What Extreme Hoarders Can Teach Us

March 30th, 2014.

Extreme hoarders aren’t just troubled people – they are teachers; albeit likely unknowingly.

There’s been a spate of news headlines relating to hoarders recently, including a Sydney family that apparently has accumulated so much stuff; they are now sleeping in a van parked outside their house.

Another story is that of a Dallas man who died and health services needed to cut through his home’s roof to get to his body; which took them two days to find due to the volume of stuff in and around his house.

In yet another incident, the apartment of a man in Manhattan is so cluttered he has to access his home via the fire escape.

To some, these stories are amusing, to others tragic – the obsessive compulsive disorder that leads to hoarding on such a scale can be quite terrible.

We certainly shouldn’t sneer at these people and their struggle has some value for the rest of us – it gives us an inkling of just how much rubbish we generate.

For most of us, trash goes out in the bin and whisked away – out of sight is out of mind. However, all that junk has to go somewhere and we create so much of it. Imagine if our garbage services suddenly stopped for any length of time.

In addition to the day-to-day waste; I think about the major cleanups I’ve performed during my life and the amount of stuff I’ve thrown out.

It all really adds up.

According to the USA EPA, folks in the USA generated about 251 million tons of trash in 2012.

While 87 million tons of this material was recycled or composted, that still leaves an amount equivalent to 2.87 pounds (1.3 kilograms) of trash per person per day. I suspect the stats would be similar in Australia.

Whenever I see these hoarder stories, it reminds me that what I’m seeing in the often shocking photographs is probably the same as what I have been responsible for generating during my life – it’s just that it’s all in the one place. For the hoarders that also collect from other sources; it’s a case of our garbage becoming theirs.

These stories are just as much about our own impact as it is of the individual or family of focus.

When I’m shopping these days I try to remember to ask myself not only if I really need whatever it is I’m contemplating purchasing, but what I will do with the associated trash it will generate – and what I can do with it once I’m done with it.


Tips For Extending Food Shelf Life
Recycling Numbers – What They Mean

Earth friendly air freshener tips

December 26th, 2013.

(originally published April 2007, last updated December 2013)

I admit it; I was an air freshener abuser – big time. My cleaning cupboard had more air freshener varieties than you can poke a stick at. But in fooling my nose, I was also poisoning myself and the wider environment. There are certainly greener ways to keep nasty smells at bay.

The majority of air fresheners you buy in the supermarket do not destroy odors, but simply mask them. They create a coating on your nasal membranes that fool your brain into thinking that the smell has gone. As for those air fresheners that claim to kill bacteria, our bacteria paranoia is leading us to kill good bacteria while creating strains of drug resistant bad bacteria. While anti-bacterial air fresheners have their place, they should really be limited to hospital environments in most cases.

Air fresheners – chemical cocktails

Many commercially air fresheners contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals that aren’t healthy for us or the environment. Some of the chemicals you may find:

Formaldehyde – known carcinogen
Phenol – skin and nervous system irritant
Petroleum distillates such as butane and propane
Methylformamide – Organ system toxicity, cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity
Butanoic acid – Neurotoxicity, Endocrine disruption, Organ system toxicity
Nitro- and polycyclic musks  – linked to cancer, hormone disruption

.. and the list goes on.

I’ve read that up to 3000 synthetic chemical ingredients are used by the air freshener industry.

One of the other problems of these air fresheners is toxic chemicals accumulate in carpet over time, which is particularly of concern to parents with young children. Being rather sticky, the chemicals also wind up on our shoes and feet to be taken into the outside environment where they wind up in soil.

Added to all that, there’s the non-recyclable or reusable packaging of these products – millions of spray cans and plastic bottles hitting our landfills each year; not to mention the production of chemical ingredients and the packaging.

A recent trend in air fresheners are the 24/7 products that spray automatically every X minutes – whether it’s needed or not. Based on the chemical cocktail described above, I feel these are terrible products that should be pulled from the market.

Something else you should know about air fresheners is that we tend to build up a tolerance to them. We get used to the smell and start using more to get that same olfactory “kick”. If you really feel the need to use these products, try rotating the fragrances you use regularly.

The whole air freshener product life-cycle is an environmental nightmare.

Green commercial air fresheners

Thankfully, some manufacturers have been responding to consumer concerns regarding the health and environmental issues associated with these products and commercial “green” air fresheners can be purchased.

A favourite of mine for the bathroom is Orange Power’s Lime And Orange (available in Australia, not sure about elsewhere). Quite reasonably priced, it contains water, alcohol, cold pressed orange oil and lime oil – and that’s it. It’s also packaged in a reusable atomizer bottle, which is recyclable.

Still, be wary of some of the “green” commercial products – a common trick companies play is to say something along the lines of “contains natural pine scent”, which it may well do – but what about the other ingredients? Check the labels and if the label is unclear, contact the company for a complete ingredient list.

Alternatively, you can try search for the product’s MSDS online. An MSDS is a Materials Safety Data Sheet. These *usually* contain more information than what you’ll find listed on a product’s packaging and may also include toxicological and environmental data.

Run a search on Google like so:

product MSDS

Where “product” is the name of the air freshener.

Armed with that information, you can then also use online databases such as Skin Deep to find out the potential effects of the chemicals.

Green home-brewed alternatives

Here are a few tips for greener ways to help keep your home smelling fresh. Of course, be cautious of how you use some of these ideas if you have young children or pets scurrying around the house.

– A simple one, but improving air circulation outside to inside will do wonders. Open windows when you can.

– A tablespoon of salt in a half an orange with the flesh scooped out. I’m told this is a good one for the toilet.

– 1 to 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract placed in small containers around your home

– Pot pourri made from lavender, roses or whatever scented plants and flowers you may have in your garden.

– Use baking soda to soak up acidic odors; also great for ash trays

Baking soda can also be used as a spray – one teaspoon dissolved in cup of water and then sprayed as a fine mist.

– Use vinegar to neutralize alkaline odors. Yes, vinegar is a little smelly itself to start off with, but the initial pong quickly fades.

– A couple of drops of essential oil in an atomizer/mister full of water sprayed around (bear in mind this only masks the smell rather than neutralizing it)

– A couple of drops of essential oil on a cotton ball place in inconspicuous places around a room

– Placing citrus fruit or cinnamon in a pot with water and simmer gently (rather energy resource intensive though)

– If you have extraction fans in the kitchen or toilet, ensure the screens are kept clean. If you haven’t cleaned yours for a while, try it out and I guarantee the difference will amaze you.

– Treating the cause rather than the symptom is always a preferred strategy. For example, pet bedding can create an awful stink and while it may not be viable to wash it every week, simply putting it out in the sun regularly and giving it a good shake will help. The sun is an important factor as sunlight kills some of the stink-causing bacteria.

Greener pillow alternatives

August 5th, 2013.

First published January 2007, last updated August 2013

Another throwaway item that we probably don’t give much thought to environment-wise is the pillow. Most of us will sleep our way through dozens of pillows over our lifetimes – and with many millions of other folks doing the same; it’s worth giving some consideration.

Synthetic pillow stuffings

A widely-used pillow filling is polyester fiber. The most common polyester for fiber purposes is polyethylene terephthalate or simply PET. PET is made from fossil fuel and while PET is recyclable, I’ve never seen the recycle logo on any pillow I’ve owned.

Other common synthetic pillow fillings include memory foam which is made from polyurethane with additional chemicals – not particularly earth friendly either.

Both of these substances take a very long time to break down in the environment.

In looking for “greener” alternatives, here’s what I came up with.

Wool Fibre Fill
Wool is flame resistant and offers excellent moisture absorbency, allowing the pillow fill to breathe. Wool is naturally bacteria and dust mite resistant. Try to find wool fill pillows sourced from organically raised sheep, or recycled wool.

Feather and Down Fill
Made from duck or goose feathers, the higher the down content, the softer the pillow will be. However, while this may be a more natural filler; how it is sourced is important. Some pillows will have feathers that are a by-product of slaughtering, others may be gathered feathers, but it seems in some cases, they will be forcibly removed from the bird; causing injury.

Buckwheat Hull Fill
Said to be superior to either of the above options, buckwheat hull material conforms to the contours of your head and neck without “pushing back” as some fibers do. It has excellent insulation properties for both summer and winter and a single fill can last for years.

Natural Shredded Rubber Fill
Also known as latex, this is a byproduct of the rubber tree – when purchasing, check that it’s not a synthetic rubber.

Kapok Fill
Kapok is a soft and silky fiber from the seed pods of a the ceiba tree

Organic Cotton Fill
Bypass ordinary cotton if you can – its a pesticide and water intensive product.

Going beyond the pillow filling, pillow cases are also often made from synthetics. More earth friendly materials include hemp, organic cotton and wool blends.

So the good news is, there are greener choices when choosing a pillow. The bad news is, they are substantially more expensive. From what I researched, natural shredded rubber fill was the cheapest. Bear in mind though that while “alternative” pillows may be costlier, they have a longer lifespan compared to polyester fiber fills – and living a greener life is as much about level of consumption as it is about product choice.

If you want to stick with polyester filled pillows – perhaps put your old pillows to good use.

Deterring and dealing with ants

June 25th, 2013.

First published April 2008, last updated March 2013

I love to watch ants go about their business. They perform an important role in the environment – cleaning up dead insects and animals, transporting seeds and aerating the soil. They aren’t so interesting when they infest our houses though!

Usually we reach for insecticide when ants become a problem; but there are more environmentally friendly ways of deterring ants that don’t necessarily have to involve killing.

After a question from a reader about this, I dug back through the articles I had already published and found a few tips, but I also put the question to readers of my newsletter – and received a stack of great tried and tested ideas! I’d like to thank the following readers who contributed:

Cheryl, Elizabeth, Christine, Debbie D., Bonnie G, Becky K. Susan G., Stephanie H., Charlotte, Kathern T., Dan L., Jess A., Melissa B. and Kel.

Ant deterrent tips

Here’s some things you may want to try before reaching for that can of insecticide, depending on the application:

  • Pouring lemon juice around areas ants frequent.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon or place in cheesecloth bags in affected areas. Cinnamon was a very popular choice with quite a few readers reporting it being highly effective.
  • Baking soda can deter ants – pour a solid line in areas of activity and they won’t cross it.
  • A ring of coffee grounds around sensitive plants can discourage ants.
  • A puree blend of orange peel and water can be applied to an area to discourage ants from crossing.
  • Ants hate vinegar; so spray it around doorways and other areas they frequent to repel them. A small container of vinegar mixed with honey placed in affected areas appears to do the trick too.
  • A reader reported baby powder stopped them dead in their tracks.
  • Pouring boiling water over their tracks (destroys the scent trail)
  • Sprinkling a circle of ground cloves around pet food bowls
  • Removing rocks and wood from around the garden
  • Planting mint around vegetable patches, flower beds and around the house
  • Quite a few readers found cinnamon sprinkled across ant scent trails to be very effective
  • Citrus oil is a good deterrent; it can soaked into a piece of string and place around scent trails.
  • Use a piece of chalk to draw a line over trails – again, the ants won’t cross it. Chalk also has the advantage of being able to be used on vertical surfaces

Brenda W. also contributed this tip:

“Pour a small bottle of peppermint oil into a pump spray bottle, put a few drops of dishwashing liquid into small bottle and top up with cold water, recap it and give it a couple of shakes. Pour this into spray bottle and top up spray bottle with water. I spray my bench with this and I don’t get ants anymore and you get a lovely fresh smell in the kitchen.”

Another enterprising reader decided to work with the ants rather than against them. She made a sugar trail away from the house to her compost pile and put out the intent that they would find a greater feast there. It worked!

Ants invade for a reason – usually for food or water, so be sure to keep food items well secured and clean up after you prepare food. Also check plumbing for leaks, particularly under sinks. Dead insects can attract large numbers of ants, so check window sills and other areas where they may accumulate.

Ant eradication tips

Unfortunately, some times you’ll need to eradicate the ants rather than deter them. A couple of greener ways to do it (but unfortunately not very kind to the ants):

A mixture of 1/8 teaspoon of powdered borax and sugar or honey will attract and kill ants. This is a mixture that is often used in commercial ant-specific products. Worker ants take it back to the nest and pass it onto other ants, killing the colony. While borax in small quantities is relatively harmless to larger animals, in big enough doses it can kill, so be cautious about placement and keep out of reach of pets and children.

A reader reported using dry grits to kill ants; a non-toxic strategy she’s used with success for 20 years. The theory behind it is that the ants eat the grits and when they drink water the grits expand in their stomachs, killing them.

Hopefully one of the above tips will help you in your environmentally friendly control of ants! If you have any other tips, please add them below.

Preventing blocked drains the earth friendly way

June 5th, 2013.

First published November 2006, last updated June 2013

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in this case – an ounce of enzyme is worth a pound of caustic soda; or a hundred bucks spent on a plumber.

I’ve lived in a few houses that aren’t on mains sewerage – they’ve either used septic systems or a blackwater recycling system. These types of systems need to be treated with extra care as (good) bacteria do the work of breaking down all the icky stuff.

A caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) based chemical for clearing drains in these scenarios is a sure-fire way to kill *all* the hard working bacteria in these systems. So, in that respect, yes, it’s an environmental hazard.

Even if you are on mains sewage, pouring Drano or a similar product down the sink isn’t exactly the best choice. For starters, it’s a hazard having it on the premises and it’s a very dangerous product to have anywhere near children. Secondly, caustic soda, while breaking down rapidly in the environment; also breaks down just about anything it touches. There are certainly more earth friendly options.

One alternative is to pour a scoop of baking soda mixed with half a cup of vinegar down the drain, and follow it quickly with boiling water.

The other alternative, what I use, is an enzyme/bacteria based preparation.

These are sold under various names and can be purchased in most hardware stores. Although they appear to be a little expensive, it’s the solution that keeps on working; only requiring an infrequent top up dose. What they do is to help establish colonies of *useful* bacteria in your drains and systems that feast on.. ummm.. well, if it’s organic they eat it basically ;).

The great thing about these preparations is that they are totally non-toxic to humans and the environment and they are very easy to use – no complicated mixtures, just pour and you’re done!

Tip: when using these types of preparations, it’s best to add them just as everyone in your family is heading to bed – if large amounts of water follow the preparation, it can wash away the bacteria before they’ve had time to get a foothold in your drains.

The next time you notice your drains smelling or perhaps water not getting away as quickly as it should, reach for bacteria instead of caustic soda. Bacteria, while sometimes our enemy, are quite often our friends!

Another couple of tips in the “prevention vs. cure” genre:

If you have a grease trap – check it regularly. I became a bit lazy and assumed my grease trap was still in good working order after a scrape 12 months prior. I had gone into an over-enthusiastic water saving mode which didn’t help and I had also slacked off on adding enzyme – with rather smelly and messy consequences.

Something else I’ve found very useful is a sink drain strainer – these trap food and debris before it winds up in your plumbing.


How Sewage Wastewater Is Treated
Sewer Fat – The Other Energy Source

How long does X take to break down?

May 20th, 2013.

(first published April 2009, last updated May 2013)

Reading that an item takes eleventy bazillion years to break down in the environment makes for great attention grabbing stuff when writing articles on green living, but the more I research various related topics, the more I find differences in estimations.

A lot of this is to do with the fact that decomposition is very dependent on the environment where the material is decomposing. For example, look at the difference between how fast steel rusts (a form of decomposition) in a humid salt air environment such as the coast vs. a dry environment like a desert.

Dry air really slows down decomposition generally. Another example is cardboard, something we consider very biodegradable. I have a sheet of cardboard out the back of a shed at my property in a semi-arid area and after 5 years it still hasn’t fully broken down even though it’s fully exposed to the elements.

Another factor is whether the waste is even exposed to the air or buried in a landfill. In the case of the latter, it can a lot longer for an item to break down; particular if the surrounds are dry.

Those are a couple of issues to bear in mind when reading statistics on how X or Y material breaks down. “Break down” is really a vague term and there’s also a big difference in the terms, biodegradable, degradable and compostable; not to mention the types of residues they leave behind, some of which can be toxic. It’s another good reason to recycle where we can, plus recycling energy savings for most types of waste are significant.

However, we can get a general guesstimate about waste decomposition and that can help in making purchasing decisions.

With all that in mind, here’s a list of common items and how long they take to “break down” in the environment.

Glass bottle 1 million years
Monofilament fishing line: 600 years
Plastic beverage bottles: 450 years
Disposable diapers: 450 years
Aluminum can: 80-200 years
Boot sole: 50-80 years
Styrofoam cup: 50 years
Tin can: 50 years
Leather: 50 years
Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
Plastic film canister: 20-30 years
Plastic bag: 10-20 years (???)
Cigarette filter: 1-5 years
Wool sock: 1-5 years
Plywood: 1-3 years
Waxed milk carton: 3 months
Apple core: 2 months
Newspaper: 6 weeks
Orange or banana peel : 2-5 weeks
Paper towel: 2-4 weeks

The above information was taken from the Pocket Guide to Marine Debris from Ocean Conservancy. It’s sources were the U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL and “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” Audubon magazine, Sept/Oct 1998.

Judging by the figures, I’d hazard a guess these would apply when the item is exposed to sunlight and air. Stick some of those items into landfill and in the absence of light and oxygen, chances are they won’t break down for many generations. Even newspapers dumped in landfill have been known to be still readable after many years.

For disposable shopping bags, I’ve seen figures anywhere from 500 – 1000 years (but there’s many different types of plastics) and cigarette butts up to 12 years.

While it may seem odd for leather to take so long to break down, many leather products are treated with all sorts of nasty preservatives to extend their life. The figure for a glass bottle is incredibly long, but at least that’s an easily recyclable product. I have picked up old beer bottles on my bush block that are over 50 years old but look as though they were left there yesterday.

There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in the above list, so if you have stumbled across a comprehensive list or study of  decomposition statistics of various forms of waste with detailed annotations about the conditions in relation to the timeframe, please let me know!

Fabric Protectors And The Environment

April 14th, 2013.

Fabric protector products might help prevent carpets, upholstery and other textiles from staining – but this protection may come at a cost to the environment.

One of the world’s most popular fabric protection products argues that these preparations help repel and release stains, which translates to reducing the amount of resources that go into washing and dry cleaning. It’s a good point, however the issue isn’t that cut and dried.

A toxic and bioaccumulative substance called perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOA) was once used in the production of Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) for fabric protection products. When PTFE degrades, it can release PFOA.

PFOA has contaminated pretty much contaminated everything – air, water, soil  – and permanently, as it simply doesn’t break down.

Finally recognising the issue, some manufacturers of fabric protector products have replaced Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid with Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS).

PFBS is also persistent in the environment, but not to the degree of PFOA. Claims have been made PFBS is not toxic or bioaccumulative.

However, the very unsettling thing is that PFBS is being detected in increasing levels in blood samples. This 2012 study noted the trend, but did not delve into the health effects – in fact, there appears to be very little research available on that aspect.

So it seems again we’re playing Russian Roulette with these sorts of compounds.

Greener fabric protector alternatives?

A GLT reader emailed me a question with regard to the safety issue and I had a lot of trouble finding products that were clearly health and environmentally friendly.

The wording used in promo of fabric protectors claiming to be green tend to dance around important topics. This isn’t always an attempt to mislead as there are also trade secret issues to consider.

Some products claim to be VOC-free; others use nano-particular technology or claim low-fluorocarbon levels. However, it’s not just what is mentioned that is important; it’s also what isn’t mentioned.

After some hunting around I found a product that may have potential for the eco-conscious – EcoShield Fabric Protector. The MSDS for Ecoshield states:

“Major ingredients in t his product are biodegradable; will not accumulate in soil or water or cause long term problems.”

Its active ingredients are fatty alcohol ethoxylates, a polymer blend and other “non hazardous ingredients” – so it’s still rather vague.

Alcohol ethoxylates are surfactants commonly used in products such as laundry detergents. Alcohol ethoxylates are not considered to impact on human health and depending on their nature, are not a huge threat to the environment. Without knowing what else is in Ecoshield’s secret sauce, there’s not much more I can write on it.

Ecoshield Fabric Protector is made in Australia, but it appears the company exports it internationally. If you live outside Australia, perhaps contact the company to find out who stocks it in your country.

As with a lot of these sorts of things, there is probably no fabric protector that is truly environmentally friendly; but if it’s something you really feel the need to use, it’s just a matter of choosing the lesser of the evils (so to speak).


What’s In That Product?

Taking Out The Trash (Less Often)

February 9th, 2013.

Back in the ” old days” (really not so long ago), garbage bins weren’t plastic, but steel and the garbage truck had a couple of guys hanging off the back who would empty the bins.

Today, garbage collection is a much more sterile affair in many parts of Australia. There are no “garbos”; just the driver. Various sensors and hydraulic equipment on the trucks pick up the bin, dump the contents into the truck’s garbage bay and places it back down. It’s every efficient – in some respects.

One of the benefits I’ve experienced in my green journey is I’m generating less waste and it takes weeks to fill a bin. But being a creature of habit, I was still dragging my bin to the kerb each week even though it wasn’t full.

On a recent bin day, I was watching as the truck approached and marvelling at how big these things are with all their whizz-bang gadgetry. Then it dawned on me that making this metallic monster stop for what is often a small bag of garbage was pretty dumb and not at all green.

The modern garbage truck weighs anything between 13 and 25 tonnes, without trash. Each time it stops, picks up a bin and moves away again, a lot of energy is required to do so. That energy is supplied by fossil fuels.

Nowadays, I wait until my bin is full before putting it out for collection. This means instead of 50 stops a year, the truck will only have to stop at my place 8 to 10 times a year. Families may not be able to reduce pickups to this level, but even if they can shave off a few stops a year; it all helps.

I was talking to someone about this action recently and they expressed concern about the smell of garbage piling up over weeks. As part of living a greener life that includes actions such reducing food waste, composting veggie scraps or using them in a worm farm, it means garbage becomes “cleaner”, so smell isn’t a problem.

How much fuel, emissions and wear and tear this saves I have no idea and while this is certainly not going to save the world, it’s just another example of simple green actions that collectively can help significantly reduce our personal environmental impact.

Recycling – getting crafty with plastic bags

November 13th, 2012.

(First published August 2007, last updated November 2012)

According to some estimates, Between 500 billion and a trillion plastic grocery bags are used globally each year. The WorldWatch Institute states it takes 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags – so that comes to a staggering 4,300,000 gallons or 16,277,270 litres of oil to make a trillion bags.It’s been great to see a concerted effort by many individuals, some towns and states to ban disposable plastic shopping bags; but even if you have e started to kick the disposable plastic bag habit, chances are you may still have a few (dozen/hundred) floating around the place.

If you’re into crafts, you can put these bags to good use so they don’t wind up in landfill. Even if your house is totally a bag free zone and you have the time to spare, get your friends to give you theirs – you’ll be able to create heavy duty reusable shopping bags they can take to the store so they won’t have an excuse for gathering more in the future :).

Firstly, you’ll need to know how to create plastic yarn (Plarn):

If you’d like to learn how to fuse/weld plastic bags to make larger sections of material:

Now that the base materials are sorted out, grab your knitting needles, sewing machine or crochet hooks and check out some of these amazing creations.

How to crochet a reusable shopping bag

Crochet a beach bag

Plastic bag handbag

Throw rug instructions

Plastic Bag Raincoat – clever stuff!

Crochet a Recycled Clothes Pin Bag

Recycled Plastic Bag Purse

Dog Leash from Braided Plastic Bags

Messenger bag (video)

Plastic bag sandals – amazing!

If you’re looking for plastic bag craft ideas suitable for children – a search on Google brings up plenty.

Some other quick tips for using plastic bags:

Door snake: Sew a tube of cloth, cram it full of plastic bags, then sew up the ends. Use it to prevent drafts from gaps under doors.

Packing: Use plastic bags as cushioning material when packing instead of packing peanuts.

Stuffing: Good for restuffing footstools and cushions

Plastic bag litter isn’t just unsightly, in a marine environment plastic bags are particularly destructive, killing at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year according to PlanetArk. Many sea animals mistake the bags for jellyfish, part of their diet. During my professional fishing days, I pulled many bag fragments from the stomachs of sharks and tuna.

Even if the production of plastic bags was banned tomorrow, the legacy of the trillions already created would haunt us for many years; so it’s great to see enterprising people putting them to good use!

Spotted or created something useful/groovy created with plastic bags and would like to share the instructions or a link to instructions with other Green Living Tips readers? Please add it below!

Tips for controlling pesky flies

June 16th, 2012.

(First published April 2008, last updated June 2012)

As an Aussie, my experience with flies is extensive. In some places I’ve lived in, talking outside during spring and summer is a risky business because as soon as you open your mouth, kamikaze flies make a beeline straight for it. On any given day during the warmer months, my coffee cup is likely to be the final resting place for a couple of the drowned critters. You get used to it – mostly.

If you’re not like me and have no intentions of getting used to them; instead of reaching for the traditional fly pray; there’s some other strategies you can use to at least control and minimize their presence before needing going to that extreme.

The problem with fly spray and other commercial insecticides is it contains some nasty stuff; which isn’t nasty just to flies; but to humans and other creatures in the environment – even the low allergenic varieties. The introduction of set-and-forget “24/7” automatic fly sprays means we’re perhaps using more than we need to too.

Some of the chemicals include:

Bioresmethrin – a suspected endocrine disruptor and highly toxic to fish even in small amounts

Bioallethrin – a suspected endocrine disruptor and carcinogen

Butylated Hydroxytoluene – known human immune system toxicant.

Synthetic Pyrethroids – Pyrethroids shouldn’t be confused with Pyrethrum, which comes from the chrysanthemum. Pyrethroids are chemically designed to be more toxic and take longer to break down. Aside from being a suspected carcinogen, they are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms and are moderately toxic to birds. Pyrethroids are toxic to all insects, both beneficial insects and pests.

Here’s some tips to help keep flies off your and control their presence to a degree around your home – the greener way

Potted plants indoors

I received an email from someone who was having problems with flies emerging from potted plants – something I hadn’t heard of before. It seems the best way to deal with this is to reduce watering and organic matter in the soil of potted plants; particularly the top layer – gnats and flies thrive in damp conditions where’s there’s plenty of organic material.

Clear garbage

As flies breed in rotting organic material, make sure your garbage is secured and your trash bins have tight fitting lids. It can take as little as a week for adult flies to emerge from these sources. Check all mouse traps regularly and around your yard for other critters that may have died as even a small decaying animal can be a feasting ground for hundreds of flies. Unfortunately, common houseflies have a flight range of at least 5 miles (8Km), so unless you can organize a mass effort in your suburb; while clearing matter flies feed on and breed in; at best you may minimize them.

Secure compost bins and worm farms

Pretty much related to the above about garbage. Try to keep dairy and meat scraps out of your compost bin or worm farm; as that will discourage some types of flies. Even vegetable waste will be a nice breeding ground for some types of flies as I discovered one year in relation to a worm farm I had. I was able to reduce the the problem somewhat by putting mosquito netting over the worm farm; but I think I was a little late in doing so – so it’s best to apply the netting as soon as it starts getting warm.

Fly strip/paper

Not so popular now, but still very useful. These are non toxic strips embedded with something such as honey and also an adhesive. The flies land on it and are, well.. stuck.

Fly curtain

If you have people coming in and out of your house regularly, especially children, chances are they’ll bring flies in with them. A simple fly curtain made of strings of beads will greatly reduce the number that do get in.

Citronella oil and candles

Citronella oil is an essential oil extracted from the different species of Cymbopogon (lemon grass). It’s considered a biopesticide and non-toxic. Burning a citronella oil candle or incense sticks will not only repel flies, but mosquitos too. You can also buy special preparations of citronella oil to apply directly to your skin as a fly/mosquito repellent, but it does need to be applied more often than synthetic repellents.


Crushed mint can be placed in bowls or cloth bags and placed strategically around the home near common entrances.

Eucalyptus oil

Sprinkle a little eucalyptus oil on a scrap of cloth and place near entrances.

Fly repellent plants for the garden

Some species of plants you may be able to grow in your yard depending on your local climate conditions can help discourage flies. These include Lemon balm, Catnip, Mint, Chrysanthemums and Marigolds.

Check your flyscreens

OK, so this is a no-brainer I guess; but small holes in flyscreens are easy to miss – so it’s a good idea to check them regularly during the season. The added benefit will be to prevent mosquitos from annoying you (or worse).

DIY fly traps

Fly traps come in various shapes and sizes, and some are very easy to make – such as this bottle trap – it’s a great way to keep at least one plastic bottle out of landfill :).


Flies will tend to be attracted to and congregate in dark areas, particularly when it’s hot, so allow as much natural light into your home as you can.

“Green” fly sprays

If all else fails, there are some “green” fly sprays available on the market that contain natural pyrethrum and citronella blends. We have used these from time to time and found them to be quite effective on flies; not so good on other insects.. which mightn’t be a bad thing actually. However, these usually also contain other chemicals – so they may be the lesser of the evils rather than a truly green product and should also be used sparingly.

Green Living Tips’ readers have contributed some more great tips for dealing with flies below – be sure to read those and add your own!