Archive for March, 2008

Girl Scout Packaging Update

RecyclingIn other news, I got an e-mail back from the Girl Scout cookie company about my packaging complaint. Here’s what they say:

Dear Megan:

Thank you for contacting us to learn what our company is doing to help protect our earth. We share your interest in our environment and give environmental concerns a very high priority.

Today, almost all of our cartons are made of 100% recycled fiber. Most of the recycled material is made up of a mixture of newspaper, office paper, cardboard and printed waste paper from publishers and printing companies. Our cartons are usually accepted by recycling facilities which accept magazine or mixed paper. The plastic trays are all polystyrene 6 (PS 6) and can also be recycled. The recycle symbol is printed on all trays with the exception of Tagalongs due to a lack of space. The Tagalong tray does have the PS6 printed on the bottom.

We have also developed a waste management/recycling program at our company. Through this program we have recycled millions of pounds of paper, wooden pallets, and scrap metal as well as thousands of gallons of used motor oil. In addition, we ‘recycle’ waste food (food that does not meet our high quality standards) by sending it to food processors and farmers for use as animal feed.

We appreciate your support of the Girl Scouts in your community!


Joanna K. Grennes
Sr. Manager Consumer Communications
Consumer Affairs Department

Pretty cool! A little on the generic side but a lot better than when I called Planters to find out if the inner lid on their cans of cashews are recyclable and they said “most of our packaging is recyclable in most communities.” Now I know for sure that the Tagalong packaging is recyclable in Bloomington so I feel a little better about eating them. Yay Girl Scout cookies!

I also feel better knowing that my voice was heard. I will keep this letter in mind as motivation to spend a little time writing letters to businesses, politicians, and the editorial staff of my local newspaper. And maybe some day I will get a response from Steak N Shake about my suggestion that they offer a veggie burger so I can eat something there besides cheese fries and milk shakes, as tasty as they are.

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Earth Hour – Turning Off The Lights For One Night

Light switchOur mayor just announced that Bloomington will participate in Earth Hour 2008 on March 29. Earth Hour, run by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), is a global climate change initiative that calls on individuals and businesses around the world to turn off their lights for one hour on Saturday between 8 and 9 pm. The city public works department is planning to shut off all the “non-essential lighting and other electricity-consuming devices that will not have an impact on public safety” and is hoping residents and businesses will do the same.

It’s a cool concept and it’s cool to look at the satellite images taken during Earth Hour 2007 but the whole thing feels a bit superficial to me. I understand that it is symbolic and that it’s a great way to get some attention from the press and from every day citizens and invite them to stop and think about their electricity consumption. But turning out the lights for one hour seems pretty insignificant. Couldn’t we manage more than that?

I’d especially like to see Bloomington step up and commit to a larger project.  Our community prides itself in being progressive and committed to sustainable living so I think we should embrace a bigger challenge.  Winter’s over so I think we’ve missed out on Crunchy Chicken’s “Freeze Yer Buns Challenge” but perhaps we could all commit to setting our thermostats no lower than 78 during the summer months.  Or perhaps we could all commit to riding the bus to work once a month.  Or maybe we could each plant a victory garden and grow at least a portion of our own food.

Or maybe we should have Earth Hour every week instead of every year.  I’d be happy to reclaim quiet Sunday nights gazing at the stars with no lights, no TV, no distractions.  It sounds peaceful.

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Confession of a convenience addict

I admit it, I’m a fan of convenience. I’m the guy that Slow Food hates, the one who eats PB&J well into his twenties (and counting). I do eat at home a lot but that’s mostly because I’m cheap. If there were a restaurant that were as cheap as eating in, I’d probably eat there every day.

Since there isn’t, I do the next best thing. Many of my lunches are microwave meals. Sometimes, it’s good stuff like soup from good chicken stock or frozen homemade lasagna. Other times, pickings are slim and I return to my collegiate habits. At times like those, I head right right to the noodle bowls. Yeah, ramen is cheaper (and I do make it occasionally, with added veggies and half the “flavor”) but there’s something satisfying about tossing some hot water into a bowl and coming back just minutes later for a delicious noodle dish. Of course, I’m easy when it comes to noodles so ‘delicious’ might be an overstatement.

The only thing keeping this from being the perfect lunch crime, apart from the very real threat of sodium overdose, is the packaging. I can’t very well pretend to Maggie that I’ve been good when there’s a styrofoam cup leering at her from the drying rack.

Cue Annie Chun’s kung pao noodle bowl. Instead of the plastic wrap some of the noodle bowls have, it’s got nice, recycleable cardboard. Even better, the packaging says that the bowl is biodegradeable! After my coworker Ian told me about them, I walked down to Kroger to check them out. Normally, they’re $3.20 which is pretty steep for eating in, but they had a special offer of $1.60, which was pretty good. I took it as a sign and grabbed one.

Annie Chun’s disappointing kung pao noodle bowlIt seemed to good to be true and, to my chagrin, it was. Disappointment, thy name is Annie Chun. Inside the cardboard box and the biodegradeable bowl were four plastic packets of food and spices. I’m also not convinced that the “biodegradeable” bowl would actually biodegrade in a landfill, which makes it effectively plastic. The bowl’s website is more of an ad for Annie Chun’s charity than information about the bowl so I can’t tell.

There’s not much point in replacing the styrofoam cup with a “biodegradeable” bowl if you then add in as much plastic as you saved. I wish the microwave meal people would take a cue from the mac and cheese boxes. With just a cardboard box around noodles and a small plastic “flavor packet,” there’s very little packaging and all of it recycleable.

After mentioning my throught to her, Maggie upped the ante by suggesting that I create my own microwave meals out of bouillon cube “flavor packets,” frozen veggies, and rice noodles. At $0.99 a pound, the noodles are cheap, the frozen veggies almost as much, and bouillon is even less, so the frugal Dr. Jekyll in me definitely approves.

We’ll see how my convience-driven Mr. Hyde feels when I try it out!

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Weekend Project – Setting Up the Worm Bin

Handful of WormsAs some of you may recall, I used to have a worm bin in my old apartment for composting my kitchen scraps.  I’ve been meaning to set it up again but kept procrastinating although I did manage to caulk the edges of the box last month (it had a tendency to leak).  This weekend my friend Doug was in town and agreed to help me get my worms back in action.

My worm bin is a wooden box with a couple of air holes on the side (lined with some leftover gutter grating to keep the worms from crawling out). Doug says he is more used to tupperware containers or old coolers that have a little spigot on the side so you can collect the “worm tea” – basically a liquid fertilizer that is produced over time. However, wood boxes tend to let the water evaporate a little more so I haven’t had much water build up. I’m thinking about eventually doing some larger vermicomposting outdoors and maybe I’ll even try Doug’s suggestion of converting an old bathtub. Yum!

Worm BinOur first step was to shred a bunch of newspaper and soak it in water. I like to make the strips about 1″ thick but you can also use the skinny stuff out of a paper shredder. Another alternative is to use hay or straw but I myself have a more plentiful supply of old newspapers. We did the project indoors because it was freaking cold this weekend and we managed not to make too much of a mess. I find a 5-gallon bucket works pretty well for soaking.

worm bin with newspaper and soilAfter putting down several layers of wet newspaper, I added a couple handfuls of potting soil. The worms need the grit in the soil and the soil also provides some microorganisms to help with the composting process. Vermicomposting involves a lot more critters than just worms but worms tend to be the ones you see. The best worms to use are red worms or red wrigglers although you can also use nightcrawlers. The idea is to get the kind of worms that eat leaves and organic matter, as opposed to earthworms, which eat dirt. My worms came from my friend Lucille, who is a hardcore eco-green expert (she has been living car free for over 20 years) and had a healthy supply of worms to share.

Worm Bin with FoodI buried the worms in a corner of the box and they were good to go! Lucille sent them with a bit of soil and food scraps from her worm bin but I had a whole fridge of leftovers to clean out so I tucked in several more goodies. They love eggshells especially although I always try to break the eggshells up into little pieces. (Worms have tiny tiny mouths.)

So I’m back in business! There are really only two tricks to worm composting. One is to make sure all the food scraps are buried (otherwise they’ll start to smell a little) and to make sure the worms don’t get too dried out (the bedding should stay damp). I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Emissions are global too

Pollution moving across the oceanYou can file this one under “think global, act local.” We like to keep this blog pretty well focused on things that individuals can do because that’s the part that interests us. But sometimes, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture (in the form of beautiful pictures from NASA) to remind ourselves why it’s worth doing.

NASA has some great satellite pictures of pollution crossing the ocean from China to North America. From the article (via Treehugger), but emphasis mine, “we estimated the amount of pollution arriving in North America to be equivalent to about 15 percent of local emissions of the U.S. and Canada.” It’s not enough to just cut emissions where we are, although that’s great too. We need to elect leaders who are willing to actually lead and start encouraging and helping other countries to curtail their emissions as well.

This isn’t a jab at China. A lot of those emissions are from forest fires and that “pollution also flows from Europe, North America, the broader Asian region and elsewhere.”

To me, this highlights the importance of getting a move on here in the US regarding our own emissions. We can’t directly control what China and Europe do, so we should reduce our pollution to levels where we can cope with additional stuff from overseas. Think of it as emission independence to go along with oil independence. If we can show other countries how to effectively act sustainably, they’ll almost certainly follow which is good for everyone.

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Green Video Challenge (Revisited)

Student Doc Green loglStudent Doc Green was finally able to post her green living video and I must say, I think it’s better than ours.  She’s doing an awesome job figuring out how to make big changes with small steps in the Lone Star state where people think she’s crazy for bringing her own bags to the grocery store.  It reminds me of how lucky I am to have so much support from my community and my family.  It seems like folks in Bloomington are always talking about green living and I’ve heard about the environmental movement all my life.  I’m not sure I would have taken the initiative by myself the way she has.  And I must admit, some of her “small” steps seem pretty challenging to me.  I may have to give up processed foods for a week this summer just to prove to myself I can do it, if I can.

Thanks, Student Doc Green, for keeping us inspired.

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When is walking worse than driving?

MilkDon’t you hate it when someone takes something you’ve said out of context and uses it to support the exact opposite point of view? Chris Goodall, British environmentalist and author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life has found himself in that situation. Recently, in How Virtuous is Ed Begley, Jr, John Tierney of the NY Times mentioned that Goodall had calculated that it’s worse for the environment to walk 1.5 miles to the store and replace those calories with a glass of milk than it is to just drive there. Most of the commenters assume that Goodall is encouraging people to drive and lambast him under that assumption.

Like many assumptions, it’s totally off-base. Goodall isn’t using the numbers to say that driving is good; he’s trying to show that the current state of food production is terrible. When driving a mile and a half is better than drinking a glass of milk, something has gone terribly wrong. In Goodall’s view, it’s the whole factory farming system.

This analysis, and the similar one about biking at assumes that you’re buying into that system. If you’re buying local organic milk (or beef, for that matter), then you cut out a lot of carbon emissions (for pesticides, etc.) and reduce others (transportation).

As an aside, the assertion made on the page that cost implies energy (“Since the costs of water and energy for laundry are much lower than [the cost for driving], they can’t possibly use more energy than driving.”) drives me crazy. There’s almost no relationship between cost and energy density. Maggie and I have this argument all the time when we’re bemoaning the price of fuel. I’ll complain that gas is $3.30 a gallon and then Maggie one-ups me by saying that diesel is up to $4.50. Once you take into account the fact that diesel is more energy dense, though, Maggie spends about half as much as I do to go as far. As a more extreme example, burning wood that you cut yourself is very cheap but very polluting. It’d be much better to use solar to heat your shower water, even though it’s much more expensive.

But back to the original question. When is walking worse than driving? When your food drives out to meet you.

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Raindrops Keep Falling… So Build a Rain Garden!

Rain GardenIt has been raining pretty steadily for the last two days. I hear some areas south of us received 9 inches but we’re feeling that 3 or 4 is more than enough. As chance would have it, I spent about 8 hours today attending a conference about the use of native plants in urban spaces with a focus on using native plants to manage storm water, sponsored by the design firm EcoLogic.

“Alternative storm water management” was one of the key buzzphrases when I worked for JFNew as an engineering consultant a few years ago. It’s one of those ideas that makes a lot of sense but is totally opposite from conventional storm water management. Okay, so the old school way of dealing with storm water was to get it off-site and into a stream as quickly as possible. This makes a lot of sense if your main goal is to keep your building from flooding. However, it has several unfortunate consequences. One is that all the pollutants that get washed off roofs, streets, and other impervious surfaces get immediately dumped into our streams. The other is that a large amount of water gets dumped into streams all at once, which means the stream experiences higher flow levels than it would in a natural setting and there can be flooding downstream.

So the theory behind alternative storm water management is this: Why don’t we try to hold some of the water on-site and let it infiltrate into the ground the way it used to? This recharges the groundwater, it allows some of the pollutants to be filtered out as the water flows through the soil, and it helps the streams have a more natural flow pattern.

One of the most common ways to do this is using a bioretention area. The basic idea is to have a depression (dry pond) that captures water during storm events and then lets it percolate slowly into the ground. They can be done at a variety of different scales but someone wisely dubbed the backyard version “rain gardens.” Rain gardens are becoming much more common as a landscaping option for individual residences and are being actively promoted here in Monroe County. They’re pretty easy to build; you basically dig a depression in your yard that will naturally catch water, amend the soil a little bit so it will let water infiltrate (this is especially important in Bloomington where we have heavy clay soils), and plant some water-tolerant native plants.

Native prairie plants are ideal because they have massive root systems that help increase infiltration rates and they also are used to tolerating periods of extreme drought and extreme water. There are also lots of cool native wetland plants to use in the wettest part of the rain garden.  I listened to a couple of botanists talk for two hours about what species are the most appropriate but really, the key is finding plants that will tolerate a wide range of moisture and that you and your neighbors agree are at least marginally attractive.

I think our landlord would frown on us digging holes in the turf grass that surrounds our little duplex so we’re going to wait on this one until we have our own space but I really want to build one. Maybe next year I’ll be ready for those April/March showers.

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Be Kind Rewind

YouTube Sweded from and I just watched Be Kind Rewind. Directed by Michel Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine fame), it follows Jack Black and Mos Def as they accidentally erase all of the videos in the store and have to recreate them with a handheld camera and a $20 budget. The overarching threat is a condo development that will replace the video store unless they manage to raise $60,000. If it sounds a little like Empire Records, that’s because it is, with one huge exception. Where Empire Records focuses on the lives of the employees, Be Kind Rewind is about the entire community of Passaic, NJ.

At turns funny and sad, Be Kind Rewind is, at heart, a paean to localized connectedness. The Be Kind Rewind store and its ensemble of weird patrons contrast with “West Coast Video”‘s army of identically dressed customers, who all get the same two movies. Implied too is the difference between the big budget movies we’re familiar with and the recreations of Be Kind Rewind. The movie deftly argues that community, and movies with heart, are more important than cookie-cutter national corporations. At the same time, the movie left me questioning how much change you can actually make in your community. It’s just not worth going up against big companies on their turf. They’re extraordinarily good at making money in ways that you just can’t compete with locally.

My takeaway is that as communities, we need to be looking for ways to reconnect that don’t involve “economic” one-size-fits-all solutions. The “sweded” movies that Black and Mos Def make are important entirely because of their context. Remove them from Passaic, sell them across the country, and they become meaningless.

It’s those very things that end up leading to real happiness.

If that’s a little heavy for you, and I don’t blame you, you should check out the “sweded” trailers a YouTube Sweded.

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It’s Pretty Easy Being Green – Video Post

Here is our video post in response to a challenge from Student Doctor Green.  It’s about 3 minutes long and gives an intimate view of our life at home living the green life.  It was fun to make although very time-consuming especially with Will trying to live up to the high standards he required as a video editing teaching assistance.  We hope this video won’t make his professors cry.

Got a topic you’d like to see a video clip about?  Let us know! I’m hoping to capture the baby lambs this April at our friend’s chicken and sheep farm.  Stay tuned.

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