Friday, January 30, 2015

Five Friday Winter Warm-Up Tips

Mindful Echo is keeping warm this winter.

It's my favourite time of year! I love winter! I love snow! I love hot chocolate and snowdays and shovelling and mittens and snowmen and skiing and blankets and everything about winter. I wish I could marry winter and just be Mrs. Suzie Snowflake all year long.

When the temperature starts to drop a few degrees, it's easy to stay warm and compensate without touching that thermostat using these quick Winter Warm-Up Tips.

1. Wear your hat.
While scientists may have debunked the myth that most of our body heat is lost through our heads, keeping your cap covered is still a great way to keep away the wind and cold - not to mention, protect your ears from frostbite. Plus, hats are so hot right now.


2. Discover the wonders of wool socks. 
Someone introduced me to smartwool socks a few winters ago and my toes have never been happier.  There's nothing better than slipping into a thick, cushiony pair of wool socks. They'll insulate inside your boots and keep you toasty all day.

3. Love the layers.
While it's not every day that I need to wear longjohns, there's something so comforting about that tight, waffle-knit fabric that I just adore. Tights under snow pants is a tried-and-true trick, as is just wearing an undershirt or camisole. If you're getting really ambitious, you could even get a onesie with a butt-flap.


4. Embrace sweater season.
I can't help but be judgmental in the winter when I go places that have their heaters cranked to allow for temperate t-shirt wearing.  The amount of energy it takes to keep a home warm is far greater than the effort it would take to just wear a sweater.


5. Drink up!
If you've been reading GBP for any period of time, you'll know that we love our coffee and tea here. As far as I'm concerned, winter is just one more great excuse for filling up a mug with the good stuff and warming your body from the inside out.

What else are you doing to stay warm?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Privilege in the Eco-World

EcoYogini considers balancing the financial cost of living green...

After years of reading posts from green bloggers trying to dispel the "myth" of costly green living, I am very aware that the great majority of green bloggers out there believe that eco=frugal.

And I agree, to some extent.

The "R" of "Reduce" really brings this point home- the less we consume for the most part the more we save in money.

But what I find unendingly frustrating is the lack of discussion around what the other "cost" may be, and how some of us (many of us) are unable to meet that cost. Oh I know many of you will read this and get defensive super quick, I know how annoying it is to work hard to get people to make tough changes and have someone say "yeah but...", at the same time if we never acknowledge some real challenges we'll never find solutions.

Each area of living has some green components where we can make changes to better the environment. And each area of change comes with a financial or non-financial "cost" associated. Not sure what I'm talking about?

My husband and I are a one car family. My car is 8 years old and little (yaris hatchback) which equals pretty fuel efficient. That said- now that we live a 45min commute to the city (and work) and we carpool, we've noticed some definite challenges financially. Its costing us in our time and fuel- if I have an evening community meeting, want to meet up with friends, go to a yoga class, it's either force my husband to stay in the city waiting for me or an extra trip and back just for that meeting. The result- I miss community board meetings that I participate in, don't take yoga classes and our friend time is restricted to the weekends. On top of this, several times a year I need to travel to rural communities around the province for my work... so we've been forced to rent a car so my husband can actually get to and from work (the city link bus would be a 45min walk from our house where we live AND the carshare option is more costly than renting).

Add the fact that I need a reliable car to safely drive all over the province and mine is getting old...truly we need a second car. Eight years ago we were hoping that by this time electric cars would be available. Oh and they are. But only if you are rich.

Currently in Canada the Nissan Leaf costs over 60,000$... Yeah not even CLOSE to being in our budget. The hybrids, which are a sad copout honestly, still cost 23-25K... which we would have considered if my husband hadn't just lost his job.

The answer to "move to the city" is not a reasonable fix. (and a whole other post). For a variety of ecologically minded, philosophical and mental health reasons we decided to move to a more rural setting. It was the right choice for us and we're "stuck" there for another four years, mortgage wise.

Even if you did live in the city- bus passes are effing EXPENSIVE, the Halifax bus system is terribly unreliable and impractical and restrictive. If you need groceries, to get anywhere outside of the downtown core or even just get someone ON TIME, the public transit system is not your best bet. I say this because I have lived in cities where the public transit is amazing (Montreal). Even bicycling in Halifax can be a scary thing- lack of bike lanes, ginormous hills and narrow streets and you have a bunch of people who *would* bike but don't in fear of their safety.

I always get frustrated when I hear people talk about how shopping at the farmer's market is cheaper. I have no idea where they are shopping, but the Halifax markets are NOT cheaper than shopping in the grocery store. Overall we always spend at least 20%-30% more on produce and meat when shopping at the farmer's market. For a while we bought local milk and yogurt, which was almost twice the price as in the grocery stores and lasted half as long. Same applies to certified organic options- they are more expensive. Now- if we can afford it, I say this is money well spent. That said- we can't always afford it. Right now we're just trying to make ends meet until hubby can get another job.

This year we'll be trying to grow some of our own food. But you know- the start up for that costs money. We need to purchase the right kind of soil (too late to compost) and my husband had to build raised planter beds (which wood costs more money here than in the US). On top of that, gardening takes TIME. When we both work full time, only get home at 5-6pm Monday-Friday, eat supper and then have to spend a few hours gardening? Sure I figure we'll grow to supplement some of our food, but no way do we have time for a garden big enough for ALL our food needs.

Time. Here is the kicker to all our food woes really. Making foods from scratch takes time. We could bake our own bread- but it's hours of time... Which we only have two of the seven days of the week. Making soups and preprepared meals, all of that takes time. It's not say we don't try, but there is only so much we can accomplish when we work full time and have realistically a few hours each evening to get anything done.

Nova Scotia is an oil based heating province. I had all these dreams of having an eco-friendly home for our first home. Hah. There was NO way we could afford a house that already had eco-friendly heating options. We have an oil tank. It's gross. We've discovered that the windows in our house are crap quality and I can FEEL the cold air leak through. We've adjusted to living in 18 degree temperature (celsius), wearing sweaters and blankets, closing doors and blinds each night. Our house stays at 13 degrees overnight. But we still use oil.

I had hopes for solar panels... but we'd have to cover our entire roof and STILL we wouldn't get enough sun to power much in our house. Geothermal isn't an option since we live on bedrock. Add to that all the costs of actually installing these retrofits and since we're struggling just to make ends meet as it is, well.

I'm hoping that having Efficiency Nova Scotia come in and do an assessment (and replace all our bulbs to CFLs for free) will help- but I'm unsure if, beyond replacing all the windows which we cannot afford, anything extra than what we already do will come out of it.


I know this is a negative nancy post- but I honestly believe that our challenges aren't unique. I cannot be the only one who just looks at all the "green" superhero posts out there and just wants to be like "seriously??". I'd love it if we could all be realistic and open about the changes that we recommend and recognizing that some of these changes or green choices, are only available to those who are privileged enough to be able to afford (either with the time or money) them.

That and I guess the reality of my husband losing his job RIGHT after the holidays is getting to me...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Can the Environmentalist and the Climate Change Denier Be Friends?

From the bean of Green Bean.

Last week, I had an exchange with a Twitter user that got me thinking.  The other party lauded efforts to reduce our impact on the environment and clearly cared about conservation, reducing pollution and waste, renewable energy but was not convinced that the climate is changing.  The user pondered: "why don't we focus on not polluting for polluting's sake".

That same day, I listened to an interview with a fisherman in Alaska.  When this gentlemen tells people that he is with Trout Unlimited, people respond, "What are you?  An environmentalist?"  To which he responds (paraphrasing), "No. I'm a conservationist. I want to protect the fish so that I can kill them and keep killing them for years to come."

Have "climate change" and "environmentalism" become so polarizing as to be counterproductive?  Certainly, we cannot ignore that climate change is happening but, instead of arguing with those who disbelieve global warming, would we be better off looking for common ground?

Last year, in an election that was a bloodbath for the environmental movement, voters passed a record amount of funding for local conservation efforts.  Conservation is an issue that crosses party lines.

I have close family members who do not believe in climate change.  I will never forget the day, though, when we hiked through a forest together. We admired the old trees, diverse native plants and abundant birds. Then we crested a ridge and came upon a clearcut forest on the other side.  My family member shook his head and said, "I don't care what your politics are. This is wrong!"

Do we build bridges based on conservation, reduced pollution, clean air and water?  Do we start conversations about preserving farmland by supporting local farmers or bolstering main street by shopping at locally owned stores?  Do we talk, not about climate change, but about how water conservation efforts and native plants can help with the drought?  Do we talk about all the money we save through energy efficiency?  Can enough environmental progress be made in this way or is it too late for those kinds of bridges?

What do you think? Do you have close friends or family members who do not believe that global warming is occurring?  Do you find common ground or just avoid the topic entirely?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Will the Best Chocolate Please Stand Up?

The Climate Crusader tries to understand cocoa labeling.

I love chocolate - and I'm far from alone. Chocolate is awesome. However, some of the practices used in growing chocolate are not so sweet. Forced child labor, human trafficking, pesticide use, low wages for farmers ... the list goes on.

Fortunately, there are organizations that work to certify chocolate, so that you can have some independent assurance that your treat doesn't carry a very high cost for someone else or for the planet. But what do these labels actually mean - and which one is the best? I recently did a little bit of digging to find out what's behind the three biggest labels: Fair trade, UTZ Certified and Rainforest Alliance.

Fair trade

Fair trade is the label that I am most familiar with. It accounts for 39% of the certified market.The movement works to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions - i.e., more money and improved working conditions - and to promote sustainability. Typically, farmers sell their cocoa to a local fair trade cooperative, that offers a guaranteed minimum price and invests some of the money in the community. Like organic certification, there is no single body behind fair trade, but rather several bodies that offer the certification.

Fair trade is the most expensive certification, and typically cooperatives can't sell all of their goods at fair trade prices, so some of the cocoa is still sold at market rates. Also, there are some questions about how fair trade cooperatives are administered and how money is shared. Finally, some smaller-scale farmers actually lose money because they're not able to produce enough cocoa to offset the cost of certification.

UTZ Certified

UTZ Certified is based in Europe, and it's the world's largest organization for sustainable coffee and cocoa farming. It accounts for 25% of the certified cocoa market. Certification is based on a set of social end environmental criteria to promote responsible growing practices and efficient farm management. It offers greater transparency to farmers in terms of how financial premiums are handled, and has more specific environmental requirements. It also offers a traceability system, so that you can know exactly where your chocolate comes from.

Unlike fair trade certification, UTZ does not offer farmers a guaranteed minimum price. The goal is to improve farmer productivity rather than improve trading practices. Its certification is also considerably cheaper, which makes it easier for farmers and companies to enter the 'ethical' market, but which can also lead to greenwashing. Also, while UTZ promises sustainability, its environmental standards are not as high as other organizations. For instance, certain chemical pesticides are allowed.

Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance is an NGO based in New York which works to converse biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods. It accounts for 20% of the certified cocoa market. Like UTZ, its focus is on helping farmers to improve their practices, and in the process, their yields. The Rainforest Alliance wants to stop the  major drivers of deforestation and environmental destruction: timber extraction, agricultural expansion, cattle ranching and tourism. When it comes to chocolate, by helping farmers be more productive, they can help reduce the need to expand the agricultural land base in order to gain better yields. To participate farmers must meet specific, very stringent, environmental standards.

Like UTZ, the Rainforest Alliance is cheaper, and has therefore faced claims of greenwashing as companies opt for a less expensive label than fair trade. There are also no minimum price guarantees for farmers. Also, its seal may appear on products where only 30% of the ingredients were certified.

The Bottom Line

No certification scheme is perfect. However, any one of these does offer a certain guarantee, because an independent party has ensured that the product meets a minimum standard. Which one is the best for you will probably depend on where your priorities lie, and also what chocolate is available to you. And finally, take note that organic certification is separate from any of these three certifications. If organic farming is important for you, look for that label as well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Guilt Free Coffee

Queen Composter waxes poetic about her French press. 

I have a love/hate relationship with my morning cup of coffee. I have kicked the habit, or at least taken a break from the habit, for years at a time, but I always seem to return to my beloved cup of joe.

I've never gone the espresso machine route (always out of my price range) but over the years I've tried several coffee makers. Some I've loved more than others, but each one of them eventually lost its lustre. After my latest round of caffeine detox I took a long hard look at my coffee machine. The carafe was glass, but all the other parts, including the basket where the hot water would drain through, were plastic, and this did not wash with me.

Time to find a new coffee making system.

Needless to say I would not purchase a K Cup system. I won't bother going into the reasons; they do not need to be spoken, and EcoYogini has already done a great job.
Don't judge me. Yes, I am a nerd.

Enter the good old fashioned French press, or Bodum. The hot water does not touch any plastic parts, and there is no filter (even though I have a reusable filter). The only waste, the coffee grounds, are put either into the compost or directly into the garden.

For me, a coffee snob, the best part is that I can leave the coffee steeping for as long as I want and make a killer strong cup.

Sure there are downsides, like having to reheat my second cup if I wait too long, and having to replace it when I knock it off the counter, but overall I think this is the way to go for a zero waste, and zero guilt, cup of coffee.

This latest accident happened on a Monday
morning, as I was rushing to work, of course.

Next problem, finding a fully plastic free electric kettle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Eating Locally in 2015

Mindful Echo's ongoing resolution to eat locally gets easier in 2015

I've mentioned previously that my fridge and pantry are filled primarily with eggs, meat, and produce that I receive as part of several subscriptions to a local farm's Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program. I'm so fortunate to live in a region with access to this kind of program and so much delicious local food!

While the CSA great way for my family to depend on staples, it doesn't cover all the ingredients necessary for regular complete meals. When I need dairy, dried goods, grains, etc. (and by etc. I mean treats), I head over to my closest chain grocery store.

It's easy to justify supporting the big guys now and again, particularly when they're so close and accessible. Even still, in my ideal world I'd be heading somewhere locally to get those additional goods; and even better, those additional goods would be locally-sourced by the retailers.

Leroy manages my accounts.

My partner, who loves to eat as much as he loves to support local business, thought up the perfect Christmas gift for me this year. In a small envelope, I received from him a lifetime membership to a new Halifax community grocer, The Carrot. According the The Carrot website, my $25 card comes with the following benefits:

  • Member only weekly sale items
  • Reduced fees for co-op sponsored classes/workshops
  • Potential to share in any surplus funds (as dividends) or to reinvest in growing the Co-op, as recommended by Board of Directors and approved by members at the Annual General Meeting and special meetings of members
  • One vote per membership at our Annual General Meeting
  • Participate in weekly 50/50 draws
  • Eligible for nomination/election to the Board of Directors and to join Board committees as opportunities arise

  • I'm looking forward to taking advantage of the membership by shopping there regularly to top up my grocery list. Stay tuned for posts on how it's working out!

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    How to Grow Sprouts in Your Kitchen

    In which the Parsimonious Princess shows you how to garden without soil. In your kitchen. In the wintertime. (Spoiler: it's really, really easy.)

    Random fact about me: My first job (other than babysitting) was at a sprout factory.  I was thirteen years old and willing to do menial tasks for a paycheck (I believe my first paycheck was for around $30, which seemed like a lot at the time. I was so excited! I had all sorts of dreams of buying sweater vests and Ace of Base CDs).  It was a small factory attached to a neighbor's home and it was damp, dimly lit in spots, and it smelled strongly of Clorox and, you guessed it, sprouts. I assembled cardboard boxes for shipping, stuck stickers on the domed lids of the plastic containers, hefted bags of alfalfa seeds, and rotated soaking wet bags of sprouts. Despite my time spent at the sprout factory in the 1990s, I claim no extra expertise in the matter. I just thought I'd mention it since this post is going to be sprout-centered. Okay, moving on...

    January can be tough month on a person's psyche. The holidays are over, the New Year resolutions can be hard (I'm in the middle of a Whole30 right now), and the weather can be downright cold and gloomy. Two things you can do to lift your spirits: 1) force paperwhite bulbs indoors (mine just bloomed today!) and 2) grow sprouts. Really, it's not all that surprising that these solutions are plant-related because it's usually around January that I start to miss my garden -- especially the fresh produce that comes out of it. But one way I get fresh, homegrown produce in the middle of my cold, Utah winter is to grow sprouts in my kitchen.

    Up until a couple years ago,  I thought growing sprouts at home required special equipment. Nope. Not at all. To grow your own sprouts, you simply need:

    • Sprouting seeds (I got ours at local health food store. We used Life Sprouts Alfa-Plus Mix - a blend of  alfalfa, radish, cabbage, and clover sprouts. A bottle of sprout seeds, while might seem a little spendy at first, will go a long way. Two tablespoons of seeds yields about four cups of sprouts.)
    • A quart-size wide-mouth canning jar 
    • Cheesecloth, jar ring, and a rubber band -- OR -- a sprouting lid (more on this later) 
    Yep, that's it. Once you've got the supplies, all that's left is some water and a wait of a few days before you have fresh, nutritious sprouts (you can find a list of their health benefits here). 

    Here's a quick how-to:

    Step 1:  Pour two tablespoons of seeds in the glass jar. Fill jar with enough warm water to cover the seeds then add an inch or two of more water. Cut a square of cheesecloth big enough to cover the mouth of your jar. You may have to layer the cheesecloth a couple times depending on the thickness of the cloth you're using. Secure in place with the rubber band and screw on the ring. If you're going to use a sprouting lid, skip the cheesecloth, rubber band, and ring --  just put the sprouting lid on the jar (sprouting lids are inexpensive -- I got mine for less than $2 at my local natural foods store, but you can find them online, too. If you're going to grow sprouts regularly, I would highly recommend getting a sprouting lid. You'll see mine in some of the pictures below.).

    Step 2: Let the seeds soak for about 12 hours in a dark place. When I grow mine, I put them in a kitchen cupboard that isn't used as often as some of the others. Quick note: you're going to be rinsing and draining your sprouts in 12-hour increments, so I'd suggest starting your seeds at a time that makes sense. For example, the first time I grew my sprouts, I didn't read ahead and I started soaking my seeds around noon, only to realize later that would mean draining them at midnight. Oops.

    Step 3: After the 12-hour soak, drain the water from the jar. You do not need to remove the cheesecloth or sprouting lid to do this. Rinse the seeds (nothing fancy -- fill the jar with water, swish the water around). Drain the water without removing the cheesecloth or lid. Put the jar back in a dark place for another 12 hours.

    Step 4: Rinse and drain again. You should see little sprouts popping out of the seeds. (Aren't they cute?) Once you've rinsed and drained the seeds, put them back in the dark.

    Step 5: Rinse and drain sprouts every 12 hours until they reach the length you want. 

    Step 6: Once they've reached the length you want (it took about 3-4 days to get to the length in this picture), put the jar in sunlight. This will help them develop green leaves (This mostly applies to small sprouts like alfalfa, radish, and clover; larger bean sprouts, like mung bean sprouts, are not placed in the sunlight for greening). 

    Step 7: Once the sprouts have greened, empty them into a colander and rinse thoroughly. Spread the rinsed sprouts on a dishtowel to absorb the excess water.

    And ta-da! Homegrown sprouts! It truly is gardening without soil, food grown in just a matter of days. Even after two years of growing sprouts at home, it still amazes me. Be sure to store your sprouts in an airtight container in the refrigerator. They should last about a week. It's a good idea to rinse them from time to time so they don't get all gross and slimy.

    My family mostly enjoys sprouts on sandwiches and salads (though my son, no joke, put them on pizza once when he was around six years old -- he loves them!). I love how fresh they taste and how just a simple handful of them can liven up a dish. Homegrown greens in the wintertime? Always welcome.

    Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.


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