Sunday, March 12, 2017

Trying to be better.

I garden for a lot of reasons – because I love flowers, because digging in the dirt, with a trowel or a shovel, with my fingers and my toes, makes me feel grounded, but mostly because I love the natural world. I’m a biophiliac, and as such I worry about my impact on the earth. I’m actually pretty good with my ecological footprint, but far from perfect, especially since I drive an SUV; but I am a vegan, I recycle, we use a lot of energy-efficient LED bulbs, I have bees, I turn off the tap when brushing my teeth and I try not to buy water in plastic bottles. I’ll admit, that sometimes the list of things you’re meant to do to help the planet can seem overwhelming, but other things just seem like a no brainer.
Every morning on my way to work, I stop at Starbucks, and I have to admit, that I used to tend to forget to bring my reusable cup. I’d feel a little bad about all the green and white coffee cups I was accruing, but not that terrible. I assumed that since my cups were paper, naturally they were both recyclable and biodegradable, so although I was definitely not helping with the plastic tops, at least the cups weren’t going to be a problem.

Wrong! It turns out that Starbucks cups, like almost every disposable cup out there, are coated with a miniscule layer of plastic and thus can’t be recycled. They’re just trash. Discovering this made me feel like such a moron. According to, we Americans inhale about 146 billion cups of coffee per year or about 16 million cups an hour – and even if (like me), “you only buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 lbs of waste in one year.”  Plus, since I’ve been putting these silly things into my recycling bin, I’ve been contaminating the paper loads and possibly contributing to these loads just being dumped into landfills instead.   
So today I bought three different reusable travel mugs, a no brainer once I learned about the cups, as just one more step in my ongoing effort to have a gentler relationship with this planet we’re all perched upon.  Now I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’ll never use a disposable cup again, of course I will, but I’m going to try and use less, I’m going to try and do better. And that’s my goal today, not to be a zealot and tell you we all have to do the impossible and be perfect, but to tell you a few things I’m doing, as often as I can, and see if you’d like to join me.

Now that we all have our reusable cups in hand, let’s try and adjust our eating to a less impactful way. I read somewhere that the average American meal has traveled 1200 miles before it reached your plate. This is crazy. Instead we need to shop at farm stands and with our local growers, I want to know where and from whom our food comes from. Sure the apples in the supermarkets might be cheaper than those at the Milk Pail, but local apples are picked when ready, and although some may be stored to help them ripen, and they haven’t travelled anywhere but back and forth from their field to the Halsey’s storage facilities and back to their apple stand in Watermill. Not so for your typical supermarket apple, which was picked while still slightly unripe, sprayed with a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene (an ethylene inhibitor) waxed, packed and stacked on pallets, then stuck in cold storage warehouses until they are needed in the stores, normally for an average of 9-12 months. Yuck.

I happen to grow my own apples, but I still get Pink Lady apples from the Halseys since mine ripen much earlier. I also have too many, which has led me to the world of canning. I think everyone should try canning. Personally, I’ve ended up with far too much applesauce and jams from canning, but I really believe in putting up local summer food to enjoy in the winter. Not that I always have time to do the whole hot, steamy, canning thing, so I’ll confess that I’ve also started using my basement chest freezer to preserve my food, by quickly blanching my veggies first (unblanched kale gets bitter in 6 weeks while blanched kale can last a year!!!) and either making my herbs into a pesto like paste with oil and freezing that, or stuffing them finely chopped into ice cube trays, topping them with water and throwing them in the freezer. Once you have ice cubes, stick them in a reusable freezer bag throw a cube  into your pot when you need a little  flavor.

Eat less meat, please. I’m not asking you to become a vegetarian or vegan, but the more meat we all eat, the more forest is cleared to grow the grains that livestock eat. The less forests there are – the less CO2 is absorbed from the air – the warmer our world gets.  And then there’s the methane livestock release, the second most significant greenhouse gas, not just by farting like people snicker about, but with breathe they exhale, based on the ways their multiple stomachs break down food. This combined with the gallons of fossil fuel used to transport and prep their feed as well as to transport the creatures themselves from factory farms to slaughterhouses and processing facilities and then again to our markets, makes eating meat a pretty bad idea.

I know I’m simplifying things, there’s a much more complicated argument when you take into effect the pasture land that animals graze is actually an excellent place to sequester carbon, and that converting said land to productively grow crops for human consumption will actually release more stored carbon into the air, but I think I can counter that argument with animal cruelty stories from both the life and death experiences of about 99% of the meats you put in your mouths.  Let’s just say it’s complicated, and the more local, less processed and closer to natural your food choices are, the better for both the planet and you.

When you do buy something, and we all do, please make sure it’s organic. I know, I know, it’s way more expensive, but if we grew all the corn and soybeans this country produces organically we’d remove almost 600 million pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere, since organic soils capture and stores CO2 at much higher levels than conventional farmed soils.

And since it’s organic food is much more expensive, let’s also cut down food waste by only buying what we know for sure we’ll consume. Food waste in the American culture is obscene – we throw out about 40% of our food a year! So even though I preach that it’s better to buy in volume (less packaging, only one plastic bag with a 5lb bag of rice as opposed to 5 bags with five 1lb bags) if you find you’re dumping half a gallon of milk out each week maybe start buying a size down. Remember also that wasted food in landfills quickly becomes methane, so if you do have waste, try, try, try and get it into a compost pile.

I confess that this is my real Achilles heel, and I even have a compost pile! I just can’t find the right temporary mechanism for holding kitchen food waste so that it can later be taken out to the compost pile. Nothing has worked for me because I don’t I don’t have the counter space for one of those great vacuum lidded scrap holder, I can’t handle fruit flies, I’m a little lazy and don’t really want to walk out to the compost pile after eating dinner and doing all the dishes. So I need to work on this. I presently have half a cabbage I fished out of the trash, that’s going to go to the chickens instead, but that’s easy, if I can get the tomato tops that are sliced off each night out there too I’ll be golden. What I need is a laundry shoot type thingie built into the kitchen backsplash that would let me collect all the waste outside in a nicely covered bucket I could take back to the compost pile when I’m in the mood. If anyone out there has solved this issue, please let me know.

I try and buy things in bulk to cut down on it, but of course almost everything I buy  comes with packaging. So I’m always trying to choose packing I can reuse. I have chickens that lay too many eggs for my family to eat, so my friends save their egg cartons, which I fill with my leftover eggs in exchange for homemade bread or extra produce from their gardens or their CSA weekly baskets. And I buy things in glass instead of plastic as much as possible since glass in much simpler to both reuse and recycle.

Another easy thing to do, is to read books online instead of tossing a novel after you’re done with it. I use Live-brary and all my novels and Swedish mysteries are free now. Granted I have to wait a little while for them to be available, but I read about 3 books a week so I’m keeping a lot of trees from becoming paper. Of course I also own a ton of actual books, I’m a huge bookaholic, but I try to buy them used. I don’t follow this second directive as often as I should as I’m not that patient, but if the books been out for a while, I almost always can find a cheaper, almost perfect copy on Amazon at a savings!

Speaking of paper, when buying paper products, look for those that are recycled or made with sustainable methods.  There’s actually an interesting bit of research as to whether washing and drying cloth napkins and dish towels is really better less impactful than using their paper equivalents, but for most home owners, cloth is the way to go, especially if you make sure you wash them (as well as the rest of your laundry) in either cold or warm water only.

Wash your hair less. No it’s not gross, it’ll save water and it’s better for your hair. Honest. Oh and please try and shut the water off  when brushing your teeth, it’s not hard, it’s just a new habit we have to create. You already know about low flow water faucets and water saving toilets, and I’m still looking for a toothbrush that’s recyclable and vegan ­– I’m pretty sure no one reading this is gonna want to gnaw the bark off a neem twig and then scrub their teeth using it’s exposed fibers. However, I think we can all follow the old, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” adage.
I’m going to try to use my car less by riding my bike more, especially to work since as it’s 1.2 miles from my house (1.7 miles if I go to Starbucks first) and then, not only will I get a little exercise and pollute a little less, I might also be less apt to have plants jump into my bike basket instead of the trunk of the car. Or at least it’ll be fewer plants, so I’ll probably save money too.

And once I lose all that weight from biking to work (ha ha ­– like a year later) I’ll have to go down a size or two, but luckily, since I rarely toss clothing that no longer fits, I have a bunch of smaller sized jeans. I do however have some items of clothing that were just plain old mistakes. These don’t ever get tossed, but get traded, gifted or donated, whether to The Retreat or to the ARF thrift shop, there are a billion places for unwanted clothing to go. The challenge is ripped or stained clothing. If you put those into the wrong bins, the charity you think you’re helping will just toss them into the trash. Instead look for the donation bins put out by Big Brother, Big Sister. They sell clothing that’s too far-gone as rag weight, which is used to fill sofas and stuffed chairs, so it never goes into the landfill.
Can’t deal with all this? Feeling overwhelmed? Want me to stop talking? Okay then, I have one simple request for you. When you’re getting food to go or ordering takeout ask them to not to give you any plastic silverware and to skip the individually packaged condiments. By using your own silverware and by using soy sauce or hot sauce from a bigger bottle you’re keeping a lot of plastic packaging and waste out of our environment, and that’s a start. And a start is all any of us has to do.

Paige Patterson says if you use reusable chopsticks you get bonus points.