Is it Easy Being Green?

My daily adventures in attempting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle

Big Green Bellies April 29, 2013

I love strolling through the streets of downtown Chicago—you never know what you might see. But when winter rolls in, those walks become far and few between. It’s not too fun to be outside at all, let alone go on a leisurely stroll. But, earlier this winter the combination of cabin fever and a fairly mild day (despite piles of slush and gloomy gray skies) spurred me to put on my most toughest boots and warmest coat, and head out for a few errands on foot. It turned out to be a great time, partly because there were enough distractions to keep me from throwing in the towel and jumping in the first taxi home. It seemed like on almost every block I noticed something new (doughnut shop!), interesting (creative wintertime flower boxes) or beautiful (endless architectural details). I managed to get my errands done, feeling like I really embraced the day and the weather, as opposed to just trying to get through another hard winter day.

One of the great things about walking is stumbling across the unexpected. Things you wouldn’t notice if you were zooming by in a car. One day last summer—ahhh, summer—I noticed some new garbage bins downtown that were a complete surprise. I know, how can garbage bins be interesting in the slightest? Well, for one thing, these were combo recycling/garbage bins, which I thought was pretty cool since previously it was impossible to find a public recycling bin downtown and I would have to carry my recyclables home with me like a big green geek. But the really unusual thing that caught my attention was that they were solar compactors. At first I didn’t even really understand what that meant. After looking into it, I found out that there’s a sensor in the can that signals when the garbage reaches a point where it needs to be compacted, enabling the container to hold a great deal more garbage.

solar compactor

It turns out the city installed several hundred Big Belly solar garbage compactors around town with the intent of not only being able to collect recyclables along with garbage, but to cut down the number of garbage pickups. This is a really forward-thinking green move, and I’m proud of the city for making this change. I couldn’t find any stats for Chicago at this point, but in one year Philadelphia was able to go from 17 collections a week to just five and save $900,000. That means less greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use by garbage trucks, not to mention increased recycling. Since the garbage cans have pull-open doors* like mailboxes, they contain the garbage better than open cans, reducing litter. Not too shabby. Makes me wonder what I’ll see on my next walk…

solar compactor side

*My only concern is the fact that you have to pull the handle to put garbage in. That means you have to touch something I don’t think most of us really want to touch. As time goes by and the cans get dirtier, will people avoid using them? Will littering actually increase? I hope this isn’t too much of a deterrent, but even I’m a bit wary. I’ll be using the compactors, but along with a healthy supply of hand sanitizer.

 

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!

 

My top five December 4, 2008

Having finally just read High Fidelity, I thought I would start with a top five list. This will be the kind you check things off of–the good kind. My list consists of some greenish things I’ve had on my mind lately. Some have gone no further than my mind, while others I’ve done a little something about, but not enough. Here we go (in alphabetical order):

1. Composting — I want to compost! Having lived in CA for three years and worked at an environmental education center, I had three, count ’em three, composting options at my fingertips. My workplace had a compost bin, a worm bin and a “green bin” for the municipal organics recycling program. Now in Chicago in a high-rise apartment building with no municipal program, no yard for a compost bin and a husband adamantly opposed to having a worm bin in our home, the options are more limited. I’m going to see what I can do…

2. Dryer Sheets — These are just one of those things that I’ve somehow overlooked. I grew up using them and have just never stopped. I thought I was doing a good thing by not using any of that liquid stuff, and I use the unscented kind. But then I read something about the chemicals in dryer sheets and I suddenly felt like an eco-dummy. What can I replace my beloved dryer sheets, and do I in fact need to make the switch?

3. Food — I do love my food. As Liz Lemon on 30 Rock says in response to the question “Are you hungry?” she replies, “Always!” I’ve been getting more into organics, farmer’s markets, cooking healthy, etc. over the past few years. I recently attended a “locavore” class and an event focused on local farming, and both of those have really motivated me to go local. I want to see how feasible and practical it is to get more local stuff into my shopping repertoire.

4. Plastics — Just when I think I’ve rid my life of the majority of plastics, another plastic container will pop out in front of me. Oh, how they taunt me! Let’s face it, it’s impossible to be completely rid of plastic, but what else is there that I can get rid of or replace that I haven’t yet? I will investigate.

5. Home Air Quality — Just what are those candles that I (used to) enjoy burning putting out into the atmosphere? And even though I’ve been known to kill a few plants, what kind of difference can plants make for air quality in my apartment? Indoor air quality is supposed to sometimes be way worse than outdoor, so what else might be going on at home that affects the air we breathe? And will sniffing the breeze from the chocolate factory a few blocks away make me gain weight?

There’s more where these came from, but that’ll do it for now.