Silver Linings of Bad News

Just about every piece of bad news has a good-news flipside. For example, the news that food waste is worse for the climate than plastic. According to BBC News, “Zero Waste Scotland calculated that the carbon footprint of food waste collected from Scottish households that year was nearly three times that of plastic waste collected from people’s homes” — and food waste rotting in landfills generates methane gas, a major cause of climate change.

The flipside of this news is that we, on the individual and household level, can do a lot of good by composting our food scraps, and using the resulting soil to grow more food (or other plants). Underneath every large problem lurks a large opportunity.

Now, I just read another piece of bad news that was so sad and horrifying, it took a bit more thought to find a silver lining. That was the news that, every year during the Mediterranean olive harvest, millions of songbirds are vacuumed to death by the mechanized equipment used to harvest the olives.

The silver lining of such horrifying news is that it forces people to wake up and make changes (similar to what has happened as people have learned that plastic straws are harming sea turtles and other marine life).

The mechanization of agriculture brings us cheap goods but has many hidden casualties. Some of them are not only sad but deadly.

There’s no silver bullet, but “right-sizing” and localization of agricultural enterprises are surely part of the solution. Might be time to go “back” to using human labor for certain tasks. Thus potentially creating sustainable jobs … which would be another silver lining.

Seed Library

One of the public libraries in my area is home to a seed library. I just noticed it today! As you can see from my photos, very little is needed to create a rich asset for the community. It all fits on a 2×3 table.

And actually, despite its compactness, this seed library has quite a few bells and whistles (copies of local planting schedules, etc), which, while great to have, would not be necessary in order to get a seed library started.

You could print just ONE copy of the planting info, and invite people to take a pic with their phone. Or if you don’t have access to a printer, you could simply have a piece of paper on which you’ve written the URL(s) to useful document(s). Of course, this has the disadvantage of leaving out folks who don’t have internet access. Consider the demographics of your community and proceed accordingly.

Although I’m constantly online, I have to admit I found the printouts very attractive and inviting. The sheets listing “What to plant in April” and “What to plant in May” will presumably be replaced by upcoming months’ sheets as June rolls around.

The printout listing the sponsors/supporters is a really nice touch.

You could start a little seed library not only at the public library, but also at your workplace, church, school, or even adjacent to a Little Free Library!

For inspiration, check out this wonderful Pinterest gallery of seed library photos. I love the little tiny one that fits in a bead box!

Have you started a seed library or are you involved in one? If so, I would love to hear how it’s going for you!

More Tips for the Ultra-Waterwise Household

Some more thoughts to add to yesterday’s post …

Washing clothes by hand in a bucket works great for me because I’ve got an outdoor clothesline and lots of sun. So much sun that laundry dries quickly even when it’s only wrung by hand, or (in the case of bedsheets) not wrung at all, but just hung on the line dripping wet. (I call that “free ironing” along with the drying!)

If I had to depend on an indoor clothesline/drying rack, my laundry setup would include a commercial-grade salad spinner to get as much water as possible out of the clothes. Commercial-grade salad spinners are readily available online. I’d go for the 5-gallon size.

And, if I had to do a lot of laundry (for example, if I had kids), I would add a “Rapid Washer” to my setup. Even with the low volume of laundry I do, I might still go ahead and get a Rapid Washer because they are very handy.

A Rapid Washer looks like a plunger, and the flared part can be made of metal or plastic. The handle is usually wooden. You use it to push soapy water through your clothes in a bucket or tub. Rapid Washers are available from antique dealers, from Lehmann’s, and from online marketplaces such as ebay and Amazon. People swear by them in terms of ability to get clothes clean.

Here’s a YouTube video by someone who uses a Rapid Washer and salad spinner to do his laundry.

That said, if you’re just not able/willing to wash by hand, and can’t afford a laundry service, washing machines these days are getting very water-efficient.

According to HomeWaterWorks, old-school washing machines use 40 to 45 gallons per load, whereas the new water-saving models use only 14 to 25 gallons per load, and get the clothes cleaner. The website offers tips on choosing a washer and using it efficiently. One new fact I picked up was that it’s always more water-efficient to do a full load, even if your washer has an adjustable load setting.

Other facts I learned from the HomeWaterWorks website: For the average household of four people in the USA, laundry accounts for 15% to 40% of total water usage. Also, the average USAmerican household does a staggering 400 loads of laundry a year! This fact seems to support a theory of mine, that people who have washers and dryers in their homes end up doing more laundry.

The typical four-person household with an old-school washing machine will use 12,000 gallons of water a year to do laundry, says HomeWaterWorks. That’s an awful lot of fresh potable water just to wash clothes.

Meanwhile, in Riot for Austerity land, a four-person household that has achieved 90% reduction in the water category will use about 14,400 gallons of water a year — TOTAL, for all uses.

Pretty remarkable huh.

Another laundry-related website, The Spruce, offers all sorts of useful information, including how to calculate laundry capacity and load size of a washer. I learned that a load of laundry weighs about 12 pounds. There’s a chart showing the weights of various laundry items. If you want to economize on laundry, one thing you can do is not have many pairs of denim jeans to wash, or bath towels. Each of those items weighs 1.6 pounds.

I quit using bath towels 25 years ago, while I was living in Tokyo. I noticed that the people at the public baths all seemed to get by with these tiny towels barely larger than a washcloth. I soon learned that they did the job fine, while offering the obvious attraction of being far easier to dry than a large bath towel. In Japan’s humid climate, it was a no-brainer. And I liked the small towels so much that I have stuck with them and never gone back to those giant thick bath towels.

Saves a lot of space in my wash-bucket. And on my clothesline!

Do you like the idea of not having to deal with the hassles of giant thick bath towels (which can be just as troublesome to dry in a dryer as they are on a clothesline), but don’t want to give up the convenience of being able to wrap yourself in a simple rectangular piece of fabric when you step out of the shower, instead of having to put on clothes right away? Get yourself a sarong! These giant body wraps can be as big as, or even bigger than, a large bath towel (both of the ones I own are over 3 feet wide and almost 6 feet long), but are made of nice thin quick-dry fabric so you get the best of both worlds.

And as a bonus (at least for those of us living in tropical and semi-tropical climates), you can wear the sarong as a skirt or dress and let it air-dry while you wear it. Ah, convenient bliss!

Got any tales of laundry success, failure, interesting experiments to share? Drop me a line!

Becoming an Ultra-Waterwise Household

Have you ever calculated your daily water usage? Following is my estimated daily average water consumption in the various categories:

Drinking: 1 gal

Cooking: 0 – 1 gal

Washing dishes: 1 gal

Washing clothes (in a bucket): 1 – 2 gal

Washing body: 1 – 2 gal

Toilet flushing: 2 – 5 gal (the use of Earth’s precious supply of potable water to “do our business” always galls me, and I long for the widespread legalization of compost toilets! In the meantime, “If it’s yellow let it mellow” is a household phrase for many people I know.)

Watering fruit & veggie plants: 2 gal*

Total: 8 to 14 gal/day

The Riot for Austerity target is 10 gallons per person per day, which is 10% of the U.S. average of 100 gallons per person per day.

Outdoor water usage (watering lawns, washing cars etc) accounts for 30 to 60 percent of a household’s total water consumption. Other low-hanging fruit is showers and laundry. But you can reduce a huge chunk just by having a yard full of plants that are either native, or well-adapted to your local rainfall conditions.

Showers: I’m fortunate to live at the beach, and I generally keep clean just by going in the ocean regularly. (There are quite a few of us saltwater cleanliness aficionadoes!) But when I want a freshwater shower, I dump rainwater or wellwater on myself a cup at a time (in my outdoor “shower stall” made of vines and fence). It’s surprising how far a gallon or two can go. Very refreshing on a hot day, and surprisingly tolerable even on a cool day (this is Florida after all).

All sink water and laundry-water gets collected and poured in the yard, to water non-edible trees & shrubs. (I use mild soaps in very dilute form which the plants can tolerate.) Same with toothbrush rinse water.

What are some of your favorite tips for household water conservation? If 10 gallons a day doesn’t sound do-able, take it in pieces. And you really might be surprised how little you can get by with, once you start monitoring it and making a bit of a game of it. If nothing else, you can do it as a household disaster-preparedness activity. Acquiring extreme water conservation know-how is a great way not only to increase your household’s resilience, but also to become a resource for your community.

* In the Riot for Austerity community, a lot of people don’t count fruit & veggie plants in their water consumption total. The reasoning is that when we buy produce at the market, water consumption is part of the footprint of that food. When we grow food at home, water consumption is part of that food’s footprint.

Many Riot folks also don’t include rainwater or wellwater consumption (if applicable) in their total. I myself prefer to measure my use of these onsite sources and include them in my consumption total because I want to keep close track of how much water I’m using and how far I can stretch every drop!

The Power of One

In this age of social media, trying to reach people and have an impact can feel like a lost cause. How ironic that it would feel this way! Here we have all these apps and all these different channels, which give everyday people the potential to reach more viewers/listeners than ever.

The potential. I guess that’s where the “lost cause” feeling comes in. In an age of rockstar bloggers who get a million Likes and are constantly being jetted around the world to give speeches and endorse products, and are making a huge impact, a blogger who only reaches five or seven people (or one person, or sometimes zero) is pretty much a failure, don’t you agree?

But wait! That’s a trick question. First of all: Nobody reaches zero people. There’s no such thing. We all end up reaching at least one other person. It may not happen instantly but pretty much everything we do has some kind of impact.

And second of all, as wonderful as online channels are, good old low-tech communication has not lost its power. Back in the days when my job was to promote permaculture design courses in Austin, and I had beaten the online channels to death, sometimes I’d go out on foot and tack flyers to utility poles! (And if I didn’t have even a few bucks to make copies, which sometimes I did not) I would individually hand-draw the flyers. Yes it was time-consuming, but my time was not worth much in monetary terms, and anyway I like to draw. Well, what do you know, those utility-pole flyers ended up bringing in quite a few students!

Third of all, and perhaps most important: Sometimes all it takes to make a crucial difference is for one person to reach one other person!

One night some years back, a disillusioned environmentalist of my acquaintance suddenly had his hope rekindled, by stumbling on the permaculture design movement. He heard about permaculture serendipitously: He happened to be listening to some obscure late-night radio show while he was working aboard a commercial fishing boat. Actually I don’t know that it was at night; it could just as well have been in the daytime. But the lonely late-night airwaves is how I always picture it: sketchy reception; one voice traveling out over the choppy dark sea, reaching into the ears of a person who just happened to be fertile ground for the ideas being presented.

Maybe the radio show reached many other people; maybe it reached only that one guy. What I do know is that the one person I know who did hear that radio show has ended up sharing permaculture design knowledge with probably thousands of other people.

A one-to-one transmission can feel flimsy, particularly in this day and age of so many channels and such wide reach. But that “one” can be all it takes to sprout many thousands of seeds.

I mention this because I know a lot of you are working hard to make a difference in the world and in your communities. Don’t get derailed by someone else’s stellar numbers. Be happy for that person, be grateful to them for doing their part, and bring your attention back to your own piece of the work.

You might find it helpful to recall examples of how the “Power of One” has influenced the course of your own life. Think of one person who reached you and made a huge impact. (Don’t limit yourself to people you’ve met in person or heard “live.” Some of my strongest influences have been books or songs or paintings from hundreds of years ago!)

The above advice is for myself also, as I venture down intricate and obscure pathways where I may reach only one other person, and maybe not in this lifetime. No matter! Here I go, here we all go.

Grit and Resilience

One of my biggest challenges in life is that I have a tendency to be a bit lazy, and also to want to give up at the first sign of difficulty. “Persistence is 99% of everything,” I’ve often heard it said. And looking around me, at successful people and at the successes and failures of my own life, I have to agree.

Just about everything I’ve done that ended up being useful and helpful (from teaching myself a language, to writing letters to the editor, to writing a book — to name just a few examples) were things I almost quit before finishing, or never started in the first place.

Rick Hanson, PhD (author of RESILIENT: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness (written with Forrest Hanson)), has written the most well-organized breakdown of the components of resilience, and how to cultivate each component, that I’ve ever run across. The attributes we think of as baked-in to our personality are far more malleable than we think; we really can re-wire our own brains for the good. Check out Mr. Hanson’s TED talks also.

I also recommend Angela Duckworth’s book GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Check out her TED Talk on that subject here; it’s what inspired me to go ahead and buy her book.

And finally, Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement, a book by Kenneth W. Christian, Ph.D., really spoke to me.

What does all of this have to do with living a low-footprint life?

For starters, the point of low-footprint living (other than conserving resources and setting a good example for others) is to lower our overhead so we can focus on what really gives meaning to our lives. Also, to mobilize our creativity for the greater good. And a big part of lowering our overhead is clearing mental obstacles. Strengthen your mind, make a better world.

A final note: This blog post had been sitting in draft-limbo for months. It just seemed too lame and too difficult to finish. I have a bunch of other posts piled up in my draft stack. I’m going to plug away and get them done.

Persistence. It isn’t always easy and it’s not my strong suit … and yet I persist in cultivating it, so I guess I’m not a lost cause. I hope you do too. Keep plugging away, don’t give up! Make that sketch, write that letter, call that person, sort out that closet. You never know what you’ll find, who you’ll help, what you’ll gain.

Wine Footprint

There are many approaches to tackling the overall task of footprint reduction. Here are some approaches I’ve found to be effective and personally beneficial:

  • — Riot for Austerity (90% Reduction Challenge): Set out to cut your footprint to 10% of the U.S. average in as many areas as possible (water consumption, electricity usage, gasoline, food footprint etc.)
  • — Journey to Zero Waste: Strive for zero waste (or as close to zero as possible) in various areas such as water usage, product packaging, etc.
  • — Tackle categories that are “big” for you personally. Travel might be a big area for one person; food or home energy usage could be big for another.
  • For wine lovers (like me!), a good example of the third approach is this article in the New York Times which brings up good questions to ask in determining the footprint of wine.

    “Do producers plow or till the rows between the vines, which releases carbon to the atmosphere? Or do they plant and maintain a cover crop, whether grasses, legumes or something else? An organic or biodynamic grower could do either. But maintaining a cover crop creates a lower carbon footprint.

    Do they mow the cover crop? Or simply roll it? Rolling it releases less carbon from the soil.

    “Using organic compost is good for vineyards. But do producers make it themselves? Or do they buy it and ship it, possibly from a distance?

    “Do they use electric or hybrid vehicles? Or standard combustion engines?

    “Are they practicing regenerative agriculture by minimizing use of chemical sprays and acting to promote biodiversity and soil life?

    “Have they converted to renewable fuels? Do they practice carbon sequestration, in which carbon is captured and stored rather than released into the atmosphere? 

    “Where does their electricity come from? How do they manage their use of water?”

    Excellent questions all! If you aren’t sure of the answers, or can’t find them out, there are other things you can do. One is to choose wine that comes in lighter-weight bottles. (According to the article, over the past 20 years heavy bottles have been used as a marketing ploy, to create the perception of better wine.) You could also try making your own wine from local fruit in season.

    We can choose to ask similarly probing questions about any product we consume, service we use, etc. Just take care not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As a fellow member of the Journey to Zero Waste group (Facebook group) says, “We don’t need a few people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of us doing it imperfectly.”