Monday, December 31, 2007

The Story of Stuff (Yours and Mine)

Now that the holiday gift giving frenzy is over, and resolution making time is upon us, it would be a good time to try to be more mindful of the amount of pure STUFF we accumulate, eco-stuff and otherwise.

When you have 15 minutes or so (now would be a good time!) click-on over to The Story of Stuff, a really neat, engaging little animation / movie that at the very least will getcha thinking about it all.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Water Without Poison: Avoiding Plastic-Bottled Water

Clean, cold water. It's good stuff -- unless you pollute it or the greater environment by drinking it from a plastic bottle!

In a previous post, it was noted that plastic reusable coffee cups were not preferred over metal. (See below for details of why.) So it is a bit ironic that folks who drink bottled water instead of tap water or soda for health reasons often do so by drinking water sold in little plastic bottles.
As with most of our disposable, chemicalized culture there is a green alternative available: The reusable, stainless steel water bottle.
But first, a reminder of why plastic is bad . . . .
Plastics = Poison?

The question over plastic products poisoning packaged food and water is one reason to avoid plastic water bottles. Although various mechanisms have been suggested for plastic byproducts leaching into bottled water (leaving bottles in hot cars, re-using plastic bottles), purports to have debunked these.
Other sources of plastic-based poison remain; see for example the very even-handed article at the National Geographic "Green Guide" on the most recent findings of reproductive harm from plastics. As the article notes, 100% of plastics-industry studies find no chemical leaching, and 100% of government funded studies find harmful chemicals. Hmmmm.
Plastics = Oil

Plastic bottles, of course, are made from oil -- and so come with the pollution and carbon overhead of all petroleum products. Although a fraction of Plastic bottles are recycled, for every bottle that is reused there said to be the equivalent of 70 bottles of waste generated in the process. In addition, manufacturing plastics requires energy for each bottle; less energy per bottle than a steel one, for example, but not if the steel bottle is reused for its likely long lifetime.

Plastics = Trash

Because the apparent dollar cost of a plastic bottle is low, they are considered one use and disposable. Most plastic bottles end up in landfills, or worse, as non-degradable litter on the landscape or in our waterways. Again, the lifetime of a steel or even glass bottle is many times higher, and thus the embodied energy and pollution is many times lower, than using an equivalent number of plastic containers.
Bottled Water = Transported Water
By now most people are aware that bottled water is not appreciably different than ordinary tap water, at least if you live in a modern American city. (Individual locations and buildings may have specific local ground water or delivery system issues, or unwanted additives.)

For the most part, however, bottled water is not local water; bottled water gets part of its cache by coming from far off exotic locals (Fiji Water, for example, or Perrier, or even simple Arrowhead water). The folks at boast that they are "[y]our source for unique high-quality bottled water products from around the world." And that means its value as a "green" commodity is further degraded by the addition of the carbon and oil use from its long distance ride to the market shelf.
(In an interesting study, the National Resources Defense Council has found that 82% of people drink bottled water due to concerns about pollution, as an alternative to other beverages, or both. Only 7% of folks who drink the stuff drink bottled water for the taste, according to the NRDC. Taste, according to the The Bottled Water Store, is a primary reason to drink it -- which leaves some 93% of us able to avoid one-use, transported bottled water. )

Clean Alternatives

More than a few companies sell stainless steel, reusable water bottles, some with sports tops some without. We have five "Klean Kanteens" available from many suppliers online. Ours are not insulated, so are light and small, just like a plastic bottle. We use them only for water, so washing is required from time to time, but not in the same way as if there were three day old fermented juice in them. (We have a two-year-old -- can you tell?)

Many other suppliers also sell other versions. They key is stainless steel over plastic, or aluminum.

Wacky Idea

The idea of reusable water bottles may seem a little weird if you are not a bottled-water fan already. If you drink a bottle of water once in blue moon because you are thirsty and there is nothing else handy at the picnic, then a reusable, non-plastic water bottle may not make sense to you.

But if you are one of those folks that buys water by the case, who always has a water bottle handy to sip at in order to stay well hydrated or as an alternative to soda or alcohol -- then you will find a reusable bottle is a small step indeed.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Coffee Tastes Better Green

I like coffee. I like it a lot. For years I have struggled with a Starbucks habit; my youngest was practically raised by baristas during my year off work as a stay-at-home dad, and by the age of one she knew the Starbucks logo well enough to exclaim with glee when we passed one. ( A "vente" cup of hot water makes a superb bottle warmer, by the way. See my old sbxfairtrade blog for handy hints if you are a stay at home dad.)

Thankfully, however, I have managed to ratchet my Starbucks habit way down over the past year. Oh I still drink coffee everyday, but thanks to a serendipitous gift of a reusable mug last year, my growing green sentiment, and the realization of the budgetary effects of store-brewed coffee, I only occasionally indulge in a stop at the "coffee store."

Green Issues, Black Coffee

Coffee is an interesting beverage in many eco-respects, as it embodies several different green issues. Correcting even a few of the bad things about the way you get your caffeine fix can make a big difference.

The issues range from the use of non-recyclable paper cups and plastic lids, to where and how the coffee is grown; from your choice of brewing method to how you keep the java hot. Each separately can be a significant factor in the green-color of your coffee's history. But let's start with one easy one: the kind of cup you use.

Buy the Cup

I was given a gift of a Starbucks brand 16 ounce reusable travel cup last year for a holiday gift. I have used it every day, sometimes several times a day, ever since then.

Our friends over at the Bring Your Own Blog have already made the paper-cup point succinctly.

Which is Greener: Recycled Paper or Reusable?

There are several elements that must be considered to demonstrate that a reusable cup is better than a one-time use cup; most analysis take into consideration only one part of the multifaceted problem.

First is the embodied energy used in manufacturing the cup. A reusable cup will have more energy in its initial manufacture, and has to be washed, but over time it will save energy each over a similar number of paper or foam cups. One major factor is how the cup is washed: I rinse mine daily in warm tap water with a little soap; most studies assume the use of an energy hog dishwasher, albeit a relatively efficient energy hog as those things go.

On this basis, a reusable cup is relatively more energy efficient, at least if it is used repeatedly as intended.

Next is the issue of the resources used to create the cup. Plastic and foams come from oil. In generally, the fewer products made from oil, the better; whether you want to reduce the impact of oil drilling or think gas prices should be lower, less oil for cups is desirable. Paper cups, of course, come from trees, and in some cases a small percentage of post consumer recycled paper.

Then there is the disposal issue. Although paper cups may degrade over time, they take up landfill space in the meantime. And since many paper cups are, in fact, plastic coated, that degradation is not total, or quick. Neither plastic nor foam cups degrade in any reasonable amount of time (hundreds of years even in a landfill), and many spend time drifting around the landscape or floating around the ocean, where they kill wildlife.

Using an average of one disposable cup per day adds in the range of 25 lbs of solid waste to the landfill stream, and creates a larger pool of trash which can becomes "feral" and degrades the environment directly. (See, e.g., Report of the Green Restaurant Association and Report of the Starbucks Coffee Company / Alliance for Environmental Innovation Joint Task Force, p. 8-9.)

Finally, plastic and plastic coated food products have recently been implicated in all sorts of health problems, including reproductive defects in children born to women exposed to certain kinds of plastics. These plastics leach byproducts into our food, and into the environment for as long as they are around.

The Whole Story

Looking at the whole story, then, it is easy to see that the reusable to-go cup is a significant ecological improvement over one-use paper or plastic cups.

Reusable to-go cups also have a psychological advantage, too, by stepping away from the disposable mindset.

Which Reusable Cup?

So far the best reusable cup appears to be stainless steel. This metal is well known to be inert and resistant to just about anything you put in it. It washes up quick and easy by hand, and works equally well with hot and cold drinks. Many coffee outlets sell metal ones . . . to take it one step further, one can skip plastic water bottles too: One supplier of disposable cup and bottle replacements is the KleanKanteen company.

Plastic reusables are, at least, reusable; but since the use of plastic in food products is increasingly suspect, as noted above, a plastic mug cannot be recommended. Ceramic mugs have some of the lowest embodied energy, according to research studies, but for travel a steel mug is extremely durable and about the cleanest choice.

Paper, whether made from all virgin wood or some small percentage "post-consumer recycled content" still contains a lot of new tree material, and requires a reasonable amount of water and energy to make into each new cup, even with recycled content.

My stainless steel travel mug took a lot of energy to make, more than a few paper cups worth, certainly. But it's energy cost is spread out over hundreds of cups of coffee and years of use. And there is an additional benefit: I never throw it away (at least until it finally wears out), so it does not add to a landfill or pollute the local environment they way disposables do.

And yes, that cardboard cup almost certainly gets buried in a landfill somewhere. Even if you rinse the cup and toss it in your recycle bin, more likely than not this is not helping: Most paper products used for food are not recycled. Greasy pizza boxes and used paper cups are routinely plucked from the paper recycling by most companies and disposed of as simple landfill garbage.

Although plastic food containers can sometimes be recycled, and most plastic cups have a recycling number on the bottom, many many jurisdictions do not accept them, and few recycle the kind of foam from which foam cups are made.

Moreover, plastic cups get into the environment by accident too (or deliberate littering) and do not decompose at all. Instead they wash into storm drains, helping to clog them, and as often as not wash right out to sea.

It hardly seems like a big deal, but there is, after all, a lot riding on the cup from which you drink your coffee. And somehow that morning cup 'o joe just tastes better green.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Skip the Plastic! Let's Talk Reusable Cloth Bags . . .

It's a funny thing about Americans. We expect free paper or plastic bags to carry home whatever we buy at a store. And the thing is, both kinds of bags are a terrible waste of resources. So here's an Easy Green Thing to Do: Bring Your Own Cloth (or string) Bags.

Sounds simple minded, but take a look at the counter in the right-hand column. According to the folks at, that is the number of plastic bags that have been used, and mostly tossed into the landfill or allowed to destroy marine environments, so far this year.

That's a lot. And the number is getting bigger. If you have 6-8 plastic bags from grocery shopping today, and another of two or three from other stores, and one for the thingmabobber from the hardware store and and and -- well it adds up!

Three reasons to bring your own reusable cloth bags:

1. Plastic bags are mostly made from oil. The folks at MidAmerica Energy explain this in detail here or by clicking their picture, above. The fewer plastic bags we use the less we need oil from the Middle East, the less fossil fuel pollution we create, and the less energy we use manufacturing and transporting the darn things in the first place.

2. Some plastic shopping bags can be recycled. Most are not. Less than 10% of plastic bags are currently recycled. Some city trash collections, even though they accepted numbered plastics, do not do plastic shopping bags.

3. Plastic ends up in the landfill, and does not decompose (paper can be recycled and does decompose. Cloth can be reused thousands of times). It is also a notorious killer of marine animals, being washed down the storm drains and into the oceans.

Dealing With The Would-Buts

I would use cloth bags, but:

. . . I don't have any reusable bags. Many stores sell them cheaply now. An early pioneer was Trader Joe's, which has sold its (now larger and stronger) cloth shopping bags for many years. I am partial to the canvas bags, but there are many alternatives available at TJ's. We recently purchased a $4.99 insulated bag from TJ that handles all the cold stuff quite well if we have an extra stop on the way home. Ikea now sells it's store bags and is phasing out plastic; many reusables with cool art can be found at, including; and of course our good friends at . For more ideas have a peak at the Bring Your Own blog.

. . . I don't want to buy $30 worth of bags. Don't. Buy one at a time. Each trip to the store, get one more new cloth bag. Soon you will have plenty of bags. NOTE: You will need fewer cloth bags than either paper or plastic, if you can carry them. Each bag is stronger and can hold more than either paper or trash-plastic. If you want lighter bags to carry, bring more bags.

. . . I can never remember to bring them. Simple: Leave a nest of 4 or 5 bags in the trunk of your car, or the bike trailer you use for groceries. Put them all inside of one and roll 'em up. When you empty the bags in the house after shopping, put them *right* back in the car. Then they are always handy.

Bringing shopping bags has gotten to be so easy, that we take our TJ bags -- and reusable bags we have received elsewhere -- in to shop just about everywhere now. It may just be *one* little plastic bag -- but take a look at that counter over there, spinning by, one little bag (your little bag!) at time.

By the by, the cloth-bag habit is a good one to start now. Several cities have banned plastic shopping bags outright, and many more are looking at the idea seriously.

A word of warning about reusable bags, though: Be sure to save some for shopping. They are so handy, and so easy to grab, that they get used for all sorts of transporting jobs -- and you can and that all your shopping bags are otherwise engaged!

Monday, February 05, 2007

How to Get Off Your "Would But"
and Start Doing Something

I Would But . . .

You know you should do it (whatever green thing “it” is) and you would but, well this thing and that thing and the other thing really make it impossible for you to do right now.

Welcome to Stage One Denial.

I’ve been there; every time I stop doing some green thing for awhile, I go through it again to get started. Breaking through Stage One Denial -- the "would-buts" -- is the hardest part of doing the green thing, at least sometimes.

An Example: Bike to Work Day, Just Today.

Take, for example, the green goal of riding a bike to work. Last summer I rode nearly every day to work. It was hot, but bearable. I got to wear summer clothes to work (shorts, polo shirt) so it was a fairly comfortable bike drive.

But the fact that I had to carry a laptop to work every day changed the ride. I was nervous carrying it unpadded in a backpack. (The computer case I had weighed a great deal, so I did not want to carry it on the bike.) And the backpack made me really hot. Although I rode most days in the summer anyway, the laptop-in-the-backpack became my “would-but” for the fall semester.

In the fall semester, without a way to carry my laptop conveniently, I rode a car to work every day. I would have driven my bike, but carrying the laptop was a problem. See how this works?

Over Christmas I received a really cool Jandd pannier bag. Folds up to look like a canvas briefcase, has a padded holder for a laptop, and a built in waterproof cover(!)

This week, my laptop and I drove a bike to work every day.

How about you?

What’s your bike-riding “would-but?”

For most of us it is one of these top ten:

1. “I don’t have a bike.”
2. “I have a bike, but I haven’t ridden it in years.”
3. “I’m scared of the cars.”
4. “I have to work in dress clothes, like a suit or high heels.”
5. “I work too far away.”
6. “I have to carry stuff to work.”
7. “I have kids to pick up.”
8. “The weather is too severe.”
9. “There is nowhere to park a bike when I get there.”
10. “I have bad knees/back/balance and can’t ride.”

I have used at least seven, maybe seven and a half of these personally.

We’ll deal with these Top Ten Would-But excuses in future posts. For the moment it is enough to recognize a "would but" excuse for what it is – a temporary obstacle to be overcome. And once overcome, most of these would-buts seem terribly insubstantial.

In general, though, the top suggestions for more bike driving are to get a good used cruiser bike if you don’t own one (try for a potential free bike!), or clean yours off and get it out of the garage! Drive your bike on weekends from time to time to get back in the groove; find a “Road Cycling” course online to help you understand and deal with the driving a bike instead of a car for transportation -- versus riding a bike for fun only.


COMING SOON: Puncturing the First Five "Would But" Excuses . . . .

Thursday, February 01, 2007

IDEA: Green Your Brain!

Going green is all the rage, but many still see the process as all sacrifice and conservation -- when nothing could be further from the truth.

What is wanted is a simple but complete change of mindset that allows one to make green choices without particular sacrifice, and as second nature.

The culture of waste and despoliation of the planet has been in place a long time, however, and such a fundamental change can be frightening, even daunting.

Even the mental change to so-called "conservation" can be daunting, not the least because it carries images of sacrifice and deprivation. It (wrongly) foreshadows the end of America as the land of endless everything.

Worse, mere conservation is, in fact, an inadequate response to a growing population made up of folks who each also want a growing piece of the pie.

Again, what is needed is a change of mind, as much as a change of habit.

One Example

Consider: At my house, according to the electric company, we've managed to conserve 90% (yes, ninety percent) on our electric bill last year. Even with the hottest summer on record this year and the AC running 24/7, we are on track this year to "save" 50% of the electricity we would have used in the past.

But we've made NO sacrifices. Really.
We have made a green choice that was so painless, and seems like such a no-brainer from our changed mindset, that we don't understand why most homeowners, builders and city governments haven't made the choice too.

Remember: No sacrifices.
We have only one compact fluorescent light bulb on in the house, have four TVs, five computers, and a microwave, central air and heat that runs non-stop. We have kids who leave the lights on. Our change costs us only about $40 per month, and has reduced our electric bill by 90 percent.

We have solar cells.

We didn't want the approximately 70% coal-fired electricity that our local utility offers. It didn't make sense when there was an affordable option.

Forty bucks a month -- with price rises, ever, and no coal.

And because right now we can afford to do so, we splurged and pay a tiny premium to the electric utility for wind and small hydro for our remaining electricity.

No Pain, All Gain

Although Pasadena gets nearly 70% of its electricity from coal, ours is 100% renewable, clean and green. No sacrifice. No actual conservation. No big deal.

And it is no big deal precisely because we have come about half-way 'round to changing our mindset.
Awareness of one's impact; a commitment to minimizing the impact; and, in these early decades of serious environmental change, a commitment to push past "business as usual" mindsets to get the green thing, or do the green thing wherever possible.

Green. It's all in your head, really.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Five Percenters, Changing the World

The premise of this blog is that if one makes a few, easy green changes and choices, the few easy things will add up to a whole lot more than the parts.

Turns out, at least a few folks have invented a term for it, calling it the "Five Percent" approach.

Blogger Noreen's Five Percent (which I stumbled across four or five links down into a read of some favorite eco-blogs) uses this as her premise:

Imagine if every single person on the planet invested 5% of their
energy in working toward a better self and a better world. I decided to try it,
since it's something I can do not just once, but every single day. These are the
stories of the little efforts I'm making while living my ordinary life. I'd love
to meet you along the way!

She's been offline since August, but her blog has some great back-posts, and a host of neat "impact" links, which are worth a look-see.

Another way to look at the 5% is what I call the "stone soup" effect. If you don't know the story of Stone Soup, you can read it here. But in a nutshell, but doing things one little bit at a time, moving reluctant change slowly and stepwise, it is possible to create something larger and more magnificent than anyone thought possible.

Easy Green is a reference of some of the things one person can do to do one's own 5%.