accidental Greenie

Having children inspired Nicola Wong to start making different, and sustainable, lifestyle choices.

It dawned on me recently that I am a greenie at heart. Not a vegan or a hippy, but a greenie nonetheless. Born in the seventies, I grew up in the country and my parents were market gardeners.

In the old neighbourly barter system, we swapped vegetables for milk and meat from the farm next door. Apples, peaches and nectarines came from the orchard across the road. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was as healthy a start in life as any child could hope for; we were living off the land.

I left home in the nineties to pursue a university education and join the fast-moving corporate world. In the process, I was seduced by the world of convenience. Plastic bags were ubiquitous, microwaves appeared in every house and bottled water became cooler to drink than its inferior tap-sourced cousin. A high disposable income saw me enjoying all this convenience on offer. I flew often and stamped my footprint on various countries. I purchased whatever I felt like without a thought for how it was made or what it contained.

How could I reproduce my parents’ lifestyle in the city?

Then my first baby entered the world in 2005. He grew into a little boy who loved my parents’ home. Like a lot of other city kids, he had eczema and a runny nose when he was young. But it soon became apparent that there was truth in the old wives’ tale that ‘a bit of country air will fix it’.  It sure did. He thrived at my parents’ place, where there was fresh air and healthy food.

It got me thinking. My parents live a very sustainable and healthy life – if they were stranded at home, they could survive better than most city dwellers. They compost everything back into the land and they reuse before they dispose because there is no council rubbish collection where they live. How could I reproduce my parents’ lifestyle in the city?

I decided the first thing to go would be the plastic bags. But even that didn’t happen overnight. My partner took about a year to get on board. I made him buy a green recycling bag every time he forgot the bags I left for him in his car. Eventually, he figured it was cheaper to remember the green bags, but even now there are relapses.

I started reading labels, and soon after reading about the potential effects of monosodium glutamate, I did an MSG-cleanse of my pantry. I fed my son homemade or organic food. Again my partner was not impressed that the only chips he could now eat were plain, but what was good enough for our son was good enough for us.

With the birth of our second child in 2007, we moved from a townhouse to a home with a big backyard. The first thing we did was have my parents over to help us build a home garden. It cost money to truck in the soil and build a frame but it paid for itself in the first year.

We rushed out and got one.

The Inner Greenie_quoteI initially wanted the home garden to fulfil my educational agenda for my children. I was determined that they would know how a tomato grows and that potatoes grew in the ground and not on trees (yes really, I do know someone who thought that).

We buried our compost and planted seeds in the garden, which now feeds our family. It’s chemical and pesticide-free, the food is fresh and there is little wastage.

Then one day in 2008, some friends showed our kids their worm farm.  We rushed out and got one. The heat of the following summer killed them, but the dirt that housed them was used to fertilise the lemon tree, which is currently thriving. We invested in a new set of worms and they now live royally in the garage in the summer months.

I realise that I can’t undo the damage I have already done

Next to go was the microwave. The contentious issues about microwaves altering the molecular structure of our food and the leaching of Bisphenol A (BPA) from heated plastics didn’t sit well with me. It made me cook fresher food for the kids, and eliminated our reliance on heating packaged foods containing a number of preservatives that I couldn’t identify.

I was slowly undoing the unsustainable lifestyle I had been leading, all for the sake of my family. I realise that I can’t undo the damage I have already done, but I am reducing our family footprint.

I am learning that there are a lot of chemicals and preservatives in many foods and that some of the foods we bring into our homes can be linked to health problems. We have been systematically replacing or dropping them from our shopping cart. Likewise with light globes, shampoo, stainless steel water bottles and so on. Once the change is made, it becomes a normal part of life.

As a family, we still have so much to learn. It has taken five years to understand what we have accomplished, but now we know the direction in which we want to go. It’s not a competition with others about how green you are; your benchmark is yourself. I know I am providing a healthier lifestyle for my family – we consume fewer processed foods, we eat from our own garden, we have fewer chemicals in the home and we produce less rubbish for the council to deal with.

My children have awakened my inner greenie by inspiring me to do my part in making the world one that future generations can live in. But I know my biggest accomplishment will be passing on to my children the values that my parents passed on to me.

If I can try to teach them how our actions and choices impact upon the environment, then hopefully they, in turn, will make the right choices for my grandchildren.

Illustrations by Shane McGowan