Friday, April 30, 2010

The three Rs of environmentalism - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The Waste Hierarchy is an established model for thinking about how to reduce waste, and divert it from incinerators and landfills.  Most people have heard the simplest version of this over and over again: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  This has become a mantra of the green movement.  It is very effective as a mnemonic device and people have widely accepted it as a rule of thumb.  Something that is lost in the repetition of the mantra, however, is that this is a hierarchy.  It is meant to be read: reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order.  It seems that in the mind of the average consumer this has too often been reduced to recycle, recycle, recycle, because that is the easiest thing to do to reduce the amount of stuff in your trash bin.

Why is this important?  Because different strategies have varying degrees of impact.  Recycling something does keep it out of the landfill, but most recycling processes use energy.  Often not as much energy as the initial process of creating it from raw materials, but still a non-negligible amount.  At the very least, that material has to be transported to some distant place to be reused.  So what if that piece of recyclable waste didn't exist?  Or what it if was smaller, or lighter?  What if instead of three layers of packaging made from three different materials, there was one layer of one type of material?  Less packaging usually means less raw materials consumed, less energy used, less waste in the production process, and less waste at home when you use the product.  The overall impact is much greater, and it exists in every level of the life of the product.

The difficulty here is that it is harder to control the reduction of materials.  Often, it just comes to you 'as is' at the point of purchase.  But there are a few simple things you can do.  If you buy vegetables at the Farmer's Market, and bring your own bag, you can get a weeks worth of food with hardly any packaging materials at all.  Some items like mushrooms will often come in a paper bag to control humidity, but that bag is going to be recyclable or compostable (there appears to be ambiguity about whether or not 'compostable' is a real word, but it is very useful, so I am sticking with it).

This is preferable to getting a separate plastic bag for each vegetable and then putting all those bags into other plastic bags, and getting some items in Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane.  Not that I am judging, that is what I end up doing when I go to a regular grocery.  You don't know where that cart has been (or more accurately what has been inside it).  Also, for some reason, I am embarrassed to bring my own bag into Ralph's (I still do, it's just harder), but it seems natural as breathing at the FM or Trader Joe's.  Why is that?  I guess it is because I am afraid of being labeled a loony by the 'normal' people at the super market, but I feel like I might be the most conservative person at the TJ's, and there the bags are proof that I am hip enough.

To get a little broader perspective of the hierarchy, here is a graphic produced by Lane County as part of their Recycler's Handbook, with the relative importance of each strategy represented by it place and the size of its level on the pyramid (used without permission, but I think this is 'fair use'):

If that is hard to read, you should be able to click on it and see a larger version.  There are also many other versions of this hierarchy with different or additional steps, and there is a lively debate about which one is best, but generally everyone agrees that reduction is most important, reuse is next, recycling is a decent alternative, and waste should be avoided.

All of these issues are in fact more complicated, and I intend to go further into each of them.  I will post something later with more detail about how to reduce and reuse materials, but for now I will provide you with a few links about how to recycle, because that topic is pretty well covered by people who have been generating these resources for longer than I have been thinking about them.

For a good overview of what can and cannot be recycled, check out the Consumer Recycling Guide.  It covers the basics about which plastics are recyclable (because not all are) and where you can recycle them (because your municipality may not take certain kinds).  The link above is a guideline however, and each city and county chooses what they will recycle and how they will accept or collect it.  In Lane, for example, there is the Recycler's Handbook.  Search for your local waste management website, and they will tell you everything that you need to know about recycling in your area.

If you want to know where you can drop off batteries for recycling, check out Call2Recycle (serves the US and Canada).  Batteries of all sizes frequently contain heavy metals like lead, sometimes contain mercury, acid, or some other toxic substance, and that stuff can get out if you just toss your batteries in the trash.  Different types of batteries need to be recycled in different ways, but generally speaking big chains that specialize in electronics will take most batteries, and any place that sells car batteries is required to take used car batteries.

Many cities and counties cannot accept used electronics and computers.   Luckily, there are many programs, some local and some national, that accept these products.  The EPA has a web page with links to many of these organizations.  Here in Oregon, the DEQ is working with manufacturers to bring us the Oregon E-Cycles program.  It is very important to recycle these items, because many of them have small amounts of toxins which will end up in the environment if they are just thrown out.  Mercury is particularly nasty, because it can stay in the ecosystem for a long time, poisoning plants, animals and humans all the way up the food chain, and cycled back through the same chain over and over before it achieves anything like safe deposition.

Speaking of mercury, all fluorescent light bulbs contain a little.  Home Depot recycles the CFLs that are being promoted for home use to replace incandescent bulbs, and most local recycling programs accept all other types of fluorescent lights.
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring is Sprung: Starting seeds and Planting Starts

UPDATE: I started to write this post last week, so if the time line seems a little off that is why.

Three days in a row of beautiful, warm weather, and I think that officially Spring is not just sprung, it is in full swing.  Courtney and I missed the first Farmer's Market of the season due to a last minute late season ski trip and the second to the HOPES conference, but we made it to the third.  And let me tell you, the time to buy starts for your garden is now.  Courtney and I are growing almost everything for our first garden from seed, for the experience if nothing else, but getting starts from local farmers at the farmers market is an excellent idea as well.

While we were at the Lane County FM, half of the booths that normally bring fruits and vegetables to market were brimming with starts of everything from peppers to carrots, squash to onions, etc. to distinctly different etc.  And while most of our garden is planned out and prepped for the shoots we are starting from seed (most of which we got for free at the Seed Exchange hosted by Lane Community College) we felt that there was room out front for one tiny fig tree.  Because it was so cheap, and figs!  For free !  Who can argue with that (no fair pointing out the initial expense)?

 Our baby fig tree

Another screaming deal, there was a wild mushroom vendor who had just run out of morels, and was selling the remainder of his harvest (basically the ones that were broken or otherwise not presentable) for $2.50.  It was probably about $20 worth by weight, and sold for nearly one tenth of that because they didn't look perfect.  I didn't deliberate too long before forking over the two and a half bucks.

So as stated above, we are starting a garden (mostly) from seed this Spring, and so far it is going pretty well.  We are starting most of our seeds in peat pots (about ten cents each) under CFLs in our laundry room, so far to great effect.  We have successfully germinated tomatoes, onions, three different kinds of peppers, several spices, some flowers that are supposed to attract bees and other pollinating insects, some lettuces, and a few oddball items that were kind of foisted upon us at the seed exchange (like red orach, which neither one of us had heard of before we had the seeds in our hands).  Our success rate has been pretty phenomenal so far, but I think maybe germinating is the easy part, hardening off and planting (or more likely potting for most of our veggies) may prove deadly for many of our heretofore healthy sprouts.

Our seedlings, about a week after sprouting

When we decided to start our plants from seed, we did a fair amount of research.  Basically, the ideal environment for germinating most seeds (with some notable exceptions) is very warm and humid.  There are a number of high buck kits you can buy, and several medium buck plastic tray systems that do the same job, but we decided that the exact same purpose could be served by those cheap, disposable roasting pans that they sell at the grocery store for about 5 bucks for 4 of them.  Aluminum bottom, clear plastic top, they are ideal for letting light pass through while locking in the humidity.   Also, they are recyclable, easy to pack and store for next season, and may have other uses between seasons, we'll see.  So although they were designed to be disposable, they can be used in a greener manner.

Our impromptu growing station

Context: the shelves above our laundry

Some of the seeds we acquired recommended starting outdoors, so we sowed those directly in our soil.  We have been getting most of our instructions from The Backyard Homestead, which is oriented to a much larger scale of gardening, but contains most of the info you will need to run a garden of any size, indoor or out.  From testing and prepping your soil to knowing when to harvest, this book covers all the bases of growing your own vegetables.  It also goes into some detail about how to keep poultry and livestock, but we don't have the kind of yard that makes sense for keeping any animal stock around.  If you are a home brewer you might be surprised to find out how easy it is to grow your own hops (also covered in this book).  Or barley for that matter.  Maybe the ideal garden for you is just grains and hop vines.  Of course, it couldn't hurt to experiment with strange grains, or growing some fruit to flavor a Lambic inspired ale.

So far, the seeds sown outdoors are mostly sprouting as well, some took much longer than others, but the success rate seems pretty good.  Mainly it is carrots, radishes and beets, along with a different variety of lettuce.  The trouble outside, unfortunately, is that slugs get to everything.  I will discuss slug and pest prevention in another post, however, because it is a big topic and this post is already too long.

Here are some of our starts after about a month of growth:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Paul Krugman explains Environmental Economics: a good read

Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksban...Image via Wikipedia
My mother sent me an article from the April 11 issue of NY Times Magazine (which I do not subscribe to) by Paul Krugman entitled "Green Economics - How we can Afford to Tackle Climate Change."  There was not really anything in the article that was news to me (I studied the relationship between sustainability and economics in a course at UCLA), but it was a very concise explanation of the strange arranged marriage between economics and climate science.  I highly recommend giving it a read, for anyone who is either interested in or confused by how these issues interrelate.

I have a lot of respect for Krugman, who is particularly good at explaining complex economic models in layman's terms (he is also particularly good at explaining them in academic terms, and received a Nobel Prize for his efforts).  And after reading this article, I must say, I have changed my mind about one thing: I previously stated that Carbon Credit Markets (CCMs) don't do anything, and after reading this article I understand two ways in which they could.  When I talked about CCMs in my previous blog post, I suggested that the cap and trade model which was so loved by businesses and politicians alike was really just a more palatable version of mandated carbon reductions or pollution taxes, except the money goes to the private sector instead of the public.  While that is still true, I see now that as a virtue of being more palatable they are more likely to make it into law and to be accepted by businesses.

Furthermore, even though the trading of Carbon Credits benefits private companies rather than government programs for environmental concerns, as Krugman points out, these credits could be auctioned off instead of being just handed out, which could result in some government revenue for environmental projects and programs.

Most importantly, however, Krugman dispels the myth that capping emissions through government mandate would be 'ruinous' to our economy, as we hear over and over again in the media.  Just as the scientific community generally agrees that global warming due to the green house gas effect is real, so too apparently do economists agree generally that our economy, both as a nation and as a planet, would do just fine with mandated carbon emission reductions.  Basically they all say it would slow growth a little, and enough to make it important to consider the alternatives, but not nearly enough to be 'ruinous.'

So then, from an economic point of view, we stand to lose a little from acting to stop climate change.  What a good economist does next is weigh that loss against possible scenarios of ignoring climate change.  So, what happens if we don't do anything?  Business As Usual?  The answer: potential for massive disruption of every market around the world.  If you believe that the scientists are right about global warming, the cost of inaction obviously outweighs any costs of curbing climate change.  Even if you are not convinced that global warming is real, if you believe there is a chance it is real, the potential cost of inaction is a very heavy risk compared to the alternative that reducing emissions will hurt a very small amount.  If you, on the other hand, are absolutely convinced that global warming is a giant hoax then I probably cannot say anything to convince you otherwise.

I, for my part, am never 100% sure of anything.  I am 99.9% sure that the sun will come up tomorrow.  I'm 99% sure that global warming is real (I can't read every study and check every single fact), 98% sure that human actions are causing global warming and human actions can reduce it.  I think anyone who is not willing to hear arguments that they don't agree with and never allows their mind to be changed is at least a little foolish.  So if you are pretty sure that I am wrong about global warming, but you are not a fool, I ask you this question: how sure are you, and at what point is it worth gambling with our future?  If a possible negative outcome is too terrible, I think there is a point at which it is not worth gambling no matter what the odds.  Krugman, in his article, paraphrases Martin Weitzman (a prominent environmental economist at Harvard): "it's the non-negligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis."

In summation: the risks of inaction are too great, the costs of action are low, and the longer we wait the more difficult the situation becomes.  Scientists agree that there is a problem, economists agree we can afford to fix it (or at least start to mitigate it), and now all we need to do is agree that it should be done.
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Friday, April 16, 2010

HOPES conference was a huge success (except for getting really sick)

The HOPES conference was very successful, and I will be posting about some of the talks I attended soon.  I haven't posted anything yet because while I was at the conference I got a really nasty bug which has been keeping me from doing anything above baseline productivity for the past several days.  However, I am now feeling much better and ready to get back to projects which, like this blog, give me no direct monetary reward.

The atmosphere at HOPES was very exciting, it was great to see so many energetic young students mixing with researchers and working professionals, all brought together by their common interest in sustainability.  It was a pleasure to be part of the program, and it was a much greater pleasure to hear other panelists and speakers share their ideas with the community.  The speakers came from as far away as Florida, and there were many from all over the west coast.  The audience, though more predominantly local I think, also had several individuals from out of state.

I will talk a little bit more in depth about this in a future post, but one of the most interesting keynote addresses was by Anthony Perl, Director of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC.  He is co-author of the book Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, the second edition of which is available later this month.  Basically, it outlines the argument for building high speed trains in this country, along with light rail, all electrified.  When you look into it, it is really hard to imagine a good argument against building high speed passenger and freight trains in this country, especially since they could quickly provide a cheaper alternative to travel by airplane, which I think everyone agrees is a very unpleasant experience.

That is it for today, but I will try to add a few more posts this Sunday.  Tomorrow I am off duty, because it is Courtney's B-day, and I have to spend the entire day doing whatever it is she wants me to, which includes trying to come up with what that will be ahead of time and planning for it in advance.
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Monday, April 5, 2010

I am presenting at HOPES 16: Panel on Brownfield Remediation

For any readers who happen to be in the vicinity, The HOPES Conference is this weekend at the University of Oregon.  HOPES (or Holistic Options for Planet Earth Sustainability) is a creation of the Ecological Design Center, part of the school of Architecture and Allied Arts.  This year will be the 16th HOPES conference, and the topic is "Designing in the post-industrial era."

I will be part of a panel discussing Brownfield Remediation, the process of cleaning up a site which has been contaminated as a result of its previous use.  These sites range from former gas stations which have leeched hydrocarbons or MTBE into the soil to an office building contaminated with asbestos, and many other kinds of sites besides.  The strategy of cleaning up the contamination varies greatly based on the type of contaminant.  Most of these sites cannot be used as they are for any purpose before being cleaned up, and are currently sitting unused.  They may be empty lots or abandoned buildings, but usually they are dark, unmonitored, and tend to attract crime.  Almost every big city in America has several such sites, and they tend to be a blight on their neighborhoods.  Typically they are more concentrated in working and middle class neighborhoods, especially those that were centers of industry in years bygone.

There is a movement called New Urbanism which holds that well designed cities are in fact much more sustainable than any other way of organizing habitations (such as suburbs).  Although it is not explicitly one of their principles, brownfield remediation is essential in efforts to make cities more sustainable, livable, walkable, healthy and happy places that can be the centers of a new sustainable society.  And while it has been expensive in the past, currently government grants and insurance products that mitigate risk are making this process more economically attractive to developers.

I am excited to attend the event, not just to participate in the panel but also to see the other presentations.  I hope to give lots of updates real time, and I have set up the ability to update my blog from my iPhone so that I can quickly post any interesting material that I consume there.  For anyone who may attend, my panel will be at 1:30 on Saturday.  Details for registration are on their website.

Indoor Air Quality, Allergies and Air Purifiers

Although Los Angeles is not exactly known for its fantastic air quality (read: LA air sucks), the move to a colder climate and relocation to the Willamette Valley (which is known for it's many species of face itching sneeze making grasses) has somewhat inflamed the allergies of my wife and I.  That being said, we have been very active recently trying to minimize our exposure to allergens and keep our indoor air as clean as humanly possible.

Indoor Air Quality is a section of green building that is often overlooked by most people (though architects and building professionals are likely to spend a good deal of time thinking about it).  It is not as flashy an issue as global warming, habitat destruction, etc.  But it is very important to our health and well being, and our ability to be productive and happy.  As an allergy sufferer I can tell you, if you are not breathing properly when you sleep you feel like a zombie the following day, and all productivity and hope of happiness goes out the window.  All you can do is shuffle along and think about biting anyone who gets close to you.  In our research, we were somewhat surprised to discover that the air purifier we had been using was not actually doing anything useful.

HEPA filters are extremely efficient at arresting tiny particles in the air, measuring only micrometers in diameter.  It is illegal for filters to be advertised as HEPA if they are not capable of arresting those tiny particles.  However, for some unfathomable reason, cheaper filters which do not arrest any allergen particles at all can be called "HEPA Type," "99% HEPA," or "HEPA like."  The Hunter purifier which Courtney bought many years ago was just such a product.  So, we concluded that we needed a new one, with a "true HEPA" filter this time.  Although I generally advocate getting stuff used as often as possible, when it comes to an issue of personal health you get the best product available.

In researching air purifiers before making a purchase, we were shocked to discover that the Ionic Air Cleaner types were basically worse than useless for allergy sufferers.  They mask odors and make the air smell fresher by producing Ozone (O3).  Now, while Ozone is a great thing in the upper atmosphere, where it filters UV light from the sun, here in the atmosphere that we breath Ozone is a very, very bad thing.  It is toxic to pretty much all living things, including plants, animals and us.  And while a little Ozone won't kill you, it will irritate your lungs and sinuses, exacerbating any symptoms of respiratory tract infection or allergic reactions.  So in other words, they make your allergies and your indoor air quality worse.  As if that wasn't bad enough, Ozone in the troposphere (where we live) is a green house gas, and unlike CO2 and other green house gasses, it can react with other pollutants to generate more Ozone in a cyclical reaction.  In case you didn't get the message, do not purchase Ionic Air Purifiers or Air Cleaners, they are all but evil.

In summation: if you want an air purifier, get a true HEPA filter sized to the room that it will be in.  Courtney and I got a Honeywell 50250 Round Air Purifier for the living room, and a smaller, quieter Honeywell 17000 HEPA QuietCare Air Purifier for the bedroom.  Both came with permanent true HEPA filters.  We have been sleeping much easier since.  I really cannot overemphasize how awesome these things are.  Since we purchased ours, we can't smell the cats litter box except for two seconds right after an "event," we don't have to dust as often, and I wake up feeling like a real human being, even when I forget to take my Aller-tec.

Aside from the air purifiers, we have a Dyson Ball vacuum with a HEPA filter, several house plants that filter specific VOCs out of the air (see this website), and do everything we can to reduce the amount of dust and other allergens in our home.  It is a constant battle, but for now one we are winning quite decisively.  Unfortunately, running two fans 24-7 means more energy consumption, but since our local utility (SUB) generates 80% of its energy from hydro-electric, I don't feel quite so bad about it.

Editing this, I realize that there are a lot of ads in this post, but learning how to control my allergies was a struggle for me, and I think that promoting the products that I found most useful in controlling my symptoms is an important thing to do.  So I am unashamed about all the ads in this post, in other words.  And no, I don't work for Honeywell (though if they wanted to pay me for the plugs I wouldn't complain).
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Friday, April 2, 2010

Vegetarian Lasagna (Gluten Free, of course)

After an unplanned, unannounced and unceremonious sabbatical from blogging, I am returning to my few but faithful readers with a recipe, in part to point out that I am a finalist in the Foodista 'Best of Food Blogs' cookbook contest.  If I am selected, one (or two?) of my recipes will be included in a real world published cookbook (BTW, I finally added pictures to my gumbo recipe for anyone who is interested).  I didn't start this blog to be about food entirely, but as cooking is one of my passions the blog became at least partially about food as it relates to sustainability, and I am glad that it did, because cooking (and eating) good food brings me great joy.

A few days back, Courtney and I made one of those throw together weeknight meals that usually succeed only at sustaining one's body for another day or two, but we were pleasantly surprised by the results.  We made lasagna with some brown rice pasta noodles that had been sitting in our cupboard for some time, and by adding a few choice ingredients we took it form the realm of 'bland though filling' to 'can't wait to have that recipe again.'  Basically, we prepared a straight forward lasagna but threw in to each layer a sporadic sprinkling of fresh red bell pepper (chopped finely) and fresh basil leaves (whole).

Italian cuisine is ideal for communal cooking.  I am reminded of the scene in Good Fellas when the main character serves a short prison sentence and the mobsters all have their own private, minimum security wing.  They spend all day, every day, preparing elaborate meals with the finest ingredients they can bribe the guards to bring them.  One guy does the sauce, one guy does the pasta, etc.  The work is easy to break up, most of it is fairly simple, and you can socialize in the kitchen while doing it.  Lasagna is particularly good for a small group or a family to prepare together, as you assemble the layers each person can be responsible for one or two ingredients.

And of course, cooking vegetarian makes this a greener meal, since no methane producing grain eating animals were harvested to bring it to table.  So, without further ado,

Vegetarian Lasagna (Gluten Free):


1 package Gluten Free Brown Rice Lasagna Noodles
3 or 4 cups of your favorite Canned Pasta Sauce, or homemade
2 cup Ricotta Cheese (or more as needed)
2 cup Mozzarella cheese, grated (or more as needed)
1 cup Chopped Spinach (frozen is fine)
1 Red Bell Pepper, julienne or diced
1 hand full Fresh Basil Leaves
1 tsp. Sea Salt (or to taste)
1 tsp. Cracked Black Pepper (or to taste)
1 tbsp. Olive Oil
Optional: Cayenne pepper and Paprika to taste

Cook the noodles in a large pot filled with boiling water for several minutes, until they are soft enough to work with but still quite al dente, as they will continue to cook in the oven and it is easy to over cook rice noodles.  In a small sauce pan, bring the tomato sauce to a boil, then add the spinach.  While the noodles and spinach are cooking, prepare the other ingredients: wash and chop the bell pepper, wash the basil leaves, grate the mozzarella, etc.  When noodles are ready, empty pot into a strainer and rinse noodles with cold water to arrest cooking.

Preheat Oven to 400F. Grease a 9x12 (or sized to your noodles) pan with the olive oil, and lay one layer of noodles on the bottom.  Cover the noodles with a portion of the sauce and spinach mixture.  Over the sauce, sprinkle some of the mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, Some of the Red Bell Pepper and the Basil.  Cover with another layer of noodles and repeat until out of ingredients.  Make sure to reserve a portion of cheese large enough to cover the top layer, as it will melt and form a golden brown crust in the oven.

Bake the assembled lasagna in the oven for about 30 minutes.  Check periodically, when the cheese on top forms a gratin-like crust, it is done.  Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Should make about 6 portions.  Refrigerate for several days, or freeze for-almost-ever (use common sense).  Reheats very well in the oven or microwave.


This recipe is extremely versatile.  Add one or two of whatever vegetables you have around, as a replacement for or in addition to the bell pepper and spinach.  Hard, root vegetables (like potatoes) should be par cooked.

For some protein, consider adding pine nuts, crushed walnuts, or cooked beans to the layers.  Any ground meat or sausage will also go well, but then the meal would be less green.  Similarly, canned tuna or other flaky fish will work well.

For more variety in your variety, try replacing the sauce with pesto (result will be dryer), Alfredo or other cream sauce.  I recommend against Vodka sauce, or any other sauce with a lot of cheese added, as there is a ton of cheese in the recipe already.

Speaking of cheese, Parmesan also goes very well.  Replace some or all of the Mozzarella with grated Parmesan if preferred.