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American world we are quick to toss away what we have used for it's original purpose rendering the empty cereal boxes, outdated newspapers, and old bottle caps useless.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a page from an outdated book, scrap fabric, and a few other things I 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.