Archive for February, 2008

When Should We Buy Organic?

Baby Eating An AppleI try to eat organic foods when possible. I believe we need to lobby for organically, sustainably produced whole foods and that it’s important to put my money where my mouth is but it can be challenging to follow my ideals and still stay within our grocery budget ($240/month). There are times when cheap and healthy align well (oatmeal is cheaper than PopTarts) and times when they conflict (organic cheese costs a lot more than Velveeta).

I was excited to read what Get Rich Slowly had to say about An Easy Way to Go Organic. J.D. referenced a New York Times article that suggested switching to the organic version of five common foods – milk, potatoes, peanut butter, ketchup, and apples.

I love the list but would change it a bit myself. I am currently taking a cooking class called “Healing With Whole Foods” that is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and the idea that eating the right foods can strengthen the body and immune system, while eating the wrong foods can tear us apart. The instructor, Andy Reed, is very good about constantly reminding us that nobody’s perfect and it’s all about compromise. He tries to eat mostly organic but can’t afford to, like many of us, so he suggested prioritizing which items we buy organic. His number one suggestion?

Buy organic butter. This was a new concept for me but it really made sense when he started to explain. Conventional butter comes from cows that have been given antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed made from pesticide-filled grain. Most pesticides are lipophyllic, meaning they bioaccumulate in fat, so butter is one of the most important things to buy organically.

He also suggested buying only organic meats and dairy products for the same reason. Most of my motivation for buying organically raised meat comes from my belief that we should treat animals well but I also enjoy eating meat that is free of pesticides and antibiotics. I am currently reading “My Year of Meats,” which is a fictional novel by Ruth Ozeki but it includes some factual and disturbing information about the dark side of conventional meat production (thanks, Dana).

Get Rich Slowly had another post about Organics versus Ethics and how to decide how much environmental health or personal health or food quality is worth to us, in dollars, and how to tell if organic is really “worth” it.  That’s a big question that I personally am not quite ready to tackle.  I believe we need to move towards a food system that produces nutritious, affordable food while keeping our environment in good shape, and the organic label is at least one step in that direction, so I’ll do what I can.

We buy organic butter, meat, peanut butter, rice, beans and a random assortment of other products. (Sometimes I wonder if there’s really much of a difference between organic crackers and conventional crackers – I definitely doubt the benefits of choosing organic Cheetoes.) We buy a mix of organic and conventional produce. And so far we seem to be fairly healthy and happy.

I think the next step will be switching to organic cheese. We looove cheese and it’s hard to afford buying the quantities we want at organic prices. Anybody know of any good sources of cheap organic cheese? And ice cream? Mmmmm, ice cream….

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Can you recycle shrink wrap?

Recycling binsMy sister recently asked me whether or not she can recycle the shrink wrap she gets on packages sometimes. It used to be that most places wouldn’t accept “soft” plastics like shrink wrap, but that’s no longer true. As recycling programs have become more popular and cost-effective, they’ve expanded in scope as well. For example, Bloomington now accepts plastics in categories 1-6 (that little number inside the recycling symbol on the bottom of most plastic goods).

I did some digging and learned that shrink wrap falls into category 4: LDPE Low-Density Polyethylene. If your local recycling will take 4, as Bloomington’s does, then you can recycle your shrink wrap as normal.

I also learned that some people shrink wrap their boats to protect them in the off-season! Since some places still don’t accept category 4 plastics as recycling, you can buy huge bags that are then shipped to “Dr Shrink,” a manufacturer of boat shrink wrapping. I hear that there are similar programs for airlines as well.

The important part is that you can recycle shrink wrap just as easily as anything else (which might not be that easy if you have a traitor in the house).

I actually had fun looking up all of that, so I’ll extend my Google-fu to non-family as well. Is there anything about living sustainably that you don’t quite get or just don’t know? Leave a comment or send me a message and I’ll do my best to find an answer. Until the, keep recycling that shrink wrap!

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Five tips for reducing packaging

Time to Buy Girl Scout Cookies!Crinkle.  Crinkle.  Rustle.

“Maggie, are you eating cookies?”

Curses!  Foiled again, by the excessive plastic packaging that is separating me from my beloved Girl Scout cookies!  I started in Girl Scouts when I was six and was an active participant all the way through college and even led a troop for a couple of years so I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m also admittedly addicted to the cookies (especially Tagalongs and Samoas).  Alas, I am not a fan of the packaging.  Usually I would choose not to buy a product with this kind of unrecyclable, unnecessary packaging but we all have our weaknesses.  I did visit the Little Brownie Bakers website to file a request that they make their packaging more recyclable.  It didn’t feel like a very powerful step but if enough people comment on the packaging, they’re bound to change it.

For items other than Girl Scout cookies, here are some tips for reducing packaging

1. Buy in bulk using your own containers.  There are a couple of smaller grocery stores in Bloomington that offer a variety of foods in bulk bins.  There are lots of grains (rice, oats, flour) and dried foods (fruits, nuts, spices) but also items such as peanut butter, dish soap, and laundry detergent.  Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re filling up plastic bags and throwing them away, so I’m getting better about packing up my canning jars and tupperware containers to refill them.  (It also tends to be cheaper).

2. If the packaging is ridiculous, don’t buy it.  I have been volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, one of our local food pantries, and they get a really interesting variety of surplus food.  Last week a big shipment came in of South Beach Diet Chicken Salad Lunches.  Each little box contained a plastic spoon, a plastic bag of croutons, a plastic dish of chicken bits, a plastic packet of salad dressing, and a tiny plastic container of jello.  It was ridiculous.  This is the kind of item I find easy to avoid.

3. Contact the manufacturer about unnecessary packaging. I honestly believe this is the way to get manufacturers to change their ways.  Consumer demand, folks!  It’s supposed to play an important role in our market-driven economy!  Make your voice heard!

4. Bring your own reusable grocery bags.  I have an embarassingly large collection of tote bags, mesh bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, and other cloth containers for holding things but darn it, they’re incredibly useful!  I do occasionally get the odd look from grocery baggers but I have learned to smile sweetly and thank them for helping me support the environment.  I also try to take my own plastic bags to the produce department to bag things like lettuce that are often soaking wet.  (I’ve also found that the bags worth washing out and reusing hold up a LOT better than the ones they tend to give you.)

5.  Buy the big box.  Will and I recently joined Sam’s Club so we can stock up on cheap food in large quantities.  It goes against the grain a bit for me since I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses and quality food.  However, I believe it can be a good choice for us both economically and environmentally so we’re giving it a shot.  (We would have preferred Costco but there is not one in Bloomington.)  The two main challenges are finding products that really do have less packaging (as opposed to the big box of cereal that is in fact many smaller boxes of single servings all packaged together) and finding products that meet my criteria for nutrition and sustainability.  (There’s also the fact that buying the giant bag of Chex Mix does not in fact save money or packaging volume if you go home and eat the entire thing in one serving just like you would with a small bag.)

And a bonus tip….

6. Grow your own, for the ultimate reduction in packaging. I’m getting ready to start some seedlings for a little herb garden on our deck and maybe a couple of tomato plants.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Possible and impossible Greener Gadgets

The second-place winner of the Greener Gadgets design competition, Gravia, is beautiful, functional, and impossible. It’s a four-foot tall lamp powered by five 10-pound weights inside it. The designer claims that flipping the device will produce as much light as a normal light for 4-6 hours. The only problem is that, unless the engineers can come up with an LED that’s 200 times as good as the ones we have now, it’ll only last 90 seconds at best.

EnerJar - courtesy of http://www.enerjar.netWith the second-place winner an impossibility, I got to wondering what the first place winner is. It turns out that it couldn’t be more different. The EnerJar is basically a do-it-yourself Kill-a-Watt in a stylish mason jar.

The EnerJar and Kill-a-Watt (don’t you love the names?) plug in between a wall socket and anything that uses a normal three-prong plug (that is, not a major appliance like a stove). Then, it tells you how many watts that item is currently using. The Kill-a-Watt also does some of the calculations for you and will display results in kilowatt-hours for easy determination of actual electrical costs.

I’ve actually thought about getting a Kill-a-Watt to help reduce energy usage, but I’m not sure it’s worth the $25 to me. We already have CFLs in our lamps and most of our big equipment (stereos, TV, microwave) on power strips that we keep off when not in use. I’ve heard that some libraries will lend out a Kill-a-Watt, but unfortunately ours isn’t one of them. Building one from a kit probably isn’t much cheaper but it would be a fun afternoon activity.

I also have to congratulate the designers on their attitude. Since they won the Greener Gradget prize, they plan to use the money to send out free kits once they start producing them! They definitely feel strongly about helping others cut down on their electrical use.

Even though you can’t have the Gravia’s totally free light, you will soon be able to get a kit to reduce all your other sources of electricity. That’s probably even more useful!

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How to Travel Sustainably

I have been contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a couple of friends but am having trouble figuring out the greenest way to get there. At first I thought maybe I could combine it with a trip to Raleigh for Will’s brother’s wedding but it sounds like that’s not going to work out. (Will and I are planning to drive to Raleigh either in my mom’s Toyota Prius or in my greasecar and from there I would only be driving about five hours on my own.)

The other obvious option is flying, which has remained oddly affordable despite rising fuel prices. My gut feeling is that flying has a really bad environmental impact but I have read very mixed studies about it. Laura forwarded me a great article from Salon about air travel and their conclusion is that it’s probably a better environmental choice than driving but that the bottom line is that the world would be a better place if we traveled less. He did mention that it’s difficult to evaluate the full impact of jet exhaust since it is released very high in the atmosphere and is suspected to have different effects than, say, car exhaust.

He also suggested that train travel is the most efficient option but alas, it is a challenging proposition from Bloomington. The nearest train station is in Indianapolis and pretty much all the trains go to Chicago, except that mostly they have been replaced by buses. (I guess it’s become a pretty common trick for Amtrak but it always shocks me a little when I pull up a train schedule and it says “Bus.”) So I would need to drive to Indianapolis, take the train to Chicago, hang around for a few hours, then take the train overnight to D.C. with a total travel time of about 24 hours and a total cost of over $150 one-way. Not very encouraging.

So I’m continuing to weigh my options. Perhaps it would make sense to fly and purchase some carbon offset credits, or perhaps I could justify the trip by hauling some more of Laura’s furniture to her, or maybe I’ll just make my friends come to me (although that’s really just another way to pass the buck). I do feel pretty blessed that most of my friends and family are within biking distance so I can probably justify the odd plane trip or two a year. And maybe one of these years I’ll get really hardcore and buy myself a horse and buggy. Maybe.

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Camera and obscura

Last night was amazing. I’ve been an amateur photographer for a long time. I’d love to have a digital SLR and some fancy lenses, but I’m also an amateur tightwad, so I make do with a basic digital camera. It works really well for casual things, but I don’t have direct control over aperture and exposure. Instead, the camera has a series of “modes” that determine white balance, exposure, and aperture. Even since I got a tripod, I haven’t been able to get any good shots of the moon. It’s just too bright.

Eclipsed moonLast night was the perfect chance to get some good shots of the moon. There won’t be another opportunity until 2010 (or until I save up for that SLR…), so I was really hoping that the night would be clear. It turned out beautiful. The night before had been overcast and tonight is cloudy too. Last night was as clear as if it had been planned that way.

I spent an hour alternately taking pictures and rushing back inside to get warm (it was clear, but very cold). The most amazing thing was how bright the stars seemed. Normally, there’s enough light pollution around (mostly from the nearby car dealerships) that we can’t see much. Without clouds and the moon, it was possible to see so much more.

I hope everyone else got to enjoy the eclipse as much as I did!

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Maple Syrup and other Pioneer Inspirations

Maple TapThis time last year I was busy making maple syrup out at Five Oaks Farm. It’s funny how I really miss it even though I remember being painfully cold during most of the process. We tapped about sixty trees and installed a tubing system so all the sap would flow down into a big holding tank. Then we pumped it up in batches and boiled it down using an old sorghum pan over a wood fire. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get involved in a “sugar bush” operation again but I’d love to do a little home sugaring or maybe help out with a program like Rent-A-Sap-Bucket at a local park. I do love the fact that I got to do it once from start to finish. There’s something powerful about being involved in the process of making your own food, whether it’s growing your own vegetables or learning how to butcher a cow. (Warning: the cow butchering link contains graphic pictures of dead animals, although I must confess I found them fascinating and I really love the idea of taking a class about butchering.)

The maple syrup operation I worked with was relatively modernized but syruping seems like a pioneer tradition to me.  Lately I’ve been thinking about pioneer skills and how learning from our ancestors (or other people’s ancestors) could inspire us to live more sustainably. There are several places in Indiana like Spring Mill State Park and Conner Prairie that are dedicated to historical reenactment and offer classes in everything from spinning to candle-making to blacksmithing. How many of those skills are really useful today? Probably most of us will never be called upon to run a grist mill or shoe a horse but I believe there’s something powerful in studying the old ways of life.  For one thing, it’s great to be reminded of all the things we can do with our own two hands.  At the same time, it’s very humbling to think about the work that goes into making anything by hand.  Consider the process of making a sweater from scratch – shear the sheep, card the wool, dye the wool, spin the wool, weave the yarn, and two hundred man-hours later you have a lumpy looking garment that will probably keep you warm if you don’t accidentally shrink it in the wash.  Suddenly $60 for an eco-sweater seems almost reasonable.

I am also amazed when I think about all the knowledge a typical pioneer had about his or her environment. Which wild plants are edible? How do you find deer (or avoid wolves)? What do you do when your cows eat herbs that make their milk poisonous? Granted, we know lots of other things they never dreamed of but I still am impressed by anyone who can live off the land.

I don’t really aspire to become a pioneer woman. Well, sometimes it sounds really cool to be able to be entirely self-sufficient and know everything from how to help a ewe give birth to how to construct a log cabin, but I know it would take me years to learn it all and that most of the knowledge is only appropriate for a lifestyle that is totally foreign to me. So I dabble here and there, and I think the greatest benefit for me is reconnecting with my body and my environment.  There is just nothing like getting hands-on with natural materials and natural settings.  So, anybody know where I can find a good “Sheep to Sweater” course?

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5 things you DON’T have to give up to be sustainable

TowelI recently saw a little bit of an Oprah show on sustainability. What really struck me was a moment where the guest was talking about low-flow showerheads and Oprah laughed a little and said she wouldn’t give up her strong showers. I think a lot of people see living sustainably in a similar way, as a form of deprivation. Every once in a while when I talk to other people about living more sustainably, they start asking me about what I’m giving up.

I think this is a really damaging impression of sustainability. In my view, sustainability isn’t about giving things up but about focusing on what’s really important to you. I’ve made some changes in my life, although not all of them remain a part of my routine (making soap is just not my thing). At no point, though, have I had to give up anything I really cared about. I’m just prioritizing a little differently.

So here are the things people seem most worried about missing if they start living more sustainably but that you don’t have to give up. I certainly haven’t!

  1. Hot showers – I still thoroughly enjoy hot showers, especially now that we keep the thermostat lower at night. I don’t take showers every day and I keep them short when I do take them (5-10 minutes). We could be more efficient still if we had a gas water heater or a tankless water heater, so there’s plenty of room to improve without having to give up my hot showers.
  2. Your friends – About a month ago, there were a lot of comments on No Impact Man about how living sustainably is necessarily lonely because what you’re doing is so different than what everyone else is doing. I don’t agree. Not only do my old friends still hang out with me, I’ve made lots of new friends by going to the farmer’s market and trying out new things. Even those who think living sustainably is a bit weird have fun coming over to make soap or eat a local meal.
  3. Meat – A lot of vegetarians tout the reduced environmental impact of their diet. I’m not convinced. Although it does take more plant matter to feed a cow than if I were to eat it directly, cows can eat a lot of things that I can’t. It’s also much easier to raise animals without changing the landscape significantly than it is to grow most plants. You don’t have to clear-cut forests to raise pigs. To me, the more important thing about my food is that it’s grown locally and sustainably. It’s entirely possible to do this with animals as well as plants. I do admit that I eat less meat than I used to, but that’s more a result of economics (good beef is more expensive than factory-farmed stuff) than a belief that meat is inherently bad.
  4. Your free time – I see this complaint with other lifestyle changes, like frugality or dieting, as well. It does sometimes take more time to go to the farmer’s market than the grocery store or to darn socks rather than buying new ones. It’s all about priorities. I enjoy going to the farmer’s market more than going to the grocery store, so I don’t mind spending more time on it. If you don’t, then skip it and figure out other areas where you can make an impact. For example, maybe you don’t feel like you have enough time to cook real meals every night. You could have friends over once a month to spend a day making freezer meals, which can be a lot of fun. Or, if that’s not your thing, you could start a dinner club with some friends and spend one night a month cooking and three nights a month eating meals others have prepared. The possibilities are endless!
  5. Electronics – Lots of the materials used to make computers and other electronics are really nasty. However, there are now lots of ways to recycle them (like the new partnership between GreenSight and Costco) and I feel they can improve your life enough that it’s worth it. I do think about the impact of the things I buy, but I weigh that against my life as well. I always buy laptops, which reduces my energy use, and I use power strips to reduce “phantom” energy use. I get enough out of my laptop (and Wii) that I’m willing to make some sacrifices in my sustainability.

So far, living more sustainably has consisted of looking closely at various aspects of my life and starting to cut out parts that don’t fit in with my values. Nothing I’ve given up has been worse than the things I’ve given up for other reasons, like deciding that I wanted to start my own business. I think the trick is to just start thinking about things more holistically. When you do that, you can make better decisions about what’s worthwhile for you and what isn’t. In general, it’s a painless process. Ocassionally, I’ll push myself and try something that’s outside of my comfort zone. If it turns out to be worth it to me, I stay with it. If not, I know I’ve given it a shot. I’d wager that most people could double their sustainability just by trying out something new without affecting at all the things that are really important to them.

I’m curious about what other people have worked around. What are some things that you aren’t willing to give up? Are there any things you were surprised to find could be done better with little effort?

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Snot rags… I mean, handkerchiefs

Maggie’s noseI have been a long-time fan of the handkerchief as opposed to Kleenex but I realize there are lots of folks like Student Doctor Green who are a little grossed out by the concept of blowing your nose into a piece of cloth and sticking said piece of cloth back into your pocket. Yes, I admit, it’s a little gross but it’s not *that* gross. (Oh, and by the way, when I say “Kleenex” what I really mean is “Seventh Generation Recycled Facial Tissues.”)

I have never been a dainty nose-blower. I am much more of the honking type. I also learned early on that my nose will inevitably run when I am as far as possible from a Kleenex box. This led originally to the habit of stuffing my pockets with Kleenex in the morning and then holding onto them (fresh or used) during the day so I would always have at least some corner of dry tissue to use. Well, I also held onto my used Kleenex because there never seemed to be a good place to throw them away. It got to be a bit of a problem when I would invariably wash a pair of pants with three tissues in the pockets and discover that my clothes had been coated in a fine layer of white Kleenex dust.  This was well-covered in the recent Ode to the Humble Handkerchief.

I’m not sure when I actually switched over to handkerchiefs. I have a collection of about twenty now and have developed strong opinions about what kind are most effective. I really like the men’s thin white handkerchiefs that are still available in some department stores. They’re small enough to fit comfortably even in the pocket of my jeans but they have enough surface area to hold up well. Bandanas are bigger and sturdier but also bulkier and I also have some hesitation about blowing my nose on a piece of cloth I might also use to tie back my hair. It’s best not to mix the two. I also have a few dainty handkerchiefs I inherited from my grandmother. They remind me of her, which is nice, but they’re really designed for gentle nose dabbing, which never seems to accomplish much. In the end, whatever kind they may be, handkerchiefs are cheaper than Kleenex (in the long run) and easy to use.

So here’s my routine. It’s early in the day and my nose is just starting to run. I pull the fresh handkerchief out of my pocket and unfold it until there are about two layers. I find a good corner, blow my nose, and then fold the handkerchief to keep the moist part in the very middle, and stick it back in my pocket. Later, I can unfold it and find a different clean spot for the next nose blow. Usually I can find a clean spot and refold carefully to keep my hands and my pocket unsullied. If I have a cold and am producing a lot of snot, it’s time to switch to Kleenex although I often keep a handerchief as backup in case I run through my Kleenex supply. At the end of the day (or maybe a couple of days, I confess) I throw the used hankie in the laundry. Easy as pie!

Will thinks the whole process is kinda gross (especially if I try to take one to bed) but he mostly just looks the other way. And he’s good at reminding me that it’s probably best to wash my hands frequently, hankie or not.

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Greased Lightning – Driving on Vegetable Oil

Frozen GreasecarI don’t want to scare people away with my hardcore environmental tales but I do like to tell people about my greasecar.  It’s a 1997 VW Jetta with a turbo diesel engine that has been adapted to burn straight vegetable oil.  The idea is that I can burn waste vegetable oil (from all those French fry joints) instead of petroleum diesel which will achieve three goals: utilizing a waste product, reducing dependence on petroleum products, and reducing the amount of air pollution generated.  (The third one is debatable but at least it SMELLS a lot better.)  Oh, and I generally get my vegetable oil for free as opposed to paying $3.50/gallon for petroleum diesel.

The idea is simple.  The diesel engine was originally designed to burn vegetable oil so today’s diesels can also burn vegetable oil IF it is preheated to reduce the viscosity (make it thinner).  My car has a special tank in the trunk that I fill with filtered vegetable oil.  I start my car with petroleum diesel from the regular gas tank, use the heat from the engine to heat up the vegetable oil, and when it’s hot I push a button to start pumping from the vegetable oil tank instead.  At the end of my ride I switch back to petroleum diesel to purge all the lines.  This is so when my car cools down, the engine doesn’t gum up with vegetable oil.

Just to clarify, a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system is different than a biodiesel system.   Biodiesel is a product made by combining vegetable oil with lye and methanol to create a fuel that is very similar to petroleum biodiesel.  The cool part is that you can put it in the regular tank of any diesel vehicle and don’t need to modify the vehicle to use it.  (There are a couple of exceptions; biodiesel has a nasty habit of eating through certain types of rubber so there are some older cars that would need to have their gaskets switched out.)  The downside of biodiesel is that you have to make it, which generally involves some kind of processing system, and it generates some nasty byproducts.  This is not surprising since lye (drain cleaner) and methanol (antifreeze) are both pretty nasty to begin with.

I decided to go the straight vegetable oil route because I found biodiesel production to be intimidating.  There are definitely people out there who have awesome setups in their garages but they tend to be the tinkering types.  It’s also possible to buy biodiesel but most of that is made from new vegetable oil rather than waste vegetable oil.  I prefer to see new vegetable oil being used as people food instead of running my car. 

My greasecar has been pretty good but there was definitely a steep learning curve and I really feel like I haven’t done as well as I could have.  There are a few ongoing problems I have chosen not to deal with – for example, the gauge for the vegetable oil tank has never worked and my trunk has a permanent coating of grease from spills.  Filtering the waste oil is a HUGE pain and I still haven’t figured out a good system.  I also can only run on grease when the temperature is above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Diesels don’t like cold weather and veggie oil only makes it worse.  In the end, it has been a little too easy to run on petroleum diesel instead of hassling with veggie oil but overall I’m glad I did the conversion. 

I have a lot more to say on the subject so expect future posts about the nitty gritty details of conversion, turf wars for used vegetable oil, my internal debate about whether or not running my car on grease can really be considered environmentally benign, and my frustration with the biofuels movement.

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