bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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Environmental Economics

I love to shop.  I really do.  Recently I was scraping ice off my car, or trying to.  It wasn’t really working.  I thought, well I guess I should go buy a new scraper.  I thought, I can look around and maybe find a better version.  I’m trying not to buy things unless I’m really going to use them, so every time something like this happens, I’m kind of excited.  (Perhaps that makes my life a little sad, but mostly I’m just poor and like to shop.)  After being excited I realized something.  What I have isn’t working and I need an ice scraper that works in New England in the winter, but buying a new one means I’m going to be throwing out the old one.  It will be put on the curb, dumped in a garbage truck and taken to a landfill where it will stay for decades, maybe centuries.  The thing about it is there’s almost nothing I can do about it.  If I took my scraper to a hardware store and asked them to sharpen it and fix it for me, they’d look at me like I was nuts and tell me to buy a new one.  Our economy isn’t based on making things that last a long time and getting them fixed if anything happens.  Mass production has created an economy where we buy things as cheaply as possible and replace them when they break.

In order for this post not to be a total downer, I’m going to give a few pieces of advice, based on The Green Book by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen.  Try to buy things with minimal packaging, and as much recycled and recyclable packaging as possible.  Shop local because they won’t have spent a lot of energy to get the products there from far away.  Shop at secondhand clothing stores first.  Consider buying clothes made from organic cotton and natural dyes.  Use rechargeable batteries (4 rechargeable batters can replace 100 regular AAs).

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Monterey Bay and marine biology

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about how I want to make a difference to the environment.  Little things that we do everyday are certainly a part of it.  Being aware of the impact we have is important and I will continue to write about various ways to do that.  But I’m beginning to think that my road to feeling like I’m making a difference lies in a new career.  And that new career has to do with the ocean.  In fact, I’m back to where I started.  I began writing this blog because I was looking into environmental issues and wanted to share what I was discovering.  My first post was about my love for the beach which is where my concern for the environment started.

The beach is what I want to study, or rather coastal ecosystems.  They are being broadly affected by humans – fishing and littering, by climate change – warming oceans, rising sea levels and they are some of the most beautiful places on Earth.  I think I can find a way to help.  I’m looking into programs in marine biology.  It’s quite a change from theater, but it means a lot to me and interests me.  I read a book recently that inspired me.  It is called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay and I would recommend it to everyone and anyone.  It chronicles all the ways that humans hurt the ecosystem of the bay, but then also tells the story of how the bay has been restored.  Change is possible.  A lot of what I’ve read has only spoken of the problems that exist, and maybe hypothetical ideas on what to do about them.  Monterey Bay is a success story.  I hope similar successes can happen elsewhere.


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Composting

I was so surprised to find out that even food and other compostable items don’t decompose when put in a landfill (see my post on Garbology by Edward Humes).  Since then I’ve been thinking that there must be an easy way to compost.  This was brought home to me in my visit to New York City this past weekend.  I went to see the tennis at the U.S. Open but found myself thinking about compost.  At the U.S. Open itself, there were compost bins next to the recycling and trash bins.  In the ladies’ room, the only bin by the sinks was composting because the paper towels were compostable.  That made me think that the napkin I threw in the trash was probably also compostable.  The U.S. Open also had signs on the beds of flowers saying that they used the compost from last year to make this year’s Open pretty.

The other place I went while in NYC was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  They had a composting exhibit that made it seem really easy.  It also showed that you can grow things in a compost pile before it is done composting.  compost

compost

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then looked into what someone would need to do in order to compost their food waste.  Obviously, if you have a yard and/or a garden, you can make compost piles outside.  But if you don’t have a place to do it outside, there are still things you can do.  Here are two sites I found about composting in a yard:  Planet Natural and EarthEasy.  Basically, it works better if you have a bin and make sure you have a balance of different materials.  Moisture and the occasional stir helps too.  If you don’t have a yard, there are buckets you can buy (like this one at the Container Store) that can stand by your sink.  Having charcoal filters in it is an expense but helps with the odor.  A lot of towns, at this point, have places you can drop off your scraps, and so do some grocery stores like Whole Foods.  This is the site for Cambridge, MA.  They point out several things – you can freeze the scraps to avoid odor, you can buy compostable bags so you don’t have to dump it when you drop it off.  It turns out there is a lot of information out there and a lot of relatively simple ways to create useful compost and keep food scraps out of landfills.  I hope this inspires you to find the easiest way for you to compost.

 


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Reduce Your Garbage

Here are my simplest suggestions as a way to start.  Carry a reusable shopping bag and if you must, get a paper grocery bag.  Use dishrags and sponges for cleaning the kitchen rather than paper towels.  Carry a refillable bottle and ask for tap water instead of buying bottled water.  Don’t use disposable silverware or paper napkins, even for parties.  Start shopping first at stores that carry used goods.  Find out if any grocery stores near you accept compost or look into how you can compost yourself if you have a garden.

Some suggestions from Edward Humes’ book, Garbology:

1.  Refuse.  Say no to unwanted mail, paper bills, and promotional items.

2.  Remember that things that last longer may end up being cheaper in the long run, even if the initial price is higher.  You won’t need to throw it out and replace it.  For example, better made clothes can be washed and rewashed many times over.

Some suggestion from Garbology, based on Bea Johnson:  (This is her blog: http://zerowastehome.blogspot.com/p/about.html)

1.  Buy in bulk.  It reduces packaging.

2.  Refill wine bottles at local events (if you have them).

3.  Make your own multipurpose cleaner with vinegar, water and castile soap.

4.  Use handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues.

5.  When packing a lunch, wrap sandwiches and other food in a cloth napkin.

6.  Only recycle paper after both sides have been used.


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Garbology by Edward Humes

I have been doing two completely incompatible things for the last month.  I have been packing up all my stuff and moving it into storage.  And I’ve been reading about American’s love affair with garbage, waste and consumerism in Garbology by Edward Humes.  I should start by saying that I have a lot of stuff and that I love shopping.  But I have come to the realization that short term retail therapy does not translate to long term happiness.  That’s not to say I’ll never do retail therapy again.  I’m sure I will.  It just means that I’m trying to be more aware of what I buy, how useful it is, and how long it’s likely to take before I put it in the garbage.  Waste as a vain attempt to be happier doesn’t make sense.

Edward Humes’ book is great.  He clearly feels that our garbage system and our consumer culture are problems that need solutions, but a lot of the book talks about people who are working to find those solutions rather than blaming anyone for the system as it is.  I am like most Americans who don’t really think about their trash beyond which day I need to put the bin on the curb.  I try to recycle as much as I can.  But I was aware that landfills are where most of our garbage ends up.  Considering it’s a daily part of my life, that’s not knowing much.  On average, according to Edward Humes, each American will generate about 102 tons of trash.  I know that a ton is big and so 102 tons is huge, but I found it hard to conceptualize.  So here’s a way to think about it:

elephant and car This elephant weights 6 tons.  So we produce trash the weight (not the size) of 17 of those elephants.  You can imagine, considering the weight of paper and thin plastic, that the actual size of all of that trash is much, much larger than 17 elephants.

There is a lot I want to say about trash based on Humes’ book, but I don’t want to bore you and I don’t want to lecture you.  So I’m going to make a few, succinct points that I hope will keep you thinking about your trash, how much it is, and where it ends up.

 

A lot of trash, and especially plastic, ends up in the ocean.  The biggest spot is in the Pacific and most people have heard about that.  What we haven’t heard is that plastic breaks down into tiny little pieces that are now all over the ocean and the beaches of the world.  Pieces tiny enough for even the smallest fish to ingest.

While we usually feel like we’re doing a good thing when we recycle, most recycled goods spend a lot of energy being moved from place to place to a recycling center which uses energy to recycle – mostly are downcycled into materials of lower value that can’t be recycled again.

Trash in landfills that can decompose, doesn’t.  Food, yard waste, and things that I don’t feel bad about throwing in the trash, actually last a long time in a landfill.  They might decompose if exposed to sun and wind, but trapped in the middle of tons of trash, they last decades.

 

I’m going to follow up this post with one that includes suggestions from the book, and a few from me, about how to create less waste and maybe put a dent in your 102-ton legacy.


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Is Suburbia Sustainable?

In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.  I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning.  It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees.  Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town.  I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station.  There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town.  I knew no one who used it.  It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere.  I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high.  My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed.  Not much has changed, except some additions to houses.  Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents.  I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school.  Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now.  They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around.  This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.

There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.  For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house.  This was the American dream.  It doesn’t apply as well as it used to.  More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence.  Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common.  Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need.  Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind.  Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers.  This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area.  That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.

Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars.  Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption.  Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas.  It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town.  Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult.  People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children.  But it’s something to think about.