ryan mayne greater good

Off-Grid: The Greater Good Movement’s Ryan Mayne on Radical Re-Use, Sustainable Building and the Philosophy of Self-Reliance

by Christina Cannes

The Greater Good Movement is a local not-for-profit based in Noosa providing educational workshops on sustainable building techniques, upcycling, recycling and regenerative agriculture. Inspired by a trip to the Earthship Biotecture Academy in Toas, New Mexico, Ryan and Amy Mayne started The Greater Good Movement to challenge the idea of how to truly live sustainably.  

Tell us about The Greater Good Movement.

The Greater Good Movement is the non-for-profit arm of our social enterprise The Tree of Plenty. The Tree of Plenty owns 100 acres down in Northern NSW. We have established bush tucker trails so groups come in and learn about native plants. We also run natural building and recycled building workshops. We teach people how to build glass bottle and cobb walls, rammed earth floors and we recently ran a rocket-fired pizza oven workshop as well.

As the Greater Good Movement, we also do workshops on the Sunshine Coast. At Natureweavers Forest School, we ran a workshop with kids and built a rocket-mass heater and constructed a cobb and eco cubby house. We’re teaching kids about what needs to be considered when you build a house such as the environment, what direction the structure faces, how hot it gets in summer, how cold it gets in winter, what you’re going to make it out of, how much rain you’re going to get/ how quickly it will come down. We also did some glass bottle walls with lime mortar.

Our workshops also focus on disaster resilience and designing your life so you’re not so reliant on centralised systems. This means growing your own food, catching your own water, processing your own waste and creating a functional landfill (using waste to build your house). We teach people how to create systems that use recycled materials and are designed to be long-lasting, in a similar way to how people lived prior to modern industrialisation. We use those theories and adapt them to the technologies we have now. We try to take a step back from our reliant and consumeristic lifestyle and plan holistically.

What is a cobb wall?

Cobb is a mixture of clay and sand or clay and dirt and straw. It is 20% clay, the rest dirt or sand with straw mixed in to hold it all together. The idea is that you put it in a big pile, wet it, stomp around in it, get it to a muddy consistency and then you use it to build a wall. Once it dries, it dries hard and the hay in the wall holds it together. It’s a technique that has been used for hundreds and thousands of years—it’s just building with the earth. It’s not big in Australia, it’s big in Europe and the UK—our indigenous people didn’t use cobb.

What is a glass bottle wall?

The glass bottle wall process involves gathering beer bottles, wine bottles and any bottles that have the same diameter. You cut them depending on the length of the brick you want and you can cut them as contemporary or organic as you’d like.

I wouldn’t use them as a structural wall unless you used concrete or lime and the right distance between bottles. You can build them as high as you want, you just have to incorporate some structural reinforcement/ stability to make sure it doesn’t fall like you would any wall.

glass bottle wall greater good

An example of a glass bottle wall.

Why did you form Tree of Plenty?

It started with recycled wallets using one litre Bonsoy UHTs. A friend from Switzerland, who came and stayed with us, showed us how to make one ten years ago. People kept asking if they could buy them off us. We’ve always been right into recycling and opp shopping and making furniture with recycled material, so we started to sell these wallets and other wares like hand-made earrings made out of recycled spoons and feathers we collected from the Noosa River. Amy, my wife, also makes body scrubs from coffee grinds and other organic ingredients. We had the idea of doing good and building on it, and this piece of land came up so it expanded.

We created Tree of Plenty to get that piece of land and move forward with our ideas. We created The Greater Good Movement as the brand component of the Tree of Plenty. We also want to create a platform for people to help people in third wold countries. We want to work with other not-for-profits and create triple wins. We want to teach people how to build sustainably and at the same time create something for another not-for-profits to use.

We also want to create an educational facility down in NSW where people can come and immerse themselves in indigenous culture, learn about plants and what their meaning and story is, and how we can use them in regenerative agriculture. We want to focus on organic, syntrophic farming and promote the use of bush tucker since it’s designed for our climate and thrives here.

When did you start The Greater Good Movement?

The Greater Good Movement was founded in 2013. I was doing talks about Earthships which are recycled houses. I went over to Taos, New Mexico and learnt how to build those. When I came back, I went around to libraries on the Coast talking to people about them and how they would work in our environment including the adaptations you’d need to make. It slowly evolved from there and over the two years, it’s picked up steam. It just keeps evolving because more like-minded people keep crossing our path. We’re making some really good connections with people in groups and trying to build on those and keep the momentum going.

earthship greater good

An example of an Earthship in Toas, New Mexico at the Earthship Biotecture Academy.

Tell us about your trip to America and describe an Earthship.

I visited the Earthship Biotechture Academy in Toas, New Mexico. Mike Reynolds is an architect who started building houses with tyres, cans and glass bottles as walls. During the course, I basically paid to learn how to build someone else’s house! But I learnt the systems and what not to do and how to adapt them to our environment. It was great to see what worked and what didn’t. You don’t get that sort of experience or knowledge until you’re there. I got to look at all the different houses and see the good and the bad and take that away. For me, that was a great experience. It was a desert climate, so I learned a lot and most importantly how to adapt it to our tropical climate on the Sunshine Coast.

An Earthship is a system. It’s passive-solar designed, so for the Northern Hemisphere the rear wall is made of tyres packed with dirt like giant earth bricks. They are heavily insulated because the temperature in winter drops to minus thirty degrees. The south facing wall is all glass. This is reversed for the Southern Hemisphere, but the idea with the house is to use earth tubes through the earth and back wall so in summer the air comes in through the earth tube and gets cooled by the earth and vents at the top of the house let out the hot air. In winter, with all the sun coming in, it heats the thermal mass and the heat gets released so it keeps the building a stable temperature the entire year.

The Earthship design works really well especially compared to a Queenslander. However, in Toas New, Mexico they don’t have a recycling program for cans. In Australia, we recycle over 94% of our cans, so we’re better off recycling our cans and using a different product for our walls. They use a lot of concrete as well and can have a lot of new materials. The cost can be the same as what you pay for a new house except half of it is made with rubbish. If you’re in a pristine environment and you drag in 700 tyres to build a new house, you really need to question is that the best the for my environment instead of using earth or whatever is on site?

In an Earthship, they catch all their water and use it for the shower and kitchen and there is a grey water system using plant filtration and that water is used to flush the toilets. Once the toilets are flushed, that water goes out into a septic system that is then used to water the plants outside. They are environmentally low-impact. They re-use a lot of resources and are all solar, off-grid homes. The impact of building one of them versus building a standard home is a lot less and they are principally quite good systems. You definitely need to mix and match your materials for your environment though.

They use propane gas or LPG for cooking but everything else is solar. They can be a stand-alone system anywhere but the house itself is designed around passive solar principals. A big thing is catching water, but in Australia that is the norm.

eartship greater good

The interior atrium of an Earthship.

What are people eager to learn more about?

People enjoy learning about the different styles of building and how easy it can be to actually do something yourself. Because I’ve done quite a bit of work with kids, they really enjoy getting their hands and feet dirty and getting muddy. They love the muddiness, but I don’t think they realise how much they learn. When the kids come back for the second or third workshop, they tell the adults how to check the cobb to see if it’s ready. We’re planting seeds in people’s heads about the different things you can do to ease your reliance on the centralised system and different ways to look at things.

What have you built on the land in NSW?

We’re in the process of building the first structure. It’s a conventional 6×9 metre shed which we’re building using recycled and natural techniques. It’s going to be our caretaker’s cottage. It’s not quite finished yet, but it’s got a rammed earth floor, one complete side is glass bottle wall and then it has a cobb wall and a rocket-mass heater. Eventually it will become an office/ classroom we can work out of. The next structure we will build will be a shipping container tiny home.

Sustainable Housing on the Sunshine Coast—what are the Council regulations and laws?

One issue for building an Earthship on the Sunshine Coast, for example, would be the grey water treatment system. In a US-designed earth ship, this is inside the house. They had mould issues due to this system and our current Council regulations would not allow you to have this in the house. It would need to be moved outside.

In my experience dealing with Council, as long as it is approved by an engineer and the certifier signs off on it, then the Council will approve it. As long as you have an approved waste-water treatment plan, whether that is composting or septic or wastewater, as long as it’s an approved system, you’ll have no problems getting it past.

Issues with an Earthship here would most likely involve termites and mould.  It’s not a conventional house so it’s very easy for termites to get access to it. You’d need to work out how you would treat that—do you want to use chemicals, what are the other options?

My experience in dealing with Council is to find out what they want in terms of building codes and regulations and then answer those questions. You can be as creative as you want as long as you’re answering those questions. The building codes can be a bit of a downer because you need cyclone ratings and other requirements so there are a lot of rules and regulations. An example is that you are not allowed to collect water off a green roof. If you plan on doing that, you will need to get around that either with a filtration system, or what they would be happy approving.

What have you seen around the Coast in terms of sustainable housing?

There are a couple of good examples, but they are pretty low-key. Even if we try and maintain the status quo in terms of sustainability, we’re still on a downhill trajectory. I think there needs to be a radical shift in what people deem to be sustainable and regenerative. There are people doing some cool things and unfortunately some of them have to do it without approval because there are too many hoops to jump through.

There are a lot of people who are interested in this topic and I get a lot of questions from people about community. They want to create a community, like a Crystal Waters type of set-up, that is self-determinate and where they decide what happens to their land and who comes in and who doesn’t.

Both Sunshine Coast Council and Noosa Shire are behind in terms of allowing for that with our regulations. I know that they are governed by the SE Queensland plan and have to fall under those planning schemes and if they don’t fall under that, then you’re butting your head against a brick wall. A lot more could happen in regards to sustainable communities becoming a viable option.

Why are you so passionate about sustainability and recycling?

I’ve never liked throwing things out or seeing things get thrown out that are perfectly fine. I always think you could use that or make something out of it, so I’ve always tinkered with stuff. I see it as a challenge to re-purpose.

Amy and I built our first house in Verrierdale trying to be green and eco with a sandwich panel home. But after doing the Earthship course, we realised it’s only the first step away from “the Jones’s” towards an Earthship-style house. After we built that house, we had a few things shift in our life in terms of what was and what wasn’t important and we saw the Mike Reynolds movie Garbage Warrior and we were really inspired by those ideas. He came to Maleny and talked and after we felt the energy in the room we decided to go see him in the US.

When I got back from the US, we decided to build an Earthship. We started looking for land, but never found the right spot on the Coast. The land down in NSW chose us and as we were looking, the goals of our business kept changing. As we learn more, the scope of what we want to do keeps evolving and getting bigger.

It’s too big for us to do alone. There are so many people who are interested and passionate about sustainable living. We want to create a vehicle where people can learn and make a difference for themselves and the other people around them. We want to lead by example. It’s all fine and good to tell people what to do, but we need to show them how to do it.

Our goal with the land is to have different styles of sustainable buildings to show people. We want to create a space where people can come and experience the different styles so they can go and build their own. It’s different when you read about it or watch a bunch of YouTube. A house is a big investment. If we can show people that yes, you can do it and here are the problems that might occur and how to fix them, you can help people evolve and not make costly mistakes.

I want to change the world and I want to bring as many people with me to do it.

What can we do in our lives now to start living more sustainably?

Throw away your TV! It’s not just propaganda and fear that’s pumped into you and being told you aren’t good enough—you get sucked into it. Even in terms of saving electricity, you’re better off getting rid of it. When you’re not zoning out on TV, you get to spend quality time with whoever is in the room with you. You can also put that time into learning about whatever you’re passionate about. And the more you don’t watch TV, the more ludicrous the people on TV seem.

It all starts with the self. My philosophy is that every environmental issue is an economic issue. Every economic issue is a social issue. And ever social issue is a personal issue. It all starts with you. Learning about what’s going on in the world can be overwhelming. Until the driver stops being economic, then the number one priority won’t be the environment. I think it’s going to take a massive shift, whether that means a catastrophic one or not, a massive shift needs to happen and 99.9% of Western culture isn’t ready for it.

If I wanted to start practicing sustainability, holistic context and holistic planning would be where I’d start. Work out your personal goals, determine what your partnership/family/business goals are and then work out what you really want out of your life and follow it. My wife has been a great teacher in terms of following your passion. We’re all taught to just go to school, get good grades, get a degree, get a job and be a good economic slave for society. If you change that paradigm and follow what you’re passionate about, taking into account that we aren’t separate from our environment, then that helps guide where you want to go.

What should people know about The Greater Good Movement?

If you have a not-for-profit or a social enterprise and have ideas about how you want to help someone but don’t know how to do it and it’s along the lines of what we’re doing get in touch with us. We try to exchange knowledge for labour. If you pay for the workshop, you pay for the meals and admin. We keep the costs low because I know, personally, I struggle with paying a large amount. We try to structure workshops so people can get the most out of them. In the future, we’re going to try having a no fee workshop and just come along and we teach you how to do it.  We’re always looking for people to work with and collaborate with so get in touch!

To find out more about Ryan and The Greater Good Movement, visit the website + Facebook page.

Watch the trailer Garbage Warrior

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