Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Big Green Purse

I've been known to carry bags made of recycled seatbelts, organic cotton, and even reshaped plastic bottles, but I recently found a website with what I think are the most fashionable recycled material bags yet. They are made out of recycled tire treading! I know it may not seem like the most glamorous material to be carrying your most personal belongings in, but I guarantee you that they are impressive. Don't just take it from me though, see for yourself:
I have found that eco-shopping is more fun than regular shopping. Not only is there the added challenge of finding the things you need in forms that have a smaller environmental impact but you also have a rare opportunity to carry products that are some of the most unique on the market. One of my co-workers recently commented on one of my bags saying, "I knew it had to be yours because you always have the coolest things." The purse she thought was so cool was made out of old plastic bags and magazine clippings. If you're the crafty type, making your own recycled products can be fun too, but sometimes the professionals can create works of art that we couldn't make in our own homes. So here's to shopping in the eco-friendly way.

The following website allows you to send in your own used license plate and have it turned into a bag, CD case, or even bracelets. Or you can try some bags that look less like what they are made of and more like mainstream styles with this gg2g website. This site features bags made of materials ranging from recycled vinyl seating to highway billboards.
Our feet can make a statement too. Try this site featuring shoes made of recycled materials and organic fibers.  I can personally vouch for this company- my simple shoes are the most comfortable pair that I own. I wear them to work everyday, and I can step a bit lighter knowing that the making of my shoes didn't expand my environmental footprint.
The logo of this company known as Sweetgrass features the short clause, "Designing Sustainable Solutions." I feel like these three words could in themselves describe the goal of my life mission. This company works to find the most ecologically sound fibers for their clothes while also standing on their beliefs of a fair business ethic. They are working to help not only the environment, but people as well.
I encourage you to visit some of these sites and search for others and read about the mission behind the company. While styles made by companies such as these might not match normal mall prices, the benefits reaped from buying ethically made products cannot be ignored. In other words, these business workers believe in more than a bottom line, and it's about time that we start to do so too.

My Immortal Enemy

Understanding my obsession with recycling and wanting to do his part while in our apartment, my roommate's boyfriend, Gabe, asked me if he could throw his styrofoam egg crate into our recycling bin. "Sadly, it has to go in the garbage," I answered before heading into a lengthy tirade about how I find styrofoam to be the most unnecessary and harmful human invention ever. It found out later that Gabe had asked me this question simply to bate at me, knowing my passions would overcome the calm mood I had formerly displayed. He certainly got the reaction that he was going for. I often do come across people that genuinely do not know about the harmful nature of styrofoam, and I'm not surprised since it provides many everyday conveniences and is used more frequently than we might think.
I was actually told once that styrofoam breaks down into small enough pieces that they can be detected in our air, water, and even in our lungs here in the United States. While I don't know the original source of this information, I do know that it's enough to scare me into wanting to take action against this environmental plight. My favorite smoothie joint uses styrofoam cups to serve their drinks, so I bought an insulated plastic cup that I can use again and again instead. Most places will allow you to do this and some will actually give you a discount for saving their supplies. Most styrofoam products are made to be disposable, but they have non-disposable alternatives that we can choose instead. If we try to choose this instead, we can save our natural resources from being turned into things that are destined to end up in a landfill only to outlast our presence on this planet. We need to conserve the resources that we have here, now. If we aren't careful now, then in the future, there will be no future. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Organically Grown, Naturally Better

            While walking down the grocery store isles, my eyes are inundated with images of cows in pastures and red barns amid green grassy fields. But are these images testament to the truth behind where our food comes from? Absolutely not. Most big meat producers house hundreds of cattle in a single pen, the grass long gone from over grazing. The cows we eat have been trained to eat corn, since it is a cheap commodity, being subsidized by the government. Chickens are held in pens where most of them will never experience what it is like to spread out their wings, as the space provided doesn't allow it. Cases appear regularly in court from small towns or neighborhoods being plagued by the horrid smell and soiled water that flows from over-crowded pigpens and into their back yards. Even farmers of our vegetables cause problems when they plant vast fields with only one plant species, degrading the soil and making it easy for insects to take advantage of a delicious meal. Pesticides have been developed to deal with the bugs, and fertilizers to aid the overused soil, but what effect do these chemicals have on our foods? Better yet, how are they affecting the environment where the foods are being grown? The food production system in place in our country right now is certainly flawed. We have developed methods of growing mass amounts of food at low costs to the consumers, but with high externalities. By externalities, I mean factors that are being paid for in some way, but not by the money used to purchase the product.
            Many of these externalities involve environmental issues that are often dealt with using tax dollars. In the end, we are still paying these costs. We are also paying them with our health. With so many chemicals, toxins, and hormones running through the foods we put into our bodies how can we expect to have good health? The chemicals introduced to crops also seep into our water sources. I work at an Environmental Testing Laboratory, and one of our clients continually deals with the presence of cyanide in their drinking water. Why? Old farmers used to put cyanide on their cows to kill the pests that would bother them. This was almost 50 years ago and yet this city is still plagued with the task of trying to ensure safe drinking water for its residents when its natural sources are filled with a powerful toxin.
There are many issues surrounding our food systems and many ways that we can respond to them, but one of the best ones is to invest our money into something better. When I was teaching in Arkansas, we called it "voting with your dollar." While not always a perfect solution to every ethical food issue, buying organic can certainly ensure that the environment is being saved from additional chemicals and toxins. Better yet, you are being saved from these.
            Unlike traditional agriculture, organic farming involves using methods that will allow for healthy plant growth without artificial chemicals. Compost materials are often used to enrich the soil and varied methods of planting specific plants in specific patterns can actually combat many pest issues. The soil remains much healthier, and oftentimes the foods taste amazingly better. I have never had a watermelon so sweet as the one I picked from the organic farm in Arkansas.
            With all of these benefits, why isn't everyone buying organic? It's simple. The traditional farming methods are still significantly cheaper for the consumer. Although they cost more in externalities, those costs don't show up at the cash register, making traditional foods much more inviting. Getting involved with a CSA, or community supported agriculture group, is a good way to get good foods for less. With these groups, each member pays a set amount up front and then receives a basket of foods each week with a share of whatever plants were successfully harvested at the farm that week. Usually, granted cooperative weather, you get about 1.5 times as much food as what you would get for the same price in a grocery store. And even better than just being organic, it is locally grown. No pollutants are emitted from shipping and your food is as fresh as it could possibly be. While CSAs aren't available to everyone, I suggest visiting to see what is available in your community. While shopping organic can often add a few expenses to the grocery list, I believe that with a slight restructuring of our budgets to really represent what is important, we can afford to buy what is better for everyone. Rather than buying that big screen TV, take an investment in your world and in your health, and try something organically grown. Your planet will thank you for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"We share the earth not only with our fellow human beings, but with all the other creatures."
 - The Dalai Lama

Today's post is going to be a bit atypical from my normal entries. Usually I like to highlight actions that we can each take in our everyday lives in order to help conserve our planets natural resources, but today I want to step back for a moment and consider what's at stake if we don't start taking care of our planet. Living in our concrete villages in middle of towns and cities, seemingly separate from the natural world, it's very easy to forget about all of the amazing species that share our planet with us. While taking care of our home is important to secure the future of our own species, it is also imperative to the future of these incredible forms of life:

Some of these are cuter than others, but I think it would be difficult for anyone to contest that each of these species represents a beautiful contribution to the diversity and wonder that we have here on Earth. These animals, the anglerfish, kiwi, bumblebee bat, echidna, and dugong, all have one thing in common: they are endangered. There are so few of them left on our planet that they have been listed on an official register of animals that could potentially disappear entirely within the next few years.
Today's post is not one to liven the spirits. As many of my professors have explained on the first day of classes, the information that follows is not that which will make you feel warm and fuzzy. Hopefully, though, as you read the next few paragraphs where I share with you the facts behind why we absolutely must start caring more for our precious planet, you will begin to feel a drive. You will begin to feel something burning within you, telling you that you must incite change, so that your children and your children's children can enjoy the wonders of our diverse planet while also having a good place to live.

It is currently estimated that "Of the 40,168 species that the 10,000 scientists in the World Conservation Union have assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction." ( environment/animal-extinction--the-greatest-threat-to-mankind-397939.html) Granted great extinctions have occurred before in the history of our small planet, five different times to be exact, the difference between these past extinctions and the present one lies in one major factor: human influence.
Studies of past great extinctions show that a major climatic change, or possibly the affects of events such as an asteroid hitting the planet, have caused vast numbers of species to die out. Natural speciation then occurs, in which new species emerge out of the ones that survived. In about 10 million years the level of biodiversity seen before the catastrophic event begins to resurface. This is the natural way, but there is nothing natural about the current die-out that we are seeing. Habitat devastation, poisonous chemicals, monoculture crops, and invasive species are just a few of the human-induced obstacles that earth's life forms must contend with today. Once this great extinction takes full affect, will the species left behind be able to survive long enough for speciation to take place? If our current patterns of natural resource use and development continue, there will be no natural environment left for the animals to use in 1000 years, much less 10 million.
What humans too often fail to realize is that the earth's plants and animals are more than just things to be mused at through the bars of zoo cages. They are integral parts of the natural system that provide very real and necessary benefits to human life. Without scavengers, who would clean up the carcasses of deceased animals? We could just leave them there to rot, but would we not then contend with diseases born from the remains? Without the roots of plants holding the earth together, would not all the soil wash away with the rain? Where then would we grow our crops? And how could we protect our homes from becoming engulfed in flowing earth? We already have this problem, as the waves of the ocean take with it sand, loosened by the removal of the plants that used to grow there. Snakes help to control bug populations, bees fertilize our plants, worms provide nutrition to help our food to grow. There is an endless list of tragedies that we will experience should the diversity currently present on our planet continue to be devastated by our human activities.
As I watch shows such as PlanetEarth, or scan through National Geographic magazines featuring articles about so many incredible creatures, I can't help but to think about what an amazing gift we have been given. How foolish we are to be abusing what we have been blessed with. The following link will take you to a blog page that features some amazing photos of some of our planets most incredible species, including many that are listed as endangered.
As you look through these photos, think about the many services that animals provide for us as well as the right that they have to be living here on this planet, just like we do. Ultimately, it's not just about saving our own futures; it's about theirs as well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Drip, Drip, Drop

Two summers ago, I spent three months working at an education center in Arkansas, where I led classes on sustainability, world poverty, and of course, caring for the environment. One of my favorite activities in the later of these classes was called "A Drop in the Bucket." I would start with 1 liter of water measured into a graduated cylinder. "If this represents all the water on our planet," I would say, "then this represents the amount of fresh water that we have. The rest of what is left is salt water." From the 1 liter I would pour out 30 mL, about the amount that would fit in a travel-sized shampoo container. To the rest of the water, I would add a few sprinkles of salt. "Now," I would say, "this isn't all water that we can use. Some of it is unavailable to us because it is frozen in glaciers and ice caps." From the 30 mL of water, I would pour out another 15 mL, and to what was remaining in the second container, I would add a piece of ice. "This represents the fresh, unfrozen water on our planet," I would say, pointing to the un-iced 15 mLs. "This is the water that naturally would be available for humans to use," I would say, pointing to the little bit that was my final 15 mLs. "The sad truth though, is that almost half of this water is polluted beyond use. Without the infrastructure to clean it up, we have this much water to use," and at this point I would pour a mere 7 mL of water out of the final cup and into a bucket.
We use water for almost everything we do. We cook with it, wash with it, bathe in it, drink it. Water is absolutely essential to life. By essential, I mean that over 50% of our human bodies are pure water. In fact, a person without water will die long than one deprived of food. So if our resources are limited, as we have just demonstrated, it would only follow that we should be adamant about protecting the resources that we do have. But we don't! Over half of the water that is available to us (water that is both fresh and unfrozen) is polluted. With technology, we have been able to pump water to the surface from the water table underground, but over pumping has caused a great amount of sediment to enter the water table and it has allowed for salt water to enter into otherwise freshwater systems that have been emptied out. The only other solution lies right at our fingertips: conservation. Conservation right in our own homes and everyday lives.
Concepts such as shortening showers and fixing leaky pipes seem obvious enough, but there are many less known ways to save water that can subtract gallons seemingly overnight. Watering your lawn and gardens is necessary if you want to keep things looking nice, but watering in the heat of the afternoon isn't going to do much good. The water will evaporate before the plants have a chance to soak it in. Watering in the evening or very early morning is a better idea. An even more earth-conscious approach would be to choose plants that are native to the environment of your area. These plants will be naturally adapted to the water availability there and will require significantly less watering from an unnatural source. Also, don't over-fertilize your lawn. This will cause the plants to become "thirsty" requiring much more water to keep them alive.
If you have a garden, think about trying to catch rainwater off of your roof or the garden shed to use for watering the plants. Putting a piece of screening over the top of a bucket can even keep leaves and sticks out for you, while catching the water that you can use later on. When I was in Arkansas, some super-savvy volunteers even fashioned a spigot on the lower bit of the bucket so that we didn't have to scoop the water out, but rather could pour it from the bottom. I've also known of several people that would save the water from water glasses that their guests had finished with and would later use it to water their indoor plants.
Installing low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads may be a bit of an investment at first, but these technologies will quickly pay for themselves and the water that they save is quite significant. Turning off the faucet is another amazingly simple way to cut gallons. While brushing your teeth, sudsing up with soap, or even gurgling with mouthwash, the water does not need to be running. Turning off the faucet, even for a few brief seconds while you finish what you are doing can save enormous amounts over time.
It's important to remember that no idea is too small. When using water as much as we humans do, even small acts will add up over time. And if we are all being water-conscious together, they will add up faster than you might think. This precious resource is one to be cherished and not taken advantage of, because while it will always be on our planet, it may not always be in a form that we can use it. Ultimately, what is at stake here is a great giver of life for people across the globe. Drip, drip, let's get that faucet fixed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Talk About It, Worry About It, Or Do Something About It

If you're anything like me you've heard over and over again how much energy the sun is producing and how if only we could harvest that energy we could stop depending on coal and oil. But the thing is, while I can write my local senator, protest mountain top removal, even stand in front of the White House with picket signs, I cannot make my energy needs go away, nor can I single-handedly change the energy grid of our nation. What I can do is be as energy efficient as I possibly can in my own little apartment. It seems like so little, but if every household were to take on the challenge of being as energy-conscious as possible, we would see a very different landscape on the mountaintops of Appalachia*.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residential buildings use about 20% of the energy consumed in the U.S. Saving energy here is the start to making our country more energy conscious. If everyone were to conserve at home, the ideas would begin to trickle up into the business sector as well. But is my proposal realistic? What are the chances of its actually being adopted? If everyone were to adopt the energy-conscious lifestyle in their homes, the ideas would start to spread elsewhere as the same people buying the houses and renting apartments in our country that are also running the businesses here.
One of the best ways to be sustainable with your energy usage is to purchase solar panels. This technology simply captures the energy from the sun, creating no destruction to the planet at all. The reason solar panels aren't more popular than they are is that they are a large upfront investment. If you plan to live in your home for a long period of time however, they can actually pay themselves off within 10 years, and they can last for many years past that. I live in an apartment complex where installing a solar panel is not an option, but there is another completely sustainable way that I can help with our current energy crisis: use less energy!
Turning the lights off when you leave the room, running the dishwasher only when it is completely full, and turning the AC up a few degrees are all common ways to cut back on energy consumption. There are a few less obvious ways that we can implement as well. One of my favorites is coordinating laundry days. It takes a significant amount of energy to heat up the dryer, and if my 3 roommates and I all do our laundry at separate times, we have to heat up the dryer 4 separate times. If we coordinate, and all do our laundry on the same day, we can simply take one load out of the dryer, add another, and keep reusing the already-heated dryer. In doing this we only have to heat the dryer up once. Even better than this though, would be using a hanging line rather than the dryer at all.
In our modern society, it is certainly commonplace to have electronics present in every room of the house. While it seems obvious enough to turn off these electronics when we're not using them, most of us don't grant a second glance at the small lights these electronics keep on even when they are in "off" mode. These are called phantom users because the energy they are using adds up quickly and most of the time it goes completely unnoticed. The best way to deal with these phantom users is to invest in a few power strips. These strips have a switch that when flipped off, stops the energy flow at the source, turning phantom users off. Completely off.
Living in the hot state of Florida, I certainly know of the temptation to turn the thermostat down as far as it will go in the middle of the summer. It's important not to give in to temptations such as these, however. In my apartment, I try to keep the thermostat no lower than 76 degrees. Installing ceiling fans would be a good way to keep the rooms cooler without using so much AC. Another important thing to remember is that turning the AC higher or even off when you leave for 8 hours or more saves a significant amount of energy. With good insulation, your home should hold in some of the cool air so that it isn't too uncomfortable when you return home. Closing your blinds while you are gone can help with this process too as it will keep the sun from pouring in and heating up the rooms.
There are many habits that we can adopt to help lower our energy consumption, and here I have only outlined a few. This week I challenge you to brainstorm a few more and try to adopt them into your lifestyle. Once you do these things for a few weeks they start to become a habit and you won't even notice you're doing it anymore, except maybe when the electric bill comes in surprisingly low.

*The United States uses coal for about 50% of our energy needs. Mountaintop removal is one of the most efficient but destructive ways of obtaining coal and in the United States the Appalachian region is the hub of this practice. The photo below shows you the span of the Appalachian region and I have included a link to an article that does a great job of outlining the many issues associated with mountaintop removal. While this article was written in 2006, most everything outlined has remained relatively unchanged.    

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"We are not to throw away those things which can benefit our neighbor. Goods are called good because they can be used for good: they are instruments for good, in the hands of those who use them properly." 
- Clement of Alexandria

In our modern, American world we are quick to toss away what we have used for it's original purpose rendering the empty cereal boxes, outdated newspapers, and old bottle caps useless. My own view, however, is that these are the exact type of items that can make for the most fun on a dull rainy day. It's called upcyling: turning waste products into useful things. Even if what we hold to be trash cannot be reused in its original form, with a bit of creativity it can be rejuvenated into a festive, creative, and useful piece. This past week I decided to take on the challenge of creating crafts out of materials found in the average household's recycling bin and I had a great time doing so. Here are a few of the products of my ventures:

This picture frame is made out of a cardboard box, newspaper, 
paperclips, and cut-outs from an old poster.

This refrigerator magnet is made out of a cap from an old plastic container, 
a page from an outdated book, scrap fabric, and a few other things I 
grabbed out of my scrap-booking kit.

This door hanging is made out of a tile, raffia from the wrapping of a 
birthday gift, a cutout from an old magazine, and newspaper.

This is my favorite of all the things I made this past week and I 
am going to take you step by step through the process of 
making it so that you can have some fun too!

The first step is to collect thin cardboard boxes from household items. I found that cereal boxes work the best and kids cereal boxes tend to have a lot of fun colors that really add to the project.

The next step is to cut off the tabbed parts of the boxes so that you can then cut them into straight strips about 1 inch wide. I used a miniature cutting board to help speed up the process. These can be found at crafting stores and they are relatively inexpensive. After cutting the boxes into long strips, use permanent double-sided tape (a glue gun could work well here too) to stick three or four of the strips together to make them a usable length. The length you will need for your strips will depend on the size you would like your box to be. It is always possible to add to your strips later, but it is easier to cut them shorter than to make them longer. I suggest making them a bit longer than you think you will actually need here at the beginning when connecting them is easiest.

Lay out several of your long strips next to each other and begin interweaving other strips in between them. The portion where the strips are woven is going to be the bottom of your box so you can adjust 
the number of strips you use here according to the size you would like your box to be.

One you are satisfied with the sizing of your box bottom, flip all of the strips over and begin folding the unwoven portions upward. These flaps are going to be the foundation for the sides of the box.

At this point you will need to create more long strips to weave into the sides of the box. I found that the weaving process was easier if I added a small tab of tape between every couple of weaves. Once you start working with your own box, you will get a feel for what makes things easier for you. Keep in mind at this stage that a tighter weave is going to create a more supportive box.

Once you reach the height you want, cut the excess strips down to a uniform length and fold them in, securing each one with a small piece of tape. Then create one last long strip to line the inside of the basket and hide the loose ends.

Whoala! Now have a festive and useful box and you've saved multiple
 cardboard boxes from going into the recycling bin. 
Upcycling at its best!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours." 
~ Denis Hayes

There are times in life when we come across goods that we can neither reduce, nor reuse. This is not the time to panic, however. Most towns and cities in our fair country offer another option: recycling. In this process, goods are broken down into their component parts and reformed into new items. After this process they can reenter the system of goods, they are literally being put back into the cycle, or re-cycled. This process is of the utmost importance as it keeps resources from leaving the system, creating less demand for virgin materials. Plus if all of our recyclable items were put in a landfill they wouldn't break down for centuries, millennia, or with some materials, infinity. According to an article from Waste Management World, the residents of a city in the UK called Newcastleunder-Lyme, are "asked to sort their waste into nine separate receptacles." The article goes on to say that this is possibly taking recycling a bit too far.* I agree with this conclusion because my experience has shown that when being environmental becomes too much of a burden or hassle, people are less likely to participate. But if citizens are given the resources necessary to recycle and they are educated about its importance, recycling programs can do a great deal to help minimize wastes and conserve resources. In most U.S. cities recycling is already available, so now I am going to outline some of the most commonly collected materials and the importance of choosing to put these in the recycling bin rather than the trash can.
Glass is one of the most important materials to recycle because it never decomposes. Once glass is glass it will remain so forever, so once it makes it to a landfill it will never again be able to contribute to our planets resources. The upside though, is that glass can be recycled an infinite number of times without ever losing its strength and most every recycling company will take this material.
Plastics will decompose, but depending on the type they can take anywhere from a few centuries to a few millennia to do so. Luckily they can be recycled, but not infinitely. Reducing our use of this material is important in this respect. There are also different availabilities of plastic recycling centers, depending on the type of plastic you have. Check with your local agency to see what plastics they can take. Then, you can check the type present in your goods by looking at the numbers that look like this:

If you want a better understanding of what differentiates these different plastics, the following link gives a brief, but detailed explanation for each one:

If you don't want to delve into the little details though, it's a good rule of thumb that the higher number plastics are more difficult to recycle and therefore there are fewer plants that can do so.
Paper is another easily recyclable product, but the sad fact is this: paper makes up more bulk in American landfills than any other material. How is this possible? While individual homeowners have been picking up the recycling trend, many companies see it as an extra effort or added cost. It's much easier to throw everything into one waste bin than to separate it into two. If you work for a company that doesn't recycle, I encourage you to research the recycling opportunities in the area. Most drop-off locations are limited to private use only and will not accept corporate materials, but many companies will offer free pick-ups if your company disposes of a lot of recyclable materials or if there are multiple pick-ups in a similar area.
The company I work for uses a significant amount of glass and plastic bottles to collect the samples that we test. Since our bottles must be sterile before use we can't reuse them, so after we finish with them we dump out any remaining sample and throw them away. We throw away enough bottles in a year to fill a small landfill I'm sure, so I asked my boss if he had ever considered scheduling a recycling pick-up. I was shocked when he told me that they had tried to do so several times before, but that our collection wasn't enough to constitute a pick-up on the part of the companies, and they wanted us to drop them off. A drop off would require extra gas, mileage, and labor and therefore wasn't approved through the corporate office. So now, we just throw everything away. Since I already recycle at my apartment, my challenge to myself this week is to try to research recycling pick-up companies in my area and what volume of goods would be enough for a pick-up. My thought is that if I can get other companies in our business complex to recycle as well, it may make it more appealing to the recycling company to come to the one area for multiple stops.
          Purchasing recycled products is another important part of this cycle. Often, the efforts involved in the recycling process add a marginal increase to the cost of the products. Because of this, people are more drawn to products made from virgin materials, simply because they are less expensive. Without a market for these products, however, the entire cycle shuts down and recycling is no longer a lucrative option. While you may be paying a bit more for recycled products at the cash register, these products are creating great savings in the way of environmental degradation and resource loss that we would have to pay for as a society later on.

* "How Many Recycling Bins is Too Many?" Waste Management World. February 17, 2011.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. 
-New England proverb

In my last blog I outlined the idea of reducing our intake of goods, buying only what we really need. Now I want to take things a step further. Even with minimal purchases, there are still things that we must have to live. The good news is that even when buying and using these things there are still ways that we can minimize our impact on the planet. This is where we run into the concept of reuse. In the following picture, I have compiled a collection of items in which I encourage everyone to acquire. These items may not be in the "necessary" category outline previously, but you'll understand in a moment why they are the exception to the rule.

These items can do over and over again what others can do just once, and by doing so they reduce our need to consume the items that they substitute. Take the water filter and bottle for example. I purchased these items that are indeed made of plastic and therefore seemingly "ungreen." But in the course of the past two years, these two items have replaced my need for countless bottled waters. A few years ago I started reusing my water bottles after I had finished the original water from them. I quickly stopped this practice when I learned that reusing these bottles threatens the purity of the water as chemicals from the plastic actually begin to leach into the water. With my home filter, I am able to purify my otherwise terrible tasting tap water, without much energy or waste. According to the All About Water website, "At this point in time, there is simply no better choice- for purity and economy- than filtered water."
Reusable shopping bags work in a similar way. They replace the need for countless plastic bags, and as a bonus they can hold more goods than traditional plastic bags and they swing over your shoulder for easier transport. Reusable lunch boxes save the need for paper lunch sacs and washable kitchen cloths saves the need for rolls of paper towels.
Even school supplies can be reused. Each year before classes start, I go through my old binders and notebooks, take out what I no longer need, and reuse them for the next semester. My roommate once teased me because I didn't want to concede and take a folder to the recycling bin. I had used it for so long, it had repairs on every edge and even the repairs themselves were coming apart. If every paper folder purchased at the beginning of a school year were reused, even just once, think of how many trees we would be able to leave in nature instead of turning them into pulp. I still have yet to find a good alternative for paper, except maybe utilizing the Internet more. Even still, some things just need to be in hard copy. One move I can be sure to make though is ensuring that I'm printing on both sides of my paper.
My favorite type of reusing is crafting, which I plan to devote an entire entry to in a few weeks. My second favorite is shopping. But other than my shopping bag how can I support reuse while shopping? Second hand stores. Many of my favorite outfits have had previous owners. These clothes may no longer work for the ones who originally bought them, but I love coming home with fun finds from the local thrift shop. By doing so I am keeping these items from being destined to landfills. I once went to a concert wearing a sparkly black dress no one could ever have guessed had been found in the back of a Goodwill store. The best part about these stores is that there are so many fun (and funny) things to try on, all of it is quite affordable, and you are helping the environment by reusing the materials rather than allowing them to be thrown away.
There are so many things that can be reused if we just get a bit creative. Some things can't be reused, but that is where recycling becomes important. Every time you try to throw something away or buy something new, ask yourself if there is an alternative that would allow you to reuse something already in the cycle of consumption rather than adding to the necessity for the use of more virgin materials.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Live simply so that others may simply live. -Mother Teresa

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We've all heard it a thousand times. I present it to you yet again though, because those three simple words are the key to living green. They are concepts that will appear time and again in this blog, because they are so central to our ability to live sustainably. There are finite resources in this world and if we turn them all into products eventually destined for landfills, future generations will find great difficulty in making a life for themselves on this planet.
The three R's, or the waste hierarchy, are placed in the order, reduce, reuse, recycle, quite deliberately. Reducing our waste is the most important thing that we can do to help make the waste system sustainable. Anything that can't be reduced we can try to reuse, and anything that we can't reuse we can try to recycle. In subsequent posts, I will go into greater detail about how we can implement each of these actions into our daily lives, but for now I would like to send you to a short video that explains the need to do so better than I can in a short blog. If you can find 20 free minutes, please follow the following link to this eye-opening video.

In this video, Annie Leonard outlines the problems that occur when humans consume too many of the Earth's resources. She demonstrates that consumption patterns in our modern, developed world are in themselves unsustainable. If you had the chance to view her presentation, it is probably quite apparent to you why the word "reduce" is at the top of the list in the waste cycle. Reducing is the most important step that any one of us can take in living sustainable lives. What does this mean? It means that we need to decrease the tangible inputs into our daily lives, recognizing that there is a definitive difference between what we want and what we need. It means reducing the bulk and the clutter and learning to appreciate simplicity. 
What I need is food and water, but I want chocolate bars and cans of soda. What I need is shelter, but I want the big apartment with all the fancy appliances. What I need is clothing, but I want the new styles from my favorite mall stores. There are so many things that I buy because I have myself convinced that I need it, when in reality it is simply something I want, disguised by the things I need that may fall in a similar category. Upon a deep reflection of the things that I need vs. the things that I simply want, I have realized the great error in my own consumptive habits. This morning I was running late to my internship so I decided to forgo packing a lunch and simply run through the pick-up window at the local McDonalds. I ordered a happy meal (yes, I still love the happy meal). My burger was wrapped in a paper wrapper then put in the bag with the fries in their cardboard container. All of this was placed in a paper bag along with several paper napkins and a small plastic toy in a plastic wrapper. Then I was handed my drink, which of course came in a paper cup with a plastic lid, along with a plastic straw in a paper wrapper. By the time I had finished my food I was able to completely refill the happy meal bag with trash. Couldn't I just have the food without all that muck? What I needed was food, and what I ended up getting was processed meat from unknown sources along with some fried starches, and a bunch of greasy waste. If I had packed my own lunch with the food I have at home, I could have reduced this waste contribution completely. Buying products at the store that come with less packaging can also cut down on wastes, and it's worth nothing that the healthiest foods tend to come with the least amount of packaging anyways.
Reducing my purchases of heavily packaged products is just one way that I am going to start reducing my footprint on this planet. I am also going to challenge myself to not buy unnecessary products, such as new clothes that I don't really need. One of my biggest temptations is the $5.00 movies that they place right by the registers in Target stores. Too often I invest in one of these, watch it once or twice, and then never touch it again. My friends all have tons of movies that I can borrow and I myself have enough entertainment in my life that I should never need a new movie again. These movies are obviously wants, not needs, and conquering this temptation for movies in excess is one more small way that I am going to work towards reducing the material inputs into my life. I challenge you to brainstorm your own wants and needs and then find small ways that you too can practice the art of reducing in your own life.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to." -Terri Swearingen

Modern space exploration has revealed a great deal about the wonders of our universe, but we still have yet to discover another place with conditions so perfect that it can actually host any form of life. Our little planet Earth is nothing short of a miracle, being the perfect distance from the sun and having enough water on its surface that it can self-regulate its temperature range as it spins and rotates in the Solar System. It has a natural atmosphere that blocks out the dangerous wavelengths beaming from the sun while still allowing the necessary ones to warm the surface of the planet. Millions of years of changes within this rare environment have led to the ecosystem that we know today, one that is more complex than the inner workings of your computer. Naturally, the earth's systems are sustainable. Joining in on this sustainability is our venture, but what exactly does that word mean?
Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to teach a class on sustainability to schoolchildren in Arkansas. I was able to convey the concept of sustainability to them by allowing them to draw a picture of a forest. They would add their sketchings of rivers, trees, bugs, and animals, and then I would start by pointing at the sun. "The sun gives us energy," I would say. "The sun heats up our planet so that it is warm enough for us and it also provides food to plants." Several anxious students would volunteer the word "photosynthesis" at this point, and proud of their input, they would smile at themselves as we moved on. The plants make food energy out of the light energy provided by the sun. Then animals eat the plants and that gives them the energy they need to live. When these plants and animals die, their bodies breakdown and provide nutrients to the soil, allowing new plants to grow and new animals to live. Each action allows other actions to begin, energy and matter are never wasted.
Living sustainably means taking from the Earth what we need to live now without compromising the ability of future generations to live later. According to, it would take 4.44 planets to sustain my current lifestyle if everyone shared it. I am using significantly more resources than our planet can naturally regenerate. I encourage you to visit this site and take the short quiz to find out how your own ecological impact compares. While they rarely admit as much, people often take for granted that there will always be a place for humans to live with the things that they need. But there doesn't seem to be much hope for finding another planet to live on anytime soon, so we need to start joining in on the cycle of sustainability to properly handle the resources that we already have here. We need to relearn ways of participating in the Earth's natural, sustaining, life-giving ways of being.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." -Mahatmas Gandhi

I find myself too often thinking of all the things I'll do in the future, I dream lists of ways I can make a difference later on. I think things like, "when I have the money to get my own house, I'll have it designed to be ecologically sound. And when I have my own family, I'll make sure that we all take short showers and recycle everything possible." As I'm finding, and as anyone with their own house or family can attest to: life doesn't get easier as you go along. In fact, the common trend is that as you get older you acquire more, not less responsibilities and you find yourself with less, not more time to do the things you've always wanted to do. I study environmental science at the University of South Florida, I wear my Simple shoes ( made of recycled materials, and I drive a gas-efficient car, but I know there is more that I could do. And there is no time better then now for me to step up and start taking action. It's time for me to stop dreaming about the things I'll do later on, and start doing them now. I have decided to spend the next ten weeks conducting a sustainability project in which I will address several aspects of living an environmentally friendly lifestyle. I will implement them into my own life, then blog about my experiences and share tips along the way so that you and your friends can join in on the fun.
            Aside from being an Environmental Science student, I am also a part-time employee with Advanced Environmental Laboratories, where I help to run tests on local water and soil samples to analyze the environmental impacts of human activity. Really, the companies sending us the samples are looking to meet legal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but I like to look at the results of our tests as small glimpses of the larger picture that is the human impact on the Planet Earth. On days that I am not in the lab, I intern with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). With them, I have been able to play a small role in several statewide projects based on population regeneration of threatened and endangered species. Most of these species populations are dwindling because of habitat loss, and while there isn't a lot I can do to stop development in our country, I can certainly study and assist the animals affected. My hope is that the information collected can sway developers and lawmakers to extend protections for these species before their situation becomes any worse. Aside from stating my credentials for sharing accurate information on the topic of environmental issues, I have shared my current undertakings in an effort to help you see one thing: I am busy, very busy. Like most Americans, I find myself juggling multiple tasks most hours of the day, leaving very little time for me to reevaluate my everyday habits in light of current issues, including environmental ones. I believe, however, that if taken one step at a time, I can learn to live a more sustainable lifestyle, and I can help you do so too. I only work part time, and I'm putting myself through college, so if I can afford the changes that will follow in the next ten weeks, so can you. If I can find the time in my schedule to not only make these changes in my own life, but also research them in order to better inform my audience, then you can find the time to implement some of the changes as well. No more excuses. It's time to start making a difference, here and now. Together we can save our planet, one small act at a time.