Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BYOB [Bring Your Own Bag]

{image by Robert S. Donovan via creative commons}
guest post by Anna Meade

Change is hard. We are all busy people with busy lives, and it can be ridiculously challenging to make adjustments amid our insanity. This resistance is why I stopped making life-changing resolves. It's too hard. Too overwhelming. Consequently, every successful long-term change I have made has started with a short-term decision. I HAVE to start by saying, "This is what I'm doing right now, and this is why, and this is how." Then in the next moment, I choose again, then again, then again...

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Southeast, many in the US became astoundingly aware of the precarious nature of our oil and gas industry. I decided I could walk around angry at the way our fossil fuels are managed (which I still do... let's face it), or I could start gradually changing my dependence on petroleum products... one decision at a time.

Plastic bags stood out as the largest petroleum-based indulgence that I chose regularly. While the price of oil soared, I challenged myself to 30 days of not accepting a disposable plastic bag from any store. My husband got me a fabulous reusable bag for my purse. It wraps up tightly, and hardly takes any space when not in use. If I forgot to bring this bag, or needed more bags than I brought, I would just push my cart of items to my car and make the best of things.

I almost got through those 30 days without accepting a bag! The only exception was a strange situation in which I was told I MUST use the store bag so my purchase looked legitimate. How ridiculous!

This short-term resolve led to an eight-year streak of decisions that I still make every day. I discovered that I can carry lots of things. Bags are just not nearly as important as we believe. In 2005, I discovered resistance to this lifestyle. The eye-rolling in the checkout lane of the grocery store... the perplexity of baggers who couldn't look at each bag and make a new decision about how to fit my groceries... BUT, in the last 8 years, these responses have changed dramatically. Now baggers ask if I brought my own, and cashiers offer me a discount for my decision to reuse bags.

It took many people like me, making a daily decision to reuse bags, that has turned it into a cultural norm. One small thing that, when repeated over time, is changing our society. This result is occurring even in parts of the world (like mine) where the government is not taking an active role in the process. People are doing it in their everyday. People like you and me! 

Small changes can make a difference. We are already seeing it happen. Together, our small acts achieve greatness.  

A Few Bag Facts

(see CleanAir.org for these and more facts about waste and recycling):
  • Every year, Americans use approximately 102.1 billion plastic bags, creating tons of landfill waste. 
  • Plastic bags do not biodegrade. Light breaks them down into smaller and smaller particles that contaminate the soil and water and are expensive and difficult to remove. 
  • Less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000. The recycled product can be sold for $32. 
  • When the small particles from photodegraded plastic bags get into the water, they are ingested by filter feeding marine animals. Biotoxins like PCBs that are in the particles are then passed up the food chain, including up to humans.

What do you think about reusable bags?  What do you love about them, and not-really-love about them?  I have to confess, this is one easier solution that I find difficult -- while I own several reusable bags, I always forget to bring them from my car into the store!  But I love Anna's idea to, when she forgets her bags, simply load her items back into the cart and forgo plastic bags anyway. 
* * *

Anna Meade is an idealist turned cynic turned hopeful. She is learning to thrive amid the perpetual in-betweens. A seasoned listener and observer, she found her voice through art journaling and painting. Her life dreams are to break boundaries, build bridges and roam free. She tells stories at annameadearts.wordpress.com

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Cost of Idling Cars

My son recently started at a childcare, attending for a few hours each morning.  And although he's only been going a short while, I've already noticed that many parents leaving their cars running while dropping their kiddos off.  While I can see the need for this in the depths of winter, it's May.  It's warm.  So I find this behavior curious.  I also wonder how much fuel is wasted and how emissions are increased by this phenomenon.

So, I did a bit of research -- and made few surprising discoveries along the way.

Idling's Waste

First, some not very surprising but still quite troubling statistics.  According to the HCF, Americans waste millions of gallons of gas each year via voluntary idling -- this means that any idling that is not a direct result of waiting in standing traffic, such as at stop lights or on backed up roads.  In fact, we may be wasting as much as 3.8 million gallons of gas per day through voluntary idling.  And that translates to 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide being needlessly emitted -- again, per day.

If we collectively eliminated five minutes of voluntary vehicle idling everyday, we'd save 1.4 billion gallons of gas and 13 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year

That's  a lot. 

Translating that into individual family financial figures, the HCF states that by eliminating just five minutes of voluntary idling, families driving vehicles with small engines would save $113 annually, and those driving eight cylinder engines would save $241 annually.

And that's only by eliminating five minutes of voluntary idling.  I know that it takes me about five minutes to drop my son off at childcare -- if I left my car idling for that time, at the end of the year I'd have spent (conservatively) nearly $4,000 on wasted fuel.  Ouch.

The Myths of Idling

There is a myth floating around that leaving your car idling for a short period of time is more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly -- one that I believed.  And while this used to be true, our advancing technology has since turned it into fallacy for today's modern vehicles.  If you are allowing your car to idle for more than 10 seconds, you are only inflicting unnecessary wear and damage upon the car, wasting gasoline, and creating more emissions.  Oops.

Okay, so what about cold weather idling?  Well, apparently leaving your car idling for minutes at a time to warm up the engine is also inefficient.  A cold engine only needs about 30 seconds of idling to warm it sufficiently, and driving will warm it much better than idling.  And for very, very cold engines, using an engine block heater is much more effective -- in practice as well as financially and environmentally.

Conclusion: The Elimination of Voluntary Idling Saves

So . . . I don't know about you, but I feel both convicted and empowered.  I'll definitely be altering my car's cold weather warmups this winter, and am excited at how much money we could save by simply turning off our cars when we're not driving them, on top of the benefits to the environment and, as a result, to our health.  A big problem with an easy answer?  I'm all for it.

What about you?  Were you as unaware of the cost of voluntary idling as I was?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

The Hinkle Charitable Foundation: Anti-Idling Primer
Green Action Centre: Myth Busted -- Idling Wastes Fuel!
South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control: Engine Idling (PDF)
Environmental Defense Fund: Attention Drivers! Turn Off Your Idling Engines

Monday, May 12, 2014

Ditch Disposable Coffee Cups

Coffee.  It's near and dear to my heart.  And, as a writer, one of my favorite happy places is the coffee shop.  Delicious lattes, even more yummy ambiance, and a squashy couch in which to set pen to paper. It was my mostly-guilt-free pleasure.

Until statistics concerning the consumption of disposable cups filtered into my consciousness, that is.

Did you know that (quoted from betacup) . . . ?:
  • 58 billion paper cups are thrown away (not recycled) every year
  • 20 million trees are cut down in the process of manufacturing paper cups
  • Amount of water used in the process is approximately 12 billion gallons

I didn't.  Awareness about the rather vast amount of cups I used a single time before tossing had never crossed my mind.  And this doesn't even factor in plastic or styrofoam cups.

I also didn't know that because of the fact that many cups for hot beverages are manufactured using polyethylene wax, they are not able to be recycled.  In addition, these kinds of cups create big problems for marine birds and fish, and also release methane (a greenhouse case -- hello, climate change) upon decomposition (source).

That's a lot of trees used solely for paper cups.  And I have to wonder -- how much money is spent creating these one-time-use cups?  I couldn't find any statistics on this, but would love to learn the answer if you know it!

The rather excessive use of disposable cups is probably not our biggest problem as a culture that tends to consume without too much thought as to its effects -- but I think that it is a great place to start becoming more aware of these effects, because the fix is pretty painless.  You're probably already thinking it: reusable cups and coffee mugs, of course.

A number of coffee shops already serve drinks for customers staying in the cafe in ceramic mugs.  Even more have washable mugs available for use, even if the baristas don't automatically use them, so be sure to inquire when you order.

Even better, invest in your own reusable mug.  The ones I've seen usually run between $7 and $20 (USD), and many coffee shops, eager to reward those who help them cut down on cup costs, offer discounts for patrons who bring their own mugs.  These discounts can easily help you recoup your investment in the mug and then some.  And you don't even necessarily need to purchase a travel cup -- instead, bring along a mug from your home kitchen cupboard.

Extra perks: you feel good about the super-easy and positive impact you're having on the planet, and you get to have a stylin' mug to boot.  Also, in my opinion, lattes taste better in a reusable mug -- those disposable lids add an unfavorable plastic taste that I'd rather avoid.

And please remember: as always, making sustainable-for-you changes is about progress, not perfection, and certainly not about self-flagellation over mistakes.  I definitely forget my mug at home sometimes, but that doesn't negate the efforts I've made, the successes I've seen, and the heightened heart-centered awareness that I enjoy.

Over to you -- what are your thoughts on using paper cups versus reusable coffee mugs? 

Welcome to Act Small, Think Big!

There's an unsettling queasiness stirring in my gut.  It's been there for some time, although I've ignored it for most of that span -- maybe for almost twenty years, when I was researching fossil fuels for a middle school science presentation.  And I learned that things didn't look good, environmentally.

I showed my parents, my teacher.  They said that maybe things would get bad, but it wouldn't be for ages and ages.  They didn't seem worried, so I shoved my own concern aside, ignoring its swirling.

But that gnawing feeling in my belly refuses to be ignored any longer.  Because that time when things will "get bad" as a result of our impact on the environment?  I -- and a lot of other smarter and more science-y folks -- think that those times are nearly upon us.  That we have remaining only a very narrow window of opportunity to heal our wounding of the earth.

Okay, fine, we're not in a good way.  But now what?

If you're anything like me, the prospect of "saving the planet" is, um, a little daunting.  Especially when you consider that, although we in the western world have the majority of the ability to make a difference, our lawmakers and leaders seem bent on ignoring the copious warning signs -- and we have been left with little recourse or response, other than how we spend our money.

What's a lone westerner to do?

Obviously, one person is not going to be able to make a lot of difference, no matter how hard he or she works.  But what if a bunch of us, a big bunch of us, made small, sustainable, and collectively impactful choices? 

It's my belief that, in this way, we really might be able to (gulp) "save the planet."

That is what Act Small, Think Big is all about -- providing bite-sized tips to help you make changes that will not only make a positive, healing impact on the world, but also often save you some money or improve your health to boot.  How's that for a win win?

Also -- please note that these tips are not intended to provoke undue guilt or perfectionism or anything of the sort.  It's about doing our best to make a positive difference for ourselves, our children, and generations to come.  Progress, not perfection, okay?

Watch this space for new ideas.  And if you'd like share your own tip for Act Small, Think Big, I'd love to hear from you!  Send me an email with your idea here, with "Act Small, Think Big guest post" as the subject line.

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