Wednesday, November 29, 2006

We haven't even gotten to the water bottle week...

But my friend Heather couldn't wait to banish disposable bottles from her life! She got this reusable one at Target for $5.99 and is quite pleased with it so far. She says, "It doesn't retain odor or taste and is dishwasher/microwave safe." She plans on using it at work and at the gym. Yay! Thanks for the inspiration, Heather!! You, too, can exist in cyberspace...send me pics of yourself with your new reusable bottle, mug, bag...fill in the blank. Get excited, folks.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

On posting

I'm going to be posting more regularly than I first thought. In addition to the weekly tips posted on Sundays, I'll also be updating about lifestyle changes I'm making and random tidbits of eco-interest. So check back often!

'Tis the consume less

Ok, as much as I try to block it out, the commercial "holiday season" is now upon us, and the Santa towel sets and holly garlands at Vons won't let me totally ignore it. (Heck, even the entertainment at the Thai restaurant I ate at last night was singing strictly Christmas carols). We are entering the month-long Super Bowl of over-consumption and waste. Ideally, of course, we would all reject the consumerist elements of our respective holidays, and get in touch with the true meaning behind them (love, peace, the survival of a culture, etc.) without lining the coffers of the companies that up the ante each year for appropriate gift-giving. But your family might not be ready for that, and neither is mine just yet. However, I also know that my dad doesn't need any more ties or books on fishing, and just like Buy Nothing Day, the holidays are a great opportunity to reclaim the reigns of consumerism and bestow our friends and family with some gifts that are more from the heart AND that don't contribute to needless consumption.

Here are some recommendations for having an eco-friendly holiday:

--Gifts that help people consume less (reusable bags, mugs, bottles, wooden laundry racks, etc.)
--Gifts made out of recycled materials (For you LA people, I just found an amazing little shop in Eagle Rock called Regeneration I'm pretty sure you can get recycled cards and wrapping paper there too.)
--A massage, facial, pedicure, acupuncture...some extravagance or service that mom and pop wouldn't buy themselves. One year my sister and I got our mom a couple months of a cleaning service, and it made such a difference in her life that she has kept the service since then!
--A night's getaway at a B&B, or some outdoor adventure like a snowboarding day-pass, horseback riding outing, or rock-climbing lesson (thanks, Grist)
--Tickets to a concert/musical/play
--A meal, cookies, festive bread, or pie. Holiday cooking is fun! Especially with red and green sprinkles...
--Get crafty! Spend a saturday doing that knitting/painting/jewelry-making project that you've been wanting to do...then share your creativity with friends. (Some of you say this cries out "I'm cheap!", like those years you substituted framed pictures of yourself for "real" presents...but I think, needless to say, we would all be impressed and touched if a friend put the time and effort into making a piece of art.)
--Recycle books/clothes/music you don't need anymore. Again, I think we need to reorient our perspectives on the giving of "used" items. Since when does the amount of money we spend on someone reflect how much we love them? We all know that how much a guy spends on a piece of jewelry isn't always equivalent to his love for his lady...So why do we turn this philosophy on its head when it comes to our own gift giving? I know at some point we've all gotten insecure that our loved ones will speculate that we didn't spend enough money on them. What's so wrong with, "I read this book. Yes, this exact one. Thought you would enjoy it too"...?

Here are some more ideas and links for alternate eco-gifts.

--And for those of you whose friends and family are already down with the anti-materialism thing: Donate money in their names to a cause they care about. Or, be a real trend-setter and help them offset their carbon emissions.

One last word: The added bonus in giving "alternative" gifts is that you have an opportunity to help convert friends and family over to the eco-cause. Add a note explaining why you're giving them something a little different this year...

UPDATE: Slate's Green Challenge is also doing a holiday theme this week. Quite extensive coverage of all the ways you can cut down waste (albeit a depressing reminder that pretty much every element of my own holiday tradition is ecologically terrible, from the trees to the lights...sigh). Check it out.

Wake up and smell the...reusable mug! WEEK

Ah, coffee. One of our worldwide addictions we can still feel mostly ok about. Of course, we all know too much caffeine can be harmful, but one nice cup of joe a day is nothing to feel guilty about, right? As long as it's not in a paper cup...

I'd venture to say that until the mid-90's, most American coffee consumption was done in the home or office, brewed in ordinary coffee makers. You know, Folgers and stuff. Unlike Europeans and others, we didn't really have a culture of buying coffee and drinking it in public. Then came the juggernaut of Starbucks. Slowly but surely, town by town, Americans were exposed to a whole new caffeinated world: mochas! americanos! double non-fat lattes with hazelnut! So, an entirely new coffee culture was born, but with an American twist. While in many other cultures coffee drinking is a central social activity--where friends of all ages can be found sitting in cafes for hours--our American version is a decidedly individual, disposable affair. Coffee on-the-go has become the norm, as have $3.95 frappuccinos, for better or worse. And as my friend Ruth pointed out, even when you do drink your coffee on location, many places STILL give you a to-go cup!

Starbucks alone goes through an estimated 2 billion paper cups annually! On top of that, imagine how many cups all the Peets, Coffee Beans, and few surviving independent coffee shops use, even daily. That's a lot of trees. In 2004, Starbucks bought 27,400 tons of cup stock made from virgin trees (i.e. fresh trees deflowered just for that purpose). And, as we saw with paper bags, the problems with paper cups are three-fold. A: Trees are cut down, reducing a natural counterbalance to global warming; B: fossil fuels are used in production, thus emitting greenhouse gases and other pollution; C: The enormous amount of trash created from these single-use products ends up in our landfills.

Starbucks has taken steps to lessen their environmental impact, as they should. This year they started making their cups out of 10% post-consumer recycled fiber. According to their own estimates, this will save 78,000 trees and reduce landfill content by 2,740 tons, or about 5.5 million pounds. This is a good step, but it's hard to see the 10% as little more than symbolic. Even if they eventually make their cups out of 100% recycled materials, there will still be the problem of all those wonderfully recycled cups being tossed in the garbage after one use.

The solution is simple: Bring your own coffee mug. There is a financial incentive as well: At Starbucks you get a 10 cent discount when you bring your own, and many other companies and cafes only charge you for a small size when you have your own mug. Most coffee chains and many independent cafes are now selling their own plastic and stainless steel mugs. (Or you can find some really sturdy ones on swear I don't get a commission from them, they just have really great products!).

I've been using a plastic mug, which has been fine, and I just ordered a stainless steel heavy-duty one, so I'll let you know how it compares. Get in the habit of keeping it with you, and just remember to rinse it out after use! So easy.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Buy Nothing Day

Happy (late) Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you are all surrounded by friends and family (if you want to be, that is) and have enjoyed lots of good food and rest. Wanted to remind you guys that today is Buy Nothing Day.

For 14 years now, more and more people have been declining to participate in "the busiest shopping day of the year". Instead of fighting the crowds for that $49 dvd player, let's all bow out of consuming for one day. Take the day to relax, be with family/friends/yourself, or do what I'm doing--sorting through clothes/random crap I don't need, and making a trip to the Goodwill. It's funny, we have a nice long weekend, and instead of relaxing and taking the time to rejuvenate, people feel a compulsion to fight traffic and crowds to take advantage of "the sales". Of course, that's because corporate America has done an excellent job of convincing us that we are morally obligated to make today the biggest day of the year for "retailers". What's great about BND is that we have the opportunity to send the opposite message on this day of over-consumption: That what's good for our country/the world is for us to be doing a lot LESS consuming, not more. So sit back and relax--if you needed an excuse, you now have a legitimate moral reason to avoid the malls today...

Here's more info on BND.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

BYOB: Bring your own bag WEEK

Plastic bags are just bad news all around. And paper bags are even worse (but we'll get to that).

Worldwide, we consume between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags annually.
Americans use and trash around 100 billion plastic bags a year, which are produced by an estimated 12 million barrels of oil.

Yes, plastic bags are made out of petroleum...that's right, oil! We all know the double-whammy problems with oil: Namely, the fact we are quickly running out of it, and that its usage emits CO2, which is a major cause of global warming. So, we can look at our unthinking use and disposal of plastic bags as just another manifestation of our addiction to oil. Get this: The manufacturing of just 14 plastic bags uses the same amount of oil as it takes to drive one mile!!! And with that come the same problems--global warming emissions and more dependency on the countries that control the dwindling amounts of oil left in the world (the exact countries we want to be extricating ourselves from).

That's just touching on the production of plastic bags. They also pollute our environment as trash, killing hundreds of thousands of sea animals who end up mistaking them for food. And, not only do they not biodegrade, they actually photodegrade into tinier toxic particles that get absorbed into soil and water. Bad, bad, bad...

Have we forgotten that all paper products are made from trees? 15 million trees are cut down every year to supply our addiction to paper bags--around 10 billion a year. Again, there's a two-fold effect here: Trees help absorb greenhouse gases, but only if they are still alive! So by cutting so many trees down, we are simultaneously reducing our capacity to absorb CO2 and other greenhouse gases, then, of course, the elecricity used in the production of paper products emits more greenhouse gases!! On top of that, the production process of turning the tree pulp into paper (like all manufacturing) creates tons of toxic pollution that contaminates our air, land and water (which we end up breathing, eating, and drinking).

Not convinced yet? Yes, the manufacturing of practically every modern convenience is problematic in terms of resources used and pollution created in production. But what makes plastic and paper bags worse than say, a plastic telephone and a wooden table, is that we get so little usage out of them compared with all the problems involved in their production.

They are disposable products that are usually used no longer than 20 minutes from store to home. And, most importantly, a super-easy alternative exists....

1. BUY SEVERAL REUSABLE BAGS. My favorite site is of cheap and stylish choices--but there are many others out there, easily found. (Many grocery stores are also now selling their own reusable bags very inexpensively.) So far, my faves are the black acme totes because they are discreet and don't have that corny white tote-bag look. I've had mine for a week, and it's amazing how easy it's been to get in the habit of just keeping them with me, in case I need to stop by the store. If you already take your own bags every time you go to the store, there's always more you can do. My best find has been the produce bags on They're great, because those flimsy plastic produce bags have even fewer uses than the thicker ones given at checkout.

This week, I used the produce bags at the market and once I got home, transferred the produce into some plastic bags that I already had. I can just keep reusing the same plastic bags for refrigerator storage, and use the cloth produce bags for new produce, so I don't have to keep accumulating more plastic ones. Also, as the holidays are approaching, these bags make great gifts! I'm convinced that once people have them around, they will get in the habit of using them (especially after you inform them of the evils of paper and plastic bags). And to all the guys who have expressed to me that they will look, um, unmanly taking their cloth bags to the store, I guess all I have to say is...get over it. We are adults. Real men bring their own bags.

2. FOR SINGLE OR SMALL ITEMS, REFUSE A BAG. Ok, I understand that even after you get set up with your reusable bags, the time may come when you run into the store for a single item and find yourself without them. You're buying a salad at lunch or a bottle of shampoo on the way home...Do you really need a bag for one or two items? No! Part of our job is also training the baggers to not automatically give people a bag for 1 small item. We might have forgotten how to, but we ARE able to carry things that don't come with a handle, after all. Same goes for double bagging...if you find yourself without your reusable bags, don't let them double bag! Even at a supposedly socially-conscious store like Trader Joe's, they automatically double bag. I have worked in grocery stores and I know this habit came about because customers end up complaining because the bag broke and their eggs cracked. So the stores want to preempt any whiney customers. But it is unnecessary and is yet another reason to BYOB...because reusable bags are not going to break!

3. USE YOUR REUSABLE BAGS FOR NON-FOOD PURCHASES TOO. Ok, so this may seem extreme to some of you, but it's just the logical extension of using resuable bags for groceries. Start thinking about all the other places you are given plastic bags...well, in every other store, too. And given our level of consumption, we all end up with a ton of Best Buy, Target, Gap, etc. bags. Guess what? You can take your reusable bags to those places too. Yes, the cashiers will look at you like you're crazy...but who cares, we're starting a trend!

Last weekend, I did a little clothes shopping (at a totally un-socially conscious chain store that will go unnamed), and I put my purchases in my "shopping bag" (I do have a different one for non-grocery purchases, see pic at left), and I was good to go. It's funny, maybe this has happened to you: You're at a book store and you might have a purse or backpack with you anyway, and yet feel self-conscious about putting your purchase in your own is somehow more satisfying--perhaps the completion of the consumption process--to walk out with a fresh plastic bag advertising that, yes, you are a dutiful consumer. But I think it will be a lot more satisfying to to leave one plastic bag behind.

4. As for all those excess plastic and paper bags you have at home....REUSE, REUSE, REUSE...THEN RECYCLE. Some of us girls have a stash of beautiful, sturdy paper bags from department stores or boutiques. Yes, they are reuse them until they fall apart. You can even take them back the next time you shop'll be saving them money, which any locally-owned store will appreciate. Then recycle them. And next time, BYOB.

But you say: I use my plastic bags as trash liners, or to clean up dog poop. I'm sure you will occasionally forget to bring your reusable bag and have to get a plastic bag, and if you have a use for them, you will be in no short supply. But a quick search found this product. As they put it: "Stop mummifying your dog's poop in plastic bags that won't there's truly no reason to use plastic". I'm sure there are many other products out there, maybe even available at Whole Foods. I need to investigate biodegradable trash bags, but I think we've learned enough for one day. Phew.

One last word on recycling bags: It's not the panacea we think it is. Read more here.

If you already BYOB, please post tips or experiences you've had. For those of you who start, let me know how it's going! Please post a comment!