Monday, December 31, 2012

After the Storm

My Christmas was picturesque this year. We woke up and watched my 18 month old scoot down the stairs. His first exclamation was “wooooow!” The look on his face was priceless, and the kind of thing you will remember forever. This was really the first Christmas where he could open presents by himself and really notice that the living room was full of things for him.

Pretty soon, there was a sea of wrapping paper that resembled a very choppy ocean and if not for the movement I probably couldn’t tell where my son was. Amidst this I thought to myself, “I wonder how many trees it took to make this wrap?” Though we recycled everything (except the bows and ribbons of course) it still weighed on my mind.

Our recycle cart is overflowing and it gives me some comfort knowing that we at least are recycling. As I drive down the street on garbage day, I can see just how many people didn’t recycle their wrap, boxes, bags, packaging from their family meals, and all the rest of the “stuff” that goes along with the holiday.

What happened to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle? I try to live this but I must admit that I hadn’t thought about my holiday impact very much until now.  I think next year, Santa is going to put together all toys and have them sitting out without being wrapped.  After all, every Christmas movie I have seen shows Santa leaving toys under the tree without them being wrapped.

Anyone have any other tips or ideas on how to reduce the impact of the holiday season on the environment?

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Christmas Tree

This past weekend, my husband and I packed up the baby and went to the tree nursery to pick out the perfect tree for our Victorian home. We walked in the semi-heated outdoor tent where we could get the Fraser Fir of our Christmas dreams. The fragrance kind of hits you in the face when you walk in those places don’t it? It certainly seemed to impress our 18 month old who proudly proclaimed “woooow” when he saw the trees.

We found our tree, paid for it, and went home to set it up. After about 10 minutes of our son being afraid to go near the tree, he then proceeded to bat at it with his plush baseball bat. Apparently it was not cool with him that the tree was set up in his toy area. After that fiasco was over we noticed another pungent smell that hits you in the face.

My husband turned to me and said, “Do you smell a skunk?” Yep, I did. Why? We tried figuring this out for several minutes and finally came to the conclusion that it was the tree. When growing in its tree farm, it had been sprayed. We were sure at this point there was no skunk in the tree. We checked. So, we waited it out and lit as many good smelling candles we could find to help us deal with it.

Why would anyone go through something like this to have a real tree as opposed to getting a fake one? Which one is more environmentally friendly? We are always talking about saving trees and recycling your paper so why cut down millions of Christmas trees for this strange tradition every year?

As it turns out, it is still more environmentally friendly to get a real tree than a fake one. This article on Earth 911 tells you all about the pros and cons. The main points are:

·         Artificial trees contain PVC, metals, and some older ones have lead.

·         They will sit in landfills for centuries without biodegrading. And, they are not recyclable.

·         More than 85% of the artificial trees sold in the USA come from China. (Do they celebrate Christmas?) So that is a long way to travel with a big environmental footprint.

·         “Approximately 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year, according to the U.S. EPA. Luckily, about 93 percent of those trees are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs.” These are the curbside collections mostly.

·         A single real tree absorbs more than a ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime before being cut. With 350 million trees growing for Christmas purposes that is a big carbon sink.

·         Did you know each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people?

So pungent odors aside, I think the real tree still wins my vote. In the meantime, I will be working on improving my tree picking skills ‘til next year’s tree is chosen.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Let the shopping begin!

Now that the Turkey is eaten, the leftovers gone, and the house guests have vacated the premises, it is time to start your holiday shopping! Did anyone go out on Black Friday? I have to say that I ventured out but not until after 2pm. At that time, the only places that were crowded were places to eat. Everyone had bought their door buster deal items and retreated to one of the many food establishments to re-fuel.

As I was shopping the few small businesses I needed a few things from, I noticed that there is a big difference between them and the big box stores. Oddly enough, the difference is in the name of the comparison.

Big boxes vs. small boxes.

Have you ever noticed that in small businesses, aka mom and pop shops, the amount of packaging almost always seems to be less than that of the big box retailers? I remember reading somewhere that the built in price of the packaging can be anywhere from 1 to 10 percent of the item’s total cost.

That reminds me.

As you are shopping the latest and greatest items this season, be sure to keep in mind what you learned from my Pre-cycling post. Think about the packaging and the item you are buying based on its recyclability, longevity, and reuse.

In the 5 weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Americans trash more than 1 million TONS MORE every week than usual. Let’s see if we can’t make a dent in that increase this holiday season. So here are a few green holiday tips to guide you.

1.       Save and reuse your cardboard boxes.

2.       Green your meal prep by buying fresh produce with no packaging, recycling your containers and give food gifts (like cookies!!) in reusable containers.

3.       Make recycling easy for guests by making small recycling bins visible and available for use.

4.       Create an art project for the kids and have them color those larger holiday season newspapers. Use it as a great personal gift wrap that is fully recyclable!

Happy shopping!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gobble, gobble!

The biggest eating holiday of the year is upon us. Well, maybe Super Bowl Sunday is bigger, but, nonetheless, Thanksgiving is big. It is big in many ways. Not only do you have to break out the sweatpants to make room for the extra indulgences, but your recycle bins are also likely to be busting at the seams. While you hit the malls and the gym the following day, your recycle bin isn’t so lucky.

Every day Americans use 100,000,000 steel cans. On Thanksgiving, we are likely to use around 200,000,000. All of those cans that hold our beloved green beans for the green bean casserole, the cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin for the traditional pumpkin pie are all part of this huge increase.

Here are a few quick facts about this widely used food packaging material:

o   Steel cans make up about 90% of the U.S. food can market.

o   Americans use about 100 million steel cans every day. That's 36.5 billion cans a year.

o   Around 63% of steel cans are recycled, making them the most recycled packaging product in America.

o   Steel cans contain at least 25% recycled steel, but many are made almost entirely of recycled steel.

o   Every minute, approximately 20,000 steel cans are recycled in the United States. Using recycled steel to make new steel saves energy. The steel industry saves enough energy in one year to electrically power 18 million homes for one year.


While you hit the malls and the gym the following day, your recycle bin isn’t so lucky. If you don’t have an extra bin, try using some extra cardboard boxes to hold the additional recyclables. Or if you don’t participate in your community’s curbside program, now is a great time to start. Many programs are free or at a very low cost. Another great benefit is that you won’t have to buy additional garbage cans. Or maybe you won’t have to replace the ones you currently have so often if you have an outlet for the recyclables. Prevent your garbage cans from overflowing and give your recycle bin some stretchy pants this holiday season. It’s likely to need the extra room!


Friday, November 16, 2012

I recently embarked upon a journey through the brains of 5th graders. As part of an educational segment on the 3 R’s and recycling in general it is interesting to see the differences in what kids know and how much or how little they know about certain things. And while this journey took me through weird alternate dimensions, there are some lessons I have taken away from this experience.

First, kids know more than you think they do. I was surprised to find out that they pretty much all knew that their trash was taken to landfills. (We don’t’ have any incinerators in our area) And I was also surprised to find that several knew that landfills produced methane gas. It seems like this topic isn’t a very popular one but they did understand, for the most part, how a landfill works. When we got to the recycling part, many did know that you recycle to save resources and that their materials were made into new things.

The alternate side of this is that I was taken aback by the things they didn’t know. Mostly, they hadn’t learned enough about this topic to connect the dots as to what conserving resources, or not conserving them, means to us and to the Earth. The fact that reusing and recycling material is throwing less away not only saves the landfill from producing more methane; but it also means using fewer resources and all the energy and pollution prevented from that end as well, seemed to turn on a light bulb. It literally looked as if 90% of them had a little light bulb hovering over their heads that turned on. It was just like in a cartoon.

There is something so satisfying about being the catalyst for this thought process. Critical thinking skills like this will keep verifying the need to acutely develop them if not every week then every month of their lives. What a great way to begin this journey in life by thinking critically about your role in the community, the region, the country and the world.

Tags: Bloomington Recycling, Normal Recycling, Decatur Recycling, Peoria Recycling

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beware of the haunted recycling centers!

They are all over the country. You can even find one right here in Normal, Illinois! Recyclable materials fly off the floor and float along the second story of the building. Materials fly this way and that without any explanation of what is happening. Before you know it, steel cans fly off the belt and disappear into thin air. Not too far from there Aluminum cans are being thrown 3 feet away! In other areas in the building you see bottles flying off and disappearing, and paper falls into a black hole, never to be seen again!

Ok, so maybe it isn’t haunted but the sorting of the material by sophisticated machinery makes the process feel like there is paranormal influence. Most people would say they have never seen ghostly spirits, much like a material recovery facility. It is an amazing thing to see, and you can catch multiple glimpses of the spirits in action right on YouTube.  Did you see anything you may have recently recycled?

Many municipalities have made it easier than ever to recycle more materials than ever before, and a lot of that is thanks to the sophisticated (though possibly slightly haunted) material recovery facilities. Once your material enters the system to be sorted it takes less than a minute until it is separated into its own storage area, waiting to be baled. After the spirits in the center bale the material it is sent out all over the country, and the world, to be made into new products.

It is all so magical that just maybe there are witches involved, putting spells on our recycling!

Tags: Bloomington, Normal, Central IL Recycling, Midwest, Decatur, Peoria


Friday, October 12, 2012

Recycling Myths: Debunked

I hear a lot of these myths repeated over and over (because if you say something enough it has to be true, right?), and I wanted to set the record straight.

Myth 1: You have to remove the caps from your bottles before you recycle them because the cap and the bottle are different kinds of plastic.
Fact 1: The caps should be left on! The recyclers have a very efficient way of getting the two different plastics separated. Once the bottles get to the recycler, they are chipped and put into a vat of water. One of the types of plastic floats and one kind sinks. Skim off the floating plastic and voila!

Myth 2: As long as my diabetic pens/ needles are in a hard plastic jug I can recycle it because the jug is recyclable.
Fact 2: Nope, needles should never be placed in with the recycling, even if they are in a hard plastic jug with the lid taped on. Why? Have you ever seen a recycling processor facility? View it here. Many of the parts in the process can crush or crack open the lid of that container, thus, throwing needles all over. Obviously, this poses a health and safety risk for the employees. So what should you do? Take that jug and put it in with the regular trash, or buy a sharps container from your pharmacy and follow disposal instructions.

Myth 3: Food-stained and grease soaked paper can be recycled.
Fact 3: In the paper making process, recycled paper must be turned back into pulp to make new paper. The paper is put into a churning vat of water and made into pulp. Oil and water don’t mix and thus the oil causes spots and holes in the finished product. Your best bet? Tear or cut out the food soaked areas and recycle the rest. Your food soaked paper can also be composted.

Myth 4: I heard that I can recycle my plastic bags with my curbside recycling.
Fact 4: Even though plastic bags are recyclable, they are not accepted in most curbside programs. They get caught in the machinery and can cause a lot of damage. Take these bags back to the grocery store where most have a plastic bag recycling center in the entrance area. FYI, those plastic bag programs also take newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, bread bags, and Ziploc bags (sans food of course).

Myth 5: Recycling is a time consuming burden on the American public.
Fact 5: Recycling does not require much time at all. In fact, the author of Recycling is Garbage asked a college student to measure the time he spent separating materials for recycling during one week. The total time was a mere 8 minutes.

So there you have it, 5 recycling myths Debunked. Thirsty for more? Just ask a question in the comments and I will answer to the best of my abilities!

Tags: recycling Bloomington il, recycling Normal il, recycling Springfield il, recycling Decatur il, recycling Peoria il

Friday, October 5, 2012

Things you didn't know about recycling

I would be willing to bet that most people have no idea what actually happens to their recycling once it leaves the curb. Do you know where it goes or how much of an impact you and your community are having on the planet and the economy? What about the kinds of items in our everyday lives that can be and are made out or recycled materials?

Even as an avid recycler all of my life, I didn’t know the answers to all of these questions up until a few years ago. 

There are still many people in the country who don’t recycle because they believe that there are no savings in energy, pollution, or other environmental impacts. There is so much information out there about the environmental impacts of recycling and its ability to help manufacturing plants save time, energy, water, and ultimately money. Governments from local to federal benefit financially through job creation and savings from avoided hazardous clean-ups as well. From paper mills to glass plants to can manufacturers, all can see the benefits of using recycled material. But they all have to get past the hurdle at the curb.

Your recycling, much like your trash, has a long journey once it leaves your curb. There are several videos on YouTube that show what a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) does to separate recyclables but I like this one that explains each part of the process. There are plenty of videos on YouTube though that show the process as it can be different from one MRF to another. However, all MRF’s have the same purpose: to sort materials into separate saleable commodities.

This brings me to my next point of the materials we use that are made from recycled material. If we aren’t creating demand for materials made with recycled content then nothing changes. We need to close the loop and consciously buy products that have recycled content. For example, there are many play sets, park benches, and decking that is made from recycled milk jugs (#2, HDPE plastic). In fact, a company right here in Illinois does this. There are new Pilot ® pens that are made from recycled plastic bottles (#1, PET plastic). You can buy them at Wal-Mart. Speaking of the retail giant; did you know that they have a packaging scorecard? The company is actively trying to persuade vendors who sell products in their stores to “green” their packaging through recycled content, reduced amount of packaging, biodegradability, etc.  There are many active programs in the U.S. that are making small steps to help influence the demand for recycled content in products and packaging. That is what it is all about right? Baby steps to a greener life.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Arsenic, mmm!

Why is it that every time I turn around I am hearing about some chemical they found in the food supply in exorbitant amounts? Not only are they finding it, they are finding it in amounts that are more than likely harmful.

Let’s take for example the recent findings of Arsenic, the non-organic form, found in rice and rice containing foods. Consumer reports found extremely high levels even in Organic infant rice cereals. Arsenic. A known category 1 carcinogen. Did you know the EPA recommends levels no higher than 5 parts per billion (ppb) in our drinking water? They settled for 10 ppb though since most states wouldn’t adopt a level that strict. So, now we see that our foods have levels anywhere from none to over 960ppb. Even my son’s infant organic rice cereal was found to have levels between 149ppb and 274ppb. Why?

Here is the link to the story, and here is the link to the report.  There is a good reason for it, we are told. You see, Chicken farm concentrations in the United States happen to be in the same areas of the country as our rice farms. (Yea, I didn’t know we grew rice in the US either.) But, what is happening is this: The chicken farmers feed the chickens feed that is laced with Arsenic because it prevents certain diseases. Arsenic is excreted from the chickens. The farmers take the waste and make it into fertilizer for the rice farmers to use. The rice farmers are applying this fertilizer in huge amounts. Lastly, because of the way rice grows in flooded fields, it allows for easier absorption of the substance.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that they not only have found alarming levels in rice, but they have found high levels in fruit juices too. The same report I linked to above refers to this study as well.
Considering I heard on NPR this morning that 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetime, I think this should be something we are paying more attention to. Maybe we shouldn’t be focusing so many of our efforts on the treatments of Cancer but on the preventative efforts like keeping chemicals out of our food. I’m switching off rice completely in the meantime though.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sweeping the Nation

It’s hard to believe that there are places in this country with no recycling options available to them. It seems to me that recycling is a basic service. It should exist everywhere, and sometimes it seems like it is everywhere.

Open up the newspaper and you read about plastic bag recycling programs, electronics recycling programs coming to your area, Terracycle programs starting up, and of course new curbside recycling programs. Why then, with all of this publicity, are there so many counties and towns without any recycling options?

Current data suggests that curbside recycling serves half of the U.S. population. Another third of the population is suggested to be served by drop-off recycling facilities. While nearly 86% of Americans have access at the curb or within 10 miles of their home, we still see the nation’s recycling rate is stuck at 31 to 34% depending on whose numbers you use. We aren’t the best recyclers in the world, believe it or not.  We aren’t even second best. How about third, fourth, fifth? Nope. Would you believe seventh among developed countries? Creating 4-7 pounds of waste per person per day, we have a lot of room for improvement. Hey, maybe we can start with providing recycling nationwide? Maybe, too, the recycling programs are the same, no matter where you go. This would take a lot of the confusion out of it, that’s for sure. And confusion about what is acceptable is a leading cause of people not recycling.

Consider this image that many of us have seen before.  Roughly 40% of our waste materials are recyclable in typical curbside or drop-off programs. Another 24% is readily compostable, and many of the textiles that make up 8% are reusable, or recyclable. This gives us 72% of our waste that is recyclable or readily compostable.

Without doing too much math, I would think that if all of the people in the 86% of the population with recycling available to them were recycling and composting just 50% of that 72% we could increase our diversion rate tremendously.
Let’s start a movement! If you don’t have acceptable recycling options in your area, contact your local officials, get a petition going, and show your local government that residents do care and are committed to using resources responsibly.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Humans have lived on this plant for thousands of years, and for much of it, very harmoniously with the surrounding ecosystems. Wildlife is an important part of our ecosystem and the key to our ability to live on this planet. Still, most people don’t understand our dependence on nature and how we affect the balance of these systems.

There is a campaign going on right now, and actually has been an ongoing battle for years now, regarding the Safe Chemicals Act before congress. The League of Conservation Voters is running a campaign to try to get congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act which will force chemical companies to provide safety and health information prior to a chemical being released on the market in our everyday products. As it stands right now, the Toxic Substances Control Act doesn’t do enough to keep us safe and the EPA doesn’t have information it needs to determine if chemicals pose a health risk or not. Thousands of chemicals enter our beauty, hygiene, and everyday cleaning products that are not tested for their health and safety risks.

Even with all of the press related to rising levels of many diseases, cancers, and other illnesses, nothing is getting done, and it doesn’t stop with human life. Consider these recent articles. One from a couple of weeks ago regarding an EPA approved pesticide to kill birds. Then, another article appeared a week later about the EPA allowing overheated water from power plants to be released into our waterways. Read these articles and glean what you will, but I look at them and see an agency who is dysfunctional. On one hand they tell companies not to release air pollutants because of bird and tree effects, and on the other they are permitting chemicals specifically to kill birds, and allowing the killings of marine life due to extreme temperatures of water ecosystems.

Again, these are big problems with far-reaching influences and both positive and negative consequences. The EPA is a large agency with many departments and I am sure there is a lot of “one hand not knowing what the other is doing” going on there. But, we need to act on these issues and fix the seemingly broken agency and the obviously broken regulations.  

A few baby steps for the beginner:

1. Sign the online petition on the LCV website. You don’t have to call and talk to anyone and you don’t have to attend a big protest rally. Easy. 

2. Make the switch to organic products with no chemicals or compounds you can’t pronounce. The simpler the ingredients list- the better, is my rule of thumb. Easy. Try Method products, Tom’s of Maine products and Seventh Generation. All great in my book!

Again, I don’t claim to be completely switched over from chemicals but, I try. And that always counts for something right? What do you find is the hardest item(s) to change?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Curb Cash

I don’t think there is a week that goes by that either I or my husband aren’t finding money on the ground or something on the curb that someone threw out that has plenty of use and value left in it.

I know a lot of people don’t think much of dropping a penny and therefore don’t bother to pick it up. But, when you find 2 to 10 cents every day it adds up in the piggy bank. What about finding more than that? My husband and I were on a walk and he found a folded up $20 bill on the ground. When I was little I found a folded up $100 bill on the ground in Chicago. This is nothing to scoff at.

When the money you find is not actual dollars and cents, it can turn out even better for you. How? Who reading this has gone dumpster diving or curb diving or found themselves being an alley-wookie (thanks for the term, Star Wars loving friend of mine)? These things people throw out can have a lot of value to you or someone else. And I don’t just mean by selling the scrap metals.

Here is a list of items my husband in particular has found on curbs, in dumpsters during student move-out, and elsewhere.

-          Dollars upon dollars of change and folded cash

-          Brand new bottles of cleaning products and new boxes of aluminum foil

-          Cut and ready to burn firewood (we haven’t had to buy firewood in years to fuel our backyard get together events)

-          Desks (yes that is plural)

-          Tables and chairs, side tables, and other furniture]

-          Expensive china, still in the box!

-          Live plants

-          Old house parts like doors, hardware, trim, fireplace covers, claw foot tubs, marble sinks, and other hard to find and expensive architectural treasures.

This is by no means a complete list but you see what I mean? All of these things have value and do not belong in landfills. Many of these things, if you don’t need them, you can donate to places like Goodwill, Salvation Army, Old House Society, and thrift stores. You can even get a tax write off for donating these things. Or, have a yard sale.

It will never cease to amaze me how much people will throw away without thinking twice about it. I know we have become a throw- away society but are we also a lazy society? Do we not value things as much as we used to? I remember my grandmother sewing on numerous buttons and sewing up small holes in clothing. Do people do that now or do these clothes go in the trash? I don’t claim to know anything about sewing but I know a good tailor that does, and that has saved me a lot of money.

So, it all comes back to money. This all goes to show that being environmentally responsible isn’t going to hurt your pocketbook, but can actually help it. Maybe now my husband will have some competition out there while scanning the curb for treasures!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Consequences of the Drought

During this summer’s extended drought many communities have imposed water use regulations on their residents. Water levels everywhere are down many feet and there are some power plants that have to build a deeper water intake to cool the plants because theirs is now above the current water level. The corn crop has withered to the lowest yield expectations in decades and you could lose a foot in the cracks in the ground.

 Yet, a report just came out that we are using more water than other years when there wasn’t a drought. Why?  Are we that concerned about our flowers, gardens, lawns, and trees? Or are we taking more showers because of the hot temperatures and we need to feel cleaner?

Whatever the reason, we have a serious situation on our hands. I am not a biologist or a climate scientist but it doesn’t take an expert to look around and see what is going on. I have to wonder what happens to the CO2 in the atmosphere if more plants die because of lack of water. And with higher costs for food and fuel on the way, what happens to the economic recovery?

Do all of these things put together force farmers to try to plant more acres next year? What about the clean energy development in the country? What we have seen so far is a slowing of wind farm development. But, power demand is still growing. Solar energy plants out west have extremely small profit margins as it is, and what if what little tax credit incentives there are, dry up? Their development will follow suit.  These clean forms of energy don’t pose the huge environmental impacts that coal, nuclear, and oil do. Yet, fossil fuel industries receive more subsidies than all renewables combined, times 5!

So what can we do about it? We can’t do anything big at the moment, unfortunately. That isn’t how things work; though I wish they would.

A few things must come first.

1.       Use less water and power. – That will decrease the demand on the waterways and the power plants. Make a conscious effort to do this.

2.       Recycle! Making new products out of recycled items saves energy, water, and resources thereby putting less of a burden on power plants and ecosystems. Close the loop and buy recycled products to keep the demand going.

3.       Write, email, and /or call your legislators and let them know what is important to you. They can’t vote and represent you in the ways you would like if they are only hearing from voices that are not consistent with your views.

4.       Influence your friends, family, and neighbors. Get the discussions going. You may know about the balance and dependence on nature but maybe they don’t. Maybe all they see is their grocery and gas bills going up and don’t understand why.

These are not big actions. They won’t take you a lot of time either. In fact, the only thing that takes time is getting your voice heard by your representatives. What about your family, neighbors and friends? You see them all the time anyway, whether you like it or not in some cases, so you can bring it up with them at those times.
Baby steps, everyone. We have to crawl before we walk, and I see these few small steps as good ways to get us there. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What do we have to lose?

It seems the fashionable thing to do these days is to repurpose things and create trendy crafts using some old materials. Why? What happened to our throw-away society and single use everything? Are we really changing our ways and recycling and reusing more now than we had been for the last 20 years?

No, I don’t think this is the case. Consider this: A recent study on the composition of the U.S. landfills conducted by the nonprofit organization, As You Sow, estimates that more than $11.4 billion worth of recyclable packaging is thrown out annually.

$11.4 billion.

I wonder how many jobs could be created by diverting those materials for recycling. Considering that the recycling industry as it is (with only a 34% national recycling rate) employs more people than the U.S. auto industry, I would think this would be significant. 

With the push for the green movement and many cities across the country revamping their recycling programs you would think we have made more of a dent than this number suggests. And maybe we have, but population continues to go up as well. So right along with it there is more consumption and more things being bought and thrown out. 

But it’s popular to recycle, right? Yes, and studies show that people are more likely to recycle if their neighbors are doing it. Or they at least say they are. How many of us know or have known someone who says they will recycle your can for you but you later see it in the garbage can? If people are so ashamed of not recycling why don’t they just recycle? I suppose there are many reasons. We could go into all of those arguments against recycling that have been debunked over and over again but I think the reasons are much simpler.

Time, hassle, cost (in some cases), space for bins, and ultimately I think the biggest hurdle is changing habits. I have heard it said that it takes 3 months of continuously performing a new task before it becomes habit.

These are the reasons why the target audience for recycling and other sustainable lifestyle messages is children. If they grow up hearing it over and over and practicing it in school, they are bound to bring home what they learn and influence their parents and siblings. Hopefully, these efforts will make a difference. I wonder if this generation will be the generation that ends up mining material out of landfills and taking advantage of the trillions of dollars that are sealed up in these man-made mountains.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pre-cycling - Waste less and save!

I saved the best for last in this series on up, down, and pre-cycling. Have you been grocery shopping lately? Do you pay attention to the packaging that items come in? In the last 20 years, many of the products you find at the grocery store, and elsewhere, have seen a growing amount of packaging added.

Why? Who knows for sure but I have a few guesses.

1.       They want the product displayed differently and more appealing to the eye.

2.       They can put less of the product in the packaging and you still feel like you get more due to the sheer size.

3.       There is an assumption that consumers want more packaging to feel like the product is safer and protected from exterior bacteria etc.

The problem with excess packaging is that often times the packaging materials are not recyclable in your typical curbside recycling programs. Then, you add in the issue of changing packaging to containers that are not recyclable or worse, changing the packaging to Styrofoam.

Here is where pre-cycling comes in. pre-cycling means to assess an item for its reusability or recyclability before you purchase it.  Now, you have preemptively battled the amount of trash you would be creating. Pretty cool, huh? Some stores are taking this on for you. For example, Wal-Mart has a packaging scorecard for all products that are sole in their stores. Packaging is graded on many different components (recycled content, recyclability, emissions produced in its manufacture, etc.) If a product has too low of a score, the company is asking that they change their packaging.  

So, how do you do this? Let’s start with meat as it is always a difficult one. Ground beef and ground turkey are big sellers at the grocery store and luckily there is a very low waste option. Most of the meat is placed on a soaker pad and the on top or a foam piece and wrapped with clear stretch wrap. This is extremely wasteful.  But, the savvy pre-cycler sees another option in the meat aisle. There are some brands of ground beef and ground turkey that come in a hard plastic container, usually a number 2 or 5 plastic, and it has a small amount of clear stretch wrap over the top of the container. The plastic container is recyclable and you end up with a small amount of plastic for the trash. No soaker pad included! See bottom left of picture below for proof.

This same thought process can be applied to other items you buy as well. Pasta in a box rather that in a plastic bag, bringing your own bag for loose fruits and veggies rather than using plastic bags, buying coffee beans in bulk and using your own glass jar rather than a plastic bag (or buy them in a paper bag rather than a plastic or foil lined one), and so on and so forth.  The intricacies of bulk buying and the huge impact it can have are another topic for another day.

Some things you can’t get away from and that is understandable, but there are a lot of baby steps you can take while shopping to make a great impact on your household waste. What kinds of things have you done to be a better pre-cycler? Have you already done some of these things without realizing that you did it?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What is "Down-cycle" ?

Last week I was talking about what it means to up-cycle, and this week I wanted to explore down-cycling. As it turns out, I probably should have started with down-cycling because it isn’t as cool and glamorous as up-cycling.

So, now that we all have discovered the awesome projects and cool things we can do with materials to up-cycle them; let’s see what down-cycle means.  Many of us have been down-cycling for a while and just didn’t know the new-fangled term for it. Down-cycling means to take a product or material and turn it into something of lesser value, and in some cases, compromise the integrity of the material so that it can’t be turned back into the original product.

Taking this, we look at what our recycled materials are made back into and we realize that many of those materials are being down-cycled. I guess this is why recycling is the last of the 3 R’s; still important but not the best first choice. Take plastic bottles for an example. When plastic bottles make their recycling journey, they are made into small plastic pellets. Due to many rules and regulations, not many are made back into a food-grade plastic. (There is an up and coming market to tackle that and make rPET just as an FYI.) The destination for many plastic bottles is carpet and clothing. Though these products have a much longer usable lifespan than a bottle, they are not easily recycled again. As the textile recycling industry gains more speed and becomes more widespread, I think this will change. For now, though, this is a down-cycle for plastic bottles. Other examples for down-cycling are when paper is made into tissues and paper towels, and when glass is made into insulation or part of the components for asphalt. 
Now that we know what this term means and the ways in which products are down-cycled, maybe we can begin a more in-depth discussion about buyer choice and the types of products and packaging in the market.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Up-cycle, Down-cycle, Pre-cycle, Reuse: What’s the difference?

Up-cycling explained

In my next few entries I will explore these terms we are so often hearing nowadays. First, the newest term I have heard lately is “Up-cycle”.   I literally had to look up what this means since all of the ideas and pictures I am sent of cool new up-cycle projects seem, to me, like reusing.

In short, up-cycling is reusing; just a little more fancy. The true definition from is “Up-cycling is the process by which waste materials are used to provide new, high quality products.” So I think what has been done here is splitting the idea of reuse into two forms: up-cycle and down-cycle.

Here’s my idea for a good up-cycle project at my house.  I’m going to take those empty baby food jars we have at home, attach them to an old salvaged piece of crown molding, put it up on the wall in the kitchen, and voila! We have a nice row of spice jars for all of those tasty herbs we have been growing in the garden.

 On I spotted a really cool idea for those over the door shoe racks. You know the canvas ones that people use for like a year and get tired of? Someone hung it outside against their porch and put delicate seedlings in the pockets. They created vertical garden space in the space-limited urban area they live in. Ever visit ? One of the boards is called DIY/ Crafts which contains many Up-cycling ideas as well.

Check out this great Up-cycle idea (posted by Shana Nicholson the DIY/ Crafts board).  It is a lamp base that she turned into a side table base! Definitely an up-cycle!

There you go. Now we all know what up-cycle means and how to spot a good up-cycling idea when you see one. What other up-cycle ideas are out there? Do you have any good ones to share?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Green Babies

After my first year being a parent I have realized something. It isn’t easy being green when it involves children. If you have a child and you have tried to be green in the raising of that child, you know what I mean.

When I was pregnant I tried to eat more organic food and to use only organic and natural products. I vowed to only feed my baby organic foods and use natural products for him as well. And I think I haven’t done too badly so far. Here is the run-down on the basics for your green baby.

1.       Diapers. Do you use disposable or cloth? Cloth diapers sure aren’t what they used to be. They are amazingly cute and you can get a certain size or ones that adjust/grow with your baby. I love these diapers and in the long run they save a TON of money. Check out these two places: and  Did you know that disposable diapers contain many potentially harmful chemicals like Dioxins, chemicals that can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, and TBT among others? The environmental effects are large as well.  They are the third largest single consumer item in landfills representing 50% of a household’s waste with just 1 child in diapers. Imagine this with 2 children in diapers.

2.       Breast milk. The advantages of breast milk are widely known and many hospitals are promoting it more these days. It is healthier for your baby and burns a lot of calories for mom to help lose the baby weight gain too. It is also FREE! Can’t beat that with the cost of formula these days.  

3.       Baby food. When your baby is ready for solid food, you can make your own. Yep, making food is as easy as buying the organic fruits and veggies and using a blender. True, it takes a little time but you end up saving a lot of money. For example, a 4oz. jar of baby food costs anywhere from $0.49 to $0.99. One organic sweet potato generally costs $0.50. You can make roughly 8-10 ounces of food with that one potato. This book was great for me, and you can always find books like this at Goodwill, your local Library, and often times at baby re-sale shops.

4.       Clothing. This one I have a really hard time with. It seems that if you want organic cotton clothing, bedding, etc, you have to purchase online. I don’t have any stores in my area that offer organic cotton baby items. If they major retailers have anything, it may be one thing here and one thing there. I usually try to shop locally and try to avoid buying online because of the environmental impacts of shipping goods and sending my money out of the community. So, if anyone wants to open up an organic baby store in Bloomington- Normal, there should be a good market available.  Anyway, there is a lot of research coming out about the use of flame retardants in baby items. Their clothing, pajamas, bedding, and pretty much everything is loaded with the stuff. Some recent research I read links the chemicals with SIDS.  New Zealand has seen NO SIDS deaths since 2006 after not using the chemical and implementing a mattress wrapping program. I ultimately ended up buying an organic crib mattress after reading this. You can Google this topic and find all the research and articles. They have even made it into Wikipedia (under the Toxic Gasses section of the SIDS and flame retardants search).

5.       Toys.  Toys are a difficult one for sure. You can’t prevent people from buying your child toys. Many are plastic and you may not want your child playing with and chewing on them. It can be unnerving when you hear about recalls and discovery of lead and cadmium in infant toys. There are plenty of options for toys now though. Most communities have stores that sell safe and educational toys.
So, these are the basics as I see them. I can’t claim to be 100% organic and green with my son but I try the best I can. The way I see it is if I can do a little it is better than not at all. Right? Or at least it gives me a bit of peace of mind which counts for something too. What about you? Anyone else struggle with this or have any good tips to share?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is all the commotion with plastic bags?

You may have heard in the news about the latest city to enact a “bag ban”. Why and what is the big deal?  I must say that before a few months ago, I didn’t realize the huge problem that plastic bags cause. We have all seen them caught in trees and fences and blowing across the road to get caught in a farmer’s field or flow down a stream. But, did you know that plastic bag litter is the second largest ocean litter material? It is only surpassed by cigarette butts.

The problem with these bags stems from their ability to float away in the air and in the water. They don’t degrade very quickly at all, taking roughly 450 years in water and 1,000 years on land.

Turtles, seals, sharks, birds, whales, and many other land and sea animals (roughly 100,000 a year) are entangled, choke to death, or starve because of ingesting plastic bags that are not digestible. (

As if that isn’t enough, they cause litter problems, consume non-renewable resources in their production (oil), and cause floods. Yes floods. Bangladesh banned them completely in 2002. They found that they were clogging the drainage and sewage systems that ultimately caused the massive floods in 1998 (and also in 1988).  

Back in college, I remember one of my professors talking about Ireland. They put a 15 cent tax on each plastic bag the consumer used. It spurred people to bring their own bags, milk crates, and baskets when they went shopping. Their plastic bag litter problem went down to nearly nothing and roughly 90% of stores stopped offering them because they weren’t needed. Back then, I hadn’t heard of any community to do this and now you hear about at least one a week.

We are catching on here in the US. Since the beginning of the year 42 cities have enacted plastic bag bans which bring our total to 79. (Plastics News, July 2012) Granted, most of these cities are in California, who seems well on their way to a state-wide ban, but it is a start for sure. Several other cities in the West have done the same.

Now, SB3442 in IL is looking to go a different route. The bill, now awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature, creates an environment where bag and plastic film manufacturers wishing to sell bags in the state, have to register, create a recycling plan, and show percentages of bags ad films collected versus what they sold. It goes further, thanks to lobbying efforts in the plastic bag industry, to prohibit municipalities with fewer than 2 Million people, which only excludes Chicago, from enacting bans of their own. Check it out.

Many groups, organizations, and municipalities are upset with this bill because it takes away their home-rule authority and doesn’t go far enough to protect land, water, and animal life. Have you researched this at all? What do you think about it?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Check out the local scene

My husband works for his father at the family business in town. He has always been adamant about shopping at local businesses and supporting the local economy and really pushes that with anyone he comes in contact with. I was not the local shopper type when I met him and found this a little annoying. “Seriously, you’re telling me I have to go to 4 different places for my groceries and other things I need?”, I would say. His argument is that the lifeline of the community is the local business. Over the years, I have come to love the local businesses and make it a point to shop there, even if it costs more, and even if I have to go to several different places for the things I need.

But, why? Why would anyone do this if super center big-box stores have everything you need in one place? Or you could shop online and not have to go anywhere at all. I decided to do a little digging and find out what this local lifeline is and if it really makes a difference.

As it turns out, if you shop at a locally owned and operated business, much more of your dollar spent stays in the community. Even a chain store that is locally operated doesn’t provide the same benefit. Check out this image below from an Andersonville West Michigan study.

They found that when you spend $100 at a local business 58% more money on average stays in your community compared to a chain store. Check out the whole report here:

West Michigan isn’t the only area catching on to this huge economic impact of local businesses. San Francisco, Austin TX, Portland Maine, and many others have all performed similar studies on the economic impacts to their local economies by supporting local businesses. In fact, SCF Arizona, a locally owner 55 employee company, is supporting local businesses by making a policy to buy their goods and services locally. A study on that company found that they are indirectly supporting 3,573 jobs and $538 million in total output in Arizona! ( )

It’s also the local businesses that contribute much more often and in greater number to the non-profit groups and other fundraising in the community. Just pay attention to the sponsors for the next events in your town and see for yourself. After all, local businesses have vested interests in the future of the communities they operate in.

This is not to say there isn’t a place for the big-box stores. There certainly is and you can’t buy everything local can you? But still, shopping at a chain store that is physically in your town helps your local economy more than shopping online. And better yet- it helps to reduce your carbon footprint.   

So I guess m husband has been right all along! Wow, I hope he doesn’t read this to see me say that in writing! So was it just me, or are there many of you who had also never realized the huge impact you can have shopping local?