Saturday, September 25, 2010

Waste Not

Active tipping area of an operating landfill i...Image via Wikipedia
Re-posted from the iPinion Syndicate

After writing about buying second hand goods, I got a few comments about giving to thrift stores, selling to stores like Crossroads, and having a garage sale to get rid of stuff instead of just throwing it away.  After all, as I am sure you have heard many times by now, there is no ‘away.’  Or rather, ‘away’ is the ocean, landfills and incinerators.

‘Away’ is not so far away as you would like, and bits of what you throw away find their way back to you (like the mercury in seafood).  The bits that don’t find their way back still might be affecting you in some other manner: by disrupting a food source, permanently damaging some piece of land, or being incinerated and mucking up your air.

There is a lot of waste in our society.  For the identifiable past of ‘western civilization,’ we have always thought of things in terms of raw materials, useful products, and waste to be dealt with.  But only in the past century and a half has the amount of waste been such a huge and universal problem.  Today, we generate so much waste that even though we burn and bury the majority of it, it is clogging our streams, rivers, ports and even making a significant impact on every sea and ocean on the planet.  If this were intentional, it would be quite an accomplishment.  Unfortunately, it is a destructive and unintentional consequence of simply not paying enough attention to how much waste we generate and how we deal with it.

Now for the bad news: there is very little that you can do about it.  At least by yourself, right now.  You can recycle, and that is great.  It really helps.  Unfortunately, most things are not easily recyclable, and no municipality in this country has a 100% recycling rate for the things that are.

The rubbish incineration plant at Spillepengen...Image via Wikipedia

You can reuse stuff instead of throwing it away.  You can (as mentioned above) sell or give old stuff away and buy other stuff second hand.  This keeps stuff out of land fills and incinerator, and also reduces the need for manufacturing, packaging and shipping of more new stuff.  But some things are never going to be available second hand, like food and cleaning products; nor should they be.

Finally, you can reduce the amount of stuff you buy.  Maybe.  Depending on the stuff.  And you can consciously choose to buy stuff with less packaging.  Sometimes.  When there is an option.  The fact is, the current paradigm embraces the old ‘raw materials, stuff, waste’ mind set wholeheartedly, and almost everything comes packaged in layers and layers of waste.  And all that is not even the worst part, not by half.

The worst part is that before the stuff even got to the store, massive amounts of water and materials were turned into waste in the manufacturing process, and you as an individual right now have absolutely no power over that at all.  Except...

 There is one more thing that you can do that begins with ‘r,’ though it isn’t part of the traditional waste hierarchy: research.  You can try to find out about the stuff you are buying, how it is produced, and vote with your dollars.  So the good news is that we as the consumers (not individuals), over time (not right now), can try as often as possible to choose the less wasteful option, and that will make a difference.  Because the more dollars that flow to low waste products, the more pressure there will be for a paradigm shift, from ‘materials, stuff, waste,’ to ‘materials, stuff, materials, stuff, materials...’  There is a growing field called industrial ecology that is preparing the new paradigm, and if we all push together, we can get this boulder rolling in their direction.
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Print Media v. Digital Media: Missing the Point?

A Picture of a eBookImage via Wikipedia
It seems obvious to me that the rapid and free flow of information through every media channel available is one of the most important elements, by far, to a sustainable future.  There is a lively debate, however, about which type of media is more sustainable: digital or print.

On the side of digital media we have Saul Griffith, who says that when you take into account the energy used to produce all of the books, magazines and newspapers that we have in our lives, ship them to the stores, light and air-condition the stores, and then drive them home, it is more than the amount of energy used by an electronic device that can replace all of them (iPad, Kindle, or laptop).  I have to wonder, however, if this reckoning  takes into account the fact that many tech savvy readers upgrade their electronic devices as fast as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos can come out with new models.  Sure, if the iPad replaced every book and magazine in my life, it would balance out great.  But what if it only replaces one year's worth of my print media, and then I upgrade?

Steve Jobs while presenting the iPad in San Fr...Image via Wikipedia
Another question I would ask Saul, if I had a direct line to him, is whether or not that accounts for used
books.  A single paperback can be read by dozens, or theoretically hundreds of people.  Periodicals are more disposable by nature, but anyone who has frequented a cafe alone knows that a paper too can have multiple readers.  Would this multiple readership divide the energy consumed by the number of readers?  Public Libraries and websites like Paperback Swap add to this effect, and some people (like myself) have many books but never buy any of them new.  Does that commitment change the equation?  Most importantly, if you combine all of these points, is the balance still in favor of the digital age?

All of this would argue for print media, but to be balanced myself, I have to point out that digital does have a lot going for it as well.  I opened this discussion by stating that the free flow of information is one of the most important parts of a sustainable society, because the rapid and free transfer of information promotes understanding of the issues and methods of a sustainable life.  In this regard, digital media has print beat hands down.  If someone has a simple idea for reducing energy consumption in a home or office, and they write in to their local paper, only the local audience will get that information.  If that tip is very climate or region specific that might be just fine, but if it is widely applicable then isn't it better for that piece of information to be online where anyone in the world can access it?

In the end, the best thing that you can do is keep track of and think about how you use the media in your life.  If you go with print: get books used, borrow from libraries and friends, only subscribe to the magazines and papers that you really care about, and when you are hungry for more use the library to access the digital version of media you are not 100% on.  If you go the digital route, make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of media that you buy in the print format.  Which ever route you choose to take, avoid frequent upgrades to the latest eReader hardware (especially if you already have a laptop, desktop, etc.), try to get more books used or borrow them from libraries, and cancel your subscription to magazines that you only read one or two articles out of each issue.  If you follow these simple suggestions you should end up spending less on your media as well, and as always my favorite kind of green is the kind in my wallet.
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

October: Unprocessed with Eating Rules

"The New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lomb...Image via Wikipedia
I have been invited to write a guest blog for Eating Rules, as part of the October: Unprocessed challenge.  I am very excited to take the challenge, and honored that my old colleague (from a past life) Andrew Wilder asked me to write a post about food and sustainability for his blog.

The system of industrial food production in our society is unique in human history in both scale and methods, and there are many health and safety concerns to be addressed.  Eating Rules is a website about how to maintain a healthy diet while navigating this system by following a few simple, easy to apply rules.  The October: Unprocessed challenge is something that Andrew came up with to try and spur people into thinking more deeply about what they consume, where it came from, how it came to be on their table, and ultimately why all of that is important to us.  So, for the month of October, the wife and I will be attempting to eat only food that is "unprocessed."

fancy chocolate bar, crackedImage via Wikipedia
As you may have guessed, exactly what is meant by unprocessed is not totally clear, but the current working definition for the project is any food which has been (or contains ingredients which have been) prepared, altered, or processed in a way that could not be accomplished in an ordinary home kitchen.  So, for example,a product which is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup would be out, because you need a laboratory and some very precise instruments to turn corn into HFCS, but chocolate could be acceptable, because with a little practice you could make chocolate at home from whole ingredients ('making chocolate' is easy, forming it into bars and such can be difficult).  If that chocolate bar were sweetened with HFCS, on the other hand, it would be back on the black list.

Of course that definition itself contains some ambiguity, but I think the project embraces that ambiguity.  It seems to me the desired outcome is to have a dialogue, if you will, with what we eat, to ask of everything we consume: where did you come from and how were you made, to engage in a daily process of thinking about our food in a new way.

I would encourage everyone to take a look at the project, and seriously consider taking the pledge yourself.  If nothing else, it is an interesting way to look at the relationship between food and health.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nothing New -- Half Way There

Today is the 16th, which means that the month is just about exactly 1/2 way over.  There have been one or two challenges, but mostly the wife and I have sailed through the month of nothing new with hardly a hiccup.  My thinking has changed in two pretty major ways, however, as a result of making this pledge and thinking about it every day.

The first is that I now walk around my house and look at every object in a new light.  What would I do if this thing broke, or if I didn't have it in the first place and decided that I needed it?  Where would I go to replace it?  Where did I purchase this item in the first place?  How difficult was it to find?

Looking around my living room now I think that about 90% of what I see was purchased second hand or inherited.  The other 10% was mostly gifted to us by family.  I only really see a handful of things that we bought new: the Dyson Ball Vacuum (which our allergies dictate we must own), a steel H2Ozone water canister, and one purchase that I regret immensely: some white curtains from Walmart that are not quite actually opaque enough to disperse the southern sunlight properly.  In the past 15 and 3/4 days I have been staring at those curtains thinking "if we had only kept looking in thrift stores, if we hadn't given up, we would have something even better now."

I realize it is pretty indulgent to be kicking myself for the one thing in the room that is not easily justified, but maybe that was the point of this challenge in the first place: to hold myself to a higher standard.  And now, whether or I like it or not, I cannot help but feel that I cheated before I even began.  That is because of the second shift in my thinking.

I now realize that I had been so well stocked on disposable goods before I even began this challenge that a serious threat to it's success never materialized.  This was not by design, I was this well stocked before I even came up with the idea.  I have a years supply of razors in my medicine cabinet (which is not hard, a razor lasts me several months since I only shave the edges of my beard).  We have practically a pallet of Kleenex from Costco, because we both have dust allergies that require year round daily nose blowing.  And now every time I use one of these things, I realize that if I had not already stocked up, and then ran out, I would pretty much be forced to buy something new.

See description aboveImage via Wikipedia
Of course I could start blowing my nose in a washable handkerchief, or purchase a used straight razor (which isn't quite so creepy as it sounds, I could soak it in bleach for a day before using it), but I have to ask myself if
I would actually do these things if push came to running out of razors.  And the answer is: I don't know.  I would like to think that I would, but perhaps I would be weak.

At the midway point, I am now thinking that one month is really not sufficient for a lasting change or in depth analysis of how I live.  There have been one or two interesting dilemmas, but I feel that the most important realization that I have had is that it is easy to feel like I am making a change without actually doing anything of substance, and at the midpoint of this month long challenge I am already thinking of how to extend it, how to modify the rules, how to go further.

For now I am only thinking, and the only action that I am taking is to finish the month by the rules, and continuing to examine how my life would be different if this challenge were permanent.
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Spicy Watermelon and Cucumber Gazpacho -- a Raw, Vegan Recipe

Watermelon with yellow fleshImage via Wikipedia
While at the IFBC last month I wrote about chef Josh Silver's watermelon gazpacho.  Gazpacho is traditionally made from tomatoes, but I have never been a huge fan of cold tomato soup.  Silver's use of watermelon as the base was a revelation for me, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of cold soup from raw ingredients.  So, the other night I attempted to recreate it with a tangerine watermelon I picked up at the Lane County Farmer's Market.  The results, though perhaps not worthy of Syrah Bistro, were absolutely delicious.

Along with the FM watermelon, I used a cucumber from a friend's garden to add crunch, a small red onion for that allium bite, and the juice of a few limes for their tangy citric acid.  The lime juice and a pinch of sea salt also helped to break the fruit and veggies down and infuse the individual ingredients with each others' flavors, and to infiltrate them with several peppery additions to the mix.  The finishing touch: finely chopped cilantro for an aromatic character that excites the sense of smell before the soup even touches your tongue.
Red onion cutImage via Wikipedia

It may seem a little late in the season for cold soups, but for the home gardener and the FM shopper the fruit has been ripening all summer and now is definitely the time to use it all up before it spoils.  The raw aspect means that there is no energy used at home to prepare the meal, and the fact that it is vegan means that no animals were harmed during the creation of this recipe (I did scold Cleo for trying to eat the onion, but that was for her own good; onions are poisonous to dogs).
Persian Limes in a grocery store.Image via Wikipedia

Spicy Watermelon and Cucumber Gazpacho

1 small Watermelon
1 Cucumber
1 Red Onion
Juice of 2 Limes
1 fresh Chili, slightly spicy
1 handful fresh Cilantro
Red, Black and White Pepper to taste
A pinch of Sea Salt

Serves 6 as appetizer, 3 or 4 as main course.

Cut the watermelon into slices, and then dice finely.  Try to retain as much juice as possible and add with the watermelon to a bowl large enough to hold all ingredients.  Dice the red onion, chili and cucumber, and add to the bowl.  Finely chop or tear cilantro and add to the other ingredients  Add the spices, salt and lime juice, and refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour.

Serve in small cups or mugs, garnish with more cilantro if desired.

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A Few Surprises for My Nothing New Month

This week, I was taken on a surprise camping trip (which is why I have been incommunicado for most of the week).  If you are not familiar with the concept of a surprise camping trip, that is because it is not actually a thing.  It is not a thing because camping requires lots of planning, and making a camping trip a surprise makes planning impossible.

Of course I am exaggerating.  My wife and I had been talking with her parents for a few months about camping before the summer was over, but we have had a great deal of trouble working out our schedules.  When we stayed with them last month (while I was attending IFBC), we had all vaguely agreed that it must happen soon, or not at all.  Just last weekend, when we realized that we all had some time off, it was suggested that camping might happen.  Still, on Sunday at 3pm, when my wife informed me that her parents were driving down right now, and we would be camping as of tomorrow, it felt quite a bit like a surprise camping trip at the time.

My first thought was "how does this fit into my month of nothing new?"  Followed quickly by "they are driving all the way down here, is it rude to demand that they follow my arbitrary rules for my blog?"  Well, as it turned out, I hardly had to bring up the blog and my Nothing New month, because both they and us owned sufficient camping gear, and we really only had to buy food (which doesn't count) for the trip to be a success.

There were a few hiccups, of course.  The first was simply that I had not thought about whether gasoline counted as buying something new.  I am still not certain, but I must disclose that I purchased a full tank of gas.  Next, we were camping just north of Newport, and Courtney really wanted to go clamming, as the season is just about over and we could not conceivably go again until next spring.  All well and good, but I would need some serious waterproof boots.

Well, the local Salvation Army was our salvation on this trip, because they had exactly one pair of knee high waterproof boots that fit me like a hand-me-down glove.  As we were checking out, the cashier said "boy, you really lucked out with those, they don't last long here."  Since Newport is a coastal town on a bay, known for it's abundance of razor, butter, soft shell, gaper, and cockel clams (and even the odd geoduck), scallops, bay shrimp, and crab, I was  not exactly surprised to learn that good second hand galoshes were a hot commodity.

After a few days of camping, clamming, and taking in Newport (which I will surely write about soon, as it is home to the nicest people on earth), the in-laws and we (in-laws and us? anyone?) returned to Springfield with several clams and a surprise agenda.  If you are not familiar with the concept of a surprise agenda, that is because you don't have the same in-laws as I (as me? I am having pronoun trouble today).

Apparently, my father in law had heard through the grapevine about our efforts to fix up and sell the Honda, but had not heard about my moderately ambitious plan to not purchase anything new this month.  The result is that I found myself overwhelmed with a plan to fix up the paint job and some body damage which involved buying lots of little new things.  It was a sound plan financially, of course, the idea was to spend a very small amount of money to get the car into the next condition bracket, but it was antithetical to my plans for September.

My wife Courtney came to the rescue. While I was embarrassed to say that their reasonable, helpful plan didn't fit in with what I was blogging about this month, Courtney explained to her parent that I was trying to fix up the car in the "greenest" way possible, and we ended up adhering to the rules that I set out in my first post.  Nothing has been purchased, still, to fix the car.  My father in-law borrowed a trickle charger to re-charge the battery, which turned out to be in perfect condition.  We also found a mechanic that would charge only $10 to put the battery on a charger for a day or so, so if we couldn't borrow a charger we could have done that.  The car (after a good wash) is now running great and ready to sell, body damage, faded paint and all.

The last week, in other words, presented me with some completely unique and bizarre problems, but so far I have not broken the rules as they were originally laid out. Of course, the month is only 1/3 over, and anything can still happen.
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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nothing New Day 4 -- Coffee and Cars

We are now half way through day 4 of our "nothing new" experiment, and we have only just encountered our first real trial.  On the first day we rented a movie, on the second we didn't buy anything at all, and the third day we made a brief stop at the grocery store, no rules broken.  First thing this morning I was having two consecutive conflicting thoughts: first, maybe a month was not ambitious enough, maybe this will be too easy; and second, how the heck am I going to fix up the Honda to sell it without buying anything new this weekend?

Cafetière/French press.Image via Wikipedia

Then life threw us a curve ball; our french press coffee maker broke.  Anyone who has ever owned, operated, or even looked sideways at a french press should not be surprised by this at all.  They break easily.  In fact, I think that they are designed to break.  There might even be a manufacturers guarantee on the box: "guaranteed to break within one year of purchase or your money back!"  Now, the wife and I will not be going coffee-less, as we have a cheapo little drip coffee maker that we have owned since moving in together, but french press coffee is so much better.

For us, this is a real (if garden variety) dilemma: I really hate the idea of owning something that is designed to break (or might as well be), but I really love the flavor of french press coffee.  Courtney is currently looking up options for finding replacement beakers used.  Meanwhile this is has already spurred a brief debate about why we are doing this in the first place.  What is more important, that we accomplish this task without feeling deprived, or that we make some sacrifices to change the way we consume?  No concensus has been reached yet, but I will be sure to post the resolution to this dilemma as it arises.

The next big hurdle: today I am tackling the Honda Prelude that has been weighing down our parking lot for the better part of a year.  Last week I got it running and adjusted the idle (only new purchase: an extra long screwdriver to open the dash).  This week, I have to find out why the battery is not holding a charge.  First step is to determine if the fluid level is low, and clean the terminals.  If that doesn't work, I may have to replace the fluid entirely, but then I don't know what to do with the old fluid.  Well, either way, I will be sure to take pics and keep you all updated.  That is it for now.
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Second Hand Retail Therapy

Re-Posted from the iPinion Syndicate

This past weekend [first weekend in August] Courtney and I celebrated our 2nd anniversary.  We decided, instead of gifts, to indulge ourselves to the highest possible degree at the local thrift stores.  We did so not because we are broke (although we are not exactly sizing up multi-million dollar yachts and coastal states with no sales tax yet), but rather because buying things second hand is the best way to buy things, and not just because you get more things per dollar.

Being good, law abiding citizens, we self medicate with that wonderful drug sometimes called ‘retail therapy’ just like all our fellow Americans.  But because we are trying to be environmentally conscious, and we have seen “The Story of Stuff” (which you should too; if you haven’t seen it, watch it right now before you finish reading this; it’s free online), we want to buy as much stuff as we can while minimizing the energy, waste and pollution that results from buying lots of stuff.  While most solutions for buying low impact stuff involve really expensive techniques for making new stuff, one low budget solution is to buy stuff that simply is not new.

If you have a choice between new and used, and you go for used, you are actively reducing demand for new stuff, which means (added up across many individuals and over time, of course) less raw materials used, less fuel burnt, less water turned into toxic sludge, and less waste.

You may think (especially if you do not frequent thrift stores) that shopping would not be the same without getting a bunch of new stuff, but new stuff is not the best thing about shopping.  Consider: how often do you enjoy the item you purchased at home as much as you enjoyed picking it out?  Since 99% of new stuff is no longer in use just 6 months after it is purchased, I am guessing the answer is somewhere around 1 percent of the time.  It isn’t the stuff that you like, it’s buying it.

We are a nation of consumers, and we love to shop.  Men just as much as women: many men may hate shopping for clothes, but ask the average dude about his ideal BBQ, and you will discover that he loves buying certain things just as much as the average female.  This is due, at least in part, to the feeling of control that being a consumer provides.  When you walk into a store, there are people being paid to serve you, answer your questions, get another one from the back, and tell you ‘that looks great on you.’  They are doing so because they want your money, but that’s okay; its understood that you have chosen to shop there.

You can get dumped on all day at work, get no respect from your family and friends (not describing my own life here, everyone calm down) but when you are ready to pull out the check book, everyone treats you like a king (or queen).  Pretty much all those positive emotional experiences are just as good at second hand stores.  The amenities may not be quite so classy, the staff not quite so motivated, but you are still in control of your money and how you spend it.  Also, just as ‘new stuff’ stores range from Sears to Saks, so second hand ranges from Goodwill to Crossroads.  So whatever your needs, retail therapy is available second hand.

When my wife and I want anything, even if we can afford it new, we always look for it used first, and that is just one more method of experiencing that control.  We do it because it is our darn money and we will it spend how we darn well see fit.  And I would encourage you to consider doing the same (though of course, I would never dream of telling you to).
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