Asian Property Review finds out from Matthias Gelber aka ‘the man with the least carbon footprint on earth’ on how he walks the talk in today’s world.
Text and Photography by Jan Yong.
Matthias crosses several milestones this year – first, the birth of his baby girl and second, the ‘birth’ of arguably the ‘greenest’ tiny house in the world. The 50-year-old couldn’t contain his excitement at being a first-time father and vows to raise her up as another ‘green warrior’ – an eco-princess, so to speak.
Matthias doesn’t need much introduction. The German environmentalist who has a Master degree in Environmental Science from Brunel University in the UK, is a sought-after speaker and trainer on environmental issues. During a recent forum on green living in Selangor where he was one of the panellists, he noted that it seemed a little odd that water in plastic bottles were being served – an observation that had the audience laughing out loud.
It’s interesting to note that Matthias was born in rural Germany surrounded by forests. This was where he very likely developed his deep connection and respect for nature.
In 2008, he was voted the ‘Greenest Person on the Planet’ in an online competition by 3rdWhale in Canada. That’s how he came to be known as the ‘Green Man’. He’s continued living like that ever since – attempting to reduce his carbon footprint in every way possible in his life.
Matthias has lived in Malaysia for 14 years – in that time, he has not had a car and his monthly electricity bill was typically about RM30 per month as he doesn’t use an airconditioner. Since having a baby in the Philippines with his partner, he’s been dividing his time between the two countries with occasional trips to Europe and Panama.
To him, air-conditioners are one of the biggest producers of carbon footprint. He urges everyone to reduce or even cut out the use of air-conditioning completely. This can be done if architects and developers work together to build buildings that allow maximum air ventilation and cooling. “It’s all about efficiency – it’s down to how you design the building. If designed right, it doesn’t need air-conditioners or even artificial lighting,” Matthias says. ” To build houses with air conditioners is a crime against Mother Earth. ” — Mattbias
He adds: “To build houses with air conditioners is a crime against Mother Earth. We should go back to the old days of kampong houses. I would like to challenge all developers to rethink what they are doing. It’s not okay to build “heated-up homes that are not smart”.
He gave the example of a condominium in Butterworth which uses lightweight insulation with walls that don’t absorb heat resulting in a cooler home. As a result, the electricity for the entire unit is only about RM100 a month. This proves building this type of home is certainly doable, even on highrises.
“When people do things that only profit themselves at the expense of Mother Earth, it will harm their legacy. They have left a burden behind for their grandchildren.”
In addition to co-owning several eco-friendly companies, Matthias used to do a bit of writing on environmental issues – his first book, “The Greenman’s Guide to Green Living and Working” has been sold out and is due for a second printing.
[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”1,2,3,4,5,9″ ihc_mb_template=”1″ ] APR: How did the idea for the ‘GreenMan Tiny Home’ come about? MG: In 2015, I read about the ‘tiny home’ movement in the Economist magazine where it’s advocated ‘the fewer possessions you live with, the better it is for you and the planet’. I decided why don’t we make this idea work in this part of the world – create a tiny home that doesn’t need air-conditioning.
Many Malay kampong houses and Chinese old houses in Melaka, for example, are designed to retain a cool environment. Add that with the surrounding trees which give shade and it’s the perfect type of dwelling. Unfortunately, houses nowadays aren’t built that way – the exposed concrete walls get heated up and so it feels hot inside, hence the pervasive use of air conditioning.
So the idea was to include that concept into the tiny home – an off- grid house powered by solar power system (DC, not AC), and rainwater-harvesting system (which eventually will be drinkable). The toilet uses the ‘eco-loo’ system with liquid waste (no bad smell) as the end result which can be later used as fertiliser. So there is no problematic waste coming up.
My friend, “Green Professor” Dr Paul D’Arcy, an architect and engineer, who’s into bio-climactic design was quick to latch on to the idea. Together, we got volunteers and sponsors to help build the prototype – a bit like crowdsourcing to kickstart it. In line with the ‘smart eco home’ trend, we will also incorporate IoT in the tiny home. This can measure the temperature in order to minimise energy and water consumption.
All the electrical items use minimal power, for example, the mini DC refrigerator. Maybe we could even install a Raspberry computer for research. It’s a credit-card-sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard and can do many things like spreadsheets, word processing, browsing the internet, and playing games.
Eventually, I see the tiny home evolving into a smart mobile unit with a trailer. APR: Are you able to eventually create a DIY home kit for those who want to build the green tiny home themselves just like the Sears DIY home kit years before in the US? MG: You can in fact buy some of the templates for tiny homes on the Internet nowadays. Maybe in 2 years’ time – after we have perfected the design and find optimised solutions for the building materials, can we then offer a DIY kit which you can probably use to build in two days’ time. The more cost-effective we can make it, the better. APR: Give examples of what green stuff you incorporate in your life e.g. green underwear, not using plastic, etc. MG: Yes, I do in fact wear green underwear – ecofriendly organic cotton underwear made by Nukleus. I produce 20 metric tonnes a year of carbon footprint, which is the average person’s carbon footprint. That’s because my trips to Europe twice a year takes up 15 metric tonnes alone! But I compensate by planting trees in Panama where I own a 3ha plot of land for reforestation purpose as well as through my business activities, both of which allow me to absorb 100 times the amount I produce. This results in a net positive balance on my part thus having a healing impact on the planet.
In 2007, I co-founded Maleki GmbH which specialises in eco-friendly construction materials such as designer flooring.
For your information, reducing the use of cement, a common construction material the world over, would massively reduce carbon footprint. This is because cement production emits very high CO2.
In terms of living, it’s all about efficiency and sharing of resources. I share space with an expatriate friend who doesn’t use his living space half the time. I don’t use any plastics and I make sure the toilet paper or any other paper I use are made from recycled paper. I use aluminium tumbler and a bamboo straw (instead of the common plastic straw).
I have not owned a car for the last 18 years (and don’t miss it at all). I used to take public transportation such as the trains. Now, with Grab and Uber, it’s even easier. I have no worries about traffic jams nor maintenance costs, etc.
Foodwise, I am not yet a vegetarian or vegan so there is still room for improvement. But I often eat vegetarian or vegan dishes and seldom eat red meat or lamb. And I use chopsticks made with rice husks.
Even drinking beer produces carbon footprint, but I try to drink only those that don’t have artificial ingredients like artificial colouring or preservatives such as those produced in Germany. In the Philippines, all the San Miguel beer bottles are made from recycled bottles.
My book, ‘“The Greenman’s Guide to Green Living and Working” is printed with vegetarian (mushroom) ink on 100% recycled paper. No tree was chopped down in its production. So if you buy the book, you are buying carbon credits – each book has a healing impact on the Earth.
When it comes to technology, I have to admit I use a lot of social media, so I need a very efficient infrastructure. Having said that, I have used the same laptop for the last 3 years and it’s working fine – I stay away from upgrades because it would slow down the laptop.
For my mobile phone, I use a fair trade mobile phone that has been crowdsourced for its production. It’s upgradeable and repairable.
Last year, I was invited as a judge for the Miss Earth beauty pageant. It’s the third largest beauty pageant in the world and was televised live. As an eco-coach, I gave advice on how the girls can enhance their beauty without wearing makeup or bikini. Judging is based on an interview, their face, personality and environmental awareness. APR: Does having a baby change your way of life in any way? MG: Certainly! I live by the principle: “Are you a benefit or a burden to Mother Earth?” Twenty years ago, I was close to undergoing a vasectomy due to overpopulation. So now I must make sure she grows up to be a healing impact on Earth.
We try to surround her life with the natural world as much as possible, exposing her to the natural environment instead of staying too much in front of the screen (computer/TV/mobile). We are also slowly training her to sleep without air-conditioning as babies are sensitive to heat.
We experimented with eco nappies (biodegradable nappies made from bamboo) – with partial success – due to the limited availability and cost. Her clothes and blanket however are made from organic cotton which we buy from Germany where they are cheaper.
She is breastfed; for additional milk, there is the breast pump. We do not feed her with artificial milk at all. I must say our Eco-Princess is starting off on a very green footing!
HOW MUCH IS YOUR CO2 EMISSION?
Any of our daily activities – such as using electricity, driving a car, or disposing of waste – causes greenhouse gas emissions. Together, these emissions make up a household’s carbon footprint. The calculator estimates your footprint in three areas: home energy, transportation and waste.
According to studies, the average annual carbon dioxide emissions per person was 20 metric tons, compared to a world average of four tons. But the “floor” below which nobody in the U.S. can reach, no matter a person’s energy choices, turned out to be 8.5 tons. FAIR TRADE PHONE?
Since 2012, there have been concerns over sustainability, fair trade, and workers’ rights in the production of mobile phones. A mobile phone contains rare minerals that are often linked with violent conflicts. It is produced in difficult conditions by low-paid factory workers. A phone is also difficult to recycle safely at the end of its lifespan which is typically 2 years.
In 2012, Amsterdam-based entrepreneur Bas van Abel announced his new company, FairPhone. The phone itself is made with materials from conflict-free regions around the world, manufactured in closelymonitored factories, and designed to be easily customizable in both apps and hardware. The company’s website also has a cost breakdown available, so you know exactly where your money is going. It is however only available in Europe at the moment.