As the owners of the central Vancouver Island 1-800-Got-Junk franchise, Nanaimo’s Grant and Alison Belbin see first-hand every day how much physical waste households contain.
But it wasn’t until the Belbin family was selected for the Energy Diet Challenge, a three-month competition designed by Canadian Geographic and Shell Canada Limited to encourage Canadian families to use less energy, that they realized how much energy and water a household can waste.
From Sept. 12 to mid-December, six families with different lifestyles across the country will take part in the challenge, competing to earn points for creativity, participation, overall energy reduction and accumulation of audience votes at energydiet.canadiangeographic.ca.
The winning household will win a grand prize consisting of a Toyota Prius or a high-performance bicycle package.
“We are, I think, in our daily lives, far more aware because we see it every day, of physical waste and consumer waste,” said Alison Belbin. “And having seen that it has totally changed our family. The way we look at waste and consumer goods in general is different from what it used to be so we’re really good at physical waste reduction but to be quite honest, we didn’t know a lot about energy waste reduction.”
All six families will have their energy and water use monitored by the contest organizers, and will also face ‘soft challenges’ along the way — this week families must go about their day-to-day lives without the use of a clothes dryer. Last week, they were challenged to keep their showers to just five minutes.
“By following various families, we hope other Canadians will be inspired to improve their own energy efficiency,” said Lorraine Mitchelmore, Shell Canada president and chairwoman. “As a major energy supplier, Shell wants to to be part of the solution by helping people use their energy resources we produce more wisely.”
For the Belbins, being able to teach their children — Drew, 9, Kai, 7, Mara, 4— about energy use and conservation was a key driver in signing up for the challenge.
“We’re participating because the challenge will be something the whole family can experience,” said Grant Belbin. “It’s one thing if one person comes along and tells us what to do to conserve energy. It’s more fun if we’re all in it together.”
Just two weeks in, it has already had a positive effect on the Belbin children.
At their school, Drew and Kai have initiated a challenge for other students to bike, walk, car pool or take transit to school. Each time they do, they receive a ballot that will be used for a prize draw at the end of the month.
Both Drew and Kai go to school 30 minutes earlier each day to allot the ballots. On Monday mornings, they also go on to the school intercom to provide the weekly energy saving tip of the week.
“The kids are the perfect age for this and are really embracing it,” said Alison. “The neatest part of it is watching kids respond to our kids far better than they would ever respond to a speaker coming into their classroom and telling them how to reduce energy. Seeing our kids excited about this opportunity seems to be having a far bigger affect.”
Drew also suggested that every night for one hour after dinner, the Belbins turn out all of the lights and unplug everything and talk or play games as a family, something they hope to continue after the challenge is over.
“We’re like any other busy family of five,” said Alison. “We’re busy. We own our own business, kids are into a lot of different activities. There are a million reasons not do to that. After three months I’m hoping it becomes our normal, everyday lifestyle. There are positive spinoffs, like quality family time, beyond saving energy.”
One of the greatest surprises the Belbins realized after auditing their own energy use was how much water the family uses, which turns out to be about 760 litres a day, 320 litres higher than the Nanaimo average. By installing low flow devices in their taps and showers, and installing a rain barrel, they’ve managed to reduce usage and monthly costs significantly.
“Just knowing what our consumption was made us a lot more conscious,” said Alison. “We’ve never had sprinklers on or have a hot tub or anything so we thought we were being fairly good when it came to water conservation. But when we looked at our water bill and saw how much we were actually using we were unbelievably shocked. At dinner we had a (four-litre) jug of milk on the table and told the kids we used 190 of those every day. So we set out to find where it was all going.”
All six families will be blogging during the competition at energydiet.canadiangeographic.ca about their experiences. On Oct. 1 they will compete in an urban race in Calgary, and on Oct. 29 they will be part of a challenge to see who can travel the furthest on a litre of fuel in Toronto.
The contest winner will be announced Dec. 12.