Archive for the ‘Living green’ Category

The Green Economy Starts at Home

February 12, 2012

I’m digging into our kitchen garbage can to recover items that someone threw into the wrong bin. It’s become a ritual of sorts.

I find eggshells from this morning’s breakfast, a paper cup, a couple of torn plastic bags and a banana peel.

My husband rolls his eyes and says “yes, yes” as I start my lecture about how every little action counts.

We live in a country that produces more municipal waste per capita than most nations, and where nearly 66 percent of the 250 million tons of garbage we generated in 2010 ended up in landfills.

This is bad news because garbage dumps are a major producer of methane gas in the United States and many other countries. Methane is that often-overlooked greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and thus a major contributor to climate change.

(Anybody noticed some strange weather lately?)

Thankfully, I happen to live in a town where a recycling truck does rounds every week to pick up cardboard, plastics, tin cans and other items destined for a second life. Leaves and other yard waste is collected separately and composted into mulch that is later sold back to home owners.

More than 40 percent of my town’s waste was recycled in 2011 through these voluntary programs, which everybody I know participates in.

It makes us part of a rapidly growing, green economy that is generating millions of dollars in revenue for forward-looking businesses and thousands of new jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Our milk cartons, wine bottles, magazines, and empty cans are hauled to a nearby recycling sorting plant owned by Waste Management, one of the largest garbage collection and recycling companies in the United States.

The 85 million tons of trash that were recycled or composted in the U.S. in 2010 kept about 186 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to taking 36 million cars off the road for a year.

What’s more, some of Waste Management’s workers who are not already busy recycling are now in the business of turning landfill methane gas into energy or fuel for trucks.

Of course, the less garbage we generate in the first place, the better off our communities and environment will be.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to build landfills in our country and for good reason. In the past, many dumps were located in poor and rural areas where people didn’t have the resources or power to fight pollution.

Environmental regulations of such facilities have increased, but people’s willingness to live next-door to a garbage dump has not.

This is where America’s growing, $14-billion recycling industry comes in. Worldwide, this industry is now worth $200 billion, on par with the gross domestic product of countries such as Portugal and Malaysia, the Bureau of International Recycling reports.

Those banana peel and egg shells I dig out of our kitchen garbage have a job, too. They end up in a compost bin in our back yard where food scraps are slowly transformed into rich soil for the garden.

The compost bin is my very own, green economy.


The great American divide

October 24, 2009

Some sobering news came out of the The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this week. Fewer and fewer Americans believe in global warming. Only 57 percent of people polled say there’s solid evidence the Earth is warming, down from 71 percent in April of 2008.

With less than two months to go before the big international climate conference in Copenhagen and with historic cap-and-trade bills pending in Congress, only one in three Americans now believe global warming is a serious problem.

What’s going on? Well, just take a spin through those all-American towns and you’ll find out.

JudyAlaska“I think the timing of this bill is an absolute and total disaster,” says Judy from Alaska about the American Clean Energy and Security Act that the U.S. House passed in June. “Our economy is so fragile and is just now starting to show some signs of recovery. If this legislation passed, it’s like taking us out at our knees.”

Richard, owner of a small business in New Mexico, says the historic climate-change legislation will kill his company. “We’ve got to maintain our gasd2146e769e161ca40b9c8394e314aa3e0735ede7 prices where they are, or even lower ’em to be able to maintain our workforce,” he says. “If we don’t stand up…we’re all just going to be in the unemployment line.”

Energy Citizens, an organization funded by industry, chambers of commerce and the likes, uses multimedia and economic scare tactics to try to kill the climate-change legislation. The group’s Web site is crammed with testimonials from regular, hardworking citizens who somehow know that the cap-and-trade provisions will deepen the economic recession.

The propaganda seems to have worked.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have both concluded that the climate-change bills would cost households less than $200 a year, or $16 a month. (Less than a monthly family outing to McDonald’s or a nice bottle of wine.)

Like anybody cares. This is not about science, facts, economics or reason. It’s about the cultural war that has turned the United States into a politically stymied nation that puzzles and frustrates the rest of the world. It’s about the divide between liberals and conservatives, urbanites and rurals,  agnostics and religious, educated and ignorant, intellectuals and mainstream America.

The dad of a girl in my daughter’s dance class told me this morning that well-to-do parents of kids in the conservative Catholic school that his girl attends are openly questioning his work.

He’s an engineering professor on loan from a New York university to conduct climate-related research at a prominent, liberal Washington think tank for a year. He recently got a long letter from one parent who informed him that global warming is just a scientific theory with no basis in reality.

1095169_a_silhouette_of_the_pope_2Why, on Earth, would Catholics oppose the idea of climate change?

It’s simple, the professor told me. It has to do with their anti-abortion platform. There’s a feeling among religious conservatives that environmentalists are pushing population control to reduce human impact on the environment. Population control, in their view, equals abortion which they vehemently oppose.

Well, support for free abortion is waning too, Pew tells us. There’s been  a backlash against our pro-choice president, which makes perfect sense. For in the United States of America, unity is a rare thing.

Wind power? Not in my backyard.

August 26, 2009


Turns out, Swedes may not be as green as I thought. Or perhaps they’re simply no different than the rest of us gasoline-guzzling, environmentally ignorant consumers who care more about our immediate comfort and convenience than the future of coming generations.

Overheard in the kitchen of immediate Swedish family members just the other day:

“I was so angry hearing this farmer on the island talk about the profits he was making from the wind power he was producing,” my mother bristled. “He had gotten together with some neighbors to construct and operate a wind mill in his back yard, and was making a small fortune. I told him, ‘Don’t you realize that you’re profiting from Swedish tax dollars? You’re making money off the backs of all the rest of us who must pay for this expensive wind power!’

“But he just looked at me and said, ‘But the money I make comes from the wind!'” she continued. “It made me so mad that people don’t understand who’s paying for all this construction of wind mills left and right. We are!”

According to the Swedish Energy Agency, wind power cooperatives such as the one formed by this ignorant Swedish farmer will add another 70 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid during fiscal year 2009-2010. In all, 24,000 people will be members in such cooperatives and boost their share of Swedish wind power production by 20 percent, the agency estimates

The Swedish government wants to grow total wind power production to 30 terrawatt hours annually – up from 2 tWh today. Wind currently accounts for just 1 percent of the nation’s electricity, compared with neighboring Denmark, which gets 20 percent of its power from wind power. (The U.S., the world’s leading wind power nation in terms of capacity, is at close to 2 percent.)

The Swedish government is using energy certificates subsidized by tax dollars to support the wind energy build-out, investments it says must be made to meet tough European Union carbon-dioxide reduction goals.

But some Swedes believe the cost of wind is just too high, especially when the machines pop up along pristine coast lines and in pastoral landscapes where Swedes want to enjoy their lengthy vacations away from the troubles of global warming and energy crises.

Indeed, in my family, the bad-mouthing of wind power stations began when news broke that the spinning turbine blades would soon obscure views from an island in the Baltic that, in my mom’s opinion, was too beautiful and unique for wind mills. (A section of it was, after all, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.)

A movement is afoot to stop the build-out of wind power in the country praised, over and and over again, for being one of the world’s greenest. Grassroots organizations with names such as “Fair Wind” and “Save the Coast” are sprouting up to protest plans by property owners to take advantage of government incentives and erect new wind turbines.

What does all this mean? That people are people, plain and simple. And that nobody is more green than the other when it comes to their own backyard.


Living like a king

May 30, 2009

What’s this – an English castle in suburban Virginia?

McMansion3What’s with the giant crystal chandelier in the massive foyer, the countless “sitting rooms” and the 21st-century movie theater in the basement?

Who needs an industrial-size stainless steel kitchen and a marble bathroom next to every bedroom? And who, anymore, can afford to heat and cool rooms with 18-foot ceilings?

Lots of people, apparently. Although government statistics suggest that Americans are downsizing (the average square footage of single-family homes under construction plunged from 2,629 in the second quarter of 2008 to 2,343 in the fourth quarter) there is no shortage of McMansions a short drive outside Washington, D.C.

I know, because I see pictures a photographer friend takes for real estate agencies to stay afloat during the recession. My husband and I look, horrified, at his images of vast lawns, tennis courts, indoor pools, wet bars and giant wine cellars. “Who,” we ask each other, “would want to live like that?”

We feel rather proud of ourselves, in fact, having just closed on a 1,400-square-foot, 1940s brick home on a humble-looking street just outside the D.C. line. It’s a great little house, except it has almost no closets, only one bathroom, no guest room, no home office, and no room for a long dining room table or a kitchen island.

So we’ve hired an architect who’s designed a plan: we’ll blow out the back wall, dig an extra room in the basement, add space for a big walk-in closet or bathroom on the second floor, attach a screened-in porch on the side of the house…

homeaddSuddenly, our not-so-big house is starting to look – well, almost big. We’d even have room for a wine cellar and jaccuzzi one day if the budget permits – and a TV room in the basement. Could it be that we have more in common with those McMansion suburbanites than we think?

The new eco puritans

April 21, 2009

My husband is reading out loud from the latest issue of Dwell, our favorite home design magazine. The topic of this month’s issue is “Beyond green – from niche to 889156_dirty_laundry1normal.”

“You can make a big impact on your energy and water consumption simply by modifying your laundry practices,” he reads. Tell me about it! I just ordered an Italian-made laundry drying rack, shipped up by truck from a store in North Carolina. It holds a whole load of laundry that is now drying in our sunny back yard.

But here’s the clincher: “Use cold water only,” my husband reads. Wait a minute: Clean our underwear, smelly socks, and the 6-year-old’s stained shirts in cold water? Visions of women standing barelegged in cold northern rivers on laundry day flash through my mind. Has it really come to this?

Apparently, there are many sacrifices we must make as we go green.

The Washington Post has a photo in today’s paper of a couple that grinds their own wheat to make bread because this, somehow, helps combat global warming. It also tells the story of a family in the Washington-area that keeps their home at 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) during winter nights to save energy. “It just feels cold, and then I [went] into my friend’s house and they had the heat on and I was like ‘Oh, my God, that feels so good!” says the family’s 10-year-old, chilled daughter.

The same story quotes a couple that decided not to have a second child because of the high environmental cost. Each person has a carbon footprint, so better to not produce another person, their thinking went.

890649_kneading_dough2Environmentalism, it seems, is becoming just another form of Puritanism, minus the religious context. We need to deny ourselves, in order to gain salvation. That essentially requires rolling the clock back (i.e. grind our own wheat and shiver in our cold homes, like they did before electricity and home insulation was invented.)

A Puritan, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is a person who “practices or preaches a more rigorous or professedly purer moral code than that which prevails.”

As in saying no to delivery pizza, a television in the bedroom, and newly built furniture, according to Dwell.

But aren’t these petty, little feel-good green measures we take to show that we’re holier than our neighbors and relatives a distraction from the real environmental battle – the big policy decisions that will ultimately decide whether or not our energy-wasting society manages to curb greenhouse gas emissions?

That battle is being fought right now in Washington between industry lobbyists and environmental groups over the country’s first emissions cap and trade plan.

A green victory is less than certain, even with a cap-and-trade supporter in the White House. Utility lobbyists and mid-Western politicians call the proposed emissions trading scheme a punitive tax, saying it will hurt poor and middle-class Americans mired in recession.

Their propaganda seems to be rubbing off. A Gallup poll released in March showed that for the first time in the survey’s 25-year history, a majority of Americans feel the economy should be prioritized over environmental protection.

Which brings us back to the cold-water laundry. Congress may not do it for us. So what’s an eco-minded citizen to do? Grinding that flour and showing up at work with a not-so-crispy white shirt, is a little therapeutic, perhaps. Even if it doesn’t do much for Mother Earth.

The upside of recession

February 28, 2009

It’s back to basics for Americans living through the worst recession since the Great Depression some 75 years ago. And what can I say? Recessions seem to be good for the environment. Something to be happy about these gloomy days.

Reading USA Today, I see that citizens are – wow! – giving up drive-through restaurants because this all-American convenience wastes gasoline, and therefore household money.

Kelly Porter, a Salem, Mass., mother of two young children is quoted as saying, “Anyplace where your car would be idling, I just automatically shut the car off.” What’s more, “I used to drive 80 on the highway, and now I never go over 70,” Kelly says. Her new driving method not only saves gas, the newspaper reports, it’s also 627247_washing_daysafer.

In the latest issue of National Geographic, I read about Janice Haney of Greensburg Kan., who is featured in a double-spread color photo hanging clothes out to dry. “We don’t have to waste electricity on the dryer,” Janice says. “The good old Kansas wind can do it on its own.” (Now, didn’t my mom used to say that 20 years ago: “Why run the dryer when you can just use the clothes line in the back yard?”)

Eating out is out, I read. Families are discovering the charm of cocking together and eating, everybody at the same time, around the kitchen table. “Giving up meals out of the house was tough, but once they did, they started saving and became closer as a family,” the USA Today says about the Walkers of New Haven, Mich. “Going to the grocery store and making dinner has become a family event,” mom Mitzi Walker says, pleased.

Hmmmh. Is this what it takes? A major economic crisis for us to rediscover the mossy lifestyles that our parents and grandparents enjoyed? Perhaps those days weren’t so bad, after all? We do know that those pre-internet, pre-globalization people didn’t waste energy the way us Baby Boomers learned to do. They were frugal and therefore pretty green.

Recession, got to love it.

Recycle – what for?

January 31, 2009

Ouch. Another wine bottle tossed into the kitchen trash can. Another empty cracker box, plastic milk jug, soda can, margarine container, folded newspaper. It’s Christmas and the amount of trash we produce during one single family dinner is enormous. N932064_city_dumpothing gets recycled and nobody seems to care.

Then my mother-in-law makes a remarkable and unexpected statement: “One of my New Year’s resolutions is to start recycling,” she declares. She has barely finished her sentence before I get to work, digging wine bottles out of the trash. “We’ll keep them in the garage for now,” I tell my surprised in-laws.

This is what Sweden does to you. It turns you into a recycling zealot. Once a week, the garbage truck showed up in our Stockholm suburb to weigh our garbage. The more garbage we produced, the higher our monthly bill would be.

Those of us who separated our organic food waste and stuck it in biodegradable bags in a special trash can paid less than those who would throw everything in the main trash can. And those who produced less garbage by bringing paper, plastics, cans and glass to one of the many recycling stations in our county paid even less.

Recycling, to Swedes, is a lifestyle.

Every weekend, I would fill our Honda Combi with bags of 736426_recycle_2waste. Green glass was separated from clear glass, plastics from newspapers, soup cans from milk cartons, and thrown into large green containers. Plastic soda bottles and beer cans, however, would go in a special bag destined for the grocery store.

There, people lined up in front of large machines that swallowed the cans, crunched them up and spit out a receipt. We’d give the store cashier the receipt and the bottle redemption was deducted from our grocery bill.

A small incentive, but it worked – just like the threat of a larger garbage bill did. No wonder, only 4 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in the landfill.

Although the country of 9 million produces nearly 24 percent more waste today than a decade ago (4.7 million tons), nearly 50 percent of all Swedish trash is recycled. Another 46 percent is incinerated at high temperatures to produce heat for apartment buildings in metropolitan areas. By comparison, more than half of all municipal waste in the United States still still went to the landfill in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report.

This is not rocket science. Give people a financial incentive and efficient recycling programs and they do the right thing. So why don’t we?