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
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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.

 

A new way to print January 16, 2010

Filed under: reducing waste — isgreeneasy @ 3:48 pm
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Still obsessing on reducing waste, I’m trying out the suggestion from the No Impact Experiment of downloading a program called “Green Print“. After watching the video tutorial, I learned that after you download Green Print and select it as your printer when printing a document, it will enable you to remove images and/or text from your document before actually printing it out. This seems especially useful when printing from the Internet; I don’t know how many times I’ve printed and ended up with way more pages because of unrelated images I didn’t want (no, I do not want the latest IPhone app, and no thank you, I do not need the unbelievable weight loss miracle), or ended up with the last page having two lines of text that I didn’t need anyway (thank you, Craigslist). I’ve often copied and pasted text into a Word document to avoid these annoyances, but that can be a pain and can create some new formatting problems to deal with, so it’s not the perfect solution.

I’ve tried Green Print out once (the free version) and I think it’ll come in handy. One cool thing is that Green Print keeps a tally for you of how much money and greenhouse gases you’ve saved by reducing the number of pages you print. It’s a small thing, but over time may really make more of a difference than I realize.

 

No Impact Experiment, part 2: Trash January 13, 2010

Filed under: composting,recycling,reducing waste,Reuse — isgreeneasy @ 5:56 pm
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The second week of my No Impact Experiment focused on one of my favorite subjects–trash. I think about trash a lot–maybe a little too much. But this gave me a chance to think about it even more! The instructions were to save all of my trash for one day and separate it into piles of stuff I used for more or less than 10 minutes, and then think about how it made me feel. Then I was supposed to put together a no trash travel kit consisting of a reusable water bottle and mug, tupperware, old t-shirt or handkerchief and reusable produce bags. Throughout the week I was to keep track of what I absolutely had to throw away and couldn’t find an alternative for.

So what I found out is a) I’ve been dropping the ball on reusing a durable coffee mug when I buy my americanos; b) I use a decent amount of tissues; c) food waste is definitely, by far, the thorn in my trashy side; and d) the answer to how creating trash makes me feel is: crazy. I weighed my waste one day and had 1.7 pounds, most of which was food waste like vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells, plus a hefty five pound turkey carcass (it was a couple of days after Thanksgiving and I made turkey soup). Food waste is heavy and takes up a lot of room in the garbage. Since starting my little composting project I’m able to compost some food waste, but because I have a small bin I can only compost a fraction of what I create, which is so frustrating! I looked into how No Impact Man was able to compost everything in the middle of NYC, and he had worm bin for some of the waste and dropped off the rest for a local environmental group that does composting.

I also looked through my recycling bin, because even though it’s not going to the landfill, these are still resources that I used for a short time and will be “down-cycled” to the point of not being able to be recycled anymore at some point. Our recycling bin always fills up fast, which is definitely better than throwing things in the garbage, but it still isn’t ideal. Many of those things could just not be there in the first place. I had one pound, 12 ounces of recycling from two days, and it consisted mostly of paper–newspaper, mail, packaging–and then also included a milk container, apple cider jug and a couple of glass jars.

So where can I make improvements? Since the trash week I’ve been much better at taking my own mug when I buy coffee; I’ve used it probably half of the time which isn’t too bad. I’ve also worked on reusing produce bags when I shop; I’ve been good about using durable shopping bags, but I’ve been pretty inconsistent with the produce bags. I’ve been thinking a little more about packaging, for instance, I’m trying to never buy meat in the plastic or styrofoam containers–instead I’m getting the paper-wrapped meats from the butcher counter. That will still create waste, but it’s not quite as evil as the plastic. Those are a few changes I’m working on so far, and I’m still thinking about other changes I can make. I don’t know if I’m willing to replace tissues with handkerchiefs, just don’t know about that one right now.

The unavoidable food scrap waste is just going to be an ongoing dilemma I fear. I am going to look into giving my food scraps to a local farm at my farmer’s market; I’ve heard that some of them may take organic waste. I’m at least working on wasting less food buy buying/cooking more realistic amounts, so hopefully that will help a bit. Fortunately my husband is a leftover-eating king, so he’s doing his part for the team! More trash-reducing updates to come!

 

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
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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!