bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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Living sustainably

Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.

My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.

However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.

Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?

Carrots in a tupperware with a towel to soak up moisture, reusable tie on the broccoli, cucumber in beeswax food wrap and a pepper.


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Northeastern University

I just finished my first course on the way to my new career.  I took Biology 101 at Northeastern and I think I chose a good university for me.  They offer courses that are part on-line and part in the classroom over 6 weeks.  And they are very environmentally aware.  On my very first day I noticed this:

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It is an incredibly sanitary, almost waste-less way to encourage people to use refillable water bottles.  They also have dual-flush toilets, up for liquid waste, down for solid waste, another way of reducing water waste.

A little more research and it turns out I was even more right than I knew.  Northeastern was a founding member of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  It has really committed to sustainability, as shown in their website, and I see the proof in the buildings.  I found one more thing on their website that I’m really excited about.  It’s called INSHORE and it sounds like exactly the work I want to be doing.  I don’t know if I will stay at Northeastern for a long time, but it’s working for me now and it’s good to know that I what I want is out there.


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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

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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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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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Much Ado About Nothing and its trash

The play is over.  The performances went really well and I’m very proud of all the students involved.  The day after the last performance we had strike.  We took down the entire set in less than five hours.  Unfortunately, it goes faster the more you throw away.  Taking things apart and storing them takes more time, more effort.  Of course, I would happily take that time and effort except I don’t have storage space.  The set looked like this:

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 The dumpsters at the end of strike looked like this:

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A lot of materials went to a trash dump at the end of the day.  And yes, I feel badly about it.  I hope that thinking about the environmental impact through this process will mean that future shows will end up with less in the trash.