This is the year

This last Saturday was Earth hour. The idea is that on Earth Hour (8pm local time on March 31st) everyone shuts down all their lights and electronics for one hour, the event raises awareness about reducing energy consumption while encouraging solidarity within local, national, and global communities. Not a bad concept. With that in mind I thought I would share a few small ways that we can curb energy consumption every day, some of these are already habits for me but others aren’t. Take a look through this list and pick a one or a few to focus on this week!

 

Please note that this list was compiled from several different lists I’ve read in the last few weeks and is in no particular order.

 

  • Turn out lights when you leave the room.
  • Contemplate switching to CFL (compact florescent lights) to light your home
  • Make sure your home is properly insulated and sealed to minimize stress on your heating and cooling systems.
  • Turn off your computer at night. While newer laptops draw very little power while in sleep mode, every little bit does help.
  • Watch out for ‘phantom loads’ by unplugging appliances and devices when they are not in use. Many of these items draw a small amount of power even when they are not turned on. (Think indicator lights, chargeable batteries, standby features ect.)
  • Clean your furnace filter monthly and make sure it gets regular maintenance. A furnace in tip-top shape will be more efficient.
  • In the summer; keep windows and blinds closed during the day to keep hot air out and open at night to bring cool air in to keep your home cool with less reliance on an air conditioner. The opposite also helps in the winter.
  • Don’t overload your freezer or refrigerator (Not easily done in our little fridge!)
  • If you use a dishwasher use it only for full loads.
  • Line dry your clothes! (added bonus: fresh breeze scent without the nasty chemicals)
  • Read light bulb packaging carefully. The package will list both a lumens and a watts value, the more lumens per watt the more efficient the light bulb.
  • If you’re in the market for new appliances take your time and research your options. Buy appliances that fit your family and usage, appliances that are too big or too small will not be as efficient.
  • Take an extra few minutes to vacuum vents and ducts, light fixtures, electronics and appliances to keep them working efficiently.
  • Contemplate installing dimmer, timers, or motion sensors on lights to make sure they are only on when needed.

 

I am sure there are many many more tips and tricks out there that I have forgotten to add or not heard about yet. Please feel free to share if you think of anything more.

The toddler 'helping' in the container garden his first summer.

Is anyone else on the prairie getting insanely excited about spring? I know I am. With spring excitement comes garden planning in this home. We first started growing food in our home the summer I was pregnant with my son. Our apartment has a small balcony and we started with just a few tomato plants which produced flats upon flats of large juicy flavorful tomatoes. Since then we have gotten more ambitious by the year adding herbs, peppers, cucumbers, carrots,  peas and strawberries to the mix, this year we’re even adding a pumpkin plant the toddler picked out and attempting to grow okra (the husband needs it for a recipe and hasn’t had any luck finding it in stores, I am not convinced it will work but he is determined).

There are many great benefits to growing your own food:

  • There is nothing more local and fresh than eating fruit and vegetables out of your own back yard, this saves the environmental cost of shipping food to stores and you going out to buy them.
  • Harvesting your own food saves packaging.
  • Growing your own food gives you more control over where the seeds come from and how they are grown.
  • Fresh food is healthier! The moment fruits and vegitables are picked they start to break down, the faster you eat them the more nutrients are transferred from the plant to your body.
  • Flowering plants attract and support local pollinators like bees and butterflies, this is a GOOD thing!
  • Growing vegetables is a great way for kids to learn about nature, responsibility, and nutrition.
  • The effort that goes into your crop is a huge motivation to reduce waste. There is nothing more heartbreaking than having to toss produce you spent weeks and months nurturing. The good news is that because it’s so fresh, your produce will last and extra long time if stored correctly.
  • Having living plants around can help battle depression and nature deprivation.

Not only is growing your own food rewarding but it’s also pretty easy to get started and my family is proof that no matter how small your living space, you can grow just about anything with a little determination and ingenuity. Container gardening, square foot gardening, vertical gardening, window farms ,frugal gardening , Community space. Whatever your situation there is usually a way to make gardening work for you. Forget about green thumbs and plant whisperers, anyone can grow vegetables!

If you are totally new to vegetable gardening or caring for plants of any kind the challenge this week is really simple, just examine your living space, your routines, and your lifestyle to figure out where you can make room to grow something. Even if it’s a small plant on your desk at work, everyone’s got to start somewhere.

If you’re already an avid gardener, the challenge is to look at your current gardening plans for the spring and see if there is anything you can do to maximize your harvest. Try some of the links I posted above to really use the space available to you, or if you have any secrets, tips, or ideas for other gardeners please share them!

You can also focus on planning your garden with sustainability in mind. As I talked about last week small changes can save water, composting can enrich your soil while reusing waste from your home or last year’s garden, companion plants can help keep pests at bay without the use of chemicals. There are dozens of options out there.

There will be further challenges for gardeners as the weather gets warmer, but for now, lets get to planning!

Lately I’ve been depressing the heck out of myself with articles and documentaries about water. Water issues have been kind of on my radar for quite some time. By which I mean I knew that there were environmental and social issues surrounding the earth’s water but I hadn’t actually looked too far into them, so I had yet to make any real changes in my life to reduce my water footprint. Maybe because my carbon footprint still seems like such a mammoth task, or maybe because this stuff is so terrifying to me that I’ve been trying my damnedest not to think about it. It’s hard to say.

Whatever the reason, water isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a human rights issue, and it’s one I need to stop ignoring, putting off, downplaying, or forgetting.

I had actually planned to use this paragraph to list some of the scary things about water scarcity and purity I have learned lately. But I feel like I was kind of harsh in the plastic post last week so if you would like to know all the reasons why water issues are so very incredibly hugely important, you may start on the World Water Day website and go from there.

When you’re done that and are feeling kind of hopeless, you can read through some of the things I am doing to conserve water this week. If you prefer to just take my word for it also know that conserving water can save you money, so there’s your motivation.

Watch the water you eat: This year the focus of World Water Day is food. Honestly, until I was researching this post I only had a tiny idea of just how much water it takes to produce the food on my table. Onedrop.org has a neat little game that helps you find out what kind of water footprint your menu has and I was SHOCKED by my result. My light Sunday evening meal of blackened chicken on Caesar salad took nearly 1000 liters of water to produce.  After playing with the game for a little while and doing some more research around the website I got a pretty good idea of where all that water consumption was coming from. Take a look for yourself!
Ditch the bottled and canned beverages: not just bottled water; pop, juice, coffee drinks, anything that comes in a bottle and contains water from a source outside of your local water system has to go. When companies package water from one water system and ship it to others all over the world there are devastating effects on the environment.  One way to avoid doing this is to remember to bring a reusable water bottle with you everywhere you go, and if you absolutely must drink pop try getting a fountain drink where the flavor syrups and carbonation have been added to local water, it’s still not great but it helps.

Short showers: This week I will be using a kitchen timer to time my showers. As the mostly-stay-at-home mother of a toddler there are days where the only time I get to be alone and not talk about fire trucks and puppies is when I am in the shower, and even that isn’t guaranteed… so I tend to linger. Not this week. this week I am going to try and keep my showers down to about 5 minutes. A friend recently linked me to this article which figures the average shower head uses about 2.5 gallons of water per minute. So by cutting my shower time from 15 minutes to 5 minutes, I am saving about 25 gallons per shower. That’s kind of mind blowing.

Double check the plumbing in your home: This may be a good time to check your home for hidden water leaks that may be wasting valuable water resources. As well as doing maintenance, you could make changes like adding weights to your toilet tank, installing low-flow faucets,  or minimizing your use of garburators, dishwashers, and other convenience appliances that use a lot of water.

Landscaping: If you’re a gardener, or just want to make some improvements to your yard this spring and summer, you are likely in the planning stages of your projects so this is a great time to think about water conservation! Group plants according to their watering needs, plant water retaining plants along sloped areas to reduce run-off, choose native species suited to the natural precipitation in your area, choose lawns or grasses that are drought resistant to reduce the need to water, and plan to water only when needed and in the early hours of the day to avoid evaporation before your plants have had their fill.

Collect rain water: Last summer we had planned to collect rain water to use for watering our houseplants and small container garden. For a few reasons the idea was soon forgotten and we never did get around to it but I am going to focus my efforts here this week. Because we do live in an apartment I am not sure that we could collect even enough to water the plants, but I figure there’s no harm, in trying. I am finding a lot of interesting information and DIY projects online that can help you collect rain water, treat it, and use it around your home to save on the drinking water your family consumes.

 

The things I’ve listed here are by no means the only ways to conserve water. There are literally hundreds of things big and small that each of us can do to conserve and protect water. I have only listed a few of the items I will be choosing to focus on but as always, I encourage you to find something that will suit you and your family the best. And don’t forget to let the rest of us know about it!

Week 11: Plastic

A plastic Barbie head I found on the beach in Victoria, BC.

I recently read a blog post written by a biologist about a beached gray whale who’s stomach, upon necropsy, was found to contain gallons of plastic and other waste. The article went on to talk about the extent of plastic pollution in our oceans and how every other species on the planet is suffering because of it. Talk about depressing.

When you combine stories of where discarded plastics end up when we’re done with them with the story of where they come from and what they’re made of (petrochemicals), its hard not to feel a little overwhelmed. Especially when you start hearing about all the ways petrochemical companies are throwing their financial weight around to prevent lawmakers from regulating the production or disposal of plastic products.

Plastics are bad for us, they are bad for the environment, but these companies just go right on making them and marketing them, and when lawmakers step in to protect people and the environment from them lobbyists are sent in, followed by marketers and spin doctors and next thing you know industry funded studies are released to media about bacteria growth in unwashed reusable shopping bags, law makers are convinced  BPA bans would cause infant formula shortages, and there are mass labelings of consumer goods as ‘BPA free!’ to try and convince us that plastics without this one component are still safe.

There is no ‘safe plastic’; even products labeled ‘BPA free’ are not guaranteed to be safe as the chemicals used to replace BPAs in plastic consumer goods have not been tested for safety long term any more then BPA was before it was used. In fact, there is nothing anywhere that says these things need to be tested for long term safety at all. Scary stuff to think about.

The most terrifying part of all of this is the plastic byproducts and toxins we can’t see. It’s the broken down chemical bits of it contaminating our water systems and food chains. It’s the hidden petrochemical plastic byproduct lining our tin cans, and even the chemical residue on cashier receipts, It’s the fact that some of these toxic plastic byproducts have been found in quite high concentrations in human breast milk.*

So I read about the poor beached gray whale, and I thought about the chemicals and the oil and the cost that a few people’s profit is having on our health. And I decided it would be cathartic to completely purge my home of plastic. Or as completely as I can, starting with the items we are in direct contact with the most like dishes and food packaging.

Here are a few more ways you can limit consumption of plastic for your own health and the health of the planet:

Bring your own water bottle. If you have a reusable water bottle made of glass or stainless steel with you when you’re out of the house the urge to buy beverages in plastic containers from lunch counters or vending machines is curbed dramatically. If you absolutely must drink soft drinks, you can always fill your plastic free drink container from a soda fountain. You can check out week 4 for ideas on reducing other food and beverage packaging as well.

Remember your bags! That whale I mentioned earlier had over 20 plastic bags in its digestive track at the time of his death. While there are a few clever ideas out there for reusing them and plastic bag recycling programs are popping up all over the place, the best way to avoid these bags ending up floating around our natural ecosystems is to stop using them all together.

Seek out non-plastic alternatives. If there is an item you are looking to purchase, think about the plastic components of it and seek out alternatives. This is not always easy these days. Just the other week we were looking for a step stool to give the toddler a bit of kitchen and bathroom independence. When we looked for new items at a certain big blue box store we couldn’t find a single non-plastic option. We searched several other stores to no avail and were about to settle for a plastic one when we ended up finding an old wooden stool a family member was willing to give us. With a little less patience on our part it would have been tough to come away without a cheap plastic one.

Reduce over all consumption with simplicity. Again, the best way to curb the amount of plastics in our environment is to stop using plastic, and since plastics are so prevalent in consumer goods these days, the easiest way to avoid plastic is to avoid buying things we don’t need by living simply. If you weren’t around for week 1, check out that challenge to see what I mean by living simply.

The purge. This is what I am doing. Many of the plastics in our home actually did find there way out the door when we were doing the big de-clutter back in week one, I was very sure to make sure most if not all of the plastic toys the toddler plays with made it into the give-away bin, and I got rid of a lot of old plastic Tupperware. There are still a lot of products around that we can either find or make non-plastic alternatives for, or that we could do without.  The plastic items that we are getting rid of will be either recycled (where possible) or given away to people who may want them. I will be doing my best to make sure they will be out of my home, but hopefully not sitting in a landfill. After that, sheer determination to simply not allow plastics into my home in the first place will hopefully keep our plastic consumption and waste to a minimum.

What are your thoughts on plastics? Do you have any tips or tricks for avoiding them?

*Before anyone takes my head off. I am by no means suggesting we not breast feed our babies, the risks of using breast milk alternatives still outweigh the risk of possible toxins in breast milk. Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way for children to be fed and steps need to be taken to protect it including regulating and banning toxins that affect the health of all people.

Week 10: Mulligan

You may have noticed that its wednesday already and I haven’t posted a new challenge. There is a new challenge ready to post, but I just can’t bring myself to post it. Why? Because I totally failed last week’s challenge so hard that it just doesn’t feel right to move on to the next thing.

My husband had the last week or so off and since we only had a few days notice of this little vacation, we had nothing really planned for this time. The first few days were really great, we walked to the library, we walked to get groceries, we walked for fun. Though husband doesn’t like the idea of the bus we managed to get around to where we needed just fine without the use of his car.

Then we got bored. With two adults around full-time there is surprisingly little to do around the house after a while. No projects to finish, nothing to clean, the toddler happily playing alone after the novelty of Dad wears off. We puttered, we twiddled our thumbs, we contemplated breaking our current television ban, we read a bit, listened to music, played music, and after all that there were still 5 days left to fill with family fun.

It started with just a little break of the car-free rules. My husband had made no real commitment to being car-free for the week and after two days with virtually no time alone I was all too happy to suggest he take the toddler for a drive.  The next day we wanted to check out an indoor play area across town that we’d heard good things about, and I had every intention of taking the bus there until I missed it and my husband, who was not so hot on the idea of taking the bus in the first place simply got in the car and told me he’d happily meet me there in an hour if I wanted to be stubborn. I got in the car, and did again when we left because I had a meeting to be at and I’d already written off the day as a total fail. Then a few days later, for the real nail in the coffin of my goal, we drove 45 minutes to Moose Jaw to go to the Western Development Museum, a shrine to all things car-culture, only to find that it was closed that day and we’d made the trip for nothing.

After all of this I strengthened my resolve to live car-free this week now that my husband (AKA the enabler) is back at work and my routine can go back to normal. But I feel like I need to address the dynamics a circumstances that made last week such a fail. The circumstance being that we had a week away from our usual routine, the dynamic being that while I am perfectly happy to live car-free, my husband like many people out there, doesn’t see a car as just a way to get around but as an enjoyable activity.

I feel like the challenge I wrote last week was a little dismissive of how hard it may actually be for people who do drive, who enjoy driving, and who are in the habit of driving, to suddenly change their routine in just one week. Or, if they did change the routine for one week (or two days) and found it enjoyable that still doesn’t mean that they are ready to embrace a car-free lifestyle with open arms.  I had secretly hoped that I could change my husband’s ways with a week car-free where he wasn’t away at work all day anyways, but instead he pulled me further into car culture.

So this week I call Mulligan.

If you tried to go car-free last week and didn’t quite make it, try again, if you did make it and it went well, keep up the good work! If it didn’t go well and you can identify the reasons why take some time to meditate on those reasons and see if you can’t make any changes to make the car-free lifestyle easier for you. Or just stay tuned for next week, and we’ll move onto something different!

playtime traffic jam

Last week you may have noticed there was no post here on the blog. My family and I were struck down by a pretty miserable flu and I just never did get around to it. I am so sorry for that, but I am really thankful to those of you who posted on the Facebook wall and challenged each other in my absence! Please let me know how your litter-less lunches turned out.

I had originally planned to leave this week’s challenge for the warmer months of spring and summer but was inspired by the latest issue of Natural Life Magazine to bump it up.

This week is all about challenging our car-culture mentalities and getting creative at getting ourselves from point A to point B.

According to Stats Canada, Canadians bought 1,690,548 new cars in 2007, a number slightly higher but pretty much on par with statistics from 1987 and 1997. Check out page 16 of this document to see how much money we spend on cars, car parts, and gasoline. In 2010 it is estimated that 82% of Canadian commuters traveled to work by car while 12% took public transit and 6% walked or cycled.

We live in a car culture there is no doubt about that. In one of my original posts I pointed this out with the number of service stations and free parking spaces in relation to bus routes within a few blocks of my home. With the car culture being so thoroughly supported alternate modes of transportation are sometimes ignored, dismissed, or outwardly discouraged. For this reason it does take quite a bit of determination and creativity to live car free.

Walking to the grocery store in -20*C and loving it!

When I tell people that I don’t drive, or even have a driver’s license, the reactions range from shock to pity to concern for my safety. People offer me rides a lot, whether I ask for them or not. While there have certainly been times where my life would have been easier with a car, and times where I called in favors from family members with cars, for the most part I haven’t been all that put out by my lack of personal transport. Even in a city that boasts possibly the worst transit system that ever existed ever.

Yet in the survey of Canadian commuters in 2010 mentioned above, 53% of those surveyed considered public transit to be inconvenient while only 15% of those people had actually tried it. Our car culture is so deeply ingrained in us that most people have ruled out alternate transportation without ever even trying it.

There are two things I want to challenge you to do this week. First I want you to challenge your own dependence on personal transport if you use it; find ways to leave the car at home and to reduce your dependence on fossil fuels. Second, I want you to think about ways you could be challenging the car culture in your own community.

To challenge yourself there are many obvious and some not so obvious things you could do:

  • Take public transit
  • Cycle (I’ve seen a few brave souls on bikes in Saskatchewan this winter so no excuses! Haha)
  • Car pool
  • Walk (Again, it’s been pretty mild this winter so grab your boots!)
  • Explore your own neighbourhood. You may find you’ve been driving across town for services available down the street.
  • E-commute, try your hand at sticking around home by completing errands, tasks, or work over the net when possible.

Obviously I do a lot of those things already and I am sure a lot of you do to. For this portion of the challenge I am going to try going the whole week without accepting a ride from my husband or anyone else with a car. That sounds too easy. I am going to make that two weeks.

For the second part of this week’s challenge, here are a few things I will be thinking about this week:

Be heard: Tell your local government what changes you would like to see to make alternate forms of transportation more accessible for you. Maybe your area isn’t adequately serviced by public transit, maybe your neighbourhood has a low ‘Walk score‘, maybe your commute is too crowded and treacherous for biking and could use safer bike lanes. Get your letter writing cap out or clear some time for a town hall meeting, find a way to have your thoughts heard.

Get support: Find out if there is a group in your community already working towards making these needed changes. Here in Regina there is a group of cyclists called bike-to-work Regina encouraging more people to cycle. (I sadly missed their potluck meeting when I was sick last week, but I look forward to catching up with them in the future) In Seatle a creative group hands out ‘undriving’ licenses to raise awareness for alternate modes of transportation and have a little fun while they’re at it. Maybe your community has something similar. Find out what is out there and find a way to get involved! If there isn’t such a group near you, or one that fits what you’re looking for, call some friends and start your own!

Encourage others: I’ve decided that from now on when people offer me a ride I am going to turn around and offer one right back. They’ll say; “You’re taking the bus!? I can give you a ride!” and I’ll say “I am ok, but you’re driving, ugh, would you like to borrow a bus ticket?”

Instead of allowing everyone to look at my self-imposed car-lessness as a draw back I am going to treat it like the perfectly acceptable and totally wonderful experience that it is. Sometimes I get sucked into the car culture and act as though walking and taking the bus everywhere is a huge chore (sometimes it can be, but judging by the colourful language I’ve heard from people behind the wheel I imagine driving ain’t so great all the time either.) I shrug my shoulders at the pity and thank people for their generosity then say something self deprecating like “I made my car-less bed and I can walk in it”. But that’s not really how I look at it.

I find riding the bus to be meditative, even (especially) with my toddler in tow because it’s the only time we are still and there’s nothing to do but wait. I like that I am almost never late for anything because the bus gets me there 10-20 minutes early. I love taking long meandering walks around town completing errands that others find stressful because of the hassle to find parking or load kids in and out of seats and boosters. I like that traveling without a car makes simplicity and minimalism really easy because hardly anything is really worth lugging back home when you already have 30 pounds of toddler strapped to your back. I love meeting new people and I love giving my son the chance to interact with such a variety of characters. I love the whir of my bike peddles and the feeling of the wind when I pick up speed along a good stretch of bike path. I really want to get a happy little bell for my handlebars and maybe a trading card to click in my spokes.

I like not having a car and I am going to make sure that people know that. Instead of adding to the idea that I am somehow handicapped by my lack of personal transport I am going to tell people about the benefits and encourage them to try it.

the view from my bike

That’s all I got for now. I would really like to hear your thoughts on challenging car culture!

Week Seven Challange: Beauty

Last week when I was searching for recipes to make my own household cleaning products I happened across quite a few recipes for home made beauty and hygiene products. I have to admit that while making my own household cleaners had been a casual ambition of mine for a while it had never occurred to me to try my hand at grooming products. Perhaps this is because I don’t wear make up, or use hair products other than shampoo, and I am not really all that into body washes, or lotions, or perfumes, or shaving creams, or bath bombs. I am low maintenance girl, saver of time and money and expert ignorer of the commercial beauty standard! I would wear a cape but then I’d have to dry-clean it.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself what I DO use if I don’t use any of that stuff. Well, I have shampoo. I have conditioner for special occasions. I have soap, I have toothpaste and I have deodorant. That is all I feel I need and as it turns out each of these products has an eco-friendly and/or natural and/or home made alternative and this week I am going to try them out.

I know simple isn’t really for everyone when it comes to grooming for a number of reasons and I really want to make sure that this challenge applies in some small way to everyone out there so bare with me. I am not asking everyone reading this to throw their make-up-bags to the curb but I am going to ask that we all take this week to think about what’s in them.

I remember reading an article about toxics in cosmetic products a few years back that estimated the U.S beauty industry rakes in about fifty billion dollars per year. Fifty billion dollars in revenue selling mostly unnecessary items containing countless chemicals packaged in shiny disposable plastic containers. Environmentally speaking the whole thing is rather concerning so it really does deserve a bit of reflection on our parts.

Reduce your media: I am low maintenance girl, and yet every time I pick up a beauty magazine I find myself lusting after ‘fun colours’ and ‘hot shades’, wondering if the skin cream on page 6 really could lessen the look of my cellulite and if my scars and stretch marks are really that noticeable. This happens because that is what those magazines are designed to do and the industry puts a lot of money into figuring out how to do it well. So stop reading them. Problem solved.

Well, at least part of the problem anyways. Who ever you are, male or female, young or old, there is media out there that would have you believing that the way you are simply isn’t good enough. That media is everywhere. You can’t exactly close your eyes every time you drive by a billboard but you can choose to limit all the other ways this media makes it into your life.

Simplify: Once you’re done exposing yourself to media designed to tell you how much help you need to be presentable it doesn’t take long for you to stop being critical of yourself and start being critical of the cosmetics you may not actually need. If you take a look at all the things in your cosmetics case and decide that you really do need all of them, skip to the last suggestion here and think about making a few items instead of buying them.

Hygiene v beauty: Good Hygiene is important. I am not by any means denying this fact. There is without a doubt a minimum standard that must be met for hygiene out of respect for yourself and those around you. But there are some things we think of as hygiene necessities that are actually beauty standards and in my opinion commercial beauty standards are not so important. Example: Whitening toothpaste and other products. Clean teeth are important for your health, unnaturally white teeth are not. Another example: Shampoo and conditioner. Your scalp is technically self cleaning, and while regularly washing away dirt and debris is good hygiene, chemically stripping away your hair’s natural oils and then replacing them with chemicals to make it shiny and smooth is not.

If you are looking for ways to simplify and are having trouble deciding what is necessary; write down your daily grooming routine and sort each item into either ‘hygiene’ or ‘beauty’ which list is longer?

Make it: Just like last week the main reason I want to make my own grooming products is to avoid the nasty ingredients that seem down right impossible to avoid in commercial beauty products. Check out David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen and the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to learn more about what can be found in common store bought products.

 

What are your thoughts on beauty and cosmetics? What steps could you take to clean up your hygiene routine?

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