Crawly Cuties and Apartment Composting

My apartment here in State College is quite small, but it’s still the first place I’ve lived where I can make it (along with Benjamin, of course) my (our) own. Long hours at campus mean I want to make the most of my time at home enjoying the space and using it to explore any outside interests I try to maintain throughout graduate school. We use this space to develop some of our shared interests, and this is reflected in how we attempt to arrange the living area in a way that extends our tiny, tiny nook kitchen out into the rest of the room.  We try and cook for ourselves as often as possible and we relish our weekly CSA deliveries of local produce, dairy, eggs, and bread. However, this produces a LOT of food scraps that we don’t want to end up in a landfill somewhere. I really wanted to have a compost bin somewhere outside, but we don’t have a lot of space available to use around our apartment building and I wasn’t sure how well it’d be received. An indoor possibility was on my radar for a while, but, as I’ll discuss, I had some reservations. Having a bin full of worms in one’s apartment seems like something that should be filed under “You know you live with/might be an ecologist when….”, but in my research before I found that they are way more popular than I anticipated! Continue reading “Crawly Cuties and Apartment Composting”

Waste not, Want not on Moving Day

White Mt.  We climbed this as the culmination of our
orientation trip.

Note from Rachel:  I actually wrote this post during the last week of August when I was actively moving.  I figured I just needed to throw in a few pictures of the madness and I’d be good to go.  Little did I know, that was easier said than done.  Moving was insane, then I left on the 2nd to help lead an orientation trip for new graduate students…so this post is a bit of a flashback.  Hopefully it will still be helpful to someone!  Further disclaimer:  this post contains only iPhone pictures…mostly of my cat.

It seems like only last year that we moved all our stuff from SoCal, up along the I-5, to the central valley of California.  Oh wait, that really was just last year.  Can it really be that time again?  The painters that came to my apartment Tuesday morning imply that yes, yes it is.  It’s moving time!  Transplanting to a new place is always simultaneously exciting and annoying for me.  I love the possibilities.  This year I’ll keep my room clean.  This time I’ll really put an effort into decoration.  This spring the patio garden will happen!  However, I don’t love the hassle.  Will I get my security deposit back?  Where do I put all my stuff while I shampoo the carpets?  Will my cat finally hate me if I make him move again?

Cat drinking my H2O on hot moving day.

Yes, like almost every other thing in this wild life, moving to a new dwelling has pros and cons.  In times of stress and excitement, it’s very easy to forget our environmentally minded intentions and err on the side of convenience.  I can honestly say, been there, done that.  However, as someone who has moved 8 times in the past 8 years (one time I moved twice in one year!), I can offer up a few little nuggets of practical advice for keeping your upcoming move as sane and eco-conscious as possible.  The way I see it, there are three big things that make up the process of moving:  packing, discarding unwanted items, and cleaning.  I will address the first two in this post.  In the interest of being candid, I’ll say that I don’t currently use that many green cleaning supplies.  I’m hoping to make the switch away from the more conventional stuff (and will probably blog about it).  At the moment, I’ve amassed quite a collection of cleaning solutions/sprays/what-have-you from old roommates, and I’m currently working through the last of that.  Maybe you know the old runner’s mantra “Don’t try anything new on race day”?  Moving day is my race day and is not the time to try a whole bunch of new stuff.  So, here I’ll focus on what to use when packing and how to donate/reuse/recycle those items you might not want to move to your new abode.


1) Packing Materials Matter

Cats also love scavenged boxes.

My ideal moving scenario would be this:  I scavenge cardboard boxes and day old newspapers from around town.  I pack my life away, then promptly unpack it at my new pad.  Then I either put all the boxes on Craigslist for someone to come and pick up, or I recycle the lot.  Following that plan, you get total reuse value out of all the paper and cardboard before, finally, recycling it.  Also, avoid using packaging tape by folding the lids of your boxes closed (PS: this video is really funny to me).  Probably everyone knows how to do this, but if not, now you do!  And hey, that’s one less little bit of disposable plastic you are using!  Editor’s note in retrospect:  Pro-tip, listen to the dude in the video and don’t overload these boxes if they have no tape on the bottom.  I had two near blow outs due to this carelessness.

Here is how it has actually played out this year.  We have been doing really well on getting used boxed from the co-op and businesses around town.  The co-op even has this area right in front of the store just for boxes which can be reused.  Thanks for being awesome co-op!  We also have several large plastic bins that we have had forever.  I wouldn’t personally suggest buying any of these, but if you feel you just need a couple, go down to your local Goodwill or thrift store.  The last one I purchased about three years ago was from a Goodwill, and it cost 1 dollar.  Buying used, better for the environment and your wallet (reuse forever!).  And remember to donate it back after moving if you don’t have room to save it for next time.

We got down to packing our fragile belongings, and realized we needed some sort of packing paper.  We were in a hurry (read: no time to scavenge!) and ran to the FedEx to buy some.  But we were thwarted; the FedEx only sold plastic bubble wrap!  As you have probably gathered by now, I think single use plastic items are pretty pointless (extremely slow to biodegrade, made from petroleum, general health concerns), so this was not going to fly for me because we needed a pretty large amount of the stuff.  We walked to a nearby newsstand and asked for day-old papers, of which they had none, so we ended up buying a few papers.  It only cost 4 dollars, and I read some of it before using it to wrap my plates.  Does that count as reuse?  The next day I went to the co-op and they had some day old papers, so I used those for the rest of our fragile goods.  

2) Donate NOT Dumpster

It happens every time I move.  I wonder, “How in the world did I get all this stuff?”  As a result, I always end up with a pretty hefty pile of things that I just can’t find the heart to move to my new place.  The paring down process is probably my favorite thing about moving, actually.  I think this happens to almost everyone.  This begs the question, what should we do with all those unwanted treasures?  First and foremost, please please please don’t just throw those things away.  I choose to believe that people are generally good about donating things that are nearly new or gently used.  Additionally, there are many thrift shops which will give you cash for donated items of a certain ilk (high quality, name brand, etc.).  In that case, you could, literally, be throwing away money by not taking time to donate your unwanted items.

Sad kitten in a cage on moving day.

However, I’ve had several conversations with people who put the standard a bit too high on things they are willing to donate.  A pair of pants with a stain on them?  Someone could add a decorative patch to cover that.  Missing buttons on that shirt?  I’m sure someone would be willing to mend them.  Have a lamp with a busted lampshade?  There are about a million Pinterest ideas for making new lamp shades for very little money, and I’m sure some thrifty person would be glad to give your naked lamp new life.

Am I advocating that you donate destroyed or broken things?  Certainly not, I threw out several things that were, quite literally, broken with no hope of repair and could not be recycled.  However, just tossing things out mindlessly or because “they aren’t good enough to donate” is a very privileged attitude.  Further, all those things took resources to create, and if you can give these items longer lives by donating them, you are doing a very good thing.  Yes, this does mean making an extra car trip with your load of unwanted items, but I think we can all agree that donation is one of those actions where we get maximum benefits (helping others, saving resources, reducing waste) from minimum efforts (driving 10-20 minutes).

Don’t worry, I’m climbing down from my soap box now.    

3) Reuse and (finally) Recycle

Okay, so donating clothing that has gone to the other side of gently used is one thing, but what about stuff donation centers simply don’t want?  Here, you have a few very good options for both reusing and recycling these goods.  For electronics that are on the fritz, I think Craigslist is a great way to go.  If you want it off your hand quickly, put a posting up on the “Free” section detailing what’s wrong with the item and that it will be left in such-and-such alley or at the corner of so-and-so.  You can also try FreeCycle, which allows you to list things to given away for free.  People build things from used electronics, and those people love these sorts of websites.  If your item isn’t in horrible condition, it will likely be picked up very shortly (PSA:  Don’t abandon this stuff on the side of the road.  Put it in front of your house or near your house so you can retrieve it for recycling if no one comes to claim it.).  If it’s a nice piece of equipment, you could also try selling it or taking it to a local electronics store to see if they can fix it!  If you get no takes on the electronics, make sure and recycle them properly.  Electronics have lots of precious metals in them that can be reused.  E-waste could be a whole post unto itself, so I’ll stop here and provide you with this link to NCER, a database for electronics recycling facilities in the USA.

An example of something which will NOT be thrown out.
Hilarious gift from my BFF on my 16th birthday.

Other tricky items are mattresses, box springs, and older couches.  Note that if your couch is newer or at least sturdy, you can probably get a Goodwill/Salvation Army/etc. to take it; however, these organizations will very rarely accept used mattresses or box springs.  Again, Craigslist and FreeCycle are your friends.  For these items, you will probably have an easier time getting them off your hands if you live in a larger city or if you are moving in the “off season.”  Around the beginning of September, in my area, Craigslist is saturated with mattress offers.  I actually went down a research rabbit hole looking for places to recycle mattresses and sofas.  If you check out Earth911 site you can enter in your zip code and look for a place near you that accepts mattresses.  There was not one in my area.  It seems like your best bet is to try and give it away or sell it for reuse.  There is also the option of breaking down these items yourself, then recycling or reusing the parts.  In the interests of practicality, you should try to avoid this until the end (if you end up doing it at all).  I’d love some other ideas on this front if you have them, because I honestly don’t see myself (or many others) dismantling a couch.  

Really old shoes and clothing also needs to find a home that, hopefully, isn’t the dumpster.  For shoes that are just no good anymore (see tip #2 to assess how good is no good), the best option I’ve found is the Reuse-a-Shoe program run by Nike.  I’m not a huge fan of Nike in general, but this seems like a very cool program.  Essentially, they take all brands of shoes (aside from dress shoes, flip-flops, and sandals) for recycling and convert them into athletic surfaces such as running tracks, turf fields, or playground surfaces.  You can drop your shoes off at your local Nike store or mail them to the recycling facility.  They encourage local drop off to maximize positive environmental impacts.  For super old clothes, first and foremost, try to think of ways that you could reuse those items.  T-shirts can be turned into quilts, headbands, scarves, and about a million other things.  Check out this Pinterest board I started for some cool reuse ideas.  If you’re of the less creative persuasion, like myself, you can always just cut up these clothes and turn them into cleaning rags.  After you’ve exhausted your own creativity (or if personal reuse just isn’t your situation), you can still take these broken and soiled items to the Goodwill or Salvation Army!  Check out this really cool article from the LATimes blog about how these organizations actually work with a secondary organization to reuse (mostly in the form of janitorial rags) these things or pass on clothing items and shoes to developing nations.

In sum:

My new balcony.  Possibilities…

DO:  Reuse cardboard boxes and newspapers for packing materials.  And at least attempt to donate before you ditch unwanted items.  If donation does not work, make sure to reuse and recycle when possible.
DON’T:  Buy single use plastic packaging materials or boxes.  If you must have plastic items, try to get them second-hand.  Throw out unwanted or used items all willy-nilly like.

Last Word:  Wow.  This turned into a way longer post than I thought it would be.  In general, I’d just say to remember that moving can be very hectic.  Try to plan ahead for how you will pack and dispose of items, otherwise you might end up throwing out more than you would really like.  It’s happened to me many times in the past.  As always, remember to go easy on yourself.  If you did your best, that’s really all there is to do.

What do you think?  What do you do to make your move go smoothly?  Any cool reuse or recycling tips or websites?  Mention them in the comments section.

5 Weird Things I Do: When I’m Shopping

Weekly Farmer’s Market haul!

My typical Friday afternoon goes a little something like this:

  • 4pm- Begin simultaneous watching the clock and repeating the mantra “Be productive, stupid.”  (Note:  graduate school not always the best for increasing self-love.)
  • 4:30pm- Start to feel like I’m really hungry and, I mean, it’s almost time to go anyway.  Desperately try to make final progress on whatever task I have been attempting.
  • 4:45 pm- Give up.  Start filling in my OCD meal planning spreadsheet and making my shopping list.

So, just based on this 45 minute snap-shot, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that my approach to picking the groceries I purchase might be a little different than your own.  Meal planning spreadsheet you say?  List you say?  It may sound weird, some might say it’s unnecessary, but these are a part of my household’s weekly shopping ritual.  What’s more, I’m confident that these things, plus others I will discuss, help me to save money and cut back on the waste I produce.  So I felt compelled to share, and another instillation of “5 Weird Things” was born.  


As always, I would encourage you to not be overwhelmed by the thought of totally upending your shopping mojo.  I didn’t wake up one morning and decides that I was going to do all these things at once.  Like most life choices, these have come to me through a gradual evolution in my thoughts and actions based on lots of research and some provoking conversations.  Maybe pick the one that interests you the most or that you think might make the most difference and give it a try!  Then come back next month and pick up another one!  That said, here we go.      


1.  Make a plan (meal plan, check the pantry, make a list!)

Let me set the scene for you.  It’s Saturday morning.  Myself and my fella’ have just gotten up and and moving around our apartment.  Hopefully, on Friday evening we’ve looked online and through our cookbooks and picked out the meals we wanted to make during the week to come.  In the less hopefully, and probably more typical scenario, I’m doing that on Saturday morning sitting in my bed.  There is always the temptation to just wing it and head out into town.  However, my mother’s voice in my head saying “a stitch in time saves nine” generally drowns out this alluring option, and I make sure to finish getting my plan together.  You see, as far as I can tell, making a solid plan helps me to save money, waste less food during the week, and avoid eating out, which is usually way less nutritious than cooking your own dinners.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so I’ll break down my process, then I’ll make my pitch.

So, what does this planning process entail exactly?  It all starts with a spreadsheet.  Like any good scientist (or anyone with a mild obsessive streak, guilty), I love a nicely organized Excel sheet.  I catalog our meal choices into the spreadsheet which includes spaces for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and three snacks.  I then look at the recipes we’ve chosen and list all the supplies right in the same tab.  Thus, I’m basically making my shopping list as I’m meal planning.  When you’re filling out your meal plan, it’s important to think of it as more of a road map and less of a contract.  If your friend stops by on Monday who doesn’t care for couscous (weirdo), then you can switch your Monday and Thursday meals.  Probably the hardest mental block to get around in this respect is planning your snacking.  My rule is to buy enough fruit each week to eat as one of my snacks, then get two or three other things that we can eat throughout the week.  It doesn’t matter really which days I end up eating those snacks, but writing it down helps me to visualize how much of each thing I will need to buy.  Plus, if you love snacks like I do, having things on hand is the only way to keep yourself from purchasing stuff from the gas station and vending machine.  

My meal planning spreadsheet.  I loves it.


Now that you know what you will be making and snacking on, and you have a list of all the ingredients you’ll need to make it happen, you need to take your computer into the kitchen and check your pantry.  This will help you avoid buying double of anything you already own.  Obviously, there are some things you will just know, but I can never seem to remember if I have chickpeas or not, and my hummus-making ambitions have been thwarted on several occasions when I didn’t take the time to double check.  Now, you can transfer your shopping list to something more portable than your laptop.  I usually type mine into my phone or jot it down on a piece of scrap paper from our scrap paper bin.  

Okay, so here is the promised pitch.  My process described above might seem like a lot of unnecessary effort to some.  And for some people, perhaps that is the case.  But for myself, planning my meals in this fashion has helped me in numerous ways.  First, it’s really aided my efforts to waste less food.  When I go to town with a plan made and a list in hand, I know what I’m going to actually need for the week.  This really encourages me to avoid impulse purchases, especially impulse purchases of perishable items, because I know I won’t have time (or tummy space) to eat them.  Also, making this meal plan and checking back with it during the weeks has given me a really thorough insight into how much food we can reasonable consume.  I remember when I first started meal planning, I would pick out so many recipes that I was excited about, but I would end up with far too much food!  For our little household of two individuals, we generally cook 3-4 dinners a week at home.  For the other 3-4 evenings out of the week we work through our leftovers.  We like to snack on things like fresh fruit, pretzels and homemade hummus, veggie and dip, peanut butter and apples, and the occasional granola bar.  I also generally purchase enough produce to make salad for both of us for the week for lunch.  For breakfast, we like oatmeal, smoothies, fruit, and toast.  Wasting food is obviously a no-no on lots of levels, not the least of which is the impact food production has on the environment.  But, hey, when you throw food out, you basically throw out money.  Who wants to do that?  

I think this quotation from a study performed by Parfitt and colleagues in 2010 sums it up pretty well.  The U.S. stats are equally embarrassing  but I chose the U.K. statistics as they were quantified in carbon emissions (Note: Mt stands for metric tons).   

“More recently, the Waste and Resources Action Programme 
(WRAP) has shown that household food waste has reached unprecedented levels in UK homes (WRAP 20082009a,b), with 8.3 Mt of food and drink wasted each year (with a retail value of £12.2 billion, 2008 prices) and a carbon impact exceeding 20 Mt of CO2 equivalent emissions. The amount of food wasted per year in UK households is 25 per cent of that purchased (by weight).”


2.  Reusable Bags, reusable containers, reusable foreva’

Bulk bags and a selection of reusable containers.

Once I have my list in hand, I get all my shopping accessories together.  For me, that includes a team of reusable grocery bags, a bunch of reusable containers and bulk bags (we’ll get to the use of these below), and my reusable coffee mug (it’s my weekly treat to get a coffee from our Co-op).  I’m a pretty firm believer that reduce and reuse are way more important “R’s” than recycle.  I’ve talked about this view in length here.  Thus, for anyone who is trying to reduce their impact on the planet, I’d say reusable shopping bags are a no-brainier.  The next logical step is to start bringing your own containers for foods you purchase in the store such as meats from the deli (if that’s your situation), pre-made foods like salads, and the increasing number of bulk foods popping up in co-ops and large chain stores across the country.  Depending on the store you go to, there might be some health concerns with using your own container for things purchased from the deli, but I’d be willing to wager that if you spoke with a manager you could figure out some solution that would work for everyone.  

Reusable shopping bags.  Way more fun.


Here are a few reusable shopping tips I’ve developed over the years.  First, buy one of these amazing ChicoBags or something similar.  Put it in your car or your handbag/manbag.  This is great for when you are just running to the store during the week and forget your normal fleet of reusable bags, or when you get a little excited at the store on the weekend and end up needing an extra shopping bag.  Second, even if you have no bulk section and your deli is not allowing you to use your own container  you can easily cut down your waste in the produce section by choosing products that aren’t wrapped in plastic and then bagging them with reused plastic/paper bags from home.  I have a small collection of bags I used to put my store bought produce in before my mother made me a set of awesome bulk bags for Christmas.  

Okay, now that we have all that stuff together, we can actually leave the house and go shopping!
    
3.  Shop the Farmer’s Market

FarMar Veg

Oh, the joys of the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.  This is one of the highlights of my week.  We always arrive hungry and grab brunch at one of the food carts that is parked on the lot with all the farmer’s booths.  After we are full (hunger is dangerous at the FarMar!), we take a stroll all the way down the isle of vendors, checking out the produce, referring to our list, and trying to find the best combination of quality and price for the items we want.  The benefits of shopping at the Farmer’s Market are numerous, and you have likely heard many of them before…but I’ll repeat them anyway.

Beautiful summer produce!


Probably the biggest impact of shopping at the Farmer’s Market is the minimal amount of miles your food have to travel to end up on your plate.  Webber and Matthews (2008) found that “…for the average American household, “buying local” could achieve, at maximum, around a 4-5% reduction in GHG [green house gas]…”  There are several things to consider about these findings.  First, the paper never formally defines what “local” means, but the widely accepted definition is that local products are produced within 100 miles of where the consumer purchases them.  Additionally, that figure is for a fully localized diet, which can be very difficult to achieve, even for the very devoted!  Another interesting finding of this study is that not all food groups are created equally.  According to their work, you could reduce your GHG impacts to equal that of a totally localized diet by shifting away from eating red meat one day a week, wow*.  However, if you are only concerned with the farm-to-table travel impacts of your food (less holistic) focusing on local fruits and vegetables whenever possible will provide you with the biggest bang for your buck, as these foods generally make the longest trek from the producer to your plate.  There are several other terms in the model which are clearly estimates and averages, and I highly recommend you check out this study, or any of the related literature on food miles if you are interested.  The take-home here is that buying local, especially fruits and vegetables, does matter, but what we choose to eat can matter more (probably more on this in a later post).  Remember, your personal impact might not be monumental when you change a single habit, but over time and in conjunction with other lifestyle changes, you can make a difference!  Buying local has lots of other fringe benefits aside from reducing food miles, such as keeping money in your local community and getting to know the people who provide you with your food!

Lavender!

Another great benefit of the Farmer’s Market is the lack of lots of unnecessary plastic packaging.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the vendors at the FarMar will always be ready to give you a plastic bag to put your produce in, but you don’t have to take it!  I know when I first started trying to avoid plastic, I felt a lot more comfortable politely refusing the nice person at the market and putting my produce straight in my reusable bag than I did carrying my peaches all willy-nilly up to the checkout counter at the store.  I’m over that now by the way, and if I forget my reusable bag, I just bring a bunch of loose apples to the checker.  It’s never seemed to cause anyone any problems!

Last, if you want to buy organic at the Farmer’s Market, you totally can!  However, if you are only interested in pesticide free produce or you want to support a farm that is only just transitioning to organic and doesn’t have a certification yet, you can!  The point is, if you have a question about your goods, you can ask the farmer!  I can’t quite put into words the nice feeling of matching a name with your asparagus, but it’s a real thing.

4.  Buy in bulk when you can, and ask for more bulk options

Jars for bulk foods!


This one isn’t an option for everyone, and I realize that.  I’m supremely fortunate to live in an area where even the Safeway has some foods in bulk.  This is a movement that is spreading however.  When I was last home, I went to the store with my mother and saw many types of beans in bulk bins in her local chain grocery store.  And if you are thinking, “There is a Whole Foods near me, but their bulk food will be too expensive!” you might be incorrect.  Do a price comparison between what you usually buy and what you could buy in bulk at a health foods store.  You might find the price difference is negligible, or the bulk foods might even been cheaper!  Just beware the interior isles of places like Whole Foods.  When you start buying pre-packaged foods from those stores, then you can end up saying “oops, there went 80 bucks!”  Okay, what if you don’t live near any bulk food options?  I would encourage you to ask for them!  Speak to a manager, or write on a comment card.  As I said, this option is spreading.  Request it and support it.

Why buy bulk?  You only have to buy the amount you need, which can lead to less waste of food in the end.  And the obvious:  less plastic, fantastic.

5.  Shop once a week 

This item is last on the list, but I think it’s still important.  Shopping once a week (or less) does a lot of really good things for you.  Initially, it makes all the tips mentioned above that much easier!  You only have to plan and remember your reusables once a week, and then you can coordinate that with your trip to the Farmer’s Market and the store!  Less travel also means you save gas.  Running back and forth to the store multiple times per week can add up quicker than you might think.  If you get all your major shopping done in one go, when you need this or that from the store, you can usually pick it up with your bike or just go to the store that is most accessible on your commute without worrying about price as much!  Next, shopping once a week means you are prepared for the week to come.  You know what you have in your pantry and fridge and, thus, you’ll have some idea of what you want to make for your meals.  Even this small step, being stocked up by the time the week starts, can save you from the ever tempting trap of delivery/take-out/fast food, which we all know is less good for us, less good for the planet, and just generally less tasty than food we make ourselves!  Plus, I find when I have all my supplies right off the bat, I can pre-prepare some foods to streamline my work week.  For example, on Sunday (okay, usually Monday morning) I cut up and prepare salad and salad dressing for the entire week.  That way, on most weekday mornings, I just have to assemble the veggies and head out the door!  Last, making shopping an event makes it fun.  In our house, we look forward to Saturdays.  We know we get a Farmer’s Market treat, and it’s an uninterrupted time together to to plan something we are both invested in.

Last Word:  I strongly believe considering our food choices is a cornerstone in attempting to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle.  We all have to eat right?  This post was all about the little tweeks we can me in getting that food in order to avoid food waste, stay away from too much packaging, and begin considering the foods we actually choose!  I hope you learned something new, or were inspired with a new idea.

I was obsessed with these pepper wreathes this fall
at the FarMar.

What do you think?  Do you do any strange things when shopping because you feel they reduce your impact on the planet?  Any suggestions for me to try out/research?  I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Sources: 

  • Parfitt J, M. Barthel, and S. Macnaughton.  2010.  Food waste within food supply chains:  quantification and   potential for change to 2050.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 365: 3065-3081.
  • Webber C.L., and H.S. Matthews.  2008.  Food-miles and the relative carbon impacts of food choices in the United States.  Environmental Science and Technology 42:  3508-3513.