P.S. on Plastics

This is an addendum to my blog post from earlier today, on “Freeing Ourselves of Disposable Plastics.”

As for why I am making a separate “P.S.” post rather than just tacking this on to that post, it’s because a toolbox menu suddenly disappeared from that post and I cannot figure out how to get it back, making it inordinately difficult to edit that post. (And, regarding this perverse-but-at-least-simple work-around, see my more recent post from earlier today, “Hidden Footprint: Navigating Technical Glitches.)

Anyway! Did you know that plastics were originally made of plant matter? And still are, in some cases. And can be again to a greater degree, or even in a direction never before imagined.

Consider our response to “invasive weeds.” We spend so much time, money, and fossil fuel “managing” them with chemicals and mechanized equipment, and in the process we poison the land, water, and all living creatures. And in the end we have something we call “trash” or “waste” — another “problem” that has to be dealt with. And, the “invasive weeds” are never fully eliminated and continue to be an expensive problem.

When instead, maybe those “invasive” plants could be raw materials for producing useful things: containers; plastic wrap (that would go back into the earth when no longer needed).

Of course, some “invasive” grasses and plants could also be used more directly: as fiber (for baskets, cloth, window shades, and so on); roof thatching materials; and who knows what else! As fuel for heating. Just to name a couple things off the top of my head.

It recently crossed my mind that the “red tide” seaweed and blue-green algae that are currently causing wildlife die-offs and human discomfort on our Florida coastlines could be turned from an eco hazard to a useful material in similar fashion. I have been hearing for awhile now about plastics made from algae.

But back to the original point of this post: I wanted to share with you this article from BBC, How To Solve the Plastic Packaging Paradox. “Today, plastic packaging has a bad (w)rap. But the first commercially viable version of the now ubiquitous material – cellophane – was conceived in a more innocent age, before anyone worried about plastic in landfill, or the sea, or the food chain.”

The article raises some essential points that we have to factor in to the equation as we endeavor to free ourselves of the harmful aspects of single-use plastic.

For example, a cloth bag might end up not justifying the footprint it took to make it! (One way I deal with that is take used cloth bags that would otherwise get thrown away; another is to make bags out of old clothing.) And the harm of plastic wrap might be outweighed by the tonnage of veggies that are, with wrap, kept from going bad before they can be eaten. (Regarding that latter, my personal response is to buy locally grown veggies or grow them myself. Much less spoilage.)

And finally, I want to “wrap” this post up with a heartfelt “thank you” to my regular readers who send me valuable links and help me ferret out my typos! Big hugs Ro, L.S., and other deep-green allies who are kind and patient enough to navigate this blog.

Hidden Footprint: Navigating Technical Glitches

Technical glitches can be a major time- and energy-drain. I suspect they are a significant contributor to our footprint, not only directly via additional consumption of fossil fuels, but indirectly via the emotional aggravation that has to be dealt with as we navigate our everyday lives. A technical glitch can be anything we encounter as we move through our day, be it a computer app, a car dashboard, a TV/DVD player, a microwave oven or anything else.

In the arena of social-media sharing and blog posting, which is where I spend the bulk of my working hours, a lot of the glitches seem to stem from the utter complexity of the software. By technical glitches here, I’m not necessarily talking about defects in software; I’m talking about USER DIFFICULTIES with software, arising from complexity of the software itself, which leads to extremely complex menus. In some cases the menus/software may be poorly designed, but I suspect that most of the time, the problem arises just from the sheer complexity, period.

On a fairly regular basis while writing this blog, I will suddenly find I can’t figure out how to fix something (such as how to get back a toolbox that suddenly disappeared, or how to copy and paste an excerpt from an article I’m linking, and have the font end up the same as the existing font of my blog — or at find the button or menu item that allows me to hand-format it so it is the same). At that point I will spend an hour or two, sometimes more, searching the user forums, techno magazine articles, and other places for answers. Often I find how to fix the glitch but sometimes I do not. Unless it is a major glitch, making a post unreadable, I will sometimes just end up letting it be, even though those few words in a different font drive me crazy, or even though I really need to get back to the “visual editor” so I can make boldfaced text because it belongs there. Another dimension to this is that processes/apps that are pretty easy to figure out on a laptop can behave weirdly on a smartphone, adding time and labor to our efforts. Big issue in social-media sharing and in blog posting.

Long story short: As a not-super-tech-savvy user, but a regular and steady user who relies heavily on publishing and social-media technology, I’m getting fairly fed-up with software complexity, and am more and more finding ways to do an end-run around it. I have a feeling there may be others like me, and that we will be gravitating toward the platforms that allow us to work very simply and easily, even if it means sacrificing a lot of fancy design features. I’m at the point where I just want to be able to type in courier and type BOLD before a word/phrase I want in boldface, and END BOLD at the end of the word. Clunky, but simple, and I don’t have to sift through endless user forum posts to find the needle in the haystack that may not be there.

In the past, it used to be easy to write in plain text, and then (when quoting an article or posting a link) copy and paste in plain text. Now, “advances” allow us to copy all of the text including formatting. But what’s not always so clear is how to keep doing the “simple” option, defaulting everything to plain unformatted text. Because sometimes the bells-and-whistles gum things up.

This is, actually, an eco footprint issue. Not just fossil energy, but also that all-precious commodity, human energy and attention. (Although human energy and attention, unlike the fossil variety, are renewable, it is foolish and perilous to squander them. And they are a significant part of our eco footprint equation.)

It would be enlightening to know how much energy is consumed by “searching for help when mysterious technical glitches hit.” (Be it a computer, smartphone, or some non-internet thing like a microwave oven or the controls of an automobile.)

Just as time-consuming, sometimes, is figuring out how to explain in words what is happening, to even be able to do a search. In my case, the “glitches” are surely often the result of my technical ineptitude and failure to notice icons and menus. But that just underscores my point, that in the world of social media and blogging there is a certain kind of “heavy user” who is NOT super-tech-savvy, but is a heavy user day in and day out. And is either not able or not willing to pay a professional web designer. And really, should I have to pay a professional designer just to type my thoughts and post them on a blog and not have anything weird happen? At the end of the day, the majority of users probably need things to be simple and consistently user-friendly more than we need them to be option-rich.

At the end of the day, I just want to share practical information with you, that’ll help you in your life and help all of us help the planet. If I have to do it on an antique typewriter someday, I will. If I have to “share social media” by tacking leaflets on a utility pole, or by standing on top of a milk-crate on a street corner, well, I’ve done it before, and I will again if need be. But I haven’t quite reached the end of my rope with online technology yet, and it is still the best way I know to really spread information and good practices. So I will continue to do the best I can to serve you via the online platforms. Thanks for reading this blog, and if you have actually been patient enough to read through this post and get it, thank you double!

Freeing Ourselves of Disposable Plastics

The plastic litter crisis is massive and worldwide, and we finally seem to be getting serious about handling it. States and even entire countries are banning single-use plastic bags and plastic straws. Other bans are sure to follow.

On the personal and household level, many people I know have been trying their best to avoid single-use plastics for a long time now. And more people are getting on board, as they come face to face with horrifying images of whales, turtles, birds, and other wildlife killed or severely injured by plastics blowing in the wind and drifting in the water.

Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid single-use plastics. But we can all start somewhere, and this article 7 Ways To Live Without Disposable Plastic (from ReturnToNow.org) offers some good tips.

I disagree with one of their suggestions, to use biodegradable trash bags instead of plastic. I would replace that with “Do without trash bags altogether.” They aren’t necessary in most cases. Just put trash directly into the trash bin. (As long as you be sure to keep food and liquids out of the trash, your trash will be dry and not stinky, and can just go directly in the can.)

My favorite tip in the article is one I’ve been doing for most of my life: Do as much of your shopping as possible at places such as farmers’ markets, which offer produce and other goods without packaging.

Banning single-use plastics will help stem the tide of this deadly litter. But what about all the plastic trash that is already out there, loose in the environment? (This includes not just single-use plastics, but also plastics that are reusable but end up discarded rather than saved.) Blowing in the wind or drifting in the water, discarded plastics cause damage to the water, the land, and all living creatures as they slowly degrade.

The new thing these days is to denounce plastics as “evil.” But really, plastics have allowed many important advances in (for example) the medical field. A smarter attitude would be to treat the plastics that are already out there as a resource to be “harvested” and used. In the field of permaculture design, we call that mind-set “turning problems into assets” or “obtaining a yield.”

Recently I read about a company in Spain that’s making fabric out of discarded plastics, which are retrieved from the ocean. Bonus: the people retrieving it are fishermen/women, whose livelihood has been suffering due to overfishing of fish!

Most of us are familiar with the three R’s “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” as well as a fourth R that has more recently entered the mainstream: “Refuse.”

Harvesting plastics would be an example of a fifth “R” which I just now thought of: “Reclaim.”

Nature doesn’t make trash. We don’t need to either. What we call trash, what is currently polluting the environment and harming all of life, will be cleaned up faster (and at a profit rather than a cost) if we can think of it as a resource. This principle works well in all areas of life. Try it out and let me know what you come up with!

Reclaiming plastic trash as a resource is an example of a “cradle to cradle” approach, taking into account the full life cycle of everything we manufacture. For a deeper look at this mind-set, I highly recommend the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough. As McDonough points out on the book’s web page, “Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.”

When I first came across this concept about 15 years ago, it was a huge breath of fresh air and a major puzzle piece fallen into place. How far might we be able to go, how much better a place might we make the world, by adopting this mentality in every area of our lives?

Your Lawn Or Your Life

It’s Time To Unfriend Fertilizer,” writes John Moran in the Gainesville (Florida, USA) Sun. Fertilizer runoff is causing a horrific eco crisis in waterways and harming wildlife everywhere (not just in Florida). And if that isn’t enough to get us to reexamine our mainstream practices, fertilizer runoff is poisoning the fish that we eat, and is wrecking tourism too. People like to point the finger at agriculture, but lawns are a huge culprit as well.

The article is focused on the downside of fertilizer, but the same can be said for herbicides. They are causing far-reaching damage, and lawns are a major contributor.

But what if you love having a soft patch of grass to sit on or look at? No problem. Choose a variety that’s naturally adapted to your region. Or, tolerate diversity: redefine “lawn” as a clipped patch containing multiple varieties of soft ground cover, as opposed to the monoculture that takes so much labor and chemical intervention to maintain.

But even if you love your lawn, you might really love the savings of water, labor, money, and aggravation from adding hardy native flowers and shrubs to your yard, at least around the borders or in attractive “island” formations. One couple mentioned in the article reduced their water consumption by 80 percent by switching their lawn over to native plants. (The photo of their yard is gorgeous.)

But, some might ask, how would we get along without fertilizers and herbicides?

An excellent alternative to industrial fertilizer is compost.

Here are my three favorite alternatives to herbicides:

– Learn about the plant life of your bioregion. Notice, “This isn’t a weed — it’s a wildflower; it is actually breathtakingly beautiful; and the bees and butterflies love it!” And let that wildflower be.

– Find out about your local wild edible and medicinal plants. Notice, “This isn’t a weed — it’s a highly nutritious vegetable! Or a free herbal medicine!” And harvest it.

– Learn the basics of soil, mulch, and compost. Notice, “This isn’t a weed! It’s a bundle of nutrients and organic matter, and I can ‘chop and drop’ it to build soil and nourish other plants!”

Are you familiar with that great book by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, Your Money Or Your Life? (The book has a preface by Mr. Money Mustache, one of my “financial footprint” heroes; he is mentioned in my book.) I think someone needs to write a sequel, Your Lawn Or Your Life!

If money were sprouting up all over our yards, no one in their right mind would rake it up, cram it into garbage bags, and put it by the curbside for the trash pickup. Well, the “weeds” that sprout up in our yards are as valuable as money. More so, in fact, because ultimately we’d be able to survive a whole lot longer without money than we could if all the soil and plant life disappeared!

Further Reading

Save Bees by Holding Back on the Mowing: “Gardeners should leave at least a strip of their lawn un-mowed … to help halt the decline in bees, experts have said. Perfectly manicured grass is depriving the crucial pollinating insects of the wildflowers they need to feed on …”

Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives (book by Evelyn Hadden): “What has your perfect green lawn done for you lately? Is it really worth the time, effort, and resources you lavish on it? … Hadden showcases dozens of inspiring, eco-friendly alternatives to that demanding (and dare we say boring?) green turf. Trade your lawn for a lively prairie or replace it with a runoff-reducing rain garden. Swap it for an interactive adventure garden or convert it to a low-maintenance living carpet.”

Ms. Hadden is a founder or founding member of two organizations I never knew existed until now: lesslawn.com and the Lawn Reform Coalition (“We are a loose coalition of writers and activists (including lawn-haters and lawn-improvers) from across the country spreading up-to-date solutions to the many problems caused by a lawn culture that demands perfection, conformity, and way too many inputs — especially water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Not to mention millions of acres of lawn that could be something else.”)

Natural Art: Water-Print on Concrete

Nature, with rain and dew as its painting medium, used a rubber door-mat as a stencil on my back porch.

(The rubber door-mat had started crumbling and turning my feet black, which is why I removed it. Only to find a beautiful surprise waiting underneath! The rubber mat is now unobtrusively but usefully undergoing its final decomposition, as part of the mulch layer in one of my landscape beds.)

I’ve always been a fan of the patterns created by nature interacting with human-made stuff. I even like the black and green areas created by silt and algae on the concrete. It just adds to the beauty, as far as I’m concerned. I always did find great beauty in Roman ruins, mossy English rock walls, and things of that kind.

Not everyone likes such a “disorderly” look; some people think it looks messy — which is why things like pressure-washers and leaf-blowers have become such a dominant part of everyday life. But, if you’re a person who likes the more natural look or can at least learn to live with it, you can save yourself a whole lot of time and aggravation. When surfaces don’t need to be kept uniformly pin-neat, it saves a lot of labor, money, energy, and of course fossil fuels. And by reducing the use of the outdoor cleaning machinery that has become so ubiquitous, you are also contributing to a reduction in the noise level around you, making the outdoor environment more pleasant for you and your neighbors.

I look forward to observing the ongoing progress of nature’s artwork on my little concrete slab porch.

What nature-art have you noticed lately in your environment?

When a Little Is A Lot: Drippy Faucets, Litter, … and Small Courtesies!

A drip of water seems like nothing, but those drips add up fast. One plumbing company, using USGS data, calculated that “if your faucet dripped once every second every day, all day, it would only take four and a half hours to reach one gallon. Every day you would waste 5 gallons of water or 2,082 gallons per year.

One straw in the ocean, one plastic bag littering the street … We’ve seen how those add up, with horrific consequences.

Fortunately the reverse is true too. Fixing that drippy faucet; picking up that piece of trash. It adds up!

Another thing that adds up is little kindnesses that make people’s life easier. This morning I had an email newsletter from Zazzle, one of the online services I use to make prints of my art. “We’ve updated our Zazzle user agreement,” the email informed me. But instead of simply providing a link to the full-length document of the updated user agreement (which they did), Zazzle additionally provided a link to just the highlights. To me, reading this capsule summary was a great way to start the morning. I felt disproportionately happy.

Or maybe my happiness wasn’t disproportionate at all! Maybe it was perfectly appropriate. Have you ever had someone send you a link, and it turned out to lead to some 80-page document or hour-long video, and it was obvious the person expected you to wade through the whole thing? Is it only me, or is that frustrating?

Whether it’s a friend or a service provider wanting me to view this content, a nutshell summary is a much desired, but all too often absent, accompaniment to a link. It may even be a lost art; a casualty of the social-media age.

Anyway, thank you Zazzle! When someone is considerate is a seemingly small way, it can have a huge impact. And the impact ripples out to everyone the recipient of the courtesy interacts with, at least for the morning and maybe for the whole day, or longer. And although I’ve never done the math, I’m pretty sure this kind of considerateness reduces our collective eco footprint, in as significant a way as fixing a drippy faucet saves water.

Further Reading and Action:

USGS – Faucet Drip Calculator – Got dripping faucets? Calculate how much water you can save by fixing them!

Topic Digest: Living Without Air Conditioning

For those of you who would like to experiment with A/C-free living (or for those of you who are already doing it but are encountering difficulties of various kinds — or, for those of you who are doing it, love it, but are having trouble explaining your choice to the people around you), I’ve compiled a digest of articles on this topic. Enjoy! I’ve been living without A/C by choice for just about my whole adult life, and I found these articles enjoyable and empowering.

(FYI, I found these articles by googling “people who live without air conditioning are healthier,” and the search brought up many many more articles than I’ve linked here! So you can find a lot more than what I’ve shared below.)

I don’t need air conditioning and neither do you (The Washington Post): Clinical social worker Olivia Snyder lives on the fifth floor of a Philadelphia apartment building with southern exposure and no air conditioning. It gets so hot, she says, “I don’t want to turn on the burners, let alone the oven.” But window units offend her. “Air conditioners are ugly. I really like the view,” she says. Also, “I hate sleeping with the noise. I’m super-weird about noise.” … There are a thousand reasons my family does without central air. Actually, several thousand. …

Mama Remembers the South Before Air-Conditioning (Southern Living magazine): “Living without air-conditioning used to be normal to Southerners,” Mama says. “But everybody’s gotten so used to being cool all the time that people can’t even go outside without burning up. We never used to complain about the heat. We just said, ‘Well, it’s summer.’ And we drank a lot of water.”…

Can We Live without Air Conditioning? (JSTOR Daily): Currently, as the world gets hotter, AC use expands. But all this cool comfort comes at a cost. … Susanna Robbins reviews how air conditioning helped transform the South and Southwest into the Sunbelt. She notes that air conditioning radically changed traditional architecture and social and labor relations in these desert and sub-tropical regions, most notably in ending the “easy-going lifestyle” best suited to broiling hot days.

How to Live Without Air Conditioning (Boston Globe): Can Americans kick our addiction to cool? Maybe more happily than we think …

24 Tricks to Survive Hot Summer Nights (without A/C) (Greatist.com)

How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning? (ApartmentTherapy.com):Currently the porch, like the fireplace, is a charming but somewhat vestigial architectural feature. But in the past porches were incredibly important, not just for shading the windows of a home, but also for providing a place where people could sit outside, out of the glare of the sun, and perhaps enjoy a breeze. These days, when it’s hot, people flock inside, but in the past it was the opposite: temperatures indoors and out were more or less the same, and the porch was much less stuffy than the rest of the house. This led to a whole culture of people sitting outside on their porches after supper, which has essentially disappeared.

Can you live without air conditioning in your life? Is it a need or just a want? (discussion thread on Quora): I am from the southern part of India which is known for its tropical climate. Summers are generally warm and sultry with quite high levels of humidity. The AC was a fairly recent addition to Kerala’s homes. Even now, most homes don’t have an AC. They are quite okay with it too. One noteworthy aspect is that back in the days, houses were built with lots of outlets for cross-ventilation. Even in the summers, the insides of the houses remained comfortable. (Includes some really nice photos of traditional houses in India and the Middle East that were designed in the days before A/C and are very comfortable without it.) 

10 Things Living without A/C Taught Me (Frugal Farm Wife blog): good commonsense advice — adjust your routine according to the season; learn to accept sweat; conserve your movements and more.

Europe to America: Your Love of Air Conditioning Is Stupid (Washington Post): “The bottom line is that America’s a big, rich, hot country,” Cox told The Post. “But if the second, fourth, and fifth most populous nations — India, Indonesia, and Brazil, all hot and humid — were to use as much energy per capita for air-conditioning as does the U.S., it would require 100 percent of those countries’ electricity supplies, plus all of the electricity generated by Mexico, the U.K., Italy, and the entire continent of Africa,” he added. …”If everyone were to adopt the U.S.’s air-conditioning lifestyle, energy use could rise tenfold by 2050,” Cox added, referring to the 87-percent ratio of households with air-conditioning in the United States. Given that most of the world’s booming cities are  in tropical places, and that none of them have so far deliberately adopted the European approach to air-conditioning, such calculations should raise justified concerns.

Living Without Air Conditioning Can Damage Your Brain: I figured it wouldn’t be fair to only present one side of things, so I’m including this article … by a guy who runs a heating and air-conditioning company.

Becoming Native To This Place: Essay by Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute and author of the book by the same title. This absolute jewel of an essay (it’s very lengthy but worth reading every bit) appears on the website of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Although it addresses a far wider terrain than artificial climate control or the lack thereof, I simply had to include it in this post for you. Jackson talks about the very nature of place, of people and cultures that are truly committed to the land they live on, and how it would behoove each of us to get back to that mentality and really commit to whatever place we call home. I particularly love the passage where he talks about coming across old garden-club newsletters in an abandoned farmhouse: The August 1936 program was dedicated to coping with the heat: roll call was “Hot Weather Drinks”; next came “Suggestions for Hot Weather Lunches”; a Mrs. Rogler offered “Ways of Keeping Cool.” By modern standards these people were poor. There was a kind of naiveté among these relatively unschooled women. … But the monthly agendas of these women were filled with decency, with efforts to learn about everything from the birds to our government and to cope with their problems, the weather, and diseases. Here is the irony: they were living up to a far broader spectrum of their potential than most of us do today! I am not suggesting that we go back to 1923 or even to 1964. But I will say that those people in that particular generation, in places like Matfield Green, were further along in the necessary journey to become native to their places, even as they were losing ground, than we are today.