Category Archives: Personal Responsibility

The Phantom of the Electric Bill

The phenomenon known as “phantom electricity” is the continuous sucking of power from everything you leave plugged in – and it’s a big deal, accounting for roughly four billion*, yes BILLION dollars spent annually by residential America. The biggest energy vampires? Television and audio equipment, computers, and large appliances.  

How do you fight back? Simply being cognizant of phantom energy is half the battle. The other half is figuring out what to do about it. The simplest solution is to unplug everything (yes, everything) when you’re not using it: phone chargers, computers, media equipment, lamps and appliances.

Keep in mind; I said “simplest,” not easiest solution.  The easiest is to buy some smart power strips – those extension cord-looking things with several plug-in slots and convenient on/off toggle switches. By using these you can easily plug in everything from one area in your house (say your DVR, DVD player, TV, receiver, speakers, etc.) and simply flip the switch to “off” when everything is powered down. That’ll stop most of the insidious energy-sucking.

More simple ways to stop power bleeding

  1. If you’re not using a power strip, at least put your computer on hibernate mode when not in use.
  2. Disable “quick start” mode on blu-ray players. 
  3. Unplug things you’re not constantly using, like coffee makers, toasters and other small appliances. 
  4. Disconnect your cell phone, Bluetooth, tablet and other chargers once they’re powered up. 
  5. Buy appliances with the Energy Star® rating – they’re designed to use less energy, thus reducing phantom use.

 To learn more about phantom electric use, I’ve included some handy links below.

Phantom Load – a white paper by Student Sustainability Education Coordinators at University of California, Berkeley

Energy Reduction – from the U.S. Department of Energy

Standby Power FAQ  - from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Natural Lawn Care for a Natural Summer

Who doesn’t love summer? It’s practically a nationwide celebration taking place in every backyard, especially for those of us in the Seattle area, who’re used to being doused by rain almost daily. Here in the Northwest, we are most grateful for those rare days of pure sunshine.

I’m excitedly anticipating the days when temperatures have warmed up enough to go barefoot, wiggle my toes in our emerald lawn, cuddle the kids and roughhouse with the dog under the great blue sky.

Get ready to enjoy the season to the fullest, by showing your yard a little TLC. Below are a handful of environmentally-sensible lawn care solutions that’ll keep you and your family happy, healthy and surrounded by all things lush and green.

Avoid chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers. These poisons can affect your family through direct contact or by breathing in the dust and vapors. You can also, unknowingly carry these chemicals inside the house on your clothes, toys and shoes. Seek out natural alternatives – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The folks at your nursery will be happy to make suggestions.

Reduce air pollution by trying out an electric or push mower instead of a carbon-intensive gas powered one. And set your mower to the proper height setting. If it’s set too low, you’re exposing the soil to sunlight and removing stored nutrients in leaf blades. This results in more weeds. Cool weather grasses should be mowed at a height of 2.5-3.5 inches. And warm season grasses should be maintained at 1.5-2.5 inches.

Feed your lawn. It’s important to fertilize your lawn in the springtime to replenish the food reserves your yard uses while dormant in winter. Fertilizing your lawn fuels grass into a phase of rapid growth. If you’ve been composting your kitchen waste, you can use compost to fertilize both your lawn and garden, for a healthy lawn that won’t be overrun by weeds. If you’re not keen on composting, try a packaged organic fertilizer. Want to learn more about composting?  Here’s some good information from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Water your soil, but only when it’s needed for preservation. Try watering in the morning to lessen evaporation. Leaving your grass wet at night can encourage a wide range of fungal diseases as well as weeds that attract pests. When watering, soak the soil just enough to reach the grass roots. A simple trick to tell when you’ve watered enough is to set a baking pan near the sprinkler. When the pan is full, your soil should be properly saturated.

Start taking care of your lawn naturally and enjoy a healthy backyard all summer long.

Compost in the Kitchen – the paper towel dilemma

I’ve always felt a certain level of guilt concerning my wildly indulgent use of paper towels. Spilled soda? Grab a paper towel. Crumbs on the counter? Grab a paper towel. Wet hands? You guessed it, paper towel.

I had always felt bad about my overuse of paper towels and was annoyed by how they filled up the trash can so quickly. So, naturally, I was delighted when Seattle’s waste management program began offering curbside compost pickup. This meant I could now put all my paper towels and kitchen scraps in a small container inside the house and dump it in the big yard waste bin outside.

After I’d been composting for a while, I decided to find out if my little contribution to composting was actually  doing anything useful for the environment, or simply relieving my paper towel-induced guilt. I did a little research and discovered the average household’s compostable waste is about 25% of their total garbage output. I found that to be true after a few months of personal observation.

I’ve now been participating in kitchen composting for almost two years and am pleased to see it catching on. Right now about 90% of single-family households in the Seattle area have compost pickup, and many apartment buildings and businesses (like our parent company, drugstore.com) compost as well.

Unfortunately, these services aren’t available everywhere yet; and just like the evolution of curbside recycling, it’ll probably take years for curbside composting to become the norm nationwide. If your city doesn’t offer these services, you can consider composting in your backyard or find a local drop-off center that’ll take your compostables off your hands for free. It’s easier than you think to get started, check out these at-home compost solutions.

I feel good that I’m helping keep a quarter of my waste out of the trash stream, including all those paper towels, which I stopped using entirely when I saw how fast they were filling up the compost bin. So, this story has a happy ending: Not only am I recycling all my food scraps, I ended up going even greener than I meant to in the first place.

Water: Going without the flow

If thinking green means getting back to basics, it doesn’t get a lot more basic than water.  Here in the soggy-wet, drip-dripping Pacific Northwest, water seems more than abundant. But truth be told, even here, clean drinking water, and clean watersheds for fish and wildlife habitat is getting scarcer and more expensive to maintain.  For you in dryer climates, who live far away from your  water sources, you may already  know the cost, value;  really preciousness, of water. No matter where we live water is an important natural resource we need to be better about saving. And, like so many other steps towards living greener, it’s pretty darn easy to start saving. Here are some of my favorites.

  •  Turn off the faucet while you scrub the veggies, brush your teeth, or wash dishes.
  • Fill the dishwasher completely before running.
  • Take shorter showers; and sadly – fewer baths (which use a lot more water than showers).
  • Install a low-flow showerhead. They don’t cost much, and both  water and energy savings quickly pays back your investment.
  • Make sure you have a faucet aerator on each faucet. These too are inexpensive and save heat and water, while keeping water pressure high.
  • Plant drought-tolerant native plants that need only minimal watering; learn which works best for your climate.
  • Install a 1.6 gallon toilet, or put a brick in the tank to cut down on water use.
  • Buy a water-efficient washing machine, and always wait for large, full loads.
  • Repair leaks, indoors and out.
  • Just be conscious of it pouring, running, or being “on” without need.

And if these all seem too easy for you, right on! Want to move to the next level? Try researching the environmental cost of maintaining a lawn, and what it would do for our national water supply if we found alternatives – from putting in hardscape to drought-loving groundcovers, or vegetable gardens. I’m game. Are you?

The dirt on composting at drugstore.com & TheNaturalStore.com

Talking about a green lifestyle is easy. Living the green actually takes some effort. As long-time advocates of composting, drugstore.com, parent to TheNaturalStore.com, began a composting program in our corporate offices in 2010.

We’ve been actively reducing our carbon footprint at our home office near Seattle, Washington for many years. While we’ve always been advocates of composting, it’s something that’s been difficult to actualize here in our corporate offices. Our biggest barrier was where to locate the compost receptacle. We’re in a high rise with little extra space. But after a discussion with building management and a subsequent grant from the City of Bellevue, we instigated a building-wide composting program. Each tenant received a unique container and biobag liners in their kitchen. Each day, the containers are dumped into a main compost receptacle where they’re collected by Cedar Grove Composting. Cedar Grove transforms food waste into nutrient-rich compost that’s sold in stores all over the country as well as at their Northwest facilities. 

We introduced this program to our employees with an informational brown bag lunch meeting. Cedar Grove, building management and our sustainability team was on hand to discuss the dos and don’ts of the composting process. Together, our teams learned which items are compostable (like food scraps & coffee grounds), which are recyclable (such as, plastic containers & cups) and which go directly into the trash (like plastic utensils & straws). The program turned out to be simple for our employees to grasp, and we enjoy knowing we’re making a difference in our community.

Saving your energy…for things that matter

Okay…so I was sitting down, getting ready to write. Realized music would help, then the fan (because even though the rest of the country seems to be dealing with record cold, ice and snow,  I’m in Puerto Rico – and a tad too warm – at least in here at my desk in the cabin). I look at my topic – “energy savings” …and it hits me. Duh. Turn off the fan, the music, unplug the computer and move out to a picnic table – where I don’t need any energy…except a few brain cells.

And basically that’s it. We can list ten tips, a hundred, or a thousand ways you can save energy – but really, like everything else – it comes down to being  conscious  around everything we do. Just think about saving. Like our parents used to tell us to save our allowance, or maybe we taught our kids, or you are teaching your own now.

But sometimes specifics help get us started thinking differently. Here are some of those perfect no brainer ways to start saving energy; the natural resources that it takes to bring that electricity to our homes, and the money it takes to pay for it.  

  • Set your thermostat a few degrees cooler in the winter and higher in the summer. When I’m home, in the pacific NW, I find a fleece vest is indispensible. I basically live in mine when I’m in the house.
  • Wash clothes in COLD water. As much as 85% of energy used to wash clothes goes to heating the water – and laundry soaps are now designed to clean in cold. Don’t take my word for it, learn more from the green laundry experts at Seventh Generation.
  • Install compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) when incandescent bulbs burn out. Learn how best to dispose them though.
  • Unplug appliances when not in use, or use a “smart” power strip that monitors “phantom load” energy use. Find out more about the phantom load, what we use without realizing it, before things are even turned on.
  • Weather-strip and insulate your house: windows, doors, cracks in the basement.
  • Install a Water Heater Blanket – learn how much it can save you at treehugger.com.
  • Use a clothesline – indoors, in the basement, or out. Even for half the items you’re drying, or half your loads.  

Think about savings on both an individual level, and collectively, in our communities. That’s where the statistics get staggering. The wild numbers that are revealed when you see what happens if everyone did these things.   

So whether it’s your energy, your money, or our energy, our future needs. Let’s save it. These tropical breezes beat the fan any day.

Taking Steps Towards Greener Living

Wondering how to get started towards a smaller eco-footprint? A more natural lifestyle?  We talk about these things as if we all know – and agree – what they mean.  “Going green” might take on a different meaning for each of us. Contrary to popular myth, going green doesn’t mean you must wear Birkenstocks or dreadlocks. It doesn’t mean you vote one way or another. Some of my best friends and neighbors are of opposing political views. But there’s one unifying issue we all see eye to eye on: wanting to live as healthy and naturally as possible. We shouldn’t make assumptions – what we should do is figure out individually what we want “green” to mean. Is your priority on family’s health? Our planet’s health? Saving your cash resources? Our natural resources? Is it climate change? Whatever motivates you, it’s crucial for you to try and get information from as many sources as possible. Think of me as a little nudge, a helpful friend, but certainly not the authority. There isn’t one single authority anyway. Secondly, prioritize your steps – go for those that are easiest, most cost effective and/or most important to you.   

There are a ton of Top 10 Ways to Go Green lists online. We’ve found some that were too simplistic to be helpful. Others that were overly confusing. So we’ve compiled our own list.  All these ideas could, or should, save you time or money… maybe even the planet. Or at least your small piece of it.

There are 10 key areas I use to organize my thoughts, and efforts, around:

  • Energy
  • Water
  • Transportation
  • Diet
  • Plastics
  • Shopping & Consumption
  • Garden & Yard
  • Trash (solid waste management)
  • Chemicals
  • Learning

In the coming weeks, I’ll focus on one or two of these areas at a time and share some of my favorite ways to make changes. I’d love to hear yours. Until then, why not test your knowledge on a variety of Green subjects:

National Geographic’s Green Guide Quizzes

Biodegradable confusion is downright degrading

What you see here is a biodegradable plastic bag – undergoing a real life, real time experimental study – right here in my downright, nearly scientific compost bin. I’m really interested to see firsthand how well these things actually do break down. If you’re as intrigued by this as I am, come back to check its progress as I’ll be monitoring this little guy’s degradation progress over the coming months. This is actually an “air pillow” TheNaturalStore.com uses to ship our orders with – as an alternative to Styrofoam peanuts. So of course I want it to be true to its word …and it says right here on the bag that it should decompose between 6 months and 6 years. (Hmmmmm. How curious are you?) So then we’ll see if I feel as good about putting it into the garden as I do the coffee grounds, corncobs and other organic matter it’s snuggling up with.

There are so many products out now that claim to be biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable, and sometimes “all of the above.” It’s easy to feel confused, dare I say, mislead?? I have this inherent belief that most folks don’t realize that just because something says it’s biodegradable, doesn’t mean it naturally will become “one with the universe” (decompose) because – I hate to break it to you – it actually may not. Not if you throw it in the trash. You see, it all depends. Some biodegradable products are water-soluble, some degrade in the sun (not much sun in the landfill).  A well-known potato chip alternative claims to use biodegradable bags. Sounds great, right?  But I just heard, sadly, their now famous bag actually biodegrades in such high temperatures it takes an industrial composter to do the job, and there are only eight in the nation. So you see, it turns out landfills are anaerobic, specifically designed to prevent decomposing. That way they stay cleaner. That way, when the alien archeologists are sorting through our landfill sites millenniums from now, the landfill contents, theoretically, will look much like they do today. Ugh.

So do you see the potential for confusion? We’re all buying compostable picnic supplies, plastic bags, or lattés in proudly compostable cups – which all sounds good – until you realize the only way any of these will actually decompose is if we put them in water, sun, or with other microorganisms – and how on earth do you know which is which? Which is best? And which is in your landfill?

I’ve decided to go on a quest to clear it up – as best I can. (Hence the experiment). I’ll talk to a few folks in the industry and get back to you. So stay tuned, and until we know more, my advice is to pay attention:

  • Know your own community’s solid waste and recycling capabilities.
    • Ask for recycling, yard waste or composting
  • Read product labels carefully and follow instructions, putting:
    • things that compost in the compost
    • things to recycle in the recycling
    • plain old trash in the trash (Hopefully as little of that as possible)
  • Still best to avoid disposables whenever you can, bring your own commuter cup, your own refillable water bottle, etc. Get creative – even if it means washing an extra dish now and then. 

Just Say No! to Unnecessary Plastic

Story of Bottled Water

Story of Bottled Water

Like many of you, I took a summer vacation. Always fun to be off the farm, out in the world, but hard for me to live as environmentally-friendly on the road, or in the air, as I do at home. And that’s sort of hard for me emotionally – because I really do try to walk my green talk whenever, wherever, possible. But traveling can make that hard. And sometimes it doesn’t even seem possible.

Traveling, we’re out of our element and out of our routines, so it’s a challenge to stay totally true to the cause. I mean, where are the recycling bins? How many containers and package wrappers does each fast food lunch need? I actually started to keep a list of the unnecessary plastic products I was handed on my first flight. By my second flight, I’d given up (the list – not the cause). Too depressing. Each passenger was given a plastic cup for water before take off. And then, who knows how many more throughout the flight. I kept wondering how easy it would be for the flight attendant to simply ask if we would mind keeping that one cup for the whole flight, instead of using three to four per person.

Would people? Would you think that was tacky? I’d think it was totally cool. But my flight attendant seemed nonplussed and sort of hassled when I said I didn’t need the stir stick and a second plastic cup for my tea bag. Pretty sure he thought I was wacky, just like, I’m afraid, my husband does. Pretty sure my kids do.
But I tell you, the more I learn about plastic, the more committed I am, the more comfortable I am, to stand out – if I have to – in order to say “no.”

Like at work, when we order boxed meals for lunchtime meetings. They come with bottled water. Nowadays, I’ve taken to ordering mine “Hold the water.” I know it irks some folks that I do it…but come on! It’s not like we are going on safari here (although lord knows corporate life has its wild side). We’re not even going on a picnic. We’re eating in a conference room with a lunchroom and water fountain down the hall, 20-feet away.

So wacky as it may seem – I’m going for it. I’m going for holding on to one cup throughout the flight, getting my water from the water fountain, and telling the lunch counter person just
wrapping the sandwich in paper alone is fine. (If I’m just about to eat it, I don’t need my paper-wrapped sandwich put in Styrofoam box and then a bag).

Do I think my actions will make a difference on their own? No. I doubt they will. But…If all, or even a bunch of us, got comfortable using less, and speaking out about it – then yes, it could make a tremendous difference. Maybe even all the difference we need. And maybe the boxed lunch folks might throw in an extra cookie – with all they’d save by not including water!