Category Archives: Personal Responsibility

Growing Your Own Food in an Urban Environment: Part I

By Leah Kaminksy

Stay tuned for part two!

Just because you live in a city or on a small plot of land doesn’t mean you can’t grow your own food. In fact, the less space you have, the more fun you can have getting creative.

First matter of business: try to find old materials that can be turned into containers. This can be anything from used tires, wine barrels, kiddie pools, buckets, big mixing bowls, and so forth. As long as it’s round and relatively deep, you can work with it.

Buy a rich, dark soil from your local gardening store or if you have the space, make your own compost from food scraps. Line containers accordingly, making sure to leave a two inch gap at the top to allow room for water. Then plant any fruit or vegetable that does well in your climate. Greens like lettuce grow in most environments, as do turnips and peas.

Shallower containers like wading pools dry out more quickly than deeper containers, so make sure to water regularly.

If making room for a used tire garden puts you into hysterics (“A used tire? In my apartment?”), all is not lost. You can still grow a garden even if you’re only working with a windowsill–preferably one that gets six to eight hours of light each day. All you need is a smaller container that maximizes sun capture (open bowl, good; closed watering can, bad).

If you’re nervous about a big undertaking, start with herbs and then work up to tomatoes, lettuce or small root vegetables.

Shop your local hardware store for cheap shop lights to use on cloudy days.

No matter which strategies you choose to grow inexpensive, pesticide-free food, approach your garden with a new set of eyes. See possibilities, not problems. This is, after all, a creative problem solving challenge. Think hard, have fun and play!


Tune in next week for more ideas in Part II of this urban gardening series.

The Real Price of Cut Flowers

By Leah Kaminsky

Though Mother’s Day has come and gone, it’s taken nearly a month for me to clear all of those “50% off Mother’s Day Flowers” emails from my inbox. Flowers are, after all, the go-to gift for Mom, and I feel just a little bit less guilty about living far away when I know I can brighten my mom’s day with the click of a button.

But have you ever wondered where these flowers come from and how they find their way to their destinations? Stephen J. Dubner at Freakonomics did, and what he found may dull your enthusiasm.

Turns out, 80% of all cut flowers sold in the United States come from places like Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica. These flowers must be refrigerated immediately and shipped, first by air and then by truck.

That adds a lot more carbon to the atmosphere than going out to the garden and snipping a rose. And as Dubner points out, it’s a little strange that we care so much about high “food miles” when cut flowers are crossing the nation, causing extra pollution as they go.

So what’s an eco-minded mommy-lover to do the next time Mother’s Day rolls around? If you live far away, you have a couple options:

1. Send money to your mother’s partner, sibling or friend along with a nice card asking them to make the flower purchase from a local grower.

2. Try one of the new plastic flowers, which, according to Dartmouth geographer Susan Freidberg, are lightweight, great looking, made relatively near you and will last indefinitely. The same goes for Christmas trees, but we’ll save that for another post.

Or, you could think of other gifts altogether, like a new painting from that local artist you know she loves.

Reducing the carbon the cut flowers business produces is well within our reach. We just have to be honest about the environmental impact and get creative.

Repair or Replace? Things to Consider When Things Fall Apart

Consideration for the environment is one important factor to weigh when household appliances and electronics wear out or break at home. How do you know whether it’s best to replace something with a newer, more efficient model, take it to the repair shop, call in an expert or drop it off at the nearest recycling center?

While there’s really no hard and fast rule, here are a few common sense guidelines to consider:
Age and replacement cost of what’s broken

No guarantees, but we should expect to get at least ten years out of a major appliance, and frequently more. So for example, if your refrigerator conks out before its time, research the manufacturer online or search by “troubleshooting” and the name of the appliance. Chances are you’ll find several great clues as to what you’re up against.

Once you’ve got an idea of the problem, call a local repair service and speak with a service rep for an idea of repair costs over the phone. Check the price of a service call and see if diagnostics are included.

If it’s sounding expensive, try the old “50 percent rule”: If the repair costs more than half the replacement cost — and your budget allows — consider getting a new one.

Rebates and tax credits

In a nod to energy efficiency guidelines, many utility companies offer rebates to customers who replace inefficient models with newer models offering higher efficiency ratings. Likewise, also be sure and check for federal tax credits for replacing windows, roofing, doors, water heaters, insulation and heating/air conditioning with super efficient products.

Energy efficiency

Great strides are being made every year in improving the energy efficiency of appliances, electronics and household products. To determine which products offer the best energy efficiency for the money and related rebates that may be offered, check out the EnergyStar website, complete with a “Save Energy at Home” tool to help identify and calculate the best savings opportunities.

Natural Makeup: Why and How

We are what we eat…and put on our faces. With the potential side effects of the chemicals in makeup including things like cancer, reproductive and hormonal problems, birth defects or brain damage, the more educated we are as consumers the better.

The first step is learning which chemicals to avoid. Check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics or the Environmental Working Group for up to date information on new studies. EWG’s Skin Deep database is also a great resource where you can enter the name of a product you use and search for both ingredients and associated health effects.

Labels that explicitly state, paraben-, phthalate- or PCB-free are a good place to start. For products that contain food ingredients like avocado, honey or cinnamon, search for the USDA-organic certified label. Know your organic terms before you go. “100% organic” means the ingredients must be (you guessed it!) 100% organic, while a product with “organic ingredients” must only
contain an organic ingredient here and there.

As with all advertising, watch phrasing carefully. Don’t be fooled by the words “green” or “natural” which, in some products have as much validity as saying a drink has “natural flavors” when in fact chemicals outnumber them ten to one.

If you want to enhance your natural beauty naturally, break up with your normal routine. The beauty industry is making great strides toward delivering natural products. If you’re having trouble finding what you need, reach out to your network, see what others are using and connect with other like-minded folks who are concerned with similar issues. And of course, the internet is a great resource for deals and information on natural hair care, makeup, personal and skin care products.

The chemicals that make cameos in our beauty regimens are scary, but there are plenty of great natural options if you’re willing to do a little research.

Additional references

Greening Your Thanksgiving

Say what you will about the Puritans, they were pretty green. This Thanksgiving, get back to the meaning of the holiday and celebrate the harvest like they did back in olden times: with local, organic food.

If you live in a region lucky enough to have a true autumn, you’ll likely be able to stick to the classic Thanksgiving foods.  For our autumn-less brethren, take a good look at what’s in-season within one hundred miles and get creative. You will likely find produce for at least one or two classic Thanksgiving meals, and your new find will save your guests from the tedium of another one of great-grandpa’s, “When I was your age, we didn’t even have food” stories.

Try going organic and free range with your turkey or with a heritage breed ­­­- one at risk of going extinct due to the favoring of breeds better for mass production.

Once you’re in the store, apply the same kind of thinking to all of your purchases. Buy local, organic produce, and consider your real needs carefully. How many sweet potatoes do you really think any given person can eat? That said, if  you will be entertaining a big crowd, buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste. And don’t forget your reusable bags!

When setting the table, ask your friends to supplement your chinaware with their own and fully load your dishwasher to cut down on energy usage. If you must go disposable, at least make it biodegradable.

Now, what to do when it’s all done and you’ve still got an excess of food? Send it home with guests, donate to a food bank or freeze it and enjoy the fall bounty year round!

Even excess fat can be recycled into biofuel – the turkey’s, not your own.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Have your Halloween pumpkins and eat them, too

Few things say autumn and abundance more clearly than the sight of pumpkins piled high at our local farmers’ market or an old-fashioned hay ride with family and friends through an organic pumpkin patch.

This quintessential fall favorite lends itself to any number of entertaining uses, far beyond its jack-o-lantern heritage. Here are a couple of unexpected twists for an old-time favorite that takes one humble little pumpkin from harvest to table and on to its next life with a lot of style and little waste.

Many years ago, my mom went all out for Halloween and baked up a batch of “Pumpkin Stew” – a hearty and delicious Argentinian beef stew (sometimes called “Carbonada Criolla”) served in a 12-pound pumpkin.  Note that this recipe calls for a “sugar pumpkin” – Mom’s take on this was to brush the inside of the pumpkin shell with soft butter and coat it with sugar before baking to give the stew a sweeter taste.

The beauty of this tasty recipe is that you can get multiple uses out of one pumpkin – just remember as you’re preparing the pumpkin to save the seeds for another day’s activities.

Young kids love separating the seeds from the pumpkin flesh, so roasting pumpkin seeds makes for an easy, family-friendly activity before this festive (and nutrient rich) fruit makes its way to your compost bin. And speaking of nutrition, who knew the humble pumpkin seed is such a nutritional powerhouse rich in minerals, antioxidants and vitamins?

These days, time often runs short despite my best intentions and I must simply stop and enjoy the beauty of the autumn days around me – and marvel at the creativity of those who take a humble pumpkin and create a work of art or a family feast. Enjoy this beautiful season!

A Very Green Halloween

Your kids can rest assured: a sustainable Halloween doesn’t have to mean swapping candy for fruit or toothpaste (lame!). There are plenty of fun, easy, eco-friendly ways to get your family as green as a gourd this October 31st. So brush aside those mounds of candy wrappers and green Halloween!

Pairing a good spring-cleaning with autumn is the best way to rid yourself of unsustainable plastic costumes. Link your DIY mentality with the slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” by reimagining what every day objects can do. That old tablecloth could make a great cape, and are you really wearing that colorful poncho you bought several decades ago when you were backpacking through South America?

Consider reusing costumes from past years or hand me downs from other kids. Some cities even run costume swaps, and never forget the power of charity shops. Many costumes share the same base elements, so that ladybug can easily become a turtle with a simple dye job.

Speaking of which, when it comes to hair dye and makeup, try making your own organic vegetable dye and make sure to purchase only natural brands.

Now, what about the candy issue? Try filling your own candy bowl with organic and fair-trade candy or chocolate, and hand out less of it to reduce both tummy aches and the amount of wrappers on the sidewalk. Or you can try getting your neighborhood involved in a reverse trick or treat, where kids hand out cards with information on how to purchase free trade candy for next year.

And hey, if you’re really committed, you can set out recycled toilet paper for teenagers. If they’re going to TP your house, it might as well have a sustainable angle, right?

We wish you a very green Halloween!

Additional References

The Real Carbon Costs of Hybrid and Electric Cars

Doing right by the planet can be tough.  Electric vehicles, for instance, cut down on gas reliance at the pump but may mask hidden carbon costs at a coal-burning electricity plant down the line.  Considering these externalities, how do hybrid and electric cars really compare to gas-powered vehicles?

First, we must consider how much carbon it will take to manufacture, recharge, and dispose of a vehicle.  The efficiency of batteries sharply declines over time, and they also require a significant amount of energy to produce and transport.  Hybrids have lower carbon costs than their gas counterparts overall, but waste energy in lugging both a regular engine and a battery pack.  Additionally, once the car switches to using its gas engine, all the regular inefficiencies apply.

On the positive side, electric batteries are far more efficient at producing energy than a classic internal combustion engine and charging doesn’t add any more onto your energy bill than running your air conditioner overnight.  Several car companies have launched campaigns to develop recharging stations relying on sustainable energy sources, which cuts out the coal power station altogether.  Once your energy company starts making these kinds of switches, too, the external costs for your hybrid or electric vehicle will shrink even further.

The answer, then, to a savvy green consumer’s dilemma is that you must consider your own situation carefully. How often will you be driving your vehicle, and from where will you be sourcing your electricity?  Given the pace of innovation in this field, you may find purchasing an alternative vehicle is a better option in a year or two.  In the meantime, you can always cut out the bottom of your car and use your own two feet like Fred Flintstone!  That’s the caveman green.

Additional References

Life’s Lessons in Sustainability

How about our ability to sustain? That’s sort of what I’ve been working on for the past six months. Whew! Should I even bother telling you that it’s kept me from writing this blog? I’ve started a draft or two but life continues to intervene.

In March we welcomed two new baby lambs who – for the first time – needed hands-on help (we’re talking tube feedings every four hours throughout the night for two weeks). Especially fun at 1:00 a.m. and then again at 5:00 a.m. with the wind, rain, and coyotes howling. It was hard, but it worked. Despite the odds, we saved both little guys.

Lesson 1: Know your limits and commitment to small farming before you jump in. Saving young lambs and other farm jobs take work. A lot of it. 

Then came April, and a sudden call back to the finca (my eco guest house on Vieques island in Puerto Rico) which ended up with me running the place solo, throughout spring break and serving thirty-plus guests a day. Luckily, they were mostly families, which meant flexible, forgiving folks with wonderfully inquisitive kids. I played eco- educator to the kids, teaching them how the finca operates as simply and with as little impact on the environment as possible. I traded their help hanging the laundry with lessons in tarantula catch and release!

Lesson 2: Whenever possible surround yourself with others who want to learn as much as you do and learn from each other. We’re all learning this simple living thing together.

Four days after I returned, my 91-year-old mother had a stroke. She was the person absolutely responsible for giving me my (apparently) diehard commitment to living as environmentally conscious as possible. She “walked her talk” up until the very, very end. She gave her body to science when she passed away at the end of the month, one last expression of her deep, deep commitment to bettering the world, and minimizing our impact in it. Sad yes, I miss her more than I even knew I would. But almost 92 years on this planet surrounded by friends and family, sharing with them the fruit from the trees you’ve planted – it’s a pretty wonderful and fortunate thing. Which somehow balances out the sadness.

Lessons here? Oh, so many. Simply put, as mom would want it: learn as much as you can from your mom while you can. And when it’s real, your walk and your talk are one – and more walk than talk is always best. (That’s 2 of about 2000 lessons learned in April).

Then, a week after my mom passed away, my oldest son was seriously injured in a Jet Ski accident. He’ll be okay – but it has been, and will continue to be, a long, hard haul to recovery. As a commercial fisherman, he isn’t used to hanging around the house, certainly not in a wheelchair. So I’ve been helping out where I can. Somehow in addition to dishes and laundry and lawn mowing, my role as solid waste manager has emerged. I’m coaching him on the cost, and environmental savings of sorting the recycling, yard waste and compost out of the garbage. A sweet backyard garden has emerged. I celebrated by buying them a carton of red worms for the bin.  I may make an urban farmer out of him yet.

Lesson learned? Silver linings abound.  Even in the face of enormous issues, physical or environmental, we are better able to deal with them if we start with optimism and hope.

And then there was July. The month my daughter was supposed to get married, my fortieth high school reunion, and a large family reunion in my mom’s small hometown in Utah. Well, the first event has moved to September (stay tuned for green wedding blogs!) and the other two were perfect punctuation points. Milestones in a year’s seemingly relentless lessons. They were more good opportunities to reflect on it all: what matters, how much it all matters, and what we can do to help. I’m just left wondering – does living actually ever get simple? If so, I’m ready! I’ve somehow sustained!

Lesson here? Yep…I’ve learned it’s clear you can turn just about anything into a lesson – if you’re up for learning.

Take good care of my baby!

When my kids were babies, I wasn’t as environmentally savvy as I am now. In fact, ten years ago, the green movement was hardly a movement at all. More like a slight twitch. Now, as elementary school-ers, my kids are relatively free to explore their world and all I can do is try and make it as safe for them as possible. But when I see all the green and natural baby products we sell at, I worry that my kids are worse off because I didn’t know about all the toxins in home cleaners, the potential dangers of BPA and toxic flame-retardants in almost everything.

With all the warnings and dangers we face, especially on baby and children’s products, it’s a wonder a new mom can stay sane. Frantically trying to keep in mind everything she should and shouldn’t do. The products she shouldn’t use. Perhaps even worse, being undecided while the jury’s still out on several big issues.

So what’s a new mom to do?

Well, there are a few things we know for sure:

If I’d had the choice of natural disposable diapers, I would have gone that way. It doesn’t take an expert to tell me I don’t want chlorine touching my baby’s bottom. (Yes, I know I could have used cloth. But I just couldn’t get past dipping poopy diapers in the toilet.) Another “so now you tell me” concept is all-natural bath and body care.  Again, I’m sure these products existed when my children were babies. I just wasn’t cued into that lifestyle yet. When I think of all the fragrance, sulfates, parabens and toxins I smeared on their skin, I could shudder.

Worrying about your newborn’s safety and wanting the best for that little bundle is normal. But it’s up to each of us to decide what’s right for our family. Be warned, it takes more research today than it did a decade ago. A degree in science wouldn’t hurt, either.