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no impact week – the eco-sabbath

orangeFor the final day, the Experiment said,

Take a break from everything.  Ohm Shanti.

Although it was a pretty laid-back day, I didn’t completely cut off from everything.  Took a little time on the computer to catch up with this blog and a couple of other things.  I let my alarm-clock radio play for a bit.  I used my espresso machine.

But I also left the house quiet, no tv, no music, no lights.   I read for a while, played with the animals, and took a walk.  I photographed some of the fall color, which I don’t expect to last much longer.  Our brief window of amazing.

I have taken away more than I expected from the week.  I’m thinking again about the impact-reducing things we have done, as well as the the things we haven’t.  I know where there is room for improvement, and I find myself being more careful – trying to use less water when washing dishes, turning off that other lamp, being more diligent about composting, unplugging, shutting off, slowing down.  Although I will continue to try and figure out the complicated web of sustainable food choice, I am going to try not to stress about it as much as I had been.  I have even greater appreciation for my bicycling, and the fact that I am physically able to to “drive” my bike.

I read this wonderful piece on “Driving by Bike” by the editor of Bicycling Magazine, Loren Mooney:

I could go on about how riding helps the environment by reducing carbon emissions and saves money on auto maintenance because those short trips are hardest on your car.  But in the end, the best reason to drive your bike is that it transforms the trip from another spell behind a steering wheel into, quite simply, a ride – a ride that, for all its utilitarian value, can be as fun and spontaneous and satisfying as any other.

So what now?  I don’t want to be like the leaves – a brief few days of brilliance, and then it’s over.  I want to stay inspired to keep working at this project.  I want to share, I want to participate, I don’t want to be one of the few bicycle commuters in our area, but one of the many.  I was thinking I need to have a No Impact Week once a year – as a reminder of all the things that are important to me, to renew my desire to make the changes, and to re-evaluate where I want to go.

But for now, I’m signing off to continue my quiet day, my eco-sabbath.

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no impact experiment – day 7: giving back

sewing bags for Morsbags

sewing bags for Morsbags

Today’s Experiment challenge: “to be charitable, to act in good faith, to become one with others, give back and share some of your exuberance with others.”

I didn’t make an actual list of ways I (am)/can/should contribute to my community.  I fear it is an area I where I often fall short, although I think good intentions to make a difference are always in the back of my mind.

My dear friend, Peggy in CA, had sent me a link to an interesting website a while back – Morsbags: Sociable Guerilla Bagging.  The idea behind the grass-roots project, based in the U.K., was to form local sewing groups, or “pods” as they are called, where people get together to sew re-usable shopping bags from reclaimed fabric and subsequently distribute the finished bags to the public for free. The Morsbags project has turned into a global effort, with pods around the world, and over 52,000 bags sewn and given away.  From the founder of Morsbags:

I created Morsbags because i live on a canal and endless plastic bags float by like urban jellyfish.  I grew up on the coast in Devon where the beaches were, and still are, strewn with plastic bags.  Whenever I am in a supermarket, I am boggled by the staggering amount of plastic bags being freely offered to shoppers who habitually forget that they are not the only option.

I have officially registered a local pod with Morsbags, the shebicycles pod in Cleveland/Bradley County, TN, and have begun sewing bags.  Next step is to try to recruit some other local folks to join in … this part I am still working on.  After this week, and participating in the Experiment, I think I have a little more motivation to get this thing rolling, and start trying to recruit a few others to join.  (If you’re reading this and are interested, just contact me … heh heh ;-).

olinAs for other local activism projects, I am still trying to stay involved in the battle against Olin, and advocating for the passage of legislation that will ban their destructive mercury-based manufacturing.  I’ve posted about this before (see battling Olin, July 15), and the recent good news is that as of Oct. 21, members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 29-14 to pass H.R. 2190 out of committee, which would require chlor-alkali plants to end their use of mercury-based technology in chlorine and caustic soda production.

When it is passed (not “if”) this bill will affect our local Olin plant, and the bill states that this plant, and any remaining plants still using mercury, must inform the EPA administrator by 2012 whether the plant will close or convert.  My Oceana friend, Suzanne, will be taping a segment on our local NPR station (WTCI) this coming week, explaining the mercury issue and the legislation at hand – I can’t wait to hear her!

I don’t know what stipulations are included or will be made to effect any type of clean-up of the mercury-laden river sediment, but at least the dumping will come to an end.  We’re all feeling more hopeful these days.

The Experiment encourages us to “Practice what you preach.  Give.  Do.  Help.  Change.  In other words, sign up today to volunteer for a local environmental cause.” And what would I most like to do from an advocacy standpoint?  Yes – bikes.  Over and over, I keep coming back to the same place in my mind … I would love to start/be involved in an advocacy group to promote bicycle commuting, to improve local cycling (and pedestrian) infrastructure, and aid in education/driver awareness.  My local bike shop guy, Charles at Trailhead, has helped form a new non-profit group called BeCog (Bicycling Enthusiasts of Cleveland & Ocoee Group).  While I think their initial goals involve staging “events”, I am hoping that we can include bicycle commuting/advocacy into the group.  We’ll see.

I need to just need to find the energy to push past my hesitation to get started.  I guess my mantra needs to come from the words in the Experment: Practice what you preach. Do.  Help.  Change.

no impact experiment – day 6: water

heading home along the Greenway, after heavy rain

heading home along the Greenway, after heavy rain

Water – sometimes it can seem as if we have too much … but I know that in the end, we have too little.

I think alot about the water we are consuming.  Laundry, dishwashing and showering probably top our list in water consumption. We’ve done what we can to improve efficiency and lessen water usage around the house.  We have an efficient front-loading (low water) washing machine.  We’ve installed flow inhibitors on a few faucets.  We turn the faucet off when brushing teeth, and try not to let the water run while hand-washing dishes.

Roadrunner energy/water-saving shower head

Roadrunner energy/water-saving shower head

One of my favorite energy-saving/water-saving devices we have installed in all of our showers is the Evolve Roadrunner showerhead.  It saves water through the 1.5 gpm flow-rate, but the built-in “pressure compensating technology” makes it feel like a more substantial flow-rate.  The real innovation lies in the temperature sensor/trickle-savings mode.  When you first turn on the shower, it will run at full-flow until it reaching 95’F – at which time the flow will be reduced to a trickle, saving hot water.  When you are ready to hop in, you simply pull the “resume flow” cord, and the water will run at full-flow until you turn it off.  You save water through the low-flow head, and you conserve energy/electricity by not wasting hot water waiting for the water to heat up.  Great little device, works like a charm.

I’ve posted previously about my loathing of bottled drinking water and the whole bottled water industry (Obscene Water, Sept. 13), so I’ll skip that for now, except to say: please don’t buy or drink bottled water.  In the Experiment Guide, I found this little quote interesting – something that I had not considered before, especially when it comes to dining out.

Drink water instead of other beverages!  It’s the least processed drink you can consume, and actually uses less water (and energy) to produce and trasnport than any other drink.

It makes sense … although I’ll admit it might be a difficult “habit” for me to break.

One of the most revealing results of this day in the Experiment was using an H2O Conserve online water calculator to discover how much water I (and we as a family) actually use during the course of a day – which includes everything from the water I am physically using (washing, drinking, bathing, etc.), to water indirectly “consumed” through the fuel I use, the plastics I consume, etc.  Even if the number might be slightly off (per their disclaimer on regional factors, etc.), I found it to be quite staggering:  559 gallons per day – for ME alone!

Consider these water footprint numbers from the Experiment Guide:

  • 1 lb of plastic = 24 gallons of water
  • 1 lb of cotton = 100 gallons of water

I have to keep reminding myself that every little choice counts in the end.  But it’s often difficult to sort through it all.  Awareness and education are the keys to success when it comes to conservation.  All I can do is try my best to become informed and make wise choices.

no impact experiment – day 4: energy

installing one of our Sun Tunnel lights

installing one of our Sun Tunnel lights ('08)

Yes – unplug, turn it off, turn it down, try to eliminate some of the electricity-sucking devices that we don’t need powered up, and that we probably won’t miss.

Initially, I had considered going to the breaker box and shutting everything down for a day, just to try it.  And then I remembered my freezer full of blueberries and other items painstakingly gathered and frozen … so, I shelved that idea.  But I did live the day without turning on television, radio, lights, and limiting my computer time to 20 minutes (largely for writing these posts).

If I had the means to make one major change in our home, it would be to go off the grid and have a usable system of solar power, or other clean, renewable energy.  Even having just a solar water-heating system would make me pretty giddy.  We’re just not there yet.  We have a friend who works for TVA, and he said they are trying to bring some initiatives into the area – including home solar and wind installations that would enable people to sell excess power back to the grid, etc.  But I think it’s going to be a long, slow road to get there.

We have made a few great changes over the past couple of years to decrease our power usage, as well as buying kilowatt hours of “green” energy from TVA’s Green Power Switch.

Solar Tunnel fixture in our laundry room

Solar Tunnel fixture in our laundry room

Last year we installed two solar tunnel lights – one in our kitchen and the other in our laundry room.  With the highly reflective tunnel surface, it’s amazing how much light we receive – enough that on most days/most of the time, we don’t need to turn on the electric ceiling fixtures during the day.  I would actually love to have one of these in every room (which would probably result in making our roof look like swiss cheese or a bubble farm, so it probably won’t happen). But it’s a great, reasonably-priced and fairly easy to install passive solar project.

program your power usage

program your power usage

Probably the biggest energy-saving device we have installed is a programmable thermostat.  I think I tend to take a little bit of grief over the temperatures I have programmed in – I keep the house pretty chilly in the colder months, and I have heard about it, trust me.  But looking at our historic monthly electricity usage, all the little changes have added up, and we are definitely using less electricity than before some of these changes.

solar charger

Of course we have made many of the typical changes – switching lightbulbs, insultating/turning down the water heater, drying clothes on our clothesline, unplugging unused appliances and charging devices, etc.  We even have a few silly items, like my portable solar charger for my iPod, and Dillon’s nifty solar-panel book bag. I know that using my iPod charger isn’t really making any significant dent in our energy usage, but it’s been a pretty fun little gadget to have – especially for biking and on our bikamping trips.

There are a number of things that we haven’t “unplugged” from – mainly television, cablebox/disc player, and … computers.  It’s the silly addictions to our variety of electronics that pains me, but I still can’t bring myself to pull away from.

The Experiment Guide posed this question: What is the hardest part about reducing the amount of energy you use?

For me, it is definitely electronic gadgets – from my computer to my iPod to my Kindle.  During the Experiment I have consciously been trying to limit my time spent messing about on my computer.  I think setting time limits could be a good compromise, and we’ll have to see if I can stick with it.  Kind of sadly, I guess, my computer has become a source of socialization – from email to my Twitter friends to keying my thoughts on this silly blog.  I don’t think I’m alone.  After all, this entire No Impact Experiment revolves around a group of people in random places brought together through an internet adventure.

Maybe I really do need to transition to more frequent direct human contact? 😉

no impact experiment – day 4: food

garden bounty

garden bounty

Today’s focus was on food.  And I have to admit that it was a pretty dismal failure on my part.  Dinner last night was pizza and salad.  The lettuce was organic, but nothing was local.  I prepared the pizza myself, but used an “all-natural rustic crust” that I had purchased earlier at the Market, as I knew I wouldn’t have time to make my own pizza dough.  The cheese was not local, the tomatoes not from our garden…  Like I said, other than being meat-free, a pretty dismal failure from a “foodprint” perspective.

I know the key things to lessening our “foodprint”:  eating local, organic, seasonal food;  no (or less) meat cconsumption; avoiding packaged and highly processed foods; passive cooking methods…

So where does our household stand?  On a daily basis I do try to avoid buying food that has been shipped a long distance, or that is highly processed or packaged.  I don’t buy or prepare meat, although Mark and the boys tend to eat it sometimes at school and work, or if we’re dining out.

I really try to be mindful when shopping for food, but it is frustrating when the only organic lettuce I can find is stuck in a plastic bag.  Although we have a once-weekly farmer’s market, I didn’t do alot of grocery shopping there – mostly due to hours of operation and location. Same goes with the Amish market that is nice, but a 50-mile round trip.

We grew a fair amount of vegetables in our garden, although I haven’t done much of any canning for several years now.   We ate most of what we harvested, although I still have a supply of squash we continue to enjoy.

My local grocery store of choice, Season’s Harvest Market, will frequently stock a few seasonal and local items.  Apples and cider from within our county have been the lastest and most abundant.  But some of the things – like a $2.99 almond/granola bar that was produced by a local in-home bakery – well, I just question where the ingredients came from?  Certainly the almonds were shipped in, and there was no indication that the ingredients were organic.  And given the price-tag, I just can’t justify buying one. So as much as I would like to support “local”, sometimes it is just not sensible or reasonable. (And I won’t even comment again on the imported bottled water from Norway that they still have on the shelves …)

I have found that I often tend to have “food-store envy” when I visit other cities.  Visiting my cousins in California last year, I was so jealous of the small fruit and vegetable stands that seemed to be everywhere, as well as the shopping choices that included Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, etc.  Even where son Ross is in college, in Johnson City, TN, they have a great EarthFare grocery store, stocked full of organic and fair-trade items.  And although I know there are some “better” options in Chattanooga, I can’t justify making the drive on any kind of frequent basis.

It’s sad situation when the simple chore of shopping for food has become so complicated.  Trying to figure out how far a tomato has travelled to get into my salad, or determining if the corn in this product is GMO or not?  Can I actually find a locally-grown organic version of the cheese I want to buy?  Why can’t I purchase this vegetable without it being encased in a plastic bag?  It’s exhausting, frustrating, and I will admit there are times when I just give up.

From the Experiment Guide, I did find this pretty nifty on-line resource to help located nearby local, sustainable shopping choices – it’s called the Eat Well Guide.  I actually found several places that I didn’t know about, including one market in nearby Collegedale that might be do-able by bicycle(?).

One last thing from the Experiment Guide that I’d like to try: Cool Idea #3 – make-your-own food-scrap vinegar.

Food-Scrap Vinegar

Combine in-season fruit scraps and chop up coarsely.  Dissolve a quarter cup honey in one quart of water.  Throw the scraps in and cover with a cloth.  Let ferment for two to three weeks, stirring occasionally. (For more recipes like this, read Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Our pizza dinner ... not such a great "foodprint", but still pretty tasty!

Our pizza dinner ... not such a great "foodprint", but still pretty tasty!

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no impact experiment – day 3: transportation

saddle

OK, really … what am I supposed to say here?  Yes, ride bikes.  Walk.  Ride a train or a bus if you have access. Get around – outside of the box that is the automobile.

I will confess that we’ve had a bit more driving about by car lately – fetching/returning kids from college, some family outings, and so forth.  But I loved the questions that were asked in the Experiment Guide for this day:

  • Bike. Walk. Scoot. Glide.  Hop on the bus.  Carpool.  Take a moment to reflect on your day.  Was it a nice change of pace or a difficult one?
  • What benefits did you discover along your route?
  • What could you improve in your experience?

You already know this, but I love riding my bike for everyday activities.  It is efficient.  It makes me feel so good.  It makes the task of mundane errand-running much less tedious and much more fun.  I like seeing everything – from the cows to the trees to the people – not from within the closed/boxed environment of a vehicle, but from a more “live” perspective.  I like the quiet.  I love the whrrrrrr of my wheels, the rhythm of my breathing, the feeling in my muscles, the breeze on my face.

I won’t say that it’s always easy.  Sometimes, more than two trips in a day can makes me tired enough that I won’t make a third.  Even though I have gotten to where I will go out in rain or bad weather, I find that I try to avoid it and just stay in.  It does take more time for me – which, on occasion, I don’t have.  Distance, more than traffic, is the time-eater for me.  I can’t take my dog along (she refuses to ride).  And logistically, it really doesn’t work if I have to pick one of the boys up from school, or get them to an appointment, etc. – the distances are too out of reach to deal with in a timely manner.

I just finished watching the documentary Sprawling From Grace.  It was an interesting examination of our suburban, segregated pattern of development – a pattern that we are discovering is unsustainable.  After the turn of the 20th century, and especially after World War II, we started forming communities that separated industry from residential areas, as well as from commercial centers, schools and civic centers.  We wanted everything separate, in its own little enclave, and we decided we’d drive from one area to the next.  We have been forced into car dependence by this pattern.  Very few of us have access to usable public transportation or transportation alternatives such as the ability to be able to walk or bicycle to our destinations.  Even in the places where people in this area may be able to walk, there are no sidewalks or safe ways for them to go about it.  When it comes to the automobile, what began as “choice” has become many people’s only option.  As one expert in the film termed it: our “happy motoring utopia”.

Bottom line: sprawling suburbia is an unsustainable model in the end.  From every angle – economic cost of infrastructure, energy use, traffiic, environmental impact to quality of life, we cannot continue this model of development, and some believe we are running out of time to make necessary changes.  Car culture is a guaranteed disaster in the making.

Several weeks ago we were up in Danville, Kentucky, visiting a college.  The town really struck a chord with me.  It was a real town – with a real, thriving Main Street.  There was a bakery, a coffee shop, businesses, shops, and lots of people walking the sidewalks.  Pretty houses were just down the side streets.  It was not 6 lanes of traffic and a WalMart and Applebees next to the strip mall.  It was a real town – much like the town of my childhood, where I have fond memories of walking to the record shop, or to the library or the bakery.  Places that were owned by local people – not cookie-cutter corporate chains.  In my childhood town, we could walk, or ride bicycles, or even ride a train into Chicago if we needed to.  I dearly miss that model of living.  I miss having a community that feels like a town – rather than just a copy the same commercial centropolis that is 20, 40, 60 miles down the interstate.

I have hope, though.  I think many people – at least people in the “next” and upcoming generation – are getting the message that we need to re-think how and where we live, and how we get from place to place.  I love to think about my friend Jeff and his wife Sarah who bought their home in town and near work, and only keep one car.  Jeff rides his bicycle to work each day … and they really “get it”.  Hopefully the rest of us will come around.

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no impact experiment – day 2: trash

seen in Washington, DC, October 2008

seen in Washington, DC, October 2008

Today was trash day.  I tried to collect everything I would either put in the trash or our recycling bins, and set it aside to see how much of it was actually going to end  up in the landfill.  Here’s a rough list of what I collected throughout the day:

  • Plastic packaging from various food items – some recyclable, some not.
  • A plastic shipping bag from package received – not recyclable, but reusable.
  • Cardboard paper scraps from packaging – recyclable.
  • Dryer lint – compostable.
  • Fabric and thread scraps from several on-going sewing projects – although it may be compostable, I feared it might be too slow to decompose.
  • Food scraps – some compostable, some not.

I would say that the majority of the trash we generate in our household can be recycled (and composted).  We recycle virtually all of our paper and cardboard waste,  plastics #1 and #2 (the only types our recycling center accepts), aluminum and tin cans, and glass containers.  We have a compost pile and a compost bin, and try to compost as much food waste (and rabbit litter, some paper scraps) as we can.  Typically, as a family, we end up with 2 bags of trash headed for the landfill each week.

Over the past year I have tried to cut out as many disposable/one-time-use products as I can.  We use cloth napkins and paper towels, paper plates, etc.  We never buy bottled water.  I always use re-usable (cloth) shopping bags.

The stumbling blocks that I’m still working on include using plastic wrap for food, accepting styrofoam leftover containers at restaurants, etc., and trying to find certain grocery items that aren’t bagged/boxed/wrapped.  (And remembering to take my insulated coffee mug along!).

Mostly, I would love to see better recycling services offered in our community.  Presently our local drop sites accept only paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum and select electronics.  I have to take plastics and tin cans into the next county (Hamilton) every other month or so.  I’m not even asking for curbside pick-up – I’d just like to see easier-to-access drop facilities with longer hours, and broader range of acceptable items.