Why Biking is Good for the Planet and for You

By Leah Kaminsky

It’s been nearly a year since I packed up my studio in Seattle and moved down to Austin. And I’m ashamed to report that my bike sat in its shipping packaging for most of that time. Because, you know…unpacking requires effort.

Fortunately, a recent getaway to the Hill Country changed all that. Just a few minutes riding past wildflowers in full bloom and I was extolling biking’s myriad health benefits. Sure, it was a great way to mix up my regular cardio workout, but I also found it cleared my head, relaxed me, and was just a great way to get around.

Since I’ve returned from my trip, I’ve been into my bike, discovering all sorts of new treasures I’d passed a million times in a car and never noticed. It’s so much easier to get in a workout when I combine it with a commute, and I love skating around traffic jams. Plus, as someone who’s still relatively new to town, it buys me a ticket into a whole bike culture here, helping me meet people as I spin away.

Biking is a culture that’s growing as many green cities try to cut down on their carbon emissions and clear out clogged highways. Bikes help us reduce our dependence on gas, produce no more emissions than what we breathe out, and need fewer parts repairs.

Still, biking is unappealing to many people as it can be quite dangerous in cities that are built for cars. You’ll have to look out for aggressive drivers, opening doors, cars that don’t notice you when making turns, and blind spots when riding next to a truck.

If your city is in particular need of a reform, try forming a bike advocacy group and lobbying the city for larger, more visible bike lanes, particularly dedicated greenways and wider streets.

Yes, I know if you’re reading this from your home in San Francisco I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But for the rest of you, I say, give biking a whirl. It’s a great way to get exercise, reduce emissions and get to work in one go. You just can’t say that about walking or driving.

Get Your Back to School Green On

By Leah Kaminsky

As the bliss of summer fades – goodbye sweet barbecues, goodbye lovely visits to the lake – September returns along with all the exciting and overwhelming hassles inextricably tied to your children’s return to school. And while the biggest concern for your kids is likely choosing the right lunch table or doing better in their weakest subject, keeping things eco-friendly in a school setting is a major concern on your mind. How can you maintain your child’s summer green throughout the school year? Here are our top tips.

Get excited for back-to-school season by swapping old habits for greener traditions.

  1. The power of your own two legs. If you live relatively near your school, have your child bike, walk, rollerblade, skateboard, whatever to school, saving carpooling for travel to extracurricular events. This will get blood pumping to your child’s brain in the morning, putting them in the right mood for learning. And it will save on gas, too.
  1. Forget the packaged lunches. Bring your eco-friendly mentality to the lunchbox by packing your child a locally sourced, organic lunch. Be careful to include only as much food as you know they’ll eat – no unnecessary food scraps. Pack with reusable sleeves and containers, whether that’s stainless steel, washable bags, cloth napkins, or BPA-free plastic-ware.
  2. Be strategic with new purchases. So you’ve got your school supply list and your kid is foaming at the mouth with anticipation of your trip to the office supply store. Do your best to keep new purchases low, recycling backpacks and notebooks when you can, and purchasing recycled and refillable pencils and pens. Make old materials like backpacks new by sewing on fun patches. Try to keep your child’s use of paper low, saving old paper for scrap, using both sides, and switching whenever you can over to an e-reader.
  1. Clothe with care. For the perfect back to school outfit, look for clothing made from organic cotton. Buying second-hand clothes is also a great way to go, especially when you’ve given old clothes yourself for store credit. For even more fun, arrange a clothing swap amongst your child’s friends.

Going back to school doesn’t have to mean losing your child’s well-honed green. With a little forethought, your whole family can stay eco-friendly without dampening the excitement of the back to school shop.

Kid-Friendly Green Activities

By Leah Kaminsky

There are two questions that drive parents up the wall: “What’s for dinner?” and “What should I do?” There are a variety of eco-friendly answers to this second one, and they’re likely to be just as interesting to you as they will be to your kids. That’s because going green, at its best, involves getting a little creative.

Having your kids help with yard work on a sunny day is a great way to keep them entertained.

If you’ve got a crafty kid on your hand, have your child scour the house for old, unused materials you can repurpose into something new. Egg cartons can be turned into mobiles and that old tin of beans can become a great place to grow a small plant. Run out of space on the fridge for proudly displaying your child’s artwork? Make room by turning that old artwork into a fun bookmark that will get them crafting and reading. With an inventive mind, you can even build a robot from recycled materials.

Another great idea is to coach your child on growing his or her very first garden. This can be something as simple as planting a seed in a cup and watching it grow on the windowsill to building a raised bed for your deck or even planning for lots of vegetables you can use all year round. Or foster a sense of community by volunteering at your local community garden or at your CSA ­- local, subscription-based farm organizations that encourage eager members to help with the farming..

Learning green cooking principles can be another great way to both entertain your child and teach them important life lessons. Discuss why it’s important to eat in-season before brainstorming tasty recipes and checking out your local farmer’s market. You’ll be killing both the dinner and the entertainment question with one stone.

There are many more ways to have fun in classic green style, just as long as everyone involved gets a little bit inventive. And if all else fails, there’s nothing quite so green as, “Go outside and entertain yourself.” Right?

Make Your Summer Hours More Green

By Leah Kaminsky

Are any of us actually productive on a sunny day? We didn’t think so. That’s why so many kind-hearted and wise companies switch to summer hours during sun-kissed months, allowing employees to skip out early just as long as they get all their work done on time.

Summer is a great time for rest, relaxation and fun, but for the eco-minded office worker, it can also be a time for green activities. Here are our top three picks for the best green ways to spend those extra summer hours.

1. Go berry picking

Whether you’re on a mission to recreate the children’s book Blueberries for Sal, or you just can’t resist a freshly picked strawberry, berries are an irresistible glory in the summer months (as are all summer fruits). Do a little web research into what kind of fruit will be ripe in your area, skip out on that lunch meeting and head out to a local farm. You’ll have plenty of pie-making and canning opportunities waiting for when you return home.

2. Make a Rain Barrel

There are few things greener than water conservation, especially if you live in one of the many areas around the country that experiences terrible droughts. Make a rain barrel out of an old trash can and use what you capture to water your plants, garden, trees and yard. It’s easy and fun to do, especially for kids.

3. Go for a Hike

One of the best ways be green is to be out in green. Pick the kids up from summer camp, lace up your boots and head out to a local trail. Use your hike as an opportunity to teach kids about wild life and plants, or perhaps even as a lesson in how to forage. The whole family will get a good dose of fresh air and maybe even a lifelong love of the great outdoors.

There are more green summer activities than there is time in the day. Use your extra summer hours to their eco-max.


The True Benefits of Organic Produce

By Leah Kaminsky

Earlier this week, I stumbled on a blog post in Scientific American supposedly busting top myths about organic produce. Then I fell into a wormhole reading all the articles calling the myth buster wrong (see references), until my brain was no better than a scrambled egg. An organic one, of course.

All of this got me thinking: what are the differences between organic and non-organic produce anyway?

If your first answer is, “Pesticides, of course!” you’re right. And wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, organic farmers do use pesticides. There’s no way to feed the entire world if we don’t keep the pests away. The difference, however, is that organic pesticides are derived from natural sources, not made synthetically in the lab. Though they don’t appear to be quite as toxic as their synthetic counterparts which count endocrine-disruption and birth defects among their lovely side effects, they’re still not great to consume.

But whether or not this is problematic depends largely on the grower. What if an organic farm sprays its crops three times a week while a factory farm sprays with synthetics once a year? It’s very likely that the produce raised with synthetic pesticides would, in the end, contain less pesticide

Still, this could seem like a case of lax or confused guidelines and a lone farmer looking to capitalize on the organic trend rather than a problem with organic produce itself. Synthetic pesticides take much longer to break down both in our bodies and in the environment than natural ones, causing damage during those elapsed years.

These arguments also seem to ignore the social aspect. Organic farmers, after all, tend to be movers and shakers – at the cutting edge of the newest farming technology. They’re far more likely to diversify and rotate their crops to prevent monoculture and promote rich soil, both essential elements in creating sustainable agriculture.

So, the question remains: is organic produce still worth the expense for you as a consumer? Yes. Just make sure you know what kind of farmer you’re buying from.

Mixing Up Natural Bug Repellant for Peace of Mind

By Leah Kaminsky

Raise a hand if you’ve experienced this before: you want to sit outside on an idyllic but mosquito-filled summer’s night. You reach for the bug repellant and your eye falls on this abbreviation in the ingredient list: DEET, a chemical linked to neurological problems, skin and eye irritation, and who knows what else. Not to mention all the other big chemicals you can’t pronounce. You opt for the screened-in porch instead.

Sound familiar? Well, don’t pack those lawn chairs up yet. There’s a solution around the corner, and its name is essential oils.

As you may have noticed, insects aren’t like us. While we pay extra money to get massaged with essential oils, bugs like to stay as far away from them as possible. Mix just a few potent drops with any household oil (olive, vegetable, etc.) or in rubbing alcohol and those bugs won’t touch you.

Different essential oils repel different bugs, so choose yours based on the worst culprits in your area. For mosquitoes, try cinnamon, citronella or castor oil. Lemon or regular eucalyptus oil is also great for mosquitoes, ticks and lice, while rose geranium oil is only effective on ticks and lice. If you’ve got more than one of these pests, try a mix n’ match approach. Carpet-bombing can’t hurt anyone except the bugs.

As a general rule, go for one part essential oil for every 10-20 parts oil or alcohol. Add aloe vera for a lotion-like feel.

Apply your natural bug repellant like you would any other, avoiding sensitive areas like your eyes. Store what you don’t use in a dark bottle and keep it out of the sun.

So there you have it. Mix together a few oils and you’ll have your completely natural route to total bug aversion. Bugs beware!

Say “I Do” to Planning a “Green” Wedding

By Leah Kaminsky

Weddings don’t just have a big impact on your wallet, they affect the environment, too. If you’re an eco-minded fiancée, here are a few ideas to keep the waste and emissions of your nuptials to a minimum.

Pick a central location.

If you’re like me, you’ve got family and friends spread out all over the world. Think strategically about where you have your wedding, choosing a location that’s central for as many people as possible.

Use local resources.

Wherever you go, draw from local resources. Find in-town caterers who support local, organic farmers. Or, if you grow your own food or flowers, source them right from your garden, leaving meat off the menu. Cut out the global labor and resource chain by finding a seamstress in town to make your dress. Hire in-town staff to reduce the carbon cost of travel emissions.

Embrace the backyard with DYI.

For a hyper-local wedding, hold it right in your backyard. Decorate tables with colorful fruit, or knit your own flowers for a cute, green gift your guests can take home. Another great idea: pick a wedding date when the flowers are sure to be in bloom and forget the florist altogether.

Recycle and repurpose.

From the invitations and thank you cards to the placards on each table, work only with recycled paper. Wear a friend or family member’s old wedding dress, or have a seamstress turn your plain white dress into something spectacular you can wear time and time again. You can even decorate the venue with crafts and sculptures made from recycled materials.

And of course, make sure that the venue is set up for recycling the day of, too.

With these tips in hand, you’re sure to have a fun, green wedding. Congrats!



Tips for Traveling Green This Summer

By Leah Kaminsky

For the eco-conscious traveler, staying green on the road can present a wide range of problems. There’s little to buy in the airport that isn’t vacuum-sealed with plastic and unfortunately, bottled water is a necessary evil in developing countries. That said, there are still many options available, just as long as you consciously apply those green principles you use at home when you’re traveling.

Choosing a Hotel

Many hotels are slapping the word “green” next to their name these days, so be sure to use a resource like the Green Hotels Association to find properly vetted places. If you can’t find one in your destination and price range, take preventative measures, like leaving a note asking housekeeping not to change your sheets and towels unless you ask them to. Also, bring your own reusable water bottles and toiletries so the staff won’t have to throw out your partially used soaps at the end of your stay.

Just like at home, turn off all lights and electronic equipment, switch off both heat and air conditioning when you leave for the day and take short showers.

Getting There and Back

By far, the place where travelers have the highest environmental impact is on getting to and from their destination. You can offset some of those emissions by using a carbon exchange, by opting for the train if you’ll be traveling a particularly short distance (especially in Europe), or by renting a hybrid or electric car. No matter what mode of transportation you choose, packing light will use less fuel.

Once You’re There

Get to know the local culture by shopping for snacks in farmer’s markets, and make sure the products you buy really are local. Don’t take any brochures or maps unless you’re sure you’ll use them, and instead, use your smart phone when you can. If you’ll be out in the wilderness, stay on the trails and don’t touch the wild life. And, most of all, get around on your own two feet. Walking and also biking are great ways to immerse yourself in a local culture. Using public transport is another good option and will get you oriented to you new surroundings much more quickly than a cab ever will.

Staying green while you’re traveling is well within your means, as long as you think it through ahead of time and stay on your toes. Happy trails!

Superfoods For The Savvy Shopper

By Juli Goetz Morser

Doesn’t it seem like every six months a new super food hits the headlines as the be-all-and-end-all cure for some common or chronic health ailment? Think acai berry, pomegranate, coconut water, goji berries for some of the latest trends or salmon, blueberries, oats and walnuts for the old timers. If food is what we consume to provide nutritional support for our bodies, then super foods are touted to go beyond basic nutrition with claims to lower cholesterol, control diabetes, fight heart disease, strengthen the immune system, and generally help us live longer.

Since we all want to live healthy lengthy lives, these new and old ‘discoveries’ and their so-called healing properties can be pretty alluring. Kind of like the silver bullets for health. But you’ve got to wonder if these claims amount to, well, a hill of beans. Unfortunately, this is where things get a little murky. For instance, last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the health claim that omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. But when used on a label, the claim has to say that the research is not conclusive. Kind of confusing, huh?

So what is a savvy shopper to do? Well one approach is to simply not worry about eating specific foods for specific ailments until the FDA gives the final word. Another option is to go ahead and add a variety of these calorie sparse and nutritionally dense super foods to an overall healthy diet. Why not? It may not be the quick fix you are looking for or even the magic answer, but it just might be something worth eating for.

Here are some everyday super foods to put on your grocery list:

Beans – the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend three cups weekly of these fiber-filled nuggets. They are also a good low fat source of protein, carbohydrates, magnesium and potassium. Edamame (whole soybeans) also contain omega-3 fatty acids for an added bonus.

Blueberries – the darker the better. These small berries are packed with antioxidants, phytoflavinoids, vitamin C and potassium. Berries in general are low in calories, high in water and fiber, and can satisfy sweets cravings with a lot fewer calories than typical baked goods. Frozen berries are said to be just as good, nutritionally, as fresh ones.

Broccoli – this may be one of America’s favorite veggies. It appeals to all ages and is available year round. It is a rich source of Vitamin A, C and K and has plenty of fiber.

Dark orange vegetables – sweet potatoes, carrots, orange bell peppers, butternut squash and pumpkin are all super high in vitamin A. Sweet potatoes, unlike white potatoes, also are loaded with vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.

Eggs – the incredible edible egg contains 12 vitamins and minerals, including choline, while also providing quality protein.

Low fat or fat-free yogurt – believe it or not, low or fat-free yogurt is actually higher in calcium than some other dairy products. It is a top quality source of protein and potassium and can contain probiotics, which help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the intestines.

Nuts – the key to nuts is how much you eat. They rate well due to their protein, antioxidant, high fiber and heart-healthy fat content, but watch the quantity. Go for small portions, about 100 calories a day.

Oats – naturally! Rolled oats or even food that contains a lot of oat bran are the rare super foods with an FDA approved label that they may reduce the risk of heart disease when combined with a low fat diet.

Quinoa – this ancient grain is high in protein and is a good source of iron, zinc, vitamin E, selenium and fiber. In addition to quinoa, try these whole grains: barley, buckwheat, millet, wild rice, and whole wheat.

Salmon – the American Heart Association recommends eating cold water fatty fish like salmon twice a week because they are chock full of the omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon is low in calories and saturated fats, high in protein and is a good source of iron. Choose wild over farmed salmon when possible as farmed salmon may contain elevated levels of contaminants and artificial coloring.

Dark Chocolate – a super food? Really? Yes, really. Dark chocolate with 60% or higher cocoa content is a potent antioxidant. And the darker it is, the lower the fat and sugar content. Oh, and did we say it’s yummy?

Growing Your Own Food in an Urban Environment: Part II

By Leah Kaminsky

In Part I of this series, we learned how to use recycled or re-purposed containers and a windowsill to grow an urban garden. Today we’ll look at two other great routes—raised beds and grow bags.

For those with a little more space (or the willingness to give up the whole patio), raised beds are a great way to grow a full and vibrant garden that can feed the entire family. Raised beds are freestanding structures made with wood, stone, concrete or any easy-to-use building material. They’re filled with soil and compost and customized to fit the dimensions of the available space. The beds need to be at least eight inches to three feet in height according to the needs of the produce you’ll be growing there.

Raised beds are an easy way to make spaces arable that normally aren’t. If you live in an apartment building and have access to both a balcony and rooftop, you can grow produce with high sunlight demands on the roof and those with lower demands on the balcony. In that way, raised beds increase the versatility of the food you grow.

If building your own bed (or hiring someone to do so) sounds too complicated, you might want to buy a grow bag at your local gardening center. These relatively inexpensive bags are durable yet flexible, accommodating a range of spaces even when filled with soil. Try enlisting other tenants in your apartment building to purchase several dozen for the building rooftop. You can plant just one crop or several and have your own rooftop farm. Once harvest time rolls around, celebrate community work with a big cooking party or barbeque.

No matter what route you take, urban gardening is a wonderful way to create a self-sustaining garden and have a little fun while you’re at it.