Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays!  By the middle of the workweek, I know that I'm ready for a pick-me-up, for some inspiration -- and for that reason I decided to post a nature photo or quote each Wednesday.  Perusing works of nature writing and photography helps me reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature, which is something we all can benefit from in the middle of a busy, stressful work week!

This week we're going to look to the heavens-- or rather-- back to Earth.  I wanted to share a photo with you that left me speechless with amazement when I first saw it.  Taken on July 19th by NASA's Cassini spacecraft which is currently orbiting Saturn, this image shows our planet earth and our moon from nearly one billion miles away.


What is astounding about this image is that our planet looks so ordinary, like any other bright object in the sky.  Yet this shining light in the blackness of space contains everything that we know and love: all of our family and friends, every human that has ever lived, our homes, our pets, our entire lives.  Wars were fought, victories won, natural disasters have occurred, people have loved, lost, been inspired, devastated, have found hope, and through the ages have stood with their feet planted firm on the surface of that bright light in the sky, staring out at the universe around them in wonder. How small and insignificant that shining object looks, and yet how precious it is to us.

This image is at the same time both inspiring and sobering. Looking at that tiny dot in the photo in the context of the environmental crises we currently face, the fact that our earth is finite and fragile is hit home harder than ever.  We are only able to survive for as long as the resources on that tiny dot are able to sustain us.  With our current culture of overconsumption and unsustainable living, as well as the runaway climate change our global society has initiated, those finite resources are going to run out all too soon.  If anything, this photo should be yet another "reason to care" about the environmental problems humans have caused, and the urgent need for action -- for the sake of our own survival.


Although the cropped image is my personal favorite, I also had to share the original unedited version of this photo from Cassini-- how cool is this?! The white arrow is pointing to Earth.



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Going Green: Wash that Car with Caution


Ahhh, sunny weather has finally arrived. Looking at the vehicle in your driveway, you realize that you had long ago forgotten its true color, which is now indiscernible beneath the grime accumulated during the Pacific Northwest's famous rainy weather. With the birds chirping and the sun shining, you gleefully unearth the car-washing supplies from the corner of the garage, and head out to the driveway. Sure, everyone likes having a clean vehicle, and the satisfaction one enjoys in seeing a shiny car after an hour’s worth of scrubbing is undeniable. However, how many of us consider the environmental cost of having a clean vehicle? There are several things to consider before taking to the driveway with your car-washing supplies this season.

 Source: Bing "car wash" images

If your car is in need of washing, the most environmentally-conscious choice is taking your car down to the nearest commercial or self-serve car wash—you know, the ones you drive your car into, then sit back and enjoy as the sprayers, scrubbers, and brushes do all the work for you. Hard to believe? Here is why this is the best choice:

Pollution

Commercial car washes are required by federal law to discharge their wastewater into the sewer system, where the water is routed to a treatment plant (the same ones that treat household wastewater) where the soap, oil, and other pollutants are removed before the water is discharged into waterways such as creeks, rivers, Puget Sound, etc. 

When you wash your car at home in the driveway, that water runs straight down the pavement and into the stormwater system, where it is discharged directly into lakes, rivers, creeks, Puget Sound—whichever is the nearest body of water—without first being treated. As a result, all of the car washing soap, as well as the oil, heavy metals, antifreeze, and other pollutants washed off your car will wash into our waterways, where they poison wildlife and threaten the safety of our own water supply. For example, the surfactants used in soap have been found to kill fish, as they coat the fishes’ gills and cause them to suffocate. Do we really want that to happen to our precious northwest salmon? That is one reason why the non-profit organization Puget Sound Starts Here recommends commercial car washes.

Water

At around 45 gallons per vehicle, commercial car washes actually use less water than washing your car at home. At-home car washing uses between 80-140 gallons of water, depending on water flow and whether or not you leave the hose on between washing and rinsing your car. Conserving water is always important, even in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

If you MUST wash at home…
  
If, for whatever reason, you have no choice but to wash your car at home, there are a few things you can do to make the process a little more environmentally-friendly:
  • Wash your car on your lawn, or on any other permeable surface (dirt, gravel). This will allow the water to filter down through the ground, removing some of the pollutants before the wash water reaches the nearest body of water.
  •  Use car wash soap with biodegradable surfactants, which are intended to break down in the environment before they can cause problems for wildlife. Examples of these car soaps include Gliptone Wash N Glow, Green Earth Technologies Car Wash, and Simple Green Car Wash.
  • Or, make your own “green” car wash soap.  A quick internet search will provide dozens of recipes, even organic options!

Good luck with your car washing… keep it green!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays!  By the middle of the workweek, I know that I'm ready for a pick-me-up, for some inspiration -- and for that reason I decided to post a nature photo or quote each Wednesday.  Perusing works of nature writing and photography helps me reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature, which is something we all can benefit from in the middle of a busy, stressful work week!

I'm going to kick off Nature Nerd Wednesdays with my favorite quote from one of my all-time favorite nature writers: Henry David Thoreau.  His writings in Walden chronicle the two years he spent living in the forest near Walden pond, and include an abundance of thought-provoking revelations, quirky humor, and beautiful nature writing. Thoreau offers this reasoning for his decision to live in the woods for two years:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life..."

This quote is wonderful because it says so much-- really, one can meditate on its meaning and application to present-day life for hours.  Overall, it speaks of the ideal of simplicity that is an overarching theme of Walden: to live simply, dealing with only the basic necessities, and keeping life uncluttered in order to be more aware and to more fully enjoy the experiences that are all around us.  Simplicity is also a key component of sustainable living: Thoreau's writings from the mid-1800's are a great inspiration for going green with your lifestyle today.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Going Green: 9 Steps to a Greener Kitchen

As part of a "Going Green" series on this blog, I wanted to share my "9 Steps to a Greener Kitchen" article below, originally published on the Examiner website in March 2011.

 Quite literally, a green (and very cute!) kitchen.  
Source: http://www.hqfreewallpapers.com/files/green-kitchen-wallpapers.jpg


The kitchen is the top contender in most homes for the largest waste-producing and energy-using room of the house. However, there are many easy steps that can be taken to make the kitchen greener and reduce waste. This article will not suggest that you remodel your entire kitchen, replacing all your appliances with energy-efficient ones, and installing sustainable bamboo flooring in place of that old laminate flooring… doing so would produce even more waste and would defeat the purpose of trying to make your kitchen greener. Below is a list of easy, relatively painless changes that every household can implement to have a greener kitchen.

1. Unplug all small kitchen appliances when not in use. Why keep that coffee maker, toaster, or electric mixer plugged in when you are not using it? These appliances all use energy when plugged in, regardless of whether you are operating them. Unplug them to decrease wasted energy.

2. Use your dishwasher. Believe it or not, dishwashers actually use less energy and water than washing dishes by hand. Dishwashers typically use between 4-6 gallons of water per load, while washing by hand uses water at an average rate of 2 gallons per minute. Unless you can wash all those dishes by hand in four minutes or less, you’re better off using the dishwasher.

3. Use biodegradable products.
·         Dish soap: Most dish soaps contain ingredients that persist in the environment, polluting our waterways after being washed down the kitchen drain. Read the labels, and choose phosphate-free dish soaps with biodegradable surfactants.
·         Garbage bags: Less plastic in the landfill is always a good thing, so the next time you are purchasing garbage bags, scan the shelf for biodegradable bags, most of which are made of corn starch and are priced comparably to plastic bags.

4. Compost all food scraps, paper towels, pizza boxes, etc. Decrease the amount of garbage you take out to the curb every week by composting your food waste scraps, either in a bin provided by your waste pick-up service, or in your own backyard compost bin. If you compost your own food scraps, you’ll have the added benefit of a constant supply of fertilizer for your garden or flowerbeds. Click here to see what can be disposed of in your Waste Management yard waste bin. You might be surprised at what can be composted!

5. Buy locally-grown, in-season produce. Washington State produces a variety of great produce crops throughout the year, so why buy produce from far-flung regions such as South America? It takes a lot of energy and fossil fuels to transport that produce and keep it fresh during such a long journey. The fewer miles your food has to travel, the less energy will be used, and less pollution and greenhouse gases produced as a result. Click here to see what Washington produce is in-season now!

6. Buy food with minimal packaging, or buy in bulk and divide the food into servings yourself. Individual one-serving pre-packaged snack foods and frozen microwavable meals have a lot of unnecessary packaging that just ends up in the trash, and takes a lot of energy and fossil fuels to produce in the first place. Buy snack foods in bulk, and portion them out into reusable containers. Produce and foods prepared at home will have less packaging and waste, if any.

6. Invest in reusable food storage containers. A green kitchen should produce only a minimal amount of waste, so eliminating those plastic sandwich baggies is a must! Instead, use hard plastic or glass food storage containers that can be washed and reused… added bonus here is that your peanut butter and jelly sandwich will be much better protected against squishing in your lunch bag! There are also reusable baggies such as Lunch Skins, Snack Taxis, and Fresh Snack Packs, which can be washed and reused over and over.

7. Use cloth napkins and rags instead of paper towels. In the spirit of reducing waste, it only makes sense to use cloth napkins instead of disposable paper ones, and rags instead of paper towels. Napkins and paper towels not only add bulk to the landfills, but keep in mind that it also takes a significant amount of fossil fuels to produce them, package them, and ship them to stores. Ditch those paper plates and plastic utensils as well!

8. Use reusable grocery bags. Most stores even give you a small discount for using them.

9. Get Creative! What items in your kitchen can you recycle, repurpose, or do without altogether? How can you minimize energy use and the amount of waste/garbage your kitchen produces? Feel free to contribute ideas in the comments below!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Heat Islands: Not a Vacation Destination


Where do you go to beat the heat when the weather warms up? A recent bout of unusually hot 90-degree weather here in the Seattle area reminded me why I generally retreat to natural outdoor spaces to find relief from the stifling heat.  This heat wave revealed the stark contrast in temperatures experienced in wooded, natural areas and green space versus paved, developed areas. During this hot weather, a half-hour drive from the developed, paved, tree-bereft neighborhood where I currently live and the wooded, more-or-less natural landscape of the neighborhood where my family lives revealed a whopping 12-degree F temperature difference!  Even without a thermometer, this variation in degrees of discomfort was easily felt.  

Walking across the 95-degree parking lot to get in my car at the beginning of the journey, I felt every bit of heat absorbed by the pavement throughout the day radiating up around me.  Even standing in the meager shade of one of the few trees on the property offered little relief and no protection whatsoever from the flow of hot, dry air rising from the baked pavement.  Waves of heat shimmered in the still air.  It was hot.  I started sweating instantly and could feel the penetrating sunlight already warming my skin, threatening to burn me from the inside out, and blinding me as it reflected unabated off the bare surfaces of pavement and buildings.

Contrast this with that I felt after the half-hour drive, stepping out of the car onto the driveway at my family’s house, shaded by the tall trees and abundant foliage that dominates their mostly-wooded neighborhood.  The temperature had cooled to a comfortable 83 degrees.  Even standing in the direct sunlight was still comfortable, with a light breeze cooling my skin.  Cool air rose up from the earth below, hovering refreshingly around my ankles.  The air moving in and out of my lungs was cooler, damper, and felt cleaner.  A gentle wind stirred the branches of the towering Douglas Firs, maples, and cedars that shaded the yard from the sun’s sweltering heat, illuminating the outdoor space with a soft green glow—no sunglasses required.  

Having spent most of my life living in homes surrounded by a more natural, forested setting, I am still trying to adapt to the surprisingly different climate created by an impermeable landscape of paved parking lots, freeways, and buildings unsheltered by trees.  Upon noticing these different “microclimates,” I couldn’t help but wonder—how much warmer would our planet be if there were fewer trees and more developed space?  After doing a little research, I discovered that (shockingly) I was not the first person to notice this phenomenon, and that in fact it has a name: the Heat Island Effect.  According to the EPA, the Heat Island Effect is a real problem that can create temperatures within cities that are 1.8 - 5.4 degrees F warmer than their surroundings during the daytime, and as much as 22 degrees F warmer at night.  In addition to uncomfortably warmer temperatures, Heat Islands also result in increased energy consumption (due to the need for air conditioners) which in turn leads to increased air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases.  Human health is also threatened due to the high levels of air pollution and dangerously hot temperatures.  

Temperature Variations: the Heat Island Effect

 
With the realization that more and more rural land is being paved over and developed into subdivisions, it may be useful to keep in mind the important benefits of green space and forested land in relation to providing a livable local climate.  After discovering the Heat Island Effect and experiencing it firsthand, I know for sure that I do not want to go there on a permanent vacation!