Friday, August 27, 2010

A Segue Day

This is an unplanned post. But as loyal readers know by now, this is an eclectic blog — about becoming more Green, but just as importantly about the people I meet, the things I learn, and the adventures I have along the way.

This is a post about Cassie, my great niece on my husband’s side. Yes — Great Niece— both literally and figuratively. That makes me sound old, but on Cassie's side of the family I am a great-great-aunt several times over, and on the other side a great aunt only recently.

Back to Cassie…blogger, student, mom, and intern in an ad agency. Her summer blog request for women’s letters to their twenty-something selves was a huge success and landed her on NPR and the New York Times

Not bad for a 22-year-old! Can you tell I am very proud of her?

I sent her a letter. She published it on her site today. I invite you to check it out. 

Think of this as a TGIF segue from the usual routine. I’ll be back to things Green the next time around.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Not So Meatless Monday

Food labeled “Certified Organic” comes with several promises, one of which is that no synthetic pesticides were used during its production. While the promise is a good one, I have been aware for a while now that it does leave the consumer vulnerable to certain other risks. (And I am not just talking about going over budget.)

I have my own Food Rules when it comes to dealing with organic food purchases.
  • If it is produce, wash it well. Very well. Several times.
  • If it is perishable, get it into the refrigerator right away.
  • Eat it quickly.
  • If it comes in a plastic bag, inspect it thoroughly and put it into an airtight container for storage.

I did that with the organic almonds I bought fairly recently. Well, almost. I got them home. I put them in the cupboard where they remained in their sealed plastic bag for a couple of weeks. When I eventually did open them, I promptly emptied them into a clean Italian espresso can with a screw top. For days I have been eating them by the handful and enjoying them on top of oatmeal.

This morning I had some on my Stonyfield Banilla yogurt. A short time later my husband noticed some very fine white powder on the kitchen table with the tiniest brown ants milling around in it.

Where had they come from? What had been in that spot? The almond can! We unscrewed the lid and looked inside to find almonds on top and little brown ants and white powder underneath. Lots of white powder. Lots of ants. It was humid today and we had a small fan set on low, apparently creating a breeze just strong enough to blow some of the fluffy powder (with its lightweight occupants) to the table while I was pouring the almonds out. I’m so glad this happened and even happier that we noticed. Otherwise I still would not know what was transpiring in the espresso can. Take note that even the most vigilant of the food police can become an innocent victim.

I am pretty certain I got a little animal protein with my vegetarian breakfast. I hope it was organic. For today I have inadvertently joined the world’s insect-eating majority. So much for Meatless Monday this week.

PS I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections on the Ephemeral Nature of Being

A spider was very busy in our yard between the hours of 7:45 last night and 7:45 this morning.

At sundown on Thursday there was only open space between all the flora.

At 7:45 am, a magnificent web, to which the industrious spider was already making a repair, glistened in the sun.

I exited the garden gate at 8:50. When I returned at 9:15 there was open space once more, the magnificent web a mere memory.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Leaving on a Jet Plane…

This is the third and final part of my Carbon Footprint series. By now you have learned how big your carbon footprint is. You have switched to CFLs. You are reducing, reusing, and recycling. You have cut out unnecessary trips with your car. But there is still an elephant in the room posing a very difficult problem for any person who is trying to Be Green.

There will be times when it is essential for you to travel to a far-away destination. Say, for example, you live on one coast and have a relative or two on the other.

Since motorized travel emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to walk or bike there, your footprint for the trip will be pretty big. Plane travel emits more CO2 than travel in an economy car. Driving a car emits more than getting there by rail. This calculator will help you determine just how much CO2 will be released as a consequence of your travel, however you choose to get there.

For most of us, unless the travel distance is less than a few hundred miles, flying is the only viable option, and the carbon emissions are hefty. You can’t prevent these CO2 emissions, but you can purchase “carbon offsets” to help you reduce the environmental impact of your flight.

When you purchase a carbon offset, you contribute to energy conservation, renewable energy, or carbon reducing projects that “scrub” an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere to offset what you added to it. 

Not everyone can afford to add this cost to their trip. But I put this information out there for those for whom such a contribution is not a problem, or for those who have an employer who might consider purchasing carbon offsets for company travel.  

There are various sites where you can purchase carbon offsets. I am somewhat familiar with two. Native Energy, a renewable energy company based in Burlington, Vermont, was recommended by my college reunion committee to be one of the more economical options. With the Native Energy calculator, travel from New York City to San Francisco and back was estimated to be 5,137 miles and to emit 2.055 tons of carbon. The cost of Native Energy offsets for this trip was $42. 

Virgin America has partnered with the Carbon Fund, voted the Best Carbon Offset Provider in 2010 by Treehugger, and has made it easy for you to purchase offsets for travel with them — when booking your flight, or in the air, the same way you might order food or entertainment. Using the Virgin America calculator, the same trip came to 5190 miles, with carbon emissions of .93 tons with a cost of $9.34 for offsets, but if “include Radiative Forcing” was checked, the cost rose to $25.22 for 2.52 tons. To explain Radiative Forcing, I refer you to a site at MIT. Radiative Forcing is included as part of the formula at Native Energy. You will get a more accurate estimate if you check this box.

If you decide offsets are for you, be careful where you shop for them. Prices for offsets vary tremendously: You will note quite a difference in price between the two funds I mentioned. And do remember that some calculators include Radiative Forcing and others do not take it into account. Sale of carbon offsets is a growing business, and some funds have been criticized in the media.    

A good site will describe the projects its offsets are helping to fund. My advice is to do a little research before committing any dollars to “doing the right thing.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Changing Your Way of Light

One very easy way to make your carbon footprint smaller is to swap out your incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). For now, it is still your choice to pick incandescents over CFLs. But before too long, what we have all come to know as “the light bulb” will disappear from the store shelves.

The incandescent lightbulb has remained pretty much unchanged since it was made commercially viable by Thomas Edison in 1879. This is the light bulb with which we all grew up — the one used in all the cartoons to indicate “I have an idea.”  

The incandescent light bulb works by first producing heat. A mild electrical current is used to heat up a thin wire filament inside the bulb until it glows and makes light. Unfortunately, this is not an energy-efficient process. And the incandescent’s days are now numbered.

In December 2007 Congress passed an energy bill that will phase out the incandescent light bulb by 2014. The phase-out begins with the 100-watt bulb in 2012 and ends with the 40-watt in 2014.

The US is late to this party. Australia became the first country to announce an outright ban by 2010 on incandescent bulbs, and a number of other countries will lose the incandescent bulb far ahead of us. 

Some manufacturers are ending production earlier than the law mandates. IKEA recently began phasing out the bulbs in its North American stores with the intention of eliminating them entirely by January 1, 2011. 

What is a CFL and Why Switch?
According to the EnergyStar site, “In a CFL, an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. This generates invisible ultraviolet light that excites a fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube… which then emits visible light.” Although a CFL takes a little more energy when it is first turned on, it is much more efficient than an incandescent bulb once the electricity starts flowing.

A CFL uses about 75% less energy and lasts about 10 times longer than an equivalent incandescent bulb. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “If every American home replaced just one light with an EnergyStar light, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, about $700 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to the emissions of about 800,000 cars.”

The current cost of a CFL is some 3 times higher than that of an incandescent bulb, but a CFL’s long life and its savings on energy more than make up the difference. HINT 1: You’ll maximize the lifetime savings and effectiveness of your CFLs by keeping them on for 15 minutes or more at a time. HINT 2: EnergyStar qualified CFls will turn on in less than 1 second, and reach at least 80% of their full light output within 3 minutes. Some CFLs are labeled “Instant On.” These turn on quicker but do not last as long.

Shop Around
CFLs come in various shapes and sizes. They have different K (Kelvin numbers) and watt ranges. This all a bit beyond the scope of this blog post, but I have found a link that gives some good pointers for choosing a bulb that will make you happy. Probably he best tip in here is the one about matching the lumens of an incandescent you like to the lumens of the CFL you intend to use to replace it. This information should be found on the bulb packaging. You may want to test drive a few different CFLs before buying a large quantity.

This link also predicts that the reign of the CFL will be short and touts the LED (light-emitting diode) as the bulb of the future. While the LED might be an economical choice for tree lights or to focus light while doing a close task, for most of us the current price tag of LEDs is too high to be a ubiquitous home lighting solution. Test out this link as an example.

Exchange for Change
If you live in New Haven, there is an opportunity for you to try CFLs for FREE! The New Haven Office of Sustainability has partnered with the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund to bring a program dubbed “Exchange for Change” to the Elm City. Through Exchange for Change, residents can trade-in 5 incandescents for 5 CFLs at a number of venues around New Haven over the next few weeks. The give-away CFLs are EnergyStar rated, 60 Watt replacements, 900 lumens, with an average life of 10,000 hours. The box claims that you will save $47.00 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. What’s to lose?

When their long life is over, please dispose of your CFLs at a hazardous waste collection center because they do contain mercury. IKEA and Home Depot both have collection boxes inside the store near the entrance. If you live in the New Haven area, and your town is part of the Regional Water Authority, you can bring your defunct CFLs to HazWaste Central on Sargent Drive most Saturday mornings from late May through mid-October.

Centennial Lightbulb
This is a segue I just can’t resist. In the course of my research I learned of “The Longest Burning Lightbulb in History,” installed in the main firehouse in Livermore, California in 1901. It is small, and serves as a nightlight, but one has to wonder how much juice it has used during its 109 years of light. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Carbon Footprints 101

What is a Greenhouse Gas?
There are a number of significant gases in our atmosphere which are referred to as “greenhouse gases” because they trap energy from the sun and keep the earth warm. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the one you hear about the most. Other greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs (now banned in most of the world) all have much higher heat-trapping abilities, but exist in much smaller concentrations. CO2 adds by far the most warmth. This is why scientists tend to talk about all greenhouse gases in terms of the equivalent amount of CO2. Like so many things, greenhouse gases are good in the right concentration. Without them we would have an icy planet. But they have exceeded their concentration limits.

Why Should I Care?
It as a fact that our Earth is warming up. Scientists have spent decades trying to figure out why. Most scientists have concluded that the only way to explain this warming pattern pattern is to include the effect of greenhouse gases emitted by humans. Most CO2 comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. 350 parts per million is the number that leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. We are now at about 390 parts per million which is why the group called for a day of global action last October and is planning another for this year.

What is a Carbon Footprint?
The website for the UK organization offers this succinct definition: Your carbon footprint is the sum of all CO2 emissions that are directly and indirectly associated with your activities over a given time frame (usually a year). 

How Do I Calculate My Footprint?
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website has an excellent, easy-to-use calculator.

What Can I Do to Reduce It?
The EPA website offers many steps large and small for accomplishing this goal. You can also find suggestions at countless other sites and blogs, including this one. Some steps should be relatively easy to implement such as making fewer trips in your car or lowering your thermostat a degree or two. Many actions will seem totally logical once you think about them. Some will require more of a commitment, and perhaps some initial expense to put in place. There are numerous perks to reducing your footprint — beyond helping the planet. You will most likely improve your health and put some green back into your wallet in the long run. And, at least for this year, there are still energy tax credits.

In subsequent posts I will address two specific ways of reducing your footprint — switching to CFLs and purchasing carbon offsets when you travel. It’s too much for one post on a Friday. 

TGIF. And have a great weekend.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Weekend Updates

Many readers told me they enjoyed the Weekend Updates I posted in late June so I’ve decided to make it a regular end-of-the-month feature.

Blog Updates (from oldest to most recent):

I have not seen a ladybug since one landed on me in March (3/20 post).

It is important to remember that the disaster in the Gulf is far from over (5/6 post).

Although oil has disappeared from the surface of the water in many places, serious questions have been raised about the amount of dispersants used and what the long-term effects of these chemicals might be.

The State Street trees in front of Channel 8 (5/17 post) are doing well despite the heat. Each tree now has a tag listing its species and information on how to request a tree of your own. Urban Resources Initiative (URI) emailed that they had planted 275 trees around the City of New Haven before “switching program gears to focus upon Community Greenspace.” Community Greenspace has assisted New Haven residents with developing pocket parks and community gardens throughout the City. 

The woodchuck wars continue to rage in Beaver Hills (6/16 post). My source tells me that the neighborhood shooter has switched to Havahart traps. He has caught at least one woodchuck baby (lured by some tender greens) and what happened to that unlucky victim remains a mystery. A skunk has been spotted heading under the garden shed, presumably keeping what remains of the woodchuck family company.

Chatham Seals
“Times Are Strange” (7/16 post) spoke of sightings of great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod. On Friday, July 30, Chatham officials closed South Beach to (human) swimming indefinitely after three great whites were sighted by a spotter plane. One shark was spotted cruising along the shore just 100 yards from a large group (of humans) assembled in a semicircle near a “Happy 30th” written in the sand. Officials advise that people swimming where it is still permitted avoid getting too close to the seals.

“Where Have All the Codfish Gone?” (7/21 post) was tweeted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and generated quite a bit of interest at several sites dedicated to fishing issues. A blogger in Iceland who promotes the Icelandic fishing industry left a favorable comment. This eclectic blog has stories and videos on a wide variety of themes relating to fishing and fish:

Other News:

The New Haven Independent has listed ontheroadtogreenness as one of its favorites. You can find a link to my blog on their site under Road To Greenness.

Single-stream recycling has come to New Haven. In short, what this means is that you now no longer need to sort your recycling before you set it on the curb — just dump it all into your bin. I know it sounds crazy, but this video explains how this is possible.

But wait, there is even more to the trash/recycling story! A pilot program in which your current largish trash toter becomes your recycling bin and a new, smaller one becomes your trash toter, is scheduled to start soon in the New Haven neighborhood of Westville. You can read more about it at the Independent.

It’s been very hot here. We have had a hummingbird feeder in the yard but have not succeeded in attracting any hummers. The Fat Robin sent out a newsletter advising that you change the nectar every two days during this time of extreme heat, especially if you have located your feeder in a sunny area. During cooler times, twice a week is enough if the feeder is in the shade. The Fat Robin also stated, “If you haven't been very successful with attracting hummingbirds to your yard, don't give up! The BEST time in Connecticut is yet to come (very soon in fact)!”

It is now the first day of August, too early for the statistics for July. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its State of the Climate Global Analysis for June. NOAA reports that June 2010 was the warmest June on record, and that April-June 2010 was the warmest three-month period for the Northern Hemisphere.

During these exceedingly hot days in the Northeast we heard frequent references to the Heat Index. This site explains what the Heat Index is and how the formula was derived, provides a Heat Index Calculator, and includes a chart indicating that it is dangerous for almost anyone whenever it is over 90° and even the least bit humid.

Finally, on a somewhat lighter note, a friend forwarded this story about a person who is researching and photographing the world’s oldest living things. How old they are will blow your mind. For sure.