August 02, 2007

More Energy Calculators

There are, of course, a huge number of calculators online that offer visitors the chance to discover just how nasty or nice to the environment our living habits actually are. My beef with these calculators is twofold:
  • They rarely explain the math behind the calculations.
  • They often gloss over many of the ways in which we impact our environment.
I've just stumbled across a calculator that seems to address at least this latter problem. The Personal Environmental Impact Calculator breaks down your energy use into transportation, recycling, water, and energy. It's not exactly the sexiest calculator out there, and there are a few broken links but most of the results are well documented, and provide helpful conservation suggestions and further reading.

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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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July 06, 2007

Yesterday's Technology Today! Beer Bottle Solar Panels

Not everybody gets hot water when they want it. Ma Yanjun, of Shaanxi Province in China, was a farmer with a cold family. So he did the only logical thing one could do in such a situation: he built a solar panel out of beer bottles and affixed it to his roof. Now his family of four can each get a warm shower in the morning.

As The Beer Activist points out, "it's a great example of small-scale sustainable technology." Ma Yanjun managed to solve a pressing problem by using found materials and a little ingenuity. His solar panel depletes no resources, uses "unwaste" that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill, and it has even inspired ten other families in his neighborhood to do the same.

The science behind it is so simple that anyone can make one of these things. I couldn't find a step-by-step tutorial for this particular model online, but I did find instructions for making a hot water heater using reclaimed materials, as well as a great tutorial for a hot air heater. Of course, this might be a little more hands-on than most want to take on, but what a cool excuse to work your way through a case of beer!

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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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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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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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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, 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 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. 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 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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November 18, 2006

Think Globally, Recycle Locally

This ain't your everyday Craig's List exchange of want ads and classifieds. The Freecycle Network introduces individuals with stuff to give away to those looking for stuff and vice versa. The idea is to reduce waste and "ease the burden on our landfills." This is not a bartering system; Freecycle relies on its members simply giving away the things they don't want anymore.

Why is this such a great idea? First, it encourages reuse instead of disposability. Freecycle participants have been responsible for keeping 50 tons of materials from ending up in landfills.

It also helps build a local community of people who might otherwise never know each other. This may seem a little touchy-feely to some, but the fact is that the more we know our neighbors, the more likely we are to care about what happens to our neighborhood.

The Freecycle Network continues to grow. To find a Freecycle network near you (maybe you don't know what to do with that old couch that needs to be replaced), just go to and enter your zip code in the upper right corner.

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November 15, 2006

Happy America Recycles Day!

Lest you consider recycling to be some chore thrust upon us by a bunch of tree huggers, keep in mind that it's been around forever. Before mass production made things instantly replaceable, people reused as much as they could. Recycling, which generally refers to items being converted to another usable state (either for the item's original purpose or a new one), actually dates as far back as Henry IV. Ol' Hank decreed that waste must be removed and not left to fester, and this waste was often composted. Ashes to ashes, so to speak.

It is now so easy to recycle even if you don't live in a major metropolitan area that you might as well start now. You'll help keep landfills from growing, you'll help reduce the amount of energy needed to produce virgin goods (items produced from raw materials), and you'll encourage a culture of environmental consciousness. (Too heady for ya? Okay, you can often sell your recyclable materials to recyling centers.) Check out these links to learn more about recycling:



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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