Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The great cloth napkin manifesto

Since I've started this site, the most satisfying aspect has been to hear my friends get excited about one particular disposable problem, or to hear about things they were already doing to make their lives more reusable. My friend Megan has been a long-time user and champion of cloth napkins. And now, I have received her much-anticipated manifesto on the subject! I've been using a kitchen towel as my home dinner napkin, so now I'm totally inspired to go to a thrift store and attempt to make my own...Thanks, Megan! (That's her and said napkins at a little house gathering, and her buddy Tasha with her own napkin below).

"I have a lot of habits that are bad for creation, but I have one that is good. I always use cloth napkins at home, and I almost never use paper towels. It makes me crazy that we use so many trees to make napkins, tissues and paper towels, when almost all of the uses for these items can be done easily with reusable cloth.

Cloth napkins are cool. First of all, they are like an accessory for your table, but not a dorky one, like placemats. There are hundreds of kinds of cloth napkins. I have some that I bought on sale at Anthropologie (striped corduroy, $1.25 each), some that I bought an estate sale in Washington DC (cotton, 25 cents each); and some fancy Irish linen ones (gift from my godmother). If you are really out to be a stellar re-user, you could buy some material at a thrift store and cut them up into napkins. That would be really cheap and very environmentally aggressive of you. So - cloth napkins - stylish, and easily obtainable. How can you resist?

Secondly, they are easy to care for, unlike, say, a biodiesel car. At my house, we use them for about a week (longer if we are lazy, shorter if we are eating a lot of messy food) and then throw them in with our regular wash. I keep some in reserve for when company comes over, but our everyday ones look, shall we say, loved. They have little faded stains and whatnot, but they are napkins. Not clothes.

To me, using cloth napkins is a no-brainer. It saves trees, it is (potentially) stylish and it is easy.

As for paper towels? I have one word. RAGS. This has to be the craziest thing corporate America has invented. Paper towel. Seriously. What is wrong with a torn up T-shirt to wipe your sink, or to clean your floor or toilet? How about a washcloth for a kid's face? Obviously, not the same piece of cloth for all those tasks. That would be gross. But you get the idea. If you have to clean up dog vomit, however, I think a paper towel is OK. I understand. That is nasty. The occasional paper towel can be a good thing. But the over-paper-towelfication of America is just stupid.

On the tissue front - I do actually have handkerchiefs, and I have used them when I have a runny nose. It's amazing - using cotton on your nose instead of crazy lotion-laden tissues (how do they do that, anyway?) is much gentler on your skin. The only thing is, if you have a really gross snotty nose you do need several handkerchiefs. Or you can be like me and hold out for a while and then cave and hit the Kleenex. But you are probably a better person than me and would never do that.

And do I really need to say anything about paper plates? I think not."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I heart the bulk bin

This weekend I got the chance to put my produce bags--AKA the best invention EVER--to use for non-produce items. Technically, they are made for grains too, so it's not like I'm going too far outside the box here. But it was quite satisfying to think about all the packaging I was saving by eliminating the middle man (the cereal box, plastic pasta wrapping) by bringing my own bag. Just like with produce, when I got home, I transferred them to a pre-existing plastic bag. I need to upgrade to those glass jar containers which I always thought were so old fashioned, but now I totally get. The bulk bin world is so exciting! I can't wait to return and fill my bags with more cereals, dried fruit, trail mix, beans upon beans...Get your produce bags (they're cheap!) and go bulk!

Reams and reams of trees WEEK

Back in "Let's stop flushing forests down the toilet WEEK", we learned that the paper industry is one of the biggest contributors to global climate change and environmental degradation in general. The problems are (at least) three-fold: First, virgin forests that help absorb Co2 and that support complex, biodiverse ecoystems are ravaged. Once that biodiversity is gone, it's lost forever--we can't just create a simulated perfectly balanced ecoystem by planting new trees. Secondly, the pulp-making process is highly polluting--releasing greenhouse gases, and poisoning water and air. According to the NRDC, in many countries the paper/pulp industry is both the biggest consumer AND polluter of water. Third, of course, is the problem of what happens to our disposable paper products after their short lives of usefulness to us. Again, according the NRDC, "Americans use an average of 741 pounds of paper, per person, each year." Most of that ends up as trash in our ever-expanding land-fills. We can't keep putting our rubbish in holes in the ground forever. (Funny, I wonder what the ratio of landfills is to in-tact forests these days. Has our refuse for unwanted, single-use items already surpassed the resources that gave birth to these disposables?) The ridiculous thing is, we can get so much more usage out of our paper products. You guys probably do a lot of this stuff already, but here are a few basic tips for reducing, reusing, and recycling our copy and writing paper at home and at work.

One of the gifts of the electronic age is that we can communicate, create, and stay on schedule without ever having to make hard copies. Take a second to think before you pull the trigger and print only what you really need! Too many times I've printed out a whole page for one small piece of information, like an address. If you mapquest something, write down the directions in your planner or on the back of an already used piece of paper. On a related note, did you know you can refill your printer cartridges for half the price of buying a new one? Visit Cartridge World (thanks, Green LA Girl) instead of throwing that cartridge away. They have Pasadena and Westside locations...if you're not in LA, they might have one near you because there are 400 locations nationwide. Yipee for saving money and not creating more plastic trash!

This is a real revolutionary one! Instantly cut your paper usage in half by using BOTH SIDES of a piece of paper! That goes for notebooks and loose paper. At work, write on both sides of that legal pad. Fill your printer with paper that has only been printed on one side. Many businesses are designating a drawer in the copier and printer for this purpose. If you ever need to print something "official", just put in a blank piece on top. Also, make a stack of half-used paper that has been folded or is otherwise unsuitable to go through the printer, and use that as a writing pad. For years I've kept such a stack on a clipboard to use whenever I need scratch paper around the house. These stacks last so long, that I never have to buy pads of paper to use at home. It's also a fun jaunt down memory lane to flip through the used side--old college papers mixed with bank statements and drafts of cover letters for jobs I never got. I've also taken to saving envelopes in the same way, because I always end up writing on them anyway, so i might as well gather them on a clipboard.


When you do have to buy paper, buy 100% recycled with the highest post-consumer content you can find. I just paid Staples a visit and they have quite a variety of recycled paper in practically every form you can imagine. Reams, spiral notebooks, legal pads, file folders, envelopes, post-its (although the latter is suspect because nowhere on the package does it say what percentage is recycled--the better option would be to just stay away from post-its altogether and use pre-existing scratch paper, see above). From what I saw, the recycled stuff is a tad bit more expensive than the generic Staples brand, but pretty equivalent to other brands. And, since you'll be reducing your paper usage via steps 1 and 2, it will surely even out over the long term. Also, try to get unbleached paper when possible.

What are some other ideas? I know I'm forgetting stuff on this one...

Monday, January 29, 2007

New and improved!

I finally got around to some site maintenance and would like to point out a few new features, added for your convenience. First and most importantly, I brushed up on a little HTML code (I'm feeling quite techy about this) and figured out how to actually link to other sites within my posts. A whole new window even opens up for the link! I went back and fixed all the old posts, so if you were avoiding copying and pasting the URLs into the browser, you can go back and check out the links you might have missed. And of course, going forward, it will be easy to follow links, like a real, legit website. Very exciting. Next, as you probably noticed, I added a handy-dandy little counter that gives you a running tab of how many plastic bags are being consumed around the world RIGHT NOW! That's right, folks, we're talking real time. It's pretty crazy--even since I downloaded it yesterday, it's gone up 2 billion bags! I guess that makes sense, if you imagine all the people across the world at a grocery store at any given moment, and all the bags they each carry home with them (and then promptly discard). The third new feature is the sidebar "Search by topic", where you can do exactly that. If you want to go back and refresh your memory about all the tips of the week, for example, you can do it with a click of a button. Or look at all the posts that deal with plastic, that too. I'm still working on naming the categories and labeling each post, but it will be a handy little feature. That's all for now. As always, I'd love to hear any feedback you have about the site and about any changes you're making in your lifestyle.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Driving diet update: Get to know a coworker!

Ok, so after a week of feeling at a loss about how I can cut down my commuting miles without spending 5 hours a day on the bus, another option has presented itself: Carpooling! My lovely coworker Traci lives fairly nearby (Eagle Rock) but strongly believes in the cause and suggested that we give it a try. She doesn't mind swinging down a bit out of her way to Los Feliz to pick me up and the best part is, she drives a Prius! Not only are we taking one car off the road, but I get to share in her lower emissions glory. Geez, I couldn't ask for a better carpool buddy! So far she's graciously done all the driving since my MPG doesn't even come close to hers, but she says it helps alleviate her guilt about working on the westside. We've ridden together twice this week, and we're hoping to do it 1-2 times a week. It's much less of a hassle than you might think, (we just talk the day before and see if our schedules sync up) and chatting makes that hour go by faster and takes the edge off fighting the traffic. See if any of your coworkers live close or along your path to work and give it a try! Now if only there was an actual carpool LANE on the 10...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BYOB, San Francisco

In 2005, San Francisco was considering imposing a 17 cent tax on plastic bags (like many other countries and cities have done, including Ireland, which reduced usage by 90% after imposing theirs). Grocery chains opposed, and brokered a deal to voluntarily reduce plastic bag usage by 10 million bags. Well, saying please didn't work, and the grocers aren't cooperating by submitting vital info such as how many bags they actually do go through every year. So, now local law-makers have introduced legislation that would force stores to substantially reduce plastic bag usage. It's not really clear what that would entail other than the vague mandate to use "recyclable, biodegradable or reusable bags". Nonetheless, it's super-exciting that this issue is finally picking up steam so close to home! I say we beat 'em to it and get L.A. to ban plastic bags before they get around to it in July. This could be bigger than, er, the Dodgers vs the Giants! Who's on board?

Go here to read about what's going on in SF.

Could you go plastic-free?

Just as I was starting to feel perhaps a teeny-weeny bit smug about my disposable bag/bottle-free months, I came across a chick in Vancouver who is going completely plastic-free in 2007. This is hardcore: Nothing that contains even a plastic wrapper can make the cut. Think about that! Most packaged food is out, as are most toiletries, toilet paper and other essentials. And no, she's not going to starve or not wash her hair all year...she's seeking alternatives, which, thankfully, do seem to be out there. One of my next steps is going to be buying cereals, pasta, rice, snacks, etc from the bulk bin of my local nature mart (Whole Foods has them too), with my cloth produce bags, of course. Now I'm going to follow her lead and seek out plastic-free products like deoderant from Lush. Very inspiring! Check it out and follow her journey.

The morning after--SOTU Address hangover

Well, he finally uttered the words "global climate change", although as Grist has pointed out, somewhat grudgingly and as an after-thought following the more important issue--"energy security". On the bright side, at least he's not denying its existence any more. And while a significant portion of the speech was devoted to energy issues, unfortunately the underlying myth remains the same--namely, that "technology" will save us. There are going to be big-time subsidies for ethanol production, which is not by any means an answer to our waning oil supply. Ethanol and other bio-fuels have major drawbacks. First, the corn that ethanol is made from is obviously still dependent on a fossil fuel platform--think fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, trucks for transport, etc., so that doesn't really get us very far away from oil dependency. And, because of all the fossil fuels involved, the process is far from carbon-neutral. Science magazine has reported that ethanol fuel emissions are only 13% less than traditional gasoline, once all the fossil fuel inputs are taken into account. And as for cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and other biomass, not only has it never been made on a huge scale, but we also don't have anywhere near enough land to support our agricultural system and an the amount of biomass inputs we would need to fuel our cars. Also, there are apparently major caveats written into the administration's proposals, which you can read about here.

Even middle-of-the-road NYT is skeptical about how much any of this amounts to:

And here is the Washington Post's take.

All in all, we're still in the same position as we were yesterday. Technology is not going to curb global warming or figure out how we're going to get by with waning oil supplies. We must continue or efforts to stop consuming so much freaking oil and other natural resources by changing our lifestyle, not just by substituting one kind of fuel for another. Boring, but true.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Set your Tivos

It's been widely reported that Bush is expected to address oil consumption and energy security tonight in the State of the Union Address. Normally I can only listen to our fearless leader in short soundbites but I'm quite curious to hear what he has to say on these issues as his approval ratings continue to drop. Hey, maybe he'll actually encourage people to drive less, stop buying gas guzzlers, and start being aware of how our consumption patterns deplete natural resources! A girl can always dream...

This is what Grist expects of the occasion.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Disposable water bottles blow WEEK

As many of you know, the impetus for this blog was the discovery of an obscene amount of plastic water bottles in my car. I had been grabbing one at work almost every morning, even though there was a 5-gallon dispenser right next to the personal plastic bottles. And, I had a mug on my desk. Yikes! I knew I should be just filling up my mug--I really did feel a pang of guilt every time I got a bottle. But for some reason, grabbing my own personal bottle always just seemed like a much nicer, fresh, pure start to each day. Know what I'm talking about? It was all mine, bottled just for me at the source of some font of pure mountain water, right? Not exactly, but the good news first: I'm happy to report that since that day, almost 3 months ago, nary a disposable water bottle have I consumed. And only 1 disposable cup, for that matter. It has been really easy to get in the habit of bringing my own bottle wherever I go. People, we are proving little by little that bad habits can be reversed, and quickly, for that matter!

But I'd like to dwell on the psychology behind that easy, breezy justification for grabbing a disposable water bottle every day. These handy little portables have been marketed as a symbol of health, and their ubiquity needs no explanation. They might have started out as a yuppie indulgence, spotting yoga classes and gyms initially, but now you can barely order water at a café or bar without having to pay for a bottle. Indeed, many people only drink out of disposable bottles. There is a perception that bottled water is healthier and pure, free of any scary toxins that may exist in tap water. We hear about arsenic, nitrates and other chemicals in tap water and turn fearfully to bottled water. The water bottling industry has capitalized on that apprehension and has grown exponentially in the last decade. We can now choose between an increasingly expanding number of brands, each cleverly named and packaged to evoke the image of purity and the peace of mind that accompanies it. Fuji, Arrowhead, Sparkletts, Dasani, Everest, Penta, and old-school Evian, which I blame for starting the water bottling craze and the accompanying cultural indicators that it evoked. (Wasn't it the first "designer" water brand that made the kind of water you drink a class indicator?) And of course they all must distinguish themselves from each other, so there's constantly a purity one-uping with each new brand that hits the market. Penta calls itself "ultra premium" and claims to be arsenic and chlorine-free, which ingeniously and instantly calls into question what you're getting in every other brand of bottled water, not to mention from the old-fashioned kind that flows through pipes. So we buy into it, and we pay heavily for that peace of mind. Americans ponied up an estimated $11 billion in 2006 for bottled water, a rate that seems to grow about 10% a year.

I'm starting to feel like Debbie Downer folks, but, alas, there is no guarantee that bottled water is any purer than tap water. The key issue here is regulation. It turns out that city (tap) water is regulated by the EPA, while bottled water is monitored by the FDA. For obvious reasons, the government has stringent guidelines that outline how often city water must be tested for various bacteria and chemicals. And across the board, these requirements are much more far-reaching and strict than those the FDA has for bottled water.

And the real kicker is that the FDA exempts water that is packaged and sold within the same state from their rules, so 60-70% of the water sold in the U.S. is NOT REGULATED by the federal government. States regulations vary. If that wasn't enough, anywhere between 25% and 40% of bottled water is just tap water that may or may not have received treatment or minerals that don't necessarily have additional health benefits. And there is nothing on the bottle that tells you where it's really from, so for example, according to U.S. News & World Report, "Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kansas...Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and elsewhere." This is a complex issue but if you would like to know more of the details, check out NRDC's analysis of the water bottling industry. A few years ago they did a 4-year study on bottled water, testing over 100 brands, and concluded that bottled water is no safer than tap water.

Now that we know we're not necessarily getting any health benefit from bottled water, let's look at the enormous environmental footprint our little "healthy" habit is causing. Remember, the primary problem with plastic products is their production in the first place (i.e, it doesn't matter if every plastic bottle was recycled--the manufacturing of them uses up a ridiculous amount of resources and causes massive pollution). According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to make the bottles every year, which is made from an equivalent 1.5 million barrels of oil. Funny, I thought we trying to decrease our dependency on oil...Apparently, with that amount of oil, we could power electricity in 250,000 homes for a year, or fuel 100,000 cars, also for a year. And, as in all manufacturing, an enormous amount of energy is used, releasing Co2 and other pollutants and toxins. All that happens even if we DO recycle our bottles, but mostly we don't--at least 85% of plastic bottles end up in the trash. And as we know, plastic doesn't really ever biodegrade--it just breaks down in tiny toxic particles that seep into the ground, ironically, polluting our water. Additionally, bottled water is often transported long distances by various forms of transportation that all burn lots of fossil fuels.

So, what's the solution? Drink out of real glasses when you're at home or at work. Fill up your reusable bottle before you go work out. Encourage the folks in your office/yoga class/kickball league to do the same. Take your bottle with you in the car so you don't have to pop into a store for a disposable one. A little planning goes a long way. I even take mine with me to lunch because some restaurants will still give you a disposable cup even if you're dining in…Grr! I've tried a few different reusable bottles, but the one I've settled on is the stainless steel one above. I am super-attached to this little thing! It really is just a glorified canteen disguised as a piece of art, but that makes me actually want to carry it around. I recommend metal canteens over plastic reusable bottles, because they stay cleaner, and are safer to drink out of than plastic. You can get this and other stainless steel canteens from for $20--probably less than you spend on disposable bottles every month.

On that point, I have encountered one little snag in what I thought was a perfect solution to our water imbibing problems. As you've probably heard, there are reports that certain types of plastic are not safe to drink from. I always thought this was a conspiracy from the water bottling companies to get you to buy more bottles, but it turns out there is truth to it. Unfortunately, I have discovered that the one kind of plastic you really want to stay away from is #7 made from polycarbonate. And disturbingly, this is the kind of plastic the 5- gallon Sparkletts bottles delivered to my house are made from. Before that discovery, I was going to brag about how easy it is to just refill your reusable bottle from the water cooler at work or at home. So, my next task is to figure out what I'm going to do about my personal water situation. For now, I'm still drinking practically all my water from those 5-gallon bottles, but I'm going to do some more research. If bottled water isn't even safer and it's being housed in the worst kind of plastic, maybe I'm better off drinking tap water and buying a filter. Any ideas?

One last thing. For me, the water bottle issue is emblematic of the major problem we are facing as a planet right now--the emphasis on the personal versus the collective. Our worldwide water supply is polluted. Billions of people do not have access to clean water, period. The water in this country is increasingly polluted, but buying bottled water is not a long-term solution. We need to figure out how to stop polluting our water supplies and focus on making clean, free water available to everyone. As the NRDC puts it, "The long-term solution to our water woes is to fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone, and tastes and smells good."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Flex those democratic muscles TODAY

Yes, I'm asking you to contact your congr- essperson. Tomorrow the House will vote on a bill that would cut subsidies and tax breaks to the oil companies (think about how much you spend on gas--they're the last folks who need help from the government!!!). This money would create a $14 billion fund to promote renewable energy sources and energy efficiency programs. It's a step in the right direction. Please take a minute right now to send your representative a note.

UPDATE: The bill did pass 264 to 163, with some Republicans even joining in the fun. Now let's see what happens when it goes to the Senate, and ultimately to Bush. Speaking of him, look out for a focus on "energy security" in Tuesday's State of the Union. How we will get there will without emissions caps (Bush still opposes) is another story...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I was asked a question yesterday that I think is worth mentioning. Someone said, "So about this global warming thing...if it's real, why is it so cold today?" Yes, we are having unusually frigid weather in LA, and I know usually temperate Austin is covered in ice right now. The answer is that weather is different than climate and that you can't take the temperature of one day in one place as evidence for or against global warming. And remember, what's actually happening is global CLIMATE CHANGE. Because of the interconnectedness of what we call "biodiversity", we are just beginnning to understand all the ways that the climate is changing due to human activity, which includes unusual cooling in some places. For more on this issue, check out that trusty "How to talk to a skeptic" guide, specifically, this entry.

Driving diet update

Well, it’s been two weeks since I started the driving diet and I have both encourag-ing and slightly frustrating reports. On the one hand, I drove a little over 200 miles each week, which was much less than my target goal of 275. But, I only took the bus to work 3 times in those two weeks. Because, well, the bus is not quite as convenient as the train is. In fact, it’s downright difficult. The first time I took it was first day of my new job. Big mistake! Well, the morning was ok—it only took about an hour and 15 minutes to get there, and driving takes an hour. But it was an unusually late night—I was there until midnight—and after looking online to see what bus to take home, realized that I wouldn’t have made it home until almost 3am, and would have to ride 3 buses. Probably not a smart proposition at that hour. So I asked my new coworkers if anyone happened to be going in my direction, then the whole bus riding thing came out. These people don’t know me and they clearly thought I was a bit off. Anyway, no one was heading in my direction and they all insisted that I take a cab--the owner of the company went so far as to give me money for one. So, I did, and I felt like a total public transportation loser. How pathetic is that? Failure on my first serious bus-riding attempt. Since then, I’ve discovered that one bus on my morning route has been late 2 out of the 3 times I’ve taken it, leaving me waiting for half an hour at the stop. I will have to take it more to see if this truly is the norm. Then, much to my chagrin, it turns out that getting home is much more complicated than my morning ride. Seems that after 7pm or so, the buses come really infrequently, like every half hour. And I have to take 3 of them, so if I hit it wrong, I could potentially spend an hour and a half just waiting, plus the hour or more of driving. Luckily, so far it’s only taken 2 hours, but combined with the 2 in the morning, that doesn’t leave much of a day left. Which brings me to my first lesson in this experiment. If I spend 4 or more hours a day commuting, that doesn’t leave me with much energy to do anything but plop down in front of the tv, or go straight to bed, leaving no energy to work on this blog or any other efforts to curb global climate change. How does taking one car off the road weigh against having little energy to devote to other efforts? And, as I sit on the bus surrounded by people who don’t have the luxury to take the bus voluntarily, I can’t help but think that maybe my privileged position in society could be used in a more productive way. I’m sure my fellow riders dream of what they would do with those extra 4-5 hours a day if they didn’t have to take the bus. I’m reminded of hearing about my sister and her college friends at one of the most prestigious schools in the world dumpster diving Trader Joe’s trash. Good intentions, but what if they put those efforts and their high-level education toward addressing the problem of excessive food waste and unequal access to healthy food in our society, for example? My point is that I think we are all called to figure out the most effective and efficient ways we can each contribute to the problems we are facing. For those of us privileged enough to have choices in our daily lives, I think our biggest challenge is to very intentionally explore where we are most needed. So, I’m not going to stop taking the bus, and I hope you guys won't give up on it either, especially if you have a reasonable commute. But because it is such a time-consuming endeavor to and from my current job, I will likely only take it only once during the workweek on this current job. I will focus on continuing to reduce my weekend driving and will resume taking the train in several weeks when I’m back at my old workplace. In the meantime, I vow to maximize my non-commuting time by exploring new avenues to green my life and get others on board! How have you guys been doing? I want to hear your transit, bicycling, walking, skateboarding, scootering, or whatever stories!

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Auto-shop 101 WEEK

While we're on the topic of driving, here are some super-fast ways you will instantly lower your carbon dioxide footprint before you even cut any miles out. (But I am still waiting to hear what people are pledging for the driving diet...come on-buck up, folks!)

Apparently, by checking monthly to make sure your tires are appropriately inflated, you will save 250 pounds of CO2 a year and over $800 because your gas mileage will be that much better! I have no idea what the proper amount of inflation is, so I'll be asking a friendly mechanic for guidance on that one.

I'm always skeptical at EZ Lube when they tell me I need a new air filter, but perhaps they weren't just trying to rip me off. Maybe they were even trying to help me save money, because you will save an estimated $150 annually and, most importantly, 800-1000 pounds of CO2 a year! My car knowledge is in the sub-zero range, but apparently, a functioning air filter improves horsepower and gas mileage by getting rid of the bad particulates in the air before they hit the engine. And you don't even have to pay the guys at Jiffy Lube to do it--here's an article on how to change it yourself:

If you're carrying around your life in your backseat or trunk, your gas mileage is not as good as it could be. Obviously, extra weight lowers fuel efficiency. And cleaning out clutter from your car will just make you feel better anyway.

Clearly, when you idle, your MPG is 0. Apparently, even on a very cold winter day, 30 seconds of idling is the most you need to warm up your car, and according to the Department of Energy, "The best way to warm up a vehicle is to drive it." If you frequent drive-through restaurants, banks, pharmacies, or whatever, turn off your engine while waiting.

I can't even count the number of times AAA has bailed me out in my 10+ years of driving. Ah, the memories...There have been the innumerable keys locked in the car, the poor judgement leading to empty gas tanks on the freeway (yes, more than once), and numerous mysterious mechanical failures. I hate to always be the bearer of bad news, but it is now widely reported that AAA uses its members' dues and popular name to lobby against clean air regulations (they pretty much deny that cars even pollute), FOR more highways, and against public transportation. Geez, they even oppose bike paths! They are basically highway lobbyists...and you are too, if you pay them dues! But there is fortunately an alternate auto club that is actually FOR the environment (thanks greenLA girl for the tip). Better World Club donates 1% of their revenue to environmental cleanup and advocacy. They support environmental legislation, alternative transportation and cleaner air. They give discounts to hybrid owners and for hybrid rentals, offer roadside bicycle assistance, help you offset your CO2 emissions, and give you $40 gas coupons for joining. All that, and they provide the same basic services as AAA--roadside assistance, towing, those cool "triptix" maps, and discounts on hotels and other travel services. The cost of membership is the same or less than AAA, and they use many of the same local towing companies, so the response time is also around 30 minutes. You can still have the peace of mind that you will be rescued off the side of the road without unwittingly being a part of an anti-environmental lobby! I'm making the switch!

Monday, January 1, 2007

Driving, you're sooo 2006

Welcome, 2007! Whether you're for or against making resolutions, it seems obvious that the first day of each new year is a convenient time to reflect, evaluate, and make a fresh start in various aspects of our lives. Many of us have already been making small but significant changes towards a more sustainable, less disposable future. And it's like a snowball, isn't it? Once you start remembering to bring your own bags, you can't help but notice how much packaging surrounds your crackers, cds, and running shoes. It always seems like there's so much more you could be doing, doesn't it? So...(can you tell I'm leading up to something big here?), let's start the new year off with a bang by attacking the biggest, baddest monster of them all: DRIVING. I don't think I need to convince you on this one--we all need to be driving a lot less, period. So, I've decided to put myself on a driving diet. Yes, a diet--a staple of the American lifestyle. We can all be very disciplined people when it comes to counting calories, resisting carbs, sticking to a monthly budget, or saving for retirement. But one area of our lives that seems to be totally lacking discipline--or any thought at all--is how much we drive. Our president even admitted that we are "addicted to oil", and as addicts, we unthinkingly rack up hundreds of miles a week and can't even account for our actions. Quick: How many miles do you drive per week? Don't know?

On average, I drive 375 miles a week, due to a long commute. The starting goal for my diet is to drive 100 fewer miles per week. To do that, I'm going to take the bus to work 2-3 times a week. (I was gleefully taking the train, but am starting a new job outside the range of the rail system, so I'll be discovering the world of the L.A. bus system!). I challenge you to join me on this diet! I'm not asking you to drive 100 fewer miles...I've already gotten used to public transportation and know that 100 miles is doable for me. Pick a number that seems like a realistic starting point for you, like driving 10 fewer miles a week. Then get creative to figure out how you can reach that goal. First, figure out how many miles you drive to work every day. Could you take the train or bus to work one day a week? Even if it's far, it's not unrealistic. I'm going to be going from Los Feliz to Santa Monica, and although it will take a little longer on the bus, I'll be able to read and enjoy all the benefits of not having to pay attention to the road. Do you live close enough to work that you could bike a couple days? Does a coworker live nearby whom you could carpool with?

Next, look at your non-commuting driving. Most of us in LA have grocery stores, banks, and other essentials within a reasonable walking distance. (If you're trying to shed those holiday pounds, you'll be killing two birds with one stone, right?) And don't assume that driving less will cut into your social life. Figure out a way to meet up with friends for drinks using public transportation--it will be an adventure! An added bonus--nobody has to worry about being the designated driver. Figure out what bus route can get you to your BFF's place for Saturday brunch. Another option is to observe a driving "sabbath" on Saturday or Sunday. Get all your errands done on Saturday, and don't touch your car on Sunday. I've been pretty faithfully observing a "no-driving Sundays" rule, and it has been great! It's amazing how relaxing it is to not fight traffic all weekend...

Although the L.A. rail system is limited, it serves some areas really well, and there's a chance you live or work near a stop and might not even know it. Check out this map. Even if you're not near the train, there are definitely buses that serve your area. Go on an urban adventure! And remember, there are millions of people in L.A. who have no choice but to rely on public transportation. There are even a few who voluntarily live without a car. If you are somewhere else, even in suburban sprawl, I bet there are stores that are within walking distance, even though you never see anyone walking to them. Your presence will remind people that, even in suburbia, there are ways to get around without a car.

So pick a number--10, 25, 50 miles, whatever is realistic yet challenging for you, and pledge to join me on this diet. Just like if you were losing weight, as you meet your goal, create another one for yourself. It's a learning process: If this 100 mile thing turns out to be easy for me, I'm going to cut my original number in half. Please let me know what you are pledging, etiher by posting a comment or by emailing me. I don't want to do this alone!! And I want to know what other people are doing! Start logging your car trips (as if it were your checkbook) so that you know exactly where your mileage is being spent. Please forward to friends and encourage them to join you on the diet. I am convinced that everyone can easily cut out at least 10-25 miles a week, and imagine if we all do more!

Walmart goes fluorescent

For better or worse, whatever Walmart does causes huge ripples in the world economy and American culture. The behemoth has recently "gone organic", and in another attempt to green their reputation, is now pushing compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A lofty goal--it wants to sell 100 million of them this year. As horrific as their labor practices are, it seems that the CEO's pledge to reduce American energy usage is legit. Check it out...This article is a part of a New York Times series on "The Energy Challenge". (NYT gets lots of mileage out of the word "challenge" to soften tough issues...remember "A Nation Challenged" after 911? What if they were to come out and actually call it an energy crisis? Hmm...)

Photograph by Jared C. Benedict