Archive for June 2011

A Prius Owner Happy To See The Yellow Stickers Go   Leave a comment

Those yellow stickers that have allowed hybrid owners to drive in the carpool lane in California expire at the end of this week. I for one am a hybrid owner who is not at all sad to see them go. At least my opposition to said stickers didn’t got as far as to get one and never put it on my car so that there would be one less stickered hybrid in the carpool lane. I’ve heard reports of people who did just that.

Those yellow stickers didn’t make any sense to me, and the green and white ones that are coming out for zero-emission vehicles and partial zero-emission/plug-in hybrids don’t make any sense to me either. The type of car has nothing to do with carpool lane, only the number of people in the car. Yes, hybrids and “zero” emission vehicles have fewer emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulates, carbon dioxide, and toxic constituents of auto exhaust, but reducing emissions isn’t the only purpose of the carpool lane. Encouraging carpooling reduces the number of cars on the road, which means that there’s less wear on the road, less maintenance needed, and less idling in traffic jams and spewing wasted emissions for all the drivers on the road. Giving a specific type of car that gets marginally better gas mileage permission to continue to embrace the one-person-one-car mentality does nothing to benefit society. Maybe I’d feel differently if we were talking something that gets a decent gas mileage (like 100-200 mpg), but I doubt it. Admittedly, carpool lanes are an ineffective tacked-on “solution” for the problem of cities designed for cars not people, and it would be better to go for radical urban redesigns and a change in the social mentality that makes an hour or two commute acceptable. Here’s a pie and there’s the sky. I know.

Confession: I’ve never carpooled, I’m a one-person-one-car driver. It’s one of my major eco-sins. But I have yet to find an alternative that works for me since public transit is not practical, I’ve never lived near anyone else in my office, I use my car occasionally for work or run errands during lunch, and I don’t necessarily work a standard 8 hours every day.

Posted June 30, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, musings

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Compost Trials: The Heap   Leave a comment

Now that the rainy season is over (ahem) and the ground is dry enough to start digging again for our pit composting, I’m finally getting around to doing a post in this composting series about what we’ve been doing over the winter/rainy season. At first I slogged on with the pit composting but that didn’t last long after the rains really started. You know how shovel-fulls of dirt are heavy? Well shovel-fulls of saturated dirt are even heavier. My back was complaining bitterly as the rainy season started and I was still trying to dig. Plus, it is extremely messy (and a bit sisyphean) to dig a hole in mud, fill it with kitchen waste and then refill the hole with mud. And since I wasn’t keen on actually doing the work in the rain, we reached a point where the holding bucket was overflowing and a backup holding bucket had to be recruited as I waited for a dry daytime hour to allow me to dig. I confess to being a bit mulish, and I am aware that a sane person would have given up way earlier than I did, but I finally realized that I needed to try something different and that the best alternative at the time was “the heap”.

The heap started by accident/through laziness last summer as I was removing dead brush from the planters in the front yard. At first I was chopping branches into smaller chunks by hand and using the pieces as mulch, but as I started working on the rosebushes that strategy broke down. I procrastinated chopping up the dead rose branches and just threw them in a pile in a corner of the driveway where it grew to be quite tall. Then I de-thatched the front lawn and since I was exhausted by the end and could no longer think straight I just threw the armfuls of thatch on top of the rosebushes to deal with at a later time. Eventually Mike prevailed on me to at least move the pile into the back yard where it wasn’t publicly ugly, and when I did so I realized that the stuff in the pile was already starting to decompose. At that point it was officially declared part of our composting strategy, ostensibly to deal with large amounts of yard waste (like several dead rose bushes and a couple cubic yards or so of thatch).

When pit composting became impossible due to rain, I realized that the heap was a viable alternative. Neither Mike nor I is really comfortable with throwing kitchen waste in an open pile in the summer because of odor and insect swarms, but in the winter those negative side effects are significantly less to non-existant. So the pile has a layer of rose branches at the bottom, then a layer of grass and weed thatch, then a layer of kitchen scraps with some yard waste mixed in, and is now topped off with some interspersed layers of grass clippings from the waist high beauty that was our back lawn, and grass plants and iceplant ripped from the planters. The top layers of grass and iceplant will keep the noxious gnats and flies from being a problem from the old kitchen waste and hopefully keep in moisture. The next plan is to get a black tarp to cover it for the summer and just let it be. I have no delusions that it will be particularly fast composting since it is on concrete, contains lots of large hard branches, and was not strategically layered; but eventually everything organic decomposes.

Posted June 28, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

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Pre-pregnancy Challenge to Increase Nutrient Density   2 comments

One my current goals is to increase the nutrient density of my diet in anticipation of gaining a parasite (aka getting pregnant), and I’ve been focusing on doing that by increasing my consumption of fruits and vegetables. A while back I switched from crackers for mid-day snacks to fruit and vegetable snacks, but I felt I was ready to take this a step further. So since March I have worked on making sure that I eat at least one serving of fruit or vegetable with every meal or snack. Well, sometimes it’s just a token with snack, but it’s all relative since a snack can be less than a serving size worth anyway. For this past month I’ve been keeping track of the total number of servings each day and comparing that to the old standard of 5 servings of vegetables, and 3 servings of fruit each day. At first it really depressed me that after all my effort I was barely making it most days, handily passing it some days, and occasionally missing the target. And that’s even if I count french fries and vegetable hot dog toppings as vegetables!

I confess to being a bit schizophrenic when I describe my diet. I don’t really consider my diet to be very healthy, but at the same time I recognize that by most standards it’s pretty good (decent amount of fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains and whole grain products, frequent legumes, light on meat and dairy, well under 5 tsp/day of sugar). When I realized that even with the attention that I’ve been paying to increasing my fruit and vegetable consumption I’m still barely meeting the recommended target, I started looking at other categories, namely grains. If I remember the old pyramid correctly the recommendation was something like 9 to 11 servings of grains per day. By my accounting, on the days that I missed the fruit/vegetable targets I was also not eating that many grain products. At that point I figured that I need to start looking at this as more of a percentage/proportion thing, instead of a target number of servings. That lead me to the USDA website to check out the new “My Plate” thingy that’s replacing the complicated “My Pyramid” thingy that replaced the simple and clear food pyramid of yore (which replaced the really outdated quartered circle). I’m not impressed. For one thing, I suspect that there’s some politics being played. The personalized recommendation that I received included 3 cups (!) of dairy per day to maintain my weight, and 2.5 cups per day to lose weight. There’s no way I could possibly consume that much dairy in one day. The website recommends 3 cups/day of vegetables and 2 cups/day of fruit for me. Note that it takes two cups of lettuce to make one cup of vegetables, and a half a cup of cheese to make 1 cup of dairy. I’m not sure that “cup” defined in such a complicated way that it requires a chart is more helpful than “serving”. As far as using the plate graphic for reference goes, half of the diet is fruit/vegetable. I suppose on average over a week that’s almost true since some days are well over 75% and others more like 33%.

Oh, I should mention that the direct and labor-intensive method of actually keeping track of some key nutrients is not really an option. It’s labor intensive, ripe for frustration trying to analyze within the seasonal variations (since we get all of our produce from the farmer’s market we eat a seasonal diet: no tomatoes in winter, no asparagus in summer, etc.), and misses the point of whole foods that contain more than just the basic vitamins but also contain other phytonutrients.

What was my conclusion after all this? I’m figuratively throwing my hands in the air and declaring that it is not worthwhile to try use any metric to judge whether I’ve improved the nutrient density of my diet. Instead I’m relying on the more subjective (and unfortunately also subject to denial) sense that I have done so. And that sense that I don’t know how I could possibly increase the nutrient density of my regular diet anyway, except to never eat cereal for breakfast and bake bread weekly so that I don’t ever snack on the delicious white flour Pugliese bread that we get from Raleys.

Posted June 22, 2011 by mayakey in food, goals, health, pre-pregnancy

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It Really Shouldn’t Be So Difficult To Rent A Pickup   Leave a comment

In preparation for hosting a gathering for the fourth of July, this weekend we FINALLY got rid of the last of the junk that we removed from the house when we moved in last summer. My original desire to have a very low garbage volume has been shot. Percentage-wise we didn’t do that badly since the carpeting and carpet padding was recycled. Then there were the mirrored closet doors in every room, the vertical blinds on the sliding glass door, the broken vertical blinds in the master bedroom, and the window treatment in the kitchen. I knew we were going to have to throw away the broken vertical blinds from the master bedroom, but my plan was to salvage the fabric from the kitchen window treatments for something else, and to take the vertical blinds from the sliding glass door and the mirrored closet doors to the Habitat for Humanity ReUse Store. That was back in July/August…and by the time we finished cleaning and unpacking the rainy season had started and the cloth vertical blinds and window treatments had became a dirty sodden mass. I tried to unsnap the cloth vertical blinds to see if I could wash them for donation to the ReUse store, but instead I accidentally snapped the plastic connector. So the final tally is:

  • Reused in-house: wood from the awning torn down at the behest of the building inspector (ok, not reused yet but will be)
  • Donated: 5 mirrored closet doors, tracks from 5 sets of closet doors, downspouts and 3 gutter sections from awning
  • Recycled: carpeting and padding from 4 bedrooms and hallway; corrugated metal, bent gutter section, flashing, metal shelf pole and various connecting hardware from the awning; metal screen door; 5 mirrored closet door frames; 2 metal tracks from vertical blinds
  • Landfilled (or will be): corrugated PVC and plastic corner shelves from the awning, broken glass from 5 mirrored closet doors, fabric & plastic “rod” from  window treatment, vertical blinds from 2 tracks

Now, to the other point of this post. It really shouldn’t be so difficult to rent a pickup for dirty work. When we replaced Mike’s truck with an SUV he was concerned about what we would do when we were in situations that require a pickup truck. I insisted that it would be fine because we could just rent one, and occasionally we’d be able to use bribe-a-friend.  Having been taken advantage of many times as a pickup owner, he is very sensitive to the latter. I figured that most people don’t own a pickup truck, so there has to be a not-too-inconvenient/costly way to rent a pickup.

When we hauled the carpeting to Oakland for recycling we rented a pickup from Enterprise. That was probably a good move since that means the four hours of driving to and from were done in a clean cab that doesn’t smell bad. That was also way to expensive to make it practical for hauling one or two loads of junk, as I learned when I rented a truck to haul the carpet padding to the recycler and had to pay the $100 daily charge for less than 2 hours of use. So for today’s haul of one load to the ReUse Store and one load to the transfer station for recycling I wanted to find a cheaper option. U-Haul does rent pickup trucks for $20/day; however very very few of the Sacramento area locations have them. I found 1 location. One! I asked the lady behind the counter about that and she said the other locations claim that there is no demand, but that she has lots of demand for her three trucks. We didn’t even get a pickup truck and had to use a small moving truck today because the person who rented our truck yesterday didn’t return it in time and hadn’t returned it by the time our reservation rolled around. This experience was really frustrating, but since I didn’t find out any other options for rental we’ll probably do this again. The ONE location is a half hour from our house, but the price is good. The challenge is finding an available truck.

Posted June 18, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, frugal living, home

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Plea to Churches and Organizations: No Balloon Releases   Leave a comment

I meant to do this post earlier in the week but our internet went out (ok, it was just the wireless, but it took all my “spare” time to figure out the problem and correct it). This past weekend I was horrified to watch as people at my church did balloon releases after each of the Masses as part of the Pentecost celebration. The person who organized it said, “It’s ok, the balloons are biodegradable.” Uh-huh, that makes it perfectly ok; and the several foot long plastic ribbon tied to each balloon? Yes, there is great symbolism to balloon releases, but does everyone remember that there was also great symbolism to throwing rice on newlyweds?

This is not an area of particular scientific expertise for me, but the claim that the balloons are biodegradable is a bit greenwash-ey to me. Yes, if they are made of latex and not plastic or metal, they will biodegrade. However, how much time will it take? I’m willing to bet that if you through a balloon in your compost heap it would be the last thing in there to biodegrade. I did a web search and there are lots of web pages by balloon sellers that say that when the balloons reach 5 miles up they shatter into tiny pieces that decompose quickly. Again, I’m not sure about what the actual temporal definition of “quickly” is. But: how many balloons never make it that high? How many don’t have enough helium to get up that high, or get snagged in a tree or power line or something else tall, or get popped before reaching the shattering height so that they fall to the ground in large pieces? How many of the balloons, pieces, or shattered bits deposit in places that are not conducive to decomposition and so take even longer to decompose? In the intervening time those pieces can be eaten by wildlife, and latex is not known as a quality food with good nutritive value. Then there’s the question of dyes. I’m not comfortable eating or using products containing the dyes that the FDA has approved for food, drugs, and/or cosmetics; what types of dyes are used to color balloons and what effect could they have when the latex decomposes and/or when an animal eats the balloon fragment?

Even if you are ok with all of the concerns about the balloon itself, the ribbon is a huge problem. Even all those balloon websites say that balloon releases should only be done with ribbon-less balloons. The ribbons are not biodegradable. They can get tangled in trees, power lines, or other tall things. When they come back down to the ground they can entrap animals in their tangles. And they will last forever. Eventually weathering will cause them to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. But things that don’t biodegrade just keep fragmenting, they keep the same molecular structure and don’t get broken down back into basic carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.

So here’s my plea: Just don’t do it. There are other rituals that can be done instead that have a smaller footprint and less risk to the environment. If you just HAVE to do a balloon release make it small and release balloons only, hand tied, with no ribbons or plastic attachments.

Posted June 16, 2011 by mayakey in environment

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Two Big Purchases, One Easy And One Not So   3 comments

Since getting our new car paid off this spring we can really start working on the wish list for the house. Two weekends ago we bought a grill, last weekend a dining room table, and this weekend a couch. Then we’ll pause to give me time to build my herb garden and sew up the new master bedroom curtains (not busy, not busy at all). The table and couch have been pretty big deals, and it was a bit of a toss up which was actually higher priority. While we have been using an office table as a makeshift dining room table, we didn’t have chairs and have been sitting on the loveseat pulled up to the table. I had to use a cushion as a booster seat to comfortably reach the table. It was also ugly and required a tablecloth, which cannot be cleaned with a wipe of a rag when it gets dirty. In competition though, on the sofa the fabric is completely torn up on the seat, and the top layer of batting beneath is also torn so the foam padding is exposed and crumbling. Therein is the problem: there’s a good chance that this sofa was treated with fire retardents, possibly including brominated fire retardents, and exposure becomes an issue when the foam starts coming out. Brominated fire retardents are persistent (don’t degrade), may contribute to neurologic and reproductive issues, and may be toxic to the liver and thyroid. So they affect me as an adult, they affect me as a woman trying to get pregnant, and they will be passed on to my child. Until we paid off the car we simply couldn’t afford to buy a couch, even a couch that didn’t meet my other requirements, so this has been a major chemical exposure that I have not been able to address. Oh, and the couch sags a bit, giving my husband back aches. Since we couldn’t decide which was really higher on the wish list, we tackled them at the same time. Yes, it’s obvious that the sofa was the more important one, but due to the higher price tag and greater research requirement it is a much more difficult purchase.

We started with the dining room table. My big requirement was that it be solid wood, so that it will last a long time and to eliminate offgassing from plywood or other engineered wood. From there we had two directions: secondhand (so that no new raw materials had to be used) or new from FSC-certified sustainably harvested wood. I think the option with the smallest footprint is the former, so we planned a weekend of driving from one consignment or antique store to another all over Sacramento. After the farmer’s market I decided to stop in at the consignment store nearest us to see if it was worth going with Mike when he got back from the gun show. I was in love by the third table. There were several tables that I could have lived with for a couple of years, and a couple that I could probably have lived with for decades. But there was one that was beautiful and seems perfect. It was also close to the most expensive table in the store. Mike and I went back in the afternoon, and he agreed that it is the table for us. It is solid wood, even the brackets under the table and the little drawers in both ends. The chairs are currently upholstered in a white cotton, but that should be easy enough to replace with leather upholstery and organic cotton or wool batting. Easy, and next-to-no driving around required!

Then we drove up the street to a store that sells custom furniture to start the process of getting a new sofa. Between the two of us we had some challenging requirements (ok, mine were the biggest challenges): firm cushions and back, leather, hardwood, organic fill, and no offgassing foam. We’re getting 3 of the 4. We didn’t even bother shopping any furniture galleries because we figured the chances of finding something hardwood, leather, and without/with a minimum of offgassing and toxic treatments were pretty much nil. A perusal of a few furniture store website where the words “(wood) veneer” showed up in every description proved that out. The issue with the wood is that many particleboards are made with adhesives that offgass formaldehyde and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Plus hardwood just lasts longer. The issue with leather stems mostly from the fact that I am tired of not being able to clean my furniture. I’m one of the few people who tries to wipe down my fabric furniture every spring and fall, but usually I give up long before the water stops turning black. I want leather where one wipe of a cloth leaves a clean surface. Additionally, since we’re about to have kids I understand that leather stands up better to “life”, stains less (as long as you wipe the spill up right away), and looks better with age. And leather is not necessarily treated with toxic flame retardants, stain repellents, and water proofers. (Just the not-so-inert leather processing chemicals, oh well; and some cleaning/protectant chemicals aren’t great either). Unfortunately, about 95% of leather sofas have soft cushion backs, so it was a challenge to get a leather tightback sofa that will be comfortable for Mike’s back.

I did have to compromise on the foam in the sofa, though. Not surprisingly in the green black hole of Sacramento, in a web search I wasn’t able to find any custom furniture makers advertising non-polyurethane foam, and I’m not crazy enough to drive to San Francisco for a sofa. (Side rant, the term really should be “made to order” not “custom”) The consultant at the store we went with also expressed concern that a latex cushion wouldn’t last as long as the polyurethane. So I’m stuck with the VOCs (specifically isocyanate, I think, which is used to make it foamy) offgassing from the foam. The cushion has a layer of down on top of the spring/foam layer, which is encased in cotton batting, so there’s another miss. “Conventional” cotton uses an absolutely crazy amount of pesticides. While I would have preferred a spring/latex cushion with organic cotton, hemp, or wool batting, this compromise is acceptable. It’s about as good as I expected to find. All-in-all the sofa purchase was not as hard as I feared, but it was a challenging purchase and since there wasn’t an example of the model in the store, hopefully we like it. In 8-10 weeks when it is delivered.

Posted June 11, 2011 by mayakey in home, pre-pregnancy, shopping

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A Garden Is A Small Piece of a Larger Whole   Leave a comment

One of the exciting things about being a homeowner now is that I get to design the landscaping! This being me doing the planning, however, means that the process of designing a landscape is more involved than “that’s pretty, lets plant it”-type planning. In my world I’m not just designing a personal garden because it is not just a few few square feet of ground, instead I am designing one small part of a larger world and my decisions can make a difference in that world.

Obviously the landscaping has to fit and support our lives, needs, and desires. We want increased resale value, spaces to relax, beautiful views, shade, an area for eating and entertaining, an awesome herb garden, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, minimized watering and maintenance, and practical spaces like clothesline, solar oven, composter, rain barrels, and place for the garbage and recycling cans. This is where most people stop in their planning, but our yard isn’t just something that affects our lives.

Our garden affects the environment around us because it is part of it. The same climate and geology that shapes the native landscapes around us influence our garden, and a garden has the ability to influence the world around it. While as a society we have used water and other inputs to force landscapes to diverge from the native forces, there is a cost to that which is becoming greater and more apparent. Likewise we have brought plants into new areas where sometimes they become invasive weeds, crowding out the native plants and animals.

  • Landscaping that needs more water than what is natural for a region means that much more water acquired, treated, and transported, with all the losses and energy consumption along the way, and may reduce water available for other uses.
  • A yard that releases little to no stormwater to the storm drains means more water infiltrating the ground, and less water transporting sediment, oils, metals, pesticides, herbicides, and animal wastes into surface water bodies.
  • Landscaping that provides shade on a hot day reduces the cooling load and therefore energy needs of the house and electric grid.
  • Landscaping that includes lots of flowers encourages pollinators and can help gardeners and local farmers out, as well as reduce the need for harsh pesticides.
  • A garden that provides vegetables and fruit reduces food-miles. Although I am also considering that my purchases at the farmers’ market support “local” agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods so I don’t necessarily want to grow the fruits and vegetables that I can easily purchase at the farmers’ market.

A garden may be an individual thing, but it is also important to keep in mind that it is not independent of the larger systems that surround us, and that while it may be small it can have an effect, good or bad.

Posted June 7, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, environment, gardening

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The Reformulation Curse   Leave a comment

One of the annoyances about trying to buy products that are “green” is that it requires eternal vigilance. There’s no such thing as brand loyalty because small changes can make a product no longer acceptable by whatever criteria you are using. Successful small businesses get bought up by large corporations to cash in on the LOHAS movement, and sometimes the board/governance/mission of the small company get watered down. Or compromises are made in order to grow a business larger. Or other companies/brands start producing products that meet the criteria better. In any case, label reading and general awareness is absolutely necessary. Lately I’ve encountered several instances where this is an issue.

The first instance was the body lotion that I have been using since getting my engagement tattoo. For years it was the only lotion at Whole Foods that does not contain aloe (aloe should never be applied on a tattoo), and thankfully it was also almost unscented. Sometimes I think I am the only person on the planet who cannot stand scented soaps, lotions, etc. So after years of using this lotion, I suddenly couldn’t stand the smell. When I looked on the label in the ingredients was the dreaded “fragrance”, which may indicate a soup of toxic chemicals (like phthalates). After an email exchange I know that it was not a reformulation, although that leaves me with no explanation for why my experience changed. I had never given the ingredients list too hard a look before since it was my only aloe-free option. As luck would have it, around the same time Whole Foods started carrying another aloe-free lotion. This one really is unscented and is made with fair trade shea as well. Score! Time for a lotion change.

The second instance was triggered by receiving a sample of Tom’s of Maine Wicked Fresh! Cool Peppermint toothpaste. When I read the ingredients I did not find “peppermint oil” like I find on the particular formulations of Tom’s toothpaste that I typically buy, instead I found “natural flavors”! “Natural flavors” can mean almost anything, and not always “natural”. This was a big red flag for me as Tom’s is on the watch list since being acquired by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006. I submitted an email question/comment/complaint online and received the assurance that they are still doing business independently as always but that their flavor blends are proprietary. Whatever, I’m not convinced. They have other toothpastes that list out all of the flavor oils, and it’s not exactly secret to have peppermint oil in peppermint toothpaste, unless they are not using real peppermint oil. So Tom’s is on my out list now. I just need to find replacement products, which is really annoying.

The third instance was a purchase of a replacement tube of calendula ointment, which we use fairly often. It took me forever to find it on the shelves while grocery shopping since it had been moved, so I didn’t look closely at the label at the time. Until the first time I used it and discovered that the brand reformulated and now uses a base of white petrolatum. I take issue with this for several reasons. The first is that I have been taught, for as long as I can remember, that putting Vaseline on a burn can make it worse because it traps heat in the skin. Since we use calendula ointment for treatment of sunburns, that limits the use of the product until long after the burn has already started to heal. The second is that I prefer to use vegetable oils–oils that are organic in the sense that they came directly from a living organism–rather than petroleum products on my skin. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else to buy calendula ointment, but before this long spring ends and the summer sun and sunburn season starts I need to find a replacement.