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June 14, 2009–Today’s Way: As you enjoyed your cup of coffee this morning, did you pause to wonder where it came from? Well, don’t feel badly…few of us do. Yet that ordinary little cup of coffee that ordinary Americans consume every ordinary day represents an extraordinarily high environmental cost. Am I asking you to stop drinking your coffee? Egads, no! I’m sipping a nice cup of joe as I write this, but I am suggesting you may want to reconsider your coffee buying habits.
Conventional coffee farming has an enormous impact on the environment because of the way in which it is grown. Far away, large tracts of virgin rain forests are cleared and replaced with coffee plantations, which are heavily doused in pesticides and chemical fertilizers, putting a strain on water resources and surrounding wildlife. Indigenous people are often exploited to work on the coffee plantations for pennies a day, and bear the brunt of exposure to the chemicals used to grow the coffee, which is then usually shipped halfway across the planet to a roaster and then in turn shipped to a distributor somewhere else, where it eventually winds up shipped to the States and brewed and poured into a polystyrene or paper cup with a designer name and sold to you for the bargain price of $4.00 or more.
Luckily, you can still enjoy that cup of coffee (preferably in a reusable cup), but you’ll probably enjoy it more if you make your next informed purchasing choice on a Shade-Grown, Fair-Trade, Certified Organic bag of beans. This means that the coffee berries were grown without forest removal; instead, they are carefully tended to in the shade from old growth trees, thereby leaving that valuable carbon-eating tree cover intact. And the animals and bugs will really appreciate that. Also, if your coffee is Fair Trade Certified, it means that your grower was paid fairly for the time and effort they put into growing those delicious coffee beans, and that they are able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads and maybe even send their kids to school. Lastly, if your new favorite coffee brand bears Organic Certification, it means that those beans were grown using sustainable farming methods without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. And thanks to growing awareness about these issues, there are now more and more sustainable growers, artisan roasters and local gourmet cafes who are elevating the coffee experience to new grounds (sorry…couldn’t help it). In fact, one of my favorites is Higher Grounds.
June 13, 2009–Today’s Way: As we all know, the concrete jungle creates many problems for our environment, and all those paved parking lots, streets, highways and driveways are some of the star offenders. One major issue with all of that pavement is, when it rains, rain water is diverted into gutters and mixing into sewage systems. When it rains a lot, all of that extra water overwhelms arcane municipal water management systems which then dump raw sewage and rain water into overflows, also known as the nearest lake, river or ocean — totally untreated. Another problem is that these ribbons of black asphalt criss-crossing our great lands tend to absorb energy from the sun during the day, gathering up thermal mass, then slowly releasing the heat when the sun sets and raising environmental temperatures in the form of global warming. Other side effects of our love affair with asphalt is the constant leaching of toxic chemicals into the areas along roadways, including wetlands and vast agricultural landscapes which happen to be located nearby.
Permeable Driveways/Parking Areas are one excellent way to provide clean, beautiful and low maintenance parking and driving surfaces while allowing all of that rain water to naturally trickle down through the ground and back into the water table, where it belongs. Permeable surfaces come in a dizzying array of options, but the most basic are porous paver bricks which fit together with patterned open holes, which are set into and filled in with pea gravel (as in the photo, above right). This attractive solution keeps your car protected from mud and dirt, keeps vegetation at bay and at the same time, because of the many lighter color options, does not have to absorb and release heat energy in the same way as asphalt. Permeable driving surfaces are a beautiful solution for businesses, cities, developers and individuals committed to a greener future.
June 12, 2009–Today’s way: Hey, it’s warm outside. Drop your socks and grab your sandals! Or flip flops. Or Earth Shoes. Or Uggs. It may seem trivial, but just as most of the little things we do add up to make an impact over time, going socks-less more often can really make a dent in your energy consumption when you add it all up. Think about it: a few less loads of laundry, requiring a few gallons less water, which won’t need to be heated first (thereby most likely requiring the burning of fossil fuels to generate the energy to heat the water), and less detergent produced to wash the socks, and fewer fossil fuels burned in order to ship the detergent to your local store…you get the idea. So remember the little things, and do what you can, when you can. And show us those naked toes.
June 11, 2009 — Today’s Way: It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I really feel sad for the mop in those commercials when it gets kicked out in favor of a new shiny Swiffer. Poor little guy, left out in the cold, while that nasty Swiffer sits all cozy like in the warm closet indoors. Okay, it also makes me cringe to think of how many “disposable” Swiffer sheets are being used once and then tossed into the landfill (for a more eco-friendly approach, you can make your own reusable sheets). To tell the truth, nothing new or shiny can take away my love for our good old cotton mop. It just plain works better. Yes, it does mean that—Ewwwwww!—I may have to actually touch the mophead every now and then to take it off and wash it in the laundry, but it has proven itself to be an indomitable foe for just about every kind of scuff and spill and stain that it encounters, and with some of the clever built-in twisting models, or if you have one of those nice squeezers for your mop bucket, you don’t even have to ever touch the yucky mophead (except to launder it). But best of all, it’s also not contributing to the mountains of trash that are piling up across our great land, filled with “disposable” swiffing sheets or sponge cartridges.
June 10, 2009–Today’s Way: I just posted yesterday about opening up our homes to let the cool breeze in, and today I’m going to contradict myself. Sort of. When the weather turns really hot, you can keep your home cooler by closing doors and windows and shutting blinds or curtains during the heat of the day. Then, at night when the air cools down, open up all of your windows. When we practice this technique, along with employing our ceiling and window fans, we’re able to avoid using the air conditioner most of the summer. At the same time, we use far less energy and save quite a bit on our electric bills.
June 9, 2009–Today’s Way: It just seems like common sense to me, but I’m a bit surprised at how many people never open their windows to let a cooling breeze waft through their house. Instead, we’ve become hermetically sealed up, as if we’re on an airship and an open window will result in being sucked out into the void. Instead of keeping the house closed up, and having to maintain temperatures through artificial heating or cooling, opening the windows and doors to create a cross breeze on a warm day will allow nature to do your cooling for you, and for free. It’ll also help to bring in fresh air and help to push out dangerous low-grade offgassing from volatile organic compounds inherent in paints, finishes and even rugs or carpet. So throw caution to the wind, and invite it in today.
June 8, 2009–Today’s Way: As you contemplate where to spend your vacation time this summer, you might consider a little change of pace by becoming a voluntourist. An increasing trend, voluntourism connects caring people with causes in interesting and even exotic places. Instead of swatting flies in an overcrowded tourist trap, or being packed like a sardine on a tourbus with a guide squawking monotone facts into a microphone, you would instead be part of something far more meaningful, challenging and rewarding. Like studying bottlenosed dolphins in Greece, or counting hatching sea turtles as they make their epic sweep to the ocean’s edge, helping collect core samples in the glacial ice of Alaska or, even studying the urban wildlife of New York City. There is a need for everyone everywhere, depending on any special interests or skills you can offer; our niece, for instance, obtained her diving certification and spent several weeks diving everyday on a coral study off the beautiful coast of Mexico.
June 7, 2009–Today’s Way: I find it a curiosity whenever I walk into a building from the heat of summer and the temperatures inside are set to Antarctic. Or likewise, when you come in from the deep freeze of winter and need to strip down into Bermuda shorts because the thermostat is turned up to 85 degrees. Our bodies are highly adaptive, and it only takes a moment for our core temps to adjust with fluctuating temperatures, so while that first blast of cold air does feel good when we come in from the blazing sun, it takes only minutes before our bodies adjust and then even feel cold. In the winter, we probably don’t need the office or house to be so hot you could grow bananas inside. And in the summer, we shouldn’t need to don a fur coat and fingerless gloves just to be able to be able to sit at our desks responding to e-mails.
In fact, scaling back the thermostat in winter and increasing accordingly in the summer can save you about 1% of your overall energy bills for every degree Fahrenheit in either direction. For instance, in winter, if you were to bump the setting down from 74 degrees to 68, you would save about 6% off of your heating bill. That’s a drastic and immediate difference which will save you cash as well as energy.
June 6, 2009–Today’s Way: Every house, no matter how great or small, contains a plethora of of pipes, traveling from our hot water heater out to our faucets, sometimes quite far away, and usually in a cool basement or crawl space. However, by insulating your hot water pipes, you’ll reduce heat loss and even raise water temperatures by 2ºF–4ºF over that of uninsulated pipes. Also, insulating pipes will mean that you won’t have to wait as long for hot water at the faucet or showerhead, whick will help to conserve water at the same time.
For step-by-step instructions on how to insulate your pipes, see this site from diy.
June 5, 2009–Today’s Way: One easy way to conserve water is to not to constantly run the water while rinsing when you’re hand-washing dishes. You’ll save a lot more water by filling one sink (or basin) with wash water and the other with rinse water.
June 4, 2009–Today’s Way: More than 60% of the foods sold in American grocery stores are Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. And not one of them has to be labeled as such. The three biggest GMO crops grown in the United States are Soybeans, Wheat and Corn, and just try to find a processed food that doesn’t contain one, all or the other—they’re in your cereal, your tacos, your tortilla chips, your ice cream, your soda (high fructose corn syrup), your sauces, your mac ‘n cheese, your tofu, your bread, your cookies, your crackers and heck, they’re even in your energy shakes. The reasons that this franken-food has been allowed to infiltrate our food culture without sufficient research, public comment or even labeling laws are many, and far too involved for my little blog, but suffice it to say that the GMO corporate machine is big, it’s powerful, and its political influence is awesome. Likewise, the arguments against GMOs are plentiful, but beyond the scope of this entry. And though there are some great consumer watchdog groups fighting for labeling and other restrictions on these foods, as of now, we are bereft of meaningful change.
The one thing consumers can do is to buy organic foods. Organic crops are grown from seeds which have not been genetically modified; in fact, they’re usually heirloom vegetables which have been adored and handed down from generation to generation, and can be saved from harvest for the next year’s crops—unlike GMOs, which have been genetically programmed to “terminate”, requiring them to be purchased each year by farmers. Organic crops are also grown with fewer or no pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. The single biggest threat to organic crops are GMOs, which have already escaped into the world, mingling with natural crops despite all the claims made by the GMO corporations that they could contain them. In turn, organics are the single biggest threat to GMOs, because the corporations cannot patent, restrict or otherwise control their growth, sale or consumption, and therefore, they cannot make money off of them. The only way that we can preserve our right to grow and eat our own foods, and protect the biodiversity of our planet, is to vote with our dollars by buying organic foods, or better yet, growing organic gardens from organic seeds.
To learn a great deal more about GMOs, or to add your voice to the millions who want to see proper labeling and disclosure of GMOs in our foods, visit organicconsumers.org or Seeds of Deception. Also, there’s a very interesting review on a recent paper on “The Failure of Science” from Ethicurian.
June 3, 2009–Today’s Way: Did you know that the common house plant not only transforms CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) into oxygen in your home, it can also improve the air quality by actually absorbing harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and fumes of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene? According to a NASA study (they were searching for efficient ways to purify the air on space stations), the following plants provide the most purifying power:
- English Ivy (Hedera helix)
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- Golden pothos or Devil’s ivy (Scindapsus aures or Epipremnum aureum)
- Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
- Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
- Bamboo palm or reed palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii)
- Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’)
- Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium, syn. Philodendron cordatum)
- Selloum philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum, syn. Philodendron selloum)
- Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)
- Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
- Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragans ‘Massangeana’)
- Janet Craig dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
- Warneck dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’)
- Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
- Gerbera Daisy or Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
- Pot Mum or Florist’s Chrysanthemum (Chrysantheium morifolium)
- Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)
You can read more in the book, “How to Grow Fresh Air” by B.C. Wolverton; based on 25 years of NASA research, the author explores how more than 50 common house plants naturally detoxify our environment, indoors and out.