November 14, 2007

Pennsylvania Says Information is the Enemy

If you're one of the thousands of consumers who likes to know what chemicals go into your food, Pennsylvania has a big screw you for ya:
"Effective Jan. 1, dairies selling milk in Pennsylvania, the nation's fifth-largest dairy state, will be banned from advertising on milk containers that their product comes from cows that have never been treated with rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin."
That's right—dairies are no longer allowed to let their customers know that they don't give rBST to their cows. The result is that customers will have no way of knowing which dairy products they buy are hormone free (unless they buy certified organics).

Monsanto lobbies states to ban rBST free label on dairy.

The law is likely going to spread (New Jersey and Ohio are next) as Monsanto, the country's largest producer of agro-chemicals used on our nation's food supply, lobbies state governments to increase the ban. Their logic? Letting customers know what's not in our milk "implies that competitors' milk is not safe."

There is something excruciatingly perverse about this ruling, and it's not just that agribusiness and government are trying to keep information from consumers. What's really perverse is that dairies are labeling their milk "rBST free" because consumers want them to; it adds value to the product. Monsanto recognizes this, and instead of adapting their business paradigm to meet this dramatic shift in consumer demand, they are forcing consumers to conform to their standards. That's not really how the free market is supposed to work, though, is it?

Further reading:
Full story from STLtoday.com
Bovine growth hormone information from the Organic Consumers' Association
List of rBST free dairy producers

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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October 30, 2007

Sustainability vs. Luxury: Are They Really At Odds?

Whatever you personal feelings about Al Gore, he must be doing something right (you don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, after all, for failing miserably). Thanks in no small part to Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, the American public’s awareness of environmental concerns has grown considerably in recent years. This increased awareness brings with it a fascinating process of learning, questioning, justifying, arguing and, sometimes, changing. Since our industrial revolution, America has been a society of consumers, embracing values of luxury and carefree (careless?) spending. With the advent of the climate crisis, this consumerism is being challenged. But is luxury truly anathema to sustainability? Must we really choose between consumption and abstinence?

Ask the average citizen what it takes to be sustainable, or green, and you’ll likely hear something along the lines of, “Give up the fun stuff.” This model is perpetuated by the environmental movement itself, whose primary motto is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” implying we must reduce our indulgences before anything can be done to save us. Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, of the Living Small blog recently summed up this pervasive attitude rather bluntly in a recent entry for The Ethicurian: “I hate to be the one to point it out, but luxury and sustainability are contradictory values.” Clearly, this belief runs deep, regardless of which side of the fence you shop on.

Is it true, though?

Is it possible to live in extravagance without damaging the environment? Is it possible to thoughtlessly consume without essentially shitting your waste all over the place? Right now, the answer is no. Thanks to an unchecked economic system that has never once factored environmental resources into the cost of doing business, we now have a world of goods made from toxins, that produce toxins, and end up as toxins in landfill.

Just imagine if companies— the building blocks of our current economy—assigned a real dollar value to the cost of natural resources. I’m not even talking about the expense of strip mining, for example, with all its OSHA regulations and heavy machinery. I’m talking about costs like the lost productivity of worker-drones who don’t have access to sunlight and fresh air, or the long-term cost of depleting oil reserves without a sufficient energy source to replace them. These are real costs to businesses of all sizes, but when was the last time you took a hard look at the “waste disposal” line item on your P&L?

The truth is that the products we make and sell and buy are damaging us even as they make our lives easier in the short term. Pesticides that help us produce more food faster actually leach into water sources, for example, then leach into the fish swimming in those water sources, then leach into those of us who eat that fish. Or, on a simpler level, take your latest purchase at OfficeMax: how much of what you just paid for is actually for plastic packaging that you sent to a landfill as soon as it passed through your business’ doors?

It’s not doomsday yet, though.

As I write this, R&D departments throughout the world are racing to find new, better alternatives. At one time, recycled paper was a crappy alternative to virgin pulp paper but thanks to technological development, we now have gorgeous, affordable recycled paper options at our disposal. The Prius is another, if imperfect, example. A process once hidden from the public’s gaze is now snowballing into the limelight. Companies are recognizing that the up-front R&D costs generally pale in comparison to the ROI to be seen down the road. And we small businesses get to piggyback on their innovation.

What they’re working on is really incredible, and incredibly sexy. Cars that run on air (they exist!); treatment plants that clean wastewater using the gas from their own processes (okay, that last one's not so sexy, but it's really cool). These advances have already been made, and now it’s a matter of applying our technological capabilities to their mass production so they become the norm and not the exception. Quickly. And that happens through publicity (cue Al Gore) and the build-up of demand.

It’s a beautiful cycle, isn’t it? And it’s why I believe that luxury and sustainability are not contradictory values in and of themselves. With our current production framework, no, of course they can’t coexist. But our current framework is changing. If regenerative products become the norm—products that add to the health of our environment rather than detract from it—it could conceivably mean that carefree consumption can actually be an environmentally friendly action.

One has to happen first for the other to be true, of course. But the change is happening. So as we continue to demand that the end-user change their habits, we need to also demand—even more strenuously—that the producers change theirs.

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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July 13, 2007

What the World Eats

The hands-down most striking thing I've learned as I continue to integrate sustainability into my life is how deeply rooted the food supply is into everything I do. I worked on the graphic design for an incredible documentary film called Crude Impact, which traces our dependence on oil through every facet of our lifestyle (including food, clothing, transportation, etc), and I am constantly reminded of the supply chain now when I pick up a bag of hot dog buns or sample an organic strawberry at our local farmers' market.

This never-ending connection between the food on my plate and what it took to get it here seems even more extensive when I consider What the World Eats, a photo essay capturing a week's supply of food for average families across the globe (the photos are excerpted from Peter Menzel's Hungry Planet). I was reminded of this project when reading Sugar Mountain Farm's own version. Farmer and blogger Walter Jeffries describes the challenge of actually pulling out one week's worth of food, particularly given that the family tends to buy in bulk and eat very seasonally. Any photo would only capture a fraction of the family's dietary reality.

Given these challenges, it's easy to understand why we're all not emptying our fridges and laying our cabinets bare for all to see. But such an exercise forces us to consider two very important ideas:
  1. How much we pay for the food we eat. In Time's photo essay, for example, the difference is remarkable between the Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp ($1.23/week: sacks of grain, rice, beans and what looks like small amounts of dried fruit), and the Revis family of North Carolina ($341.98/week: Diet Coke and Capri Sun, bags of chips, take out pizza).

  2. What we eat. It's easy to overlook our habits when we take each one in isolation; that order of fries at lunch was no big deal, but five days in a row?! Seeing everything in one place forces us to witness patterns and habits, for better or worse.
These immediate issues are significant ones for sure. But there are other, subtler, issues that are worth thinking about, too. What did it take to get this food to my plate? When the farmer hands me a tomato he's grown himself, there is an accountability and a reassurance that doesn't exist if I were to pick up a tomato at Safeway. The Safeway tomato must be treated to prevent it from over ripening before arrival, trucked across who knows how many states, and then stored in Safeway's own facilities. Not only is it not as fresh (although it may look deceivingly so), I have no idea what's been put on it, how it's been grown, etc. And I have nobody to ask.

All of this may seem obvious to those who make a conscious effort to eat locally and organic, but that's still a very small percentage of the population. Projects like What the World Eats quietly call attention to these subtler issues, and raise questions we may or may not have yet asked ourselves. Regardless of how and where we eat, and with whom, it can be a real eye opener to spread it all out in once place and take a cold, hard look.

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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 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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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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May 16, 2007

Product Review: Certaintees

[Full disclosure: I received this product free of charge. Do with that info what you will.]

I generally avoid buying decorative items that espouse some political bent; I don't have bumper stickers on my car (yes, I have a car—boo, hiss—and yes, I have a small Red Sox stickah on it), I don't have buttons and pins all over my bag, and I don't wear t-shirts with philosphical statements printed across the chest. Until recently.

When I was contacted by artist Lee Tracy about her new line of bamboo, hand-screened shirts, I was a little skeptical. I get a lot of emails about new "green" products and the bulk of them lead to nothing more than claims of carbon neutrality or some such token gesture. Thus far I have simply avoided the whole thing by reviewing products very, very irregularly. But as always, I took a look around the website and was surprised at what I found.

First and foremost, I actually liked the designs offered. This was hand-printed, custom art, and it was clear that they were made with care and respect for the craft of printing (this is actually very important to me as a graphic designer). I wasn't sold on the concept of "wearable wisdom" that drives the company's commitment to social responsibility, though (see first paragraph). Then I read that $5 of each t-shirt sale goes directly to one of several very cool nonprofits. Then I read a list of incredibly impressive facts about bamboo and bamboo clothing. Then I read about how everything was packaged with ecological care. It went on and on.

So I decided to see just how normal a bamboo t-shirt is. Before placing my order, though, Tracy mailed out a shirt for me to "experience." It arrived inside a plain cotton tote that I now use for hauling veggies around from the farmers market (bonus!). The shirt was a large (I'm paranoid about undersizing), but a little too large for my 5' 4" frame. Dang.

It was also incredibly soft and the colors were intense (if I recall, Tracy mentioned giving it a double blast of ink). One problem, though: the fabric was so thin that I was showing a little more than I would have liked (a tank top underneath fixed that, of course).

This is a comfortable shirt! My office gets pretty chilly, and the shirt was actually much warmer than I expected for the weight. I have no idea if the other shirt styles are as thin (I suspect they are), but it's actually well suited to the delicacy of the designs printed on them. These aren't rough-and-tumble work shirts here, and they also aren't cheap (then again, I'm generally a $5/3-pack Hanes undershirt kind of girl, so what do I know?). But then again, you're getting a whole lot more than a production-line commodity.

Check 'em out, and take the time to read the backstory throughout the site—this is a great example of a commercial enterprise that effectively marries sustainability with commerce, and produces quality products to boot.

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April 03, 2007

New York Politicoes Recognize a Poverty-Diet Connection

A recent blurb in New York Magazine announced the formation of New York's first ever Food Policy Council. If that sounds boring to you, take a closer look: the Council has been assigned the task of getting local and organic foods into low income NY neighborhoods.

Take a walk around any low income urban neighborhood and you're likely to find a liquor store on nearly every corner. Large grocery stores, which tend to carry foods at a cheaper cost than specialty or convenience stores, are hard to find—and those that do exist often feature a dismal selection of fresh produce. Good luck finding affordable organics or locally-produced options. The problem isn't just one of convenience or deliciousness; studies have shown that lower income communities have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related conditions.

This is where food policy councils come in. Although your state or community may already have one, chances are you don't know about it (see this list for your local council). These councils tend to operate in the background, with small budgets and little attention. That's what happens when your focus is something as mundane as how food gets from point A to point B.

Luckily, however, the tide is starting to turn. Thanks to a huge burst of press, not least of which includes Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, people are paying more attention to their food supply. As farmers scramble to plant more corn (no, not for consumption—for fuel, instead), and children continue to go hungry right here in the U.S., how we handle our food becomes extremely important. Call me crazy, but I can't help thinking we're in for a massive cultural shift when it comes to feeding ourselves. Hopefully.


Further reading:
"Transportation, Food Supplies and Local Economies" at Worldchanging.com
"Healthy Foods, Strong Communities" report by the National Housing Insitute
People's Grocery, a mobile grocery store based in Oakland, CA
State and local food policy councils FAQ


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March 27, 2007

Can You Eat Locally Without Spending a Fortune?

The folks at Eat Local Challenge are at it again. This time they're putting their money where their mouth is: for one week, participants will attempt to eat only foods produced within their local foodshed and do so within the budget of the average American.

Given that one of the most common excuses for not eating organic, or not eating locally, or not eating lower on the food chain (pick one), tends to be the high cost of good food, this should be an intriguing challenge to watch.

Of course, it begs the questions: How much does the average American spend on food? Are these limits realistic? To the group's credit, they are using 2005 statistics from the Department of Labor that limit a family of more than two with two wage earners to $144/week. Does this seem realistic for a family of four? Does this seem realistic for your region? Check out the budgets for other household sizes and let me know if you think this is doable.

To learn more or join in, visit the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge Nuts and Bolts Page.

[Am I participating? Not in this one, no. The Captain and I are about to start planning for our first 1-month eat local challenge, and we're going no-budget on this one. We will, however, keep track of our budget and I'll report back here.]

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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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January 22, 2007

Giving Credit to the Conscious Lifestyle

In case you needed more proof that sustainability is picking up steam in mainstream media, Visa now offers the Enlightenment Card for folks who "practice yoga, eat organic, recycle, read positive books, frequent workshops, donate to charities, [and are] active in the community." Seriously—now you, too, can get into debt, pay a company to allow you to buy what you can't afford, and generally support one of the most unsustainable industries there are!

In all fairness, the card seems to reinforce the growing idea that sustainability is a viable market worth exploiting. The irony of promoting such a lifestyle by using a credit card, though, is indicative of just how far we have to go.

The card is offered through First Hawaiian Bank (and there's no membership fee). Your purchases accrue points that are redeemable for "awards," like spa retreats, yoga classes, CDs and DVDs, etc. Or you can put your rewards toward charities like Planned Parenthood, Rainforest Action Network, and Youth AIDS.

I suppose if you're going to rack up credit card debt, you might as well do it while donating to charity.

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January 08, 2007

Trend Watchers Jump on the Eco Bandwagon

It's official—green is now extremely trendy. Independent consumer trend watching firm Trendwatching has listed "Eco-Lifestyles" on their Status Lifestyles to look out for in 2007:
"With the environment finally on the agenda of most powers that be, and millions of consumers now actively trying to greenify their lives, status from leading an eco-responsible lifestyle is both more readily available, and increasing in value."
And while "trendy" might seem to mean "fad" to some, the ultimate result is that that marketers are going to be paying close attention to eco-consumers and investing heavily in greening up their message. That means more green choices in the marketplace, making it easier to adapt a more eco-aware lifestyle.

Of course, true sustainability can only be reached by a reduction in consumption, which no marketer can get behind.


Further Reading:
Read the full Trendwatching report.
Springwise's Top 10 Eco Business Ideas.

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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 13, 2006

Beautiful Silver and Sustainable, Too

Are you a silver hound? Do you need an impressive gift for your sweetie this holiday? Shiana sells silver jewelry, beads and accessories, which on the surface seems like a pretty ordinary thing to do. But all their silver is produced by Thai artists and rather than exhaust the resources of the villages that produce their products, they are committed to the opposite. Their mission:
Shiana is dedicated to preserving the culture of our craftsman and artisans. In making our jewelry, we will never compromise their safety or lifestyle. As our business grows, we also hope to increase funding to our many planned projects for the Karen Hill Tribe Villagers of northern Thailand.

While it's certainly easy to pay lip service to goals like this, Shiana does the following:
  1. They pay their artists more than minumum wage.
  2. They are trying to fund the building of schools and training facilities.

By committing themselves to these goals, they are offering Thai villagers alternatives to growing cash crops like opium, or relocating to the city to find factory jobs. Pretty admirable, in my book. And the silver really is gorgeous.

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December 11, 2006

Menu for Hope: Feed and be Fed

How can you go wrong with a $10 entry fee and prizes that include Paris chocolate tours, a candy-red Kitchenaid mixer, and any number of other fabulous books, art pieces, tours and food items?

The proceeds this year go to the U.N. World Food Programme (last year participating food bloggers raised $17,000 for UNICEF). The raffle ends December 22nd, so get your bids in now and you'll end up with an incredible Christmas present for someone you love (yourself, perhaps?).

Go for it: Menu for Hope III

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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

Safeway “O” Organic Mac ‘n’ Cheese

It’s been getting mighty wintery around here lately, at least by San Francisco standards, so last night I figured to make myself a comforting bowl of macaroni and cheese. Lately I’ve been trying to master the art of Mac ‘n’ Cheese but that cheesy, creamy phenomenally addictive quality keeps eluding me. With my recent failures, small though they may be, still lingering, I opted instead for the box of Safeway “O” Organic White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese that had been tucked away for weeks in my kitchen cabinet.

I was leary as I eyed the box, wondering just how much cheesy goodness could really lie within. Would this grocery giant, whom I generally dislike for being one of the most inefficient, un-customer friendly chains I have ever experienced, really be able to pull off organic?


I even went so far as to rummage through my fridge to see what I had for Mac ‘n’ Cheese-worthy cheese. Nothing. The box it would be. After going through the typical Kraftesque motions, I sat down with what appeared to be a quite normal bowl of that most perfect of comfort foods. And to my surprise, it was halfway decent. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but what cardboard box full of powdered cheese ever is?

Packaging: Standard cardboard box with envelope of powdered cheese, apparently not made from recycled materials. Not too surprising, as the O brand is focused on health, not sustainability or eco-friendliness. It carries the USDA Organic label. As with most foods, the actual food fills up only 1/3 of the entire package. C-

Preparation:
The same as any boxed mac ‘n’ cheese. For once, the boiling time (8-10 min.) is actually accurate. Add in a little butter, milk, and the accompanying powdered cheese and you’ve got yourself a dinner. The only problem was that the cheese wasn’t easy to melt (even though I left it simmering while I added everything in). B


Appearance:
Looks darn good, if you ask me. White cheddar cheese means there’s not much color, but it looks creamy and cheesy. B+

Taste: It tastes like quality cheese, as opposed to fake powdery stuff. It doesn’t have that addictive quality (I prefer Annie’s for that), but it also doesn’t feel too heavy. Because the cheese didn’t melt very well, the result was a somewhat uneven cheesiness. Ah well, you can’t ‘em all. B+


The upshot:
A great alternative to any of the conventional brands. I have yet to try Annie’s Organic Shells & White Cheddar, but my local Safeway charges almost a dollar more for it. That’s one of the advantages of the house labeled products. If Safeway were my only shopping option, I’d likely keep a couple of boxes on hand for emergency dinners. But for now, I’ll stick to scratch until I master the Mac ‘n’ Cheese. B

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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 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

A Note About Featured Businesses

Small Failures believes strongly in promoting businesses that offer sustainable products and services. Because a lot of these companies are not local, we don't have the opportunity to actually test them out. This means we can't endorse them; we can only tell you about them and let you draw your own conclusions.

If you have a chance to use any of the businesses mentioned in Small Failures, we would love to hear your experience. You can leave a comment on the blog, or you can send an email directly to jessie [at] smallfailures [dot] com.

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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 14, 2006

Brewing Better Beer

I love me a good beer and I suspect you do, too. In fact, I love it so much that I write about it for a living. During my vast research (I must be professional about it, you know), I've come to learn that the craft beer industry is a tight-knit, help-each-other-out kind of community. Brewers share advice, methods, ideas and some even share technologies, all in the name of quality beer.

This sense of community seems to be extending further and further out as many brewers either go organic or convert their facilities to be as self-sustaining as possible. Often this involves giving their spent grains to local farmers who can use it in cattle feed and compost. But from coast to coast, breweries are going even further and, if their beers are any measure, it seems to be working:

  • Brooklyn Brewery: Not only do they produce great beer, but this New York brewery is 100% wind powered!
  • Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.: This ain't no basement brewery—Sierra Nevada has over 300 employees and the facilities to house them. One of the most forward-thinking breweries out there, SN is almost entirely self-sufficient. Powered by fuel cells that are twice as efficient as standard power, the brewery recycles their waste byproducts, their water waste, and are working on plans to recycle the CO2 emissions produced during fermentation!
  • East End Brewing Co.: I've heard good things about their Big Hop IPA, but as East End only distributes in PA I have yet to taste it. Their commitment to sustainability runs deep, influencing everything they do from equipment purchasing (they buy used and buy local), to wort cooling (reusing the water instead of throwing it down the drain).


So the next time you're in the mood for a cold one, remember that there are plenty of really good options that are worth supporting. Seriously, aside from East End (whose beers I haven't had the pleasure of trying yet), I would recommend the above in a heartbeat even if they weren't sustainable.

And please, if you know of or work at any other breweries working towards sustainability, let me know!

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