Friday, April 27, 2007


Symptoms: pasty skin, buggy eyes, coffee breath, muscle atrophy, slack jaw, prolonged staring out of windows. Diagnosis: office-itis.

A couple of weekends ago, I was suffering from an advanced case of office-itis. I couldn't remember the last time I had been outdoors, breathing air... not counting, of course, the 30 second walk from apartment to car, and then car to office. I was answering my cell phone "Thank you for calling Market Wire, this is Rebec -- DOH!"

So I dug my hiking shoes out of the back of my closet and headed for the Malibu Creek State Park. I picked an amazing day to go -- not a cloud in the sky, warm, with a slight breeze. I'd never been there before, and I couldn't get over the fact that just a few miles from the smog and traffic and concrete of L.A. there was all this nature. Just sitting there! Every few minutes I would stop and go, "WOW. Wow. This is so beautiful!"

After a relaxing afternoon filled with real, live oxygen, I headed back to the parking lot where I saw something that got me really excited. It was a sign for the ParkLINK shuttle. Apparently, the parks department offers a FREE shuttle to the Malibu Creek recreation areas, and it circles all around Malibu Canyon on weekends. There are park and ride lots, or you can catch it from a couple of different metro buses. This is fantastic because it means next time I'm itching for a hike, I can hop on a bus -- and no aggravating traffic or extraneous fossil fuel usage will bring me down from my natural high! Take THAT, office-itis!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Celebrating the ripples, big and small

In celebration of Earth Day (a couple days late--that's how I roll), allow me to indulge in some old fashioned sincerity, Oprah-love, and at least one metaphor. In the last few months it seems that the whole world has "gone green", doesn't it? Frankly, it's hard to keep up. Numerous major magazines have put out their "green issue", giving various advice about what we can all do to lessen our footprint, and several green-themed tv shows are debuting. There's no doubt that green has gone mainstream, which is what we want! On the other hand, I've been noticing a little voice in my head that fears what's on the other side of this trend: over-saturation, backlash, and worst of all, an unthinking substitution of extraneous "eco-friendly" products rather than a deep look at our consumption habits. You know, "green" shopping. So it was with conflicting feelings that I watched Oprah's Earth Day special the other day. Was she simply going to tout green weddings, carbon offsetting, and biodegradable water bottles? Much to my surprise and elation, Oprah opened the show by advising people to say "neither" to plastic and paper and to bring their own bags! She proceeded to give out reusable bags to every audience member--produce bags as well as larger grocery bags. Woohoo! The rest of the episode was--ok, I'll say it--what I would have written if I worked on Oprah. With the help of Treehugger's Simran Sethi, Oprah moved on to the cover all the basics--refillable water bottles (she even gave out Sigg bottles, like the one I use!), non-petroleum based cleaning products, CFLs, using fewer paper napkins, refillable coffee mugs, buying recycled paper, reducing packaging, and stopping junk mail. Simran even mentioned that she tries to take her own container for take-out!! It truly was "Going Green 101", and I was pretty ecstatic...can you tell?

As much as people poke fun of Oprah's influence on our culture, it's extremely heartening to think of the ripple this is going to create. The however-many millions of viewers she has will at least think a little bit differently the next time they're at the grocery store and are considering buying a cup of noodles wrapped in styrofoam, cardboard, and plastic. The most exciting element of the show was that she highlighted "What families like yours are already doing". We got to see that there are mainstream families (read: not liberal-looking Californians) out there who have recently been inspired to move towards more sustainable habits. It was refreshing for me to be reminded that underneath all the media hoopla and the trends, the "basics" are sinking in on a very grassroots level. It was also very cool to see how excited the audience got when they got an insane amount of green swag--reusable bottles, bags, smart power strips, CFLs, green cleaning products. So maybe they were just excited to get free stuff. But those couple hundred audience members undoubtedly left psyched about everything Oprah taught them and will go home and give the reusable bags and refillable bottles a try. And they will influence their friends and family and so on. Today, I am grateful for the small ripples that all of our actions are making, and the huge ones, like when a big rock hits the pond.

What ripples have you noticed lately? Talk to me!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Get out! (updated)

So you've been making some changes in your daily routine -- you almost always remember to BYO bag, coffee mug and water bottle. Maybe you're driving less and/or eating less meat. You know that all the little things you're doing add up, and that you're becoming more a part of the solution and less a part of the problem. But still, there's a faint, nagging disappointment in that you don't really get to see the impact of your efforts, not in a very concrete sense, anyway. You want to be changing the world! With your own two hands! Well, my friend, you are in luck.

April offers an incredible number of opportunities to get out into your community and get your hands dirty in the fight against global warming. If you are in need of some environmental instant gratification (instant grassification?), check out all the events happening this month...


Step It Up is a nationwide campaign made up of hundreds of different groups with one unified message: they want Congress to pledge an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. On April 14, people in cities and towns all over America will get together to show their support for these efforts -- it's very grassroots, and the activities vary depending on who is organizing the local "action," as the web site calls it. You can visit their "Join an Action" page and enter your zip code to find out what people near you are doing, and how you can join in.

Some of the bigger Actions in Los Angeles that sound cool are:
Earth Day on the Promenade in Santa Monica. It's an all-day, free festival that sounds pretty fun, and they promise that it's carbon neutral.

A Convenient Truth - It's Easy to be Green is a forum and resource fair happening at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. The National Resources Defense Council will be offering ideas for greening your home, car and garden, and the California Food and Justice Coalition will provide information on making sustainable food choices.

EcoArt is an art show consisting of eleven active eco-artists who are confronting core environmental issues at the Barnsdall Junior Arts Gallery on Hollywood Blvd.


Earth Day began in 1970, and it came out of the "power of the people" vibe that the Vietnam protests had created. Inspired by the influence that large anti-war demonstrations were having on political policy, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sought to harness that power on behalf of his own cause -- conservation. He mobilized an incredible number of Americans, 20 million, to participate. Nelson says of his efforts, "The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political arena. It was a gamble, but it worked." Um, yeah, you could say it worked -- we have that inaugural Earth Day to thank for the formation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

No subsequent Earth Day has matched the scope of the original, but the legacy lives on. With increasing public concern over environmental issues, the social temperature might be just right for a revival.

If you live in Los Angeles, EarthDay LA is where you can find all the various enviro events happening during the weekend. I've highlighted a few below, but there are tons more on their site:
L.A. Works Earth Day Hands On Schools Transformational Project. This is one of those instant grassification opportunities I was telling you about. Volunteer at a South L.A. middle school to plant a butterfly garden and a literacy garden (don't know what those are, but they sound awesome, right?) as well as paint environmental conservation-themed murals.

California State Parks Restoration and Clean-Up. Check the site for projects at a state park near you. Last year, over 4,500 volunteers planted 2,159 native trees, removed over 3,000 bags of trash from parks, beaches and waterways, restored close to 15 miles of trails, and that's just the beginning.

Some "fun for the whole family" options are the L.A. Zoo's Earth Day Expo (Rascal the Recycling Raccoon! paper made from elephant poo!); the Trash to Treasure ECO ART Exhibit (recycled-material sculptures made by Studio City 4th and 6th graders; Ed Begley, Jr. to speak); STAR ECO Station Children's Earth Day (rescued wild animals as well as an educational, entertaining carnival-type event).

[UPDATE] Saturday, 4/21, Create:Fixate is presenting a night called "Down to Earth." It's an art and music event that happens periodically, and this time several eco nonprofits are involved. I found out about this via Flavorpill, which means there will probably be hipsters a-plenty.


BIG SUNDAY is an annual volunteering day co-sponsored by the Los Angeles mayor's office. It's non-denominational and non-political -- a day when Angelenos of all walks of life come together to improve their city. Donate an hour, donate your entire weekend; it's up to you. I counted close to 100 different opportunities in the "environment" category alone, but there are several other categories including "health," "arts & culture" and "literacy."

Search their site for a project that sounds good to you: paint a Head Start pre-school, plant some trees, clean a beach.

If you aren't in L.A. but want to get out and get greening, is a great resource for finding local volunteer opportunities in areas you're passionate about.

Now, get out!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Notes from an unlikely vermicomposter

The second post on composting in 2 days! For as long as I can remember, my dad has had a back-yard composting bin. This is yet another one of his habits that I must admit I wasn’t always a willing participant in (like the reused wrapping paper), since he made us trek out to the yard and dump the stinky scraps.

But, not surprisingly, with age I realized how amazing it is that we can “close the loop” on at least some of our trash—not only keeping some of our food scraps out of landfills, but also turning them into super-rich soil. Eventually I started to long for the day when I have a house/yard and can build my own composter (will go nicely with that laundry line I’m waiting for, too). I assumed there was no way I could compost in an apartment. But, my sister has had a long-time interest in composting (see below!) and started nudging me about worm composting. For a while I resisted, because, well…as “treehugging” as I may appear, I’m really not a creepy-crawly kinda person. I was never one of those kids who was all cool with letting bugs and worms crawl all over me, ya know? And to have them in my apartment? Ewwwww…But, a few weeks ago I decided that keeping a portion of my waste out of landfills was more important than my personal phobias. It was time to grow up, face my creepy crawly fears, and set up my own worm compost in my apartment.

So this is what I did, and what you can do very easily too. I ordered one pound of red wiggler worms. I got mine from Happy D Ranch. If you live anywhere near a farm, you can just go and ask for some red worms and they will probably accommodate, which is cheaper and less energy-sucking than mailing. Just make sure you get red worms (Eisenia fetida) or red wigglers (Lumbricus rubellus) because other worms are not suited for composting. I couldn't find anywhere near me that has red worms, so I paid $38 (including shipping) for my pound. Happy D also threw in a "Promote Global Worming" bumper very clever.

I got a wooden box, and drilled some holes in it for air and drainage.

I made the bedding, out of newspaper, cardboard (I knew I’d been saving those toilet paper rolls for something), a little sawdust from drilling the holes, and a couple handfuls of dirt. All the websites I read instructed me to get the newspaper strips wet, like a wrung-out sponge. I was super-paranoid about the level of moisture (what if it's too wet and they drown, too dry and they dehydrate?), but I think I eventually got it right, and after all, worms are hardy. Only use black and white newspaper--put those "adult ads" at the back of the Weekly to good use.

So there was only one thing left to do. Open the worm box. Perhaps I shouldn't be admitting this publicly, but I almost had a nervous breakdown before I opened it. See, throughout the week, I started to realize that I was filled with dread every time I approached my door at night, for fear that they had arrived. Although I was anxious to get my composting going, I was secretly grateful each day that they weren't there. I figured, by the time they arrived, I would have done some mental strengthening exercises or something to prepare myself, right? So then, Friday night, I get home following after-work drinks, and there it was. I rationalized that they'd be ok for a few more hours until I was in a better state to deal with them in the morning, and after all, the box wasn't totally ready yet.

The next morning, after much hand-wringing and pacing, I finally approached the box. Although severely irrational, I was afraid that as soon as I cut the tape on the top of the box, worms would start pouring out, crawling all over my hands and covering my body. First cut. Nothing. Open flaps. Instructions from the ranch. Remove paper. A cloth pouch. Ok, I can deal with this. Unless they're all dead. I saw no movement. What if I've killed them before I even started? What if it was those few extra hours that killed them? I can't be going out for drinks now that I have life to sustain. Ok, I hovered over the bin, cut the pouch open and dumped the contents into the bin. It was a clomp of dirt. I saw no worms. After stepping back and realizing the worst was over, I approached the bin and used a wooden spoon to break open the dirt. Worms came cascading out. By this time, my fear of vermi-infestation had been replaced by vermicide, so I was just relieved to see life. I hadn't killed them before I started, after all...hoorah!

The rest was cake. I fed them the scraps I had been saving for the past week. Banana peels, apple cores, wilty leek leaves, and coffee grinds. I covered the layer of scraps with another layer of moist bedding, and covered the bin. In case you're wondering, there is no smell, since the food is buried. Per Molly's suggestion below, store to-be-composted scraps in the freezer to prevent odors before they get buried.

It's been a week now, and I've checked on them every day or so just so see what's going on in there, but I actually can't see much other than wiggling, which is always a relief. I'm just about to add my second round of food.

They can eat up to thrice their weight in food every week, which means three pounds for now. (Eventually they'll reproduce and I could feed them even more than that.) I still am unsure about how I sustain the moisture level going forward, so I'll be doing some vermi-research going forward. After a few months, I'll be able to start harvesting the worm castings--the super-rich compost that the worms poop out. Since I don't have a garden, I'll be doling out this rich, natural fertilizer to friends who do grow things. Want some?

Btw, unlike the city-wide San Francisco program Molly describes below, for your own home vermicomposting, you can only include the following food scraps:
fruit and vegetable scraps (chopped up as small as possible)
crushed egg shells
tea bags
coffee grinds and filters

I'll keep you updated on how my wormies progress. Moral of the story: In nature, nothing is waste--even what we consider trash has a vital role in the life cycle. Composting is an essential we can get the balance a little bit more right. Vermicomposting is an easy, viable option for urban dwellers. If the biggest wimp in the world can allow worms into her home, anyone can. Maybe I'll even let them crawl on my hand one day soon.

More specific info on making your bin:
City Farmer
Good Wikipedia article
How to make a worm bin
Worm woman

Friday, April 6, 2007

My chemical dependency

I'm a sucker for beauty products. You know all those commercials for products that promise shiny hair, bigger lips, smaller pores, mile-long eyelashes and basically a first-class ticket to the Miss America crown? Those commercials are made for people like me. I "ooh" and "aah" and instantly slink off to Target to get myself some pretty.

This habit of mine has created an enormous amount of clutter -- every available surface in my shower is taken up by various sizes, shapes and colors of plastic bottle. Do I use half of this crap? Uh, no. I'm a huge waster.

My beauty regimen needed some major greenification, so I consulted Treehugger's very thorough Women's Personal Care Guide. (Even if you're a dude you should still read it -- most of the info applies to both genders, and not to fear, the word "tampon" is only mentioned a couple of times.)

It's a really useful article, but their diatribe against certain chemicals sent me into freak-out mode. Number one and number two on their list of chemicals to avoid are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and parabens: they link them to cancer and various other scary words. And they're in every. thing. I. own. Every single day I was rubbing evil, cancer-making devil juice all over my unsuspecting body.

Excited by the packaging-free offerings from Lush Cosmetics, including their awesome natural deodorant, I scoured the ingredients on their solid (no plastic needed!) shampoos. SLS was in eeeeverything. It made my heart hurt, because I'd really believed in their lofty declarations on using organic ingredients, making things by hand, not testing on animals, and being people- and earth-friendly. So I wrote them a letter (like the giant dork I am), expressing my concerns about their use of SLS and parabens. Completely restoring my faith in them as one of the "good guys," Lush wrote me back within a day. They assured me that the FDAs in both Canada and the U.S. have approved all of their ingredients, and that they perform their own independent tests for safety as well. Their stance on the use of parabens (preservatives) is endearing: "We understand that preservatives are designed to kill life, and are therefore unsavory, which is why we make so many of our products in solid form." (Liquid products require preservatives because of the potential for bacteria growth.)

But I was still wary of these chemicals, and decided to research them further. Snopes, the urban legend site, has a very informative article on the (largely unfounded) SLS scare. Yes, it can potentially irritate sensitive skin -- but it's not actually associated with cancer. What really convinced me was the American Cancer Society's article "Debunking The Myth." They also set the record straight on parabens. If the American Cancer Society isn't too worried, neither am I.

Lush is still the only cosmetic company I know of that offers so many packaging-free options. Even beyond their earth-friendliness, they're really quality products -- they make my hair and skin feel, well, lush-ous. So now I'm replacing all my plastic bottles with Lush's solid shampoo, conditioner, face wash, and body butter. (Links are to my personal picks!) Their solid shampoos were actually designed for backpackers -- they can be used for washing hair, body, dishes and clothes. AND, if you buy 2 solid shampoos at once, Lush will throw in a free shampoo tin that you can keep reusing instead of amassing the little plastic bags they try to give you. Added bonus to solid beauty care products -- you can take them in your carry-on luggage when you travel!

City-Wide Composting

Hi, my name is Molly, and I am pleased to be living in a city where:

  • I don’t need a car (can get by walking and taking the bus)
  • They’ve just passed a law prohibiting plastic bags (see Sara’s earlier post with her appropriate concerns about replacing these with other disposable items).
  • There is city-wide composting!

If you guessed I live in San Francisco, that blustery coastal bastion of liberalism and yes, hippies, you're right. But once again, this hippie haven is leading the nation to greater environmental and consumer awareness.

City-Wide Composting!!

It’s true. The city provides complementary plastic bins where you can put ALL food scraps. This includes usually-unorthodox items for compost like meat, cheese, grains and even brown paper! I think this is because these items do biodegrade and relatively quickly, but they emit a bad odor, which is why they’re not recommendable for household composting systems.

So San Franciscans dump their food scraps into these green bins, which get collected along with the garbage, and all this compost is shipped off to one of three locations, all less than 70 miles away, where organic farms dump all the compost into these long bags and pump them with oxygen.

This aeration speeds up the decaying process. When you compost in your backyard, the matter goes through the same process, just more slowly. Because the aerating machines require energy, I see this as a slight kink in the system, but it's still far better than other systems that do not productively use this delicious, carbon-rich matter! The thoroughly converted matter—having spent but two short months in the conversion process—is then used as top-notch fertilizer for organic farms! One lucky farm in particular, Jepsen Prairie Organics, facilitates this whole composting process and sells the compost to other organic farms. I’ll say that’s a sweet deal they’ve got! These organic farms then sell their goods to, hopefully, San Franciscans and other locals. In theory, this is a closed-loop local food production system, and proponents claim it is. For more info., check it out:

If you do NOT live in San Francisco or a city with a composting system, do not despair! You, too, can compost! You have a few options:

  1. Set up a worm composting system. This is a great way to deal with your household food scraps. Stay tuned for more on this! If you are simply too squeamish about wormies, though:
  2. Find your local community garden and ask if you can compost your food there. I bet they say yes!
  3. If there’s no community garden, pool together with friends and neighbors to start a common compost pile where someone has a garden. Set up a rotation, and I bet you only need to tend it a couple times a year. Depending on how much fresh produce you eat, you could probably last a while, too, before taking your food scraps to this common place. In other words--It's easy and low-maintenance!

Here’s a tip that I’ve learned from my fellow San Franciscans: Keep your in-the-meantime compost bin in the freezer so you don’t smell the decaying food. (And for household and community garden compost piles, avoid composting meat and dairy products because of the stench).

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Hot or not?

The first of a recurring series where I implore you, the reader, to evaluate whether a certain action is a sensible step in the direction of sustainability, or is barking up the wrong, crazy-person-making tree. Several weeks ago, fed up with how many paper towels I was using at work, I brought my own hand towel from home and hung it up in the bathroom.

Let me back up. I ran the idea by my coworkers first as a joke, then as it became a recurring lunch topic, I started thinking seriously about the viability of the idea. My theory was this: You only need a towel if your hands are wet. Your hands are only wet if you have washed them. Maybe I'm naive, but I assume that most people do wash their hands with soap, or would be prompted to if they're using a communal towel. And yet, the idea of sharing a towel freaked some of my coworkers out-namely, the men. (We have a unisex bathroom, and believe me, it's not nearly as cool as it was on Ally McBeal.) All the men were grossed out by the idea, but eventually some agreed to use it with provisions. One said he would use it if got washed every weekend. Fine. Another would if there were 5 towels, for each day of the week. Ridiculous! Some said straight-up that they would never use it. So I ended up bringing a towel in one day, hanging it on a hook that just happened to be in the bathroom, and putting up a sign inviting everyone to use it after washing hands with soap. I noted that it would be washed every weekend, and to please, not be afraid. The results have been...well, mixed. I know for sure that at least one other person uses it regularly. Better than nothing, right? One other colleague admitted to using a dry corner of it, once. Others have welcomed it when we run out of paper towels. However, I can't help but notice how many paper towels there still are in the trash, so I'm not claiming a major victory here. At the same time, I hold strong in my beliefs that in recent years we have become an overly germophobic society, which has fueled our disposable addiction. I think we obsess about germs way more than we need to. I should add that it's a small office, I don't think anyone has questionable hygiene habits, and heck, I have and would take sips out of their drinks at happy hour. So why not share a towel? My question to you is: Would you use the towel and why/why not? Hot or not?