Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Please hold...

1000 mobiles
Originally uploaded by Gaetan Lee

Hold off on buying a new cell phone, that is. A clever marketing ploy that my cell phone company uses is to “allow” customers to upgrade their phones every two years, at a discount over the full retail price. Since I’m a loyal customer, they let me purchase a new phone even sooner. In exchange for me paying them some cash, I get a new phone and the right to continue making monthly payments to them for another twenty-four months.

What I realized though, is that just because my company lets me purchase a new phone, doesn’t mean that I actually need one. I’m going to keep the one that I have until it stops working. The features on the phone that I currently own are more than what I need. I don’t need video or email on my phone, so as long as it keeps making calls, it’s doing what I need it to.

When it does finally die, I’ll recycle it. Aside from keeping waste out of the landfills, recycling a cell phone is an environmentally important decision to make because the materials used to make a cell phone include metals which can be destructive to the environment to mine. According to the EPA, less than 20% of cell phones are actually recycled. There are many ways to recycle a cell phone – Recycle My Cell Phone is a site I’ll consider. They only recycle phones from within the US (due to restrictions on import/export of hazardous waste), but they reuse as many phones and parts as possible, and only dispose of what is really “dead”. They dispose of what hazardous waste remains responsibly, and do not export it to developing countries. The other thing that is great about this site is that they accept any make or model of phone, pda, beeper, or charger. They even make it easy for you to save money by taking a tax deduction for the value of the phone you donate, including the postage you use to send it to them!

Until I’m ready to recycle my phone, however, there are things I can do to make it last as long as possible. The National Geographic Green Guide offers some great tips on how to save energy and extend your phone’s life, including:

1. Only charge as long as necessary – if you leave the charger plugged in after the battery is fully charged, the charger will continue drawing energy and will heat the battery, which shortens its life span.
2. Turn down the brightness – the more light your phone puts out, the more battery it uses, meaning it’ll have to be charged more often.
3. Unless you plan on answering the phone if it rings in the middle of the night, turn it off until you wake up.

Another thing that I'll investigate when my plan is up is switching to a company such as Credo Mobile, whose prices seem a tiny bit higher than my current provider, but allows you to donate a portion of your monthly bill to charity.

As a follow-up to things that should be recycled responsibly, I found out last week that Ace Hardware, at least in my neighborhood, also accepts used CFL bulbs for recycling. For many of us, we probably have an Ace closer than an Ikea…and I for one am a lot less likely to make an impulse purchase at Ace than Ikea!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Originally uploaded by dyobmit
Lately, I've been thinking about picnics. Those nice baskets that have the reusable plates, cups, and napkins. Why shouldn't we bring a "picnic basket" with us whenever we are eating away from home? I have made an effort recently to be sure to pack my bag as if I'm going off into the woods for a meal. I realized that I've become way too reliant on the idea that if I stop for a drink or a snack, I'll be provided with (usually disposable) everything I need - napkins, paper towels, plastic utensils, straws, the list goes on.

I'd been carrying my own coffee cup for a while now. That one was relatively easy, provided I remembered to take it out of my bag and wash it before it started smelling really bad. Recently, however, I've noticed that even with my own mug, getting a cup of coffee generates a lot of waste - there's the sugar packets, the stirrers, and sometimes even the little plastic tubs the milk comes in.

Here's how I'm dealing with it: I have an old pepper tin that I've filled with sugar. That way, if the shop only has packets and no large shaker, I don't have to create the paper waste.

Just in case the box pops open, I've been keeping it inside a small cottage cheese container I had laying doubles as a take out container if I need one. Even though we have a great recycling program here, we can't recycle styrofoam if it has food grease soaked into it - and take out containers made of styrofoam always wind up with grease soaked in.

If a coffee shop only has milk or cream in small plastic cups with the foil lids, I go for extra sugar and drink it black.

I've started carrying a spoon that fell victim to our garbage disposal in my bag. I won't be sad if I accidentally forget it somewhere, since it looks pretty beaten up already, and now I don't have to wonder what kind of tree the wooden stirrers are made out of or feel bad about the plastic waste created by using that little stick for less than 10 seconds.

I've also started throwing a couple cloth napkins in the bottom of my bag. I use them to wipe the spoon that I stir the coffee with, and to wipe my hands if I use a public restroom.

According to this source, one third of all trash in the US comes from packaging. Throw away paper cups are one of those forms of packaging...and they aren't free. Shop owners recognize this, and many offer discounts for using your own mug. Making less trash saves me money. That's hard to find fault with.

You can check out this handy Coffee Waste Calculator to estimate just how much waste you're creating each year if you use the disposable paper cups...even if you're like me and drink a coffee only once a week or so, less is always more when it comes to trash.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Yep, this is what I am these days. Urban Dictionary gives a couple definitions for the word, but the one that I like (and have decided to apply to myself) is:

"some one who essentially eats just vegetables (as well as fish, eggs & milk) who's not too uptight about eating meat ocaisionally [sic] as a matter of convenience; a lenient vegetarian."

We talked about becoming a vegetarian household, but we realized that's pretty much what we do anyway. For the most part, the meals we eat at home are already vegetarian: chilis, soups, eggplant parmagian, veggie pot pies, tortes, and quiches, veggie fried rices, tacos and burritos, tons of Indian dishes, the list goes on. I don't cook much red meat at all...I can't remember the last time I bought pork (except bacon, which I love, I'll admit). I probably cook chicken or fish once or maybe twice a week, at most. Many weeks, I cook no meat.

So instead of setting a strict rule that we'd be tempted to break, we decided we'd become flexitarians. This just means that we'll begin cooking even less meat than we already do. When we go to a restaurant for dinner (for us, this is probably twice a month, on average), we'll order what we want. If we come to your house for dinner, we'll eat what you serve us.

Killing animals does kind of gross me out, but I'll be honest, the main reason for going "flexitarian" is a combination of health and environmental reasons. Neither of these necessarily requires an "all or nothing" approach - my health and especially the environment will be better off if I eat less meat. Obviously, the environment would be even better off if I ate none at all, but something is better than nothing, and what is more important than the extent of the changes I make is my ability to make them long-lasting changes, rather than short term ones. For a detailed explanation of some of the reasons why eating meat is not great for the environment, check out the GoVeg site - one of the biggest reasons for me is that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat (the chickens and cows have to eat before they become meat, right?) - at a time when there are food shortages all over the world, this becomes especially important for me to at least reflect on.

Eating quality meat can be very pricey, especially if your only option for purchasing it is a conventional grocery store. I think we'll see quite a significant savings on our grocery bills now that I've stopped buying meat - we'll finish up what we have in the freezer, since it's bought and paid for, and the resources to produce it have already been consumed. Normally when I'd clean out the freezer though, I'd do a big meat shopping to stock it again - that would always be a very expensive shopping.

Like so many of my other decisions about changes to how I'm living my life, this is ultimately a personal choice, as it must for everybody. Unfortunately, some people will decide that eating meat fourteen times a week is their right. It is their right to make that choice. Others may decide that they can go vegetarian, or totally vegan, or that they can go meatless once a month or once a week. Bean Sprouts was challenging readers in April to try a vegetarian meal - Whole Foods Spicy Vegetarian Chili is one of my recent favorites, if you're looking for inspiration.

Others may decide that they want to continue to eat meat once a day, but will decrease their portion sizes - for more on this, check out Blue Collar Crunch's Diet for Global Hunger Action. As this New York Times article from 1918 explains, Americans in the past have consciously cut consumption to help those in need. Now might be a good time to give that some serious thought once again.

For us, the flexitarian option is great...everything in moderation, after all. It's just that moderation is being redefined.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

this and that

I've been meaning to post a link to this site for a while: Replate is a movement that encourages us to share our excess with those who may really need it more than we do. We don't eat in restaurants very often, but almost every time we do, we have enough food to feed four people or more, instead of the two that we are. I also like the fact that it's open source, so there aren't any real rules - you can change it to suit your circumstances.

A friend of mine told me that she dried her sheets outside today, which reminded me of this link that a friend of mine had forwarded me: Project Laundry List. If you're not allowed to dry your clothes outside where you live, check this site out! Crunchy Chicken had posted about it a day or two after I first heard about it - it made me think of how when you learn a new word, you start hearing and reading it everywhere.

Speaking of new words, Free Rice helps you build your vocabulary and donate rice to those who need it at the same time. I am not sure whether they are actually a non-profit or not, but it doesn't get much easier than this. Not only do you get the warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good for a really minimal effort, but you get a bit smarter too (well, maybe...let's say you at least get the opportunity to get smarter).

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Charminar Hyderabad
Originally uploaded by JustABoy
Before I say anything, let me forewarn you that this is likely to be my lengthiest post yet…but it’s the weekend so you’ll have lots of time to digest, if you’re not too bored.

The time I spent recently in India delivered all the contradictions and ironies I had been promised. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and I truly enjoyed my stay there. It was the first time in ten years I’d been outside of North America or Europe, and it reminded me of just how different life can be in different corners of the globe. The number of trees I need to plant to offset my travel notwithstanding, I do think it’s important from time to time, if possible, to interact in a deeply meaningful way with another culture.

I was there for the first of my two weddings (we’re doing it again in the US this fall for all our friends and family here), and spent five weeks, mainly in Hyderabad. I don’t mean to claim that I speak about all of India, and want to just put out the disclaimer that this is just my experience and observations that I’m sharing.

I think my relationship with material things is what I’ve reflected upon most since my return. This really surprised me. I thought before I left that the poverty and unequal distribution of wealth would be most difficult for me to stomach. There certainly were days that I had tears in my eyes, when the poverty was just overwhelming. I felt like throwing up more than once (separate from the times I felt like throwing up from the three or four stomach bugs I contracted).

For some reason, however, I was really slapped in the face by how much STUFF we have in North America…and how much of it is absurdly unnecessary. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this on my past travels. I suspect it’s due to my lack of maturity at the time. For whatever reason, it’s been a very heavy weight I’ve been carrying with me ever since my return.

I believe that simple is best, so I’ll try to summarize as briefly as possible, the ironies, from a simplicity/frugality/environmental standpoint, that I witnessed.

Here’s what was not cool:

1. There is trash everywhere. Public trashcans were difficult to find or non-existent. I asked the driver of our car one day what I should do with a gum wrapper and water bottle I had, and he told me he’d take care of them. I found them later on the street in front of the house. Not quite what I meant. So I started saving my trash and throwing it out in the house. Then I realized that the man who took care of the house was burning it all every morning. Not sure that’s super healthy. There was a super smelly impromptu landfill that had sprung up about 2 miles from where we were staying. The trash that was officially collected from that side of town was being dumped here because the official landfill was too far away, and well, nobody had complained.

2. I didn’t see a single way to recycle anything the entire time I was there.

3. Air pollution is a major problem. It was often hard to breath, and I could never get my face to feel clean for more than half an hour at a time.

Here’s what was awesome:

1. Everybody eats local. There’s not really much choice. Most people still buy their produce from vendors on the side of the road, and those guys only sell what they’ve harvested recently. I’m worried that as the middle class grows, this may begin to change. Grocery stores are just starting to spring up everywhere, and the huge conglomerate is not something that only exists in North America (check out Tata or Birla). I was glad to hear my MIL say that she still goes out of her way to buy things from the local shop owner when she can because she knows it’s getting more difficult for them to make it with big corporate competition. I hope more people feel the same way.

2. Everybody eats a lot of vegetarian food. I know we’ve been hearing lots in the media about how the increased demand for meat from India and China are driving up food prices and causing grain shortages. I do not dispute the accuracy of this argument. I would stress, however, that “increased demand” doesn’t mean that Chinese and Indian folks are now eating meat three times a day. I don’t know what the case is in China, but I imagine it’s similar – increased demand means that a lot of people now eat meat once or twice a week rather than once a twice a month. A lot of people are still totally vegetarian for religious reasons. I think that if the US demand per capita for meat was equal to that of an average Indian person, we’d be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.

3. Lots of people have electricity, but very few of them expect it to function all the time. There are frequent power outages of varying lengths, some announced, and some not. The funniest part to me, is that the conversation never skips a beat, even when the lights go out, it’s totally dark, and everybody is fumbling to find candles and matches.

4. Water is trucked in and stored in tanks. Everybody is cognizant that there is a very finite supply, and uses it much more carefully than we do in the US. Showers, for example, are taken by filling a bucket (maybe four gallons or so) and using a smaller bucket to dump the water on yourself to wash and rinse with.

5. Nobody uses toilet paper. Actually I’m not sure if this is actually awesome or not, because they use water instead, so I guess it’s a matter of “dueling resources” at this point. Either way, I wasn’t brave enough to try this method - although I probably should have, because good luck finding anything other than single ply. What is awesome is that paper towels and facial tissue are also virtually non-existent.

6. Each power outlet has an on/off switch. I’ve heard this is also the case in Australia, and probably other places as well, but it makes it really easy to ensure that appliances are really off and not sucking energy. This is important because electricity is super expensive - so much so that despite the fact that it’s hotter and muggier (at least for parts of the year) than anywhere here in North America, almost nobody has air conditioning. There are fans, and “coolers” that work by somehow circulating water through this big thing that has some hay (I’m not a real technical person, if you can’t tell) but these both use much less energy than an air conditioner. Life without AC is possible!

7. Everybody squeezes in – everywhere. Fuel is expensive, so a van for ten people will somehow manage to accommodate twelve to fifteen people for a six hour trip. There are small little vehicles called autos – sort of like giant motorized tricycles with roofs – that look like they’d comfortably seat three passengers and a driver. I’ve seen them packed with seven and more passengers. Safety concerns, I know…I’m just saying that I’ll think next time before taking a second car somewhere just so somebody doesn’t have to sit in the middle seat. Buses are another story altogether. If you’re claustrophobic, you just wouldn’t make it. People literally ride the bus with one foot on the step, holding on to the door frame, because the buses are so crowded.

8. Along with the squeezing in theme, growing up and getting married is not automatically a reason to get your own house. Again, I’m not sure I’d like to do this, but lots of people live with parents and/or in-laws.

9. Because electricity is so expensive, people make do with smaller refrigerators. Humans originally started using spices for a reason, and lots of spices in the foods help them to stay edible without refrigeration.

10. Clothes are always dried on a line. I don’t think dryers are even readily available for purchase.

11. Packaging is much more minimal. Bulk purchase of many items is the only option – you can’t buy a box of rice; it comes in a large sack or you scoop it from a bin. Leftover food in restaurants is packed in folded newsprint rather than Styrofoam containers. Nearly everything you will find for sale has little to no packaging – and almost always, there is less packaging than you’d find for the same item in North America.

12. Stuff gets reused…even when it’s not in pristine condition. I sent my laundry out one day in a bag whose handle was about to break. I figured I’d get it back in a new bag, but I got it back in that same bag – with the handle taped back on. There’s a value placed on things that seems to be lacking in North American culture.

What worries me is that the reason why we don’t do some of these things here in the US seems to be simply a matter of financially not being forced to. For example, we have clothes dryers because we have inexpensive electricity. When I stopped looking at things in terms of dollars is when I started being able to appreciate the true value of how things are done elsewhere in the world, and when I started wanting to live less like a “typical” consumer.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I can't believe it IS butter!

Butter for Apple Crisp
Originally uploaded by madaise
I didn’t quite expect this news so soon, but wealthy, industrialized nations are running out of food. Japan has a severe shortage of butter – they’ve basically run out. This article explains some of the contributing factors. The scary news is, it seems like this is just further expansion of a trend we’ve seen in places like Haiti and Egypt in the past few weeks, and not an isolated incident to be brushed aside as irrelevant. In fact, as this article points out, Canada and the US are already seeing rationing and shortages, especially of rice (even Jay Leno mentioned it on his show tonight). I’ll admit we’ve been stocking up on 20 pound bags of rice, when we can. Each store will only allow us to purchase one or two bags at a time. We also haven’t been able to purchase fresh curry leaves (not related to curry powder, but still a staple of Indian cuisine) for over two months now. They’ve just become too expensive for the small shop where we buy our Indian groceries to even bother stocking them anymore.

So I’ll continue trying to grow stuff on my balcony, but this just reaffirms my belief that the more I can make and do for myself, the better able I’ll be to deal if and when I find myself facing a shortage of something more serious than curry leaves.

I was thinking about how I've been learning to make yogurt, sour cream, and assorted other dairy based products, and I realized that part of the problem with buying only processed, packaged, preservative laden foods is not just that they are unhealthy (which they are), but that they allow us to mentally separate from what we eat.

I was thinking some more today about chickens. I had to admit that if I ever had my own, I’m pretty sure they’d just be for eggs. I don’t know if I’ll explain this very well, but I don’t actually like animals all that much, to be honest. I have a cat that I adore, and believe to be the cutest feline ever born, but I don’t feel the need to pet dogs I see while I’m out walking, and in fact I go out of my way to avoid them. I don’t think I ever want a dog of my own, and I’m not sure I ever want another cat either. Anyway, point being, as much as I wouldn’t peg myself an animal lover, I also don’t think I could stomach killing a chicken. Buying the meat on a tray wrapped in plastic allows me to detach. This is the obvious, classic vegetarian argument.

What often gets overlooked, at least by me, however, is the mental and physical detachment we also have from other foods we eat. Like yogurt. As long as I’d only bought it in a tub in the store, I hadn’t really thought about what it was that made it yogurt. Now that I’ve made it, I actually understand what it is. I’ve made bread, and soda, so now I understand what makes the bubbles in each of them. It’s kind of like those cheesy public service announcements say: “The More You Know”…

Last week, I made butter! I know that the Japanese butter shortage is just a reflection of a general shortage of milk products, but I wonder if they’re still able to buy cream? Because that’s all that butter is!

I know that knowing how to make butter won’t help me in the event that my area experiences a serious shortage of milk products, but I think the more I know about how to make the foods that I eat, the better prepared I’ll be to deal with the sudden unavailability of products I’d previously taken for granted would always be on the shelves of my local store. I don’t know how it breaks down financially, but I’m pretty sure that if I don’t save money, it won’t cost me any more to make versus buying ready made butter…plus I’m reducing the amount of packaging I’m introducing to the landfill, and it's super easy for me to find local cream where I live.

I’ll direct you to Crunchy Chicken for the more specific instructions, but basically, it’s super easy, and goes something like this: put cream in a jar, making sure to leave plenty of air in the jar, and put the lid on. Shake like crazy till it solidifies (I shook for less time than Crunchy’s directions, I read others that said they shook longer…she describes the stages, though, so you’ll be able to figure it out). Use a spatula to squeeze the liquid out of the solid, pour it off (saving it for later use). Add a little salt, and enjoy!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lost in a good book

As I was halfway through writing the following post, I took a break to browse a few of my favorite blogs – and discovered that Green Bean is also blogging about books. More specifically, she’s given us a challenge! It’s a pretty accessible challenge, not too scary at all if you like to read: pick an ecologically relevant book, read it during the month of May, then share your thoughts. I’m totally in!

In the February issue of Harper’s, Ursula Le Guin wrote an article on books entitled “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading.” I’m not a fan of Ms. Le Guin’s books, but the article was interesting. In large part it laments big business and the destruction of the publishing industry, but she makes some good points about reading as well. Very relevant to Green Bean’s book challenge, she actually equates the publishing industry to Michael Pollan’s discussion of corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I also like her reminder that “For most of human history…Literacy…was power itself.” I think this is still true, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent. She also discusses the social bond created by those who read the same books. I do have to take exception to Le Guin’s contention that blogs have not yet developed aesthetic form, but that’s beside the point.

The most important point, in my mind, that Le Guin makes about reading is that
…reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness – not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; [thank goodness!] you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you.

I like this idea. After all, I’m doing lots of work on myself and my life lately. Books aren’t going to do that work for me, but they provide me with a tool that can help me do the work that I want to do. I also think this can be applied to many of the “green” changes I’m making in my life. Putting things in the recycling bin is good for the planet, but unless I give my heart and mind to what I am doing, this is really just another way of disposing of trash. When I give my trash my heart and mind, however (cheesy, I know, but bear with me, ok?), I find that just throwing it in the recycling bin is no longer good enough. I relate to it in a more active manner. I investigate composting, unsubscribe from catalogs, and think more carefully about packaging. It’s the same as watching a movie versus reading the book. The movie does the work for you; the book forces you to imagine what the characters look like, what their voices sound like, what sort of expressions pass across their faces as the plot unfolds.

But enough theory, back to the books…thank goodness I found paperback swap recently, because I’ve discovered I have a LOT of educating myself to do on all this green / simplicity / frugality business. Yes, there’s lots of info I can find online, but see arguments for books above. I am just about to cross the 200 mark on my wish list…but so far, I’ve restrained the urge to buy.

I recently finished The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It was an interesting mental exercise to go through, but I can’t say it was life changing. It did highlight a lot of the ways in which we impact our planet, and the speculations were interesting, but I felt at the end like there was something missing. It was basically a long-term look at what would happen to the planet over the next few millenia if we just vanished tomorrow. He writes another shorter piece in last month’s Vanity Fair imagining the world a century from now (with us still here).

Before “Buy Nothing” month began I had ordered a book called Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll. I have to get back to this one. So far I’ve only read the intro, but it seems like it’ll be a fairly accessible book.

Currently, I’m reading The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair-Trade by David Ransom – I’m only a few dozen pages into it, but it’s a pretty accessible book so far. It gives some background about the economic theories behind free trade, and then investigates what fair trade is and why it’s so necessary in today’s world. I think it’s important for me to read books like this because although I have a general idea of what fair trade is and why it’s a good thing, I have big gaps in my knowledge and really need to take the time to make sure I am making well-informed choices.

Somebody recently reminded me of Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which is a wonderful work of fiction that forces us to rethink humans and our role in the world. I’m going to revisit it as soon as I work my way through the stack that I’ve yet to read once.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t read Fast Food Nation, but luckily mom just finished it and is passing it along, so soon I won’t need to duck my head in embarrassment or change the topic every time somebody mentions it.

This is the part where I was going to ask you for your recommendations about your favorite books that have inspired or educated you; changed the way you look at the world; made you wake up and take notice…but instead, I think I’ll refer you to Green Bean’s Challenge. There’s a little button over on the side bar that you can click that’ll take you to her blog and the instructions on how to sign up. Check it out, choose a book, and share your thoughts with others. Of course if you’re not up for the challenge, I still want to hear what you think I must read next.

My selection for the challenge is Common Wealth (reminder: oldest younger brother, you are passing this on to me, remember?). I’ve heard good things about it, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between individuals, not just in our neighborhoods, but around the globe, so I am really looking forward to this read.

So go join the challenge, my fellow bookworms!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

All aboard!

Hey…good news for the stupid drunk chick who hit my house with her gigantic SUV over the weekend (yep, that really happened). Ok, well, actually, the bad news first: hit and run is against the law, and you might have to go to jail.

I try really hard not to judge other people’s choices, but honestly, I have been thinking for four straight days now, and I cannot for the life of me imagine why somebody would need to drive a vehicle that large to go out and get wasted beyond belief. I guess the punishment does fit the crime; she should definitely lose her license. Forever.

As you can tell, I’m a little bitter about this whole thing. I'm too angry to even write very well. I mean, who hits a house hard enough to take a piece out of it, and then drives away?!?!?! She clearly should not have been driving, period...we're actually lucky that it was our house she hit and not another car or pedestrian.

I feel that somebody as blatantly selfish and irresponsible as this person has proven herself to be has lost some of her rights to make choices...maybe we should have a law that if you can't keep your giant SUV under control, you can't have one. If she’d been driving a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle, it wouldn’t have been able to climb the six inch curb in front of the house, it wouldn’t have been able to run over the three foot hedge between the house and the sidewalk, and it wouldn’t have been tall enough to take out the window sill in my office.

Even if she was running that thing on alternative fuels (somehow I doubt it), one source points out that the corn needed to produce one tank of biofuel is enough to feed a person for an entire year. That makes me feel sick to think about.

Anyway, I digress. The good news for stupid drunk chick who hit my house with her gigantic SUV is that we actually have public transportation in this area…so smile lady, because when you get out of jail, you’ll have a way to get around town.

I decided that to get to the Earth Day event today, I’d finally take the plunge and get on the train instead of driving. It’s only about four or five miles, and according to google maps (which now allows you to plan your trip using public transportation) it was going to take about forty-five minutes.

Well, to make a long story short, I walked for forty minutes, went to the first train station, found it was closed, walked to a second train station, which was also closed, and found out I had to take a bus before I finally was able to board a train. It took just under two hours total - I was exhausted! It was an ordeal, but in the end I was glad I did it. The trains were immaculate, it saves money over driving, and the Earth Day event was full of farmers, vendors, music, snacks, and booths with lots of info about how to help the planet. Getting home was an adventure too…but I made it.

I'd like to end by giving a tip of the hat, as Mr. Colbert would say, to Mom. She heard her local radio host talking about how his wife and kid picked up some trash off the street for Earth Day. The co-host commented something to the effect of "yeah, since it's still too cold to plant anything, I guess that's about all we can do." Instead of just thinking about how totally not true that is, Mom called up the radio station and, using her best teacher voice, I'm sure, educated them on various other things they could do to celebrate Earth Day, cold weather and all, such as bringing reusable bags to the store, and not drinking bottled water. Good job!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never actually participated in any Earth Day events as an adult. I remember when we were in school, we would talk about things like planting trees and recycling…but that was a long time ago.

So later today, I’m going to go downtown (maybe I’ll finally even get around to taking public transportation…) and check out the goings on. It’s sponsored by the Environmental Services Department of San Jose (I didn’t even know we had such a thing, but it’s pretty cool).

The festivities include a bike ride with the mayor(!?), a tour of Adobe’s Green Headquarters, live music, a farmer’s market, and a bunch of other cool stuff. So I’m going to go check it out. I’ll restrain the urge to buy stuff, green or not, unless it’s something that I need – which I doubt. I’ll be sure to report back on what I see and learn.

In early celebration, I planted some seeds today. I should confess here that I often get carried away. Moderation is not a word I seem to be able to understand or embrace. So my idea to grow a tomato plant on my balcony has grown to sprouting sunflowers, garlic, kidney beans, red, green, and chili peppers, pumpkins, flax, mustard, cumin, and potatoes from stuff lying around the house.

I had a Meyer lemon tree from last year that I didn’t kill (also a Confederate Jasmine, but it is not meant for eating). Apparently these are both drought tolerant, since they survived my five week trip to India with no watering.

I planted seeds that I bought from the store for lettuce, radishes, beets, water melon, coriander/cilantro, and dill.

I bought seedlings of eggplant, tomato, oregano, and rhubarb. Also a catnip plant for the cat. I had to put it out of his reach, because he likes it too much.

I haven’t got around yet to the spinach, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, peas, cantaloupe, asparagus, carrots, strawberries, ivy gourd, corn, bok choy, basil, oh my goodness, can I get mini pear and orange trees? I have decided that it would be unequivocally unfair to try to keep a chicken on the balcony, and unsafe to start a beehive there. I’m not kidding though, when I say that the thoughts crossed my mind.

I’m not sure the “food” seeds will actually produce food. But it’s not really costing me anything to conduct this experiment, and the plants are at least soaking up some CO2, right? I am wishing I had more sunny balcony space…

It’s always fun to watch how super cool plants actually are. Every time I plant a seed and watch it sprout, I briefly entertain the idea of becoming a botanist. I realized that when a kidney bean sprouts, the two halves of the bean actually become the first two leaves of the new plant. IT”S SO COOL!!!!!!

I’ve been resisting the urge to go out and buy all sorts of cool pots and containers, and have pleasantly surprised myself with the solutions I’ve come up with. I had a bunch laying around, which I used, but I quickly ran out of actual planters.

We buy rice in 20 pound sacks. Side note: I’m actually not sure how long we’ll be doing that, since the stores around here have actually started rationing the rice to one bag per customer, per day. We’re stocking up while we can. There’s somebody in this house who would be very cranky if they didn’t have their rice (and it’s not me…).

Anyway, the rice sacks are made of a sort of woven plastic. I’ve been filling them with soil, punching a few holes in the bottom, and planting right in there. They’re lighter to lift than a heavy ceramic pot, and they seem to be working fine so far. And instead of buying new pots, with all the attendant resources that would be devoted to it, I’m keeping something which I don’t even think is recyclable out of the landfill, and using it to produce food, meaning I won’t need to buy my next eggplant from the grocery store, reducing all the resources required to produce and deliver that to me. I'll pause to remember that every time I buy less, I save money too!

Hopefully some of these little darlings will even survive my brown thumb long enough to give us some food!

Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bits and pieces

I don’t know enough about any of this to justify a full posting, but this is all stuff I’ve found while poking around and wanted to share, because I think it’s useful information.

Plastic Loose Fill Council: If somebody sends you a package filled with those nasty Styrofoam peanuts, this website can help you to find a place that will take them and reuse them.

Eat Well Guide: Have you been thinking you’d like to eat more local, sustainable, organic food, but don’t think there’s anything available? This website lists farmer’s markets, stores, restaurants, and more, based on your zipcode. You might be surprised what’s right around the corner!

US Department of Energy: Is renewable power available for purchase in my area? Sadly, no, but maybe it is in yours. Check out this website to find out.

Environmental Protection Agency: If you don’t have a well to obtain your drinking water, this website can help you determine what the quality of your municipal water is like.

A few updates…

I am still on the bottled water wagon. The stuff from the tap hasn’t killed me yet. Even though it often smells funny.

Still in the process of decluttering, but I’d just like to throw something out there for any freecyclers in the crowd: if you say you’re going to go pick something up, make sure it’s because you really want the item, not just because it’s free and you can’t beat the price. I’ve been stood up a few times by people who claimed to want my items. Most were apologetic and contacted me to let me know they couldn’t collect, but a few just never showed up. It made me start thinking that maybe it was too much work to give stuff away. Which seems ridiculous, but I’m taking a break for a while.

I’ve continued making my yogurt. Sometimes it’s more watery than others, but it’s always been edible.

For trash day after two weeks, we still didn’t have a full bag of garbage! I put it out anyway though because it was really starting to smell bad.

Buy Nothing Challenge is going pretty well…all of my “slip ups” I actually think are justifiable: batteries for the smoke detector, and stay tuned for more on my biking adventures and the worms in my garage!

I posted a while ago about the Riot 4 Austerity. I think this is such a cool concept. I also think it’s really overwhelming. But inspired by the small scale of Buy Nothing Month modeled after the Compact, I’m going to give the Riot a trial run. I’m going to pick only one of their seven categories to start with and see if, instead of reducing my consumption TO 10% of the average, I am going to see if I can reduce my current consumption BY 10%.

Anybody care to join me?

For those not familiar, the seven categories are:
Heating & Cooking Energy
Consumer Goods

I am going to start with water. Based on my last water bill, I am actually at 31% of average US consumption. Therefore, I will attempt to reduce my consumption to 21% by the time I receive my next bill.

Let me know if you pick a category to tackle. I like structure, so I appreciate the idea of having actual numbers to measure my progress, rather than the vague idea of just trying to do better. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

I'm headed outside to enjoy this beautiful day. If you live somewhere that the sun is not shining, check out this series that NPR did called "Consumed" - it's an attempt to answer the question "is the consumer economy sustainable?" There are thirty-five different segments that look at all different angles of the consumer economy. You can listen to the broadcast or read the transcripts.

There's also a really cool game you can play that tells you how many of our planets it would take to support the earth's population if everybody lived the lifestyle that you do - I know I was surprised at my results. All that flying takes a toll!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sour Cream

Sour Cream
Originally uploaded by midnightcomm
Here's another thing I eat kind of a lot of, and figured out how to make for myself...sour cream. It's really good! It's not quite as easy as the yogurt, but if I said it was hard, I'd just be whining (which I tend to do sometimes...)

All you need is a pint of cream, and a quarter cup of buttermilk.

Rinse the bowl for a few seconds with really hot water, then let it return to room temperature (I think this is to kill any bacteria that might be lurking).

Pour the cream into the bowl; mix in the buttermilk. Let it sit in a warm place. I did the same thing as with the yogurt: heat the oven to 200 before you put the bowl in, then turn it off, and let it sit for about 24 hours or so.

The recipe I had said to strain it through a cheese cloth for a couple of hours. I tried this, but the one I had was too loose, and it all just slipped through. Basically, all this means is that the sour cream is a little more watery than what I buy from the store...but it still tastes great!

Less packaging, less waste, and I know exactly what's in it!

If you're into making bread, you can use the leftover buttermilk (it only comes in larger containers in my store) in place of regular milk for that. Or, you can wait for my next recipe secret to find out how to make your own...oh boy!

Friday, April 18, 2008

more on buying less

Originally uploaded by djlicious
This is sort of turning into my new obsession. I repeatedly cannot believe how much stuff I have and continued purchasing (until quite recently).

As noted by at least one other blogger, simply deciding to spend less is not a very effective way to spend less (huh?). It’s true. It’s too easy to justify $10 here or $30 there if we’re only thinking about our wallets. If we start to think about the actual cost of producing the item in question, however, in terms of the packaging, the raw materials, transportation costs, disposal, social justice issues for the workers involved in production, etc. etc. etc., it becomes a lot easier to decide not to make purchases. And for me, after making the decision not to purchase for several weeks in a row, I did start noticing that I too had more money.

My shopping list has helped - I’ve already taken the shower timer off. After letting it sit there for a while, I realized it’s just another gadget. I know if I’m standing in the shower letting the water run aimlessly while I ponder the meaning of life. I also know how to get in, wash, and get out.

Obviously, I’ll buy something again in my life. When I do, however, I’ll be thinking more carefully about my purchases, and I found a useful metric for helping me to make the decision on whether or not a purchase should be made, from a financial perspective. It gets broken down like this:

Can I afford this item? Have I:
-paid off all my debts?
-put something into my retirement account this month?
-paid all of my monthly bills?
-put something into a savings account?
-set aside enough money to purchase quality, healthy food?
-donated to a cause I support?

*If I answer no to any of these questions, it means I cannot afford the item in question.

This seems a little harsh at first glance, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. There is no priority given amongst the seven items in question, they’re just all things that have to be addressed before I consider purchasing something outside the list. I like that the focus is on an overall quality of life, not just the bottom line. I’m going to adopt this, even when “Buy Nothing” month is over.

I am also going to develop a metric to decide if the world can afford for me to have this item. It’s a work in progress, so please comment! Here’s what I have so far:

Is this item:
-Something that I will use many times, on a regular basis?
-packaged minimally, and with the best materials possible?
-produced by workers who are treated fairly, in a way I myself would be willing to be treated?
-produced as close to me as reasonably possible?
-durable, and made well?
-something that can be repaired, or at the very least, recycled, if it malfunctions or breaks?
-made of materials that are sustainable/renewable?
-produced by a company I am proud to support?

*If I answer no to any of these questions, it means the world cannot afford for me to have this item.

This seems like a lot of questions to have to answer before making every purchase, but again, it’s actually pretty easy if I look at it from the right perspective. Buying items used handles almost all of these questions, assuming I’ve addressed the first question, of whether I’ll actually use the item. Thrift shops have little to no packaging, their employees are afforded the same protections as any other employee in my state, the products come from local people who no longer have use for them, and I am proud to support any business that aims to divert waste from the landfills and find it a good home instead.

The question of durability and quality of construction, of course, are relevant any time a purchase is made, new or used, and will have to be decided on case to case. In my experience, plastic stuff breaks, for example. So I’ll think long and hard before buying it these days, whether it’s new or used.

In thinking about used items, sustainability, and renewability become, in my mind, slightly less important, although still worthy of consideration, when we consider that these items have already been produced and created. We’re not really creating new demand by buying used.

If I am buying a new item, however, I suddenly have a lot of research and thinking to do. I decided though, that this is exactly the point. I do not have a right to just mindlessly consume whatever strikes my fancy just because I have the cash to pay for it. I need to be thinking long and hard about what I consume, and why. My choices don’t just affect me. The more I remember this, the more I will make choices that are good for everybody.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bueller...? Bueller...?

Originally uploaded by aymlis
So this article sounds very intriguing and interesting...but I just don't quite understand it. How about you? Care to explain this to me? Thoughts about its feasibility? Pros? Cons?

farm fresh

morning water
Originally uploaded by stg_gr1
So last weekend, I picked up my first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. A CSA is basically the community purchasing/investing directly from/in the farms that produce their food, rather than involving a middle man like a distributor and grocery store chain.

I found a great farm that does a drop-off near me. My best calculation is that between the trip from the farm to the drop-off and the drop-off to me is about 150 miles. Not super local, but a whole lot better (90% better) than the average 1500 miles a meal travels in this country.

But why does it matter where the food comes from? The main thing is that driving a truck, or a train, or a plane to transport our food takes fuel. Fuel pollutes. The less transporting happens, the less pollution that’s created.

Of secondary concern, but still very worthy of consideration, is the freshness of the food we receive. Much of what we eat, regardless of where it is grown, is shipped to distribution centers somewhere in the middle of the country, only to be shipped back to the same state or region where it was originally grown, making what should have been a journey of a few hundred miles one of over a thousand.

Because of the lag time involved with transporting food long distances, it is often picked before it is ripe, then artificially ripened a rapid pace using ethylene gas. Setting aside for a moment what this could potentially do as far as the nutrients of the food are concerned, the production of ethylene itself is “energy intensive”.

Last but not least, I like the fact that I can go visit the farm where my veggies are grown. It’s cool that I’m supporting local people and families who work really hard to keep their small business profitable and responsible. It’s really neat that I can call them up to say, “hey, I’ll be out of town next week, don’t bother packing up my veggies and transporting them.” Finally, I love that the produce they don’t use is donated to a local clinic for low-income women fighting cancer. (The grocery store buys the same amount whether I’m there to shop or not. If they buy too much, it’s trash, or, at best, animal food). For a more complete discussion of why local food is considered a better option from an environmental, societal, and health perspective, see here.

So I’m convinced I’m doing a good thing buying locally, how about my wallet? I’m pretty positive I’m saving money by purchasing a CSA box each week. The produce box costs $17 per week. Last week my box contained a large bag of spinach, two heads of lettuce, cilantro, radishes, carrots, broccoli rabe, green garlic, and asparagus. Considering these items are all organic, I am sure that I would have spent more than $17 if I had purchased all these items at my local market.

Living where I do, I’m lucky that we have some fresh produce available almost year round (the farm takes a break for only three weeks, from mid-December to early January). Not everybody will have this luxury. Pretty much everywhere in the continental US, however, will have some portion of the year where fresh fruits and veggies are available.

Best of all in this whole experience, is that the vegetables actually tasted like…well, vegetables. They are really, really good. I’ve had some each day since I brought them home. And it’s been fun trying new things. I’d never tried green garlic or broccoli rabe before. I can’t wait to see what’s in the box this week!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

what's for dinner?

South Indian Food
Originally uploaded by tracyhunter
I’ve been rather quiet on the subject of food. There are two reasons for this.

The first is the expense. I know it’s better for me to eat organic, and better for the planet for me to eat local, but it also seems really expensive. Buying in bulk definitely helps to alleviate some of the pinch, and buying local and in season helps with the produce expenses. I’ll have more to say on the financial aspect of eating organic and local later.

For now, I want to address the other struggle I’ve been having with eating locally and in season. It’s actually not an issue for me, but I live with somebody who spent the first twenty-one years of his life in India. He really likes (south) Indian food, including a whole variety of vegetables that not only are not grown in this area, but the English language doesn’t even have words for.

Most often, I buy these items frozen, and I have no idea how far they’ve traveled. But I am sure it’s pretty far.

So what to do? The short answer, thus far, is nothing. We often eat different meals anyhow. I don’t enjoy eating rice quite as many times in a week as he does. So he’ll sometimes make something for himself and I’ll do the same. I said at the beginning of this whole project that this was about me, and I did mean that. I’m not forcing my lifestyle changes on anybody, including my partner - I don't think asking him to completely change his dietary habits is a fair request.

It’s kind of a pain to cook two meals though, so we try to eat dinner together as often as possible. This means that sometimes he’ll eat quesadillas or eggplant parmigian with me, and sometimes I’ll eat sambhar, dal, and tindoor with him.

Since I do most of the shopping in the house, I’ve tried to provide better produce items for those items that can be gotten fresh, such as spinach, cilantro, potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower. Others, I’ll keep buying frozen. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve started making my own yogurt from milk that’s local.

The thing is, the vegetables and the yogurt are just a small part of it. There are so many other spices, rice, lentils, pickles, and such that make up a well-rounded south Indian diet, and the majority of them have to be imported here.

On the other hand, a good portion of these items can be purchased in bulk. We get rice in 20 pound sacks, and just an fyi, but spices are much cheaper to buy a pound at a time in a bag at an Indian market than in those tiny bottles in the grocery store. I can usually get lentils, rice flour, some types of beans, and a few other items in bulk at the Indian grocery store as well.

I’ll confess to buying the pickles pre-made in a jar. Then again, I don’t actually know anybody in the area who can tell me how to make them. Even if I did, from what I do know about it, the tomatoes and mangoes sold in this country have a different enough flavor that if I tried to use them to make the pickles, I wouldn’t end up with the same end product anyway. The other produce that is used for making pickles in large part cannot be purchased fresh here.

I’m learning how to make more and more items, but it certainly is an art to make an entire Indian meal truly from scratch. It feels like I’m trying to write with my left hand every time I try a new recipe. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, it just means I really have to pace myself so as not to get totally burnt out on the whole thing.

This is certainly an issue I’ll keep reflecting more on. I think what is important for me, again, is setting reasonable, attainable goals for myself and being conscious of the choices I am making.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tax day bonus!

Did you overpay somebody besides the IRS and not realize it? Do you owe the IRS and not know where you'll find the cash to pay up? Take a few seconds to check out the missing money website.

I couldn't find any for myself, but I found that my mom was owed some money. Good luck!

Clutter clutter everywhere…

Desk drawer - selective focus
Originally uploaded by kcdsTM
I had stopped seeing a lot of the clutter around my house, mostly because although I had lots of it, I have enough closet, drawer, and cabinet space that I could keep the clutter and keep the place neat looking. Finally though, I’d had enough. It wasn’t anything major that happened, it was just a growing realization that I have way too much stuff. So I decided to tackle it all. I’m certainly not done yet, but I’ve made a big dent.

I’ve freecycled a bunch of things, sold a few items on ebay, and set aside several large bags of stuff to donate to charity. I even found a few items that were still in the packaging that I returned to Home Depot to make over $20 in store credit! I’d always been in the habit of buying stuff I probably didn’t even need, because I knew I could return it if I didn’t use it. Except I never get around to returning a lot of it. I brought three items back, still in packaging, and now I have some “free money” to use on something I’ll actually need in the future.

Deciding what to do with things isn’t really the challenge though. The tough part is deciding what to get rid of, or where to start. Decluttering a whole house is a big project to take on, especially when that house is filled with the combined clutter from two previously single adult lives.

I did a bunch of poking around online to see how other people were handling their clutter. I found a few good ideas that, combined with a healthy dose of common sense, allowed me to really clear out the unnecessary stuff that’s been cramping my style.

1. Start small – but start: I began my project by picking a single drawer in my kitchen. It wasn’t even my junk drawer, but it was a drawer that I almost never opened. So I opened it, and I took everything out. This became one of the key factors that really helped me to weed out what I didn’t want. Looking into a drawer or cabinet, it was easy for me to say, yeah, I use all that stuff. But when I had to handle each individual item, I realized there probably wasn’t too much point in saving a dumpling maker that I’ve had for six years and never used once, or a piece of plastic with holes in it to measure out spaghetti portions – also never used. I made a box of all such items and freecycled them. Generally, I tried to use that same rule they tell us to use when cleaning out our closets: “Have I worn this in the past year?” If I haven’t used any item in the past year, I set it in a pile that I go through after I’ve put all the “keep” stuff away, and then I seriously consider whether I can live without it. I usually find I can. The best part is that now I can actually see what is left in the drawers and cabinets!
2. Pack it up – or pretend you’re going to: I read this online somewhere (and apologize for not being able to find the link, but I’m not taking credit for this as an original idea). The idea is that if you were moving across the ocean, you’d have to be very selective with the items you’d be able to bring with you, both for reasons of space and cost. So go through the house, room by room, and decide what you would bring with you if you were actually moving out of the country. Obviously, furniture is kind of exempt, but for me, this was a good way to gain some perspective on which of my possessions I really value (and clear out those that I don’t).
3. Close your eyes and memorize: Again, I found this somewhere and have since lost the link, but it’s a great idea even if it’s not mine: Look around a room in your house for a minute or two. Close your eyes, and try to remember every single item in the room. This can be scaled down to the drawer, cabinet, or closet level as well. This was a good exercise for me, because like the packing exercise, it made me spend some time thinking about the items that I forgot. Why did I forget them? In most cases, it was because they weren’t items that I particularly valued or used frequently. That makes them a good candidate for finding a new home.

In addition to no longer being surrounded by stuff I no longer used, or never used in the first place, all of these things were helpful because they reminded me of things that I did have already and could be using. There was a ton of stuff that I’d just forgotten about. Having a better idea of what I do have already will certainly help me to buy less going forward, leading to my two new favorite things, saving money and buying less / reducing my consumption.

What was really cool about this for me was some of the unexpected areas I was able to clean out. My food cupboards were a big one. I try not to buy stuff that I won’t use, but when I took each and every item out, I was amazed at some of the stuff I found that I know I won’t use. I know there are plenty of food pantries that will appreciate the bag of groceries I cleared out though.

The other thing that amazed me was that we had only moved a year ago. It was a cross country move, so we had done (I thought) a fair amount of cleaning out at the time. What I realize now is that having a packing service handle boxing everything up excused me from really having to evaluate what I needed or wanted to keep. Next time we move, I’ll make myself pack each individual item. I have a feeling I’ll end up deciding there’s a lot that I don’t actually need to hold onto, even after my recent round of de-cluttering.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Chill out!

Originally uploaded by Andrew Butts
Just a few thoughts about how I’ve been trying to be more efficient with another one of my appliances: the refrigerator. I kept reading all these things telling me to clean my refrigerator coils. The EPA, among others, recommends this. Oddly, I couldn’t find any reliable stats telling me exactly how much money / energy it would save me to do this, but I figure that in the worst case scenario, my house is a little bit cleaner, so what’s the harm?

There are great instructions at e-how on how to actually clean them. I had no idea what I was doing, but following these instructions, it took me about ten minutes. I even put it on my calendar for six months from now so I’ll be sure to remember to do it again.

I don’t even know why I was surprised, but I did find that there are special gadgets out there specifically designed for cleaning the refrigerator coils. I did just fine with a vacuum cleaner and a damp sponge. I can’t see why I would need a special brush to handle this job. Plus, with my new attempt to focus on how much I’m buying and consuming, it seems a silly purchase when I know I’ll use it no more than twice a year.

The EPA also recommends double checking to make sure that the gasket seals properly – it’s the rubber part around the door that actually seals it shut when you close it. It’s kind of a no-brainer, but if the door’s not shut tight, cool air will leak out and it will have to work harder (ie use more energy).

Obviously opening the door let’s warm air in, so I’m trying to be cognizant of how often I do that (and then do it less when I can!)

Again, it may seem obvious, but if I put food away while it’s still really hot, it takes more energy to cool it down than if I just let it cool at room temperature for a while. The FDA says the maximum time to safely leave food out when it’s over 90 F is one hour, or two hours when it’s cooler.

I also looked up on the FDA website to see what temperature they recommend as safe for food storage. No sense in keeping it colder than needed, right? Apparently I can safely turn the temperature up to 40 degrees (F) in the refrigerator and 0 degrees in my freezer. Done!

As I keep being reminded, these small steps don’t even begin to match those taken by some. A perusal of some of the green blogs out there reveals several who have ditched the refrigerator altogether. Good for them. Clearly, they’ll be saving a lot more energy than I will. What I need to keep reminding myself, however, is that this process is not about making the most drastic, impressive changes possible, but making small changes that I can maintain for a long while to come.

Sunday, April 13, 2008 the highest bidder

Originally uploaded by dailyinvention
I’m so angry right now I can hardly see straight. It’s no wonder I often feel that the urge to BUY STUFF is so overwhelming. I saw this mention of the Mackenzie Blue book series on Fake Plastic Fish and felt like screaming. It’s a series of books, supposedly meant to help tweens “discover more about going "green," [and] learn about the "global" landscape.”

So, what’s wrong with these Mackenzie Blue books? They’re basically selling advertising space to the highest bidder. Yep, the books are accepting corporate sponsorship and will use product placement within their pages to push those brands that have the cash to pony up. That’s it for me. I’m not buying anything else from Harper Collins. I’ve cut back my book purchases lately anyway through paperbackswap, but this is just too disgusting to stomach.

Maybe if a book wants to focus on “going green” they can make their message about buying less stuff. I am just so appalled. I really cannot even believe that a book whose one focus is getting people to buy more is claiming to be having a positive impact on young girls and the planet.

What about the girls who cannot afford to buy the brand name shoes that her favorite character wears? What about her self-esteem? Seems to me that when literature becomes just one more societal reminder about how much you need to have in order to be cool and fit in, it just is one more way to beat down our young girls and give them more reasons to feel poorly about themselves.

What about the girl who never cared what brand of jeans she wore until she read this book? Is she going to be a happier, more well-adjusted individual because she realizes that she can’t realize her full potential without that label on the back of her pants?

Lucky for me, there’s one site that’s already written a letter to Harper Collins editor Susan Katz. You can edit the letter as you see fit and send with your electronic signature. The original press release from the publisher is available there as well.

I’ve been irritated for a while now about how advertising is like an annoying mosquito that no matter how much you swat at it, it just doesn’t go away. I remember a flight I took maybe a year and a half ago. The stupid tray table had been transformed into a mini-billboard that I had to look at it if I wanted a place to set my drink. How irritating. I was paying them to sit there, and they were taking advantage of my captivity to let somebody else try to sell me more crap.

That was irritating, but I almost suffered a serious case of air rage when, just as I was about to drift off to sleep, the flight attendant announced that they would be passing through the cabin to give us all the chance to apply for their credit card, offered jointly by the airline and some huge national bank that has terrible customer service. They’d give us something like a billion bonus miles if we signed up before the plane landed. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a free gift if we used the card immediately to buy something from the Sky Mall catalog. Something about crossing the line from the more passive ad on my tray table to actually waking me up to force me to listen to this crap made me think homicidal thoughts.

I think my irritation with being forced to watch advertising began in high school. In one of the many poor decisions made by the school district in Manchester, NH (shame on you…and yes, I’m still bitter!), was the inclusion of channel one television in home room every day. For those of you who were lucky enough never to be forced to endure this ridiculous programming, it’s basically a way to force kids to watch advertising for a few minutes every day by hiding it in the middle of “news” programming and providing free televisions to the schools in exchange for them selling their students to the corporate sponsors. I think this is part of the reason I still hate CNN and The View…Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling were both “reporters” on the moronic news program offered by channel one.

By the way, to any school officials out there, it’s illegal for one individual to make a contract promising that another individual will do something. A school doesn’t have the right to sell their students (this should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?). In my school, however, we were told that if we didn’t watch the programming, we would be given detention. We were specifically told that we were not allowed to use the time to study or work on school assignments. The more I reflect back on this, the more I feel angry all over again. Isn’t studying academic subjects the reason we were in school in the first place?!?

I suppose I could have staged a little civil disobedience, and refused to watch, making a big scene and sucking up the detention. I was not exactly outgoing in high school though, and basically spent most of the time there hoping nobody would talk to me or notice me. Plus I was afraid of authority figures and the idea of getting a detention would have made me sick to my stomach.

So I watched every bit of advertising they shoved down our throats – which, by my calculation, amounts to 360 minutes over a school year with 180 days. Over four years of high school, that comes to 1,440 minutes, or 24 HOURS OF COMMERCIALS MY SCHOOL FORCED ME TO WATCH! Of course, my math may be wrong here, but if so, I’ll blame it on the fact that I spent 24 hours watching advertisements when I could have been actually learning something. No wonder our country is behind the rest of the world in nearly every subject.

I apologize if this has been a bit long winded and ranting, but I believe that the barrage of advertisements we all have forced on us on a daily basis in nearly every situation we may find ourselves is one part of the reason we all feel compelled to purchase so much, which is a big part of the reason we waste so much. When our books and schools become just one more opportunity for big companies to push products, it does make me wonder what hope there is for us.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

DIY Ginger Ale

Wilkinson Ginger Ale
Originally uploaded by yoppy

I figured I’d continue on with the beverage theme. I’m not a big soda person. I’m originally from New England, so if you drink something called tonic, cola, or pop, we’re talking about the same thing here. I enjoy it now and then, and I’ll drink it if it’s in the fridge or sometimes if I eat in a restaurant. It’s a now and then thing for those times I don’t feel like water, coffee, or tea. I never thought about the impact too much, because unlike water, I can’t exactly turn on the kitchen faucet and have Diet Coke come out.

I did start wondering though, since I’ve been hearing so much about the environmental benefits of eating local, so I did some quick research. According to Coca-Cola’s own website, they use more than 2.5 liters of water for every liter of soda that is produced. Put another way, they waste more water than what ends up in the bottle. I’m not sure how they calculate these numbers, but assuming they’re painting the best picture possible, it makes sense to believe that this is a bare minimum. If I then consider the cost of transporting the finished product to the store and such, it starts to seem like there are a whole lot of resources being used to produce one beverage.

In addition to all that, I don’t really know what goes in to a bottle of store bought soda, but I imagine it involves lots of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. Common sense kind of tells you that those things aren’t that great for you.

So I decided to see if I could make my own. There’s no additional packaging, no transport impact, and I use only the water that I put into the bottle, plus what I use to wash it after. I found a recipe to make ginger ale that seemed relatively easy on wikihow. They also have instructions for cream soda, root beer, and even “Open-Cola” (I didn’t even know that term applied to things besides software).

I made a batch using an empty two liter bottle I rescued from the recycling bin. A 2 liter bottle of ginger ale at the store costs roughly $1.35. To make it, the ingredients cost about 95 cents, by my rough estimate (10 cents for the ginger, 5 cents for the yeast, 50 cents for the lemon, 30 cents sugar, water, negligible). The savings aren’t very significant, but in addition to the other reasons, I’d say it is worth it for me to make rather than buy, especially since it was super easy and the results were pretty tasty (even my picky partner thought so). Here’s the recipe:

1C. Sugar
¼ teaspoon active yeast
1 ½ tablespoons grated ginger
Juice from one lemon
Tap water

Use a funnel to pour the sugar into your empty bottle. Add the yeast and shake it around to mix them together. (The sugar is what the yeast will react with to make the carbonation. Yeast won’t react with artificial sweeteners.)

Mix the ginger and lemon juice together in a bowl or measuring cup. Add it to the bottle, and then fill the bottle with water to about one inch from the top.

Cap bottle tightly. Tilt bottle back and forth to dissolve the sugar. Let sit for 24 - 48 hours (until bottle doesn’t dent easily when you press on it). Don’t let it sit for too long or it will explode because of the pressure that is building up. Once the bottle feels hard, refrigerate until fully chilled. Open carefully and enjoy!

PS: Somebody was kind enough to remind me that "open carefully" really does mean just that...the pressure inside the bottle can be dangerous and cause the cap to come flying off at a high rate of speed, similar to what can happen to champagne bottles when they're opened. So make sure it's not pointed at anybody when you open it.

Speaking of champagne, the pressure and bubbles in the bottle are created when the yeast and sugar react in a fermentation process. Fermentation is what makes alcohol. Although the research I did indicated that the levels will be minimal, it's not impossible that you'll end up with a slightly alcoholic beverage. So enjoy responsibly.

Friday, April 11, 2008


water bottles
Originally uploaded by habitatgirl
Water is the most basic of all beverages. It doesn’t need any prep, it doesn’t contain any calories, and we need it to survive. Our bodies are made up of two thirds water. So when I imbibe some, I’m doing something good, right?

But, as my wise mom has been asking herself, what’s up with all these bottles? Why have crowds of us become convinced that we shouldn’t drink the tap water?

There are some places in the world where it is unsafe to drink what comes out of the faucet. I certainly do not live in one of those places. My water is just fine. It tastes a little funny to me sometimes, but I think it’s at least partly because I’m expecting it to not be as delicious as that prettily packaged, well marketed stuff that I pay a whole lot more for. Let me remind myself once again, that just because there’s a picture of a mountain lake does not mean that’s where the water comes from. It could just as well be municipal water from anywhere on the planet.

The cost of transporting the water from the bottling plant to the store is tremendous. Then there’s the waste. The caps are often not recyclable at all, and the “recycling” of plastic bottles is really better described as “downcycling” – it’s not the same as recycling a glass bottle, which can be made into another glass bottle. Plastic degrades as it is recycled, and therefore a plastic bottle cannot be used to make a new plastic bottle…that requires new plastic. That's assuming that the bottles even get recycled in the first place, which most aren't according to this article from MSN. Plus there’s a label on each bottle, and the cardboard tray that the bottles sit in together, and the plastic wrapped around all of that…all this for something we can get by turning the kitchen faucet!

Most of us have heard something about plastics being not so great for our health either. Read more here if you want to get all the nasty details about the possible health problems resulting from excess plastic use.

Let’s not forget to look at the financial side of all of this. California is one of the three states that requires a deposit on plastic bottles. I always recycle, but using my curbside bin, not by returning them to the store. So I pay 5 cents extra for every bottle of water I buy. According to one source, the average American drinks 210 half liter bottles of water each year - that's $10.50 just in deposits! As far as the cost of the water itself, the stuff from the tap is significantly cheaper than the stuff I used to buy in the store. So much cheaper that it is basically free in comparison. What’s not cheaper is the bottle to carry it around in.

Alternatives to plastic water bottles are limited. I suppose I could carry around a glass jar that I reuse, but that seems potentially dangerous and messy. The other option I’ve found is aluminum bottles. Sigg is currently the accessory du jour for those who are hip to the problems of plastics, but the company has actually been around for over 100 years. The bottles are pricey, but they should last virtually forever, according to information on their website. Plus there’s the sort of invaluable health benefit of 0% leaching of chemicals from the bottle to your drinks. I like the fact that you can buy a replacement cap if you break or lose yours, and not have to replace the entire bottle. They’ve also not neglected to appeal to our desire for pretty packaging and have a huge variety of designs to choose from (you can even mix and match the caps and the bottles!). When buy nothing month is up, I’m going to think about this one here.

The one concern I have to research a bit more here is the cleaning tablets and brush that you are encouraged to buy (more packaging; plus, what goes in to those cleaning tablets?). It seems from the sites FAQs that this extra purchase is probably not necessary.

So another rule is more plastic water bottles!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Extreme Green

I’ve been writing about all the little things I’ve been doing to lead a slightly greener life. There are some who are taking some rather extreme measures, however. They've all recognized that to make lasting changes, we need to start by reducing: what we buy, what we throw away, and what we use. So next time I think that it’s too tough to take a really quick shower or make my own yogurt, I’m going to think about one of these people:

1. No impact man: Colin Beavan lives in NYC and is seeing if he, along with his wife and daughter, can live an entire year without making any net impact on the environment.

2. 365 Days of Trash: Dave has decided that in order to really be accountable for our impact on the planet, we have to first acknowledge how much waste we really do create. So he's saving all of his trash throughout the year.

3. Fake Plastic Fish: One woman in Oakland, CA documents her attempts to rid plastic from her life (this is a lot tougher than it might sound!)

4. Riot 4 Austerity: Based on the premise that for long-term sustainability, those of us in the rich world must cut our emissions by 90%. They have a group of participants who are actively working to do this in seven different categories and track their monthly progress towards this goal.

5. The Compact: The participants in The Compact have all pledged to buy nothing new for one year. They can beg, borrow, or buy it used.

6. Waste Wear Daily: This woman has pledged to wear only clothing she finds in dumpsters for a whole year.

Most (OK, all) of these efforts are far more than I am willing to undertake right now, especially since there are two of us in my home, but I think what I find valuable in all these sites is the example of people REALLY practicing what they preach. That is what I find inspiring.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Originally uploaded by Bludgeoner86
We’ve probably all heard of CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) by now, and are at least vaguely aware that we should be using these things. What are they though? I think to make good choices, I need to understand what I am doing and not just do it because it’s the latest new thing. So I did some research, and here is some of the information that I found about what CFLs are, and why I made the switch in my home.

The bulbs we all grew up using are known as incandescent; this is what you are probably using if you aren’t using CFLs. This is my very non-technical explanation of how the two types of bulbs work. The traditional incandescent bulb has that squiggly looking wire thing running between two prongs. When you flip the light switch, electricity runs through the wires from the fuse box or circuit breaker, through the walls, and into the bulb, where it finally passes through the filament (the squiggly looking thing) which is then heated until it starts glowing – in the same way that the coils on an electric stove start glowing when they get heated up.

CFLs on the other hand, are a bit more complicated. The wires carry the electricity through the walls, to the bulb, but instead of creating light by heating a filament, the electricity is used to heat the inside of the bulb, which causes the mercury inside to turn from a liquid to a gas, just like liquid water evaporates when heated to a certain temperature. The mercury gas then bumps into other gas already inside the bulb, which causes a reaction between the different gas atoms that lets off ultra-violet light. The only problem is that we can’t see ultra-violet light, so that’s why the bulbs are coated with what are known as phosphors. The phosphors are compounds that emit light when exposed to light. They pick up the ultra-violet light, and then emit a kind of light that people can see.

The reason the CFLs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs is that the incandescent bulbs also emit ultraviolet light. It takes energy to generate this light, but nobody ever sees it. The CFL is making use of all of this which would otherwise be wasted. For a more technical, but very readable explanation of this see here.

So by using CFLs, you use less energy to make the same amount of light. This means you use less of whatever is used to make your energy (coal, sunlight, nuclear reactions, wind, or whatever). Because you pay for all of your energy, you save money when you use less of it.

The CFLs do cost more to purchase initially. However, according to Wikipedia’s well-sourced entry on this subject, the CFL’s will last 8 – 15 times as long as a typical incandescent bulb. The cost, they estimate ranges from 3 – 10 times the cost of an incandescent. If you factor in the longer life span and the energy savings, it seems clear to me that I’ll definitely save money in the long run, even if I purchase the bulb that lasts “only” 8 times as long as the incandescent, AND it happens to be the one that costs 10 times as much. There’s a cool little tool I found that will help you calculate your savings based on your location and usage on the bottom of this page.

The thing that I finally realized though, is that it’s not like we’re talking about buying a hybrid car versus buying a used car that gets relatively good mileage and whether this economically makes sense. We’re talking about an item that costs less than my drink of choice at Starbucks (the white chocolate mocha). What we’ve done is replace the bulbs in our home as they burn out. We avoided making a heavy investment all at once (and we took them with us when we moved!) and we’ve made the change at a pace that works for us. We’ve lived in our current location for a year now, and I have yet to replace a single light bulb – not because I’m lazy either. It’s because none have burned out.

I’d like to throw one other benefit out there. It’s a small one, but every little bit does count! If I am buying bulbs 8 – 15 times less often than I was before, I am introducing 8 – 15 times less packaging into the waste stream.

Please remember that these bulbs do contain mercury so SHOULD NEVER be thrown in the regular household trash can. There are other much better options for disposal and recycling of CFLs. If you break a bulb, you need to handle the cleanup carefully. Here’s what the EPA suggests.

All of this not-withstanding, we may not have to make the decision for much longer, as many governments are considering making the incandescent bulb as obsolete as San Francisco and China are making the plastic bag.