Guide to living sustainably in Cape Town

While living sustainably as an individual doesn’t affect much of the big picture stuff, like carbon emissions, it can still do a lot of good. To live in a way that supports local small businesses and local ecologically sustainable farming practices, that saves our limited water sources, and that limits the amount of plastic going into our oceans, dumping sites, streets and incomplete recycling plants – this is no small thing. You’re doing real good. Good that each of us can do, without spending loads of time and effort trying to get it right.

Making change in our daily lives can be challenging, particularly for those of us who live on a tight budget. But it is possible, to greater and lesser extents for each of us. You can’t tick everything off, but small shifts are still shifts!

So, let’s get into the various areas where you can make change towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Food & Diet

This is an area we can make some really substantial change! If you shop at supermarkets you’ll know that the fresh fruit and veg usually comes in plastic – and many of the other products have been transported from all over the world.

Since we have to do it three times daily, we tend to be pretty stuck in our eating habits. It simply takes a lot less time and thought to do what we already know.

But making changes in our food habits is not only helpful, it’s also quite exciting and rewarding! So what exactly can you do?

Plastic-free fruit and veg delivery from Lippy’s

  • Use reusable bags instead of getting plastic ones every time. If you fold them up tight they pack easily into even a very small handbag, and they’re a whole lot sturdier – no more split bags and dropped groceries!
  • Buy reusable mesh bags for your fresh produce, and then remember to actually bring them with you (I forgot mine consistently for about three months before I finally got into a groove)
  • Better yet, buy your produce from a local small business like Lippy’s BigBox, which comes plastic-free and supports small vendors in Epping
  • Consider overhauling all of your food shopping (not just the produce), and shop at an online grocery store like Think Organic – that way you know everything’s local
  • Eat less meat – it’s best to have smaller portions of meat, and some meat-free days. In addition to its environmental impact, including meat in every meal really does block off a whole lot of very interesting and tasty meals that simply don’t go very well with meat. Try some Mediterranean cuisine!
  • Don’t buy takeaways – unfortunately, most places use tons of plastic packaging; we buy frozen pizza bases and frozen dumplings instead (two favourites) for when we’re really not in the mood to make a whole meal but still want a treat
  • Eat local and green-listed fish like Angelfish, Cape Hake, and Dorado
  • Grow your own herbs – they’re super apartment-friendly
  • If you have a garden, consider growing more of your own food
  • Learn to preserve your food before it goes off – we don’t all have the time to do much preserving, but I always freeze any fruit that I’m not going to get to in time, and later make smoothies and sorbets with them!

Shopping

This is one of the most important areas you can make change in – with, of course, a lot of overlap with other categories!

Exploring Hout Bay in my mum’s old skirt, and a top and hat from local small brands, Titch and Solrise

  • Buy local wherever possible
  • As with food, bring reusable bags whenever you go shopping to avoid single-use plastic bags
  • Buy fewer clothes – this is a really important one; fast fashion is a totally unsustainable and very damaging practice, and we simply don’t need the amount of clothes we’re buying
  • Buy from local businesses – we have a lot of local sustainable brands doing great work. By buying from them, you get something beautiful, durable and well-made, and support Capetonian artisans, seamstresses, and even textile manufacturers (an industry that took a massive knock with the introduction of international brands and their cheap textiles). You’re also not supporting exploitative practices!
  • Buy second-hand – we have fantastic monthly second-hand markets, along with second-hand stores dotted around the city

Energy

Energy is a resource we clearly don’t have enough of in South Africa, considering all the power outages! I’d recommend you get the EskomSePush app to always know when the next loadshedding is going to strike, and to follow the tips below!

  • Wash only full loads of laundry and at colder temperatures
  • In summer, use a fan instead of an air conditioner. Cape Town’s weather is some of the best in the world, and there are very few days where an air conditioner is ‘necessary’
  • Switch your geyser off when you’re not using it – we switch ours on for about an hour a day and it’s plenty for two people. You may need it on a little longer for a larger family, but not much more
  • Turn off lights and electronics when not in use
  • If you have the finances, consider investing in renewable energy systems – it helps you avoid the inconvenience of power outages, increases the share of renewables in our power generation, and reduces the load on the national grid!

Transportation

Transportation produces a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes a lot to Cape Town’s air pollution (so noticeable on a windless day!). Unfortunately, Cape Town is a city largely designed for cars, with sprawling neighbourhoods and an incomplete, sometimes dangerous public transport sector. So, what can you do?

The MyCiti bus, one of our main forms of public transport

  • Walk wherever possible – I’ve never had my own car before (and don’t have a license) so I’m used to doing a lot of walking. And it’s a great option in much of the city!
  • Take the MyCiti bus where you can – it’s an excellent service in all the areas it covers
  • Use a bicycle for smaller trips
  • Catch the train when you’re travelling during the day and not in a hurry – the train timetable is not often adhered to, but trains are a good way to get around a large part of the city. As long as you’re travelling during the day and there are other people in the train car with you, it’s a safe and good option. I took it for years!
  • Catch a minibus taxi – this is another form of public transport I’ve used for years, even to get to Cape Town from Oudtshoorn! It’s cheap and efficient, although taxi drivers aren’t always the most careful road users.

You can read more safety tips for Cape Town here

Personal Care

Personal care products often come with excess packaging and contain harsh and harmful chemicals. They’re also disproportionately animal-tested. Thankfully, Cape Town has a lot of entrepreneurs with their minds on better alternatives.

A few of my favourite local personal care and cleaning products

  • Buy reusable, package-free or bulk-packaged products where possible
  • Buy local and gentle care products from places like Nudefoods – these include creams, shampoo and conditioner bars (which my husband and I use), soaps, etc.
  • You can even learn to make your own
  • Buy cruelty-free products and check the back for harmful chemicals

Cleaning

Your daily chores and household tasks have an environmental impact of their own, particularly because of the harmful chemicals they commonly use.

  • Replace paper towels with reusable and washable towels
  • Hang wet clothes rather than tumble-drying them – the African sun should do the trick!
  • Buy cleaning products that use natural, non-harmful ingredients – EarthSap is a great South African brand
  • You can also make your own cleaning products

Waste Diversion

Of the famous reduce, reuse, recycle slogan, ‘recycle’ is by far the least effective. It’s the last thing you should do once the lifecycle of your things has reached its absolute end. This is particularly important in South Africa, where our recycling plants have limited capacity and efficiency.

  • Donate unwanted clothes and other items – even torn or holed clothes are sold on as rags for builders and mechanics
  • If you have a garden, start composting
  • Check what plastics can actually be recycled (it’s not very many) and avoid throwing others into the recycling bins, to reduce bin contamination and sorting time
  • Wash and save jars rather than throwing them away or recycling them. If there’s one thing a house always seems to need, it’s more storage space! Plus, if you shop at a place like Nudefoods, you can actually reuse those jars directly to bring home foodstuffs
  • Get crafty!

Waste Reduction

Reducing the amount of waste you and your household produces is one of the most important things you can do to live more sustainably.

By reducing your consumption, you take a little piece out of the whole supply chain from extraction, to manufacturing, to shipping, to sale. And of course, reducing consumption this way also greatly reduces how much you’re sending down the waste stream. On top of all that, buying less means spending less – no matter what sharky advertisers try to tell you!

By following what you can of the tips above, you’ll already be reducing your waste. But here are some additional tips for the dedicated:

  • Use a reusable water bottle and coffee mug/thermos (if you buy coffee on the go)
  • Upcycle old clothing into new and useful things – like fun braided dog toys – instead of buying those things new
  • Use reusable shopping bags – seriously, they’re better in every way
  • Buy refills where you can – places like Nudefoods has vats of laundry detergent, hand soap, olive oil, and a bunch of other things, so that’s a great place to source refillable products. They’re also not at all overpriced, despite looking a bit intimidatingly gentrified

Water

Anyone who lived in Cape Town during the 2018 drought will know how much we can reduce our water consumption when we really need to – and also how kak it can be when a shortage of something so fundamental happens.

Water is also one of those scary things that we’ll face regular shortages of as global climate change speeds up. So building a community that is conscious and careful with the water we have is really important.

I might be preaching to the choir here, but here are some valuable tips for reducing your water consumption.

  • Turn the tap off when you’re brushing your teeth, washing your hands, or shaving
  • Turn the shower water off while you wash your hair, and then again for conditioning – since the drought, I even turn it off when soaping up
  • Use captured rainwater or greywater to water the plants
  • Consider investing in a Jojo tank – or if you rent a house, ask your landlord if they’d invest in one. My parents have one and the landlord is happy to buy a second, so it’s definitely worth checking
  • Only do full loads of laundry and dishes – if you have a dishwasher, fill it up all the way before turning it on and use the slower eco-friendly setting

What you can do within your community or friend group

Community – whether friends, family or peers – is important to a sustainable, low-impact life. Particularly one that is achievable without focused sacrifice and expense. Give some thought to what your friend group or community can do together, to reduce your dependence on commercial products, and shift towards a better lifestyle.

Every community is different, and many will already be working together sustainably. Particularly among poorer South African communities, where a lack of access has led to creative and communal solutions. But here are a few ideas you can consider.

  • Do a clothes swap – we tend to get bored of (or outgrow) our clothes long before they’re damaged or ruined. So, arrange a clothes swap with your friends, and give your garments a new life! Add some wine and a potjiekos or braai, and it’s a fantastic Saturday.
  • Try a gear swap – everyone posts what they need for a new project on a whatsapp group for the purpose, and friends can respond if they have it available. It should be a relatively small group, and one where friends feel accountable for returning the gear; otherwise you might end up with a few problems!
  • Consider project days – everyone gets together to make preserves, soap, plant propagations, etc. (basically, anything that requires quite a lot of resources and work); this way you can all learn together, make a fun day of it, and be ready for the apocalypse (jk!)
  • Drive together when you can
  • Arrange a skill swap – leading on from the gear swap, you might find a skill swap to be a natural progression. Swap a hole fix of your favourite jersey for a haircut, or a shelf put together for help painting a room. These kinds of things can be great ways to bond and get to know sides of each other you might not normally come into contact with. They’re also fun!

Living an environmentally friendly lifestyle in Cape Town

There you have it, my top recommendations for living sustainably in Cape Town. Most of these apply generally, but I’ve tried to include city-specific information where it’s helpful.

Of course, you’ll find that some of these tips apply to you, and some of them really don’t. Maybe you don’t live in a pedestrian-friendly area, or local brands that can’t price their products to compete with cheap foreign goods are out of your budget, even when you’re reducing your intake. Maybe pickling food and making shampoo sound like a waking nightmare to you! But while some tips will be out of reach, there are sure to be others you can put to good use.

It’s easy to get disheartened looking at the monolithic sets of lifestyle changes that articles like this tend to put out, and the doomed “we all need to do all of this all at once right now or we all DIE” language that often accompanies them. But any one thing you can do is a good thing. Any difference is a worthwhile one.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the read, and if I’ve missed any great tips that you swear by, please let me know!

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