Is it Easy Being Green?

My daily adventures in attempting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle

Living Sustainably is Just Fine February 21, 2009

Filed under: sustainability — isgreeneasy @ 9:46 pm
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Last night I went to the Chicago Cultural Center to see writer Doug Fine speak about his experiences in living locally and sustainably over the past few years. In his book, Farewell, My Subaru, Fine documents his often comical and unpredictable efforts to set up a sustainable life on his Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico. Although entertainingly self-deprecating, Fine has accomplished a great deal: he installed solar panels which supply all of the power (except the stove, but he’s working on that) and warm his water, planted a huge vegetable garden, started raising goats (which sound adorable and incorrigible) and chickens (which are unstoppable egg machines) and converted his truck to diesel (which uses old KFC cooking oil).

Doug's goat Nico loves the saxophone.

Doug\’s goat Nico loves the saxophone.

His is such a great story, not only because the way he shares it is so enjoyable, but also because he’s basically a regular guy (he strongly stresses this) trying to live a good life. The other thing that impressed me about him was that he emphasizes not giving up the “American” lifestyle, or basically all the the wonderful conveniences and pleasures we have. This really spoke to me, as I feel exactly the same way. Only, I’m not about to go off the grid in New Mexico (as much as I like to occasionally fantasize about that). Here’s how Fine describes Farewell, My Subaru:

This ia a book of carbon-neutral carnage, about my attempts to kick oil while still living like an American. Farewell, My Subaru is the account of everything that can go wrong (and then right) when a regular guy tries to get oil out of his life. It details, among other embarrassing (but, my editor insists, inspiring) realities: coyotes eating my chickens, my near-death due to clumsiness during solar panel installation, and my suffering from Extreme Munchies thanks to the exhaust of my new carbon-neutral, vegetable oil-powered R.O.A.T. (Ridiculously Oversized American Truck). Hence the title of the book – I had to ditch the ol’ reliable Subaru in favor of a diesel. But for all the mishaps, I have reduced my electric bill by 80% and no longer need gas stations to drive. All while keeping my Netflix, my Internet, my fridge, washing machine, and most of all, my booming subwoofers.

I love it. And Fine clearly doesn’t just want to live this life; he wants to teach and inspire others to take steps, even if they’re small steps. He says, “I’d rather see 200 million people take first steps back from heedless growth and consumption than a few thousand take radical steps.”

Although the things he’s doing personally can seem daunting to the rest of us who aren’t willing to, say, climb on the roof to sweep snow off of the solar panels, the intention and the message are clear: we’re all in this together. And we can do it with humor, humility and grace.

One more quote that I really like from his blog:

Can a regular American kick his addiction to oil and live more locally while still dancing to thumping subwoofers and not looking like a refugee from a Rainbow Gathering? Not that there’s anything wrong with Rainbow Gatherings. But in 2007 and 2008, natty dreads and push-started VW buses aren’t going to convince a Soccer Mom in a minivan in Duluth to actually explore lifestyle options that don’t kill The Planet and everything on it.

And check out the video that introduces the story told in Farewell, My Subaru:

Oh, and have I mentioned I want chickens? You can have up to four in the city of Chicago. I’m not sure about the ordinance on goats yet.


Beautiful Green Thing February 18, 2009

The other day I was feeling a lack of green inspiration. It’s probably because I’m deep into my first winter in Chicago and it’s getting a bit old. I’ve been fantasizing about lush grass and trees, the soothing sound of a creek, the chirping of birds. Sigh. It can feel tedious to live green when you can’t see any green.

So, to fight the eco-humdrums I am starting a weekly series of green things of beauty. This will be something in nature, or maybe an awesome new gadget or a person doing inspired work. I hope you enjoy, and please share any beautiful green things you know of in comments.

My first beautiful green thing is the work of artist Su Blackwell. She takes the concept of reusing old books to a new and amazing level. I am astounded at her creativity, vision and technical skill.

The Lake and the Boat

The Lake and the Boat

Wintry: The World of Ice

Wintry: The World of Ice

Birds of the Open Forest Dawn Series

Birds of the Open Forest Dawn Series

The Old House 2007

The Old House 2007

Alice: A Mad Tea Party 2006

Alice: A Mad Tea Party 2006


Roses are green… February 13, 2009

Valentine's Day

I’ve always been ambivalent about how I feel about Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s because I spent much of my life single. Maybe it’s because it’s such a commercialized holiday. Back in my more radical days I would go around saying things like “Valentine’s Day is a conspiracy with Hallmark at the helm!” (Yes, I was single at the time.) But, I have to admit that there are so many great green options for Valentine’s Day giving that it’s warmed me up to celebrating. No longer are we stuck with conventional flowers, wasteful glittery cards and chocolates with mystery middles!


Check out these fun ideas for reusing materials to make adorable cards on Crafting a Green World. I don’t know whether I like the comic book or music sheet cards better! A quick trip to a thrift store could conjure up a bunch more ideas, I’m sure. There are a lot of great graphics available free online that you can download; both images above came from a clipart gallery. I’m going to do this for other holidays and birthdays as well; making cards could be so fun, plus I’m already counting up the money I’ll save. I saw Valentine’s Day cards priced at $7! That’s outrageous.

I love chocolate as much as anyone, but not so much that I need chocolates in unnecessary packaging, with all kinds of weird additives and that involved unfair labor conditions in making it. Fortunately, there are some beautiul options for buying organic, fair trade chocolates in recyclable packaging. Some of the brands below can be found at local retail stores (hopefully locally-owned stores) so check out their websites to find out where you can buy their products. I’ve seen some of these brands at Whole Foods, a local non-profit fair trade shop called Green Heart and several other local specialty food shops. Trader Joe’s has a good selection of quality chocolate too. All of this chocolate research has got me craving it! Maybe I’ll get some chocolate for V-day. Husband, are you reading this?
Divine Chocolate

Dagoba Chocolate

Coco-Zen — So cool-their truffles come in metal tiffin containers!

Equal Exchange

Lillie Belle Farms

Sweet Earth

Theo Chocolates — They have vegan too!

Divine Chocolates

Who isn’t a sucker for a lovely bouquet of flowers? Unless you’re highly allergic or maybe if you’re a wedding planner, we all are. But, the flower business wreaks some environmental havoc. A lot of energy and resources are used to grow perfect flowers that will be around for maybe a week and then are thrown out.
Fortunately, more sustainable flowers are becoming easier to find. I’ve been hearing about and seeing a lot of ads for Organic Bouquet, which has been around for awhile but seems to me to be getting more attention these days. 1-800-Flowers has fair trade bouquets (as well as organic tea and snack gift baskets). When I went to the FTD website, I was skeptical, but I found a really nice, certified sustainable (although cheesily named “Protect Our Earth Bouquet”) bouquet. The super cool part is that it comes in a recycled wine bottle vase!

The superior option to cut flowers, though, is getting something living that can grow inside in a pot or be planted outside in the spring. That being said, I can’t help but appreciate a special bouquet presented to me by my groom once a year.



If you’re looking for other gifts, Global Exchange and World of Good both have a nice selection of heart-shape swag. The Daily Green has a ton of ideas too.

Ok, so what will I do? I’ll be baking up some chocolate-y goodness, making a card (nothing too ambitious though) and husband and I will be going to dinner (a regular dinner at a local spot–not an overpriced Valentine’s Day event) and a play put on by a local troupe. That’s more than we’ve done in years!


Recycle Those Caps February 9, 2009

Filed under: plastic,recycling — isgreeneasy @ 12:53 pm
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I recycle. I know the drill. Take the cap off the plastic bottle, throw the cap away, recycle the bottle. It’s always been disappointing to me to have to throw that cap away, even though I understand why I must.
1. Plastic caps are made from a different type of plastic and have a different melting point than bottles, so they can contaminate a batch during the recycling process and ruin the whole load.
2. Plastic bottles are crushed and baled together, and if caps are left on it makes it harder to compress the bottles. This creates trapped air and possibly water in the bottles. See Lesson 6 in this post on Fake Plastic Fish.
3. Because of their small size, the caps can create difficulties during the sorting process, such as ending up mixed in with pieces of glass and causing problems with glass recycling.
4. Caps create a litter issue at recycling facilities and beyond, and can be dangerous to wildlife.

So, was I thrilled to hear about Aveda’s Caps Recycling Program! You can save all of your bottle caps and bring them to any Aveda store for recycling. Aveda will then have them recycled into new caps and containers for Aveda products. On their website, Aveda explains what types of caps they accept; they basically take any rigid plastic caps. They are also encouraging schools to participate.

This effort is a great example of a company taking responsibility for a waste issue that they contribute to and coming up with a workable solution that also involves community. Of course plastic is not the most favorable material to use at all, but the more that consumers and companies can find ways to reduce plastic waste while also finding markets to recycle it, we’re on the right track. If Aveda is truly recycling the caps into new caps, that’s a rare case of recycling plastic into the same product again and being able to recycle it repeatedly, as opposed to the typical one-time recycling of plastic into something different (ex: plastic bottles recycled into unrecyclable park benches).

So, take your caps to Aveda and thank them for doing this! While you’re there, you’ll probably be enticed into buying something, which I’m sure is something they’re after as well.


Air Supply February 8, 2009

skyNo, not the curly-haired 80s band with classics like All Out of Love, Lost in Love, The One That You Love and Young Love. I’m talking about my air supply, specifically inside my home. It’s the middle of winter in Chicago, plus I work at home, leading me to sometimes be inside my apartment for bizarrely long periods of time. This has gotten me thinking a lot about indoor air quality, which can often be much worse than outdoor. One big reason for this is that newly constructed homes are just too air-tight. Older homes have natural drafts which may make them less energy-efficient, but help with ventilation. So, what can I do to make sure my apartment is as unpolluted as possible? To get started, I found this list of 10 ways to improve indoor air quality on The Daily Green:

1. Clean and vacuum regularly to remove dust, dirt, and particulates that build up indoors; be sure to change vacuum filter bags or clean dirt cups often, to ensure that the dust and dirt doesn’t end up back in your home. I clean pretty regularly, dusting with a microfiber cloth and sweeping, but I could vacuum and mop more often.

2. Use the power of nature to help clean the air indoors – buy some plants! Plants remove chemical quickly from the air, and can actually thrive on substances that can be harmful to people. I recently bought a couple new plants for this purpose. One died already. The other–a spider plant, which is supposed to be one of the best plants for air quality–is doing great! Maybe I’ll get another one of those. Here’s a list of the top five plants for improving air quality.

3. Use materials that and furnishings that are non-toxic – including wall finishes, caulks, adhesives, upholstered furniture, and carpeting. I don’t have much control over these things since I rent an apartment, but I’m usually not bringing in any toxic materials. Furniture is a tough one because we do have particle board furniture, which may have formaldehyde in it, a highly toxic substance. Oh Ikea, why are you threatening our otherwise beautiful relationship?

4. Use natural cleaning products, which contain no volatile organic compounds or toxic chemicals. Check.

5. Invest in good HEPA air filters to help purify the air in your home, and be sure to change filters often. Don’t have an air filter, but it would be great to have one. The “investment” would be challenging right now, but maybe we can do it in the not too distant future.

6. Remove your shoes when you come indoors, and prevent a host of dirt, dust and other particles from spreading throughout. This winter we started doing this and will plan to continue. I also read that newspaper is great to use as a liner under shoes; it’s a good absorber and then can be recycled.

7. Never smoke indoors. Check.

8. Check air and furnace filters at least every two months, and replace or clean regularly. Again, as a renter, I’m not sure what to do about this one. The closest thing I think I can do is clean the vents well.

9. Encase your mattress and pillows to protect against dust mites. Our mattress has a good allergen protector cover on it. Since upgrading to a king-size bed and getting bigger pillows, we haven’t had protectors on them. I’ve had this on my list for awhile.

10. Take steps to ensure that your home remains mold-free. We’re probably in good shape on this one, except I do need to do a better job of cleaning the vent in the bathroom, which tends to have mold show up on it.

I found another good list of ideas at Low Impact Living. Here are some additional ideas I found there:

–Open the windows!This is a really important one, especially in the winter, or during the worst heat of summer. Just opening the windows for 10 minutes can do the trick. I’ve been trying to do this, at least for a few minutes a few times a week. I turn off the heat while the windows are open.

–Don’t use chemical air fresheners. Most air fresheners sold at your local grocery or drug store are laden with chemicals.All I have to say to chemical air fresheners is: yuck!

honeycoopcandle –Be careful about candles. I’ve always been a big candle burner, so I was sad to learn about the dangers of candles. Paraffin wax and many types of scented candles have all kinds of toxic substances that go right into your home’s air. I’ve cut way down on burning candles overall, and I’ve also switched to soy or beeswax candles. They’re a little more expensive, but it’s worth it to not have the deceptively good-smelling air from conventional candles. Check out this article from Green America for more reasons to change your candle habits.You can probably find great candles made by local businesses, like I did with the Chicago Honey Co-op.

–Limit or remove vinyls from your home. I changed my vinyl shower curtain and liner a couple of years ago after learning that the Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that they were made from give off phthalates when heated. Not good.

–Use no- or low-VOC paints and finishes. That “just-painted” smell is the off-gassing of chemicals. I don’t have any painting planned in the near future, but when I do paint it will definitely be with no- or low-VOC paints.

On yet one more list, I found a suggestion that I hadn’t thought of:
–Turn on hood fans when cooking to help expel fumes. Cooking, especially on a gas stove, releases chemicals that can contaminate the air, such as carbon monoxide. Use the fume hood fan when cooking and make sure it is vented directly outside the house. I only do this when I think the smoke alarm is going to go off any second, so I suppose I should do it more often.

Ok, I’m going to go put my coat on and open the windows now!