Is it Easy Being Green?

My daily adventures in attempting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle

No Impact Experiment, part 5: Energy March 16, 2010

Filed under: energy,sustainability — isgreeneasy @ 1:02 pm
Tags: ,

Since I’m not up for setting up my own Little House on the Prairie in downtown Chicago, I was a little scared of this week’s challenge of cutting down my energy usage. I’m just not into going to sleep when it gets dark, washing my clothes grape-stomping style or unplugging the fridge, which are some of the things recommended by the No Impact Project. I was however interested in examining what I actually could do to alter my energy habits, and maybe make some subtle changes.

The manual directed me to visit every room in my home and write down everything that uses energy, and then to put a star next to the things I would use during the week. Then I was to determine which of those starred items I could “eliminate or mitigate”. One interesting thing I noticed right away was that out of everything I listed (except for our second bedroom/office that we don’t regularly use), I use pretty much everything that requires energy–from the lamps and TV in the living room to the stove and espresso machine in the kitchen to the clock radio and blow dryer in the bathroom. Now I don’t consider myself an energy hog–I turn off lights when I leave a room–but it was interesting to think about how much I rely on the electrics and electronics at my fingertips.

Ok, so what changes could I make? Here’s what I did:

  • I solely used the toaster oven and left the oven off all week. I’ve always sworn by my toaster oven, but when you think about how much less energy it uses and how often you really can use it, it’s a must for every kitchen.
  • I turned off the laptop. Yep, I had gotten in the habit of just leaving it on for hours, and even leaving it on overnight, so I shut down and turned off the powerstrip.
  • I took the stairs more. Now I live on the 11th floor so I didn’t do this at home (I know, so lazy!) but I did take the stairs other places as much as I could.
  • I turned down the heat. I felt like we already kept the heat pretty low, but I turned it down a smidge anyway. (It helped that we’ve had a little burst of almost-springlike weather, even though it’s still mostly been in the 40s.)
  • I tried out a recommendation in the manual to put your pasta into the water before it boils, and by letting them heat up together, the pasta cooks quicker. It worked just fine and saved a couple of minutes of stovetop time.

So did I really eliminate anything? No. But was I able to mitigate anything? Yes, several things, some of which felt very minor, but that’s what a lot of this is for me: taking small steps that hopefully add up to something meaningful, while not having to take such extreme steps as “going off the grid”. If I go camping, I’ll go off the grid. Otherwise, I’d still like to use my curling iron, thank you very much.

 

No Impact Experiment, part 4: Food February 17, 2010

My fourth week of examining my impact was all about food. This week was the highlight so far, as I’m all about food–shopping, finding recipes, cooking, etc. Food is one of my great joys in life, so I didn’t mind giving my food choices a little more thought! The No Impact manual primarily stressed being a locavore, which is something I love to do, but can be a challenge in the middle of winter in anywhere except California. It can also be a stress on the wallet, even though I know supporting local businesses and farms is an important thing to do.

So, for this week I decided to visit (or re-visit) some great local outlets in the city and try to do all of my shopping that way. I started out going to a spot I love, Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand. This great little shop is full of local (within 250 miles), seasonal produce, as well as stuff like milk, jam, bread and spices. I managed to pick up several things, including some veggies and herbs.

Some of the selection at the Downtown Farmstand

Some of the selection at the Downtown Farmstand

No shortage of treats at the Farmstand

No shortage of treats at the Farmstand

What's in season

What’s in season

My next outing was to the Green Grocer, a store not too far from home that I always wish I visited more often. It’s a small shop, but has a great array of local and organic items. The staff is so welcoming there–it’s actually the first store where the owner introduced herself the first time I was there! I bought some local flour there that I’m really excited to try out.

Although I had been to the new French Market several times, I hadn’t done much actual shopping there. It’s only two blocks from home and it’s really a great resource I can be using more. So, I walked over and ended up with a beautiful array of produce.

What fun! I also finally went to the city’s new and only food co-op, the Dill Pickle Food Co-op, which I’m a member of but hadn’t been to since it opened a couple of months ago. I was very impressed–it was actually a bit crowded, but that’s a good thing. I bought a few things from their great bulk section. During the same outing I checked out the Logan Square Farmers Market, but the selection was pretty small so I left empty-handed. I look forward to going again in the spring though!

Meanwhile, I started looking into joining a CSA this year, which is something I’ve done before but missed out on last year. I’m determined to sign up for a CSA this year–it’s so much fun to open up the box each week and start figuring out what to do with some of the more unusual items!

I also decided that we can be eating vegetarian a little more often, so the goal is to go from eating vegetarian 1/4 of the time to closer to 1/2 of the time. So far so good; I made a really yummy West African Peanut Soup and a spicy veggie chili.

As you can tell, doing this whole local thing took a fair amount of time and energy, but is it worth it? I think most of the time, yes. If it’s reducing my “foodprint,” that’s a big thing. Can I be exclusively a locavore? Not quite. But can I be a part-locavore? Definitely.

A few tools that I’m using:
The Eat Well Guide — great resource for finding local and sustainable food sources
NRDC seasonal food tool — tells you what foods are in season in your state
Seafood Watch regional guide — helps you stay informed about what types of seafood are more sustainable
Local Harvest CSA locator — find a CSA in your area

 

No Impact Experiment, part 3: Transportation February 1, 2010

My efforts to lower my impact continued into week three’s focus: transportation. I was a little worried about this one but I thought I’d give it my best go. I knew I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what No Impact Man and his family did: they eliminated all forms of non-human powered transportation, so they got everywhere on foot or bicycle. Impressive! The No Impact Experiment instruction manual suggested making a list of all the places I needed to go and to figure out what alternative transportation I could use, altering routes if necessary. I have to admit that living in downtown Chicago gave me many advantages in this challenge; this city is very walkable, and the “El” train is one block from my apartment. I walk or take the train or bus to many of my destinations already. I still do regularly drive though, so I decided to challenge myself and try to not drive at all for a full week.

I found that it really wasn’t difficult at all to accomplish this goal–I just had to plan things out a little more sometimes, give myself more time to get places and make sure I was dressed for the weather (brrr!). Another advantage, although a little embarrassing, is that I just didn’t have that many places to go during the week. I’m unemployed/working from home, so I didn’t have a job to commute to as I would normally. Even so, there were times I wanted to drive somewhere and just stayed put or went to my corner coffee shop instead. I was a little surprised that I was actually glad not to just go to the “safety” of my car, but find alternatives for transportation and ways to spend my time. (There may be something to this whole quality of life thing.) Frankly, although driving seems like the easy answer, it’s often such a hassle and traffic is so frustrating that I’m thankful to get out of the car, so the week without driving as an option was more peaceful. The only downer was the day I had to walk in the cold rain for longer than I would have liked. But, I survived just fine. It was actually almost fun. Almost.

The trickiest part I encountered was when I went grocery shopping. I’m used to loading up and then just getting the groceries in and out of my car, but on foot I had to make sure to buy only what I could carry. So, I wasn’t able to always buy everything I needed, making it necessary to make multiple trips to the store. I decided to look at it like I was living the exotic European lifestyle, so that made it feel a little more intriguing at least. I did my first shopping at the awesome new French Market that’s just a couple blocks from home–now that was fun!

After completing my challenge, I’m ultimately still glad I have a car, but I have realized that I can be a little more selective about how often I use it.

 

No Impact Experiment, part 1: Consumption November 25, 2009

Ok, I’ll admit it right away: I totally blew the No Impact Experiment. By Tuesday (I was supposed to start on Sunday) I hadn’t done anything and after finally reading the how-to manual, I was feeling overwhelmed and behind. I didn’t want to give up but needed to rethink how to do this. Thanks to a friend’s idea, I decided that what would work best for me would be to do one part each week, rather than each day. I wanted to give this thing proper attention and time and it’s a lot to do in a week. So, feeling much better I focused on the first topic last week: consumption.

The instructions for the consumption day were to: 1) create a list of the things I need to buy this week, then delete the items I can do without and figure out if I can get anything second-hand, borrow them or make them myself; and 2) try not to shop for new items (other than food). For this particular week this task turned out to be pretty easy; I didn’t feel like there was really anything I needed to buy beyond food. I avoided dangerous places like Target. I pulled out the needle and thread to mend some socks (my husband loves to call it darning for some reason; I guess it makes him feel old fashioned). I definitely enjoyed being a non-consumer for a week.

But that’s the thing–it was only for a week. No Impact Man did this for a year! That would be very, very hard. Just this week I bought several things to prepare for Thanksgiving. And then the TV broke, so we’ll be getting a new one soon. Although I’m not No Impact Man and won’t just “do without” no matter what, I did think about what I could do differently long-term. I could be shopping second-hand more (Craigslist is such a great resource–husband recently found an electric keyboard with all the bells and whistles for $20. It’s older but works great!), and although I don’t think I’m purchase-crazy, I could put some more thought into what I buy and think about whether I really need what I’m about to buy.

The No Impact Experiment shared this video that I saw awhile back that helps you get into the mode about thinking (probably way too much) about stuff:

 

Time for a carbon cleanse! November 15, 2009

Filed under: sustainability — isgreeneasy @ 7:09 pm
Tags: , ,

Lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been back in coasting along-mode with my eco-conscious behaviors. I have started some new habits in the past several months, but I’ve been feeling like it’s time to revisit and kick it up a notch again. Since I was feeling like things needed a little shaking up I was intrigued to find out about NRDC and No Impact Man’s “No Impact Week” that starts today. They’re cleverly calling it a “carbon cleanse”–an abbreviated version of what No Impact Man did for a year. (He spent a year trying to live with no net environmental impact. Here’s some background on that project. It was a cool idea, and ended up turning into a book, documentary and non-profit project.)

The words “no impact” are intimidating, and also impossible, but I guess the idea is that it’s something to strive for. So, I signed up and I’m ready to go. So far I’ve just filled out an online survey that consisted mostly of questions about my environmental behaviors. Interestingly, there was a section that focused on quality of life issues; it made me get more reflective than I expected to when I had to answer questions about how happy I am with my life. I was wondering why those kinds of questions were included and I imagine it has to do with material possessions not equaling happiness, the satisfaction of simplyfing and ideas along those lines–the kind of stuff that sounds great and makes so much sense but doesn’t always translate easily to daily life.

We’ll see if this week-long experiment will have much effect or spur me on to create some changes that I haven’t gotten around to or just haven’t taken the leap to do. I have a lot of questions running through my mind right now (Will I have time to do these things? Will I be able to afford it? Will I have to do things that will label me an eco-freak? Will I be told to do something I just can’t do that day, or give up something I just don’t want to give up?) but I’m ready to give it a shot. Want to join me? You can sign up here.

Here’s a video that gives a good idea of what the No Impact Week is:

Ok, now I have to go figure out what I’m supposed to today. And tomorrow. Yikes!

 

Beautiful Green Thing #6 August 25, 2009

IMG_0153After it sat in a pile of periodicals for quite some time, I finally got around to flipping through the summer 09 Nature Conservancy magazine. I’m really glad I did get around to reading it because I came across a very cool project that TNC did called “Design for a Living World“. TNC invited 10 designers to create products made from sustainable materials from around the world. The website states that “Design for a Living World asks us to think about the products we use–where they come from, how they are made and the impacts they have on our planet.”

The designers traveled to far-off destinations to learn about the materials and the people who harvest them. They came up with some pretty fascinating (if not always practical) results that provide both the opportunity to appreciate the aesthetic aspect, but also learn about the materials in a unique way. The website supports this project well with really nice design and descriptions. Check it out and enjoy!

 

Grounds for Change March 12, 2009

A day of nothing but tasting, smelling and talking about coffee? I’m in! Yes, I like my java. I was feeling caffeinated just walking into the room of Coffee Fest, a coffee trade show recently held at Navy Pier. It was open only to coffee industry people, so with media credentials hanging on my neck, I felt especially cool as I made my way in to mingle with all the hip baristas.

Coffee is an enormous industry; it’s the world’s second most valuable traded commodity. What goes along with that is a lot of environmental and social impact along every step of the process, from bean to cup. Poor conditions for workers, farmers being taken advantage of, degradation of the land and the waste created by disposable cups are among the many issues involved in coffee production. And don’t forget about the quantities of water and energy used. Until recent years I doubt that most of us thought about all of these things, but today it’s hard to not be aware of concepts like fair trade, shade-grown, organic and bringing your own cup.

The growing awareness and demand for more responsible coffee was apparent everywhere I looked at Coffee Fest: it seemed like almost every coffee company at the event had something to say about direct trade, sustainability and organic coffee, or compostable cups and even more natural and organic syrups and pastries.

The folks from Eco Products had a great display of their plant-based cups that look like plastic or paper but are actually compostable. They even had straws, stirrers, cup sleeves and a brand new cup lid. So cool!

Eco Products

Eco Products

Eco Products cups and lids

Eco Products cups and lids

One of my favorite stops of the day was at Cupcoat Expressions. They had a really eye-catching display of paperboard cup sleeves (how did it become a necessity to have one of those things on your coffee cup?) on the floor equalling the number of cup sleeves the average person uses each year.

Display of paperboard sleeves used in a year by one person

Display of paperboard sleeves used in a year by one person

Cupcoats are reusable cup sleeves made out of fabric–cotton, bamboo or even jute. They come in a ton of styles, from basic solid colors to a ridiculous (in a good way) pink fuzzy option. They were nice enough to give me a cupcoat and I have since been carrying it around in my purse. (So far it’s been like getting into the habit of using reusable shopping bags: I keep forgetting. I know I shouldn’t be using paper cups anyway, but I’ve already admitted I’m not perfect.)

Cup coats made from natural materials

Cup coats made from natural materials

While the barista competition echoed from across the hall, I spoke to people about their efforts to create relationships with coffee farmers, establish values and guidelines in how they conduct business and carry out environmental audits in their facilities. Companies like Zingerman’s, Intelligentsia and PT’s emphasized their values of quality and sustainability. They personally know who grows their coffee, and they want us to as well.

Intelligentsia baristas making their fabulous coffee

Intelligentsia baristas making their fabulous coffee

I have to throw in here that I was a little distressed by all the trash I saw piling up everywhere. Disposable sample containers, plastic bottles and paper handouts–almost all of which did not need to be garbage–added up fast. This was a typical garbage can by early afternoon:

Unnecessary garbage

Unnecessary garbage

After making my way through every square inch of the show (I took it easy on the espresso shots) I felt encouraged about the direction coffee, or at least specialty coffee, is going. But, although these companies are heading in the right direction (and some have been leading the ground-breaking way), many were still selling traditional coffee. Then, it’s up to the retailers and consumers to decide whether they want to pay higher prices for the more responsible option. And of course the coffee giants, whose coffee makes up the majority of the coffee consumed in the world, aren’t as evolved and will need some nudging to change.

This is where we come in: We need to put our dollars toward reponsible coffee and help turn the industry into a much healthier one for all of us coffee lovers. And ditto for tea. I’ve been buying organic coffee for awhile now, but I’m going to make sure it’s also fair trade. It might hurt a bit to spend more, but I really believe that after thinking about how huge the coffee industry is, and how much impact we could make by making smart choices, it’s a no brainer to get the good coffee. I’m pretty sure it’s going to taste better too, plus I can wake up with a lighter conscience.