Friday, March 29, 2013

Chasing the Green Dream

From the bean of Green Bean.

Let's face it.  The old economy sucks!  It's dirty, full of subsidies for companies that don't need it, inefficient and just plain lopsided.

The new economy, though, is supposed to be all solar panels, wind turbines and people in green hardhats making buildings more energy efficient.  The new economy sounds great but I often think of it as something other people do.  Something run by corporations that are fairly benign but still big and hulking.  Until recently.

I found myself homebound and unable to cook for several weeks.  My family could only live on frozen organic pizzas for so many meals.  And then I realized that there must be some other answer out there.

There was!  A meal delivery service offering vegetarian, organic home cooked meals packed in reusable glass containers.  Shut the front door . . . and bring that cooler inside, on the counter please.

Green entrepreneurship to the rescue!

The twenty-something chef who ran that business got me thinking.  America is supposed to be the land of opportunity; the land of small business and big work ethic; the land of new ideas.

I realized that the new economy can be much more than recycling plants and solar panels.  It can be single people or small partnerships who decide to earn their livings in accordance with their principles.  In addition to the meal delivery service (which has since closed due to the owner's pregnancy), here are some other favorite small green business ideas:

- When the economy went south and a contractor's business went belly up, he followed his heart and opened Nature's Remedy, a small business that encourages responsible pest management by installing barn own boxes and more.

- A former landscaper thought outside of the box and began installing and managing edible gardens for busy professionals, leaving them a box of their homegrown produce weekly.

- A beekeeper began managing hives on the property of others, selling honey at the farmers' market along with his wife who makes soap and candles from the beeswax.  He also offers beekeeping lessons at this home.

- A retired gentleman makes birdhouses out of reclaimed wood and sells them at the independent market down the street from my parents' house.

- My sister, a landscape architect, now specializes in green schoolyards.  Go sis!

- A middle aged woman coped with being laid off by launching a business upcycling sweaters.  She now sells on Etsy and at craft fairs.

- A small business specializes in architectural salvage to keep interesting items out of the landfill or the consignment stores, popping up in every town out in California it seems, offer a forum for buying and selling gently used clothing,  furniture, toys and baby items.

With crowdfunding, Etsy, and new laws encouraging home businesses, following our green aspirations can literally pay off.  Personally, I'd like to write a novel with climate change as the backdrop.  I've got the outline written but the novel itself, well, I'm working on it.  What are your green business dreams?  Have you run across any cool green business?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Of course, we're cleaning!

                                    From the Laundry Basket of the Homegrown Mama

Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I am tackling the Spring Cleaning list while there is still snow on the ground and gray cloudy skies. As I sit here typing, the windows are open and I'm cold but grateful to enjoy the fresh air!  The majority of my Spring Cleaning is decluttering and organizing, but I do like to give the house a vigorous scrub.  I write out a long list, and pull on my gloves and get going.

The gloves are really only there because I hate having my hands weathered by the hot water.  Recently, I added Dr. Bronner's Castile soap to my arsenal of green cleaning supplies. Once I ran out of a commercially produced green spray cleaner, I decided to recycle the bottle and make my own all purpose cleaner. Hot water, 2 Tbsp. Dr. Bronner's liquid soap and 10 drops of tea tree oil.

I clean pretty much all surfaces in my home with this now: bathroom tiles, the ceramic stove top, the inside of the washer... even the inside of my car!  Two weeks ago, my 3 year old had a bout of carsickness and we thought to try the same solution in our carpet cleaning machine on the upholstery of my car and the carseat.  I've owned that car for years and this is honestly the cleanest that seat has ever been!

If you're a Spring Cleaning type and can't wait to get scrubbing, or at the very least, scrubbing without  harsh chemicals, try this solution!  And if you're looking more tips and tricks... check out this round up from our Spring Cleaning Heroes!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Le Pew

I confess: I am a Country Living kind of gal. I have wishes and dreams of old-fashioned furniture, modeled just so, like the pages of a magazine.

The reality is I live in a six-year-old nondescript house, dressed with a blend of old woodwork, cheap, packed bookshelves and worn-down sofas and chairs. 

Most of my finds haven't taken much effort at all: an old school desk and chair found at an antique store; old dressers that belonged to my husband's grandfather. But really, nothing that screams "me."

And then I found freecycle. Or it found me.

Until this point, freecycle had been just a novelty to me, a way to put out calls for strange things like the long-lost DVR remote or to get rid of the random item that just hadn't made its way to Goodwill as yet.

And then one day a magical moment happened.

Someone was giving away pews. Lots of them. Free for the taking.

I'd idealized having a pew in my home, more of a decorative element than anything functional. And I figured when the time was right - when there was no college or grade-school tuition to pay; our debts were paid down - we would get one.

But on this day, the Methodist Church was doing a massive renovation, and pews - handcrafted in the 1960s - were free for the taking.

I have to say, I've been impressed with the coordinated sweep it took to get those pews out to the homes in just a few hours time. And even more impressed that they thought to donate the wood to those who were interested. Pews found homes in everything from start-up churches to homes like mine.

Right now, my pew has found a temporary home in the front of my house, while I make arrangements to pass along an old love seat to a new home. And I haven't decided still whether to keep the original finish or to strip it and stain it a nice cherry.

And while it may not be picture-perfect, I've been pleased with the moments this pew has already found - from my children playing "church" to little boys sneaking under it to play. And that beats a picturesque magazine shoot any day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Will Generation Y Change the Face of Suburbia?

Julia from Color Me Green wonders about the future of suburbia.

Recently, the idea has been making the rounds that Generation Y wants suburbs to have more of the types of amenities and walkability typically found in cities. As the New York Times noted in their provacatively titled "Creating Hipsturbia":

"The young and highly educated, even though they overwhelmingly grew up in the suburbs, want to be able walk to an independent coffee bar, passing other people with tattoos, order a soy-milk chai latte and vegan pastry, and crack open their Macbook to enjoy some free public wi-fi. As they outgrow the city, like generations before them, they go looking for the same amenities in a more suburban setting. Some areas will attract these people naturally; others are going to have to work for it."

Interestingly, Grist's response  - "Where will all the hipsters go?" - asks why it's necessary to leave the city in the first place. The writer is hopelessly uninformed about NYC, though:

"There are areas of cheaper, ungentrified Brooklyn where they could afford a brownstone for the price of a similar-sized detached home in Tarrytown. Why do they choose a town on the Hudson over Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, or Sunset Park? Is it because crime is still a concern? Are those fears statistically justified? Are New York City public schools still perceived as vastly inferior to their suburban counterparts, and is that accurate? Or is it just because, at some very basic level, many young people still want the comforts they grew up with, like garages and lawns and large, separate houses?"

First of all, even in what he calls a "cheaper" ungentrified neighborhoods he talks about (one of which is where I live), it's still hard to find a whole brownstone for much less than a $1 million, much less a 2 bedroom apartment for the price of what my parents' rural-suburban house is worth. And second of all, most New York City public schools actually ARE inferior. Both of those are very big stumbling blocks to being able to raise a family in the city.

Then there's the American dream of owning a home with a lawn and breathing space. Even I succumb to this desire to a certain extent, with my recent move into an apartment with a backyard, so I can pretend I live in the country. I'm very happy living in the city, but having grown up in the country,  I sometimes feel the pull to live again surrounded by trees and grass and fields.

But like my cohorts mentioned in the NYT article above, I don't just want nature -- I also want to live in a place with independent businesses and walkable neighborhoods and public transit. I don't want to spend my life in a car, guzzling gas. I don't want a house with more space than I need. While there are some towns like that (often college towns), options are currently limited.

Back in 2011, Grist reported that Generation Y isn't looking for McMansions, but instead for smaller and less auto-dependent homes. At that time, they asked:

"But is it for real? And will Gen Y be any different than previous generations, which used dense, walkable neighborhoods for youthful partying and then motored out to the suburbs for their own kids — who were in their turn driven back into the cities by boredom, only to start the cycle once again?"

This is something I've wondered myself. However, the fact that the media is still finding these trends two years later suggests that it's more than me just and my friends -- that it's a whole generation of people who hope to seek out and are willing to create suburbs that have more urban-like amenities, less sprawl and less energy-intensive neighborhoods and homes.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sugar Shack Taffy in Nova Scotia: Lessons to be Learned from Rural Living

EcoYogini shares an experience from her tiny village in Nova Scotia and ponders the often disregarded rural living...

This weekend I'm in my childhood home: a tiny lobster fishing village of 500 people in rural Nova Scotia. A few years ago, a local lobster fisherman decided, for fun, to start tapping some maple trees and making some maple syrup. Traditionally, Acadians have been tapping and making maple syrup and 'la tire' for centuries (it's definitely not the monopoly of the Québécois). When I was younger, there were several 'Cabane à sucre' in the area, but that had gone to the way-side.
(the back of the Sugar Shack, with the vats for the raw maple sap to feed into the cooker)

(The fisherman had asked he not be named, as he is not doing this for publicity)
(A tree with the tap in his backyard!)

Until this lobster fisherman and his family started boiling syrup in their shed just because. They bottled it and gave it away for free and in return several families along the village road started adding buckets to their trees. After a few years it became evident that the syrup was bringing the community together and the fisherman decided to expand.
(The inside of the Sugar Shack: on the right is the cooker (and the back of my dad lol)- see below- and on the left is another stove to check the temperature with a candy thermometer and a filtering station)

(There are three sections where the sap is slowly boiled at increasingly higher temperatures to thicken the syrup by increasing the sugar content until it comes out of the spigot at the end once it's reached about 219 degrees)

With the help of other fishermen, they built the 'Sugar Shack', ordered a specially made syrup processing machine and tapped more than 600 trees in the village. Now, white buckets dot the trees all along the village and people come from all around to visit the Sugar Shack.

Today was the grand finale where the last batch was cooked and poured over snow to make taffy. A fisherman from a neighbouring village came to carve an eagle out of wood with his chainsaw. As the snow gently fell, it was a beautiful moment where neighbours and families gathered to chat and children learned and played.

(Mother and daughter are busy pouring the syrup for lines of adults and children to eat their taffy- it was delicious!)
(Yum yum! the taffy is cooling and solidifying to be placed on a stick)

The fisherman now has friends and family who help cook and bottle the syrup and people stop by to gather, connect and chat. It has become a real gathering point in a community during a time where the lobster fishermen have had to fight to get a fair price for their product and jobs are disappearing.

 (The eagle is half way done and children take a closer look while the carver (orange hat on the right) takes a break)

The Sugar Shack is a beautiful example of why rural living can be so much more wondrous and meaningful than urban living. As our population moves toward the city, I feel we often lose this sense of connection and community and as a result rely on ourselves. We need to find a way to stop scoffing rural living and see the lessons to be learned.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dealing with a New Natural Disaster

I live in Oklahoma, the heart of tornado alley. My friends and family that don't live around here always get really worried when they hear we are under a tornado watch but it rarely phases those of us that have always lived here.

I've always said Oklahoma is one of the safest places to be during a tornado. We have the best warning systems in the world, I have a siren right down the street from me and shelters are common around here.

I know in some places sirens go off as soon as there is a warning in that county but here they only go off if your town is threatened. Last year was a record low year for tornadoes in Oklahoma, there were no storms to produce them as we are in a really bad drought, but a couple of years ago they went off while I was at a chiropractor appointment. Several of us were laying on tables getting some treatments and not a single person got up. Someone in the waiting room went outside and looked around and said it looked fine. We turned on the radio and no one freaked or really did much of anything else. I think a few texts got sent.

I got kind of worried when the radio said where the possible tornado was because it wasn't far from where my husband would be driving home from work. I got ahold of him and he had seen cops go speeding past him and there was a lot of rain and some small hail but it seemed okay. Turns out the tornado was in the town where he works and he had left just in time, though it didn't really do much damage.

But Oklahoma now has to deal with a different natural disaster, one we aren't prepared for, earthquakes. Before 2010 the average number of earthquakes per year was 35, in 2010 Oklahoma had 1,000 earthquakes, 2012 we had 1,400. In 2011 we had a 5.6 earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma. Most Oklahomans didn't even have earthquake insurance or have a clue what to do during the earthquakes. At least one person was injured because they ran out of their house during the earthquake, something people that are used to them know not to do.

With such a huge increase in earthquakes people are of course asking questions. Many want to blame hydraulic fracturing, as known as fracking, but studies point to another cause. The disposal wells used in natural gas and oil drilling are thought by some to be the possible cause. Several studies show links and many geophysicists believe that could be the cause. They are struggling to get answers though as the industry doesn't have to provide the pressure measurements the geophysicists need to farther study the link. Until they can get this information it's unlikely we can know for sure if disposal wells are causing the earthquake increase, but for now it seems likely.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why I Still Love Hemp Shower Curtains Despite a Mold Incident

EcoYogini shares her hemp shower curtain fail and take two...

Living in Nova Scotia means living near the ocean (if you doubt me, take a peak at a map, ocean surrounds the province). Living in such a humid climate also means mold. Especially when our apartment bathroom has terrible ventilation.

Two years ago I finally bit the mold bullet and bought a hemp shower curtain. Up to that point I was frantically scrubbing our (supposedly) bpa free shower curtains and replacing them every few months, which over the long run cost money and was wasteful.

This hemp shower curtain cost 100$, but I figured it would last years, therefore would eventually pay for itself and instead of constantly scrubbing, I could just throw it in the cold wash every two weeks.

Unfortunately, only a year and a half later and there was mold growing all along the bottom of our supposedly mold-resistent shower curtain. Wtf?? I tried using eco-bleach, washing repeatedly to no avail. I cut off the bottom and then the shower leaked all over the floor. Awesome.

Despite this, I was in LOVE with my hemp shower curtain and the thought of going back to icky plastic grossed me out.
(our second hemp shower curtain)

So... we went back to p'lovers and purchased a second one. I know. It was a moment of eco-extravagance. I was absolutely certain, though, that this time we would do things differently. We would take better care of our beautiful hemp curtain. If that meant more work, than fine.

Six months later and our curtain is going strong. No signs of mold yet. We're doing things a bit differently though:

  • We wash the shower curtain (periodically in hot water) every week now.
  • After each shower we wring out the bottom and hang it OUTSIDE the tub to dry.
  • Every other wash is with eco-bleach. 
If you have a bit of extra moneys and live in a dry climate (or your bathroom is uber ventilated) then I highly recommend using hemp for your shower curtain. It just makes the showering experience so much more enjoyable and less icky plastic-y. You'll notice right away that "oh hey! there's no plastic smell while I shower! weird...".

Anyone else have some mold difficulties with their hemp shower curtain? Or have other tips to keep the mold away?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Turning Down the Heat...Or Not

Julia from Color Me Green looks at the costs of heating an apartment.

Per New York City law, landlords are usually required to pay for heat and hot water utilities. However, my current apartment is in a new building where each unit has its own furnace and hot water heater. So this is the first time in my adult life that I've been able to control (and pay for) my heat.

The apartment comes with a programmable thermostat, which is great for energy efficiency and personal comfort. It's exciting to never have to wake up to freezing morning temperatures or be boiling hot at night. Now, I always thought that a programmable thermostat meant that the heat would magically change to the desired temperature at the time you wanted it to. However, I've learned that the time it takes to heat or cool to a desired temperature fluctuates greatly based on how cold it is outside. For example, when the weather was under 20 degrees F, it literally took eight hours for the temperature to rise from 60 to 70 degrees. When the weather is twenty degrees warmer, it only takes an hour or two.

In past winters, Crunchy Chicken has encouraged people to join a Freeze Yer Buns Challenge to lower your thermostat as much as you're comfortable. I always wondered, given the opportunity to control my heat, if I would keep my home cold. It turns out not. Because our heat is not that expensive,  my selfish desire to be warm wins out over my recognition that it's an indulgent consumption of more resources that I need.

We keep the thermostat at 69-70 degrees when we're home, and turn it down to 60 overnight and weekdays when we're at the office. This adds about $70 a month to our bill, and while I don't love it, that extra amount for three months a year is not going to break our bank. We are paying for natural gas to heat about 700 square feet in an apartment building, which comes with the built-in insulation of being surrounded by other heated apartments, so the temperature would never drop much below 60 or 55 anyway. How does this compare to your heating bill - whether you're in a standalone house or an apartment? And what temperature do you keep your thermostat at?

We did try installing plastic sheets over our windows to insulate them. However, it only reduced our heating bill by about $15. We didn't exactly do a great job installing them, since we noticed some spots where the seal came away, but I was expecting more of an impact than that. Have any of you tried window insulating techniques?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Accepting Inconvenience for the Planet

The Climate Crusader considers how much inconvenience she's willing to accept in an effort to live a greener lifestyle.

"Aw, mom, can we drive today?"

Nearly every morning before we walk up the hill to school, one of my kids asks this question. Nearly always, the answer is No. When my daughter started kindergarten two-and-a-half years ago, I committed to walking to school and home every day. There have been a few exceptions, when I've had somewhere to go in the morning or afternoon, and I've driven. But I can safely say that we walk well over 95% of the time, in any weather. I realize I'm fortunate to have the freedom to do this as a work at home mom, and I want to take advantage of it.

A similar scene plays out when I'm halfway through the grocery store and I realize I've forgotten my reusable bags in the car. I think to myself, "Do I really need to go downstairs for them? They use paper bags at this grocery store, would it be a big deal if I took them just this once?" Eventually I concluded that I was willing to face the inconvenience to head downstairs to the parking garage, hauling my four-year-old with me all the way, while my half-full cart sat at Customer Service.

Reusable bags aren't much good if you forget them
What both of these stories have in common, in my mind, is whether we're willing to accept some level of inconvenience in an effort to live more sustainably. When it's raining and you're running late, do you just hop in the car or do you walk? When your reusable grocery bags are all the way downstairs and you have a preschooler and a half-full cart, do you go and fetch them or do you let it slide? When you forget your reusable water bottle do you buy water in a plastic bottle, go without, or find a sustainable alternative?

The truth is that it's easy to be green when it doesn't take any extra time out of your day. I experience this, myself. I'm lucky to have curbside recycling and compost pick-up, and I use them. But when I have something that I need to bring into the recycling center, I drag my feet and dawdle, and sometimes just end up throwing it out. I try to reassure myself that one little drink box that my kid got from school won't matter that much, compared to every other day when she brings a reusable water bottle. Recycling that drink box just feels like too much work.

I think we all need to make a decision, for ourselves, about how much we're willing to go out of our way in an effort to be green. I would actually suggest starting with a fairly comfortable level. If you take on too much, you're more likely to feel overwhelmed. But once your small changes become habits that you don't even have to think about, why not stretch yourself a little further? Accept a little more inconvenience, walk out of your way a little further, until that becomes habit, too. Slowly but surely you'll be living a greener lifestyle, and it won't feel as inconvenient as it might have at the outset.

How much inconvenience are you willing to accept on behalf of the planet?

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Friday Question: How Do You Store Raw Meat?

Ground turkey packaged straight from the
butcher counter into my Pyrex container.

Although I aspire to being disposable-plastic-free, I am far from there, particularly in the realm of food. But I do try to draw a line somewhere, and the line I have drawn is this: I do not buy meat packaged on styrofoam trays. Not even the organic ground turkey at Costco, even though it is quite a good price for organic ground turkey.

When I decided to stop purchasing meat packaged in styrofoam, I resolved to instead buy ground turkey at the meat counter in Whole Foods, so I could have it packaged in my own reusable glass Pyrex containers. After using the meat, I could just put the Pyrex through the dishwasher and store until my next meat purchase. I could also use them for any other raw meat I bought at Whole Foods.

In the end, I think I used the Pyrex containers for my raw meat purchases from the butcher counter 2 or 3 times total. And then I stopped bringing the Pyrex and just bought my meat packaged in butcher paper.

Because it was all just a little too much of a hassle. Whole Foods is a good 20+ minutes away from me and I only get there once every month or two, which means that I wander through every aisle trying hard not to forget anything, and by the end of the trip my three children are no longer model citizens. And I already had trouble remembering the insulated bag and then prioritizing what would actually go inside so all my expensive refrigerated goods (like meat) would not spoil during the pack up and trip home. And the glass containers are breakable and heavy -- both tough to negotiate with little ones in the cart. So I gave up. Although I do think butcher paper is a big step up from styrofoam trays. (Anyone know exactly what the inside of butcher paper is lined with, by the way?) I never went back to styrofoam trays. And I do buy less meat in general than I used to.

But should I still be taking those empty Pyrex containers to Whole Foods? Is it worth the effort to avoid throwing butcher paper in the trash?* I honestly don't know. But I sometimes find myself wrestling with this question when it comes to making green changes: is the hassle worth the effort? And if I only have a finite amount of effort to try to green our lifestyle, where is the most important place to apply it?

[*Confession: I don't compost. That's one of many reasons why I'm still the Eco-novice.]

So I ask you, Boothers:

  • When you purchase meat, what is it packaged in? 
  • How do you avoid disposable packaging for raw meat? 
  • Are there any green changes you have abandoned because they didn't seem worth the effort?


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