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One Unsustainable Habit

Change just one unsustainable habit today. I hate to say it, but for a very long time I was one of those people who left the water running while brushing my teeth. I cringe when I think about all the fresh, potable water that I wasted with utter disregard. If you do it too, today’s the day to start turning off that water.

Here are some more unsustainable habits to think about changing:

String_bagPaper or plastic? Neither. Bring your own shopping bags. Added bonus – reusable bags are very inexpensive and you can find pretty ones that suit your style. You can also get reusable produce bags for the grocery store, so you can stop wasting all those little plastic bags. Those things are the bane of my existence. I hate them. You can even up-cycle t-shirts to make your own bags. Here’s a tutorial.

Buy local – You’ll save all kinds of resources by buying local. Farmers who sell their fruits and veggies at farmer’s markets typically use more sustainable practices, and don’t unnecessarily package their produce. If you have a local spice and/or tea merchant you might be able to buy from them and use containers you already have. Local merchants are more willing to work with you to help you be more sustainable, something national grocery chains don’t do.

Appliances & electronics – Even turned off, most electronics and appliances still draw power. Unplug them when you’re done using them, or use a power strip that you can simply switch off. Many large appliances can’t really be unplugged without a huge hassle, but things like toasters and toaster ovens can.

plastic-631625_640Bottled water – I’m not a fan of tap water, but I’m also not keen on all the waste generated by bottled water. The solution – a filter. There are several different kinds you can use in your kitchen to filter your own tap water. Many bottled waters are also owned by major corporations like Pepsi, Coke and Nestle that you may not want to support because of their involvement in the anti GMO-labeling campaign.

Make, don’t buy – There are probably several things that you buy on a regular basis which you can very easily make, reducing the amount of packaging waste that you personally generate. For example, salad dressings are fast & easy. They are also a product that often contain fillers and GMOs and gunk that you can avoid by making them yourself.

Towels – Use cloth instead of paper towels in the kitchen. Like many of these other suggestions, it may require a small initial investment but will save you money over time in addition to being a more sustainable practice.

Go Dutch – By which I mean, of course, ride your bicycle. Do you drive to the corner store that’s half a mile away? At a leisurely pace, that only takes 10 minutes to walk. Go by bicycle to get there in just a few minutes. Most trips that Americans take are less than 3 miles. A 3-mile bicycle ride takes around 10-15 minutes, depending on how fast you go.

Take it step-by-step. If you try to change your whole life at once, you’ll just get frustrated and then nothing will change. To really make a difference, you have to really make a change, so set realistic goals for improving your personal sustainability accountability and meet them one at a time. And don’t be surprised if it takes a few weeks to stop making that return-trip from the supermarket to your car to retrieve your forgotten grocery bags from the back seat. It’s all part of the process.


An Unsustainable Food Supply

Fur trappers and traders who came to North America in the 1600s and 1700s had to eat what they could forage and catch. Rabbits were plentiful in many regions at that time, and so they formed the bulk of some trappers’ diets. Those trappers who relied too heavily on rabbit meat often died of malnutrition. Rabbit meat takes more calories to procure than you get back from eating it. That balance is unsustainable, and yet it is exactly how the U.S. food system works.

A little bit of math

It takes approximately 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. That means, for a family of four with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, 930 gallons of gas per year will be required to produce and transport their food, not including that family driving to and from the grocery store. Since the average household in the U.S. consumes somewhere around 1,000 gallons of gas per year, the way we manage our food supply nearly doubles the already ridiculous amount of fuel each person is responsible for consuming. That kind of imbalance on a personal level will eventually kill you, and what we’re seeing on a national level is no different.

Approximately 15% of the energy supply in the United States goes into crop production, livestock production, food processing, and packaging. A Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science did the math for what that means for the big picture: if all of humanity were to go about food production the way the U.S. does, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. Wow, that’s wasteful!

Agricultural practices contribute greatly to global warming. Because of the complexity of the problem and the multitude of factors, it’s difficult to arrive at an accurate number, but it’s thought that approximately 33% of contributions to climate change are a direct result of the food supply system. Some of the factors are farm machinery, petroleum-based chemicals used in synthetic fertilizers, the manufacturing processes for agro-chemicals and fertilizers, the processing of major crops like corn and soy into a vast array of derived products, and the distribution over long distances of everything, including the final output. Animal agriculture itself accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all transportation in the globe (14%). (Others argue that the figure of 18% allows a large number of unallocated emissions that are really due to animal agriculture, bringing the figure up to 51% – read more here.)

Let’s take school lunches as an example, if only because a) they need to change anyway as they’re incredibly unhealthy for our children, and b) I can quote directly from an article by Tom Starrs, VP and COO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation:

“According to 2005 USDA National School Lunch Program participation figures, 29.6 million American school children were served nearly five billion meals at school last year. Typically these meals are highly processed, filled with conditioners, preservatives, dyes, salts, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. Usually they’re individually portioned and packaged, and travel thousands of miles to the school cafeteria.

School meals are commonly delivered frozen, wrapped and sealed in energy-consumptive packaging, and in need of some interval in a warming oven to thaw before being served to students. Studies of packaging and plate waste in school cafeterias indicate that, every day, as much as half, by weight, of these hasty, unappetizing, low-nutrient, highly processed and packaged meals is tossed by students — unopened, un”appreciated”, untasted, unrecycled and uncomposted. The energy needed to collect and transport the waste generated by school lunch must also be added to the net energy embedded in the meal.”

This is no different from food in the grocery store, which travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there, and is wastefully packaged to boot.

It’s the Monsanto monster again

A huge amount of agriculture and food supply mismanagement can be traced back to Monsanto & friends. The federal government has been convinced by lobbyists and money to subsidize over-production of monoculture crops such as corn and soy. They are genetically modified crops, grown in petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer, drenched in herbicides and insecticides, then either fed to cattle who can’t digest them or highly processed before going into your own food. Monsanto & friends get extremely-well paid, while you and I foot the bill, twice – once in our tax dollars funding their subsidies and once for increasingly expensive health care to treat our inevitable diet-related illnesses.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables that are fit for human consumption don’t receive subsidies. It’s really an upside-down system. We should be able to offer farmers subsidies to protect them from a year of drought, blight, etc., but not for purposeful overproduction of nutritionally useless and environmentally damaging crops that serve no purpose but to line the pockets of those in charge of unethical corporations.

Tipping point

With a rising global population, increases in droughts and flooding, and a beautiful planet that can’t take much more of what we’re throwing at her, we absolutely have to make our system more sustainable and energy-efficient if we’re going to survive. None of us can implement that change alone, but we can each make choices in our daily lives that will contribute, and we can urge others to do the same. If enough of us care and get involved, we can and will reach a tipping point where the system will have to change. It’s a top-down problem that we need to try to solve from the bottom-up. We all have to get involved. Buy local as much as possible. Go to farmer’s markets. Grow your own vegetables at home. Start to think about the net energy that goes into your food and the waste that results. Start or get involved in a local community garden, farm-to-school program, or food forest project. Above all, teach your children!

Fast Food & Soft Drinks

no_fast_foodI could write for days and days about all the ways that fast food & soft drinks are horrible things to do to your body. There are oh so many reasons to avoid both at all costs, but I’ll rein it in and mention a few that are most closely related to sustainability, as there are plenty of resources to learn about all the nasty effects on your health of these nutritionally depleting grab-bags of chemicals, neurotoxins, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors. If it sounds like I’m being harsh, you should read more about what these do to your body over time. For example, here, and here.

Sustaining your family – the economics

click to enlarge

Despite what many people think (I don’t know why) it’s not more economical to buy fast food rather than regular food at a grocery store to make at home, if you buy the right things. It’s also often pointed out that soft drinks are commonly cheaper than other drinks. True, for many drinks.

But what about water? Or make yourself tea or coffee. Jasmine iced tea and mint iced tea are two of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had, and you can’t buy them just anywhere. You have to buy the tea and make it at home. Much less expensive and much better for you than any bottle or can of soda.

The problem here may well be the food deserts that many lower-income families live in, and the lack of education regarding food economics. These are problems that desperately need to be solved, for the health and welfare of everyone.

Trash talk

The amount of garbage produced by these businesses is astronomical. Everything comes individually wrapped. Some of it ends up in the dumpster and some of it ends up graciously adorning our streets and parks. A study was done in the San Francisco Bay Area to determine the sources of litter. 49% of the litter collected in random samples from four Bay Area cities was from fast food.

According to the ‘Waste Disposal and Diversion Findings for Selected Industry Groups‘ (2006), fast-food restaurants generate about 6,528 lbs of waste material per employee per year. Per employee! How many employees does McDonald’s have? If you let that sink in for a moment, it’s horrifying. A staggering 42% of what gets thrown away, winding up in a landfill, is classified as “disposed, easily divertible,” which means it’s recyclable or compostable and it wouldn’t take that much effort to do it. And that doesn’t include the 2.5 million plastic bottles that North Americans throw out every HOUR. And THAT doesn’t include all the aluminum cans that don’t get recycled, each of which could save the amount of energy produced by half that can full of gasoline. (For those and other fun facts, click here.)

Accountability for sustainability

sea-1017596_1280Did you know that We need to start holding these businesses and ourselves accountable for this waste. By making the choice to make food from scratch at home, you improve your own health and the health of your finances, as well as living more sustainably. Of course, the packaging of items at grocery stores is also typically very wasteful, but, again, you have the power of choice; find as many products as possible that are less wasteful or whose containers can be reused. Example – stay away from unnecessarily pre-packaged vegetables. Those things do no one any good. They don’t save you any time – they still need to be washed.

This is a simple, real way we can each contribute to sustainability – say no to fast food, soft drinks, and other things that are wastefully packaged.

Breaking Down Composting

Get mulching

Basically, if you can, you should. It doesn’t require a large area and it will help all of your brothers and sisters and the planet by saving on landfill space. Plus, in some places you’re charged by the pound and/or by the bag for trash removal, so you might even be able to save yourself money.

If you have a garden, there’s a clear benefit for you: nutrient-rich soil that will help you grow delicious vegetables. Growing vegetables takes vitamins and minerals out of the ground. That’s great, because they end up in our bodies, making us healthier, but the soil needs to be replenished for the cycle to continue.

The fact is, there’s a problem with trash. We use landfills. When they’re full, we have to find space for another. It’s a growing issue in many towns and cities. Well, isn’t a landfill basically a big compost heap? No. And never mind all the toxic stuff that goes into landfills, let’s just look at the organic material.

When trash goes to a landfill, everything gets piled on top of everything else, so oxygen can’t get to the organic waste. When bacteria breaks down organic material with the help of oxygen, it’s aerobic decomposition. This kind of decomp doesn’t produce nearly the amount of ammonia and methane that anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition produces. Methane is a major contributor to global warming, and ammonia is extremely toxic to aquatic animals, though humans and other mammals can deal with the diluted small amounts that might be found in compost.

Composting doesn’t solve the problem all by itself, but it certainly helps. We have a duty to engage ourselves and our children in environmental stewardship, and this is a clear step in the right direction. Plus, if you do have children, composting can be a great learning tool for some pretty cool science stuff. What kid doesn’t want to know where dirt comes from?

Composting also requires very little effort, even for the initial setup. Some people build their own compost containers, but it’s not necessary. You can buy a simple container or just use chicken wire. It’s also possible to just have a pile, though it doesn’t look very nice. Here’s a simple guide from wikiHow that can get you started.

What to do with all this compost?

If you don’t have your own garden, you might be able to give it to people who can use it. Donate it to the community garden. Put a sign out front that you have free mulch. Go to your local farmer’s market and let people know that all they have to do is come get it.

Make sure you compost responsibly. If you’re offering this prized possession to others, let them know you take pride in your work. There are certain things that shouldn’t go into a compost pile because they can negatively effect the gardens that are ultimately grown from the compost. Chemicals, for example. You can compost paper towels, but don’t throw dyed paper in there. The chemicals from the dye will be in your beloved soil.

Check out this list of things never to put into your compost pile (damn, I really thought bread was okay.) Some of them are to protect you from unwanted “varmints” while others are to protect the health and vitality of the plants that will one day spring from this soil and could end up on your dinner plate.

The rest is simple. Keep a compost bucket somewhere out of sight in your kitchen and dump it on the compost pile every few days. Every once in a while, take a rake or pitchfork or shovel and turn the pile over, to aerate the mulch and keep the decomposition process going. Throw your grass clippings, broken branches, and dead leaves in there, too. You can buy worms to help the process along, but it’s not necessary, especially if your compost container has an open bottom – the worms will come to you.

You don’t have to go it alone

Here’s an idea for those of you who live in an apartment or housing complex and don’t have the space: how about a community compost? Is there anywhere near you that could be used? Do you have neighbors that would engage in this project? Talk to people and find out.

Reduce, reuse, recycle – composting is all three rolled into one.  There’s so much for you and your community to benefit from, and what is there to lose? A square yard or 2 of lawn space?

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