Archive for November, 2008

Feed trouble

If any of you tried to access our RSS feeds in the past several days, you might not have been able to.  For some reason, the URL I was using decided to stop working a couple of days ago and I didn’t realize it until now.

Everything should be hunky-dory now, though!  You can subscribe to our articles or all comments. Let me know if you have any further trouble!

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Podcast 2: Black Friday, gift wrapping, and traditions

Today, Maggie and I talk about Black Friday, green options for gift wrapping, and creating new traditions.

Buy Nothing Day, which we mention in the podcast, is run by Adbusters, a magazine focused on reducing consumerism.

This podcast is about 12 minutes long, which is twice as long as last week’s. Maggie and I aren’t sure what the best length is, so we’re hoping you’ll listen in and let us know what you like best. We look forward to your comments!

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The last Dr. Pepper

Dublin Dr. PepperAs I sit here writing this, I’m drinking the very last of the Dublin Dr. Pepper I got for the wedding. Some people are fanatics about a cola; I love Dr. Pepper. I was a cola drinker as a child, apart from brief flings with regional specialties like Cheerwine, until we went on a long summer vacation without soda. By the time I got back, my tastebuds had changed. Cola was no longer sweet ambrosia but a caustic acid. Dr. Pepper, however, remained tasty.

I now drink about one can per day, although I used to drink more. At one point, I drank at least on bottle (which is 50-75% more than a can) a day. Of course, I also used to play soccer 20 hours a week, so the extra calories were useful (as Warren Buffet says about Coke, if I hadn’t been drinking so much soda, I’d have wasted away).

Dr. Pepper and I haven’t always had a smooth relationship. When I started to seriously examine my lifestyle, I began to worry about the caffeine consumption. I do occasionally get migraines and caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal) can be a trigger for some people. I read horror stories and decided that I needed to cut down while I could do it slowly rather than wait until I had to quit cold turkey sometime.

And then I looked up some actual numbers and found that an 8 oz cup of coffee has around twice as much caffeine as one can of Dr. Pepper. The horror stories I’d read had been about people who were consuming ten times (or more) as much caffeine as I was! Instead of using my carefully designed course of gradual reduction, I immediately dropped down to no more than a 20 oz bottle a day (which I usually got by walking to the grocery store and back).

Later, I decided that 20 oz was usually more than I wanted to drink and switched to 12 oz cans. This was also quite a bit more frugal, since instead of paying a dollar per soda, I could get my cans in bulk and pay about a quarter.

Unfortunately, Dr. Pepper has another problematic ingredient besides caffeine: high fructose corn syrup. I’ve become much more concerned with high fructose corn syrup than caffeine. I don’t eat much that has caffeine in it, but everything seems to have high fructose corn syrup.

I assumed that I’d have to just have to live with it (or give up Dr. Pepper) until I ran across Dublin Dr. Pepper. The bottling plant in Dublin, Texas is the oldest one around. Back in the 70s and 80s when all the other plants switched to high fructose corn syrup, the Dublin plant stuck with the original cane sugar recipe.

It’s quite a bit more expensive than regular Dr. Pepper, although primarily because of the shipping costs. When we were ordering drinks for the wedding, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. Although they sell normal-looking cans, I went whole hog and ordered the classic 8 oz class bottles.

A week later, I had my corn-free Dr. Pepper. Maggie says that she can’t tell the difference, but I find that it has a stronger, fuller flavor. There’s also something appealing about drinking from the small glass bottles. I have childhood memories of getting soda in glass bottles from a vending machine, but it was rare that you could find one that didn’t just dispense cans.

It was a worthwhile experiment. I’ve proven to myself that high fructose corn syrup isn’t the reason that I like Dr. Pepper. We also got some great bottles that we can reuse with our own soda. I probably won’t re-order, though. I’d like to say that this was actually my last Dr. Pepper, but like most Americans (and probably most people), I’ll take the short-term pleasure and cost savings over the long-term quality.

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Plastic Bags and Good Jobs

I Am a Plastic Bag - TheBrassPotato on Flickr.comTiffany left a link in the comments awhile back to an article in Treehugger about a non-profit company in India called Conserve.  They have created a business where they hire ragpickers to collect used plastic bags from roadsides and dumping sites, wash them by hand, lay them out in sheets, and use some patented mystery process to press them into a sort of vinyl-like material.  The resulting material can then be turned into purses, bags, sandals, and other items.

She linked to the article about their utensil carrying cases, which I am definitely drooling over, but what most intrigued me was the video at the bottom of the article.  It tells the story of one of the ragpickers who collects plastic bags and then explains the whole business.  I have always been fascinated by India but unsure if I would enjoy visiting or just be overwhelmed by the density of people and the mix of wealth and poverty.  The video clips are certainly overwhelming.  Perhaps we would be more conscientious of our trash if it piled up by the side of the road but I must say, I’m happy to be spoiled by our sanitary conditions.

As I watched the video and learned about this young woman who has tripled her income with her new job collecting plastic bags (she now makes $70/month), it got me thinking about the argument that it’s okay for companies to open sweatshops in very poor areas because those people are better off with sweatshop jobs than they would be if the company weren’t there.  I could never quite stomach that argument.  On some level, sure, it’s better to be making a meager living than starving to death but on another level, shouldn’t we be trying to give everyone a good living?  Is that really naive and idealistic of me, especially when it’s so easy to pay above the “standard” wages in a really poor area?

I guess the real questions for me is “How do you define a ‘good’ living?” My gut feeling is that Conserve is really trying hard to be supportive of their employees as well as providing a useful service (cleaning up trash) and a marketable product.  I’m just not sure how to evaluate them or any other business objectively.

Hmmm, I guess this is another case for demanding that someone start a Green Consumer Reports magazine that would also include social justice data.  Anyone?  Anyone?

Or perhaps I’ll follow the lead of a good friend who is giving everyone handmade gifts for Christmas.  Not necessarily handmade by her, but handmade by somebody who is being paid reasonably for their labor.  She has many additional criteria she would like to consider for these gifts – ecofriendly, recyclable, fair trade – but has assented that sometimes you just have to take things one step at a time.

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November surprise

 We’re trying our hands at podcasting! It’s short because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to edit and post, but now I think we’ve got it under control. Let us know how it works!

Here’s our tagging by Greeen Sheep, as mentioned in the podcast.

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Humane health care

Maggie petting Kelly the beagleThis afternoon, I found myself at a vet, thinking about the state of our health care system. Maggie and I were there with Kelly, a 5 year old beagle who was hit by a car several weeks ago. This past weekend, we’d agreed to foster her for the local animal shelter so that she could get the personal attention that she needs. Today, Kelly needed to have her bandage changed so we made the appointment and took her in.

Health care has been on my mind quite a bit recently. It’s been in the news today because of Obama’s choice of Tom Daschle as Secretary of Health and Human Services. On a more personal level, one of my good friends has been wending his way through the health system after having a bad accident on his bike. And now there’s Kelly.

Beagles tend to move through the shelter pretty quickly. They’re small, friendly, and good with kids, which makes them desirable adoptees. Kelly was one of those beagles and was adopted several years ago.

On the 8th, Kelly was brought to the shelter by the police, who’d picked her up with a broken leg after she was hit by a car. Thanks to the microchip that the shelter had implanted on adoption, the shelter was able to contact Kelly’s owners. However, when told that they’d be liable for Kelly’s vet bills, they signed her over to the shelter.

It’s easy to think of her former owners as heartless, but the surgery that Kelly really needs costs two to three thousand dollars. That’s more money than I can easily rustle up. It’s also more money than the shelter can afford.

We were sitting in the vet office this afternoon because, although Kelly needs orthopedic surgery to heal properly, nobody can afford to pay for it. Unless she’s adopted soon by someone who can, Kelly is going to have to heal as best she can and deal with long-term consequences. Without surgery, she’ll probably have bad arthritis and may have to have her leg amputated within 5 years. They’re a bit worried now that she’s had a lot of muscle atrophy, but on the other hand, if Kelly continues to favor that leg the eventual arthritis might not bother her as much.

It’s a sad situation, but what really gets me is that it’s not unique. Not only are there lots of animals out there in similar situations, there are people who are weighing what they know is best against what they can afford.

With a dog, there isn’t any real economic cost to avoiding surgery. A three-legged dog can be just as loving and friendly as a four-legged one. For people the decision to avoid surgery, and save thousands in the short-term, may lead to tens of thousands or more in lost economic activity. Your work possibilities are much more limited when you have crippling arthritis or you’re missing limbs.

Things aren’t much better if you manage to borrow money to pay for the surgery. Medical expenses are one of the top reasons people file for bankruptcy. They can be so expensive that many hospitals will provide assistance even for those making as much as $30,000 a year!

Health insurance is a necessity so that you don’t take the risk of being wiped out financially for years to come. Unfortunately, it’s not only a considerable expense but a confusing proposition. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what is and isn’t covered. What counts as preventative care? What requires a maternity rider?

It’s even worse if you have a Health Savings Account, since that money is checked by the IRS. This means that your coverage is determined not only by your own savings and your insurance company but by what the IRS will allow. Naturally, the IRS doesn’t have any hard-and-fast rules, only guidelines.

Tom Daschle’s appointment as Secretary of Health and Human Services indicates to me that Obama is making health care reform a major issue early on. I’ve also heard rumors that health care reform will be tied to economic stimulus measures (which makes sense to me, since it would amount to a reduction of 5-8% in corporate payroll costs). Even if we don’t end up with a universal health system, I’m glad that the topic has been made a priority. Our system right now is just heartbreaking.

And if you’re looking for a pet (dog, cat, rabbit, mouse, or llama), I encourage you to head down to the Bloomington Animal Shelter to see who’s available. Everyone we met was very friendly, staff and pet.

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The Power of Poo

Kitty playing in Toilet by dmansouri on FlickrI have wanted to write a post on human excrement management for awhile now.  I know it’s a rather taboo subject and some folks might be pretty grossed out but my real reluctance is that I wanted to gather more information.  However, my brother just sent me a great link to a Time Magazine article asking “Is it Time to Kill Off the Flush Toilet?”  (I prefer the title “Is it Time to Flush the Flush Toilet?” but I’m sure it would make every editor cringe.)  Apparently, I just missed the World Toilet Summit and Expo, which honestly sounds really fascinating to me and I’m sure I would have found answers to many of my questions and seen models I never could have imagined.

Still, I realize that I know a fair amount about poo and pee.  I learned about traditional wastewater treatment plants as part of my environmental engineering training.  I worked for awhile designing constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment as an alternative to traditional septic systems, which means I got to learn a lot about both.  I have never actually installed a composting toilet but I have used at least seven different models and I did take one class on how to design a particular model.  (I can’t remember the name but the creator was hoping that his name too would some day be as famous as “Crapper.”)  I have toured a farm that collects cow poo and uses it to create methane for electricity.  There are a lot of options out there for dealing with poo.

Back in the day, folks would do their business in chamber pots and then fling it into the street.  It was gross, unsanitary, and caused a lot of disease.  Flush toilets came around as an awesome alternative – press the magic button and all the waste is carried away through a series of underground pipes!  Originally, it all got dumped in the nearest river (“dilution is the solution to pollution”) but nowadays it goes to wastewater treatment plants where the water is partially cleaned before being dumped into the nearest river.  I say “partially” because it’s really hard (and expensive) to treat the water to a level where it’s really clean.

Even if wastewater treatment plants were really effective, it’s hard to escape the fact that flush toilets basically take clean water, mix it with human waste, combine it with mostly clean water (greywater) from our sinks and showers, and then send it to a treatment plant that uses a whole lot of energy to clean the water again.  We can take a lot of steps to reduce the amount of wastewater generated by installing low flow toilets and diverting greywater for other uses (if your state’s health code allows it) but perhaps it is time to think beyond the flush toilet, as many designers at the Toilet Expo did.

I personally believe that composting toilets are the way to go.  Composting is not new technology.  The British agronomist Sir Albert Howard worked with farmers in India in the 1930’s to compost human excrement and turn it into a safe form of fertilizer.  The key is to get the compost hot enough to kill off the bacteria living in the waste.  Nowadays we are paranoid about hygiene and so almost all composting books will tell you to never put feces in a compost pile but there is a lot of documentation out there on how to do it safely.  (I still have not read the “Humanure Handbook” but it has an excellent reputation as the Bible of composting toilets.)  Composting allows us to truly recycle our bodily waste and make it useful again.

However, the world seems very resistant to composting toilets and I can understand why.  There are a lot of taboos around poo and a lot of resistance to trying anything new.  Flush toilets are convenient and do a great job taking our waste out of sight and out of mind.  Composting toilets require a little more thought and most of them need to be emptied periodically, which is an intimidating thought for most people.  I believe this issue could be resolved by having some sort of servicing contract where a maintenance person would take care of that duty on a regularly scheduled basis.  Another big hurdle is health code requirements.  I understand that health department officials are trying super hard to protect us from disease and are extremely reluctant to allow anything new until it has a proven track record but I wish there were a clear path for getting new technologies approved.  I also wish there were better communication between the health departments in different counties and states so people didn’t have to prove the same technology in every county.

This is one of those issues where I feel like I don’t have any good options.  It would be illegal for me to install a composting toilet at home or even to reroute the greywater from our sinks and tubs into a constructed wetland.  (Indiana law says that all water going down a drain in a house has to be treated as “blackwater” and sent through an approved treatment system.)  Some days I dream of being a champion for better poo management, fighting for the right to install composting toilets in every home, becoming an engineering expert on alternative poo management.

Most days I feel like the best I can do is to focus on conserving water and maybe start peeing on my compost pile.  Urine is sterile so as long as I don’t scandalize my neighbors I think I could get away with it.  Building a composting toilet in the garage seems more risky, although I’m still tempted. Maybe I could start a guerilla movement.  We could have awesome t-shirts proclaiming the Power of Poo.  Wouldn’t everyone want one?

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Two steps forward…

Two young girls playing hopscotchAs with most things, going green is a matter of two steps forward, one step back (at least, that’s been true for me). In the past several months, I think I’ve been in a one step back phase. Partly, I’ve been slipping because I’ve been so busy. When I don’t feel like I have time, I’m more likely to take shortcuts. Another big problem was the move itself. Moving broke a lot of my habits and I haven’t made the effort to reestablish them.

Since I last wrote about it, I haven’t ridden my bike any significant distance. I still haven’t made it downtown without a car, despite the bike and the bus stop at the end of the street. It’s been hard to get motivated now that the weather isn’t as nice. We did get a very nice bike bag as a wedding gift, however, so I feel better about taking my laptop along. I haven’t wanted to carry it in a backpack or on a rack where it could more easily fall out or be subjected to the elements, so I’ve been driving.

I’ve also been eating out more and cooking less. The fact that I’ve been busy has contributed, but so has Maggie’s recently busy schedule. When it’s just me for dinner, I’m much less likely to put effort into it. I’ve gained some weight since we moved and I think that’s a lot of it.

It’s a little thing, but I also haven’t been line-drying like I used to. There is a laundry line here, but it’s in the back yard. To get there from the laundry room, you have to walk through six out of the eight rooms in the house! It’s so much easier to just turn around and toss my laundry in the dryer.

The past four months haven’t been a total disaster, though. Not only have we been recycling more than ever, we grabbed stuff that my family was going to throw away (a carpet, styrofoam) and brought it back here to use or recycle (their city won’t accept styrofoam).

We’ve also managed to bring our electrical usage down quite a bit from apartment living, to about 80% of what we were using before. That’s about 70% of what it was when we first moved in, so removing lights, putting in power strips, and using CFLs have really made a difference. It helps that our heat and stove are gas too. So far, that hasn’t saved us any money (the electrical savings have been offset by the basic $12/month we pay for gas connectivity) but I expect it will now that it’s gotten cold.

Maggie has done better as well. She recently got a backyard composter and has been using it consistently. That’s reduced our garbage some (it’s not as persnickety as our worms) and gotten us thinking about soil amendments for planting next year.

Winter is a good time to take stock and evaluate where you are and where you’re going. This his been a crazy year. We bought a house, got married, had the best business year ever, and I’ll (hopefully) get my degree in just another couple months! We also managed to make a lot of progress on our goals, even if I slid back some as the year went on.

Now I’m ready to start thinking about how I’ll do better next year!

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Amazon’s packaging

Big corporations take a lot of flack from the environmental movement and for good reason. They’re antithetical to the “act local” movement and generally don’t think global either, apart from those aspects of the globe that affect their profit. On the other hand, large companies can do a lot of good by virtue of their bulk. What better way to get a multinational to do the right thing than to have another multinational push them into it.

The packaging Amazon no longer usesAmazon’s recent “Frustration-Free Packaging” initiative is a case in point. Lots of products are sold encased in cardboard and plastic. Worst are the plastic clamshells that are not only impossible to remove, but are dangerous as well. In a retail outlet, there’s some benefit to having packaging that shows off the product. For a mail-order business like Amazon, that just doesn’t make sense.

“Frustration-Free Packaging” is Amazon’s answer. They convinced several manufacturers to pack some of their best-sellers in much simpler (recycleable) cardboard boxes. Of course, Amazon’s primary concern is that the new packaging makes the experience much more enjoyable. Their The Great Unwrap Race video shows that well (and it’s pretty funny, so take a look).

Regardless of their ultimate motive, there are some serious environmental impacts as well. According to Amazon’s open letter, each newly-packaged toy pirate ship uses less materials: 1,612 square inches of cardboard, 178 square inches of plastic, 36 inches of plastic-coated steel wires, and two plastic fasteners. And, of course, none of that will have to be shipped, so there’ll be some space and transportation advantages.

It’s a great idea and I’m glad Amazon is taking the lead. I just wish more of their “frustration-free” products weren’t just plastic junk themselves.

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Martha Stewart and Urban Farming

[This is a guest post from our good friend Lindsey about a voting opportunity, in case you’ve gone into withdrawal since the election.]

In Portland, Laura Masterson of the 47th Avenue Farm is an urban farmer and advocate for local food, food security, and soil management. This year she is on the Multnomah County ballot as a candidate for East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Director, Zone 2. I found out about this from my friends in Portland who enthusiastically voted for her.  [She ran uncontested and won handily.]

Well, I just heard that, in addition to running for office, she’s also one of 11 finalists (all female entrepreneurs or activists, it looks like) for something called the Dreamers into Doers Award, which is sponsored by the website. It’s a $10,000 award.  For those of us who don’t live in Multnomah County, this is a way that we too can cast some kind of a vote for Laura and show support for the causes she represents.

You can vote once a day until voting closes on November 18.  Unfortunately, voting requires making an account on, but I imagine some of your readers could spare the five minutes to make an account and vote, or leave a comment of support for her there.  Here’s the URL:

From there, one has to click “meet the finalists”, then click “vote” next to Laura’s name. If not signed in, you’ll be asked to register/sign in at that point.


Lindsey Kuper, Rock Star in Training

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