It's a busy time for Colin Beavan and his family as the No Impact Man book officially arrived in stores on Wednesday, and the documentary opens in theaters today. We took a few hours and sat down with Colin and Michelle this week to talk about the effect the year-long experiment had on their home life and habits, and we also gleaned some tips, advice, and resources from their time spent off the grid...
How did this all begin?
A former historical fiction writer, in 2006 Colin decided to write a book about global warming — a "finger-wagging book," as he called it, citing how everyone around him "was on Prozac" while in the developing world "people didn't even have access to clean drinking water." It soon became apparent that idea wouldn't work when he realized his own lifestyle (i.e. AC on all day even though no one was home) was contributing to the problem. So, as we first wrote about way back then, Colin convinced his wife to embark with him on a year-long experiment to try and live in New York City completely off the grid with the hopes of eventually writing a book about it "that not just liberals would read." The experiment began in November 2006 and lasted through November 2007, and as we know now, he also wrote a blog about it.
How did their home life change?
The first rule of the experiment was to make no trash. This meant no packaged food, no takeout, nothing disposable, and it meant carrying everything in their own containers — mostly mason jars, muslin cloth bags, and cheese cloth. They shopped for food exclusively at the Greenmarket in Union Square and in the bulk bins at the grocery store. Colin started a worm bin for their organic matter (which gave him a little trouble, as flies hatched in their bin and created quite a disturbance in the apartment).
Michelle called him a "1900's house wife" as he cooked, composted, and cleaned for the family all without relying on most 21st century conveniences. Colin made all of their cleaning products with borax, baking soda (the box was compostable) and vinegar, and he washed their clothes in the bathtub by walking on them (very much like Italian grape stomping). Baking soda also became the go-to product for most of their personal grooming needs: they used it as a deodorant, to wash their hair, exfoliate their skin, and brush their teeth. A friend provided some homemade moisturizer (Babies Bums by Stiggly Holistics) made of sweet almond oil, virgin coconut oil, vitamin E oil, beeswax and essential oils of wild chamomile and lavender that they bought in small batches as needed.
The 2nd rule of the experiment was to use no electricity, so that meant using beeswax candles, turning off the fridge and using an ice cooler (which they also ended up not really needing), and putting a single solar panel on the roof to power Colin's computer. Transportation also drastically changed: no cars and no subways meant they both took up biking, with Michelle using a Xootr scooter to scoot to work. It also meant walking up and down nine flights of stairs in their apartment building instead of using the elevator.
What did they realize they could live without in their home?
After the experiment was over, Colin and Michelle did bring back the the electricity and their fridge but still don't use the freezer, a dishwasher, an AC, or have a TV. They remain very conscious of their trash output, and try to stay away from packaging of any kind, sticking to their CSA and the farmer's market for fresh food, and relying on bulk bins for the rest. They continue to try and not buy anything new, preferring to source from secondhand places.
What kind of savings did they experience in their home?
They claim they cut their overall monthly spending by 50%, mostly as a result of drastically cutting their discretionary spending (things like restaurants, plane fares, taxis, takeout, and shopping). They saved $1200 a year by turning off their electricity, and Colin claims that now they still save about 20% less than the average New Yorker by not using an AC.
For handmade bike rickshaws like the one seen on Colin's bike above, contact George Bliss at the Hub Station in New York. 212-965-9334.
• Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz
• The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon
• www.noimpactproject.org: interested in trying a no-impact lifestyle? Colin has a 7-day action plan to help get you going.
• Center for a New American Dream
• The Alliance For Biking and Walking
• Transportation Alternatives
• John Masters Organics: for hair and skin care (if you aren't going to make your own!)
• Green Apple Cleaners: a non-toxic and non-carcinogenic dry cleaner. They recycle their hangers, and use cloth (not plastic) bags. Michelle says "your whites come back whiter than white."
• Farmer's markets, any and all! They particularly love Ronnybrook Dairy in upstate New York for their milk and yogurt.
• The Xootr Push Scooter for getting around town.
One thing to remove from your home?
One thing to bring into your home?
One thing to stop doing?
One thing to start doing?
Phoning our representatives.
"It's easy not to waste." – Michelle.
"Make sure that what you use really makes you happy." – Colin.
(Photo Credits: All photos by Cambria Bold and Maxwell, except 2007 photo by Nicole Bengiveno/NYTimes)