July 29, 2007

How Clean is Your Electricity?

You might turn the lights off when you leave the room and replace your standard bulbs with CFLs but unless you're living by candlelight, chances are you're still using plenty of electricity. So where does your electricity come from? Mine comes from PG&E, who are desperately trying to brand themselves as one of the greener energy providers out there. What about your energy provider? Chances are, you don't know squat about the company name on your utility bill.

Well, the EPA has a handy little look-up tool called the Power Profiler that tells you just how "clean" your provider is. It breaks down the energy sources for your zip code, and compares your portion of the grid to the rest of the country. Pretty nifty, huh?

And once you've been suitably shocked into action, you can search for green energy providers in your state.

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July 12, 2007

Walk It Out

How does your neighborhood rate on the walkability scale? Get your hood's Walk Score now! This is such a great use of Google Maps it kills me. Not only does it rate your area, but it shows you all the cool stuff nearby.

My hood rates a 92 out of 100, which fails to take into account minor details like the recent rash of muggings and hold-ups in the area. But still, 92 is pretty damn good!

[via Triple Pundit]

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July 10, 2007

So Much for a Greener Apple

Steve Jobs is killin' me. After a rather lengthy and well-publicized attempt at demonstrating Apple's environmental policies, the computer giant goes and releases the iPhone all bundled up in superfluous packaging. This is a perfect example of not walking the talk.

To wit:
An external box that measures approximately 2-3 times the size of the internal components;

A box inside a box (is that second box actually doing anything that the first box couldn't?);

An internal box made from two separate same-sized components (a bottom and a removable top);

A phone set inside a plastic tray resting on top of...

A set of manuals contained within a folded sleeve resting on top of a...

Plastic tray holding phone components.
I will certainly concede that the overall look is sleek and sexy, but it's screamingly obvious to me that Apple's graphic design team suffers from overdesigneritis. Designers should be asking themselves what we can do to reduce the amount of raw materials used, the energy required to produce and ship our packaging, and the amount of waste now headed to landfills across the country, not what can we do to increase those things?

I get that Apple is known for their sleek and sexy packaging. But this kind of look actually lends itself to the less is more aesthetic, so reducing the amount of packaging "stuff" would actually reinforce that look. I also get that Apple is trying to create an experience out of the opening of the package, as if it were a Christmas gift. But this can be done without multiple layers of materials and unnecessary trays. Self-contained boxes with multiple folds (think a self-mailing envelope) produce this effect, for example.

Us consumers vote with our dollars. Look for the following details when making your purchases, and don't hesitate to demand change from the companies you buy stuff from:
Less packaging overall: Avoid over-packaged items with multiple layers of stuff.

Recycled packaging: Make sure the materials used to package the stuff you buy is itself made from recycled paper, plastic or other materials.

Recyclable packaging: Any packaging that you can throw in the recycle bin instead of the trash is a better deal. I recently purchased orange juice in a plastic container only to discover it was no. 6 plastic (not recyclable in my city); bad move on my part.

Biodegradable packaging: More and more packaging is being made from biodegardable, corn-based plastics. This stuff is AWESOME but it's not always well-marked (Trader Joe's has been packaging a lot of their produce with biodegradable plastic trays).
Finally, I can't speak to whether or not Apple is using recyclable materials in its plastic and paper packaging, so if anyone who has purchased an iPhone would like to let me know, please do.


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June 26, 2007

Forward Thinking in Action: Farmers Market Food Stamps

Shopping at farmers markets is just too expensive! How many times have you either heard this or thought it yourself? As much as I'd like to deny the naysayers, the fact remains that for many people across the country, spending food dollars on local farmers markets where you are likelier to have access to organic foods is just too cost-prohibitive to be justified.

I was reminded of this myself recently when I went down to my own local farmers market, which is incredibly affordable (dare I say cheap). At Alemany I filled my large canvas bag full of fruits, veggies and eggs—almost two weeks worth of food for two—for about $20. Later that morning I was running errands in posh Noe Valley (think Birkenstocks and baby strollers, as they say), when I discovered that I'd forgotten carrots and onions for soup, I cruised over to the Noe Valley farmers market, which is much smaller than Alemany but shares some of the same vendors. I picked up two organic carrots and one organic onion. The vendor weighed them up and casually asked for $2.50. That's just outright insulting (and no, I didn't pay it).

It's no wonder that organics and farmers markets have a reputation! So it's phenomenal to see more and more farmers markets accepting food stamps; after reading an article about an Athens, Ohio farmers market that now accepts food stamps, I did a little digging. Turns out there are quite a few out there, including:
I know there are many more, so please feel free to add your own resources. If you point me to statewide lists, I'll add them above. The next challenge is getting farmers markets set up near communitites that really need them. There are a few organizations working towards this, but not nearly enough. In an upcoming post, I'll talk about how you can start a farmers' market in your own neighborhood!

[Edit: Thanks to the Ethicurian, I just learned that the Logan Square market in Chicago is Illinois' first farmers' market to accept food stamps!]

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June 20, 2007

5 Steps to a Better Farmers' Market Experience

I was graciously invited to join a blog carnival focusing on small actions to change the world by Oliver Adria of Sustainabee. I'll admit that I actually had no idea what a blog carnival was until he clued me in: basically, a host assembles a group of posts from multiple blogs on a given subject. The idea is to hop around from post to post on the given day and enjoy the sites. So here we go...

I'm on a farmers' market kick as I discover the joys of spending $10/week on fresh, organic veggies and fruits and eggs. One thing I've discovered, though, as I return week after week: there is an art to shopping your local farmers' market. Here are a few tips to help make your first (or third, three hundredth) trip to the farmers market a bit more enjoyable:
1. Find one.
Seems obvious, doesn't it? Start by doing a quick geographical search at Local Harvest or the USDA (which may be less current). If neither of those resources work, contact your state's agricultural department and ask if they can point you in the right direction.

2. Grab a bag and use it.
Your bag should be reusable (canvas totes are great), roomy and comfortable to wear. Backpacks and courier bags are great options, as they're easy to manipulate and they'll hold enough produce for a whole family. Once you've got your back, make sure you tell those vendors that you don't need a plastic bag. For some reason, farmers just really want to make it convenient for you to carry your stuff around, so they automatically reach for a plastic bag. Just let 'em know you've got your own.

3. Arrive as early as possible.
Although it can be painful to pry myself out of bed at 8:00 am on a Saturday, it's often less painful than getting jostled by the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that always seems to gather by noon. Of course, that may be because I live in San Francisco, an overpopulated city of rather insular people. You may find that your local market is just fine a little later in the day (check it out at different times and see for yourself). There's one more good reason to go early, though: you get your pick of the best produce available.

4. Talk to your vendors.
These are the ladies and gents putting food on your plate! Don't you want to know where they came from? Ask 'em a question or two, let them know how much you loved the strawberries you picked up last week, and ask them how they like to prepare their foods. You'll learn a lot about how to cook different foods, what to look for when picking an eggplant, and when to show up for the zucchini blossoms that are only around for a week or two.

5. Show up regularly.
Once you start to show up at the farmers' market every week, you'll start picking up on things you couldn't possibly know if you only went occasionally. Things like which vendors offer the best bargains, who likes to add a few ounces to their scale, and who shows up with the best tasting citrus. You'll also discover that your grocery store has been lying to you all these years: that asparagus you bought out of the cold case last week was shipped in from Chile after spending a week in transit (yes, they spray veggies with "stuff" to keep it pretty for you). As weeks and months go by and your farmers' markets visits stay regular, you will learn what foods grow best in your area and when they are at the height of flavor. This is kind of a remarkable discovery. If we all thought a little bit harder about what we eat and how we eat it, we might feel differently about a lot of things.

Bonus! Cook the foods you bought with friends.
Now that you have all this fresh produce grown by folks who live just miles from your door, invite a few friends over and savor it! Food, after all, tastes better when eaten in the company of others.
So there you have it. With just a few sinple steps you, too, can eat better, make more of your weekends, and support your local economy.

Hey! If you dig this post, please digg it!


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Substantial Profits, Sustainably

We all know that businesses are seeing green in going green. I think this is an important sea change because I strongly believe that business has a massive role to play in the sustainability movement. Perhaps, as a business owner myself (yes, that's a plug), I'm biased. But because we businesses are often responsible for far more consumption and waste production that the average individual, we have an obligation to join this conversation and shape a new role for ourselves. Sure, we need to serve the marketplace by definition but to do so, we must also serve the communities that form that marketplace.

If you're interested in a few simple ways to green up your own business (actually, these tips apply to everyone, really). check out the latest installment of my column The Sustainable Studio on the Business of Design Online:
Substantial Profits, Sustainably (part 1)
Many of you will be familiar with some of my suggestions, but you might discover some new resources and perspectives.

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June 11, 2007

Which is Greener: Cloth Napkins or Paper?

Which is Greener? Cloth Napkins or Paper Napkins?No one would accuse me of being too civilized; I eat asparagus with my fingers, thank you very much. And so I am a napkin user. I grew up in a household that used paper napkins at every meal—the standard issue 6"-square, white paper napkin that crumples nicely and doesn't quite hold up to stuff like barbeque.

The Captain, on the other hand, grew up using cloth napkins. The first time I visited his folks, I was amazed by how many sets of cloth napkins his mom kept stashed away for every meal. Wow, classy! I thought. And then it occurred to me that perhaps this was a much better way to treat the environment: instead of wasting paper napkins mutliple times a day, we could reuse cloth napkins over and over and over again! Less waste, right?

The Triple Pundit doesn't think so, though. When asked the question "Is it more efficient to use linen napkins (factoring in the energy for picking them up and washing them) or paper napkins (recycled paper napkins)?" columnist Pablo Päster answers with a remarkably detailed breakdown of the various environmental considerations involved.

The result may surprise you; it sure surprised me. Turns out that using 100% recycled paper napkins may, in fact, have a less detrimental effect on the environment! So it looks like I'll leave the cloth napkins in the closet until our next dinner party, and switch back to paper for regular meals. Just to make things even greener, it turns out that in San Francisco it's perfectly acceptable to compost our soiled paper napkins!

Pablo's response—in addition to offering a practical response to a common environmental question—highlights another important point: we can't just start blindly making changes to our lifestyles and habits (on either a micro or macro scale) without first understanding the complexity of the issues. It's important to base our decisions on reality, not blind assumptions. As we continue to ask questions as simple as which napkins should we use? and as complex as how do we feed the world without destroying it, too? we need to remain open to some surprising discoveries and counterintuitive answers.

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June 08, 2007

The World Is Your Library

The library is my weakness. As a kid (and bona fide bookworm), I would spend hours buried in the darkest corner I could find reading random book after random book. It was a safe haven for me and to this day I am instantly calmed when I step inside a public house of books.

It's just a plus that libraries are a wonderful way to:
  1. Reduce your dependence on Stuff.
  2. Reduce your paper consumption.
  3. Support your community.
And now I've discovered WorldCat, where I can search libraries all over the globe! Kind of exciting, that.

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May 24, 2007

Dump Your Waste on Students!

I just received a really nice email from the editor of a local book publisher who has found a fantastic, simple, easy, efficient way to get rid of a large portion of the company's waste.

When bringing a book to print, publishers create what they call dummies: mock-ups of a book that demonstrate where everything will go, often with blank pages. These books get tossed in the trash or, less frequently, recycled, once the book goes to print. Weldon Owen is no exception to this practice, and the company was faced with hundreds of dummies piling up and destined for the trash heap.

Cue the editor, who contacted a local parents group to see if they could use these books. The response was incredible:
"Oh. My God...dozens of folks wrote back, saying they'd love to have dummies for schools or summer art programs. I just brought the dummies home (probably 400 or more—once I started getting the avalanche of responses, I sent round an all-company e-mail, asking everyone to clean out their stashes), stacked them in my driveway, and sent an e-mail to all the people who'd responded, saying 'Come and get 'em!' In one weekend, all the dummies were gone, and I got several e-mails from folks asking if there were going to be any more, because their school could use more."
So not only did Weldon Owen get all those useless books off their hands, but they gave a large number of kids art supplies. Talk about two birds with one stone. So if you're a publisher looking to unload a number of dummies, contact teachers and parents groups. And if your a parent who needs some cool blank books for kids, try reaching ou to a local publisher and ask if you can have their dummies.

And here's a list of organizations who take "waste" and use it to make art:
Can't find a materials exchange organization near you? Try contacting your local trash pick-up; often they have recycling and materials reclamation programs that aren't well advertised.

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May 18, 2007

Did Someone Say "Paperless Office?"

No matter how much I manage to reduce, reuse and recycle, I continue to drown in the seemingly endless reams of paper that flood my desk, my file cabinets, my mailbox and every other crevice of my office. I just can't seem to find that utopian "paperless office" that we were promised so long ago, when computers were supposedly going to streamline business.

The opposite has happened, in fact. Take email as an example: the use of email in an office causes a 40% increase in paper use, according to The Myth of the Paperless Office. So as long as I continue to suffer from the inevitable paper cut, I figure I may as well make my stationery, memo pads, file folders and other paper goods as ecologically sound as I can. So here, my friends, is a quick list of suppliers dealing in greener office supplies:
Give Something Back: An office supply company that (gasp) gives away all of its profits!

Sustainable Group: Some very elegant office supplies, including recycled 3-ring binders.

Recycled Products Cooperative: Recycled office supplies and cooperative ownership!

Debra's List: A much lengthier list than this of green office suppliers.

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April 03, 2007

A Little Maintenance Makes a Difference

I've recently begun the process for getting my writing and design studio certified by the city of San Francisco as a "green business." The process starts with an eight page checklist of steps to take to make my premises greener. Within these pages are some things that both homeowners and renters can do to help reduce their footprint:
Ban the draft.
  • Add a draft blocker to your door. [different styles;DIY]
  • Close the flue on your fireplace when not in use.
  • Weatherize your windows.
Lose the leaks.
Tune in, clean up, turn down.
  • Do an energy audit on your home to get a handle on where your utility money is going each month.
  • Clean the vents on your appliances and replace their filters to make them run more efficiently (check your fridge, your water heater, and your washer and dryer).
  • Turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater instead. Also turn down the temprature on your water heater (you may need to do some adjusting to find the right level, but there's no reason it needs to be going full blast).
  • Add low-flow showerheads, faucets and toilet tanks.

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March 10, 2007

Soda Pop's Popularity Drops

It might be hard to believe but if beverage sales are any indication, Americans are paying more attention to their health. For the past two years, the sales of carbonated soft drinks like Pepsi and Coke have decreased, according to a recent Beverage Digest report. The decline is slight, which on its own might not hold much significance. But now consider this: while soda sales have gone down, juice sales have increased even more dramatically. This is good news for a couple of reasons:
  1. Consumers vote with their dollars. If demand for high fructose corn syrup-laden products falls demonstrably, manufacturers will put their dollars elsewhere.
  2. We'll see more healthy options. The surge to release healthier, premium beverages with an organic focus has already begun, according to a recent article in Beverage Industry Magazine.
The trend towards healthier products shouldn't come as a surprise; the public has been throttled by reports of contaminated foods, inhumane industry practices and rising obesity rates. And it looks like Americans are learning the lesson: eat and drink healthier. Who woulda thunk it?

Quick Tip!
If you're in need of hydration, skip the bottled waters that litter the shelves. At around a buck a bottle (and often more), it would cost you $8 a day to drink all the water you need. And just think of all those bottles wasted.

Instead, consider a nalgene bottle filled with filtered tap water. The dishwasher-safe bottles last forever, and they pay for themselves many times over. You can get 'em almost anywhere these days; I got mine at REI (it's even on sale for four bucks!).

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February 21, 2007

Green Your Trip to the Grocery Store

When Safeway announced their house O Organics brand, we knew change was a-comin’. But Florida-based Publix has one-upped the California chain with its plans to open four locations dedicated exclusively to green groceries. These Publix GreenWise Markets, the first of which is set to open in Palm Beach Gardens, FL in late Summer/early Fall of this year, will offer shoppers a wide range of products that focus on “health, natural and organic foods.”

As far as Small Failures can tell, Publix is the first major supermarket chain to open a location—let alone four of them—that exclusively features products with a green focus. While the final product mix has not yet been determined according to Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous, offerings will include the supermarket’s private label GreenWise brand and will focus on prepared foods. There’s no word if the supermarket will offer options such as recycled or reusable grocery bags, or other environmentally friendly practices.

Here are seven tips for making your trip to Publix GreenWise (or any other grocery store) even more sustainable:
  1. Walk to the store.
  2. Bring your own bag.
  3. Ditch the plastic produce bags (that’s an awful lot of landfill for a bag used for no more than a few minutes).
  4. Read the label (look for less processed and natural ingredients, organic and Fair Trade labels, local addresses, and recycled or recyclable packaging).
  5. Buy recycled paper products (think about all the paper towels and toilet paper you consume, then think about switching to recycled, unbleached products).
  6. Consider safer cleaning products (Method, Mrs. Meyers and other non-toxic brands are increasingly available in mainstream markets).
  7. Buy bulk (it’s harder, of course, if you didn’t bring your car but buying larger quantities means fewer trips to the store).

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February 20, 2007

Save the World a Sandwich at a Time

peanut butter and jelly sandwich campaignI have always been a sucker for a peanut butter sandwich, ever since having to write a step-by-step instruction guide for making one in the 5th grade (this was a lesson in following directions and literalism, or something).

But apparently my peanut butter addiction has been making a difference: every sammich I've eaten has saved anywhere from 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions than if I had eaten a hamburger! Given how many peanut butter sandwiches I've eaten over the course of my life, that means I've saved at least 7,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Damn, I'm good! (I also happen to have saved over 36,000 square feet of land from deforestation, overgrazing, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution!)

And now you, too, can help save the world...one sandwich at a time. The campaign appears to be the work of do-gooder Bernard Brown, who perhaps has just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. Regardless, who can complain? Eat up, smokey!

[via Sustainablog] [Edited to correct my stupid statistical math.]

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February 06, 2007

Will You Be Eating Cloned Meat?

Cloned meat is on its way but you won't have a clue when it hits your local grocery store. According to the Detroit Free Press, the U.S. government, which passed preliminary approval of the sale of cloned meat and dairy products in December, doesn't plan to require that those products be labeled for the consumer. That means that when sale of cloned meat is approved (likely to be sometime this year), you'll have no warning.

As vegetarian as I may be, I don't intend to rail against meat-eating as a practice (although I will plug independently ranched, grass-fed beef over the typical corn-fed factory beef most Americans eat). But that's another story. So how will you know whether your hamburger was grown in a petri dish, so to speak?

Well, apparently the watered-down organic labeling laws here in the U.S. at least cover this much: any food carrying the USDA organic seal of approval must be clone-free. If you are as worried as I am about ingesting a giant experiment conducted by the nation's corporate factory farms and subsidized by the U.S. government, here are a few ideas for ensuring your meat is clone-free:
  • Search the Eat Well Guide for organic ranches
  • Search Local Harvest for organic ranchers
  • Ask to speak to the manager of your local grocery store and express your concern
  • Ask the restaurants you dine at if they intend to purchase clone-free meat, or label their dishes
  • Send a letter to the FDA expressing your concern with the click of a button

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January 30, 2007

Composting Food Doesn't Have to Be Gross

compost your food scrapsI am lucky to live in one of the greenest cities in the U.S. (San Francisco). I can recycle almost all of my waste, find organic foods within walking distance and take public transportation (however scummy) almost anywhere I need to. But until this week, I was passing up a huge opportunity to reduce my waste even more.

Just like many of my neighbors, my kitchen is quite small. In fact, until recently we didn't even have counters (actually, does the single square foot of granite next to our stove count?). This fact kept me from feeling too guilty about not composting my food scraps. But the other thing our kitchen lacks is a garbage disposal, which means all of our food scraps get scraped into a trash bag. And then, of course, the trash bag goes into the landfill. So what's a conscientious girl to do?

Composting would require too much floor space (for a composting can), too much smell (we'd have to save a whole lot of compost before it was worth a trip to drop it off), and too much time (we'd have to find a place that accepts compost materials, load up the car and deliver it). And then our city came to the rescue. Actually, San Francisco has been offering composting services for some time now, through it's waste removal contractor, Sunset Scavenger. But stupid me didn't realize it until our upstairs neighbors dragged the big green can outside one day.

As soon as I saw that green can sitting there next to the blue recycling bin and the black waste can, I began thinking about how much of our daily trash is made up of food scraps. There's the coffee grounds and filter I throw out every morning, the waste from prepping dinner every night (you know: carrot peels, zucchini tops, rinds from Parmesan cheese...what can I say, I like to cook), and the inevitable old leftovers that occasionally turn my fridge into a science experiment.

composted material turns into useful garden fertilizerIt turns out that finding a new and useful home for all that waste isn't as difficult—or as dirty—as I thought it would be. I simply used an empty cardboard milk carton to store the scraps, which is great for two reasons: it's small enough so that it doesn't take up any space, and I can keep it in the fridge, which cuts down on the smell. Once it's full (about 5 days later it's still got room), I can just drop the whole thing in the big green can. No muss, no fuss, no smell, and no need for a giant pile of rotting food in the garden that I don't even have.

But what if your city doesn't provide you with big green composting cans? A quick Google search (just enter your city and "composting program") turns up all sorts of options. And if you still can't find a local program, you can always try these options:
  • If you have a garden, use it: You can make your own compost pile or purchase composting bins to fertilize your own garden (it's cheap, safe and easy).
  • Give to another gardener: Neighbors, community gardening groups and local farmers might all be grateful to receive your scraps.
  • Give it to a commercial composter: Many cities are home to commercial composting facilities, who will be more than happy to take your waste. Again, a great time for a Google search.
Ultimately, composting can be as easy or as involved as you want it to be. And since about 35% of all municipal waste in the U.S. is made up of food scraps (that's about 26 million tons!), it's a great way to reduce your impact.


Further reading:
A Complete Guide to Composting
How to Compost
Composting 101
Journey to Forever's Compost Pages


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January 12, 2007

5 Things You Can Do to Reduce Paper Use

Remember the golden promise of the paperless office? Computers were supposed to reduce the amount of paper we had to push everyday, resulting in a clean, uncluttered and unpolluted life. Ha. According to a 2001 report, "Global production in the pulp, paper and publishing sector is expected to increase by 77%" by 2020. And this matters greatly because the pulp and paper industry is the third largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

As a graphic designer and a writer, I may be one of the worst perpetrators of this increase. No matter how much I recycle, it won't make up for how much I consume. I read books, magazines, newspapers. My office overflows with paper files, records, receipts and notepads. So what's a paper-addict to do? The following steps are easy to implement and can help reduce your pulp addiction:

  1. Use recycled paper!
    Quality recycled paper is now easily available. It's affordable, and looks and feels nearly as good as virgin paper. Most consumers can't even tell the difference. You can buy recycled boxes, loose leaf paper and notebooks, file folders, invitations and so on.

  2. Don't just throw it out—reuse it.
    I have a file folder of scrap paper next to my printer—inkjet paper I've printed stuff on one side of that I no longer need. When I just have to have something printed on paper for my business records (receipts, for example), I print it on the backside of this scrap.

  3. Cancel your magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
    This isn't always feasible, but most major magazines and newspapers publish their content online. You can usually subscribe to these online publications via feed (like the one on our site in the upper right corner).

  4. Get a library card.
    Seriously—public libraries are an essential part of our communities. Support them by forgoing that trip to Barnes and Noble (which eats pulp like it's candy and has huge a huge freight impact on our environment), and instead checking out a book from your local library. They even take requests in case you want to read the latest best seller.

  5. Cancel those catalogs.
    If you get tons of catalogs from companies you never buy from, call 'em up and cancel them.

I'll admit—it feels slightly sacriligious for me to recommend boycotting bookstores. I am an analog girl at heart. I love the feel, the experience, of reading a book and feeling the pages between my fingers. But we've got to start somewhere. We've got to pick and choose. At the very least, we've got to start thinking long and hard about the cost of our paper addiction.

What other ideas do you have for reducing paper consumption? Clearly we need industry reform (here are some statistics), but what about on an individual level?

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January 06, 2007

Cool Jerk: Control Fridge Waste

What is it about the Quest for the Holy Snack? You know exactly what I'm talking about: you're craving something delicious—maybe sweet, maybe salty, maybe crunchy, maybe ice cream—so you open the refrigerator door to see what you've got. And then you stand there and stare.

How many times a day do you do this? If you're like me, you do it a fair amount. But I'm on a new quest now—one to change my fridgerly habits. Surprisingly, I've discovered that it's really quite easy...


Step 1: Clean the fridge outside
Refrigerators are remarkable easy to move. They generally slide right out from the wall. From there, you can see all the nasty bits and dust that collect along the coils. Clean it up! This stuff keeps the fridge from running at maximum efficiency. Do it once a month (that's about 5 minutes of your time), and you're good to go.

Step 2: Clean the fridge inside
Nobody likes a casserole dish full of mystery loaf. When you get rid of old and expired products, it becomes much easier to see what you actually do want eat. Try storing items in clear glass containers—they're reusable, and you avoid the out of site, out of mind phenomenon.

Step 3: Close the damn door!
This one's easy. Now that your fridge is clean and organized, and you can see all your food through glass bowls, it shouldn't take you long to decide what you want. Why is this important? Because your fridge loses a lot of cold air when you open it even for a minute and it takes extra energy to re-cool once you close the door. It's been reported that the standard snack-seeker increases their energy use by 5-10% through the simple act of routinely opening and closing the fridge door.

Step 4: Turn it down
How cold does your refrigerator run? If you can stand to turn down the temperature even a single level, you'll save a lot of energy. Do the same for your freezer if it has a seperate control.

Step 5: Fill 'er up
While normally I would never recommend simply filling your fridge with useless foods that you'll probably never eat, I can't deny that a full fridge uses less energy than an empty one. This is because the air required to stay cool takes up less volume than the food itself. This is particularly useful for your freezer, where you can store food for longer and waste less.

Step 6: Replace it altogether
Not everyone can do this—us renters are stuck with the fridge we've got. But if you're a homeowner, consider replacing your fridge with an Energy Star rated appliance. Not only will you use less energy, but some gas & electric providers actually offer additional discounts on your bill when you buy these products. You can download a handy Excel spreadsheet to calculate just what you'll save.

Aside from replacing your appliance, all of these steps require about 10 minutes of your time per month. So what are you waiting for? Once you're done, you can reward yourself with some cookies—and you don't even need to open the fridge to get them.

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December 31, 2006

Reuse Reaps Rewards

The green marketplace is growing, and there are plenty of fantastic sites out there who feature green businesses and products for those of us driven to consume. But, ultimately, consumption lies at the core of the problem—the more Stuff we buy, the more they make and the more Stuff we end up throwing away.

One alternative is to simply reuse old Stuff. Some fancier folks like to call it "repurpose" or "remix," but let's not get all high-falutin'. Before Henry Ford perfected the assemply line, Stuff was made by hand. The time, effort and resources put into each piece dictated that it not be simply thrown away when its initial use was over. Stuff was either repaired, or used for something else to get more life out of it.

These days, what with our busy schedules and the sheer accessability of Stuff—all kinds of Stuff—we tend to run out and replace instead of simply reusing what we already have. But there are some folks who actually get a kick out of saving their dimes and altering the Stuff they already have—and maybe don't want anymore—to become other Stuff.

Some of the following sites border on arts 'n' crafts, but getting your hands dirty is what is so rewarding about reusing old Stuff. And a lot of these sites don't necessarily focus on resuing old stuff so much as customizing new stuff. After this list, I've included some tips for keeping your project as sustainable as possible.

Most reuse projects take just an afternoon (if that). You can customize them as much as you want, to suit your schedule, budget and personal taste. And the result is one-of-a-kind Stuff made just for you!

...Recycle This?! How Can I Recycle This gives you loads of reuse tips and projects.

Ikea Hacker: A great resource for breathing new life into that old Ikea furniture you were going to throw away.

ReadyMade: Their blog often features easy DIY projects and the magazine does the same.

Curbly: More of an Apartment Therapy-type site, Curbly frequently offers ideas for DIY and reuse projects.

Acorn Studios: Acorn sells new Stuff made from old Stuff and they have a small section of fun DIY projects.

Dendrite: Dendrite's Reuse/Recycle section features some brilliant examples of what you can do with old Stuff.

Glitter: Get your craft on at this forum of DIY freaks.

In the Wake: A list of random projects for resuing old Stuff.

CraftZine: Yep, more wicked randomness made from old Stuff.

As you'll likely notice, most of these sites don't actually focus on reusing old Stuff, though they may touch on that here and there. But here are some tips when tackling any project to help you make it more sustainable:

  1. Use old Stuff! Instead of buying new materials, reclaim the things you don't use anymore. Old containers become planters, salvaged lumber becomes shelving, and so on and so forth. The idea is to stop thinking about objects as though they have a limited lifespan.

  2. Beg, borrow or steal. There is no reason that the old Stuff has to be yours. Yard sales, trash collections days, Craig's List, etc., are all great resources for picking up old Stuff to make new again.
  3. Consider your methods. Be mindful of the accessories and tools you use in your projects, such as using nontoxic glues and materials.

  4. Just don't throw it out. Even if you can't think of a new use for that old Stuff, someone else might. Try giving it away on Freecycle.org, Craig's List, or to a local shelter, school or thrift shop.

What have you reused? I'd love to see your own projects in which you've given new life to old Stuff. I'm in the process of trying to design a desk made from old Stuff, and once I get around to completing it I'll be sure to post. In the meantime, show me your old-to-new Stuff!

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December 28, 2006

Bulbs and Batteries and Computers, Oh My!

Have you broken the law lately? You have if you live in California (or many other states) and thrown fleurescent light bulbs, outdoor light bulbs, batteries, paint, motor oil, electronics, printer cartridges, or any number of other materials straight into the trash.

That's because these items contain toxic materials that can't go directly into the waste stream. But absurdly, most states don't do enough to tell us about how we can get rid of these materials. It turns out that it's really not that hard:

  1. Identify what you can and can't throw out
    LampRecycle.org provides a list of state-by-state contacts for hazardous materials regulations.

  2. Set aside your items.
    Just keep a paper shopping bag handy in a nearby closet to stow the stuff until you're ready to drop them off.

  3. Drop 'em off.
    You can drop off hazardous items at more places than you think. Ikea and other retail stores, government agencies, and even mail-order companies all offer hazardous materials recycling.

Where to Go For...

Light Bulbs
Ikea: Drop off compact fleurescent bulbs, batteries and Ikea packaging.
LampRecycle.org: Provides a list of companies who say they recycle mercury-containing bulbs.

Computers, Printer Ink, Cell Phones & Electronics
Apple: Get a 10% discount on a new iPod when you turn in your dead one. They'll also recycle any computer brand if you buy an Apple, and you can drop off useless batteries for recycling at any Apple store.
Call2Recycle: They set up collection boxes for rechargable batteries (including power tool batteries and others), and cell phones in retail stores across the continent. Just enter your postal code and find all the drop off locations near you.
HP: Provides free recycling for printer inks, and offers recycling for equipment with some restrictions.
Office Depot: Accepts HP and Office Depot brand laser and inkjet cartridges. Order free recycled boxes (inkjet or laser), then return them to any Office Depot store for free.
Computer Take Back Campaign: Offers a searchable directory for computer recyclers.
Cell Phone Recycling Programs: Maine-focused list of programs that includes many national retailers.

General Directories
Earth911.org: Searchable directory by postal code for all kinds of items.
Green Choices: Offers a resoure list for recycling various materials.
Earth Easy: Another catch-all list of recycling resources.
Waste Aware Business: Directory for Scotland and the U.K.

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December 20, 2006

Douglas Fir vs. Douglas Faux: Are Fake Christmas Trees Better Than Real?

While many of you may already be curling up by a well-lit and amply decorated tree, we just bought ours yesterday. This is only the second year we’ve ever had to buy a tree, and this time around we wanted to make the most environmentally friendly choice.

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to Christmas trees (three if you count “Bah Hambug” as a school of thought). One insists that fake trees are better, as they are reusable from year to year while real trees are simply cut down and thrown out after a few weeks. The other argues that real trees are renewable resources that create valuable oxygen and feature non-environment-damaging materials while fake trees are not recyclable and rarely last as long they claim. So who is right, here? Is there a clear winner in the perennial battle between Douglas Fir and Douglas Faux?

Well, not only is there a clear winner but there are plenty of options for those of us who want the perfect eco-tree. It turns out that real trees are more sustainable, for a whole host of reasons:
  • Materials used: Fake trees are made almost exclusively from PVC, a petroleum-based plastic. Anytime you buy plastic you encourage our dependence on (foreign) crude oil. Remember that war going on over on the other side of the world? That’s about oil. I could make a Christmas-Muslim joke here, but I’ll leave that to Bill Maher and instead point out that wars suck, no matter what their cause. Real trees, on the other hand, improve the air we breathe by emitting healthy oxygen.
  • Recycling: Once a fake tree has worn out its welcome onto the trash heap it goes, taking up space in our already over-taxed landfills. Real trees, on the other hand, can be chipped into mulch and used in the garden, or planted for shade and aesthetic advantages.
  • Price: The average real tree actually costs less than the typical artificial tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
  • Smell: Seriously, real trees just smell more Christmas-y.
  • Freight Impact: It may seem astounding, but artificial Christmas trees are the 5th most imported product from China (according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce). Over 9,000,000 fake trees were shipped all the way from China in 2005, requiring an increased dependence on oil and taking a huge toll on the environment.
So if you’re thinking about replacing that plastic tree this year (or next), consider going the natural route and purchasing a real tree instead. And if you do buy real this time around, remember the following options:
Potted Trees: Available at home supply stores, orchards and local tree farms, living trees with roots can be planted on your own property after the holiday, or donated to a local school, church, or nature group for replanting. If you do it yourself, be sure to read up on the best way to plant a tree so it doesn’t eventually take over.

Organic Trees:
Sadly, most living trees are grown using pesticides. To find an organic tree farm near you, check out this list, Local Harvest, or Google.

Recycle Your Tree: If you buy a non-potted tree, don’t just dump it in the trash when you’re done enjoying it. Check with your local public works dept., as many schedule a specific tree pick-up and recycle day. Or bring it to a local farm or garden center so they can chip it and use it as mulch.

Rent-A-Tree: I'm not kidding. If you live near Portland, you can rent a living tree for the holiday that will then be picked up and planted for you. They're still taking orders, so hurry!

Use LED Lights: No matter what tree you buy, make sure you use LED lights. These are 90% more efficient than incandescent lights, which saves you money, too! And please, don't forget to turn them off when you're not home or when you go to bed. You can always buy a timer so they go on when you wake up, if you really need that "Surprise! Here's a lit tree!" feeling.

Other Christmas Tree links worth checking out:

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December 10, 2006

The Small Failures Redesign

As a graphic designer, I am accutely aware of how costly an identity redesign can be: new letterhead, new website, new promotional materials, new invoices with new logos, and so forth and so on. The beauty of the blog, however, is that there is no reprinting necessary. There's no old stationery to throw away and no outdated business cards getting tossed in the trash.

So we're going for it: Small Failures is getting a makeover. We're redesigning the site so that everything works properly, looks good and reads well.

In the meantime, here are a few tips for reusing that outdated stationery instead of just throwing it in the garbage:

  1. Letterhead: When printing in-house materials (like daily schedules, or items that will simply be filed for internal reference), print them on the backside of your old letterhead. No one's going to see them but you, anyway!

  2. Business cards: Old business cards can be used for note taking, quick "to-do" memos, or simply dropped into restaurant fishbowls for a shot at a free lunch.

  3. Envelopes: Envelopes are priceless when it comes to organizing your office. Use outdated envelopes to hold loose paper clips, rubber bands, notes and scrap paper, and anything else that clutters up your desk drawer.

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December 07, 2006

'Tis the Season to Shop Sustainably

As much as you or I may hate the consumerism of Christmas season, we can't escape it. Reminders to BUY NOW are everywhere, sales abound, and the general message is to show 'em you love 'em by shopping. So in honor of taking less and giving more, here is a list of links to help you buy your way through this holiday season:

The Ubiquitous Calendar Gift
Travellerspoint wall calendar—profits go toward bringing green wifi to rural communities (via Sustainablog).
Ecobabes wall calendar—supports the Climate Protection Campaign

Clothes, Linens, etc.
Shirts of Bamboo—speaks for itself
Holy Lamb Organics—hand-crafted organic linens

Children
Clive and Sunshine—overpriced but gorgeous toys made from vintage fabrics

Handmade
Crafty Synergy—great blog featuring handmade goods

Blogs, General Eco Stores, etc.
Great Green Goods—blog featuring all kinds of green shopping!
Greener Grass Design—online store offering beautiful eco-friendly goods
Hippy Shopper—blog featuring random eco goods (should we tell them they spelled "hippie" wrong?)
Shift Your Gift—5% of profits from their top sustainable items go to the non-profit of your choice (via Sustainable Style Foundation)
Natural Collection—huge online store of green-focused products

So that should help you cross off most of your list. But please remember that the most sustainable way to shop is to buy locally. Or even better—make your own gifts!





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December 04, 2006

Sustainability is Closer Than You Think

Do you have a Sun Fat? How about an El Chico #4? These are just a couple of the neighborhood markets we've been frequenting recently as we try to wean ourselves from the expense that is Rainbow Grocery and the chain that is Trader Joe's.

Don't get me wrong—I love TJ's, especially their seemingly unlimited house brand selection and the fact that their staff is always—and I mean always—friendly and helpful. And I love Rainbow's selection of cheeses and craft beers. But not only do I have to drive to either of these places if I want to buy more than one bag of groceries, Rainbow is frighteningly expensive and TJ's ships their products all over the country to a rather gas-guzzling degree.

So in an effort to stay local, we went exploring. My 'hood really is just that—corner liquor stores every two blocks (one of which brilliantly blasts classical music at night to keep the thugs from hanging on their corner), dollar stores, about a dozen bars in a ten-block radius, gang members every now and then, dirty streets.

But it is also a thriving neighborhood—one of the few places in the city where families and immigrants (mostly Mexican) can afford to live. A tiny little park was just completely overhauled, and there are mom-and-pop shops everywhere. These are the places that often have more to offer than meets the eye.

These stores don't look like much from the outside. They might be in older buildings, or lack the branding of an Ikea or Starbucks. Most of them have signs that aren't in English, so unless you either know about them already or are willing to poke your head inside and get a strange look or two, you might never even notice them. But shopping at these stores reduce your environmental footprint, keep your money in the local economy, and often encourage a tighter community overall.

Some of our favorites are:

El Chico #4: A Mexican grocery that has a great selection of really good-looking produce, sundries and meats. They are always friendly and the store is always clean. The best part? I can walk out weighed down with two full bags of groceries for less than $10.

Sun Fat Seafood Company: I don't eat meat, but the ol' man does. And in his effort to cut down on red meat, he discovered this gem after searching high and low for a fish market worth frequenting. I generally don't like the smell of fish, but this place is incredible: immaculate, odor-free, well-stocked and cheap. Even I thought the fish looked appetizing, and the ol' man reports that it tastes "really good."

Philz Coffee: I've taken a break from Philz because his Turkish coffee is so intense I can only take it in small doses. But holy crap, is it good! He hand brews every cup from any of a dozen or more different hand-roasted blends.

Maybe I'm lucky that I live in el barrio because it puts me within walking distance of so many incredible family-owned businesses. But no matter where you are you likely have some, too. And the only way you'll ever discover them is if you leave your car at home, your expectations and hesitations aside, and take a walk around the 'hood.

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December 02, 2006

Dangerous Fruit: Just What Are You Eating?

The USDA recommends eating about 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day (cue mom). But are all fruits and vegetables created equal? They may start out that way, but thanks to factory farms and consumer demand for unblemished peppers and perfectly plump strawberries, dozens of pesticides are sprayed on and soaked into our produce.

Those chemicals inevitably find their way into our blood stream. And while many researchers insist this is a-okay, I'm just a little uncomfortable with that. Especially after reading about the Dirty Dozen, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group. According to the report, eating the top twelve worst contaminated fruits & veggies will expose to you to about 15 different pesticides, while eating the bottom twelve on their list will expose you to about two.

The Dirty Dozen
Peaches
Apples
Bell Peppers
Celery
Nectarines
Strawberries
Cherries
Pears
Grapes (imported)
Spinach
Lettuce
Potatoes
Yikes! I eat at least half of those items regularly. Luckily, we've been washing all of our produce religiously in a veggie wash called Environne, an all-natural wash that doesn't leave any taste on our food. We've been very happy with it, but we may not actually need it.

After reading about the Dirty Dozen, I tried to find research confirming that commercial produce washes actually work. The good news is they do. The not bad yet a little disappointing news is so does water (see this study, and this one—scroll down to find it). But these studies only tested for surface pesticides. Unfortunately, some pesticides sink in past the skins and can't be washed off. So if you want to reduce the amount of pesticides you ingest every day, try the following:
  1. Eat organic. USDA regulations require that foods labeled "100% organic" must not be exposed to any synthetic pesticides.
  2. Wash your produce well. Soaking your produce and agitating the water will remove many pesticides, although by no means all.
  3. Try a produce wash. You can buy a commercial wash, or even make your own using diluted vinegar and water. Be sure to rinse well, or your veggies may taste like that vinegar!
For an interesting back-and-forth about the benefits of veggie wash, check out the comments on Treehugger. And then think about the fruits and vegetables you eat every day.


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November 28, 2006

The Sustainable Home, Room-by-Room

When touting sustainability it becomes easy to step up onto a soapbox and preach away. And no matter how hard I try to avoid sounding self-rightious, one of the most common laments I hear from friends and colleagues is how hard it is to "live sustainably." It's true—we live in a culture that functions on consumption, making it extrememly hard for "normal" folks to live a completely sustainable lifestyle. As a result, many of us get overwhelmed and just give up trying altogether.

But even the smallest choices can yield big results over time. Here are just a few tips that you can implement at home, whether you rent or own, to increase your sustainability and decrease the size of your environmental footprint:
  1. In the kitchen:
    Reuse plastic and glass food containers instead of throwing them away;
    Reduce your usage of ziplock baggies by using those containers you just saved;
    Turn off the kitchen faucet as you scrub your dishes;
    Wait until the dishwasher is completely full before running it;
  2. In the bathroom:
    Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth;
    Opt for baths over showers whenever possible;
    Fix that running toilet or leaking faucet ASAP to conserve water;
    Install a water-saving shower head
  3. In the bedroom:
    Buy organic or recycled bed linens;
    Hang heavy curtains over windows to keep the heat in
  4. The whole home:
    Change your lightbulbs to warm, energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs;
    Open your curtains to let in natural light instead of flipping the light switch;
    Use rugs and carpets on hardwood floors to help retain heat;
    Bring in living plants to help the air quality;
    Use non-toxic cleaning products whenever possible;
    If renovating, consider non-toxic, sustainable or salvaged materials and energy-efficient appliances
Implementing just a few of these things into your daily life can make a real impact and chances are you'll never even notice the difference.

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November 26, 2006

Are Your Organic Groceries Really Sustainable?

As the grocery giants jump on the organic bandwagon, their actions beg the question just how sustainable are the organic foods we buy at our local grocery store? If a core reason for buying organic—in addition to the health issue—is to contribute to a smaller, sustainable food economy, then where does our dollar really end up when we walk out with our bag of organic lettuce, or carton of organic milk?

It's no secret that organic is now big business; Wal-Mart has introduced what they call an "aggressive" plan toward sustainability, Safeway has rolled out their "O" brand and, according to a 2002 report, 39% of the U.S. population uses organic products. As a result, many sustainable-minded consumers (that's—hopefully—you and me) are trying to buy their food from smaller, independent companies. But there is one really, really big problem with this approach: it's nearly impossible.

In the chart above (view a larger version at creator Phil Howard's site), you can see how the organic food industry is already dominated by Big Business. Whether you buy from Whole Foods, Safeway or Wal-Mart, that organic milk you just picked up most likely came from cows lined up in feedlots much like conventional cows. So what? you ask. As long as it's legally labeled "organic," what does it matter? Well, for starters:
  1. Large-scale organic producers must ship their goods thousands of miles, depleting fuel resources and causing significant air pollution in the process.
  2. Big Business muscles their way around Washington, diluting USDA definitions of organic and loosening labeling restrictions.
  3. Large-scale organic producers inevitably rely on non-sustainable practices to remain profitable.
But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't buy organic products. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do to buy sustainable organics. Some are simple, while some may take a little more effort:
  1. Read labels: Look for production facilities that are close to home (this is by no means a fool-proof method, but it may help give you an indication of how far the item has traveled).
  2. Visit a farmers' market: Purchasing from nearby producers stimulates your local economy and helps reduce the freight impact of shipping over long distances (find a farmers' market near you).
  3. Subscribe to a vegetable box: Many farms offer a weekly or biweekly delivery service so that you don't have to hunt down organic produce (find a local subscription).

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November 22, 2006

Buy Nothing Day!

Thanksgiving may be a day of mindfulness and gratitude in theory but we all know the bloated truth: it’s also a day of feasting that often leaves us over-satiated, overstuffed and overweight. But fear not! If you wake up on Friday morning with a still-full belly and a vague feeling of gluttony, there is a simple way to counteract such malaise: participate in Buy Nothing Day.

Now extending over Nov. 24th and 25th, Buy Nothing Days celebrate a withdrawal from the consumerist glut. There will be no clawing your way through bloodthirsty video game-seeking crowds, no waiting in two-hour lines only to be confronted by a bored, unfriendly cashier who’s had it with people like you, and definitely no throwing away your hard-earned paycheck on junk that your friends and family probably will just try to return anyway.

The upside to Buy Nothing Day is twofold: not only will we collectively refrain from consuming unnecessary stuff (thereby saving said stuff from eventually ending up in our landfills), we will also have some free time to sit around and digest our Thanksgiving meal. Or continue eating it, what with all the leftovers. Or, hell, do something productive (gasp). Here are a few more ideas for how to spend your Buy Nothing Day(s):



Have your own plans for Buy Nothing Day? Let us know! Email us or leave a comment below.

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November 21, 2006

Tag, You're It!

Small Failures is honored to be tagged by Anne at The Golden Pencil, a wonderful resource for freelance writers. It's a "5 Things Most People Don't Know About Me" meme goin' 'round that at first didn't seem related to me over here. But if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that everything is related. So here we go:
  1. I have a Buddhist bent. I'm not disciplined enough to call myself a Buddhist, but those Noble Truths ring a bell.
  2. I was kicked out of summer camp as a kid for fighting. I didn't learn my humility lessons until much later, but it did end me up at another camp (no longer operating) that got me hooked on camping, farming, and generally interacting with the natural world.
  3. I have rheumatoid arthritis. I take lots of pharmaceuticals for this, which is a pretty horrifying industry. My goal over the next couple of years is to reduce my meds where possible in exchange for accupunture, yoga and other alternative treatments.
  4. I was a honky tonk DJ. As a result, I have saved the life of over 600—maybe 800?—vinyl records that otherwise would have disappeared into landfills. (Okay, this may be a stretch.)
  5. My bartending days left me with a penchant for Manhattans. I plan to feature some great organic booze on this site, so check back soon.
Perhaps not the most interesting collection of factoids, but there ya go. Tag, you're it:
  1. Jeopopolis: Inspiration in art form.
  2. Ideal Bite: Get green tips by email!
  3. Groovy Green: A team of folks parsing the world of green for the rest of us.
  4. Sustainablog: A sane look at the broader issues.
  5. Ai Ai Gasa: Brooklyn boutique featuring cool-ass goods made lovingly from hand.
Please, if I tagged you and you're not interested in playing this little game, fear not. This is just a good excuse for me to share some of the links I dig.

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Clean Clothes Without Nasty Dry Cleaning

I'm a jeans a t-shirt kind of a girl most of the week (I do work from my home office, after all), but I like to doll up now and then on the weekend or when heading to client meetings. Up until recently, I had been dropping my clothes off at the local dry cleaning place and leaving it at that.

But dry cleaning is nasty stuff. Its most notorious chemical is used as a solvent in most dry cleaning houses. Perc (Perchloroethylene) is considered a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program; it can cause respiratory and central nervous system issues and is released into the air during the dry cleaning process (so even if you don't dry clean your clothes, you can still be affected by it over time).


Avoiding perc is getting easier, though. First, ask your regular dry cleaner if they use perc. If they do, find yourself an alternative here:
  • GreenEarth Cleaning: This company uses a non-perc solvent that doesn't release volatile organic compounds (VOCs; the nasties that poison our air).
  • Hangers: These folks use a CO2 process that is vastly less toxic than perc-based dry cleaning. While CO2 cleaning does release some VOCs, it is a much greener alternative.
A friend recently asked me if it is true that French dry cleaners are more environmentally sound than conventional cleaners. Unless they use an alternative to perc, the answer is definitely no. So always ask the person behind the counter if they use perc: if they do, or if they can't tell you, find another cleaner!

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November 18, 2006

Car Shares: All the Perks, None of the Work

Car ownsership really isn't all it's cracked up to be. As I watch my sacred '89 Volvo slowly deteriorate before my eyes (she's clocking 290,000 miles and then some), I wonder what my next move will be. I'd love to be able to justify the expense of a new car, so I can get a shiny new hybrid. But in all honesty, I have more important things to save for. I could always buy a beater but not only does that require more maintenance and expense, it's not the most sustainable option.

I could buy a motorcycle, which uses less gas, but I don't trust San Francisco drivers. I could buy a bicycle, but that won't help me with the groceries. So what's a girl who loves to drive to do? The answer is car shares. Car sharing services are basically low-cost community car rental agencies. Most provide a fleet of cars (some even offer hybrids), which you may access for a nominal fee. You reserve a car parked near you, use an electronic key to get in, and then return the car to the same space when you're done.

There are a number of car sharing services throughout the U.S.:

  1. City Car Share (Bay Area only)
  2. ZipCar (multiple states)
  3. I-Go (Chicago only)
  4. VirtuCar (Ottowa, Canada)
  5. FlexCar (multiple states)
For a comprehensive list of car share companies around the world, visit Earth Easy's list. Have you used a car share service? Share your comments and experiences with us by posting a comment, below.

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November 17, 2006

Eating Sustainably, Eating Well

Think about this the next you buy some hamburger meat at Safeway, or Kroger, or some other chain grocery store: according to the Society of Concerned Scientists, 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials (aka antibiotics commonly used to treat human diseases) are fed to U.S. cattle every year. And that's the stuff fed to livestock that isn't sick. There is growing concern that this kind of antiobiotic pumping can lead to drug resistence in humans, among other problems.

Eating sustainably means avoiding antibacteria-laden meats, produce and other foods. But
sustainable eating doesn't only address the problem of antibiotic resistence. It also helps solve some of these problems:
  • Factory Farming: The vast amount of food consumed in the U.S. is supplied by huge "farms" that cause massive damage to our air and water. Employees of these companies also commonly suffer from health effects caused by unsafe and toxic working conditions.
  • The Freight Effect: Shipping food from the source to the end user relies on huge amounts of fossil fuels, which causes serious environmental damage.
  • Community Fallout: Local producers who adhere to sustainable practices dump less waste in their neighborhood, grow healthier products and contribute more to their local economies compared to factory farms.
So how do we eat sustainably? We don't all have a Whole Foods in our neighborhood, after all. And not all of us can afford to pay higher prices for organic specialty products. Luckily, there are plenty of ways we can make better food choices, wherever we happen to live. These include:
  • Get Smart: Knowledge is power so find out where your food comes from, what ingredients are in it (and what those ingredients really are), what processes were used to make it, etc.
  • Think Twice: Ask yourself what you are willing to change and what you aren't. Don't want to stop eating meat? Then try to find a local butcher who can tell you where his meat came from and what processes were used. Make every purchase an active choice.
  • Meet the Neighbors: If you live in a rural community, you probably don't have the luxury of an all-organic grocery store. But you do have the ability to get to know the farmers in your area and identify those who rely on sustainable agriculture. City-dwellers have a lot of options when it comes to making purchases, so take advantage of them.
  • Buy Local: Farmer's markets, if you have one near you, are a great way to buy fresh, local and organic foods. Don't hesitate to ask sellers if they use pesticides or antiobiotics.
If you don't know where to go to buy sustainably-produced foods, visit the Eat Well Guide, enter your zip code, and voila! You'll get a list of sustainable farms, restaurants and stores near you.

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November 15, 2006

But Where Do We Take All That Trash?

For the longest time, I searched for a drop-off for my expired photo chemicals. I called my alma mater, thinking their photo department could help. Nope. I tried local photo studios. No dice. (And quite stingy, I thought, since they had to dispose of their own chemicals.) But now I know exactly where to drop them off, along with dozens of other items my city recycler won't pick up.

Earth 911 allows you to look up local recycling groups by zip code, leading you to the closest recycler for almost any material or product you might want to throw out. The site makes it easy to dispose of waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

(via Great Green Goods)

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November 14, 2006

Renters Can Be Sustainable, Too!

There is certainly a bias toward homeowners when it comes to energy efficiency—a lot of the steps one can take to make a home more sustainable and energy efficient require permanent or semi-permanent alteration. But what about all of us renters who would like to make less of an impact? Here are a few ways renters can get in on the action:
  • Waste not, want not. Start with yourself and not your home, since you have complete control over your own actions. Reduce your waste output by purchasing only what you need. Recycle as much of your waste as you can.

  • Get lit. Replace all of your conventional lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Don't be put off by the cost or the name: the light they give off is actually quite warm and inviting, and they last up to four times as long as standard bulbs.

  • Educate your landlord. Knowledge brings change, so share what you know with your landlord. Do a little research on your own, provide specific ideas, and phrase it in terms of what they will save by taking energy efficient steps such as replacing old appliances with Energy Star rated ones, and so on.
Have more ideas for renters? Post a comment!

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