Eco-Challenge: Week 1/2

Arm wrestlingWe’ve only had two days of our eco-challenge and already we’ve fallen behind.

My very first thought yesterday morning was to empty our trash cans so that we’d be able to see every time we messed up. Unfortunately, our trash bags are plastic, so that would violate the “no plastic” rule. Instead, I plan to use a paper grocery bag. Since our wet garbage gets tossed to the worms, it’s not as important to use plastic and I’ve been meaning to switch over for a while.

I also had trouble picking up some food at the grocery store. I wanted some soup and some peanut butter. The soup was no problem. Everything was in cans, so I could pick whatever I wanted. Peanut butter was surprisingly problematic. Only one brand (Smuckers) had a glass container and it had a plastic wrap around the lid (for my protection, I guess). I considered going with apple butter, since it was in a glass jar without the little wrapper, but decided to take the hit and go with peanut butter.

Maggie’s had similar little problems, the sort that we hadn’t expected when we signed up for this. Ironically, she’s had to throw away a couple of “organic” stickers from her fruit. Tonight was also a fundraiser for the Sycamore Land Trust, so her nametag eventually found itself in the trash.

We’ve also thrown away the little strip from Netflix envelopes that covers the sticky part. I think we could recycle it, but Maggie’s not sure.

I’ve also made a couple of compromises. For example, I had a sandwich today from bread in a plastic bag. Since I bought the bag weeks ago, I figured it was better to eat the bread I’ve got and then get a different type rather than just throwing it out (more trash!). In the shower arena, Maggie is continuing to use her plastic shampoo bottle since she can refill it at Bloomingfoods.

At the moment, I’d say that we’re at about 1 to 1 in terms of difficulty. Let us know if you’ve got any tips!

Current difficulty: Plastic 1 vs. Trash 1

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Eco-Challenge: No Plastic vs. No Garbage

armwrestlingAfter much deliberation, we decided to rise to the challenge of Crunchy Chicken’s Extreme Eco-Challenge. To make it even more interesting, we have each chosen to champion one of the challenges. It will be a cooperative effort but we’re each spearheading the idea that sounded most feasible.

I am going to shoot for no garbage output in May, encouraging us to beef up our recycling (I’ve been meaning to call city recycling department and get some clarifications on items like shrink wrap and unnumbered plastics) and our composting efforts, as well as paying even closer attention to packaging at the grocery store.

Will is going to shoot for no plastic consumption in May and so we will be shopping for non-plastic alternatives for our groceries and other consumables. He is a little concerned about having lost already since he ordered Wii Fit last week and it will arrive sometime in May, no doubt entombed in plastic.

Actually, we both anticipate failing. We’re viewing this challenge as an unachievable goal like perfection. Nobody will every be perfect but it’s still worth striving towards. Hopefully this will give us some insight on how we can make a few more changes at home to keep moving down the green path. Wish us luck!

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Picking bananas in the living room

I don’t much like fooling people on April Fool’s Day, but I do like the levity it inspires. Here’s a great compromise, passed on by my mother.

It’s an interview from the Colbert Report with Michael Reynolds, the inventor of the “Earthship” concept. Earthships are homes built into the land out of “garbage” materials like tires and bottles. Maggie and I visited an Earthship when we visited my grandparents in New Mexico and they did indeed have a banana tree in the living room.

We also visited a more local Earthship and it was amazing how different it looked even though it was built from similar materials. The challenges you face in New Mexico (altitude, dry heat, snow) are pretty different from those you see in the Midwest (rain, snow, and more rain), so the house had changed even though the principles were the same.

It’s a cool concept and Mike Reynolds is an interesting guy, so it’s worth watching. Enjoy!

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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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Filtering Used Vegetable Oil (or How I Spent My Saturday)

Maggie filtering veggie oilYa know those projects that you keep putting off for months and months because they sound intimidating and then when you finally get around to it, it ends up being quite easy? Well, that was my experience this weekend when I put together a little filtering system for my greasecar. As you may recall, I love my greasecar but find one of the biggest limitations is filtering the used vegetable oil. Used veggie oil is pretty gross and it’s pretty heavy. There’s also the catch that it’s very bad to get water in your veggie oil fuel so anything that is washed also has to be thoroughly dried. Anyway, I have considered building a really fancy filtration system and have lusted after electrical veggie oil pumps but so far can’t justify the cost, so I have been using cloth filter bags from They’re pretty cool but it has been challenging figuring out how to get the oil through them with a minimum mess. So after much deliberation, I built myself a little bucket filtration system!

Step one was cutting a hole in a bucket lid to accommodate the filter bag. Plastic buckets (and lids) actually cut pretty easily with a boxcutter although it took me awhile to figure out that it’s most efficient to just score the cut and then snap off the plastic rather than cut all the way through. (It also felt safer, as in less likely to cut off any of my fingers by accident.)

Filter bag in lidMaggie drillingStep two was drilling a hole in the bottom of the filter bag bucket. This is a two-bucket system, with the filter bag taking up the top bucket and the lower bucket storing the filtered oil. My goal was to let the veggie oil flow slowly into the lower storage bucket. I wasn’t sure how big to make the hole. I had brief flashbacks to my engineering hydrology classes at Purdue but decided to go with the trial-and-error method of hole-sizing, which meant starting small (it’s a lot easier to make it bigger).

Step three was cutting a larger hole in the lid of the bottom (storage) bucket. I wanted to make it big enough to let the oil drip cleanly through from the top bucket but small enough that the lid will still be able to support the weight of the top bucket even when it’s full of oil. I was amused to notice the recycling symbol on the bucket lid and realize that I can throw the plastic bits in with my recycling. Yay Bloomington Recycling!

Veggie Oil Close-UpBucket Lid with Recyclable signStep four was putting it together and testing it out. As you may have noticed, my jug of used vegetable oil sprung a leak at the bottom so I decided to “pour” it out of that end. I think the slow release was probably a good thing. The cloth filter bags are very effective but the flow rate is pretty slow, especially when the oil is cold. It was about 50 degrees out, which felt fantastically warm to me, but the oil was still a little thick. I hear that fancier folks have special veggie oil heaters to improve filtration rates. Maybe some day.

In the end, I managed to filter all 5 gallons of veggie oil with only a few minor spills. Then I poured the bucket of clean oil into the storage tank in my trunk, with a few more spills. Bleah. Alas, that one has to be chalked up to user error. I drove out to my aunt’s house last night but my engine never heated up enough to switch to veggie oil. I suspect there may be a problem with my thermostat since it never seems to heat up like it used to but that is another project. For now, I’m pretty happy with my new filtration system. It’s very satisfying to complete a little project and feel that I actually am a handy person. Next up? Figure out a way to decommission my dying water heater in a way that the landlord will HAVE to come fix it…

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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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