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Ok. I have to rant for just a sec.

I work in a shop that sometimes gets door-to-door people in trying to market whatever they’re selling, and one day, some guy confidently came in with a question for me. “You’re a girl, so you must love makeup, right?”

I bit my tongue on most of what I wanted to say: that I’m a woman and not a child, that just because I’m female doesn’t make me genetically predisposed to love makeup, that I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with how I look currently that needs fixing, that my health is far more important to me than smearing carcinogens on my face every day is, that honestly, I like sleep much more than spending extra time on my appearance in the morning, and that anyone shallow enough to judge me on how I look or my choice to not use makeup doesn’t deserve the privilege of being a meaningful part of my life. I just merely replied that I don’t wear makeup because so much of it has so many terrible chemicals in it.

“But everything we carry is all natural!”

Not interested, thanks.

I can’t possibly roll my eyes back far enough in my head. All natural, huh? Yeah, sure it is.

I’m so tired of the phrase “all-natural” being touted (at least in the US anyway) as synonymous with “safe,” “healthy,” and “non-toxic.” Really tired of it.

Just because something is all-natural doesn’t mean it is safe, healthy, or non-toxic. All it means is that something is labeled as having been made from ingredients found in our natural world, and it doesn’t even mean that label has to be telling the truth if it’s outside the purview of the FDA. That doesn’t make them safe. Actually, legally that term (from solely a food standpoint, anyway) doesn’t really mean anything. Here’s what the FDA’s website has to say about the matter:

What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now this is all murky enough when it comes to food, but even more so when considering cosmetics, cleaning supplies, toys, food storage containers, clothing, and other things we come in close contact with for extended periods of time that can effect our health but that are outside of the domain of the FDA . Technically, lead is all-natural, mercury is all-natural, arsenic is all-natural, and the list goes on and on. None of these things are safe. I don’t want stuff like that in things I come in contact with. Heck, jalapenos are all-natural, but I still don’t want them in my face cream.

I’m not saying I want to live in a bubble. I don’t. I’m not even sure it’s possible to avoid everything I want to avoid. But as long as lead is still an ingredient in lipstick, but it’s still ok to be called “all-natural,” I think there’s a problem. To me, this isn’t about disclosure of ingredients on labels (because who knows what all those chemical names in cosmetics are anyway?), it’s about not putting toxic or potentially toxic ingredients in stuff in the first place. And about not conflating the label all-natural with safe.

I think the Story of Stuff sums it up a little better than my currently angry, emotional self can:

And the next over-confident, condescending, horrifyingly sexist guy to come in trying to sell their new makeup going to get an earful from me. 🙂

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Recently, I toured my local recycling facility to see how it all works, and it inspired me to think about where all the REST of our trash goes. Around the Greater Boston area, (where space is a premium) almost all of the trash from around here is incinerated, sending the ash to a local landfill.

And guess what? I got to go on a tour of the local waste-to-energy trash incinerator in Saugus, MA.

I have to say, I wasn’t really thinking I’d learn much. I mean it’s just a fire, right? The stuff burns until there’s only ash left and it’s buried. Simple, right? Well, I found there’s a bit more to it than that. And just having the opportunity to see the process in motion made a big difference. And let me tell you, that fire is friggin hot! Even through the super-thick, tiny viewing glass (which was sort of like peering through a welding mask) it felt really hot on my face. They told me they maintain the fire at about 2200-2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and you could really feel it through the reinforced walls and everything.

Here’s a short animation from their website that explains how it all works. This makes much more sense than any long-winded descriptions I could offer. It’s a great little video, showing how the trash gets into the burning room itself, how the metals are sorted out, and how the gas is “scrubbed” afterward to meet air quality regulations.

Additionally, they have an ash landfill on site, so they don’t have to take the waste all that far. They told us that they reduce the size of the incoming trash by 90% which is nothing to sneeze at. Another upside was that the power generated (in the form of steam that runs turbines, I think) powers the whole plant, with plenty of energy leftover that they sell to the local electricity company.

Maybe one of the reasons I originally didn’t feel it was necessary to see this facility along with the recycling plant was the lack of the feel-good component. There’s nothing good that comes from this. It doesn’t get sent somewhere else so we can use it again. We’re left with a pile of super-toxic ash that needs disposed of in a landfill that (we hope) won’t contaminate the groundwater, affect local wildlife, or harm people around it.

But I’m really glad I went. Just seeing the sheer volume of garbage in person is an image that will haunt me for quite a long time.

For our waste, this is the end of the line. There’s nothing else, nowhere else for this to go. They process 1500 tons of trash per day, and that’s only off the top of the mountain waiting to be incinerated, all while a steady flow of trash trucks shows up to dump more constantly. Their little animation video shows that giant “claw thing” lowering all the way down to the floor to grab a load of garbage, but in reality, it only had to scoop from the top of the pile near the ceiling, 200 feet above the ground.

What really bugged me the most was to see so much stuff that had so much potential. Lots of recyclables, pieces of furniture that could have been reused or refurbished, so much stuff that could have gone around again, that could have served another purpose. And once it’s ash, it’s ash. There’s no more reusability, no more use that can come from it. It is a true last resort for disposal.

Ok, enough of the depressing stuff. I asked our tour guide (who also works there) for a list of his top 5 things he should never have to see coming into this facility and being fed into the incineration rooms. I was very surprised to hear they really don’t have a problem with hazardous materials, electronics, or large appliances coming through. He said those would definitely be on the lets-never-see-them list, but he didn’t feel it was necessary to list them because they weren’t really a problem.

So what were the items they see a lot of but shouldn’t have to deal with? They were all completely obvious things, but it was still staggering to see so much of those very items going through the system, just in the short time I was there.

  • Food scraps: Food scraps, because they’re over 90% water don’t burn very well and sap energy from the fire. They’re way better off being composted. It’s ridiculous to dispose of food waste any other way. (I keep meaning to write a post on how easy composting is, but sometimes I don’t even know what to say. Put food scraps in a pile outside and they’ll turn into dirt. That’s basically it.)
  • Metals and Glass: Metals and glass don’t burn. With metals, it takes a lot of energy to melt them, and I mean a lot, and it slows their system down just to send the stuff to a recycler anyway. Metal and glass both have a very high resale value and can easily be remade into other useful things. There is absolutely no reason to dispose of them through incineration.
  • Paper/cardboard and recyclable plastics: Recycling is a much better use for stuff like this because it has reuse/recycle value. Again, why burn and waste what someone else will pay money for so they can make it into something else? Yes, paper products burn well, but then they can’t be used a second time around or more.

So basically, it doesn’t make sense to burn things that don’t burn, it doesn’t make sense to burn things which can be used again and again, and it doesn’t make sense to burn food scraps that can be composted to make valuable topsoil. The longer we can keep the same things going around, the better. Duh.

So how big of a problem are those things? They estimated about 40-70% of their incoming trash was either recyclable or food waste. Yeah, you read that right. 40-70% of what they process shouldn’t even be there in the first place. I’d say that’s a pretty good starting point for improving things: getting every town to offer a recycling program, and getting people to put their recyclables in the right place.

I asked if people really did recycle all of that stuff if there wouldn’t be a need for their plant anymore, and if anyone would have to worry about that. Nobody at the plant hesitated with their solid  “no.” There’s always more trash out there. They run their facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can’t keep up with the incoming trash. And they only have contracts with 14 surrounding communities. There’s more than enough to go around, and not enough time in the day to process it all.

I couldn’t help but think about the recycling facility down the road that is crying for more material to sort, sell, and recycle, all while valuable materials are burned to ash and buried in a landfill (around which a wildlife refuge was designated).

If nothing more, it’s made me think harder about what exactly I throw away. Do I really not have any other use for that? Am I sure I need to throw that away? Do I really need to buy this? Can I buy another option with less packaging? Now that I know where it all goes and saw it firsthand, I don’t want to contribute to that anymore.

Anyone have any other thoughts? Have you given any thought to reducing your trash? What changes have you made (or plan on making) to reduce your trash? How can we get more people to recycle??

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I know it sounds weird but, I really enjoy reading stuff by economists. Leavitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics as well as their podcast, everything by Daniel Pink (books and blog), the list goes on and on. So when I heard about this new book by Gernot Wagner, who’s not only an economist but an environmental economist, I knew it was going to be a definite must-read for me. The book is called But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World.

It’s a great read, with clear explanations of problems and policies needed, if a bit on the grim side. It’s actually been a while since I’ve read it, (this post has been a long time coming), and I regret not writing a lengthier review when it was all fresh in my mind. (I meant to, but you know……) I’ll have to get back on the library’s wait list to re-read it.

Perhaps the most jarring part was that he continually referred to the atmosphere as “our atmospheric sewer,” which is indeed what it is, unfortunately. One of his major arguments is that we don’t need to worry about oil running out, as we’ll run out of breathable air long before that happens if we remain on the path we’re on. Yikes.

His main point is that we can change what we do as individuals, but the population is so massive, our little efforts don’t make a difference. What we really need to do is change the policies and laws, which will change the behavior of everyone to make the largest possible impact. He lays out exactly what kinds of policies that would need to be put in place, as well as how and why they would work.

Sometimes I feel like I might have missed my calling as an economist, because I love reading about stuff like that.

If you, like me, have an interest in all things green through economist’s goggles, or if you’re interested to know more, or you just think I’m weird and are perversely curious about my crazy thing for economics, here are a few links you might enjoy:

What are YOUR most highly recommended blogs, books, documentaries, podcasts, websites, or other eco-minded sources of information?

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I posted a while back about my participation in Naitonal Novel Writing Month, and I’m back now to let you all know that I succeeded! I was in fact able to crank out 50,912 words over the course of one month, and I now have a (mostly) complete first draft. The last several chapters are only really in synopsis form, but they’re at least fleshed out.

Of course, that also meant that since I was doing so much writing, the last thing I wanted to do was write some more when I had a spare minute. So I ended up neglecting this space over the month. I have to say, I was sort of hoping that one of my characters would have decided to write a blog, just so I could have shared with you all what my characters were writing about. Alas, none of them really seemed interested in blogging. They were all too busy unraveling conspiracies, solving crimes, and leaving gigantic plot holes for me to try to fill.

So what did I learn from this experience? That it’s ok to try something new, to just jump in, maybe even without a full-fledged plan, and just get to work. That focusing only on quantity does not obscure the quality as much as you might think. That mistakes are there to give us perspective. That when you let go of your expectations and allow ridiculous things into your mind, that somehow, they form good ideas. That I’m capable of more than I give myself credit for sometimes. That I really just might be able to do anything I put my mind to if I work hard enough.

And those are important lessons, not only in my own life, but in the grander scheme of the world. Think what we could accomplish if everyone on the planet all put their heads together to solve this climate crisis, if all our leaders and governments around the world truly supported and implemented sustainability plans. Or even if they just worked on coming up with solutions for even one month. The problems seem almost unsolvable they’re so big. But I believe human imagination and innovation are limitless. We just need to put them properly to work.

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Deep breath….Ok, I officially signed up to participate in NaNoWriMo, as it’s called. November is National Novel Writing Month, where lots of people declare to write that novel they’ve always (or never) dreamed of writing. The rules are simple. You’re not allowed to write a single word of prose until November 1st, and on November 30th at 11:59pm,  it’s pencils down, fingers stop typing. “Novel” is defined as a document containing at least 50,000 words of nonfiction writing. Pre-game plot outlines, character outlines and other things are fine, you just can’t start the actual prose writing until November first.

To keep participants motivated, their website recommends broadcasting to absolutely everyone that you’re working on this:

Tell everyone you know that you’re writing a novel in November. This will pay big dividends in Week Two, when the only thing keeping you from quitting is the fear of looking pathetic in front of all the people who’ve had to hear about your novel for the past month. Seriously. Email them now about your awesome new book. The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.

So posting this here is a good insurance policy that I’ll finish. Hopefully. Otherwise, I have to come back in December and sheepishly declare to the Internet at large that I was not able to complete a measly 50,000-word document within a month’s time, so I wimped out and quit. And I don’t really want to do that.

What I like about this is it totally emphasizes quantity over quality. The novel’s going to be bad. That’s a given. Even so, writing even a terrible novel is better than never writing one at all. Just keep cranking out the words. Get it all down in November, then edit and rework in December and beyond. The importance is just getting the ideas written down.

And besides, it’s a little cocky to expect the first novel you write would be awesome, right? I mean when I first started piano, I wasn’t expecting to get famous playing Liszt. I was trying to learn Mary Had a Little Lamb. And I sucked at first. Writing, like learning to play an instrument, takes lots of hard work and practice. It just doesn’t make sense that the first novel I would sit down and write would be anything better than the literary equivalent of “Mary had a little lamb.” But I’ll never write a good one without writing a lot of crappy ones first. Heck, maybe I don’t even want to aspire to write a good one. But I’ll never know if I don’t write a bad one first.

For anyone else participating, my profile username is kalzayer. Find me on http://www.nanowrimo.org/ and we can be writing buddies!

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A title like this implies I might have spent my day sewing something cool. Or developing/perfecting a new recipe to share on here. Or harvesting my own homegrown veggies. Actually, I spent it protesting at Occupy Boston.

I know what you’re thinking. I thought this was an environmentalist blog, not a political activist’s soapbox.

And you’re right. But I’ve been thinking about something lately. I could change everything about my life so my carbon footprint was absolutely zero. Now, that’s not really possible, but even if I could, that wouldn’t change a thing, wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket. I could get all the people around me to change, or at least to do a little better than they’re doing now. Still, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. I mean, we should all still do what we can, but, it’s really not going to make that much of an impact. We’ve got to change the policy that provides the biggest polluters with a free pass. Otherwise, we can’t even hope to make a dent in restoring our environment. And to do that, we need a government that represents us. All of us. Not just those who have the means to fund their own lobbyists. That’s why I marched yesterday.

Now, I’m not going to get all preachy here. But I do want to quickly describe my own take on the Occupy Boston movement, in my own words, based on my own experiences, and not endorsed by the Occupy Movement. I feel like there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and my perspective is that some people dismiss the movement for just being a bunch of disorganized, fringe, leftist hippies living in a tent city and whining about how they don’t have any money. And that’s not it at all.

So what is it all about?

It’s about asking for action to curb corporate greed and the usurping of the whole political system by the few (usually corporations and their big lobbies) who then use the system for their own benefit, usually to the detriment of the general population. And this all while leaving the environmental costs unaccounted for, externalizing them onto the backs of everyone. The rest of us pay for their exploitation in many ways: environmental degradation, lost benefits, decreased (or nonexistent) healthcare, reduced wages, job losses, disbanding of unions, discontinuation of pension plans, and the list goes on and on. It’s also about Citizens United and the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, and deserve the same rights as individuals. Corporations are made up of people, each an individual unto themselves. Counting the corporation as well is to give them more than one vote, or more influence than they should rightly have. And they already have the money to buy lots of influence to start with. We should be limiting that and not adding to it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against corporations, just the excessive greed that exploits people and resources for extra money. And I’m against their power to almost exclusively shape the policies that allow their behavior to continue unchecked.

There’s a growing divide between the top 1% of wage earners and the bottom 99%, and right now, the top 1% has a grossly disproportionate say in our government actions and policy. We want something closer to of, by, and for all the people, not just the top 1%. The Occupy Movement is not leftist, rightist, or exclusive. It invites everyone who wants to be heard and to have a say in our government policy to speak up. It is for all of us in the 99% and invites us all to be included.

Basically, the idea is to get out and occupy the streets that are already (or should be) ours in the first place, funded by our tax dollars. Occupying a section of a park or marching through the streets is simply a statement that, “hey, this is ours too.” But bigger than that, it’s about demanding to be heard, respected, and included in the political process, all while practicing nonviolence. And it’s about sending a message to the biggest players in corporate greed (big banks and Wall Street), so naturally, the space for Occupy Boston is right in the financial district.

Sure, there are always going to be people out there who have their own pet projects they’re fighting for (legalize marijuana, forgive student loans, anarchy, disbanding of corporations altogether, closing prisons, etc.) but the majority of the people there—in my perspective and experience—were protesting corporate greed that got us into this mess. I saw someone with a sign that said “We’re not disorganized, America just has too many issues.” I think that about sums it up.

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The first day of No Impact Week (NIW) tackles consumption. Today’s task (and continuing throughout the week) is to not buy anything that isn’t food or isn’t absolutely necessary (like paying rent and such).

After losing my wallet on the bus yesterday, my second thought was, “This no consumption thing is gonna be easy.”

I say second thought because, let’s face it, you don’t want me to repeat my first thought. It was a major freak-out that lasted several hours and culminated in me continuing to freak out.

As much as I’d love to drop the money to replace my ID, public transit pass, and everything else that was in there, my accounts are all currently frozen until further notice from me: until somebody turns in my wallet, or until I give up on that and cancel them all. No credit card, no debit card, no access to my bank account. And I can’t even renew my library books!

At least I can feel successful with not buying anything. It takes my mind off how much it sucks to get my financial identity secured and back in my own hands.

Actually, replacing my ID will likely happen this week, courtesy of Husband’s credit card. And he’s gonna have to buy me a subway pass too. So he’ll fail this challenge at my expense….er, I mean, his expense. Though I’d put this stuff in the “necessary” category, so maybe it doesn’t count.  It’s all relative I guess.

So wanna go hardcore non-consumption? (Or really can’t trust yourself for the week?) Freeze all your accounts and see what happens. Good luck to all the NIW participants, but I’m gonna kick your butt on not consuming this week 🙂

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