Go Green!

  Today, I was lucky enough to attend an event organized by Go Green Wilmette, a local organization that works to promote sustainability in our community situated next to Lake Michigan. I was expecting a few companies and organizations environmentally inclined to have a few pamphlets and explain the great work that they do from day to day. I was happily astonished to be greeted by multiple (very large) rooms filled with hundreds of people eager to show others what they do to protect our big blue marble, as well as ways that locals can get involved and make conscious lifestyle choices that will benefit and promote the health of the environment, both locally and on a larger scale.

Living so close to Lake Michigan has molded all of our lives to think about what’s best for our great lake, and how to keep its waters pristine and clean, as the health of the lake is vital to both our happiness and our wellbeing. A few organizations at the event were focused on how to protect the lake, while others focused on how our proximity to the nation’s third largest city gives us an opportunity to cause change. Some of the tables and conversations at the event focused on city planning, researching alternative ways to make the city of Chicago more “green”. Others demonstrated the proper way to recycle, the potential of solar panels, and how to make environmentally friendly cleaning supplies at home. These discussions are important, they get the gears turning, help everyone think about how they can make a difference.

Exhibitions like these bring people together to consider their personal impact on their community, in all aspects, and what they might be able to do to better their waterways, their beaches, their forest preserves. Actions we take here in the midwest have national and even global impacts; it’s a small world, go green!

Food Waste

Here is a followup to my “reducing waste” article from some time ago!

This past semester, I fully cooked for myself for the first time. I planned my dinners for the week, picked out what I wanted at the grocery store, ate the leftovers when I cooked way too much, and eventually tossed the leftover-leftovers that were beyond their time.

Throughout this adjustment to cooking and eating for one, I have realized how much food I accidentally waste. As just one person, I cannot eat all of the servings included in packages sold, and inevitably end up with some moldy leftovers forgotten in the back of the fridge (great topic for a science project). 

Another source of food waste comes from food that doesn’t even make it to the supermarket. A good portion of food grown is left in the field, deemed unworthy of sale. There are now organizations, such as Imperfect Produce, that advocate for “misshapen” and “ugly” produce, and have made a market out of the unwanted fruits and veggies that are typically left to rot in the field.  

How many of you have a compost bin? How about a recycling bin? How many of you sort your trash? As it turns out, decomposing food is its own source of pollution. As food biodegrades, it releases methane, a major greenhouse gas. 

So, first and foremost, try to reduce your food waste. This saves money, if you’re buying just what you need, and eating what you buy. In addition, decreasing food waste saves the resources that went into food production and transportation. If you do end up with inedible leftovers, try to find a compost service nearby, or start a compost bin of your own. Compost turns into excellent fertilizer! 

Of course, composting is not feasible to everyone, everywhere. But it is important to keep in mind the negatives of food waste, and be conscious of how much you buy, and how much you waste. Happy eating! 


The Problem with Frigid Cold Spells

Aside from the obvious problem of cold spells, with temperatures far below zero gracing the frigid envelope of winter, another problem is that some people think that this is cause to disbelieve in “global warming”.

“Climate Change” is the more common term, now, as well as the more accurate one. As proven by these polar vortexes, weather events are becoming more extreme, with temperatures hotter in some places and colder in others, torrential downpours and massive freak waves becoming the new normal.

Quick clarification: weather and climate are not the same. Weather is made up of the day to day temperature forecasts and rain showers, etc. Climate is the description used to identify weather patterns, and usually focuses on a region, rather than a specific city or town. When we talk about climate change, we are looking at changes in weather patterns over years, whereas the weather from yesterday could be drastically different from tomorrow’s weather, but likely would not be classified as climate change.

Even places like Chicago and towns in Minnesota that are accustomed to cold winters are dealing with record-breaking low temperatures. One might just say that it is a particularly cold winter, that maybe we should open the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s a freak cold spell… but climate change by definition is long-term changes to weather patterns. Climate change means that over the next decade, several decades, a century, weather events that were once considered “freak” will become more common.

Already, the status of our atmosphere is causing change down on ground-level, and past habits resulting in pollution will cause change regardless of what we do going forward. But, if we want our beaches to stay beautiful, our forests green and full, if we want to keep our lovely Earth to be healthy and clean, we need to be forward-thinking, rather than imposing the problem of climate change onto the future. So grab your warmest coat, biggest umbrella, and don’t blow away!

What to do with everything you find in your basement from yesteryear…..

What better way to start a new year than with an organized basement?! I spent the morning of yesterday’s dreary, Chicago winter day in the basement with my family, cleaning out shelves and bins, and attempting to put some order into the room we call “The Unfinished Part (of the basement)”. The room that houses our treadmill, the laundry, the classic creepy crawlspace, as well as crafts that have been accumulating for the past 15 years.

Included in this array of crafts were Perler beads (the kind you iron and pull off of the shape), buckets of plastic beads, sewing kits that had been opened once and put back on the shelf, all the necessary supplies for rainbow looms and friendship bracelets. Most of this had a fine layer of dust covering the surface, indicating that the fad for exchanging rubber bands had passed several years ago.

What do we do with all these leftover toys? 

The parts and kits that are still in good condition will be donated. Someone, I’m sure, will be very, very happy to learn how to sew a felt frog. But the rest, we ended up throwing out. We had outgrown the crafts, and they were just taking up valuable space on our shelves. Much of these materials are non-recyclable, some of which were popular before recycling labels were standard. Who knows, maybe half of it could have been recycled? But the little bits of fabric I used to weave to make pot-holders, and the bracelet string that is cut too short to use for anything useful, these little leftovers of fun afternoons are now going to pollute our planet.

Despite everything we did end up throwing out or giving away, we have kept and saved timeless wooden toys, legos that will be rebuilt and reused, dolls and their clothing that can be passed down and shared, and countless other childhood pastimes.

All this leads me to mention that perhaps the toy industry could use some reconfiguring, or at least a little thought into the high-turnover, high (potential) waste that is characteristic of the sector. Many toys are played with for a bit of time, or a craft is done once or twice, and then something new comes out and the old one is discarded. Instead of always buying the latest and greatest, perhaps we would be better off to just make do with what we have until we’re certain this toy or craft is something we want, and will be used to the end of its useful life. So, think before you buy 🙂

Eco-Friendly Practices During the Holidays

I love Christmastime as much as the next person. Just because I’m an environmentalist does not mean I don’t love a beautifully wrapped gift! The holidays are a beautiful, fun, and festive time of year, and they also have the potential to wreak havoc on our trash and recycling systems. 

Here are a few ways you can be a bit more environmentally conscious over the holiday season: 

  • Reuse boxes and ribbon. Use old shipping boxes to send gifts to relatives, and collect and save boxes in which you received gifts to give back to others. 
  • When mailing gifts, you can use paper grocery bags as wrapping for shipping. Just cut the bag so that you can wrap it around the package, and tape it up!
  • Put holiday lights on timers so that they don’t use excess electricity. 
  • Take broken light strands to a recycling facility (some towns may have centers for collection), rather then tossing them into the garbage.
  • Take (tinsel free!) Christmas trees to be cut up for wood chips, rather than just leaving it out to be thrown in a  landfill. 
  • Try to avoid glitter! It’s everywhere, and so fun and pretty, but terrible for the environment. It gets all over everything, including waterways, and doesn’t go away.
  • Consider gifting experiences rather than things. You could give a ticket to a show, a gift card to a favorite restaurant, make a donation to a charity in the giftee’s name.
  • Make gifts meaningful, rather than bunches of excess trinkets. 
  • Choose sustainable objects, such as organic cotton and other natural, renewable materials, when picking out clothing or other items. 
  • Decorate with natural materials, too! You can use live garland to garnish a pillar, or pile pinecones in a nice dish. I love to poke cloves into small oranges- a nice decoration, and smells lovely and festive! 
  • As a gift to yourself, change your lightbulbs to be energy efficient. Not only does it save energy, it will save you money! 
  • Shop locally and bring your own bag – this reduces the number of boxes used in shipping and decreases emissions from transportation, as well as supporting local businesses. 
  • If you wrap, reuse and recycle wrapping paper. Any wrapping paper with a matte finish is recyclable! If you can’t recycle it, use it for cards- gift tags, thank you notes, holiday greeting cards.


Zero-Waste: What’s the Hype?

With all the recent reports on climate change, viral videos of sea animals trapped in plastic pollution, and a recognized awareness of the changes we need to make to keep our planet happy and healthy, the term “zero-waste” has become more prevalent. Plastic pollution reaches far beyond the plastic straw issue; plastic pollution is represented by all plastic, single-use and reusable, that makes its way from its place of consumption to an obtrusive place in nature. It’s the plastic water bottles, the food containers, the microplastic contamination, as well as non-plastic items, that clog our waterways and pollute our highways.

Zero-waste isn’t about stopping consumption, or completely cutting your waste production- that’s impractical, and and we would make no progress if we told everyone, “okay, no waste for you this month!”. Living a zero-waste, or waste-aware, lifestyle is about making a conscious effort to use reusable shopping bags, to buy fruit that’s not wrapped in plastic, to use glass containers to store food, to use your own to-go cup for your daily coffee. It’s about being aware of the products you use and consume, and to do your best at reducing the byproducts of consumption.

I have a few questions myself about the issue- is it acceptable to bring your own utensils when eating out, in order to avoid the plastic utensils given by the restaurant? What about paper napkins, could you bring a cloth napkin instead? These actions may cause an uncomfortable situation in a restaurant, but they could also spark discussion for the operation of the restaurant, maybe they should be offering reusable utensils or napkins. There’s also the big C word: Convenience. Isn’t it easier to buy an already peeled pomegranate than having to dissect the fruit to harvest the seeds yourself? The scope and reality of waste-aware living is still a bit ambiguous, but it’s the thought that turns into action that will lead to a change of habit.

Yes, we can clean up our oceans, our streams, our fields, but we need to stop waste at its source. By consciously choosing items that don’t have packaging, or reusing the glass jar from last night’s pasta sauce to store leftovers, by thinking before acting, progress can be made. I implore you to simply Googlezero-waste“, and learn a bit more about some habits that can be changed for the better, and consider how you can make a difference.

PS- Food waste. Did you know that about 1/5 of food is left in the field during harvest because it is misshapen, or not labeled as “good enough” to eat? Food waste is an immense and expansive issue, and will be featured in it’s own blog post to come!

All About Solar

Who doesn’t love a sunny day?! The sun is literally the center of our lives, starting our days and warming our earth. The beautiful sun can also be converted into usable energy. Now that it’s mid-November, the days are growing shorter, the sun is getting less frequent. This is one of the criticisms of solar power, it’s intermittency, or inconsistency, which people correlate to unreliability. Although true, the sun doesn’t shine 24/7/365, there really is no perfect solution to our energy needs. Natural fossil fuels release long-sequestered carbon and emit greenhouse gases, wind power is noisy, obtrusive, and just as intermittent as solar, geothermal and nuclear powers have their own difficulties. Yet we need energy, to warm our homes, power our cars, and light our lives.

Entering my fourth month in Germany, I have noticed, and studied, the high number of solar panels around Freiburg. They are everywhere! Even in my student housing complex (which used to be a hospital during WWII!) there are solar panels that I can spot from my kitchen window. The town hall looks like something from the future, a round building decked out with solar panels around the entire structure. An old landfill is in the process of being covered by solar panels, feeding into the local power grid. Part of the prominence of local solar panels is due to subsidies from the city of Freiburg in the early 2000s to retrofit older homes with solar panels. As a result, a good portion of homes now produce energy, and help to power the city.

The pictures below show the rooftop of Hotel Victoria, an eco-friendly hotel that became sustainable in the 1980s, before sustainability was “a thing”. The hotel now relies 100% on renewable energy, much of which is sourced from the rooftop solar panels and small wind turbines. The solar panels are just one part of the many sustainability aspects of the hotel, accompanied by a wood-pellet heating system, groundwater cooling, strong insulation, and many other factors.

There is no perfect system for energy extraction, and each energy source has its pros and cons. However, solar is definitely a step up from fossil fuels and natural gas, and should be considered as an alternative energy source going forward.


Sustainability: A quick definition

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable- to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – World Commission on Environment and Development

Sustainability is a term tossed around all the time; sustainable living, sustainable businesses, is this or that sustainable… Yet it is not very often that the term is closely examined. Sustainability is about living within our means, consuming enough for ourselves and also ensuring the prosper of the next generation. Sustainability is keeping the earth the beautiful and biodiverse planet that it is, coexisting with every little thing that dwells alongside us humans. Sustainability can be a lifestyle, it can describe a business, various “things” can be sustainable, but the root of sustainability is respecting the land and the sea, and leaving nothing but footprints on all your adventures.

Walkable Cities

I have spent the past few weeks studying what makes a city sustainable and pedestrian friendly. Freiburg, Germany, the city in which I have been studying, is an excellent example of a city designed with pedestrians in mind. Many streets are one way, to accommodate walkers and bicyclists, sidewalks are large, and the main square now hosts a daily farmers market where there used to be a parking lot. One key component of a sustainable city is the ability for people to either walk or bike to their destination, reducing car emissions and promoting a healthier lifestyle. 

I visited Amsterdam this past weekend, the bike capital of the world. In addition to the excess of bicyclists, the main downtown area is almost exclusively pedestrian walkways. Too many times we were walking along, only to realize that we were in the middle of the street, and yes in fact cars do drive here, although only periodically. The ease of such a walkable city not only improves the tourist experience, but also encourages a healthy, active lifestyle for those that live there. Walking is also an incredible way to get to know a new city! If we all walk, rather than drive, just a little bit more often, it can greatly decrease the amount of emissions that enter our atmosphere. Plus, it’s always nice to get a little fresh air! 


Happy Halloween!

Halloween is scary, and so are the effects of a changing climate! Have a fun and safe halloween, and be conscious of some of the byproducts of the holiday, such as candy wrappers, glitter, and single-use decorations.

Which is scarierA. empty candy bowl or B. all the plastic candy wrappers ending up as litter? 

-As disappointing as it is to come upon a house without any candy to offer, think about all the plastic wrappers, from the candy that was taken, ending up in nature! It is predicted that within the next few decades, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Don’t contribute to that statistic!

Which is worse: A. snow or B. rain while trick or treating?

-The changing climate is having impacts on natural weather events, as well as timing of the change of seasons. It may snow earlier than usual, or rain harder. Make sure to pack an umbrella (and gloves!) while walking around your neighborhood!

Which is freakier: A. Someone dressed up as a melting iceberg or B. the polar ice caps actually melting?

-An iceberg might be a bit of a bulky costume to wear for halloween, but the melting ice caps are no laughing matter. Recent research shows that once the ice starts melting, it is harder to re-form, due in part to the increasing air temperature.

Which would make you jump: A. a creepy crawly spider crawling up your leg or B. the extinction of bugs and insects? 

-Spiders are creepy!! But spiders, along with hundreds of other species of bugs and insects, are vital to the health of our ecosystems.

Question: are ghosts as real as climate change? 

-I’m not sure how you feel about ghosts, but climate change is definitely real, and just as scary as (if not scarier than) ghosts!