Sustainable living, long a goal of those concerned about the environment and climate change, is now also great for your wallet. The raging inflation and sky-high bills are therefore making more and more Belgians dream of a self-sufficient life. But how realistic is life without a water or electricity grid? Can you manage with vegetables from the garden and trade with the neighbors? Is rainwater healthy? And won’t you stink if you never use soap? Six experts by experience have each perfected their own variant of an environmentally friendly life. In this first episode: Evelien Matthijssen.
Evelien Matthijssen, nicknamed Green Evelien, lives with her boyfriend and three children in the Ardennes in all ‘ecological simplicity’. She was with the website greenevelien.com a pioneer of the zero waste movement – her family produces no more than one jar of waste a year – and she also cut the family off public utilities to go off-grid. She put together the installation herself, but before you start googling ‘self-build kit offgrid’: it is technically quite complex, and you sacrifice a lot of comfort.
Matthijssen: “I have always dreamed of a life in nature. I lived with the Indians in the Amazon rainforest for a while, but that was a disappointment: they dreamed of the rich West. Then I decided to create my own paradise. My friend and I first lived in Flanders, in a house in a forest. One by one I threw out our electrical appliances. The vacuum cleaner could go, so could the TV, and the refrigerator followed. Then I collected rainwater in large boxes – not for cooking and drinking, but for everything else. It went on and on, and in 2010 we moved to a house with a large garden in the Ardennes.”
What does your lifestyle entail today?
Matthijssen: “We try to live as green as possible. That simplicity gives me peace. Some are only concerned with energy, but we also try to live a zero-waste lifestyle. We eat vegan and we have our own vegetable garden. We wear second-hand clothes, we have a sober interior, our money is in a green bank and we don’t have a smartphone. And if my computer breaks down, I buy a second-hand one.”
You recently went off grid. Why?
Matthijssen: “We wanted to be independent. The term comes over from the US, where remote farms are not connected to utilities.”
You installed the installation yourself. Can everyone do that?
Matthews: “No. I’ve been a science teacher. My boyfriend cooks at home, I’m the one who installs electrical outlets.
“We already had three solar panels, good for a capacity of 500 watts. That is very little, but we only use 325 kWh per year – an average family of five can easily reach 5,000 kWh per year. I also bought four batteries, a charge controller, an inverter, a battery monitor and a windmill – all of which cost me 10,000 euros. If you use more than 325 kWh, you have to invest more.”
Are you cheaper than before?
Matthews: “No. When we were still on the net, we paid zero euros per month, only the rent of the meter cost 20 euros per year. Now we also pay zero euros, but we have invested 10,000 euros. You live off-grid because you want to be independent. It’s a way of life. I have three children and we work a lot in the garden: enough dirty clothes. But I was not when the laundry basket is full, but when the batteries are charged.”
Sharing your surplus energy on the grid is more sustainable.
Matthijssen: “And batteries are polluting, yes. But on the grid, 60 percent of the energy is lost. I just try to use as little as possible, that is the most sustainable.”
You have no refrigerator and no freezer.
Matthijssen: “We have a cold room where we store our harvest from the vegetable garden and the groceries. Our menu is determined by what has to be eaten first. What certainly makes life without a refrigerator easier is vegan food.”
How do you heat the house?
Matthijssen: “There is a clay stove in the living room. We have a detached house, and it is cold here in the winter. It is never warmer than 16 degrees inside, but you can always put on a thick sweater.”
How do you heat the bath water?
Matthijssen: “If we want to take a shower, we put a pan of rainwater on the fire and fill the shower. But the kids are puberty, it’s time for something else. A solar boiler is an option, but we need electricity for the pump. I am now studying alternatives, such as a recycling shower, which reuses the drained water.
“I wash our clothes in the washing machine with rainwater. First, a pump pushed that rainwater to the machine, but it consumed 1,500 watts. Now I pour the rainwater in with a watering can, via the detergent dispenser. That is why I am looking for a less energy-intensive pump that can lead rainwater to the washing machine and to a shower.”
How do you manage in the winter with only three solar panels?
Matthijssen: “In December and January the batteries are empty. That is why there is a windmill in the garden that generates electricity. In winter we also cook with gas bottles instead of an induction hob. Putin means we have to get rid of gas, but if I want to cook electrically in the winter, I need extra battery power. That’s another investment. I’m not in favor of gas, but I am in favor of using it as little as possible, so I don’t.
“Everyone now wants a heat pump, everything has to run on induction and electric cars are the future. Okay, but that will never go together with off-grid living, because you use an enormous amount of energy. If you want to live ecologically and economically, you simply have to consume much less.”
People do now.
Matthijssen: “Few people know how much their appliances consume. A lamp consumes 5 watts, an induction hob 2,000 watts. The boiler, the heating, the washing machine and the electric hob are big guzzlers. A kettle uses 2,000 watts, but you only turn it on for 2 minutes, and an electric boiler is on 24 hours a day. You have to make the sum of the entire household.”
Do you never encounter the limitations of your way of life?
Matthijssen: “Last winter I realized: Eef, it must not become a dogma. So we are going to install two or three extra solar panels. But first I have to figure out how to handle that hot shower.”