Saturday, August 22, 2009

Used = Green

My wife and I stumbled upon an amazing fact up in Oregon: It is saturated with beautiful antique quality furniture. When we moved up at the beginning of the summer, we didn't want to bring all of our old baggage with us. We got rid of as much as we possibly could, including most of our furniture.

In looking for new furniture, we found that what worked in LA did not necessarily work in Eugene. Craigslist had some decent stuff, but it was pretty bleak compared to SoCal. Then we wandered into a St. Vincent de Paul, which I didn't know was a thing before we moved. We were both amazed, the thrift stores in Eugene are all packed with beautiful furniture. Stuff that would go for thousands of dollars in vintage shops on Melrose Blvd. was more like $100 bucks there.

Then, because Craigslist had to redeem itself, we came across a promising post. I believe all it said was "modern sofa," or something to that effect, and when my wife called, he said he had "s0me more modern stuff." When we arrived, there was a garage full of mid century modern furniture which this guy had culled from all over the Pacific North West. He also knew everything about modern design, and knew the designer of most of the pieces that he was offering. We furnished most of our living room out of his garage. Here are a few of the pieces that we got:

Dining set by Paul McCobb

Sofa by Umanoff, end table by Keal

Don't know designer, if you have any ideas please post in comments

I would be lying if I said that I was thinking about this at the time, but in retrospect this is the most sustainable way we could have furnished our new place, and it is also an excellent example of how you can save money being green. In the past, I have furnished apartments with a bunch of nice looking but really low quality cookie cutter furniture from Ikea and Target, and most of it eventually ended up in the trash.

Cheap furniture is really disposable furniture. When particle board warps, chips, cracks or breaks, it cannot really be repaired, and once it starts down that path it is not long before it ends its life in the landfill. It is usually designed to be put together only once, as well. Pre-drilled holes in the particle board and cam locks made of weak metal ensure that if you disassemble your Ikea desk, it will lose most of its structural integrity when you put it back together.

In the long run, cheap furniture ends up costing you more money, because you have to replace it more frequently. But unless you are paying more in taxes than I make in a year, antique quality furniture is way too expensive, and there isn't really much of an in between.

One great way to get around this dilemma is to buy used furniture. You can tell if it is well made pretty easily: if it is still solid after years of use it will probably be good for many more. Also, solid wood is really easy to repair. With a very small investment in wood glue, a few clamps, and maybe a power drill, you can keep solid wood pieces alive for decades.

Buying used stuff is more sustainable in two ways: first it reduces demand for more new stuff, which means that there is less energy being consumed to produce that new stuff, and second it keeps old stuff out of the waste stream. But more than being green, when you buy used you can afford to get better quality stuff; beautiful, well designed stuff that you will love. And if you love it, you will take care of it: fix it when it breaks and find a good h0me for it when it no longer fits in your life.

Different cities have different channels for finding good used stuff. The thrift stores in Eugene, for example, are a great resource, where in LA they have been completely picked over by people who buy the good stuff, fix it up, and sell it for 10 times as much out of little boutique shops. But, in Los Angeles, the stuff available on Craigslist and at yard sales can be amazing. One way or another, people are always changing their surroundings, and high quality used furniture is available for those who seek it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vinegar, Salt & Baking Soda: green cleaning

A big part of the green movement is about keeping the spaces in which we live and work healthy. One way to do this is to avoid buying products with toxic chemicals.

Most people these days have forgotten what our grandparents or great grandparents knew: most things can be cleaned and disinfected using distilled white vinegar, ordinary table salt, baking soda, or some combination of those things.

Vinegar kills bacteria and breaks up some stains and messes due to its acidity. Lemon juice works the same way. Either of these can be used to disinfect countertops or (with a little oil) to polish wood. Vinegar may smell a little harsh at first, but when it evaporates, there is no odor left. More here. Way more than you can possibly use in one lifetime here.

Salt kills bacteria by drawing all its water out, and this is why food has been preserved in salt for thousands of years. Also, the course grains can be used to scrub tough stains (such as pots and pans), especially with a little vinegar or other slightly acidic substance. More here.

Baking soda draws grease stains out of anything, and many commercial cleaning products have baking soda at their base. It can also be used (with vinegar) to break up simple clogs in kitchen and bathroom sinks. But, it is not very effective on really bad clogs. More here.

You can buy these items in bulk for practically nothing, and reduce your waste stream by replacing all of those small bottles of specialty cleaners. Imagine replacing all that junk under your sink with just a bag of salt, a box of Soda and a 5 gallon jug of vinegar. And instead of being toxic, all of these are things you can put in your food. You can literally eat a teaspoon of it with no negative impact to your health (I wouldn't do it though, it would probably be unpleasant).

I will be posting stories of successes and failures cleaning with these things in the future. Though probably not many failures: I have found very few messes that could not be cleaned using these three products.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Food: greens and beans, part 1

I intend to post a lot about cooking on this blog, because I love to cook. It is extremely pertinent to a discussion about going green too, because large scale food production is responsible for more green house gas emissions than all of the cars on the road. By a lot. So for anyone who has never heard the link between going green and food, here is a brief overview.

What does food have to do with being green? Well, a lot. For one thing, cows produce methane, which is a green house gas. All animals produce methane actually (including us), but cows produce more than most. Also, because we eat so very much beef in this country, we have developed a lot of unsustainable practices to get that much beef to market. For an intro, see Farmer in Chief by Michael Pollan, an open letter to the new president about food production in this country.

Now I am not one of those conspiracy theorists who think that big business and big brother are evil, I recognize that today's problems all stem from the solutions to yesterday's problems. We have intensive, unsustainable agriculture right now because previous generations were trying to solve the problems of food shortages and hunger. But the fact is that now, we face new problems and need new solutions.

So what can we do? Well, lets start from the easiest and work our way up to the hardest adjustments that we can make to do our part.

For one, we can eat chicken instead of beef every so often. Without getting too technical on you, chicken is the most environmentally friendly meat. Next, in the same vein, we can eat vegetarian once in a while. If you like Indian food, this should be a snap. In India, they have been working on their vegetarian recipes for about two thousand years, and they've gotten pretty good at it.

Third, we can try eating vegan a few times. This is harder, because for people who are used to eating animal products with every meal (even most veggie meals have butter, cheese or milk), most vegan food tastes like cardboard. But try different places, different recipes, and well really just keep trying! And also, don't try so hard. Pasta with olive oil and spices, tossed with some grilled or fried vegetables and a little sea salt is a quick, easy, and delicious vegan dish, for example (I love sea salt, maybe it deserves its own post...).

You've probably heard this a thousand times in some form, but if everybody would do these three basic things on a regular basis, it would have a huge impact. There are a few more difficult/ intensive things that we can do as well, but I will post that stuff later, in part 2.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I am sure you have heard people talk about biking and how great it is for the environment before, and most of you have likely thought, for some reason or another, that it would never work for you. I went through a similar process, living in Los Angeles, and I have to say, I was surprised at how easy it was.

When I started biking, I had a 7 mile commute, and I had my doubts that it would be possible. I was out of shape, having worked a desk job for about a year and half prior, and I had no idea how long it would take to bike seven miles, how fast I could expect to go, and whether or not I would be able to breath when I got to work. In short, I had drastically underestimated how easy it is to ride a bike.

Pretty much the first day I got on the bike I was averaging 10 miles per hour, and that is including traffic lights. The first week, after no working out for almost two years, I was a little winded after 7 miles, but the slight adrenaline rush and extra energy of a morning work out made up for it. It wasn't until a month of biking to work every day that I realized, driving in the city had slowly and quietly been ruining my life.

Everyone complains about driving in Los Angeles, and they are all right. It is stressful, and as most doctors will tell you, stress can lead to all sorts of health problems. Also, when you drive everywhere in Los Angeles, everywhere you go you arrive in a really bad mood. Biking, on the other hand, is really fun! Every time I get on a bike, for the first few minutes I feel like I am 15 again (only without all the social awkwardness, insecurity and acne).

On the green front, the only way to be more green than riding a bike is walking, and that is truly not a viable option for most people. More people biking, even part of the time, is a trifecta for LA: reduce emissions and improve air quality, reduce congestion on the roads, and improve your health both mentally and physically.

Los Angeles, despite what you may have heard, is a great city for biking, especially if you commute during rush hour. You might be surprised how easy a 10, or even 15 mile commute can be, and at the peak of rush hour, you might get to your destination faster on a bike than you ever could in a car. If you live in LA, I would get down to Orange 20 Bikes right away, and find out what it would take to commute by bike. While you're there, get lunch at Pure Luck (who knew vegan food could so, so, so, SO delicious), and then check out Scoops (not really green, but mmmmm).

DISCLAIMER: My wife and I used to live around the corner from Orange 20, and I just need to pay back that awesome little community for the many good meals and deals they have given us over the years we lived there.

Ironically, since deciding to become a green consultant, I have found it increasing difficult to avoid driving. My schedule is totally up in the air, and sometimes I need to get across town on short notice in the middle of the day. In that situation, riding is not really an option. For that reason, I have come up with the crazy plan of building an electric motorcycle (or more realistically converting an old motorcycle to electric), but that is the subject of another post.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Maker Movement - why it is green and why I love it

I don't know if the people who started the Maker Movement intended it to be a green movement, but whether intended or not, it has the potential to do all kinds of green good.

The fact of the matter is that we Americans buy too much junk. And I am not preaching at you here, I am not telling you that you personally are responsible for the over consumption problem, I am saying that too much of the stuff we buy ends up being junk.

So many of the products that we buy are poorly designed, or worse, designed to break. Whats more, when they break, you find that they are impossible to open up and repair. In fact, if you do open one up, your warranty instantly expires, and FBI agents break down your door and cart you off to be prosecuted for theft of intellectual property. Sort of.

Manufacturers have gotten used to the idea that they are selling you a closed system, and if anything ever goes wrong your only options are taking it back to the manufacturer or throwing it out to buy a new one. Planned obsolescence and designing for short product life span ensure that you will need to purchase a replacement widget soon, and the old widget will be useless for any purpose other than filling land.

So what can we possibly do in the face of such an entrenched system? Is there no way out? Well the people at Make Magazine may not have all the answers, but they have a great philosophy for getting more out of your junk, and evaluating whether or not your next purchase is going to be junk.

Make is a Magazine about how to be a modern day tinkerer, how to get more out of those widgets we buy with our hard earned money, and how to turn our landfill fodder into a fun Sunday project. With the purchase of a few basic tools (that should last you the rest of your life), we can conquer our waste stream, open up those busted products to repair them, re purpose them, or possibly even improve them.

Endowing garbage with new value, reusing and re purposing things instead of buying new junk, that is as green as it gets. Also, it's FUN! What former boyscout, amateur engineer, or generally interested person doesn't LOVE the idea of cracking stuff open and messing with the functional parts?

On the purchasing new stuff side, Mr. Jalopy (yes, like an old car) has penned the Maker's Bill of Rights, a simple list of how a product should be presented. In a forum at the UCLA book fair this past spring, he asked the audience: if you can't open something up and tinker with it, do you really own it? Or are you just renting it from the manufacturer? With that in mind, the Maker's bill of rights provides a simple list of rules for products that a Maker will approve of. Some of them are neat little memorable sayings that hold an entire philosophy in a few words, such as the most quotable: "screws are better than glues."

I think that embracing the Maker's philosophy can improve the relationship that people have with their stuff and at the same time reduce unnecessary waste and consumption. I dare say, if more people took the initiative to understand how things work and how to work with them, the positive repercussions could be limitless.

Here we go...

Well, here we go. I have been planning on starting a blog for quite some time now, basically since I decided to start studying for the LEED exam and made the decision to become a green consultant.

My purpose here is to document all of the ways in my life that I am trying to go green. Sure, there are plenty of sources online to find similar information (, the Green Guide, etc.), but I figured that since I spend pretty much all of my time thinking about this stuff, it couldn't hurt to have one more person's spin on the situation.

With that in mind, I set out to create a space for a discussion about going green, why it is important, how we can do it in our day to day lives, and provide many (I hope) colorful anecdotes about how I am trying to go green, and when I fail, why.

I hope some folks out there finds this humble little blog useful and informative, and I thank you for spending your valuable time with me.

P.S. - Since this is my first blog, I would greatly appreciate any feedback. I am a novice in this world, and need all the help I can get.