Water Woes, and Simple Solutions

An umbrella group of neighborhood associations in my city has its regular monthly meeting this evening. On “tap” for tonight’s meeting, someone from the city utilities department will be fielding questions about a proposed new water treatment program that has become (un)popularly known as “toilet to tap.”

I’ve lived in many places, and in most or not all of those places, water from toilets goes to the same place as all other water; gets treated at a treatment plant and sent back out as “fresh water.” It’s been going on for a long time; it’s disgusting and needless; but I guess I had become resigned to it.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, where I live now, we apparently have never done this before but are maybe about to start. Here, it seems exceptionally senseless as we get 49 inches of rainfall per year (far more than in any place I’ve ever lived). We seem to waste a lot of water here. And so I came up with some questions for fellow residents of my city to ask themselves. Maybe some of these are relevant to your area also.

Here’s what I posted on some local citizens’ forums online:

It’ll be good to have the opportunity at tonight’s meeting to ask questions about this “toilet to tap” plan. It’s also a good opportunity to ask OURSELVES some questions about our water usage and priorities.

• Why do we keep buying bottled water, and why do we keep allowing corporations to plunder our aquifer and sell it back to us in plastic bottles?
• Why do we not have more respect for native/waterwise landscaping, why do we glorify manicured turf landscaping even on the beachside?
• Why do we (=as a city) keep clear-cutting trees and native scrub, leaving a moonscape that is basically a desert even with all the rain we get?
• Why aren’t more of us collecting rainwater, and why doesn’t the city promote rainwater harvesting, and harvest rainwater at its own facilities?
• Why are we planting so many high-maintenance, resource-intensive palm trees?)

And possibly, this “toilet to tap” threat could be an opportunity for introducing compost toilets! Compost toilets are super easy to use, and offer an alternative to crapping into fresh water. By the way, many cities across the nation have been doing “toilet to tap” for a long time. In our city we are fortunate not to have this yet, and, with some basic conservation measures like those I mentioned above, we could possibly avoid it.

In my post to fellow residents I didn’t mention voluntary austerity; radical conservation. But here on this blog, of course, it’s the main menu item. Household-level, voluntary, radical conservation. If a significant percentage of households were catching at least some rainwater, and phasing out water-hungry landscaping, it would go a long way toward making “toilet to tap” unnecessary anywhere. And then there is the holy grail of water conservation: widespread legalization and popularization of compost toilets. If we did that, we’d not only cut out a lot of our water woes, but, by turning “waste” into compost, vastly increase the health of our soils.

You, who choose to read this blog and believe in the power of household-level daily actions, are the heroes in the war on waste, pollution, land degradation, wildlife extinction, poverty, weather extremes, and climate change. Thank you for being here. Your footprint-reduction efforts matter! Keep going, and share your successes. (And if you want a handy, succinct yet highly readable guide to low-footprint living, get yourself a copy of my book DEEP GREEN!)

Recommended Resources & Food for Thought:
• Rainwater catchment calculator: Incredible! Even my little 100-square-foot patio roof has the potential to collect 2,500 gallons of rainwater a year! When I’m in ruthless water-miser mode, that can easily meet my personal water consumption needs. And then there’s the roof of my 988-square-foot house, which has the capacity to collect almost 25,000 gallons of water a year! Holy cannoli. That’d be more than enough even for outdoor irrigation of fruits and veggies through the drought phases.
• Brad Lancaster Water Harvesting channel on YouTube: In addition to being a “fountain” of knowledge on water harvesting, Brad is incredibly enjoyable to watch and listen to. One of the most powerful things I learned from Brad’s talks is that “Most deserts are manmade.” For starters I recommend Rainwater Harvesting Basics (1) (a 9-minute video); and “Overview of Lancaster Homestead Water Harvesting Strategies (12 minutes). Or just dive into the delightful 52-minute “Dryland Harvesting Home Hacks Sun, Rain, Food, & Surroundings.”
• “Greening the Desert” 5-minute video with permaculturist Geoff Lawton – just incredible.
• Compost toilets, humanure — Joseph Jenkins “Loveable Loo Overview”: “The Loveable Loo is an eco-toilet that requires no water, plumbing, pipes, vents, drains, electricity, or urine separation. It’s a toilet that makes gardens. It’s designed to collect toilet material for composting in a separate location. This 11 minute video provides a brief overview on the toilet and the processes.”

On Treasure and Clutter; “Stuff” and Soul

Check out this old-school lighter bearing a bas relief image of Mount Rushmore. I bought this a few months ago. What a beautiful lighter. So retro America. So evocative of my childhood. (Even though we never visited Mount Rushmore, we got to visit so many other parks and monuments. So any classic monument/park/Route 66 memorabilia always brings back memories of rich, magical times growing up in a family that took multiple cross-country car trips.)

Yes, a beautiful lighter indeed. And purchased at a local shop. I have loved this lighter for the months I’ve owned it. The only problem is, it doesn’t work properly. It doesn’t hold a fill. So, having unsuccessfully tried to figure out a fix, I am taking this lighter back to the shop owner, not for a refund but so he can put it in the display case and use it to sell other lighters. (You know how it is in a shop: The greater the variety of items, the easier it is to sell one.)

Now, this lighter is small. It’t not BIG clutter. But for me, after a while, it became annoying clutter, because every time I saw it, I’d think about how it doesn’t work, and what a shame that this purchase didn’t accomplish my objective of having a refillable “old school” lighter. So it’s time to let it go.

Now, if you are in possession of a beautiful but non-functional item, you may not consider it clutter and may choose to keep it. And that’d be fine too. Low-footprint life doesn’t mean feeling obligated to get rid of all your stuff. Even a minimalist lifestyle (if you choose to practice that) doesn’t mean getting rid of all your stuff. You want to keep the good pretty things that feed your artistic soul (because really we ARE all artists — artists of living); the things that make your heart smile. Selective minimalism, I call it!

Actually sometimes I call my lifestyle “ornate minimalism.” At one point I owned about 20 pairs of platform shoes, while living in a 19-foot travel trailer lined with colorful Indian print silk curtains and pillows. There were a lot of things I did NOT own, such as an iron and a washer/dryer and any stove other than a single burner. But I owned everything I wanted to own, and that continues to be the case, though I’ve let go of some items and acquired others as the flow of life invites.

Nice synchronicity with the theme of this post: Today’s email newsletter from DailyOM has a great little article by Madisyn Taylor, “Honoring Daily Life.” She talks about the human tendency to try to save things for “special occasions.” For example, buying an item of clothing and never wearing it; saving it for a special occasion that never comes. And meanwhile the item goes out of style!

Something similar happened to me, back when I was living in my little travel trailer, as a matter of fact. I had two beautiful leather jackets. One of them I NEVER ended up wearing, and one day when I finally decided to wear it, I pulled it out of the closet only to see that it had become mildewed to the point of being unwearable. I was touched with sadness at the waste, and vowed to avoid doing that again.

From Madisyn’s piece in DailyOM: “It’s interesting to think of what it would mean to us if we let ourselves wear our nicest clothes and eat off the good china on a daily basis. We might be sending ourselves the message that every day we are alive is a special day and a cause for celebration, and that we are worth it.”

That is one thing I’ve been doing: using my grandmother’s china as my daily dishes. I even bring them out for potlucks. And I always know my grandmother is smiling down from heaven. But what if one breaks, some people might say. Actually, a few teacups DID break, some years back. But look how many there still are! And the plates — I mean, SIXTEEN plates!

As a bonus, using Grandma’s china as my everyday dishes means I don’t need a whole separate set of “everyday” dishes, which would require more cabinet space and also mental energy to keep track of. I do have a couple of sturdier bowls and plates acquired from a friend who was downsizing, but there are only a couple, and I DO use the china regularly even when it’s just me alone.

All of which is to say, I hope you enjoy your deliberate acquisitions, don’t be afraid to let something go when it no longer serves you (even if it’s pretty). But don’t feel obligated to let go of things you treasure. And, finally, don’t be afraid to use your “good stuff” for everyday. Wear your best jewelry; put on that fancy jacket just to go to the store if you feel like it. Every single day is a magnificent occasion, and you deserve it.

This kind of selectivity and refinement in everyday life ends up supporting a low-footprint lifestyle, so it’s a win for the planet as well as for you.

B Corps and a LEED Platinum Building: Low-Footprint Trip to a Neighboring City

Earlier this month I was invited to the inaugural event of Central Florida for Good, a new organization that’s promoting a higher level of corporate social responsibility through B Corporations and B Corp Certification. One catch phrase of the B Corp movement is “purpose-driven companies.”

The meeting was held at the downtown Orlando location of First Green Bank. This building recently earned LEED Platinum certification for features including being close to public transport; offering secured bicycle storage and showers; reducing its water consumption by 35% using low-flow fixtures; getting 77% of its energy needs met by solar panels and the rest purchased through renewable “green power”; having LED lighting and improved insulation; and recycling 80% of its construction waste.

My trip to Orlando for the CFFG gathering was an enjoyable, relatively low-footprint excursion. I took Greyhound, which charged $32 for the round trip. (Actually would have been just $13.50 each way except that Greyhound tacks on a $5 service fee, which I guess is for purchasing online.) The trip takes about an hour each way. To make a full day of it, I left home in the early morning and came back at midnight. (Like a Londoner in the old days taking a holiday excursion to Brighton!)

The downtown is dense for a U.S. city, and quite pleasant to walk around. Tall buildings generated air currents and provided shade from the blistering sun. I doubt this was a deliberate move by the city planners; those same tall buildings would probably make the streets miserable on a cold winter day. I’ve done my share of walking around Boston and Chicago in cold weather, and tall buildings can create a bitterly cold, windy micro-climate. But in Orlando on a hot day, the buildings were like a cool concrete forest. Also, that part of Orlando, and other parts of town I walked through, does have plenty of actual trees — very mature, leafy ones. Every urban area should have them! Not only do they mitigate heat in summer; they also take the edge off the cold and provide shelter from wind in winter.

I spotted a Publix supermarket with a reduced space footprint (it had multiple floors rather than just one big floor, and a compact parking garage instead of a sprawling parking lot). And I walked along a dense little street of bars and restaurants that had gotten together and made an eco-pledge to only give out straws on request. I also sat for awhile in a well-shaded park that appeared to have some sort of permeable artificial mulch (recycled tires, maybe?) as its ground cover.

There were lots of apparently-homeless people, same as in my own city and just about everywhere else I go. But there were many other people utilizing the parks and other public spaces also. Young people who looked like students; office workers in business suits; people in jogging attire. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement, a low-key tolerance of everyone sharing an urban space. The density of shops, office buildings, and public buildings virtually ensured steady foot traffic of the type that keeps parks and sidewalks in constant use. (At the park where I sat for a while, it probably helped that a security guard from the nearby public building stepped out on occasion and eyeballed the park. His manner was not unfriendly but his presence made a statement.)

Most of the parking seemed to be in parking garages, which were easy to locate thanks to ample signage on the streets. A lot of car owners I know complain about having to park in a garage, pay for parking, and so on, but really, in a dense area where there are a lot of different things to walk to, as opposed to just visiting one shop or going to a movie, it isn’t so bad. You park your car in the garage, make a day or an evening of it, and don’t get in your car again til it’s time to go home. Or you walk or cycle: Downtown Orlando has enough density that the Publix I mentioned probably has thousands of regular customers right in walking distance.

The walk from the Greyhound station to that part of downtown Orlando takes me about 45 minutes, and goes through some neighborhoods that appear very income-disadvantaged, and others that are obviously undergoing gentrification pressure. All in all it was a thought-provoking day of walking and absorbing sights. Orlando’s Mayor, Buddy Dyer, is known for being gung-ho about making his city green, and many other residents and businesses obviously share a certain degree of eco-consciousness.

I arrived back at the Daytona Beach bus station around midnight, and by the time I took the 20-minute walk back over the bridge to my beachside home, I had probably walked a total of 10 miles that day. A low-cost, educational and scenic day.

By the way, Orlando is one of 10 cities that are aiming for 100% renewable-energy use.

Business Lessons; Life Lessons

I’ve always been a big reader. Besides fiction and sustainability-related books, one of the other categories of books I read most is business books. (A low-footprint lifestyle helps me protect my time so I never have to say I don’t have time for reading! So if you want more time for reading, that’s just one more incentive for you to minimize your footprint, and I hope this blog and my book will help you.)

One of my favorite business reads over the past few months was The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. This book by Victor W. Hwang explores the “secret ingredients” that turn a place into a hotbed of innovation and investment. I also greatly enjoyed The Lohman Way: Entrepreneur Lowell Lohman’s Story and Strategies for Building Multimillion-Dollar Family Businesses, by E.L. Wilks.

But yesterday I picked up a business book that ended up being possibly my all-time favorite so far: The Five Temptations of a CEO, by Patrick Lencioni. (The photo above shows the book in the Little Free Library I set up in front of my house.)

I devoured the book in a couple of hours. The author identifies five “temptations” that CEOs fall into, that end up harming their companies. These five temptations are 1) choosing status over results; 2) choosing popularity over accountability; 3) choosing harmony over conflict; 4) choosing certainty over clarity; 5) choosing invulnerability over trust.

Mr. Lencioni wrote his book for CEOs of companies. But, as a self-employed person, I’ve always considered myself to be a CEO too, albeit CEO of a company with just one employee. Today, looking through the lens of “The Five Temptations,” I’ve gained a deeper understanding of a catastrophic business failure I experienced a few years back, and how to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Here’s what happened. A few years back, I got involved in a venture with other self-employed people. We were working together, but keeping our finances separate. Things were going fine, til one year I absolutely tanked financially. Ended up not only with zero money to my name, but actually in the red. Truth be told, I’d been struggling for quite some time, but I had just kept throwing money at my problems rather than look into the root causes.

From a “Five Temptations” standpoint, here are the mistakes I made:

1) Choosing status over results: After achieving a certain measure of success, I became preoccupied with where I stood in relation to my teammates. I got into comparing myself with them and envying them the recognition they were getting, and seeking such recognition for myself rather than staying focused on our actual work, which was to help people make desired changes in their lives.

2) Choosing popularity over accountability: In working with clients, I was out to be “liked,” be the “good guy,” rather than be the “tough guy” who pushes people to fully attain their desired results. A no-win game.

3) Choosing harmony over conflict: By not being willing to ask hard questions, I squandered time and energy engaging with people who weren’t good candidates for our products and services (and in the process, probably overlooked people who were seeking what we were offering).

4) Choosing certainty over clarity: Rather than make decisions based on the information available to me and move forward, I became a procrastinator, always waiting for that last bit of essential information so I could be 100% certain of success before making a move. Never happened!

5) Choosing invulnerability over trust: When I started getting into trouble, rather than confide in my teammates I kept things to myself and struggled alone, focused on “keeping up appearances.” If I’d been willing to be vulnerable, I’d have gotten some solid advice and moral support (which did in fact happen later, once I was willing to confide in them).

What’s nice about the “temptations” framework is that it offers a simple (though not necessarily easy) path to self-correction. Although I’d never heard of the Five Temptations until yesterday, much of what I did to recover from my business collapse was in keeping with what I read in Mr. Lencioni’s book.

I am very fortunate to have what I consider a calling in life, and quitting it is not an option. Therefore I always need to be willing to look at myself and make corrections when things aren’t going well.

My favorite business books are applicable not just to business, but to life in general. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about a time in my life when I fell into the “Five Temptations” to the detriment of some of my most valued personal relationships. And how I got out of that!

Living-space Experiments

I’ve found that I take great joy in experimenting with different ways to store and organize clothing and other household stuff. At the moment, I have relatively few clothes, and most of them fit into two milk crates. I use four red hooks to hang four categories of my most constantly-used clothing items: bras, underpants, tank tops, bottoms (including swim-skirt). And sometimes my drying-rack ends up getting used as a hanger.

At times of my life I have had a lot more clothes than this. At this time of my life, I find it more liberating to have not as many items. I am one of those people who found herself wearing 20 percent of her clothes 80 percent of the time. Particularly after moving to ultra-humid Florida. And so I adjusted accordingly by getting rid of clothes I wasn’t wearing.

Note, you do not have to be a “clothing minimalist” to live a low-footprint life. This just happens to be my version, at least in recent years. During one era of my life, I had tons of clothes, many of which really were more COSTUMES than clothes, and about 30 pairs of platform shoes! And this was while living in a 19-foot travel trailer in South Austin. (I built little shelves to showcase the shoes. The inside of my trailer, lined as it was with Indian silk scarves and such, looked like some sort of Bohemian genie bottle.)

The milk crates sit in a piece of furniture which I scrounged at curbside and dubbed my “clothing hutch”. My bedroom is a lot bigger and has much more clothing storage than I need. The closet is empty, as are the wicker chests. Once I find likeminded housemates to share this home with me in the long term, one of them will get this bedroom and I’ll probably sleep in my micro studio. For now, I’m enjoying my experiments with the large bedroom space.

The rose mesh curtains (fabric bought from a vintage thrift shop), plus the kimono which I use as a substitute for the missing door, add a touch of pretty that keeps the room from being too spartan for my tastes.

I first used the “clothing hutch” when I was renting a one-bedroom apartment and sharing it with a roommate. The roommate got the back bedroom, and I had a partitioned area in the living room. The hutch helped create the partition, and it was a real boon for space! Experimenting with the hutch has been fun. I loved my little “roomette” (see photos below). Note, you can’t see the hutch in these pics; it’s outside the photo. I just wanted to show you my cozy sleeping, working, and reading space. Very RV, or very NYC!

When I experiment with various living-space arrangements, sometimes I feel like a kid building a fort out of blankets and pillows. It’s a joyful, creative experience. I encourage you to try it! Tip: Using curb-scrounged or thrifted stuff takes the pressure off to be “designer perfect.” This pressure takes a lot of the fun out of having a home. Let’s get rid of the pressure! Have fun experimenting. And if you have kids, bring them into it! Kids have such creative ideas, and it’s a fun way to spend quality time together as a family.

I keep my room as tidy as possible because it helps me feel relaxed and peaceful in the room. I think of it as a nice subdued backdrop to the wild, jangly-colored notes of my art, writing, and life.

Further Reading: Check out this neat post I just found on makespace.com: 11 ways to divide a studio apartment into multiple rooms. I particularly like the “movie projector screen wall” — great for video nights! And another post to stir your creative juices, this one from Life Storage Blog: 10 clothes storage ideas when you have no closet.

Unexpected Flower

This morning. Hauling water out to the plants that need it most (at this point, endless days of no rain, it is a triage game). Feeling annoyed to no end as the water I’ve painstakingly carried runs off my sloped yard and onto the sidewalk. (I dig little trenches uphill of each plant but they fill in quickly so I have to stay on top of it.)

And just as I’m feeling sort of defeated, my eye catches on a spot of purple. A morning glory! A beautiful purple morning glory I did not plant! A pretty treat for my morning. And a reminder that even when my current efforts don’t seem to be accomplishing much, a sudden flower can pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Probably from someone else’s past effort. I take it as a reminder to have faith, to keep contributing my efforts to the general pool, and just enjoy that process and not get too stuck on outcomes.

Coincidentally, via Facebook’s “memory” feature, this morning on my Facebook feed I encountered “Bicycle Morning Glory,” a painting I did about five years ago and had forgotten about. I don’t remember who bought the original painting but presumably it is “blooming” in someone’s home or office. And I was pleasantly surprised to see this old forgotten creation “bloom” in my e-universe this morning.

Trash Revisited!

The average household in USAmerica throws away 4.5 pounds of garbage PER PERSON, per day! The Riot for Austerity target is 10% of that, or 0.45 pounds per person. The main things that add unnecessary weight to the trash are 1) food scraps and other organic matter; and 2) things that could be recycled.

Here’s a couple weeks worth of my trash. Since I compost and recycle, the trash is very lightweight, not to mention relatively odor-free and not drippy or gunky. I always say composting is a great way to avoid “gross” trash, smelly slimy trash can, etc., so it’s well worth doing even if you don’t garden. Since my trash isn’t slimy or gunky, I need no trash-can liners — but I do line the bottom of my can with used cardboard or newspaper just in case. The cardboard or paper liner itself gets composted once it becomes soggy (from the occasional stray drop of liquid) or starts to absorb odors.

The trash filled most of a 5-gallon can (top photo), but it was mostly bags and thin plastic wrap, so I was able to condense it all into this one bag, which originally served as packaging for frozen chicken nuggets (a freegan acquisition from a friend who purchased the product and ended up not wanting it).

Revisiting the other contents of the trash (middle photo), I realized that a couple of the plastic containers would be good trays for beading projects. And the potato-chip bag, turned inside-out, serves as a waterproof, solar-reflective container for a spare bicycle-tire tube which I keep in my bicycle basket (bottom photo). All in all, hardly any trash! In all, the trash I ended up putting out into the actual garbage collection this time weighed about a pound. For two weeks!

Trash is one of the categories where I typically find it very easy to have a low footprint. I don’t buy a lot of new stuff or packaged foods. Also, a lot of my “trash” is stuff I scrounged in the first place, as opposed to purchasing; for example, furniture or pots found at curbside, or clothing inherited from friends who were purging their closets. But there have been times in my life when I’ve generated higher volumes of trash, such as when moving to a new place, or doing a major decluttering project.

There are seven Riot for Austerity categories, and most folks find it easier to meet the targets, or make progress, in some categories than in others. And most of us find ourselves in temporary circumstances where our footprint goes higher than we wish. No worries; that’s one of the major benefits of having multiple categories!

The Riot categories are Gasoline; Electricity; Home Oil/Gas; Garbage; Water; Consumer Goods; and Food. You’ll be hearing more about these in future posts.