Friday, April 11, 2014

eco-lent: week 6, why food waste matters

Although there are possibly any number of reasons food waste matters, I'll give you just two here: 1) an ecological reason, methane, and 2) a justice reason, hungry people.

  • Methane.
When food waste decomposes, it releases methane, which is one of the major greenhouse gases. Now, food waste may not be the hugest producer of methane (#1 natural gas fracking leaks, #2 livestock, #3 landfills, according to the EPA). But if we reduced food waste, at least it would be a step in the right direction.

Becoming vegetarian and feeding cows stuff that's good for them would also be steps in the right direction (Scholarly study: ELLIS, J. L., A. BANNINK, J. FRANCE, E. KEBREAB, and J. DIJKSTRA. 2010. "Evaluation of enteric methane prediction equations for dairy cows used in whole farm models J. L. ELLIS et al. METHANE PREDICTION IN VIVO FARM MODELS."Global Change Biology 16, no. 12: 3246-3256. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014). And: Grainger, C., R. Williams, T. Clarke, A.-D. G. Wright, and R. J. Eckard. 2010. "Supplementation with whole cottonseed causes long-term reduction of methane emissions from lactating dairy cows offered a forage and cereal grain diet."Journal Of Dairy Science 93, no. 6: 2612-2619. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014).).

Using food scraps to power electrical plants would also be a great solution! It looks like they're actually doing this in London. (Scholarly study: Molino, A., F. Nanna, Y. Ding, B. Bikson, and G. Braccio. 2013. "Biomethane production by anaerobic digestion of organic waste." Fuel 103, 1003-1009. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014). Another one: Kastner, Verena, Walter Somitsch, and Wolfgang Schnitzhofer. 2012. "The anaerobic fermentation of food waste: a comparison of two bioreactor systems." Journal Of Cleaner Production 34, 82-90. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed April 11, 2014).)
  • People.
Besides the fact that of course climate change effects people, not having enough to eat also has a major effect on people. Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, estimate in a 2005 study that 40-50% of food harvested in the United States is never eaten. That is jaw-dropping, if you ask me. (Sources: Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “THE CORNER ON FOOD LOSS.” Biocycle 46, no. 7: 25. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. And: Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “FOOD LOSS ON THE FARM.” Biocycle 46, no. 9: 44-46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2014).)

About 12% remains in the fields after saleable food is harvested, and the other 30-40% is lost at each level of the supply chain. Then there's the dozen or so pounds each week that we waste after we buy it and forget about it in our fridge, like we talked about yesterday.

Add to that, in the United States alone, 14.5% of the population struggles with hunger each year, according to the 2012 USDA Household Food Security report

  • Let's recap.
In the USA, 40-50% of food is wasted on its way to our homes.
Another 12 pounds per week goes bad in our fridges or is unused (shells, cores, peels, etc.).
14.5% of Americans aren't getting enough to eat.
Food waste rots and gives off methane.
Methane is a major greenhouse gas, holding in warm air and causing polar ice caps and glaciers to melt, raising the sea level, and contributing to severe weather patterns.
We could capture the methane and use it for energy production, but we generally don't.
Instead, we use fossil fuels to produce energy, which give off CO2, another greenhouse gas.

  • So, does food waste matter?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

eco-lent: week 6

Surprisingly enough (not really!), the book I've been using to find suggestions for challenges for my eco-Lent project wasn't written for the purpose of Lent, so I've run out of weeks in that book. I knew this would happen and figured something new would come to me, and it did!

This week I'm going to focus on food waste. Upworthy highlighted a website called Shrink That Footprint the other day, and it's a really well done site with lots of good graphics, short and readable articles, and how-to videos. (If you don't know about Upworthy, you should sign up! Its goal is to send us some good news, since most news seems like it's bad.) Shrink That Footprint has a page called 5 Simple Ways to Save Food. I'm going to work on these this week.

Some highlights:
  • Americans waste about 12 pounds of food each week, totaling around $18
  • Worldwide, we waste 1.3 billion tons of food (see graphic, where the trash can is the relative size it would be, in scale with those buildings)
I was about to launch into why it's important to not waste food, but I think that will have to wait for tomorrow because this post is going to be too long. So for now, here's a video that introduces the topic of food waste:

You can sign up for the YouTube channel and watch videos for all the tips in his 3 week program. He suggests weighing your food waste so you realize how much you waste, planning your perishables so you don't get more perishable food than you can eat at a time (including using a menu planner), perfecting your portions so you don't make more than you need, shuffling your storage in your fridge so you can see the food that's going to need to be eaten soonest, and dedicating a day each week to working on a creative meal where you use all the stuff in your fridge that's about to go bad.

These are all really good tips, and I'd add a couple of my own: first, own chickens! When you own chickens, you can feed them a majority of your food scraps. (Well, it's a majority of our food scraps, anyway, because I'm a vegetarian so we don't have a lot of leftover meat. If you eat a lot of meat, I don't think that's probably good for the chickens.) The rest of our food scraps go into our compost pile. There are different kinds of compost: throw everything in a pile compost, hot compost, worm compost, and probably others. The best one is hot compost, because you don't have to worry about keeping worms alive. The one we currently use is the "throw everything in a pile" method, which is all well and good, but takes much longer than hot composting.

eco-lent: week 5, aka "how to really annoy your housemates"

My eco-Lent challenge from the Northwest Earth Institute's "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" for last week was to use less energy. I chose as my goals not using the dryer, unplugging things not in use (including my computer), and taking the moments of annoyance when I had to find the cord and plug it in as opportunities for prayer and reflection on my sense of entitlement.

Not using the dryer was difficult early in the week due to rain, but the weather got progressively better so that I could move the laundry through much more quickly, drying loads of laundry out on our deck rather than in our dank Oregon basement. I found that I had to be constantly thinking about laundry. I had to start a load of laundry each morning and be around the house to take it out of the washing machine and hang everything to dry. I had to check throughout the day and turn things over that were only getting dry on one side. I don't have a clothes line, so I used a drying rack and whatever else was at hand, mainly deck railing and deck furniture. I also found that this kept me more on top of getting laundry done! It's pretty much just as easy to fold a lot of things as you take them in from drying in that way as it is to just toss them in the laundry basket, so I got a lot more laundry folded and put away each day. Generally I have a tendency to keep the laundry moving through the washer and dryer but just leaving it in a pile (or 4 piles, one for each family member) until I break down and have a laundry-folding and TV-watching evening.

It felt good to not use the dryer, since I know they use a ton of energy, but I'm not sure if this is something I can maintain long-term, unless I have to. I know that in other countries, it's common for people not to own a dryer. We visited some F/friends in Switzerland several years ago and they lived in an apartment building with a coin washer and no dryer. Everyone just hung their laundry in the shared laundry room on lines. I would be worried items would get stolen, but apparently this wasn't a problem. But, of course, it was Switzerland, where EVERYONE is neutral and nice, right? And probably Earth-friendly, too! I'm not sure how I feel about my undergarments hanging around out on my deck, let alone in a shared laundry room, though, so as an American with a probably-too-high sense of privacy, this one challenges me and my sense of entitlement to my own space.

Unplugging everything was a challenge. As I said in the title of the blog, this is a good way to get on your housemates' nerves! Mine are all related to me so they can't kick me out, but they DO definitely think I'm weird. Unplugging stuff was rather inconvenient. I don't know how many times I tried to toast something and it popped right back up, or turn on a lamp and have to fumble around to find the outlet. It was also hard to remember to unplug it again after I'd used the appliance or electronic device. Toward the end of the week I got into more of a rhythm where I remembered to plug in the microwave before using it, or switch on the wall light so I could find the outlet for the lamp. I unplugged my computer when the light turned green, but I rarely actually turned the computer off. I generally have something going that I want to get back to easily. I'm not sure how much energy a sleeping computer takes, but undoubtedly more than it does if it's off.

I can see myself continuing this part of my eco-challenge, but I'd have to talk more with my housemates about it and make sure we're all on board with it. We may decide there are certain things we want to leave plugged in since they're more difficult to reach or, such as lights, it's hard to plug them in if they're not in use. So, communication is key!

Using these moments of annoyance as opportunities for prayer, repentance and reflection went pretty well. I found myself rolling my eyes at something being unplugged, then taking a deep breath and allowing my self-absorbed complaint to be reframed into gratitude for how much I take for granted--like a lament psalm.

I'll leave you with a great video clip on Walter Brueggemann explaining the importance of lament:

And a well-done blog post on what lament is for and what it looks like in the Bible and in everyday life.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

eco-lent: week 5, using less energy

The eco-challenge I'm focusing on for this week of Lent is to use less energy. "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" from Northwest Earth Institute suggests unplugging some appliances that draw the most power even when they're off, and I have to admit that although I knew this was an issue from way back in the early 2000s when my friend had a house party at her tiny Portland apartment and some guy from an environmental organization told us about all sorts of environmental fixes we could do in our homes (including buying little switches to switch off outlets when you're not using things plugged into them, such as this), I hadn't done anything about it. So, this week's eco-challenge requires a bit of research.

Today I'm going to tell you about three things: 1. successfully clearing out mostly-clogged drains with baking soda and white distilled vinegar, 2. using less energy by line drying our clothes, and 3. what appliances draw the most energy when not in use. Then I'll share with you my eco-Lent goals for this week.

1. Naturally unclogging drains with vinegar and baking soda
I finally got around to doing this chore recently! I have really long hair now, and we've got 4 adults and 2 kids using one shower and bathroom sink at our house, so the drains were pretty gross. I pitched it as a science experiment to my 7-year-old and he helped me make volcanoes in our bathroom drains until they cleared out. Yay for functional drains! Even bigger YAY for not putting nasty chemicals into the water supply!

2. Line drying clothes
Living in Western Oregon, it's difficult to find a day this time of year where it's safe to line dry clothes outside, so usually I'm pretty lazy about this unless it's summer and hot all day. I've heard that dryers are one of the biggest energy users in most American households, although I couldn't find anything really reputable in a quick Internet search to confirm this. Nevertheless, this week I'm working on not drying my clothes in the dryer.

This is really hard because I have to change some of my habits and also be OK with clothes and other laundry that doesn't have that soft just-out-of the dryer feel. My family doesn't really like towels that have been line dried, for example.

Also, I too-often wait until we're running dangerously low on essential items before doing laundry, and then do several loads in a row. Unless I want wet laundry hanging all over my house, this approach doesn't work so well when line drying. I have to do a load each day, probably. It's also difficult in that we're in the habit of having clothes ready within a couple hours, so if something is in the dirty clothes there's a quick turnaround. With line drying, we have to think ahead if we're going to need a specific thing clean in a couple days. This isn't as convenient, but then again, neither is a warmer planet with rising ocean levels, etc.

3. Appliances that draw phantom power
Here's a list I found of the 12 household appliances that use the most energy when turned off.
  • Desktop computers
  • Laptop computers
  • Televisions
  • DVD players and VCRs
  • Modems
  • Cable TV boxes
  • Cordless phones
  • Stereos and radios
  • Coffeemakers
  • Lamps
  • Toasters
  • iPods and electronic gadgets sapping energy from a plug-in transformer
I don't know if this list is well-researched or not, but these seem to be themes on various similar pages. At any rate, we can't very well turn off things that run all the time like the refrigerator, but we CAN unplug all the above gadgets, or attach them to something that has an on/off switch such as a power strip. This same article says you can save 5-10% on your electricity bill (translating, presumably, to 5-10% of your total energy use) by unplugging all these small devices.

Here's where convenience comes in again. Several websites estimate that the average American home has about 40 appliances or electronics plugged in at any given time, all of which may be idle. But how annoying is it to have to plug in your lamp before you switch it on? And how many times have I pushed down the toast button and it pops back up and I realize someone randomly forgot to plug it in for some reason? I roll my eyes and plug it in.

At the same time, we have a number of small appliances and electronics that we rarely use but that sit, plugged in, drawing phantom power at all times. This article's estimate was that a VCR costs you $12.53/year when it sits around, plugged in. And who ever uses their VCR anymore??? You couldn't even get you someone to buy it for $12.53, most likely.

Goals for the week:
  • Not use the dryer.
  • Unplug all our appliances and electronics (that aren't programmed) when not in use.
  • Turn off my computer when not in use, and unplug it when the charging light turns from orange to green.
  • Take these opportunities of annoyance as moments to be grateful for the ease and convenience of modern life, and reflect on and repent for my sense of entitlement.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

eco-lent: week 5

Working through my own personal Eco-Lent challenge seems particularly timely: the United Nations released a report this week from the International Panel on Climate Change's Working Group II. This Assessment Report, "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability," starts with a bang, stating:
Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems. (p. 3)
They point to a doubling of literature documenting the effects of climate change, the human connection to the causes, and ways to adapt to such changes in the years 2005-2010. I think this is a good sign, that scientists and policy makers are paying attention to this problem and attempting to suggest solutions, even though it's a huge and scary issue. This paper cites melting ice, changing migration patterns for sea and land animals, changes in crop yields across the globe (in some places this means a better crop yield because it's warmer), and a larger number of major weather events (pp. 6-7).

As far as effects on people, the report says that climate change has already possibly impacted human health (this one hasn't been well-documented to connect the dots yet). It also suggests with "high confidence" that those already living in poverty, or in impoverished areas, feel the compounded effects of climate change alongside their already difficult situations. The report even states that they believe climate change contributes to higher rates of violence worldwide, as people are struggling person-to-person and internationally to gain access to adaptive resources (pp. 7-8).

Although we perhaps should "save the whales" for their own sake, this report is pointing out plainly that we no longer just have to be worried about whales. Saving the whales also saves ourselves. (Obviously here I don't mean spiritual salvation, I mean it saves us from destroying our planet to the point where it becomes difficult to live on it.)

The report says:
Adaptation and mitigation choices in the near-term will affect the risks of climate change throughout the 21st century (high confidence). (p. 10)
In other words, our small choices can still make a difference regarding the degree of climate change effects we'll feel in our lifetimes.

Last week I worked on "buying less." This feels kind of overwhelming. I did buy less, but part of that i because I already had enough in my house that I didn't need to go buy more throughout the week. I bought more milk and a couple things like that, but otherwise I managed to keep it to a minimum. But, of course, that just means that other weeks are weeks for buying more. When I think about the fact that I pretty much have to buy things wrapped in plastic that will end up in a landfill and in the ocean and leech back into our food supply, it can feel like I don't have the ability to make choices that have an impact.

At the same time, I feel that doing SOMEthing is better than doing nothing. I can choose to reduce my intake as much as I can, and it's better than NOT reducing my intake. It's not all-or-nothing. Incremental steps are important, and each of us can make them.

The UN climate change report states that:
Adaptation is place and context specific, with no single approach for reducing risks appropriate across all settings (high confidence). (p. 22)
To me, this means that all our local, small choices within our particular context are what DOES matter. These are the choices that begin to make a difference. Then we can tackle policy and governments across all levels of our society. The report suggests working on areas that combine with "co-benefits for other objectives" (p. 23), which I assume means emphasizing job creation and the like.

Pages 27-30 of this report have a chart that lists the key climate change risks in various areas of the world, and suggests adaptation prospects. This is a really helpful way to look at what is going on and what we might do about it in our areas. There are a bunch more charts and graphs on the following pages that look interesting and helpful, too.

This week's eco-challenge from the Northwest Earth Institute's "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" is to use less energy by turning heat down, turning off appliances and electronics that aren't in use, and unplugging appliances that draw energy even when they're not on. I have a feeling this one is going to hit that "convenience" button again. But with the motivation of this recent UN paper, I'll attempt to set my own desire for convenience aside, and instead focus on the big picture.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

eco-lent: week 4, just say "no" to new toys!

Lately, my seven-year-old is obsessed with a computer game (also available on other devices) called Minecraft. He bought the iPad version with some of his birthday money. In this game, you walk around and build stuff, as far as I can tell. You also get attacked by zombies and creepers at night. You can blow stuff up with TNT, including animals, because that's how you eat them. This is what I know about this game; don't press me on details. (Said 7yo is slightly disturbed about blowing up animals since he's a vegetarian, but decided it's OK because that's the only food source in the game. I'm just glad he feels disturbed about blowing up animals. But I digress.)

The other day he came home from a play date with a couple LEGO magazines, which is great. He loves LEGOs, too, and I generally think highly of LEGOs. They're not cheap, but they last forever because they're a quality product, and they encourage creativity. (Plus, did anyone see the recent Lego Movie??? So great! Or should I say "awesome"?!) They may be made out of plastic, but it's not like he's eating them, so I think it's OK.

In the LEGO magazines were pictures of--get this--Minecraft LEGO sets. What could be better than combining two of his favorite things?! So he was very excited and wanted to visit the website, at which point I realized that these tiny sets of LEGOs were $34.99 and no way was I going to buy them--that's more expensive than the computer game. Also, it got me thinking about the ridiculousness of the fact that Minecraft is basically LEGOs on the computer, and then they're turning around and making LEGOs out of the LEGO computer game, and charging more for them because they have little pixelated faces on them.

Therefore, I suggested that he basically already had LEGO Minecraft, because he had square pieces with which he could build whatever he wanted without even having to use a screen.

WOAH! 7yo mind *blown*.

So today, he spent his morning making his own Minecraft LEGO people and animals, and proceeded to build a house for them and play with them for much of the rest of the day (in between accosting innocent visitors with vivid descriptions of each character and what they do). From left: sheep, cow, villager, "Steve," zombie, creeper and ghast.

I realized this is exactly what I'm supposed to be working on this week with my eco-lent theme of buying less. He showed me how much more fun it is and how much creativity is involved when we're willing to buy less, use what we have, and make the things our hearts really desire. He took so much pleasure in creating these and playing with them and telling people about them. He might have been excited if he'd gotten the official set, but it seems like he's more personally connected to these and proud of them because of the effort and creativity he put in. What a great example! (He was also really excited that I was putting a picture on my blog, so make sure to tell him you liked them, next time you see him.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

eco-lent: week 4

This week's eco-challenge from The Northwest Earth Institute's "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" suggests buying less.

At the moment, we're really trying to stick to our budget and buy only the essentials for economic reasons, so I feel like I'm pretty good at this one, but there's always room for improvement. I'll give a few ways that my family attempts to buy less, and then list a few areas I could work on.

Tips for buying less:

  • Last weekend we had a garage sale! Believe it or not, there are some parts of the country where this is not normal. But it's a great way to get rid of unwanted stuff, or things you haven't used in a while and that someone else might use, and you make a bit of cash while you're at it. It felt really cathartic to just let go of possessions, to release them and not hoard them.
  • Buy used. This way another item doesn't have to be made and thrown in the landfill. I like to go to thrift stores, and of course you can buy used things online.
  • Acquire used. My friend Lotus is a great coordinator for clothing exchanging! She gets some, gives some, facilitates trades between similar-sized friends, and shares with me. I also have friends with whom I pass down clothes from my kids, or receive their hand-me-downs. So far my kids love this arrangement, because every once in a while we get a big garbage bag full of "new" clothes. They also enjoy packing things away for their younger friends and seeing them wear favorite items.
  • Freecycle and other e-groups. Our Friends meeting has a very active e-group, and in addition to prayer requests and announcements, people often send out emails listing "Needed" or "Available" items or opportunities. When we lived in a different town there was an active Freecycle e-group and we got some great, free stuff (furniture, kids clothes) in a place where we weren't as connected in to the community.
  • Buy quality. This is my husband's big thing--when you're going to buy something, buy an item with excellent quality so it will last, rather than buying something cheap that will wear out and have to be replaced. This option is more expensive up front, but less expensive in the long run.
  • Buy local foods and other items. At least when we do this, there's generally less packaging and less shipping. We buy local honey from a friend, we grow our own eggs, we try to buy foods that are produced in our area whenever we can...although we're not exceptionally good at this.
Areas that could use a little work:
  • Be satisfied with what you have. This is the difficult one, right? There's always something newer, faster, trendier, cuter...but can we be satisfied with our phones, clothes, home decor, cars, etc. for just an extra year? How about 2, or 10? I'm still working on this one in some areas. It requires letting go of one's ego enough to not care if you have the shiny new thing first, or if you look cool, or if your home/car/wardrobe keeps up with the trends. In my own life, this requires a process of constant internal renewal.
  • Coffee, quinoa, sugar and other extras that have to be shipped from a distance and are cash crops that require destruction of natural habitats. This makes my head hurt just to think about it--a preemptive caffeine headache.
  • Truly buying bulk food and local food, rather than the cheater way at Costco or Winco. In our area there's a company called Azure Standard, and they sell bulk items and try to find as much as they can locally and organic. This cuts down on packaging and shipping at all levels of the supply chain, and also requires me to make more from scratch rather than getting conveniently pre-packaged food that isn't as healthy (for my family or the planet). Azure is generally cheaper, too.
  • Electronics. We're not the kind to have to go buy every new gadget that comes out, but we do have our fair share (or, really, on a worldwide scale, way more than our fair share). There's environmental impact from all the plastics and metals, etc. that go into making the things, as well as the factories and the shipping. Then there's the increased international conflict for access to the raw materials, as well as the ill health and slavery-like situations of factory workers, not to mention how many electronic items end up in landfills.
Goals for the week:
  • Make an order for Azure Standard.
  • Pay even more attention to where foods come from. Try to buy locally produced foods, or do without.
  • Ponder my coffee habit. I'm not ready to give this one up yet...