Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I-5 Woes


About 2-3 times a year, I drive the I-5 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to visit my family and every time I get irritated by the same three things:

1.    Drivers who insist on endangering my life as well as theirs just to get a car or two ahead;

2.    Those poor cows at Harris Ranch. A large cow farm situated right by the freeway where the cows eat out of troughs and don’t seem to have enough shady areas to sit. I could not see any signs of grass there. The cows seem to sit around on the dirt, in the heat and inhale exhaust fumes all day. I always wonder whether justice will be served if the owner is one-day be reincarnated as a Harris Ranch cow?

3.    The “Congress Created Dustbowl” signs – these are signs posted on farms presumably protesting the amount of water allocated to local farmers.

The third item is the one that upsets me the most. Congress cannot create a dustbowl if it tried, and no I am not commenting on Congress’ capabilities.

How can someone start a farm in semi-desert area and expect everyone else to cater to their water needs? The problem of reduced water allocation seems to be exasperated by three different trends: a growing California population means less water availability, drought conditions, and environmental protections for certain fish which limits the amount of water that can be diverted for human usage. California’s water issues are complicated and I cannot hope to understand them remotely well enough to explain them here, I am probably just skimming the surface with the three issues I outlined above. This article from Associated Press has a decent explanation of the issues. However, I do know this: no one can build a farm in the desert and expect it to be sustainable – not just for the environment but also as a business. It’s time we farm responsibly and that includes growing crops in places those crops can grow naturally with minimal human intervention.

Next time I drive the I-5, maybe I should post some, “The Dust Bowl Was Here First” signs.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Zero Waste


I have been listening to the Spring of Sustainability series for the past couple of weeks. Spring of Sustainability is a series of daily talks given by renowned environmentalists on – you guessed it – sustainability topics. Yesterday’s presenter was Portia Sinnott, of LITEInitiatives, who discussed zero waste topics. Many elements of her talk really struck a chord with me. Here are some key themes I took away:

1.    Nature has zero waste. In a natural world, untouched by mankind, there is no waste, everything is biodegradable. Ideally, our ‘waste’ would be reused, repurposed or composted so we can target zero waste too.

2.    You cannot go from an average lifestyle to a zero waste/sustainable lifestyle in one go. The road to sustainability is one of progress. The example given was that someone who drives a car daily cannot give up that car overnight. Instead they start by pooling errands, occasionally using the bike or walking, using public transport; over time they drive less and less, eventually getting rid of the car.

3.    Governments and regulatory authorities should not focus just working towards zero waste, but also on changing behavior. The example given was a local authority who is considering sorting waste to pull out compostables versus asking the consumer to sort the waste and therefore develop new habits. Local government doing it would result in more waste diversion short-term but would not change people’s habits. Changing habits is what produces better long-term results.

4.    There are many household goods we can share and do not need to buy as we use them intermittently or for a short duration. The examples provided were lawn-mowers and baby clothes.

To check out the Spring of Sustainability series click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Did you know that Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis who started remembrances in W. Virginia and Philadelphia in 1908? As the celebrations became popular she asked Congress for a day to honor mothers; the first Mother’s Day was in 1914. However she detested how commercialized the day became and was even arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting commercialization at a Mother’s Day celebration in New York in 1948. She died later that year having spent her entire inheritance fighting the ‘Hallmark Holiday’.

A National Retail Federation (NRF) survey estimates Mother’s Day 2012 spending will be $18.6 Billion. Anna Jarvis is probably turning in her grave!
In the lead up to this year’s Mother’s Day, we review some ways you treat can keep your mom happy with the least commercialization and environmental footprint:

Cards: According to the NRF survey, 83% of consumers will buy greeting cards. To reduce the environmental impact, considering sending an ecard, make your own or buy a card made from recycled or ‘tree-free’ paper.
Flowers. The NRF survey anticipates that two-thirds of consumers will buy flowers. Buy locally grown organic flowers. Florists see their highest sales in May. The U.S. Dept of Agriculture estimates that 70% of flowers are imported into the US, many of which are sprayed with harmful pesticides and fungicides which are banned here. Even flowers grown in the US can be harmful to the environment as flowers are one of the most pesticide intensive crops.

Brunch, Lunch or Dinner?  Half of Americans are expected to treat mom to a meal. Eat at a local restaurant specializing in organic or locally grown food and wine. The Green Restaurant Association has a search function on their website that allows you to search for Certified Green Restaurants in your neighborhood.

Gifts Cards. Over 40% are estimated to buy gift cards for mom. Unfortunately most gift cards are made from PVC – a toxic petroleum based plastic. According to Earthworks, 17 million pounds of PVC cards are thrown away every year. Luckily, Earthworks is working with retailers and consumers to recycle the PVC in cards. Contact Earthworks for information on how to recycle your plastic gift cards in your area.

Clothing. One third of consumers will buy new clothing for mom. Think vintage or organic. The number of outlets selling sustainable clothing has increased dramatically over the last few years.
Jewelry. Just under one-third of consumers will also buy jewelry for mom. There are several environmental and humane issues connected with jewelry. Mining destroys habitats and uses harmful toxins. According to No Dirty Gold the production of one gold ring generates 20 tons of mining waste.

Buy antique, pre-owned jewelry or purchasing from jewelers who are certified to be sourcing precious metals and gemstones in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.
You can take it a step further and help your mother and Mother Nature with these simple gift ideas:
·         Rechargeable batteries for the practical mom;
·         A chic and handy reusable shopping bags for the fashionable mom;
·         Water bottle and/or travel mug for the mom on the go;
·         Native plants for the nature loving mom.

Surely that would also help Anna Jarvis rest more easily. Happy Mother’s Day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Protective Plastic

If you have not seen the Jon Stewart skit on the Pantry of Shame, do so. It is 2.15 minutes of comedic perspective of how plastic needy we have become as a society. [Spoiler alert] In the skit, Jon Stewart makes fun of Del Monte (official name Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc.) who were testing their ‘single-serve’ banana – a single banana wrapped in a plastic bag. Since then, Consumer Change users have also spotted single-serve potatoes at Target – although we don’t know whether these were also by Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc.

Plastic is needed to protect some items, I like that my strawberries and blueberries come in a plastic tub. However some items, like bananas and potatoes come in sufficiently protective skins don’t need additional packaging. What then about non-perishables like tissues and toilet rolls?

The latest two reviews on Consumer Change concern over-packaging with plastic. One is about the Kirkland tissue box which has a plastic ‘cover’ on it. The other is about an individually wrapped toilet roll also from Kirkland.

Are we so spoilt as a society that we need plastic to keep our paper products fresh? Does it even really make a difference or is it a marketing gimmick?

What I would like to know is how the plastic marketers are selling redundant plastic packaging to Fresh Del Monte Produce, Kirkland and others? Probably adding more to the product cost and creating more waste in the process. Sounds like there is some good salesmanship involved and I could use some tips.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Get Rid of that Polystyrene Already

What promised to be a mundane Monday this week took a sharp turn for the better when Redwood City council, where Consumer Change is located, announced an ordinance that would ban polystyrene food containers effective January 1, 2013.

Polystyrene, also known under its Dow Chemicals’ trademarked name - Styrofoam, is a petroleum-based plastic and is the second most common type of beach debris in California and it comprises 15% of street litter. According to Californians Against Waste (CAW), 377,579 tons of polystyrene are produced in California alone, including 154,808 tons for food service packaging polystyrene which end up as waste. Polystyrene foam is known to break up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

Styrene, a chemical in polystyrene, is a known animal carcinogen, and a human neurotoxin (i.e., a toxin that acts on nerve cells). It migrates easily into food and beverages when foam containers are heated or come into contact with acids (like lemon juice) and fats or oils. A study of human fat tissue by the US EPA in 1982 found that all Americans have Styrene in their bodies.

While it is possible to recycle polystyrene, it is not a "closed loop" process, i.e., polystyrene cups are not remanufactured into cups, but into other products, such as packing filler and new resources are then used to produce more polystyrene cups. In addition, because of its light weight, there are very few polystyrene recyclers and the ones that will recycle food packaging are rare.

If the ordinance is adopted, Redwood City will join the hundreds of cities both in the U.S. and globally that have already banned polystyrene food containers. Next up…plastic bags…

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Foster Bees

Last year I blogged about the importance of native plants. To reiterate, native plants:

·         Support local birds, butterflies and other wildlife which depend on native plants for their diet;

·         Are synergistic with each other, so that they are likely to support one another and keep each other in balance;

·         Are adapted to the local environment so that they can withstand local variations in rainfall, heat, soil types, etc. which save money in watering costs and fertilizers; and

·         Require less maintenance than non-natives.

However, even though I planted natives last year, my garden did not blossom. Most of my plants live, but few thrive.

I have noticed a decline in the number of bees that come to my garden. When I was on maternity leave ten years ago, there was a huge buzz that could be heard from my California Pepper Tree every morning. Bees still love that tree but the numbers that visit are far fewer. This bee decline has been well documented and much speculated about.

Hoping to do something to help the declining bee population and help my garden prosper, I decided to keep bees, except I didn’t want to become a bee-keeper and add to my list of chores. You would think that in the wild, bees can survive without humans but I could not find anything online about how to get a beehive and let it bee without human intervention. Putting another series of tasks on my to-do list would mean more chores that would be neglected. Luckily I found a local bee–keeper who was willing to keep a hive on my property. She provided the hive and the bees; she will provide the maintenance and ‘pay’ me one quarter of the honey collection in return for a place to put the hive. The bees (all 3,000 of them) arrived on Saturday.

So I get a pollinated garden, entertainment (watching bees is fascinating!) and free honey, in return for a spot in my garden. On the down side, if my garden fails to bloom this year, there is only my inept gardenership to blame.

Now if only I could find someone who could grow vegetables in my garden on the same terms.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Simple Ways Hotels Can Be Greener

My latest business adventures have brought me to Austin this week. Since 2009, I have been limiting my business travel to two business trips a year so that my overall business travel is more sustainable than it used to be and on a personal note, has become a treat instead of a chore.  Regardless of how infrequently I travel these days, the same sustainability issues recur in almost every hotel I stay at.

When I walked into my room at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, the entrance light and air conditioning were both on. It is 73F in Austin, hardly weather that needs air conditioning. I switched the air conditioning off and it has stayed off since, my room is a comfortable temperature.

Hyatt Regency Austin does have CFC in the rooms so the power wasted by leaving the entrance light on for the guest is not as much as it could be, but it is still a waste.

As most hotel bathrooms these days, the amenities are in small plastic bottles or packages which necessitate a single user. Why is it most households and public bathrooms offer liquid soaps in dispensers but hotel rooms continue to offer small bars of (solid) soap? These are individually wrapped, which waste packaging and the soap needs to be thrown away when the guest leaves.  Hotels should use a dispenser for shower gel, shampoo, hair conditioners and lotion to cut down on plastic, paper and toiletry waste.

I brought my own toiletries in refillable bottles which are small enough for TSA clearance and allow me to use the brands I like – I have never liked the hotel brand lotions or conditioners. I did not bring hand soap –note to self for next time.

The in-room coffee maker uses disposable cups. Again, I don’t understand why. The hotel has a restaurant and a bar, both of which use ceramic cups. There must be a dishwasher on site! Why can’t housekeeping distribute clean ceramic cups, collect the old ones and take the dirty cups to the dishwasher?

My last peeve is that there is no in-room recycling. Hyatt states in its environmental website that 90% of its hotels have recycling. There are recycling bins in the main lobby of the Hyatt Regency Austin but only ardent greenies, like me, would ever consider taking their paper and other recycling down to the lobby. Hotels have had to figure out a system for in-room recycling for San Francisco where recycling is mandatory. There are 3 Hyatt hotels in San Francisco, since a system for collecting in-room recycling for guests must have been rolled out there, why isn’t this system extended to other hotels across the country?

Hyatt has a website on environmental sustainability where it outlines its goals and progress.  I know that sustainability is a work in progress and Hyatt says it is trying but I think the items I’ve mentioned are low-hanging fruit and have easy fixes.