Thursday, December 30, 2010

I think most parents dream that their children will have a better life than they did. If their children don't grow up to become doctors or lawyers, at least they should get a comfy office job where they don't have to put in back-breaking hours day in and day out at a local lumber mill or mine. That is to say, I think my own family would be a little disappointed if I were brutally honest with them and told them that all I really wanted to do with my fancy four-year degree was play with dirt.

But dirt is important.

Next to the sun, we owe much of our livelihood to dirt.We live on it. We work on it. We eat what is grown from it. But do we care of the dirt like we could?

I saw a trailer the other day for Dirt! The Movie, and it looks like it might make an earnest attempt at answering that question. The short answer, however, is no.

There's something that nature does exceptionally well that we, as humans, have historically sucked at. That is, giving back to the soil. Plants pop up in the spring soaking up vital energy from the sun. One might argue that these plants are soaking up vital nutrients from the soil, but that very argumentative person would be missing the larger picture. Those plants are digging their roots in deep and pulling up nutrients that have been leached by the elements. Come autumn, those plants die back or lose their leaves, returning all of those nutrients to the surface again, along with a whole growing season's worth of solar energy. Even that which is eaten will eventually be returned to the earth, either as manure or a decomposing doe.

I will reiterate that we suck at this. The closest we've gotten to respect the cycles of nature has been in keeping meat animals on pasture. Except, in raising a cow, the best we can hope for is to get one calorie out for every calorie we put in. We end up sacrificing variety in our diets and in our ecosystem for a quasi-balanced, but exceptionally inefficient system.

Our grand adventures in agriculture only take us further from the already-less-than-ideal. Slash and burn agriculture: we destroy whatever's there so we can put what we want in its place, and once we exhaust the soil of its resources, we move on. Feed lots: dedicate large swaths of land to growing food for animals that we keep neatly confined, stockpiling an obscene amount of excrement which then finds its way into nearby bodies of water, contaminating it, causing algae blooms, killing off fish populations, and endangering the lives of humans; the manure never makes it as far as fertilizing the fields that grow the food for the very animals in question, because... Chemical revolution: it's faster and cheaper to apply petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, etc. to the fields than to deal with compost or manure, neverminding that petroleum supplies are limited and have untold adverse effects, including the destruction of the microorganisms that make up a healthy soil.

We need to learn how to take care of the dirt so that the dirt will keep taking care of us. Things might be dirt cheap right now, but in a few decades, or a few centuries, we might be talking about how things are dirt expensive.

Which brings me the the whole point of my post. Geoff Lawton, a hero of mine whom I've written about previously has released another DVD all about caring about our soil. Both his food forest DVD and the short video on greening the desert blew my mind, and I have no doubts that his new Permaculture Soils DVD will be equally educational and inspiring. The only problem is that his DVDs are really hard to come by her in the states, so if you want a copy, you may very well have to have a copy shipped over from the land down under.

Can't wait for that? Here's a trailer to hold you over:

What about you? Besides composting, what other ways do you take care of your soil?

P.S. Dirt may even be good for your health!

Photo by cobalt123


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Trying to be mindful of sustainability while buying gifts is tedious, if not downright impossible. Have a look at buying locally versus having gifts shipped, as well as five ways to stay eco-conscious this holiday season.                       

Gift-giving. It's that season again. People are out running around trying to find gifts for their family and friends, and trying to score the best deals on all kinds of products. And lately I've been seeing a lot of marketing hype about so-called "ecogifts" which are supposed to be the best thing you can do for the planet. Are they really?

There are a couple of points of contention. First of all, is the product in question made in a sustainable way? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it's a cutting board made out of sustainably harvested bamboo. Or perhaps it's a blanket made out of organic cotton. But just being made in a sustainable way does not a sustainable item make. Where an item is made is just as big of a concern. Is a product really sustainable if it's being shipped halfway across the world? The short answer is no. The fuel used to transport it clearly outweighs whatever laudable techniques were used in its manufacture.

But, like most things, this is complicated.

Do you drive to the store to buy gifts? Do your neighbors, friends, and family all drive to the store to buy gifts? Just think about how many cars this adds to the road. Think about it in terms of numbers. If 500 people in your town or city drive to the store to buy one gift each, a lot of you are probably going to end up driving a a bunch of the same stretches of road. If you load the same 500 gifts onto a truck and have one person deliver them, you might get some overlap, but not nearly so much. In this case, having something shipped is the preferable option. If you have to drive in order to get something, having it delivered is often the better choice. It's like a carpool for your products.

That's the balancing act we have to play.

Chances are you weren't going to go to Vietnam to buy that bamboo cutting board. You probably weren't even going to go as far as the next state. But even if you were just buying it from a local store, chances are it was manufactured, at least in part, on the other side of the world. This can make truly buying local a tricky affair.

Are these ecogifts better than their less sustainably manufactured brethren, all other things equal? Certainly. Just don't buy into the hype that buying these products is somehow going to magically save the world. They are an improvement over they alternative, but they are still products, and they still have an environmental cost.

If you are buying gifts this holiday season, keep these general rules in mind:

1. Buy locally

Things that are made and sold locally by local artisans and craftsmen don't travel and distance and burn quite the amount of fuel as something shipped from far away. These products should be made from local and sustainable materials to boot. And you'll have peace of mind knowing that you're supporting the local economy.

2. Buy services

Eschew products altogether and buy something intangible. A massage or a day at a museum might be just what your loved one needs. If you want to buy a gift that keeps giving to the planet, you could even enroll them in a permaculture class.

3. Make something

If you put some time and energy into a project, your loved ones will appreciate it more than anything that could ever be bought. My fellow blogger over at Get Rich Slowly has a great list of 34 homemade gift ideas.

4. Opt out

As I've grown older and my family has spread out and grown apart, the holidays aren't quite the gatherings they once were. The winter time is filled with holidays and festivals because it's cold, dark, and gloomy. They're an excuse to enjoy each other's company.So do it. Plan your day around activities you can share together other than gift-giving.

5. Community service

Lots of people make the holidays about other people, outside of their immediate families. They donate time or clothing to the homeless, or volunteer in a local animal shelter. This is a great way to give without having a guilty conscience afterward. Have your family volunteer with you and you can still share the holidays with each other.

Do you have any other tips for staying green this holiday season? Any ideas for activities a family could partake in lieu of gift-giving? Share 'em in the comments.

Photo by mmlolek


I just pushed the new redesign of the site, as you can no doubt see if you're not reading this in a feed reader. There are still bugs to work out and posts to clean up, but it'll get the job done. Hope you enjoy the new look And I hope you find it easier to navigate than the previous iterations. That said, I'm going to bed. I'll catch you all tomorrow.

Photo by su-lin



Sunday, November 28, 2010

When trying to do what's best for the environment, our wallets sometimes get in the way. And when our wallets get in the way, choosing between long-term and short-term environmental goals gets tougher. What should we do?                                      

Photo by Steve Wampler

A lot of my focus lately has been on finance, what with my working 40 hours a week and trying to write a novel in order to make a couple of extra bucks. This is coming from a guy that envisions a lifestyle where he provides 90% or more of his food needs, plus many other material needs, all without the use of money. I want to grow what I need. Finance plays a role in sustainability, however, on account of the system we are working inside of. Short of stealing a person's home, I'll have to opt to buy the property on which I wish to develop my eventual forest garden (certainly renting is one possibility, but that adds stress for both the forest gardener and the property owner--the owner will want to know if the gardener is going to leave them with a mess of trees they have to dig out of their once-perfectly-acceptable farm land, and the gardener will worry if the property owner will stop renting to them once the forest garden is about to reach maturity). I've definitely had discussions with some readers about wanting to re-localize our economize to better do away with abstract finance, but we just aren't at that point yet. I think it will take a few mindful individuals who have the means to purchase this land before it's paved over, and then act as stewards of that land for the benefit of their communities. As a writer, and as a connoisseur of film, I appreciate the need for such graceful transitions, whether in the arts or in the socio-politico-economic realms.

So. Finance.

My student loan payments just started coming due, and I made my first payment this week. More of them will start coming due in the next couple of months. My 90-day review at work, and the raise that is supposed to come with it, is long past due. I'm doing okay, financially, but I am living paycheck to paycheck, and were I to lose my job or suffer a major medical expense, I would have nothing to fall back on. Money will only get tighter as more and more loan payments get stacked onto my other bills. I'm also constantly stressing about how long it will be before my unemployed roommate exhausts his savings and is unable to to pay his share of the rent (hopefully there is enough warning that I can move back home if this ever becomes the case).

One way that I could help reduce my financial burdens is, as I've mentioned before, to live within a neo-nuclear family. In less fanciful terms, I could get more roommates--though the idea behind a neo-nuclear family is that there is a bond beyond simple shared living expenses. Although, splitting rent and utilities three, four, or five ways would certainly reduce my personal costs.

The other alternative, or at least, one of the alternatives, is to reign in frivolous spending. Recently I've been doing a lot of that, relatively speaking. In my first month at my new job I probably ate out more times than I had the entire time I was going to school. I worked (and am still working) eight hours a day, coupled with two hours of commuting on the bus each day. Once you tack on the other little things I have to do to get ready for work, and the downtime I face when I get home from putting in a long day, I simply didn't have the energy to prepare meals most of those days.

Last month I finally had a system down. I would prepare enough food on the weekends that I didn't have to cook or eat out during the week (though, it did get kind of old eating the exact same thing every day for a week), and when I did have to make a purchase, I would use services on my phone to track where my money was going as I spent it. I gave myself a very conservative budget for eating out and I stuck with it, even though I had used almost all of it up in the first half of the month. It forced me to be more vigilant in ensuring I was preparing enough food to eat each week when I had the time to do so.

But, it fell apart this month. I decided to write a novel in 30 days. When I wasn't working, I was writing. Easily twelve or more hours a day on the weekends, plus getting up four hours before my shift on weekdays so I could write before I left for work. I've been writing during my lunch breaks, on my commute to and from work, before I left for work, and after I got home. So, now I was working 40 hours a week, and then spending at least an additional 44 hours a week, if not actively writing, at least actively developing the story within my head or cursing my writer's block.

I would rush to get something in the crockpot right before passing out the night before my work week began (I'm really sick of soup right now, by the way), but when the weekends rolled around, I basically ate out for every meal. It's been worse than any other month since I started working. And keeping a budget or tracking spending? Screw that! When did I have the time or energy? When I did eat out, I would stuff the receipt in my pocket and promise I'd put it in my phone later.

I haven't entered a single receipt all month.

When I was first trying to figure out how to track my spending on my phone I had looked into and, both of which had apps for my phone. I ultimately went with the PageOnce app. It was a purely arbitrary decision, based in part on the reviews the software had received, but mostly because I didn't want to enter my already sensitive financial information into two separate pieces of software, thus increasing my chances of becoming of victim of identity theft (although, I pity the fool that steals my identity). There was a problem with my choice, though. PageOnce didn't allow me to create budgets, even though it did track my spending rather nicely. I ended up having to install another app in order to create a budget, and then I had to enter my receipts manually. Hence the problem that occurred when I didn't have the time and energy to enter my receipts.

Finally, yesterday, while there was some downtime at work (yes, I do work on Saturdays, for better or worse), I was turned on to the blog of a fellow Oregonian writer. You may have heard of it. It's called Get Rich Slowly. When the author, J.D., decided to start tracking his spending again he went with, and he wrote up a pretty nice review of the service. It allows you to set up budgets and automatically assigns purchases at various stores, etc., to different categories and allows you to tweak to your hearts content. Even though I hadn't wanted to put my details into two separate accounts, I broke down last night and set up my account and created a budget which will go into full effect once December 1st rolls around. Everything is automated, and it will email or text you if you try to go over your alloted budget, so hopefully it's an improvement over my previous system.

Also, it allowed me to see that I had been spending nearly 30% of my income on food. That includes groceries, but also a considerable amount of that is the fault of eating out. I did so well last month on avoiding eating out with the help of a budget, and now that my novel-writing is winding down, I hope I will be able to avoid eating out in the months to come.

I also have a goal set up in Mint to save up a small emergency fund, just in case there are any medical expenses, etc., that I need to cover. If my budget works out, I'll be able to meet that goal in six months.

The next step is to call the companies servicing my loans and switch to a payment plan that is based on my income. If I don't do that, when I finally have to start paying on my final loan, my loan payments each month will be between $400 and $500. In short, more than I can afford. I'll be trying to pay off two or three of the smaller loans first so that there are fewer companies/payments/etc. to deal with each month.

I haven't been clear. I know this. What, exactly, does any of this have to do with sustainability?

Three things.

First, if you have debt or any kind of financial obligations to the "outside world" or "the system," then you have to have a way to make money to pay on those obligations so long as they exist.

Second, if you want to own property so that you can start a garden of some sort, you need to have a plan and set goals that will make purchasing that land a reality.

Third, we have to be conscious of how our sustainable choices effect our wallets.

With regard to the first, I have loans that I have to pay off. That is one of my major priorities right now because I can't pay off my debt with apples and plums--at least, not directly. Before I can think of doing anything other than working full time, I need to make sure I have a plan for managing that debt, or to be free of it entirely.

With regard to the second, I'm creating financial goals. These next six months are going to be about creating a financial buffer in the form of an emergency fund. For the 18 months following that, I will be putting half that amount toward growing my emergency fund, and the other half into a fund for purchasing property and developing a forest garden. After that, it's all about the property fund. If I already have a set amount that I'm promising to put away for these projects, then I won't be able to spend that money on something frivolous.

The third one is the real stickler, though. I haven't bought that bidet yet. We have two rolls of toilet paper left. Do I A) Foot the bill and buy the bidet, ultimately saving money in the long run and doing something good for the environment while I'm at it? B) Buy the super expensive 100% recycled toilet paper that we've been using, feeling good about not buying the non-recycled stuff, but realize that I'm spending an asinine amount of money to wipe my ass, or C) Buy the super cheap toilet paper, cringe at the fact that I'm killing the planet slowly, but hope that what I'm saving my money up for balances that out?

There are other options, of course, but these are the most obvious. Each has pros and cons. And obviously, there's no easy answer because there's an interplay of choices here. If I buy the environmentally horrid toilet paper, I'll be saving money for a very environmentally valiant cause. It's about the net effect. If you kill a bunch of trees to print out fliers promoting an environmental discussion panel which ultimately causes a bunch of people to live more environmentally-conscious lives, was it worth the death of those trees. If the net effect was an ultimately positive one, then, barring any extraneous issues, it probably was worth it.

On that same note, growing organic vegetables is dirt cheap, Buying them isn't so much. I can't grow them, especially not this time of the year, so do I buy non-organic so that I can make ends meet? I generally don't have much of a choice as my wallet dictates what my options are. I could commit to buying organic only, or 90% organic, or 70% organic, or whatever, but then I will never get caught up financially, and that forest garden will never become a reality. I did buy almost entirely organic products this past week when I went shopping. I felt violated when I saw the bill. If the farmer's market was still running, I would never pay that much for food in a week. So, I mostly buy bulk bags of non-organic carrots, potatoes, onions, etc., and occasionally buy organic when I can during the fall and winter months. I have to make being financially smart my goal though.

Are your long-term environmental goals often cut short by short-term goals? Or do you opt to make some really crummy decisions in order to ensure the success of your long-term goals?

Right now I'm trying to ensure the success of my long term goals, and that is requiring me to make decisions that I don't want to. But, I am tracking my spending and dutifully adhering to my goals so that it isn't all for nothing.

What about you? How do you deal with the intersection of money and environment, and do you have a plan to make sure you don't stray too far?

In other news, I dug through some of the old comments on the blog after having been away for so long. Someone mentioned creating forest gardens in public spaces, and at about that same time I looked out of my window and saw a small plot of land that presumably belongs to the church next door, and which sits right next to their parking lot. It's a Hispanic church, and I know that a lot of the immigrants in this area work in agriculture. I also know that they're a pretty tight-knit crowd, and have strong communities. It sounds like a breeding ground for a community forest garden. Perhaps it's something I should look into. I think I might have a contact that can help me find who I need to talk to.

The other other news is that I've noticed that the site is running rather slowly/buggily. That tends to happen when I disappear for a few months. Looks like I'll have to work on it in December to get it back into tip-top shape. You're probably sick of me tweaking/completely redesigning the thing on a whim, but I've yet to find that one design that really does the trick. It's getting there. Thanks for the patience.


Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm not dead, as the title clearly states. This is an update to let you know what I've been up to, and why the long silence (hint: it has to do with the novel I've been writing). New posts will follow in December.                  

Photo by malky

I haven't written in ages, and I really didn't want to leave you hanging. I had a lot of posts that I planned on writing over the summer, but they just never happened. I'm working for the man now, an ungodly forty hours a week. But, I'm also working on the first draft of my first novel: Max After Earth. In my story, the Earth has been so ravished by human activity that when an asteroid (perhaps you've heard of Apophis?) threatens all life on Earth, scientists flee the planet rather than try to find a way to stop the calamity, no longer finding the Earth worth saving. I've written about 190 pages so far, and I'm starting to wrap things up. There's still a lot of editing that needs to be done. No, seriously a lot of editing. But, I'm that much closer to realizing my dream of writing and publishing a book, and it deals with a lot of my favorite topics, including environmental issues, forest gardening, human relationships, and technology. It's interesting to see all of these different thought processes come together in one work of fiction.

To those of you maintaining your own blogs, I'm apologize that I haven't been around to read your, no doubt fantastic, work. Maybe when my book is off to the publishers I'll be able to take a break and do some catching up.

I hope you'll continue to follow me on my journey. Any money that I'm able to make off of my book will be seed money for starting a forest garden of my own, a forest garden which I will be able to use to teach other's forest gardening (both in person and through this blog) and that's something I really look forward to.

Until my next update, which could be some time in coming given the current work load, take care.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Forest Grove Farmers' Market offers a food stamp program for the second year in a row. Here's a look at how that helps both the farmers, and the people with low incomes who might otherwise go without fresh organic produce.                                                     

Photo by Steve Bickel
I might have mentioned that I worked at the local farmer's market a few summers ago. My job, among other things. was to process food stamp payments for the entire market. It was the first year that the market had accepted food stamps, and it was a big hit.

The program has grown since then, and I'm glad to see that that's the case. Why?

I'm sure that in one of my recent tirades I've mentioned that corn is in everything. It's used as a binder, a thickener, a sweetener, a preservative: you name it. It's in everything precisely because the government subsidizes the growing of corn. This means it costs almost nothing to use corn ingredients in one's products. People with limited incomes can stretch their dollar further by buying these products, and consequently they have the worst diets in the country. Meanwhile, these buying habits just reinforce the inclusion of corn-based products in virtual everything.

Food stamps at farmer's markets help the good guys win.

First, farmers can sell produce for cheaper while making more money. Farmers lose a lot of potential income when they sell to grocery stores because those grocery stores have to factor in overhead when calculating their buying price. Selling directly to the consumer saves everyone money.

Second, people with limited incomes are able to buy healthy foods which they would often pass up in grocery stores on account of price. Because the money is going from the food stamp program to the local farmers, it's helping to stimulate the local economy.

Third, because this food is local, and often organic, it's reducing the farm-to-fork miles contributed by one of the most offending demographics. Unfortunately, this demographic has very little control themselves, and are jerked around by what they're able to afford. Programs like this help them make healthy choices for themselves, for the planet, and for the local economy.

The unfortunate thing is that it is cost prohibitive for most farmer's markets to start a food stamp program. The necessary equipment costs thousands of dollars. Check to see if your local farmer's market has a food stamp program, and if not, you can help by looking into getting grants to start one, or by organizing a fundraiser to come up with the necessary funds.

On top of the benefits to this underserved demographic, however, is the fact that the same equipment will allow the farmer's market to collect credit and debit card payments as well. The ease of buying that this has created for our market has meant better profits for our farmers, and a well-fed community.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Since this blog is about me writing as much as it is anything environmental--that just happens to be what I hone my writing on--I thought I'd share news about my world of academia and what's been keeping me away from the blog.         

From my advisor:

"Some lines in here are publishable, Matt. You're smart, have a good sense for telling the story, and aren't afraid to confront the monster. All the makings of a true memoirist."

That might not seem like much unless you're a writer. When you're a writer, you have to learn to compensate for the fact that your mentors will ration compliments to A) keep them from going to your head and turning you into a monster, and B) make sure you never settle for second best. As writers, we have to pretend that those compliments aren't actually 500,000% better than they seem for those very same reasons. In a sense, a good chunk of writing is learning to lie to yourself until your lies are true... or something. I'm actually just caffeinated and exhausted, so none of this really makes sense. If I'm lucky I'll manage to sound wisely ambiguous, so when you don't get it you'll think you just haven't thought about it hard enough.


Photo by Josep Ma. Rosell 
I don't think I've shared with you, my readers, what my non-environmental work is. This project in particular is a memoir, if you hadn't gathered from the quote. I've been doing research on touch in America, and especially the tendency for Americans to conflate touch and affection with sexuality. A kiss can't just be a kiss, it has to signify romantic/sexual interest. Compared to other industrialized nations, in this regard, the U.S. seems to be trailing (just like we are in so many other areas.) That doesn't mean there isn't a problem at all in other countries, but the research I've done suggests that we're the worst, and because I'm U.S.American, I can contribute my personal experiences to the discussion of this research. So, that's what my work does. It blends my personal experiences and the experiences of people I know with the research I've been doing in order to appeal both to people who want a compelling story, but also those that want objective facts and a scientific basis.

One piece of interesting research involved a survey of teenage mothers. Most of those teens admitted that they didn't want sex, but rather they wanted love and affection, to feel cared for and desired. This deficit of love and affection, the study suggested, stems from the fact that American parents are made to feel incestuous, or like pedophiles, if they try to be affectionate with their children once they reach puberty and mature sexually. It becomes inappropriate for adults to touch their children in more than just a simple hug or the like. Sex and relationships are a way for teens to fill that void.

And I said that this is completely unrelated to my environmental work, but that's not entirely true. I'm a systems thinker, and it's my "job" to work out how seemingly disparate things go together. It seems self-evident to me that how we interact with others shapes and defines out quality of life and level of happiness. Happy people make better decisions. People with strong relationships tend to rely on material things for their utility rather than as a replacement for human affection, and so are less wasteful (taking a public bus rather than a Ferrari.). Even as a kid growing up, my family had stronger ties with my neighbors than I do now, or than any people that I know have with their own neighbors. As certain resources become more scarce, it will be easy to compete with each other, trying to get more than our fair share, instead of cooperating with each other to preserve that resource. We're a splintered society, and as much as it might be ironic for a blogger to say so, technologies like the internet are part of that problem (though they can just as easily be part of the solution.) We can reach out to someone we barely know halfway across the world, but we never even say "hi" to our neighbors. What if that simple greeting is all it took to make the world a better place?

That, and a good night's sleep... which I hope to get right now. And then I face my last day of classes for the foreseeable future...

Wish me luck, and I'll do the same for you in all of  your endeavors.


Sunday, May 09, 2010

The three R's come in order of importance: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. That said, one can see the important role that bartering can play in keeping things out of landfills. makes it easy.          

Being a big fan of bartering myself (every piece of furniture I have was free or traded for) I was excited to stumble across I haven't made trades through the site yet, but I'm glad the emphasis is on bartering rather than buying and selling. If you have something you want to get rid of, or if you have something you're trying to find, I suggest you check it out.

Of course, the old standbys are Craigslist and Freecycle. The problem with Craigslist is the emphasis is on buying and selling (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just isn't as conducive to bartering). And while it's awesome to nab something free from Freecycle, they don't allow buying, selling, or trading if that's what interests you, and there are quite a few people on there just begging for stuff. I have had considerable success with both of them, both in finding stuff and in finding new homes for stuff I don't need anymore, but I'm glad to add Baarter to my list of resources.

If you have any other good sites for bartering put them in the comments.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Bidets are commonplace in other parts of the world, but here in the U.S. they're, well, foreign. The reality is that these devices offer a lot of environmental advantages.                                             

Seventh Generation Bathroom Tissue, 2-Ply Sheets, 500-Sheet Rolls (Pack of 48) [Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging]

I hate toilet paper. This hatred isn't rooted in any environmental concern, although I know that there are environmental reasons for hating it. No, this hatred stems from the fact that I'm a clean-freak fighting a losing battle: what will I clean today given the limited hours in a day? My ass would be one of them (if you'll excuse my English... no, really... "ass" comes from "arse," which in turn comes the Middle English "ars," and then from the Old English "ears." "Ass," as it refers to a donkey, stems from the Old English "assa," which ultimately comes from the Latin "asinus." See how I take a moment that could otherwise be considered profane and make it educational? But I digress...). As gross as it is to talk about--bear with me here--I think we all secretly hate the smearing action we're perpetuating on our backsides. How could that be considered making us clean? And how much paper do we waste in wiping for perfection?

So yes, my major concerns are and have been selfish. But, being who I am, I latched onto that last question: How much paper are we wasting?

That's a complicated question. I mean, the simple answer is that we're using a lot. But what does it mean to waste paper? It breaks down fairly readily compared to plastics and metals, so when I ask "How much paper are we wasting?" the implied question is "What impact is my toilet paper usage having on the environment?"

Let's take a step back though and think about how much paper we're actually using. I haven't been counting, but I can make some rough estimates that I think will put us in the ballpark. Let's assume a person averages about 20 sheets (that is, 20 squares) of toilet paper per bowel movement (I imagine the number should actually be a bit higher, but let's be conservative, shall we?) Then, let's assume that Americans are healthy (am I funny, or what?) and their exceptional diet and exercise routines have their digestive systems running optimally, and thus they have about 3 bowel movements a day, or once per each of the standard American meals (this is a liberal estimate, but together with the conservative estimate about TP use, I think it balances out pretty well). That means 60 sheets per day. We (my roommate and I) use Seventh Generation toilet paper, and it has 500 sheets per roll. With our (that is to say, my) estimates, that means a person is going to go through a roll every 8.33 days, or, roughly one roll a week. I have a roommate, obviously, so that means roughly 2 rolls a week for our entire household. That seems to mesh pretty well with how often I seem to change the roll, so the estimates seem pretty good. In one review I read about a 4 or 5 person household where they claimed to be going through half a roll a day, which also fits with my calculations. Households in America, then, are probably using somewhere between 2 and 4 rolls of TP a week, or 104 and 208 rolls a year. I can't make any specific environmental claims based on these numbers, but I can point out a thing or two about cost: at these rates, assuming they are typical for an American household, those same American households are paying between between $108 and $217 each year on toilet paper if they're trying to be environmentally friendly and buying a 100% recycled paper like the Seventh Generation brand (and if you're using toilet paper, and you're reading this, one could assume that that's very likely).

Luxe Bidet MB320 Double Nozzle Fresh and Warm Water Spray Bidet Toilet Seat AttachmentDo you want to know what costs less than toilet paper? A bidet. Or, I should say, a bidet attachment, since in many parts of Europe and other locations around the world, a bidet is actually separate from the toilet. But because most American bathrooms don't come with bidets (spell check isn't yelling at me, but I have a suspicion that that isn't the proper way to pluralize "bidet"), there have sprung up several manufacturers that have created bidet attachments that install right on your toilet. There are lots of options, but even one of the most expensive and highest rated models on Amazon comes in at only $99, which means it's still cheaper than the annual toilet paper costs for a two-person household (given all of the aforementioned assumptions). But I'm a pretty simple person and I don't need all of the bells and whistles that come with the more expensive models. The model I'm considering has also received rave reviews, but without all of those bells and whistles it comes in at only $41.50. At this price, even if I was living alone, recycled toilet paper would cost me more.

But what about the environmental costs? I already told you that I can't give you any specific numbers because, as you might imagine, most companies don't advertise how much they waste. I'm not about to fabricate numbers in order to scare you into believing what I do. In fact, if you believe otherwise and have some information I don't, please set me straight. What I can do, however, is describe the paper manufacturing process in general terms, and we'll see if that's sufficient to paint a picture of the kind of waste that occurs.

Have you ever made paper before? I have. You can make paper from virgin plant materials, and you probably would if you took a college level paper making class, but all of the paper I've made has been from reclaimed paper, thus, all of the paper I've made has been recycled just like Seventh Generation toilet paper. Seventh Generation claims that they're saving trees because they're using 100% recycled materials. From what I've gathered, that isn't entirely accurate. Most of the toilet paper that is made from virgin wood is actually made from saw dust, a waste product of the lumber industry. It is possible that were lumber usage to decline trees would be harvested solely for making toilet paper, but that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. No, the real environmental benefits of using Seventh Generation paper are that it requires less water and energy to manufacture products from recycled materials versus virgin materials: all of the initial processing that the wood goes through has already been done.

But creating recycled paper still requires water, and in a factory setting, it's also going to require electricity. To make new paper out of old paper you shred the paper up and soak it in water to make a pulp (I don't know if a blender was utilized the first time I made paper, but it certainly has since then). A bin contains your paper pulp and a fair amount of water, and a fine screen is dipped into the water to gather up some of the paper pulp and allow the water to drain. Excess water is pressed out and the sheet is allowed to dry. Because you're using used paper, most of it probably has pen, pencil, or printer ink, and even the paper itself might vary in color. All of these dyes and inks end up in your paper pulp, so your paper will inevitably end up a nasty gray color. This is fine for a DIYer--the paper is perfectly usable, and the gray color isn't all that unattractive once you get used to it. But paper you buy at a store is a nice, pristine white or off-white color. To achieve this, paper manufacturers have to bleach the paper. Generally, they use the obvious: chlorine bleach. Some companies try to distance themselves from such toxic chemicals and sport labels that say things like "whitened without chlorine," etc. I believe that the most common alternative to chlorine is hydrogen peroxide, but I'm not familiar with how the process works (extra credit to whoever can tell me).

So, now there is chlorine or hydrogen peroxide (or some other chemical) in the waste water on top of all of the inks, graphite, and dyes. Add to this that at least some papers (mostly artsy papers, to my knowledge) also add a glue to the paper to help hold it together. I'm taking a printmaking course right now, and you soak your paper before you print on it. Because some of that glue leaches out of the paper, the water tends to get slimy and nasty after a while--you definitely know the glue is in the paper. So not only is a lot of water being used to produce these paper products, but a lot of other chemicals are thrown out with that water... and that's even with recycled paper. Also add in all of the fuel used to transport the finish product, and then the fuel used to go to the store and buy these products. Even the most environmentally responsible companies, doing the best they can to balance consumer demand with environmental responsibility, are still wasting a lot of resources. That's just the nature of the beast plain and simple.

It does seem counter-intuitive to think that using water would save water, but I do have an edge because I have a sense of how many gallons are wasted to make just a few sheets of paper. And I'm not the only one who has come to this conclusion. I found an article on the Mother Nature Network that tackles this same problem. "Use a bidet" seems to be the consensus. The amount of water used in manufacturing toilet paper outweighs the amount that is used in operating a bidet, and the bidet also avoids the use of other manufacturing chemicals. And if I can reduce my environmental impact and feel cleaner, it seems like a winner to me.

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live ItIt does raise a question about water use in the bathroom, however. In a roundabout way a bidet saves water, but it is still using water. And in a traditional bathroom setup you're flushing a lot of water needlessly down the toilet. As someone who rents a small apartment my options are limited, so a bidet attachment is one of the best compromises I can make. But, if you've been reading for a while, or you've gone back through the archives, you'll know that when I first started this blog I wrote a piece on compost toilets. Compost toilets are a flushless, waterless toilet system for hygienically processing human waste for use as an organic fertilizer (if you have no idea why you would want to do that, definitely read my old post). You can make your own compost toilet, and John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It provides plans for doing so, but you can also buy a commercial model. Well, a commenter over at suggested combining compost toilets with a bidet (since most people with compost toilets are still using toilet paper to wipe). I vote yes on this idea. Unless you're wiping with leaves, this is the best you can do. And because you're using no water to flush, and significantly less water with a bidet than with toilet paper, it's all kinds of win. Granted, if you want to use leaves, I would certainly encourage it... I'm just not at that point in my environmental evolution yet. Baby steps... baby steps.

Okay. Now back to my torture session. I shouldn't have even taken a break to write this, but I'm having withdrawals. Two more weeks and I'll be free of school, and then barring other time sinks, I'll be able to write more often for your reading pleasure. Until then, if you hear from me, you likely shouldn't.


Friday, April 23, 2010

It's been a mad dash to get my thesis completed. Monday my advisor told me that I needed to rewrite 95% of it. Needless to say, I haven't been in class all week.                                      

Photo by Mutasim Billah
My presentation is Wednesday morning, and then I have a little bit of time to put on finishing touches and submit my final manuscript. There are definitely plenty of things I want to write to all of you about, but it's going to be a few more weeks at least. Wish me luck.


Friday, April 09, 2010

There's been quite a bit of hype for a few years about corn-based biodegradable plastics. The simple solution to our throw-away culture was to create better things to throw away... or so they say. But the problems with these corn-based plastics run from the obvious to the not-so-obvious.

Photo by Dan Klimke
For starters, they're made from corn. In many instances, it's GMO corn. Even when it's not, corn is the most chemical hungry crop we grow: fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, you name it. So is it really better than traditional plastic? Maybe. Corn-based plastic supposedly uses less than half the energy that petroleum-based plastics use during production. According to an article by Elizabeth Royte in Smithsonian Magazine, corn-based PLA bags use 65% less energy during production, and emit 68% fewer greenhouse gases than their petroleum-based counterparts. Does that offset all of the chemicals that go into producing the corn as compared to drilling and processing oil? I haven't seen anything conclusive, but oil isn't going to be an option for much longer anyways. If we're going to continue to use plastics (which is another discussion altogether), we have to figure out something, whether corn is that something or not.

My bigger concern is with claims of biodegradability. Companies use this "biodegradable" packaging and present themselves as our saviors. Most consumers, not knowing any better, think this is the greatest thing that has ever happened in the history of mankind. But the fact of the matter is that PLA requires high-temp municipal and commercial composting facilities. These don't exist in most places, and a home compost bin just won't do. Home compost bins are aerobic, and they just don't get hot enough to break down these pseudo-plastics.

There are some exceptions, of course. There are a few producers of bioplastics that claim their products are compostable in a home composting bin. However, of these relatively few manufacturers, I've only found one that has actually been certified as home-compostable. That is Mater-Bi. Mater-Bi was tested by Which?, a UK consumer organization, and found that Mater-Bi composted under normal home composting conditions. The Village Bakery has been using Mater-Bi to package their organic breads since at least early 2008. We could use more companies with that kind of initiative.

Of course, the better solution would be to use no plastic at all. Buy from farmers markets where you can avoid packaging altogether, or grow your own food. Ideally, I wouldn't have a trash bin. I wouldn't even have a recycling bin. I'd only have what I could personally put into my body, compost, or reuse. The prevalence of urban sprawl and the dominance of big agriculture remain major obstacles to this goal. In the evolution to that ideal however, biodegradable plastics have a role to play. Perhaps we start with home-compostable corn-based plastics like Mater-Bi. From there we shift from corn to less chemical-dependent crops. As we lessen our dependence on corn we can diversify the crops being grown on those lands, and perhaps provide all of our food locally. Once foods are grown locally, our excuses for packaging them will disappear.

It's a dream, but a dream worth having.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

A round-up of environmental documentaries that are available for immediate viewing via Netflix's streaming video service. See which one's made the cut--and which ones didn't.                                          

This has been my first full week since spring break--if you could call it a break. But, while I was on break, I decided to test drive a trial of Netflix. The awesome thing about Netflix is that you can stream a large number of movies directly to your computer, and with a bit of know-how, to your TV. That means over the break I was able to watch a great number of documentaries without fiddling with DVDs or anything. Here's what I watched and what I thought of them:

The Botany of Desire
The Botany of Desire - Michael Pollan's book has been transformed into a film by PBS. The film follows the domestication of four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. But have we domesticated them, or have they domesticated us? And while it certainly behooves a plant to be attractive to us, has its attraction ultimately caused its genetic weakness and susceptibility to disease? Especially with apples and potatoes, consumers and producers are looking for specific traits, and as we find them, we end up eating a very limited variety of these foods. As a result, genetic variation declines, and the plants become more susceptible to pests. And perhaps our variety in diet has declined too much as a result of our selecting for certain traits. This film has beautiful cinematography on top of having compelling premises that interesting conclusions. Definitely a must-see.

Food, Inc.Food, Inc. - From the man that brought us Fast Food Nation, comes a film that takes us on a tour of the food industry. When we walk into a supermarket, we're met with an illusion of diversity. The truth is that a limited number of companies, like Tyson, own the majority of the food producing operations in the U.S. Not only are we being swindled on variety because of what grows fastest, grows biggest, or stores longest, but the farmer's producing our food have little say in what or how they're growing. Companies like Tyson finance chicken growing operations and tell farmers when and how to do things. If farmers don't play along, they go out of business, often being in debt hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Much the same is true with potatoes. McDonald's is the largest consumer of potatoes in the world. What kind of potatoes does McDonald's want? Russets. And if a farmer isn't selling to McDonald's it likely isn't staying in business. And then there's the business of corn. I knew corn was in a lot of things, but I wasn't terribly concerned until I saw this film. High fructose corn syrup, dextrin, maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, sorbitol, starch, monoglycerides, diglycerides, monosodium glutamate, vegetable oil, vegetable broth. It's everywhere. Not only do farmer's struggle to meet the demands of companies that own patents on GMO corn, but they're also pressured to grow corn because of outrageous government subsidies on corn. Our diet has become almost completely corn, and without our knowledge or consent. Want to know how far the rabbit hole goes? Watch this film.

King Corn (Standard Packaging)King Corn - On the subject of corn, these two college friends and filmmakers decide to get back to their Iowa roots and grow an acre to corn for a year. When it's done, they watch where it goes. Before they even start growing, they're paid by the government just for claiming that they intend to grow. They go through the process of spraying their acre with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and at the end of the growing season they find out that they've actually lost money on their crop. But not to fear, they still have a lot more money to collect from the government just for growing corn. And that's because corn ends up in everything. At the very beginning of the film, the two filmmakers have an analysis done on their hair that shows that their diet is predominately corn. They find out why when they start following their crop. The truth is, the corn they're growing isn't even edible without being processed into high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and other filler ingredients. What's left over goes to feed cattle. The corn-based diet upsets acid levels in the cow's digestive tract, and if they weren't taken to slaughter as soon as they are, the diet itself would kill them. The hamburgers that the filmmakers eat are predominately corn, the ketchup and their burger and fries is predominately corn syrup, and their fries are cooked in corn oil. It's no wonder they analysis was showing so much corn in their diets.

Killer at LargeKiller at Large - This film dives into America's obesity epidemic and tries to uncover why its happening. It shows large food companies lobbying for their rights to target advertisements at children, and then asking parents why they weren't more attentive to what their children were eating. It shows the unprecedented amount of corn in our diets and how that's contributing to early onset diabetes. And it shows how teachers were shut down when they tried to get sugar-filled vending machines out of the schools. I appreciated that this film approached the food industry from the angle of its effects on us. It struck home. Even after the other films railed on corn, this one really sealed the deal because it made the link between our unknown obsession with corn and the effects it's having on our health. If you want less enviro and more human-oriented thinking on the modern food system, this is the one to see.

No Impact ManNo Impact Man - A lone man takes his family off the grid over the course of a year. What's the catch? They live in New York City. They ditch cars for human-powered bikes and scooters and eat only local food (even visiting the farms they're buying from). He starts composting in his apartment and washing laundry by hand. At the 6 month mark, they turn of the electricity, and for the remainder of the year they do everything by candlelight. It's a long year, and they take at lot of flack, but at the end of the year they've learned something about what they can and cannot go without. Of all of these films, this is the one that most inspired me to get out and do something (or stay in and do something, as the case may be). Even something as simple as using candles at night instead of electric lights can be the big difference. And this year I think I'll actually be participating in a CSA owned by a farmer I know through my work at B St. If you want a really well-rounded film that will give you lots of ideas about how you can lessen your impact on the planet, this is the one.

Go FurtherGo Further - This film was worthless. Don't see it. Woody Harrelson and his band of pot-smoking jokers take off down the west coast in a bus and Woody gives speeches on sustainability at colleges along the way. The only part of those speeches you get to hear is a poorly written poem. The rest of it is just an excuse for them to smoke and have sex. This film fails to be educational, and it fails to be entertaining. It just fails. If there were no other documentaries out there on the subject of sustainability, then it might have some merit for starting a discussion. Instead, it says much less than dozens of other films have already said, and it says it much less intelligently. This is the only film I watched that I really can't recommend.

There you have it: my thoughts on some of the eco-documentaries I was able to watch over break. There are plenty more, but that's what I got around to. You can order any of these films from the links provided. Alternatively, you can try to find them at your local library. And, if you want to try out Netflix for yourself and stream all of these movies for free, click here for your two week trial.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hey! I mentioned Rosanna and the MiniLivestock blog back when I did my series on entomophagy (that's bug-eating for the uninitiated). Seems Rosanna came by to read what I had to say on the subject...                           

Hey! I mentioned Rosanna and the MiniLivestock blog back when I did my series on entomophagy (that's bug-eating for the uninitiated). Seems Rosanna came by to read what I had to say on the subject and wrote up a short piece about my blog. The MiniLivestock site has moved since I mentioned it last, so go check out for info on bugs, eating bugs, and recipes for the bugs you eat. It's a great resource for this interesting subject.


Want to know how to compost indoors? Here's are the details for the composter I made for my kitchen out of a couple of totes. Best of all, it'll only set you back $10.                                                    

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on indoor composting. Click here for part 1.

I previously posted on the specific challenges of composting indoors, and from that, I decided to make an experiment out of composting indoors.

Well, I've built my composting bin and it's been going for about a week now.

Here's how:

Find a couple of matching plastic totes. These are 18 gallon bins. That is a bit excessive, but they were on sale for $5 each, which made them cheaper than the 10 gallon bins. If you have old bins, or can find used bins, choose those over buying bins... but remember that they need to have lids.

Drill holes in the bottom of both totes. The holes should be a quarter inch to allow the eventual migration of worms from one bin to the other (did I mention there were worms involved?) My dremel only had bits up to 1/8" so I improvise and used a grinding stone to widen out the holes.

The next step was to repeat the process, adding 1/16" holes around the top of the bins and in one of the lids.

It's probably hard to see since 1/16" holes aren't that big, but there are two rows of holes, about an inch apart, all the way around the bin.

The same with the lid. Only one of the lids though! We'll be using the other one for something else.

Soak enough shredded newspaper and scrap paper to fill the bottom 3-4 inches of the bin. Wring it out so that it's moist but not dripping. Add some vegetable matter to this. Make sure you bury the vegetable matter to keep fruit flies out of it. Let this set for a week or so before you add worms so the food can start breaking down.

Get your worms. If you have red wigglers growing wild in your area, you could just dig some up. I don't, however. Don't use night crawlers. Red wigglers are surface feeding worms that do well in big groups. Night crawlers feed deeper in the soil and are loners. They're not a good choice for a composting bin. 

I ordered my worms from It wasn't the best experience in the world (they sent the wrong shipping confirmation, I had no idea when the worms were supposed to be arriving, worms looked half-dead when I got them). But, this was one of the few places I found where I could place an order for just a 1/4 pound of worms. It only cost $11 plus shipping, and I was looking to start this bin as cheaply as possible. And they all ended up living, so despite the less-than-stellar service, I can't complain.

Add them to the bin! Along with a cupful of dirt, of course. The dirt helps them grind up food, and contains microorganisms to break down food scraps.

Somehow I neglected to take a picture of the completed bin all set up. I'll have to do that at some point. Here's what you do:

Set the lid without the holes on the floor. Rescue four or five paper cups and place them upside down on the lid (I used a glue stick to hold them in place). Set the bin with the bedding material and worms on the cups. Place a piece of cardboard over the bedding. Place the second bin inside the first. And then put the lid with holes on top of the second bin.

When the first bin is full, add moist bedding and food to the second bin and remove the cardboard from the first. This will allow the worms to move into the second bin and start the process all over. Once the worms have all moved into the second bin you can empty out your delicious compost and use it on your plants.

A couple of important things: keep your food scraps covered or you will end up with a fruit fly infestation. Guaranteed. Also, don't feed your worms more than they can eat or it will start to smell. Red wigglers can eat half their weight in a day. That means my small 1/4 pound of worms can eat about a pound a week.

As things start to break down, I'll be watching for odors. If things get out of hand, I'll test the carbon filter theory.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on indoor composting. Click here for part 1.