Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm a Believer

Yesterday, I was at my mom's house going through all the crap I've stored in her garage for the past two years, and I found these pretty wood flowers I had bought at Ikea four years ago.

Yeah I know, wood flowers, but trust me, they are pretty! They are bright blue and red. And they liven up a place. And I'm bad with real flowers.

Anyway, here they were in the garage collecting dust. (I'm surprised they survived the purge two years ago when I moved out of LA ... I guess this tells you how attached I am to stupid $2 wood flowers.) But other than the dust, they still looked good, and I decided that I wanted them for the new apartment. I figured I'd rinse them in the kitchen sink, let them dry off, and I was sure they'd look as good as new.

I had almost finished washing the flowers when I noticed to my horror BRIGHT BLUE DOTS all over my mom's WOOD floor. The stupid Ikea flowers had leaked dye onto the floor. My MOM'S FLOOR.

Now, many of you are moms. And when your children do something, like say, ruin your wood floors, you probably sigh, and are sad, but mostly let it go. Because it was an accident, and they did apologize, and also, your child is four.

Let me tell you, that I am pretty sure this doesn't work when your child is 31.

When your child is 31, I am pretty sure you get REALLY REALLY MAD at said child because HOW DID THEY NOT NOTICE THE BLUE DOTS EARLIER?! And what were they doing washing the flowers in the kitchen sink? After all, said child has her own kitchen sink. Why didn't she go home and wash her flowers there?

(I would like to state for the record here that my mom is actually very, very nice. But she does think both of her daughters are prone to extreme carelessness which may or may not be fair. Also, I think she incorrectly assumed that once her kids hit ten they would stop destroying her kitchen floor.)

So, I freaked out for a few minutes, and then ran to the laundry room to find some cleaner. I got out the nasty, toxic, wood cleaner, dumped as much of it as I could on a rag and set to work.



Then I got some regular soap and water, and tried that.


Then I decided that the Internets must have a solution. So I got online and frantically searched for how to remove dye on wood.

One website advised me to create a paste with a tablespoon of baking soda with a table spoon of vinegar and then scrub the paste on to the wood with a tooth brush.

I honestly had pretty minimal hope for this. After all, the nasty toxic chemicals hadn't worked. Why would stupid baking soda and vinegar? I know people claim they are natural cleaners and work wonders, but I've never completely bought into it.

BUT, at this point I was frantic and desperate.

So, I grabbed a toothbrush, the vinegar, and baking soda and started scrubbing.

And, I am not kidding you, it worked like an eraser on pencil.

It was THAT easy and THAT instantaneous. The vinegar and baking soda picked up ALL that nasty blue dye RIGHT UP.

Ten minutes later, the kitchen floor was completely clean but smelled like fish and chips. Fifteen minutes later, the smell was gone. Twenty minutes later, my mom was home, and I was bragging to her about the miracle that is baking soda and vinegar.

Crisis averted.

And now I'm a believer. No more spending tons of money on expensive eco-cleaners. I'm going with the vinegar and baking soda. Cuz they're safe, cheap, effective, and while I'm cleaning, I can dream of fish and chips. What else can you ask from a cleaning solution?

What are your homemade cleaning recipes and do they work?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


So I don't know if I mentioned this, but I'm moving. My boyfriend and I are moving out of the current place we share with a roommate to a place of our own.

We're very excited ... the new places is super cute, and two bedrooms which means we get an office/guest bedroom. It has a nice large kitchen and also a little outdoor space.

But it's also a little nerve-wracking. No, not because I'm worried about living by myself with my boyfriend or anything. But because, well ....

The other day I was talking to my friend about the move, and she said to me, "So you do know that you are going to have to BUY things, right?!!"


Yes, yes, I know I have to buy things. I know, I know.

And I know that I'll likely even have to buy NEW things. We'll still probably buy some used furniture, but since we are planning to stay in the Bay Area for a very long time (read: possibly forever) we also want to buy stuff with a sense of permanence.

So, you know, we need a bath mat. Hand towels. A doo-dad to hold soap so that the sink doesn't get gritty and soap-scummy. And since we're putting our old bed in the guest bedroom, we need a new mattress, sheets, and pillows.

These are things that we have to buy new. Because, frankly, used bath mats are kinda gross, and what with all the bed bug pandemics, I'm not taking my chances with a used mattress.

Plus, there are the kitchen appliances and accoutrements we will now have to buy. And some of these we can buy used, but some of them will prove difficult.

So my point is, I have to shop.

And guys? I am *not* good at that.

Like, the other day, I spent several hours researching a new electric kettle. I want one with as little plastic as possible, that has no plastic coming in contact with the water. After hours of reading and reviewing and debating, I finally just gave up. And made a cup of tea in my old, completely plastic-and-likely-leaking-toxic-chemicals, kettle.

Luckily my mother came to the rescue with a stainless steel electric kettle that is sitting around in her garage. I haven't looked at the reviews, but I don't care. After all it's used.

And that's the problem. Used stuff is so easy for me to buy. If it breaks after six months, I care a lot less. After all it was used. I probably spent $10. And while I'm obviously concerned about toxic chemicals leaching, I don't care as much about manufacturing impact when I'm buying used. After all, I'm not contributing to the manufacturer's profit, I'm delaying a product's trip to the dump.

With new, I feel like I need to do the research and MAKE IT PERFECT. You know, perfectly environmental, perfectly healthy, perfectly manufactured with fair wages paid to laborers, etc, etc, etc. But it's hard. There's a lot of information to dig through and while that's easy enough when you're buying one thing, it's a whole lot harder when you have to buy a dozen new kitchen things.

And that's the other thing. I am unsure of all the things I NEED and what I can at least put off buying. You don't know how much agonizing I had to do to convince myself that yes, a bath mat is NECESSARY. Because I don't want to live in a FRAT HOUSE.

What do I buy new and what do I buy used? Do I bite the bullet and buy a new trash can? (Those things are surprisingly expensive.) Or do I scour Craigslist and hold out for a used one? What about canisters for sugar, flour, and rice? What about wooden hangers and picture frames?

And, and, (I understand that this is turning into a long, babbling post, this is what the prospect of shopping does to me) WHERE do I buy all these things? I'm not shopping at Target (see previous post) and I am kind of philosophically opposed to Ikea, which I believe makes crappy, cheap furniture enabling too many college students to adopt a "buy new and dump it next year" approach to furniture when they could be buying stuff off Craigslist.

So what does that leave me? Is Bed, Bath, and Beyond okay? Do I want to know if it's not? Can I buy a bath mat at an independent store? Will it cost me $50?

The point is people, that THIS IS WHY I DON'T SHOP. Because it makes me a nut case. So if you see me at the store staring vacantly at the trash cans for an hour, do me a favor and give me a hug. And then tell me which trash can to buy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Boycotting Shopping

The recent boycott of Target has reminded me of how difficult and pointless I used to think shopping boycotts were.

Back before I became a non-consumer I considered information about corporate misdeeds overwhelming. It seemed like every company was doing something it shouldn't. I mean I couldn't just STOP SHOPPING, could I? So I might as well just keep shopping everywhere. They're all bad, but what can I do?

And then one day the lightbulb turned on and I realized that yes, in fact, I could just STOP shopping. So I did.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that you SHOULD boycott Target. That's your own business and you have to base that decision on your own political, moral, and ethical beliefs. I will say that, in my personal opinion as a bleeding heart liberal, I think Target may have cuter clothes than Walmart, but it ain't much better from a progressive politics point of view. Target's recent political donation was one instance in a larger stream of troubling actions.

As I said, my opinion on Target is based on my liberal bias, a position I certainly don't expect everyone reading this blog to share. However, if YOU want to boycott Target, but aren't sure if you can, well then keep reading.

Because I am here to tell you that you most certainly CAN boycott Target.

"How?" you may be wondering. "How can I boycott TARGET? They have everything. Especially cute purses. And they are so conveniently located in the urban/suburban environment where I live, unlike Wal-Mart which is easy to boycott because it's not located anywhere near me!"

It's true that Target has everything. It's very true that they have cute purses. Nonetheless, I promise you that if you want to, you can do it.

Here are my tips for avoiding Target:

1) Stop shopping. Okay, kidding. I know that it's not totally realistic to expect everyone to stop shopping. But seriously, it can be done. Just ask Megan. Or Colin. Or Katy. Or even me! Even if you don't stop shopping you can seriously limit your shopping. I typically don't buy something without several weeks (sometimes months) of consideration. You will be amazed by how much you don't actually NEED. Like that cute purse.

2) Shop Craigslist. And thrift stores. And eBay. And Amazon Marketplace. You will be amazed by how many awesome used things you can find for super cheap. Even cute purses!

3) Use (some) of the money you've saved from buying less and buying used to support local businesses. The sad truth is big box stores like Target can often afford to charge much less than your local mom and pop. But if you're saving money by consuming less, you can also afford to pay a little more on the few things you DO end up buying.

4) Do your homework. Are there big companies with good practices who you are willing to support? For example, Costco has been profiled as a company that is good to its employees. If so, shop there.

5) Don't go there. Or near there. Avoid temptation by not driving past Target every day. Out of sight, out of mind.

As for me, yeah, I probably won't shop at Target. Although I do love their purses.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

More Thoughts on Budiansky

Budiansky's article certainly generated a lot of criticism both here and over at Crunchy Chicken. Probably one of the most oft-repeated themes was "I don't trust statistics."

Which is fair, I suppose, but makes things difficult. I mean, I get that it's really damn easy to lie with statistics which is why I would want to know exactly which studies are being cited and then go and review the methodology before I accepted someone's statistics at face value.

The problem is though, if we want to answer these complex questions about carbon efficiency and energy use, and we want to do them fairly, we do have to sort of agree that we can study them with some sort of method. It's fair not to accept uncited and unverified statistics, but at the end of the day, social policy can't be determined on a wing and a hunch. It's fine for YOU to FEEL that local is the most carbon efficient, and for you to then make your decisions accordingly, but that doesn't NECESSARILY make it true.

Now the other criticism that came up was, "Budiansky is missing the point! This isn't about carbon miles it's about a food REVOLUTION!"

And it's fair, that the locavore movement is about many things, and about many things to many people. However, I also think it's fair for one article to address one facet of the locavore movement, which is most certainly about food miles. Now you may say that you're a locavore because you want to know the farmer who grew your food, and that's valid. But that doesn't mean that it's illegitimate for Budiansky to argue that locavorism isn't NECESSARILY more carbon efficient.

But back to Budiansky, who I think, sort of deserves a lot of criticism himself for issuing a stream of statistics without any mention of his sources (I know that this is totally kosher for an op-ed piece, but if he wanted to, he could have mentioned a study or two.) One of the things that struck me the most about the Budiansky piece is his findings that most of the energy consumption in agriculture comes from us, the consumers. From our fridges, stoves, dishwashers, and car trips to the grocery store.

And actually, given his findings, it's a little surprising that most personal environmentalists are railing against the article because in fact, the article, is, in many senses, a call to arms for personal environmentalism. What Budiansky is saying is, we're not going to reduce the energy consumption associated with food until WE the consumers start acting differently. What he's saying is that each of us, as individuals, can make a difference, by walking to the grocery, turning off the "heat dry" on our dishwashers, and yes, by turning off our fridges.

Of course, I suspect, that if there was a mass movement to turn off our fridges, some other op-ed writer would respond by calling us eco-nuts, and unveiling a heap of statistics that show that refrigeration constitutes a minor portion of America's energy use. But that's another story.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What's The Most Efficient Use of Energy?

I've been thinking idly of getting a CSA box for some time for a variety of reasons. One, I think it would force me to eat more vegetables and to become more adventurous in my meal preparations. Two, I like the idea behind Community Supported Agriculture and would like to support it. Three, it's just so convenient. To have produce delivered to my door seems like such a luxury.

Plus, it's good for the environment right? Isn't that what everyone's saying?

Well, after reading this article, I'm not entirely sure anymore. According to Stephen Budiansky, food transportation, fertilizers, and chemicals only make up a small share of food's energy use. Instead, Budiansky says, "The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far."

Now I have no idea where Budiansky got his statistics from. And frankly, I'm not really sure how meaningful they are ... are his statistics on industrial agriculture solely about crops? Is meat included? And, if so, can we conflate growing lettuce with producing hamburger patties in one statistic?

But Budiansky does have a point when he notes the energy costs required to drive five miles and back from the grocery store or farmer's market. (Note: I've never had to travel five miles to get to a grocery store. Farmer's market, maybe. Grocery store, definitely not. Does this mean I'm spoiled living in the city or is five miles a sort of weirdly large estimate?)

So I started thinking about it. Right now, we get our produce from Whole Foods which is blocks away from our house. Generally speaking, my boyfriend is able to pick up things we need on his walk home from work. We go through produce, especially fruit, very rapidly, so we shop several times a week, and don't use any transportation energy to do so. At Whole Foods, we buy primarily organic, and usually local/in state. The organic is a deliberate choice, the local partly choice, partly happenstance. Since California is the heartland for Industrial Organic, most of our produce just winds up being local. Earthbound Farms spinach? Local. Driscoll's berries? Local. We're lucky. I've been to Whole Foods in Florida and they carry the same Industrial Organic from California that we have in our Whole Foods. As for the produce taste itself? I have to say, I'm extremely happy with it.

Our other options would be farmers markets or CSA. Since we don't have a farmers' market in walking distance, either of these options would require us to expend some form of transportation energy. There are several farmers' markets within a half hour bus ride. But they are generally only once a week or in working hours, so we would either need to buy a lot and hope stuff didn't spoil, or supplement our farmers' market purchases with grocery store produce. Not ideal.

With a CSA, we'd have the convenience factor, but it would come at a cost. I don't know how much energy CSA trucks expend delivering grocery bags across the city, but I'm sure it's a decent amount.

All of this leads me to believe that actually Whole Foods may actually be the most efficient choice for us: efficient in terms of energy and also our time. It seems a tad heretical ... (but it's INDUSTRIAL ORGANIC!! WHAT ABOUT THE SMALL FARMERS?!!) And yeah, I know there are other things to consider. In an ideal world, I would support the small farmers. I would go visit exactly where my food was being produced. I would form a personal connection with the people growing my food. And I'd figure out a way to support small farmers in an energy efficient way.

But, I don't live in an ideal world, I live in a world with a lot of resource constraints. And when I'm thinking about the best use of my limited resources, Whole Foods just seems like the better option.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Plastic Covering the Planet

So, the good news is, now that we compost, we generate very little trash.

The bad news is, most of the trash we do generate is plastic.

Plastic bread bags, plastic tags on bread bags. Plastic bags that come with our New York Times. Plastic shrink-wrapped around boxes of tea for God knows what reason.

Plastic around milk containers. Plastic rings encircling glass bottles of jam and peanut butter. Hello food producers!! We're buying glass for a reason.

Now I'm not a crusader against all plastic. I love Fake Plastic Fish, but we all have our battles to fight, and I'm not ready to add plastic to mine. We go shopping several times a week because I go through fruit literally that fast on my low cholesterol diet. Because of that, we shop at Whole Foods which has the advantage of being four blocks away from our apartment. The berries all come in plastic containers, and we buy plenty.

I buy the pre-packaged organic baby carrots because they're an easy, healthy snack. And the pre-washed organic spinach because, frankly, if the spinach isn't pre-washed it's a lot more likely that I just won't eat it. Plus, the plastic keeps the vegetables from spoiling prematurely.

But even with all that plastic that I'm not willing (yet) to do without, there still seems to be so much excess plastic ... plastic we could get rid of. Plastic that I'm flummoxed is there in the first place. Like the box of tea that is shrink-wrapped in plastic, and then when you open it, you find out that inside the box, each INDIVIDUAL TEA BAG is also wrapped in plastic.

Seriously, is there some pandemic of unsanitary tea that I don't know of? (I no longer buy this brand.)

Plastic is piling up ... in our apartment (literally, for whatever reason my boyfriend sees fit to keep all the New York Times bags like we're suddenly going to come up with a use for them), in our landfills, in my mind. The other day, one of my contacts fell off in the sink, and because I was getting rid of them anyway, I almost let it go down the drain. And then I realized ... "Oh wait. That's ... plastic." And with visions of endangered fish choking on my contact, I scooped it back up.

Saturday, at the grocery store, my boyfriend reported that he stared at the milk for several seconds, trying to figure out if he should buy the organic milk in the plastic container or the non-organic milk in the paper container. Unable to deal with this Sophie's Choice, he fled from the dairy aisle and found, to his relief, that I had already picked up the milk: organic in plastic.

One more plastic container to add to my heap of plasticized guilt.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Building Exercise Into Your Commute

The past few days I've felt a little bit restless, sorta like a dog that needed to be walked.

I was wondering what was going on, when I realized that I am, in fact, like a dog that needs to be walked.

You see, I've had to drive to work the past couple days. And generally, I take the train to work, which involves about 5 miles of walking (.8 miles to the train station then 1.75 miles to work and then back again.) In fact, I walk to work, and then after work change into my running clothes and run the way back.

As a result, I'm in probably the best shape of my life.

When exercise is built into your commute, you can't procrastinate it, or avoid it. If I don't walk, I don't get home.

Now, it's not a pretty walk really. In fact, people who know the area are sometimes taken aback that I walk it. There are short parts of it where there is no sidewalk, and I'm forced to trespass through parking lots to avoid walking in the middle of the road. At these times, I channel my inner Beany getting annoyed at all the drivers and the wide swathes of the road we have allotted them, leaving none for little old pedestrian me.

And it makes for a long commute, especially in the evening where I have to wait a good while for a train.

But I can honestly say that I am so much happier with my commute than I would be stuck in a car in rush hour traffic. I love having time to read on the train. I love that I am getting good exercise. And I REALLY love that I don't have to pay an arm and a leg for a gym membership.

Once again: what's good for the planet is good for me. Funny how that works so much of the time, isn't it? ;)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Food, Inc

Saturday night, I finally got around to seeing Food, Inc. For those of you who haven't seen the movie yet, Food, Inc is a documentary about, yes, food. Or rather, it's about the modern, American food industry, which is really a whole 'nother can of tomatoes.

Now, obviously, I agree with most of Food, Inc. And I think that it's certainly valuable and meritorious for the filmakers to continue our national conversation about food.

But, I also think that, frankly, so much has been written and filmed about this subject, and thus we can differentiate between This-Movie-Has-Educational-and-Important-Content-So-It-Must-Be-Good and This-Movie-Is-Actually-Good. And unfortunately, I think Food, Inc falls into the former category and not the latter.

Firstly, there was no narrative. The film sort of jumped around from subject to subject without any sort of cohesive thread that I could discern. And as The Boy (who really needs some sort of cute blog pseudonym ... any suggestions?) commented, "This movie really rests upon the backs of Crunchy Chickens."

By which he meant that the movie provided interesting visuals for people who had already read Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation or Crunchy Chicken. But for those who had no prior information, the movie glossed over too much. As an example, The Boy noted that he had really enjoyed the section in The Omnivore's Dilemma in which Pollan explains Joe Salatin's farming technique and why it works. Without that background, the scenes on Polyface Farm just turn into Joe ... talking.

And speaking of things that were covered better in The Omnivore's Dilemma, let's talk about Food, Inc's rhapsodizing about organic food. Now I freely admit that I am, of recent, a slave to Whole Paycheck and Earthbound Farm. However, I really appreciated the way Pollan dealt with Industrial Organic, and the complexities and contradictions that lie therein.

I get that a movie may not be able to handle that complexity in quite that depth, but I figured some attempt would be made. And I certainly wasn't expecting the head of Stoneyfield to get to expound on how he was SAVING THE WORLD by getting his line of organic yogurt in Walmart ... I mean, again, I appreciate the lack of pesticides used, and I eat and enjoy Stoneyfield, but buying yogurt from a company owned by Groupe Danone isn't exactly a revolutionary act.

So overall, I think Food, Inc covers an interesting and important subject in a rather banal way. If you are interested in the American food industry, go read Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation or watch King Corn instead.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nutritional Rules 2

A few months ago, I mentioned that I was, on the recommendation of my doctor, taking a number of supplements. Calcium. Omega 3. Plant sterols. And Metamucil.

Yeah, that lasted about a week.

See, I had a physical in early April and found that my cholesterol was very high. So my doctor recommended a number of different supplements that are designed to lower my bad cholesterol (Metamucil and plant sterols) and raise my good cholesterol (fish oil.)

Plus, she recommended I take a calcium supplement on the grounds that almost everybody is calcium deficient.

Now I'm not very good at taking daily pills, but I figured that this was important. So I dutifully went out and bought all the different supplements ... fruit chewy calcium supplements, Metamucil pills, and plant sterols in Emergen-C packs.

I was determined to take them all.

Except that one night I gagged on the Metamucil pills and cried for half an hour because I could barely get them down. And then I checked how much fiber they had, and determined that I would just rather eat an extra serving or two of fruit and vegetables. And that was basically the end of that.

And I was still trying to drink three cups of plant sterol-infused Emergen-C a day, except that it tasted really gross and made my tea cup at work all gritty. And then I looked up plant sterols on Wikipedia and found out the potential risks associated with them. I talked to a few friends and decided that, you know what, I'm not going to take plant sterols anymore.

The calcium fruit chews were in annoying packaging that I never bothered to open.

And I couldn't figure out what Omega-3 pills were the least toxic, so I ended up just making sure I ate a lot of fish.

Meanwhile, a commenter on this blog, Daharja, had suggested that supplements were basically ... stupid. And that the best course of action would be to eat 90% vegan, and that actually "food, not too much, mostly plants," was actually a totally reasonable and healthy mantra.

So I did it.

Well, not exactly.

I cut out cheese, red meat, eggs, and butter. I ate fish religiously twice a week. I ate poultry once or twice a week. And I limited my dairy to non-fat or low-fat milk and yogurt.

But mostly, I ate plants. Carrots and broccoli. Berries galore. Hummus and guacamole. Lentils and tofu. And whole-wheat everything ... pasta, bread, buns.

And funny thing. I rarely felt deprived.

At the end of three months, I had my cholesterol checked. And, without the help of any pills, supplements, or cholesterol medications, I had been able to lower my cholesterol. By 100 points.

Yes, in three months.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, I was wrong to doubt you Pollan. You were right. And I was wrong.

In fact, I can eat food. Not too much. And mostly plants.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dear Eco-Pals,

The problem with not blogging regularly is that, as any blogger knows, writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more you do it, the easier the words flow. The less you do it, the more you strain to eke out a few words.

I've been lurking the blogosphere lately, and I've realized that in my blogcation, I've missed a lot. ZOMG, Ecogeofemme got engaged! Chile moved! And it's sad because I realize that once upon a time I used to know intimate details of so many of you, and now I don't. I once had a strong online community, and now, not so much.

Meanwhile, I've been busy planning my own move to another apartment in San Francisco. After two years of sitting in storage, I will finally have a place for all my stuff. On the one hand, being apart from my stuff for two years, and doing FINE, is confirmation that actually, I don't need too many things to survive. On the other hand, in the past two years, I've never been able to shake my feeling of being a wandering nomad. I've never felt totally at home. I'm hopeful that with a new place, and my things finally around me, that I will feel that yes, I am HOME.

But of course, what you really want to know about is the boy. He is funny and sweet and has crazy hair. He is also mostly supportive of my eco-nuttiness ... we enjoy taking the train and composting, but he prefers my deodorant with aluminum and he is extremely thankful that I'm back on the (recycled) toilet paper.

Neither of us shop much.

Hope you all have been having a wonderful summer. Talk soon.