Sunday, January 24, 2010

Local Eats in the Winter

After one of my last posts where I said something about putting down those strawberries and picking up a winter squash, I thought "Really?  What are you to do about fruit in the winter?!"  I had to go grocery shopping the next day, and went to my local store.  For the first time in my entire life I realized that where the price is listed for each fruit or vegetable, the sign also states where it came from!  Apparently this was old news to my husband, but somehow it had escaped my realm of consciousness lo these many years. So, perusing the store, I realized that the bananas I ususally buy were from Chile.  The strawberries, however, were from California.  As were the oranges and mushrooms and carrots.  I pretty much stood still staring at all the food, realizing that my entire life I had probably not eaten anything local except what I grow.  My growing skills not being all that great, and my space being limited, we can safely state that 99.9% of my diet has always consisted of something shipped from a distant land.

The next few days were filled with frustration.  I was eating my lunch of stawberries, cottage cheese, and a rice cake with peanut butter, and I again realized that nothing was local.  How the heck was I supposed to eat local!  I looked out the window, and once again the sky was grey, the ground was grey, my outlook was grey.  What the heck grows in the upper midwest in the winter anyway?!  "maybe there are greenhouses somewhere" i thought, as I took to my trusty computer.  I began googling "local food chicago", and came up with precious little. There is a local food chapter in chicago, but their website is not very helpful.  They have links to restaurants downtown that serve local food, but I don't eat downtown that much.  They also have links to farmers markets, but it is out of date.  It's easier to just go to

Which I did.  I looked up CSA's, and became even more depressed.  First of all, there are only 2 that even provide food in the winter. ALL CSA's in this region are far more expensive than I can afford.  They also only give you veggies, you have to buy a SEPARATE share for fruit or dairy!  And it's not convenient, you pay all this money and then you still have to drive 3 towns away to pick it up at some local drop point.  This was very depressing.  This is not an entirely bad concept- I am not a CSA basher.  The point is that you buy a share of a concept, you take ownership in a farm, it is community supported.  I think this is great, I just don't personally earn enough money to buy concepts right now- I can only afford food.  One of the thoughts that came to me was "what did pioneers do?"  Well, I think they didn't eat fresh fruit in the winter.  I think they canned, dried and cured things in the summer, and had only that in the winter.  What else could they do?  This is a concept I will be trying to live by as the year progresses.  You will be seeing posts about my attempts at canning, I guarantee.  But for now, what to do?  Jumping on the locavore/slow food movement in January was not looking like a good plan.

Somehow I ended up stumbling upon the Green city market.  It appears to be the only farmers market operating in Chicago during the winter.  So, I decided to go.  This was not an easy journey.  The market operates select Saturdays from 8a-1p in a nature museum in Lincoln Park.  Their website mentions the museum numerous times before ever giving you the actual address.  The other confusing factor is that in the summer it is at a different location.  So they have 2 maps, 2 sets of directions, you have to make sure you look at the right map- a fact I overlooked.  Anyway, I took the train from a neighboring town into the city (my town of course does not run trains on the weekend, though it does run a train during weekday rush- VERY ANNOYING!  Did I ever mention that my community is poorly planned?) It's ~ 15 drive to the train station, then 1 hour train ride.  Then I caught the 151 bus to lincoln park, which was ~ another half hour.  I got off at the wrong stop due to reading the wrong map, and had to walk another 20 minutes!  So far I was off to a rough start.

Upon entering the market, I became very frustrated.  I have been to outdoor markets in the summer, but inside a museum was different.  It's not exactly set up for vendors of food.  All the tables were crammed together, crowds of people bottlenecked throughways, you couldn't even see some of the vendors due to the crowds!  I was losing it!  Shopping at Wal-Mart can be frustrating, given all the people and narrow aisles, but this really out-did it!  I calmed myself down though, and started walking around just to see what was there.  I became further irritated by the lack of signage, or signs that were on the floor and written on a dry-erase board and had been erased by people brushing up against them.  I was also annoyed by the whole process of going to individual tables and paying for each purchase.  When I had previously shopped at farmers markets, it was for fun, casual.  This time I was trying to do my actual grocery shopping, it was a necessity, and I wanted to pull my hair out.  I had been following tweets about the market and saw that duck eggs should be for sale, but had not seen a single egg yet!  I stumbled onto a table with lamb bratwurst and decided to buy some.  The woman in front of me asked about eggs, and the guy told her he had duck eggs.  "Ahh!  Here they are!  Why aren't they on the F*in' Sign!" I thought.  Then it was my turn to buy my brats.  I asked about the eggs.  I told him "They aren't on your sign!" He said "this way I get to have more meaningful conversations with my patrons". I snorted silently to myself.  "What a pretentious jackass" I thought.  After all, every patron of this market seemed to be some self-absorbed, rich "do-gooder" just out for a good time.  They weren't really here to try to eat local and save the earth like me! They just wanted some other excuse for spending money!  These were my angry thoughts anyway.  But then this nice farmer started explaining duck eggs to me, and his farm, and we had a nice chat.  I started simmering down.  I found some blue potatoes at a nearby table, spoke to that farmer about what the heck a blue potato is.  I found crimini mushrooms at another table and learned the best way to store any mushroom is in a paper bag on the lower shelf, another farmer trade secret!  I found some heirloom apples at another table, and have since decided they are teh best apples in the world!  Then, the all-time jewel was when I stopped by the pasta table and the woman selling pasta told me of a web-site called Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks.  "It's like the Pea-Pod of local foods" she told me.  This is an amazing insider tip!  Somehow this site never came up in my google searches, yet upon perusing it, I think it is the HOLY GRAIL for suburbanites!

And this is the key to the farmers market.  Yes it is annoyingly crowded.  Yes you have to bring cash.  Yes you have to pay for each thing, not just collect it all and pay as you leave.  Yes this is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from what your normal shopping routine is, and probably inconvenient.  BUT- you actually get to talk to the farmers, the artisans, the people who feed you!  You get not only information about how they make their food - which is quite powerful when a real live person looks you in the eye and says "we do not use antibiotics"- but you also get tips on food storage, food preparation, and where to buy other things.  YOU GET A COMMUNITY!  This is clearly stated on the green city market web page, but I didn't get it until I got it.  It's really a fabulous thing.  Suddenly those rich do-gooders turned into normal people.  They actually are doing good, what was my problem?  I started talking to one lady about her bag- it was made from plastic grocery bags.  Apparently her pastor makes them for everyone she knows!  What a nice moment in time.

I loaded my re-useable bags with purple carrots, blue potatoes, elk meat, lamb brats, mushrooms, heirloom apples, duck eggs, acorn squash.  I ate a local croissant, then caught the bus back to the train station.  I was in such a community-minded mood that I spoke to a fellow commuter on the train for a good half-hour!  If you live in Chicago, you know that people do not talk to other people here.  If you don't already know each other, you will never know each other.  But the market seemed to change all this, even though the other commuter did not shop at the market, and we never once talked about it.  Something had changed in my psyche and it suddenly seemed acceptable to talk to strangers and be pleasant!  If that's all that came of the market, then that's good enough for me.

For all our talk of wanting to keep the world from spiraling into irreversible global warming, it's important to remember why- so we can go on living.  What's the point if you won't even talk to each other?  Visiting the farmers market helped me buy local, organic foods- one step towards saving the planet from pollution and warming.  Visiting the market also helped me make ties to my community- feel a little more connected to the people around me, strike up friendships even if they're just during  a train ride, and ultimately take a little more responsibility for my personal corner of the world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


So to deal with things on the waste side of the issue- I finally decided to do some composting.  I know that a lot of people compost inside their homes, but this concept grossed me out.  I generally am not a fan of rotting food and attracting bugs and rodents.  I really did want to get into composting though- so I made all kinds of plans for an outdoor system at our new house.  Then the housing market fell through, and I don't know when we'll ever be able to move out of our condo.  So no putting it off- I'm indoor composting in a small space!

Turns out there are tons of resources to help you get started.  New York City actually has an entire program dedicated to helping city residents compost.  Apparently their waste problem is out of control.  After doing a bit of research, I discovered that most indoor composting fanatics don't just compost- they VERMICOMPOST!  This is composting using worms.  Worms eat up all your rubbish- from food, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, paper, newspaper, napkins, and cardboard!  They poo it out into wonderful compost!

But worms?  IN MY HOUSE!?!?!  I like to keep the bugs out if possible, not invite them in!  The worm people assure me that I have nothing to fear- red wrigglers (the best worms for composting) hate the light, so they will not leave their bin.  Ok, but what about smell?  Won't the food start to rot?  Not if you don't overload your system.  2,000 worms can eat 1 pound of food per day!  That's a lot of food! So, I bought 500 worms- that's 1/4 lb of food per day for those of you not mathematically inclined.  As long as I don't overload the system, it should remain stench free.  Shouldn't be hard, I don't really have that much food scraps.  Another tip I read was that you should store all your scraps in a container in the 'fridge, and deposit as a complete layer at the end of the week.  This is to prevent your worms from having too much shock from exposure to light.  But it also helps in preserving the food a bit.  Another issue I worried about is fruit flies.  If you wash your food scraps- including fruit rinds and peels, it should wash off any fly larvae or eggs.  I figure the refrigerator treatment also helps kill flies and eggs.

Actually setting up the bin is pretty easy.  First you pick a bin of size that you want- I based mine on how big of a space I wanted to dedicate. You should store your bin in a dark place- the only place I have is a cabinet, so I had to pick a medium sized plastic food bin- rectangular in shape.  Then I followed the instructions at the New York City Compost website.  I bought my worms from, it was the only site where I found a small amount of worms, most other sites had a minimum of 1 pound of worms.

From GreenMidwest

So, that's it!  My worms are installed, and hopefully I'll be getting some great new compost in a few months time.  My plan is to use the compost to enrich my garden, which I plan to expand this summer.  The compost should be done just in time to start planting seedlings.  I'll keep you posted on it's success!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Every Day Toxins and How to Reduce their Effects

Before I continue with this blog, I should admit. . . I was slow to jump on the bandwagon for global warming reduction efforts.  Not that I was a global warming denier, I just thought (and still do) "That's just ONE of the issues we face!  What about all the toxins everywhere, especially in our homes!"

I am a big believer in reducing your chemical exposure as much as possible.  As we have "progressed" as a society, we have learned how to make so many more products than anyone can wrap their mind around.  When these products show up in a store, on a shelf, or in your food, it is second nature to assume it's safe.  We all know there are regulatory agencies out there, the people making the products are scientists, so- it has to be safe.  Unfortunately, the effects of most of the things we use are simply unknown.  There are not enough regulators available to study every new product created, or every new chemical synthesis.  Even if there were, there are too many confounding factors to make definitive statements regarding the use of common products and ultimate effects on health.  This is particularly true because most products with harmful chemicals- even additives that are known to cause cancer- emit those toxins at low levels, and effects wouldn't be expected for decades.  By that time, you've likely exposed yourself to a plethora of products, so a regulator really has no supporting evidence to make a determination that a certain product should not be released to the public.  One great example is the BPA issue right now.  It's very difficult to make a causal determination between BPA in a baby's bottle and cancer later in life.  This also highlights the biggest problem- that the entire system is flawed. Right now, the regulators bear the responsibility of PROVING that the product a company wants to put out is not safe.  If the regulators can not do this, then the product goes to the public.  Europe is changing that system, and is instead requiring the manufacturer to prove that the product is safe.  I don't know if the US is going to adopt this system, but even if they do, it still seems like a good idea to reduce your chemical exposure as much as possible.  You don't know for sure that plastic is leaching enough BPA into your fluids to cause you to develop cancer.  Yet, why take that risk?  What risk level are you comfortable with regarding your personal likelihood of contracting cancer?  In addition, you have so many other exposures that you can not control.  Cumulatively, these exposures can wreak havoc on your internal systems, so why not take out as many of those additive exposures as possible?

As it turns out, the more you reduce your exposure to chemicals, the more you also reduce your overall CO2 footprint.  They play together well.  I actually think that if your position is to reduce your CO2 footprint, you actually take the job of eliminating chemicals from your life more seriously.  Somehow it's always easy to say to yourself- "well, I know that pesticides are potentially toxic to me, but organic strawberries are so expensive, and the FDA hasn't banned non-organics, so maybe they're not really that bad.  I'm going to take the risk, save money and just wash them really well".  You may not actually have that whole conversation with yourself, but it is happening at a sub-conscious level.  If your goal is to reduce your CO2 footprint however, you realize that buying strawberries in Chicago in the winter is a terrible thing to Publish Postdo- they were shipped here from some place like Chile, probably soaked in pesticides, the pesticides being made from materials mined from Africa, and then probably grown on land that was previously rainforest.  You suddenly realize that your CO2 footprint for those strawberries is pretty horrible.  You are responsible for supporting mining operations, shipping across the ocean, air shipping in a refrigerated plane, and destruction of rainforest!  In the winter, even organic is a bad choice because they are still coming from far away, so you simply put them down and grab some locally grown winter squash instead.

My example above is food based, but this is true with nearly any product you use at home.  Given that it's winter right now, a lot of you are likely to be burning candles and using lotions to heal your dry skin. I know I do!  My husband is particularly crazy about scented candles.  Well several years ago I read about the dangers of candle burning towards impairing your indoor air quality.  It seems most commercially produced candles are paraffin based, and paraffin is a petroleum product.  The scents they use are not pure essential oils (which are truly the oils of the plant), they are delightful blend of chemicals.  And often the wicks are made with lead in them to help them stand up straight.  You can read a bit about that from the American Chemical Society.  Don't totally freak out, it's ok to light candles infrequently, but if you're lighting a bunch every day in your tightly sealed and winterized house (like we do!)- you may want to reconsider.  And that's what led me to making my own candles!  I've been making my own candles from soy wax and bees-wax, with hemp wicks and essential oil fragrances for several years.  They are EXTREMELY easy to make.  You can google candle making and find lots of websites with instructions, but I like this one, I find it very straightforward.  I really love making candles!  The only downside is that I don't add any color additives, as these are generally chemical based.  So all my candles  are white. This is only a downside if you're really into decorative candles. But, I've found it's a lot of fun to make pillar candles of different heights, and to pour candles into various jars.  I re-use the same jars over and over.  Pretty jars that once held fruit make excellent candle holders.  Varieties of jars, shapes and sizes make up for lack of colors.

I actually make a lot of things including an all-purpose cleaner, a bathroom shower spray, bathroom cleaner, hand soaps, facial toner, lotion, and chap-stick.  I've tried variations on dishwashing detergent but haven't found a good one yet.  My cleaning product recipes came from one of two books- Clean and Green or Better Basics For the Home, both by Annie Berthold-Bond.  She began making all of her own products after it turned out her child was allergic to the fumes being given off by commercially available products.  I was also concerned about the toxicity, after realizing so many of the products I was using tell you to wear gloves.  If you can't even touch it, how can this be good for your home!  I started buying eco-friendly products then.  At some point, I started to wonder, "what on earth does eco-friendly mean?"  As I looked into it, I found an organization known as the Green Seal.  Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that examines products which are submitted on a voluntary basis, and determines if they are ecologically sound.  At the time I was looking into it, NO household cleaning products available were given the Green Seal of Approval.  Generally products that are otherwise "green" add preservatives to obtain a longer shelf-life.  These preservatives make them disruptive to the environment. More companies have become cognizant that obtaining the Green Seal is actually a great marketing tool, and have either submitted their already green products, or began re-formulating their products.  Now products like Simple Green and even Oxy-Clean are given the Green Seal.  Notably though, popular eco-products like Seventh Generation and Method are not on the list.  Green Seal also certifies things like paint, and windows.  Even though household products are now approved, I am in the habit of making my own all-purpose cleaner, and continue to make it.  It's a very simple recipe- 1 Tbsp borax, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp vegetable-oil based soap (like Dr. Bronners).  Put it all in a a large spray bottle, then add a small amount of hot water.  Shake it up to dissolve the borax and baking soda.  Add 1 tsp of your favorite essential oil (I like cinnamon because it smells great, compliments most other scents in the kitchen, and has anti-microbial properties), and fill the bottle with water.  Voila!  I give this out to family and friends, and have received rave reviews!

I became interested in cosmetics after reading Ms. Berthold-Bond's books for cleaning products.  She has recipes for lotions and facial cleansers, and it got me interested in the entire concept.  Like candles, a lot of body products contain synthetic fragrances, colors and petroleum based products.  What is particularly unfavorable about this in something like a body lotion, is that you are smearing it all over your body's largest organ! Your skin breathes and absorbs, if you are smothering it with chemicals, then your whole body is affected.  I use lotion all the time, so this became troublesome to me.  Additionally, you may remember the lipstick scare from a couple of years ago.  Though lipstick is commonly made with heavy metals like lead, this only became widely known recently.  People started freaking out, and then all the hype died down and nothing has changed.  Fortunately the Environmental Working Group has been devoting a lot of time and energy to this issue for a while, and will continue to do so.  They have developed a database known as Skin Deep, which gives a hazard ranking score to cosmetics, sunscreens, etc.  What is particularly disturbing is that so many products contain endocrine disruptors and bio-accumulators.  Endocrine disruptors can destroy your central nervous system, your thyroid, and have been known to affect entire aquatic communities- keeping tadpoles from developing into males, for instance (there are entire populations of only female amphibians in some regions due to endocrine disruptors existing at high levels in the water).  Bio-Accumulators are products that do not get processed and eliminated from the human system.  They build up.  Your exposure increases over your life-span.

When organizations like the EPA and NIOSH estimate toxicity from products, they look at exposure routes.  Those routes are typically ingestion (through the mouth), absorption (skin, eyes), and inhalation (nose, mouth).  Now, where do you use cosmetics? EXACTLY!  The problem instantly becomes clear- everywhere you put your cosmetics- eyeshadow, mascara, loose powder, foundation, lipstick, etc. is in a direct route of exposure!  Maybe the particular amount of any chemical exposure in one application of lipstick is not very high.  In fact, it is likely very low, or else you would have an acute exposure reaction.  But, don't you re-apply throughout the day?  Don't you wear it pretty much every day?  How many years have you been applying it?  Does your favorite cosmetic contain a bio-accumulator?  As previously mentioned- the effects of long-term, low-dose exposures are not well defined.  The risk is truly unknown. One option is to stop wearing makeup, but it seems unlikely that most women will do this.  You can instead use the database to find products with a low hazard score, and then switch from your product to a less hazardous one.  I have done this for things like mascara, which I do not know how to make.  However, why not just make your own things?  I make my own lotion regularly and have made many other items.  Most of my recipes come from a community website:  Individuals submit their own recipes, and there are links to places to buy the ingredients.  I have found  great lotion, chap-stick, facial toners, and even aftershave formulas here.  I generally don't put fragrance in my lotion.  But today I am making an orange ginger scented lotion to mimic the scent sold at Bath and Body Works.  It's a lot of fun to try to come up with good scent blends using essential oils!  It's so much more satisfying to smell exactly how you want to smell, knowing that you are removing just one more area of risk from your life at the same time!

The greatest part of making all your own products is that you are reducing your reliance on petroleum.  Instead of being paraffin based, or chemical based, my products are based in shea-butter, cocoa butter, almond oil and essential oils!  Sounds luxurious doesn't it!  Instead of everything being prettily packaged in a new plastic bottle, I put mine in jars that used to hold pasta sauce for example.  Decorate with scraps of ribbon and fabric if you like!  I've actually been re-using an old lotion pump bottle for the past 5 years.  Instead of your products being produced in a big manufacturing plant with emissions and large waste streams, you make it at home, with very little energy input. You're not contributing to a waste stream either, in fact if you re-use bottles and jars you are removing from the waste stream! Instead of your products being shipped all around the world, it goes from you kitchen to your bathroom!  On top of all that, there is a sense of self-reliance.  I know these products aren't actually necessary to stay alive, but just knowing that I know how to make my own lotion makes me feel confident that I could figure out how to get through a natural disaster, or a long power outage, etc.  I know how to do things that most people don't, I can get by.

My ultimate advice: challenge your sense of security.  For every product you use, especially those you use frequently, and particularly those products you use on your body or spray into your air (see this article on air freshener toxic effects), think about what is in them.  Read the labels. Do an internet search on that product +health or +toxins.  Then do a search on making your own, or look at the Green Seal or Skin Deep websites to find safer alternatives commercially available.  The most important weapon you have to save yourself and the world is knowledge.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Different Diet . . .

While I'm sure that a food based diet of some sort will work it's way into my attempt to lower my carbon footprint (such as not eating meat)- today is not that day!

The diet I started today is called The Great American Apparel Diet.   The goal is to not buy any clothes for a year!  I think it started in September though, so technically the experiment ends Sept. 2010. I'm going to try to hold out for an actual full year, but please don't hate me if I slip up!

The website is great, lots of great women explaining how and why they signed up for the challenge.

But a whole year with no new clothes!?!?  Am I insane!!!  This might be too much.  Then again, I think maybe this is the kind of sacrifice everyone keeps saying American's aren't willing to take to save the planet.  So- I'm revving up my sewing skills, and looking for creative ways to pair items so they feel new.  The experiment allows you to buy new undergarments/accessories and shoes as you see fit.  But I think I'm going to try to avoid that too.  To me, the purpose is to liberate myself from the need to own more clothing.

Assessment:  I share a walk-in closet with my husband.  I have one side- I raised the shelf (the kind that you can also hang clothes from) and then installed a second shelf underneath to hold all my clothes. The top shelf if FULL of purses.  The entire wall is filled with clothes hanging from both shelves.  The second shelf has hats on it.  Along the narrow back wall are several small shelves stacked vertically.  One of these is piled high with sweaters, another is full of larger bags that I have.  On top of that, I have a three dresser drawers with work-out clothes, two drawers of pants (in addition to the pants hanging in the closet), several drawers of undergarments, and a drawer of sleep wear.  ON TOP OF THAT (as if this isn't already enough)- I have  a large cedar chest full of all my summer clothes!  My closet floor is EXPLODING with shoes too!  I have a 2-tiered shoe-shelf, plus boots piled up to the side, plus shoes in the closet by the front door.

So, do I need to buy any more clothes?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  But, there's still a fear that committing not to buy is going to be too much.  It's just this mindset that has overcome me, and I dare say most women in America.  I'm willing to bet that 90% of us women buy WAY too many clothes!

What I love about this concept is how sharply it brings reality into focus.  Part of my previous glory parade for myself included lauding myself with praise for not consuming as much as other people.  I spent so much time complimenting myself for not shopping up a storm all the time that I didn't even notice the giant stack of shopping bags piling up, or the fact that my dresser is so full I can not put one more article of clothing in it!  I think I started out at one end of the spectrum- I used to only buy from thrift stores, but slowly, day by day, I allowed little excuses to slip by.  Suddenly I just can't picture myself at work without a new necklace!  You all know where this goes- shopping for that new necklace turns into buying the matching earrings, then "Oh, that would look PERFECT with that cute blouse", which of course can't be worn with any existing pairs of pants, so you get a new pair, and those are just screaming for a new pair of shoes- and all of a sudden you are a carbon puffing machine!  I have literally done this on several occassions.  And if that's not the case, there's always the 20% off at JCrew e-mail, or other such promotions.  I get at least 10 clothing related sales emails a day!  It is very hard to resist all those "savings".

It's a weird phenomenon.  And even weirder is the overall mindset that a full closet just isn't enough!

Of course, consumer glut doesn't stop at just clothes.  I also have a penchant for kitchen items.  I have a drawer exploding with gadgets, and I just can't stop!  So, I'm making that another "no buy" item for the year. (OK-I do have to buy a new can-opener b/c ours just broke last week). I also want to not buy any more paper towels or ziploc bags.  I already try to use cloth rags frequently, and tupperware.  When I do use a ziploc, I rinse it out and re-use it if it didn't have meat in it. But- why do I use those at all?  I have so many containers, there is no reason to use something disposable!  I have so many rags, why do I ever use a paper towel?  So, no more buying of those.

This week I am also going to experiment with using a handkerchief in place of kleenex.  Something about this really grosses me out, so this is one that I am most apprehensive about.  But I've long been trying to boycott Kimberly-Clark due to their propensity for cutting virgin forest to make throw away paper products.  The gross out factor has been too high to go all cloth though.  But, I'm going to try it.  People used to do this all the time right?  I'm sure it will be fine!

In addition to reducing the amount of CO2 I'm responsible for, I think this will have other benefits.  Hopefully it will liberate me from the entire concept of NEEDING things I don't actually need.  Wrap your mind around that one!  You know how you always feel like you need that "thing"?  Well you probably don't.  I hope I can break that feeling for good. This would be a real waste if at the end of the year I went on a bonanza and bought a whole bunch of clothes!  The other benefit will of course be monetary!  Aren't we all realizing we need to save more and pay down more debt?  Somehow we can never find those extra dollars though.  Giving up clothes to pay down your student loan is not fun.  But since I'm doing this out of a desire to break the chains of consumerism, and to shrink my footprint, paying down that student loan suddenly becomes a fringe benefit!

What are you trying to consume less of? Do you have a success story or tips for me?  Or are you just getting started too?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Grandma, God and My Carbon Footprint

Since calculating my carbon footprint- it is apparent that nearly every sector of what I called my "green life", needs not only tweaking, but a major overhaul!

Firstly- I think this is terrifying.  I always knew that saving the planet called for sacrifice, but this seems like it's going to be a lot harder than I thought!  Am I going to have to keep all the lights off and never watch TV?  Every action I am about to undertake has me wondering how it will impact my carbon footprint.

But, as I've been reading articles and blogs, particularly on the lost art of ironing, I am reminded that it may not be that impossible after all.  If you think back to days of the depression or WWII (which I can not do because I was not yet born, so I read about it instead), these were really the days when green behaviors were founded. Unknowingly, our grandparents/great-grandparents or parents laid a foundation of values and behaviors that we can use to build our green lifestyles upon today.  They were first and foremost, frugal.  Things were not wasted, they were used until they couldn't be used anymore.  Then they were turned into rags, storage containers or art!  Most of the environmental problems we've created can be reduced or eliminated through simply reducing our connection to and need for new material things.  Values such as honesty and humility and a sense of personal pride were also abundant then.  I think today many of us grapple with these concepts- we like to think of ourselves in these terms, but we feel that somehow we are not living up to it.

Where better to find a way to marry these values with environmentalism than in the midwest! Right here at home many of us go to church and hear the lessons regarding materialism.  We recognize that a new flat screen TV will not come with us to heaven.  And environmentalists try to push back against the conveyor belt of consumerism- recognizing that the purchase of a new flat screen TV means the old TV (perfectly good in many cases) is going to a landfill.  Midwesterners revel in the home-grown value of frugality already!  But, excuses do get easier and easier.  I myself used to be against owning excess "stuff".  We used to not even have TV!  Now I find the TV is on all the time, we are buying more DVD's, I made regular stops at the mall and online purchases.  I never felt ENTIRELY out of step with either my religious or environmental convictions- but looking at the outcome now, I can see I wasn't even on the right path!

You can take this same mindset towards many of the concepts found both in religion and environmentalism.  Honesty.  The bible says it's good.  Be honest with yourself, your neighbors, your parents, etc.  You can apply this to environmentalism if you are truly honest with yourself about why you are purchasing that new TV.  Is it because you REALLY want to see everything in Hi-Def?  Or is it partly that, but mostly that you want people to know you make a good salary, or you have a 'cool' house, or that you are cool.  I mean, it sounds lame to actually admit to yourself "I'm buying a TV to be cool", but it's really what we are doing!  Once you admit it to yourself, you can stop.  Then it actually becomes comical to look at all your past purchases, and you can laugh to yourself when someone starts talking about the new such-and-such that they are buying.  It almost becomes the joke about a man buying a sports car. :)

As I move forward in my quest to reduce my footprint, I feel empowered knowing that it's not impossible.  My grandma did it.  I can do it too.  Maybe she didn't recycle, but it's probably because she reduced and re-used everything.  If you are religious, look to your church for help and strength.  These are values that they preach.  God is a cornerstone of environmentalism!

Ultimately, though I don't know what tactics I'll use yet, this is a battle I can win.  Maybe I'll call grandma tonight to get some tips!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Copenhagen, and the Dreaded Footprint

The climate summit in Copenhagen (cop15) this December is really what sparked me into action. I already think of myself as pretty green. For example: I make my own cleaning products, lotion and candles; I take the train to work and hardly every drive; when I do drive, it's a 2000 Toyota Echo (35mpg); I recycle everything; re-use things when I can; try to reduce the amount of "stuff" I buy; all my lights are CFC or LED; line-dry clothes in the summer; grow my own veggies and herbs; use zero VOC paint; ride my bike to the train in the summer; live in a 2-bedroom condo; the list goes on!

So, I figured there isn't much more I can do. There's also been a growing notion in the "green-washing" movement that you don't actually need to sacrifice to save the planet- just replace your lightbulbs! And since I did that, I was feeling pretty good.

Then as cop15 progressed, with the gaggle of international leaders obviously not planning to sign a binding resolution of any meaning, I became frustrated. Scientists largely agree that the acceptable level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm) to avoid global warming. Today's current levels are ~387ppm. It's so obvious that something needs to be done right away! But with the US only agreeing to a 17% decrease in emissions, and China wanting special provisions, I kept thinking "nobody's willing to make the sacrifices necessary to curb the rise of CO2 and prevent global warming. Well, nobody but me!" After patting myself on the back for a few days, I read something about how each person's CO2 footprint needs to be 4 tons/year in order to achieve the goal of 350ppm. "I've gotta be AT LEAST that low!" I thought proudly. Then I read that the average US citizen's footprint is ~25 tons/year. This fact made me re-think my own footprint, bumping up my estimate a few points- I thought it might be about 6-10 tons/year. But, if my footprint is higher than necessary to achieve global 350ppm . . . then I must not be sacrificing enough!

I stopped plans for my own personal parade, put my tiara on the shelf, and decided to actually try to figure out my CO2 footprint, and then make the remaining sacrifices to bring it down. This is more difficult than you may think! For one thing- there are an insane number of calculator web sites out there! A google search for "personal CO2 footprint calculator" results in 298,000 results!

I decided to try 3 calculators and get an average. I started by figuring my monthly average from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009 for therms (44) and kilowatt hours (406) from natural gas and electricity, respectively. I also estimated that I drive car 1 (2000 Toyota Echo) 6,000 miles a year and car 2 (1994 Mercury Topaz) 3,000 miles a year. These are low averages, but like I said, we really do hardly drive. Also, I commute ~30 miles one way by train per day to work. Over the year (figuring 4 days a week after accounting for days off), this is 12,480 miles. I figured these would be needed in any calculator.

Calculator 1: I started with EPA. Who better than the US Government Agency in charge of regulating industrial CO2 emissions? First off, this calculator does not include a LOT of things. They tell you that it's just to get a ballpark idea, so I shouldn't have been too surprised. After all, the agency is in charge of regulating industrial emissions, so their focus wouldn't be so much on the impact of local vs. imported food, etc. NOTE: Flights are NOT included. It does ask for your therms and KWh used, as well as vehicle efficiency. One question asks if you recycle newspaper. I don't get newspapers, so I don't know how to answer this. If I say no, then it's like I just throw it away! So I said yes. May be a bit of a cheat, but my score is already pretty high. Ultimately they calculated my household CO2 footprint as 21,328 pounds per year (~21 tons). However, in the solutions section, one option is to maintain your cars regularly. Since I already do, I selected that. My footprint was then reduced by 449 pounds per year. They then tell you that your personal footprint is half of the household footprint (for a 2 person house). My personal footprint is thus 10,440 pounds per year. Not too bad! Pretty sure once I add in flights though, it would be a lot worse. Noteworthy: EPA states that the average footprint for a household of 2 in the US is 41,500 pounds per year- yikes! There are then sections where you can pick actions to take to lessen your footprint, and they estimate your new footprint. This is standard on most calculators. Though I think if you gave them your real amount of electricity used, and all your lightbulbs are already CFC, you can't update your footprint to include this. Basically you'd be taking the credit twice, since your electricity use already includes this fact. This will be the same on all calculators, just something to keep in mind. The nice thing about the EPA calculator is that they also allow you to download it as an excel file so you can see all the formulas involved. They also have a link to explanations for all of the assumptions they make. This is really nice, because otherwise you have no idea what other calculators are assuming! I haven't checked into these details yet though- just need to get through the calculations first!

Calculator 2: It's called Carbon Footprint. I want to calculate my carbon footprint. I think I just made the case for using this calculator. This calculator does include flights. It's pretty detailed too, you don't just estimate how many flights you took- but put in the cities you flew to and from, and you can even choose your airline. They also include an option to include radiative forcing- which basically is a factor used to make a high altitude flights count for more CO2, because this is apparently worse than a low altitude flight. I figured 1 international flight, 2 long distance US flights, 3 short distance US flights. It's really a toss up, because I have to travel for work, but I'm never really sure how often that will be. They didn't have any years before 1999 in the car portion, so I just put in the MPG from the fuel economy website which I averaged at 21mpg for the Topaz. This website also asks you for you public transportation and taxi miles, food choices, and purchasing choices. All told, this website calculated my personal footprint at 15.8 tons. If I had put in only one person, it would have calculated my household footprint. I think we can safely estimate it would have been 31.6 tons. This website claims that the average US footprint is 20.4, while the target should be 2 tons. The secondary categories (food, packaging, etc.) account for the bulk of my footprint, followed by flights. The website allows you to see options for reducing your footprint, though there's no option for applying them to the calculation. You can set up an account though and save your footprint, then come back and keep re-calculating after you make changes.

Calculator 3: The Nature Conservancy I respect this organization, and their calculator appears to include all the major categories. This calculator seems more detailed right off the bat- they ask what type of house you live in, how many bedrooms, whether or not you already employ energy efficiency tactics, do you buy energy star products, etc. The vehicle information is less accurate though- mpg is a range instead of a real number. Flight estimates are also less accurate, they simply want you to estimate the number of long flights and short flights. Short flights are considered less than 1.5 hours, so I input 6 long flights. The Nature Conservancy calculator estimates my annual footprint at 34 tons CO2!!!! HOLY COW! They state that the US National average is 27 tons, and the worldwide average is 5.5 tons. At first I liked the set up here: They show your estimated impact per category, and then how you've reduced it through your actions. Example- my kind of condo in IL automatically gets a value of 12 tons. Using efficiency tactics I reduced my footprint to 11.2. But this system doesn't actually input your REAL electricity and/or heating useage. It's really just estimates. By far the most carbon intensive activity I have is flying (13 tons). The flying and driving category combined to 19 tons all by itself! While secondary choices were my biggest CO2 footprint on calculator 2, food choices are only 3.4 tons on this calculator. They don't appear to let you save your footprint calculations, though you can join for free. They show you steps you can take with estimated reduction amounts, though you can't apply them to your footprint. They also sell offsets.

Conclusions: This is INSANE! So- my footprint is anywhere between 10 tons and 21 tons without accounting for flying. When you do account for flying, it adds up to an additional 13 tons. When flying is taken out of the picture, my biggest footprint contributors appear to be food based. Since the Nature Conservancy based my home footprint purely on assumptions, I think the EPA and calculators are probably more accurate regarding that front, and they estimate my home footprint anywhere between to be the third or 4th largest contributor. Food, how it's grown, where it's transported from, and how it's packaged is apparantly quite a large contributor.

The calculator seemed to include the most data and probably was the most accurate of the 3.  I think using any of the calculator numbers on their own though is over-reaching. I will bet you will get a different footprint result for every single calculator you try! The big picture is useful though. On all three I have a footprint too big. I need to reduce by at least 6 tons and never fly in the easiest scenario- or reduce by 30 tons worst case scenario! No matter what, I'm living a carbon rich life, far beyond what I had imagined. I think this also points out that changing your lightbulbs- the most commonly harped change you should make- is probably the most useless! Food and transportation appear to be some of the largest contributors. Of course, if I lived in a larger house, I would probably find that I need to make a lot of changes on the homefront. As it is, a 2 bedroom condo with efficiency upgrades is pretty much on par.

Another issue I have is that a lot of my activities weren't on any of the calculators! Using chemical free cleaners, not coloring my hair, walking outside instead of on a treadmill, and other things that I pride myself on were not included! It's possible there is a better calculator out there, but unlikely. The science is pre-mature at this stage. That's not to say it's useless- just beware of the caveats and use it as a ballpark.

The next challenge is figuring out what to do about this. How will I reduce my flight impact? Can I afford to buy local organic food? How do you find things in less packaging?