Posts Tagged ‘sustainable’

Trying to live more simply is my journey of the last seven years.

The road began with reading up on small scale agriculture.  I loved gardening and animals, had studied farming in college, and was just beginning to hear the buzz about sustainable farming.  I had filled my small city lot with flowers, lettuce, and tomatoes.  There was not an inch left for any more beds.  I was longing for the country and I was trying to plan for my future eco-friendly farm.

One of my Diet Cokes and Miss “X”
(okay so it’s Lisa, but she’s given up DC for good.)

A couple of years after the quest to find out about sustainable agriculture began, I was afforded the opportunity to work for an environmental learning center which would change my life forever.  I knew very little about nature when I started.  Now I am eco-nature-geek and it’s all their fault!

As I’ve mentioned before, Diet Coke is one of my biggest vices, less now than three years ago though.  I would stop by the gas station and buy 44 ounces of pop, and bring it in to work.  I didn’t eat vegetables, and I ate a lot of meals from a tin can.  My new ecofriends would scold me (in an encouraging way of course).

No one ever bopped me on the head or called me any bad names; none that I can remember anyway.

Mostly, they led by example.  My friends…

  • carefully sorted their garbage into: recycling, worm bin, and throw it into the woods for the raccoons.
  • never used paper plates or plastic forks, even when we had a big party for our volunteers, we washed dishes.
  • always jumped in because there was work to be done.
  • were diligent about carpooling or riding bikes to work.
  • carried their water bottles and encouraged me to get one too.
  • carefully shopped for their new purchases, making sure the fabrics were sustainably produced and fairly traded.
  • found joy in a walk on a sunny day, even in the winter.
  • convinced me that winter could be fun (well, at least less awful), if you learned to dress for the weather.
  • had me order the more expensive coffee because it was shade grown and the farmers were paid a fair wage.
  • showed me how to like snakes.
  • applauded my efforts at learning about small agriculture, and encouraged me to bring in fresh eggs and extra tomato plants.

My friends led by example. Not in a preachy way, but in a “This is how we live our life way.”

I drank Diet Coke from styrofoam cups until the day I left.  I never once ate Thai food willingly while at work, never tried the fair trade coffee, and secretly used paper plates at home sometimes.

But, I can now drink coffee, drink way less pop, carry my water bottle, cook my food from scratch, wash my own plate at school-even when there are paper plates and plastic forks out.  I now eat curry on purpose without whining.  I pick up snakes on my hikes with my students.  My family of six only throws out about one or two small trash bags per week.  We compost most waste and feed our worms and chickens.  And I’m much more willing to jump in and help than I used to be.

I learned a lot from my friends.  They have changed the way that I live my life.  I was going through life without really thinking about the price of my actions.  I love them for being my teachers and mentors.  I hope that I can be the same sort of teacher and mentor that they are to me for someone else.  Not in a preachy way, but by example.

A “This is how I live my life” kind of way.

Thank you Jane, Dana, Lisa, Paul, Carol, Jennifer, and Luke for making such a difference in my life.

My Eco-buddies trying to show me that winter can be fun, while playing broomball.

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I was talking about Blog Action Day with my family at dinner the other night, and mentioned that I had oodles of ideas about this year’s topic, “Water”, but wasn’t sure how to narrow it down.  My eight-year-old daughter suggested that I write about kids that have to walk thousands of miles to go to the wells to get their water each day.  True enough, there are about 1 billion people in the world that don’t have ready access to clean and healthy drinking water.  They’re probably not walking thousands of miles, but it probably feels that way to them.

It’s hard to imagine life without running water.  I can imagine having to pump water from a backyard well, but the thought of having to haul water back and forth each day is a stretch.  Last summer our power went out three times.  The longest was three days.  It was easy living without lights, the computer, and the oven.  Life without refrigeration for those days was difficult, but even more difficult was life without water.  I felt grimey from no shower.  I had clothes that needed washing.  I wanted warm water to wash my face, and running water to rinse off my toothbrush.  And let’s not forget the water for flushing.

Today let’s focus on why we should care.  When most Americans can still get water from their water utility, even if the power is out, why should we care if we conserve water or not?  How does what we do affect the water supply for people elsewhere?  We’ll briefly look at a variety of issues, mostly just to get you thinking, although I’d be glad to write more on these issues later.

Three percent of the water on the planet is freshwater, but only about 1% of the water is useable to us.  Some is trapped in icecaps and glaciers, and some is in places underground that we can’t access.

I live in Indiana. Here are the top issues that immediately come to mind in my state:


Constructed Wetland at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, Photo by Goshen College

Indiana used to be covered with about 24% wetlands.  Now we are down to about 3.5% wetland cover.  Why?  The wetlands were drained, starting in the 1800’s for farming and development.  At the time, it was considered wasteland.  Now we know better.

Wetlands provide a natural means of flood control.  Wetlands are able to hold runoff (rain that cannot be absorbed into the ground during a storm).  The water sits in the wetland and slowly percolates through the soil, getting cleaned up along the way.

Wetlands are a natural filtration system.  Wetlands clean our water for free!  That’s called an ecosystem service (the job of nature that benefits us, and doesn’t cost us a penny).  The wetland filtration system works so well, that many people and businesses have started using constructed wetlands complete with wetland plants that will clean the waste water from a home or organization before it is either reused or returned to the water system.  It’s my understanding that these are becoming quite popular in LaGrange County, Indiana.

Wetlands provide an important ecosystem for our wildlife.  One third of Indiana’s endangered plants and animals are from a wetland ecosystem.

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO)

Think about that term for a minute…What might we be combining?  Hmmmm? Some of you may have guessed it.  Human waste with our rivers.  How delightful!  When cities originally made their sewer plans a hundred or so years ago, the cities were much smaller, and there was far less runoff.  Runoff comes in greater quantities from hard, nonporous surfaces like paved roads, parking lots, and big roofs.  They did plan sewers for the extreme event that should there be a heavy rain, the sewers would not back up into people’s homes and the streets.  Generally street drains and homes will run the waste water through the sewage treatment plant.  In the event of a heavy rainfall, the sewage treatment plant cannot handle the inflow, so there is an extra pipe that drains directly into the riverways during a “heavy” rain.  And by heavy, I mean a quarter of an inch for some cities, like mine.  That means anytime it rains kind of hard that human feces is floating down the river.  That doesn’t sound too healthy to me.  Cities are supposed to take care of their CSO’s and make plans to fix them, but it costs millions of dollars to do so, and no one is getting penalized for not fixing them.

Ditches and Drains

We are an agricultural state.  We have lots of drainage ditches through the agricultural land.  The drains wouldn’t necessarily be so bad, except that they lead into the river.  Many of these drains have been straightened, which makes them flow faster.  A faster flow means more silt and sediment.  The number one pollutant in Indiana isn’t oil or heavy metals, it’s sediment.  Why is this a problem?  It makes the water murky which keeps plants from photosynthesizing, which messes with the whole rest of the food chain.


This is an issue that I am still learning about.  But here are some thoughts to ponder:  Who owns our water?  If water falls on your land, does it belong it to you? (In some places, even in the U.S., it is illegal to collect your rainwater), Should the government take care of our water?  Can private organizations own our water and distribute it back to us?  Can they sell our local water to folks far, far away?  I HIGHLY recommend the movie, Blue Gold.  It explains very clearly some of the water privatization issues in the U.S. and around the globe.

Water Footprint

Where does the water you use each day come from?  Think beyond your shower.  Where did the juice you drink originate?  How much irrigation was needed for your cotton t-shirt?  How much water was needed to make the plastic bottle that you use?  How much water was needed to raise the beef for your hamburger.

The piece that I had never really thought much about is how water moves around the globe.  For example, most of the applejuice that you buy anymore comes from China.  The apples are grown in China, then the juice gets shipped back to the U.S.  In a country that has a water shortage issue, it seems strange to ship the water from one ecosystem to another.  Another piece that I have recently discovered is that water should stay where it is.  If we ship water to places that have a severe water shortage, that water will essentially be lost from the original ecosystem’s water cycle.

One of the very worst American trends is bottled water.  As long as our water is safe to drink, we should be drinking water from the tap.  It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter that we can actually buy, not to mention the waste from the plastic bottle it came in.  If you do one thing to make a change today, go buy yourself a reusable metal bottle, and start filling up from your sink.  Most bottled water is municipal water anyway.

What the heck is big mouth Jenny going to do about her water consumption?

This is what I’m going to do.  I’m giving up Diet Coke (and all sodas).  I have an issue with drinking too much of it.

Based on a study by Coca-Cola in the Netherlands, the total water footprint for a .5 liter bottle of Diet Coke is 35.41 liters of water to produce.  Some of that, 0.41 L is used in the manufacturing process, most of which can be reused.  Twenty-eight liters is used in the production stage (growing sugar beets, carmel coloring, CO2), about 22.4 liters is green and blue water (water from the soil and surface water).  The part that concerns me most is the 11.41 liters that is used to clean the water pollution created during the process of making the Coca-Cola and the bottle that it came in.

Coca-Cola is making its way toward sustainable business practices, and working to reduce their footprint.  I’ll give them some kudos for that.  However, after seeing these numbers, and knowing the state of our world’s water supply, I think it’s time for me to ditch the Cola habit and try to increase my local water consumption.

What are you going to do?

Are you going to find out what watershed you live in?  Start carrying your reusable water bottle?  Cut your shower down by one or two minutes?  Stop dumping toxic chemicals into your lawn?

I want to hear your ideas.

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One of my favorite non-fiction books last winter was Ecological Intelligence.  The book took our family’s attempt to live more deliberately to the next step.  Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman takes a look at the disconnect between humans, our environment, and the skills that we used to need to survive our environment and the skills that we need to survive in modern society.

Goleman spends a good deal of the book investigating the life cycles of the products that we use and how we as consumers, and the industries can make better choices.  He looks at how companies can lower their ecological footprint, provide healthier alternatives with better ingredient choices, and provide better working conditions for their employees.

As I was reading the book, I turned to my web programmer hubby and said “Wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of website that could sort out all of the eco-friendly claims and societal impacts,”  Low and behold, as I read on, Goleman mentioned a site GoodGuide.com that was in the works.

GoodGuide.com is one of my favorite sites on the interwebs.  It evaluates the items that we buy and rates them on three attitributes: Health, Environment, and Society.  Using hundreds of databases from many sources, the GoodGuide sorts through the claims that are made on packaging, and helps the consumer make informed choices about how we spend our money.

Each product is ranked from 0-10 with 10 being the best choice.  You can decide which value is most important to you when deciding what to buy, because each category is rated. They also average the scores if each value is of equal importance to you.  The database also gives you the option to sort buy vegan, organic, and low salt and low sugar products.  Information about price and ratings is accessible too so you can do a bit of comparison price shopping before you even hit the stores.

It does take some time to sort through the changes that you might want to make in the food and health and beauty products that you use.  However, once you’ve sorted through the products you use the most, shopping is a snap because you will be aware of what brand names you should stick with.  Goodguide also offers an iphone app that lets you scan barcodes in the grocery store to check on the company’s ratings.  Very cool.

The best part is that there is finally a way to align my spending with my values.

Another site that I discovered while reading this book is the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.  This database focuses on the health aspects of the beauty products that we use everyday, and the results can be quite shocking.

As per my modus operandi, I made my students take a look at their own personal values, and rank them in order of importance to them.  They then ran some of their favorite snack foods and toiletries through the GoodGuide and the Cosmetic database to see how the products they used stacked up.  Some students were shocked at the results.  Some pledged to make changes in the foods that they used everyday.  Some didn’t give a flying flip.  And some were pleasantly surprised by the results.  Most notably, one student realized that the canned ravioli they eat weekly scored a zero for health, and another student (a vocational cosmetology student at that) was tickled that her daily shampoo rated an 8 which isn’t too shabby.

I highly recommend checking out the GoodGuide site and Skin Deep and then let me know how your products fared in the comment section.  Then get your hands on Ecological Intelligence, and become an even smarter shopper!

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When I was eight, I wanted to be Amish.  I spent my early years growing up near Fort Wayne, where there is a large Amish population.  There was something magical about the idea of riding in a horse drawn buggy, giving up my phone, and burning lanterns while reading books before bed.   I was addicted to “Little House on the Prairie” at that time.  In my mind, being Amish would be like stepping back in time, and I would get to be Laura for a while.

Today I live in an even bigger Amish community.  Many of my neighbors are Amish, Conservative Mennonites, and Apostolics.  I guess I never really realized how many levels of “plain” there are until a Conservative Mennonite girl in a calico dress, finishing up her 8th and final year of school, was telling me that one of her classmates came from a “really plain” family.

Today, as a slightly older than my husband 30-something mom of one, and step-mom to three, I still find myself wanting to be plain.  But now I see the advantages differently than I did when I was eight.  I see the advantage of having home-cooked unadulterated meals, taking time to hang the wash on the line, going to bed more or less with the sun, and getting up when the light is still beautiful in the morning, living close to all of your family, and having friends to around to visit with and help one another with the seasons of life.  I see the benefit of community, the benefit to staying out of debt, the benefit of having someone home to be there for the children, and the slower pace in which the outside world sucks you in and drains your blood.

Throughout the last 30+ years, I have always felt kind of weird about wanting to be plainer than the rest of the world.  I never cared about designer clothes, or hair and makeup.  For a short time, I wanted a fancy job, but that quickly passed.  I’ve tried on a variety of careers, areas of study, and even a handful of entrepreneurial endeavors that led to disappointment.  And now I teach high school students how to be well adjusted adults through the context of environmental science.  

My husband I are striving to simplify our lives.  We grow a lot of our own food, even canning and freezing the excess for winter, we compost and recycle, and have given up T.V. (except for the occasional Cosby Show DVD).  But life still feels hectic, like the outside world is reaching in a trying to suck us in.  As a stepfamily, we have opportunities and speed bumps that keep us from making choices to simplify AND keep everyone sane.  

Luckily, I am married to a man that loves conversation, scheming, and possibilities as much as I do. I am excited about this journey of simplification. We won’t become Amish anytime soon.  They probably wouldn’t take us anyway.  But on the plainness scale, I’d like to move down (or is it up?) toward the plain side of things a bit more.  At this point, I have very little idea of what these realities mean, and where this journey will lead.  

Possibility is fantastic.

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