All posts by sustainablogger

About sustainablogger

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog, a co-founder and former Senior Editor of Green Options Media, and a former writer at Treehugger. Jeff was born and raised in the South (Florida and Louisiana), but made his way out West in his early twenties to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has a Ph.D. in English, and spent 11 years in the classroom in positions ranging from graduate teaching assistant to assistant professor. After reading one too many freshman essays, he decided it was time for something new, and made a career switch into corporate writing and editing. Jeff is married to Jan, and has three step-children. He has a dog, Zelda, and three cats. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, in a big old drafty historical home built in 1904. When not working (ha!), he enjoys taking the dog to the park, reading (lots of non-fiction, but also the occasional mystery novel), working in his tiny little yard, and frittering away the hours in a local coffee shop.

Fall Leaves: Don’t Toss Them… Recycle Them!

Got a yardful of Fall leaves? Don’t rake, bag, and toss… get ready for Spring plants by recycling them.

 You don’t have to go far west of St. Louis to get a magnificent view of Autumn colors. At this time of year, the Ozarks explode with reds, yellows, and browns… the beauty of the season almost makes driving and biking dangerous!

When I get home, however, I’m confronted with a yardful of Fall splendor from the neighbor’s silver maple. The experience isn’t quite the same.

You could sum up the typical method of dealing with those Fall leaves with "rake, bag, toss." Nature doesn’t create waste, though, so why send that carbon-rich material to the landfill when you could reuse it throughout the year? Don’t think of that (sometimes thick) blanket of leaves as a mess to clean up and dispose of, but one of the ingredients for next year’s gardens and landscaping. Those leaves quickly become to valuable to just toss…

Recycling Your Autumn Leaves

Depending on what you want to do with those leaves, you have several options for "recycling":

  • Mow ’em: If leaves fall primarily in an area you’d normally mow, then keep mowing once they start coming down. Start early, though: as Paul Tukey at Safelawns notes, most mowers aren’t up to tackling a blanket of leaves. No need for any collection, and the chopped leaves become food for the lawn.
  • Rake ’em: Few of us enjoy raking (though, as Tukey notes in a different post, it’s a great form of exercise). It’s definitely the most eco-friendly way of taking care of the leaves, though. Instead of setting them out for trash collection, though, put them in your compost bin or pile… Care2 has a great process for composting those leaves.
  • Mulch ’em: While this method requires a bit of power, it also makes for a more versatile end product. I use an electric mulcher (much cleaner than gas equivalents) for my yard. The chopped leaves can go into my compost bin (where they’ll break down faster than whole leaves), or I can (and often do) save them for garden mulch for the Spring. Try to avoid the plastic bags for storage (though I’m as guilty of this as anyone)… opt for reusable or biodegradeable bags.
  • Toss ’em: Wait… didn’t I say don’t toss them? In general, that’s correct, but if hanging on to those leaves is problematic, check to see if there’s a local composting site where you can take them. Earth 911 will help you find one…

Got more creative ways of handling Fall leaves with a minimal environmental footprint? I’d love to hear them… share them in the comments.

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can follow him on Twitter @sustainablog

Image credit: / CC BY 2.0

How to Travel Green — Across the Neighborhood, or Across the World

We’ve all got places to go: work, the farmers market, yoga class, that idyllic little cottage in the Greek islands. Each time we make one of these trips, we also make choices about how much pollution (greenhouse gases and others) we’re willing to emit in order to complete our trip. Whether you’re heading to the other side of town, or the other side of the world, you’ve got a decision to make… and that decision holds consequences for all of us.
1.) Traveling Locally
The Standard Option: Jump in the car.
Your Other Choices:
2.) Traveling Regionally or Nationally
The Standard Options: Road trip! Or, booking a flight. Flying, however, really racks up the pollutants: according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Getting There Greener report, a wide-body jet can emit 100 pounds of CO2 for every mile traveled.
Your Other Choices:

Business travelers: Is traveling really necessary? Phone and video conferencing use energy, but not even remotely the amount of travel.
3.) Traveling Internationally
The Standard Option: Book a flight.
Your Other Choices:
  • The Ship: While the cruise industry has taken a beating in recent years for a variety of unsustainable practices, it also seems to be cleaning up its act. Or, if you’re looking for something really different, you might try booking a berth on a cargo ship. While the information about passenger ship travel is a bit spotty, ships in general are winners on the greenhouse gas emissions front when compared to flying (though it’s definitely going to take longer to get where you’re going).
We all make choices when we’ve got somewhere to go. Time is precious, and we all expect some level of convenience.  If we can start to figure our environmental impact into the equation, we can regularly make choices that get us where we need to go while maintaining a lighter footprint on the Earth.
Ready to save the planet? Post your green intent and blog about your green successes and struggles, tagging your posts "greener life." We may feature your post in this series!
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog, a co-founder and former Senior Editor of Green Options Media, and a former writer at Treehugger.

How Eco-Savvy Are You?

It’s Earth Month, and that means lots and lots of information coming at you about how to live with a lighter environmental footprint. Of course, with all of the media focus on sustainability over the past couple of years, you may figure there’s not much left for you to learn. Maybe… or maybe not!  Take this quiz to see how much you do know… and what you can still learn about the green life.
1.) You’re shopping for ingredients to take to a potluck a neighbor is hosting, and want to choose the most Earth-friendly options. Which of the following labels has strict definitions attached to it, and is certified by a third party?
A.  Vegan
B.  Antibiotic-Free
C.  Organic
D.  Natural
2.) A friend suggests that the two of you chip in and purchase a CSA (community-supported agriculture) membership for the coming year.  You think hard, and try to remember what a CSA is.  Is it
A. A farmers market in the neighborhood?
B. A food cooperative?
C. An urban or community garden?
D. A model for buying “shares” in a local farmer’s harvest? 
3.) The weather warms up, and, one morning, you discover your puppy is covered in fleas after playing outside. What’s the most potentially harmful way (to the environment, and your puppy) to handle this problem.
A. Sprinkling diatomaceous earth over your yard
B. Spraying beneficial nematodes over your yard
C. Bathing your puppy in an herbal flea shampoo containing citrus oils
D. Begin applying a monthly spot-on flea treatment from the veterinarian
4.) You’ve got a sizzling hot weekend of romance planned. Among your plans: introducing some new toys to your relationship (yeah, those kinds of toys).  To ensure a safe, healthy experience for your partner and yourself, you want to make sure the sex toys you purchase are free of ____________.
A. Phthalates
B. Phlebotomists
C. Phragmites
D. Phalanxes
5.) Work, family, and friends have kept you hopping lately, and now the house is well past its deadline for cleaning.  What’s the one quality you should look for in a “green” cleaning product?
A. It’s free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
B. It’s free of chlorine bleach
C. It’s homemade from non-toxic ingredients
D. All of the above
6.) Your energy bills have been through the roof lately.  What’s the most important step you can take to lower your use of energy (and, in the process, lower those bills!)?
A. Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents.
B. Unplug electronics and appliances when not in use.
C. Increase insulation levels in your exterior and basement walls, ceilings, floors, and crawl spaces.
D. Switch from a desktop to a laptop computer.
7.) Keeping healthy and fit requires a regular exercise routine, but much of the “stuff” associated with working out these days consumes resources unnecessarily, and creates waste and pollution. What’s the most important step you can take to minimize the environmental impact of your exercise regimen?
A. Buy (and use) a reusable water bottle.
B. Take you exercise routine off the treadmill and elliptical, and get outside to work out.
C. Join a “green gym”
D. All of the above
8.) From excess packaging to the potential presence of parabens (say that three times fast!), the morning beauty routine can take its toll on the environment, and even present health threats.  Which of the choices for changing beauty and personal care habits listed below will most likely make multiple positive impacts on your health and your environmental footprint?
A. Buy cosmetics and personal care products labeled “organic”
B.  Cut back on the number of products (even “safe” products), and use them less often
C.  Buy cosmetics and personal care products labeled “natural”
D.  Grind your own minerals, mix your own moisturizers, and boil your own soap.
9.) You’re cooking for a group of friends, several of whom are vegan.  The recipe you want to make list eggs as an ingredient. What should you do?
A. Ditch the recipe, and serve carrot and celery sticks.
B. Include the eggs – they won’t notice.
C. Replace the eggs with mashed bananas
D. None of the above
10.) A friend’ birthday is approaching, and you’d like to give her a gift that she’ll not only love, but that also respects both of your environmental values.  What’s the best choice out of the list below?
A. A case of CFLs
B. A gift certificate to Outback Steak House.
C. Yoga lessons at a nearby studio
D. Tomato plants for her garden
1.) Correct answer: C 
The USDA has established relatively tight definitions for the use of the term “organic” (but for food only… not for cosmetics or personal care products). The other terms on this list (and many others) do not have definitions established by a government regulatory body, or other organization with authority over food producers. 
2.) Correct answer: D
According to Local Harvest, “A CSA, (for Community Supported Agriculture) is a way for the food buying public to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of produce. By making a financial commitment to a farm, people become ‘members’ (or ‘shareholders,’ or ‘subscribers’) of the CSA.” Though you may have trouble purchasing a CSA membership this year (as they’re generally sold before the growing season), Local Harvest can help you find one for next year.
3.) Correct answer: D 
According to veterinarian Shawn Messonnier (author of The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats), chemical flea products often aren’t necessary, and can accumulate in your pet’s body. 
4.) Correct answer: A 
While no one can say with certainty that phthalates, a compound used to soften PVC-based plastics, are harmful to humans, we do know they’re toxic in animals. 
5.) Correct answer: D
6.) Correct answer: C
While all of the choices above will help you save energy and money, home heating and cooling represent the biggest chunk of our energy use.
7.) Correct answer: D
8.) Correct answer: B
While D may be the truly correct answer, most of us probably don’t have that kind of time or inclination. As beauty and style blog Feelgood Style notes, “Believe it or not you can get too much of a good thing and we may be overdoing it without even realizing it.  Most of us use too many beauty products. Not only that, but we tend to use too much of each product at one time.” Still unsure about the products you are buying?  Check the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” cosmetics safety database. And remember: ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are not regulated (so the labels mentioned in A. and C. could mean little or nothing).
9.) Correct answer: D
While mashed bananas can be used to substitute for eggs in certain circumstances, you need to make sure that any egg replacement you use (and there are many of them) performs the same function as the eggs did in the original recipe.  The Vegan Society has a great list of vegan egg alternatives.
10.) Correct answer: hmmmm… 
As Kermit the Frog said, “It ain’t easy being green.”  Technically, all of these gifts are “green.” But a case of lightbulbs for a birthday gift?? Gift certificates certainly cut back on immediate resource use, but a steak dinner (that can’t be traced to its source) likely has a pretty high environmental footprint. The last two options are also good, but if your friend’s not into yoga, or has already planted her tomatoes (or, god forbid, doesn’t like tomatoes), these gifts could be a bust, no matter how green. Look for the balance between a low environmental footprint, and expressing how much your relationship with this friend means to you.
9-10: You’re a green guru… you should be writing tips instead of reading them!
7-8  : You’re on your way — and if you read the next 18 posts in this series, "30 Days to a Greener You" — you’ll be a green guru by the end of the month!
5-6  : You’ll definitely want to keep tabs on the "30 Days to a Greener You" series, and take a look at the lists of tips that come through your inbox, or appear on various websites during April.
0-4  : Immediately subscribe to the RSS feeds of all of the sites listed above (and Intent’s “Planet” feed)… you have much to learn, my friend!
Happy Earth Day, all!
Ready to save the planet? Post your green intent and blog about your green successes and struggles, tagging your posts "greener life." We may feature your post in this series!

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog, a co-founder and former Senior Editor of Green Options Media, and a former writer at Treehugger.



30 Passionate Arguments for Faith-Based Environmental Protection: the Sierra Club’s “Holy Ground”

cover of sierra club book holy ground

This post was originally published on sustainablog on 1/6/09.

"From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God." (Romans I: 20)

"Have you not seen how God sets forth a parable? A good word is like a good tree whose roots are firm and whose branches reach heaven. It gives its fruit during every season, by leaves of its Lord. And God sets forth parables to people that they may remember." (Al-Qur’an I4: 24-25)

As you likely know, people of faith and environmentalists don’t always see eye-to-eye. The narratives of faith and the green movement can seem to diverge pretty widely at points, and members of both sides have often viewed the other with suspicion and distrust. In recent years, though, we’ve seen efforts by both groups to "reach across the aisle," and the development of concepts like "creation care," which attempt to bridge religious beliefs with environmental concerns.

In November, the Sierra Club joined the conversation with its publication of Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation. Bringing together clergy, lay people, and thinkers on the topics of religion/spirituality and the environment, Holy Ground is an anthology of meditations (essays just doesn’t seem to work) on the role of caring for the Earth while remaining faithful to the tenants of one’s faith. Continue reading

5 Green Holiday Gifts That Keep on Giving

The winter holidays are almost upon us, and whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or the holiday(s) of another tradition, you may still be stumped for gifts to give this year… especially gifts that fit your own (and the recipients’) values.

For the past few years, I’ve moved away from buying "stuff" as much as possible, and focused on giving the gift of giving (say that three times fast!). That is, I look for gifts that contribute to larger causes. If you’re looking for a perfect gift for the "treehugger" on your list, or if you’d like to use a holiday gift as a means of spreading awareness, here are some ideas.

  • Adopt an Animal: This has become my mainstay for my neice and nephews.  We don’t get them a pet; rather, we make a donation to the Missouri Humane Society’s Longmeadow Rescue Ranch "Barn Buddy" program. You can check with your local Humane Society or ASPCA chapter for similar programs. If wildlife is more your thing, Defenders of Wildlife has "adoption" gifts featuring wolves, penuins, polar bears, and other animals.
  • Plant a Tree: You can do this on your own, or make a contribution: both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy have donation programs that involve tree-planting. Or, for the bibilophiles on your list, for-profit company Eco-Libris sells "book offsets": they’ll plant a tree for each book you choose to "offset."
  • Offset Emissions: Give the gift of carbon neutrality by purchasing carbon offsets. Some of the most well-known and respected vendors of offsets are Terrapass, Native Energy, and Regardless of the company from which you purchase offsets, make sure that they’re certified by a third party, such a Green-e.
  • Give Green Energy: Sure, you could buy a loved one a solar system or wind turbine, but that’s probably well beyond most of our budgets. Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs… also known as "green tags") confer the environmental benefits of green energy without having to invest in the equipment. Green-e also certifies REC dealers, including Renewable Choice Energy, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Maine Interfaith Power and Light.
  • Give a Membership: Finally, for family and friends that might like the gift of involvement, why not buy them a gift membership in an environmental organization such as The Sierra Club, Co-op America (Green America as of 1/9/09), or the National Audubon Society.

We can (and should) forgo holiday-related consumerism as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the spirit of giving associated with our various traditions. If you have other ideas for green gifts that keep on giving, I’d love to hear about them.

Disclosure: I do have relationships with many of the organizations and companies listed above, but offer them only as examples… I’m receiving nothing for listing them in this post.

Image credit: angela7dreams at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

A World without Nature: Lessons Learned from “In Memory of Central Park”

cover of Queenelle Minet\'s novel In Memory of Central Park

This post was orginally published on sustainablog on December 4, 2008.

Despite having agreed to review Queenelle Minet’s In Memory of Central Park: 1853 – 2022, I really wasn’t that excited about reading it. Described as "a thought-provoking work combining insight into the mind of a therapist, a poignant love story, and a commentary on both right-wing politics and our troubled environment" in press materials accompanying the book, I thought "Oh, no — fiction with an agenda. That almost never works."

I was wrong.

In Memory of Central Park follows in the tradition of the great works of dystopian fiction: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Set in New York City in 2050, the novel’s protagonist and narrator Noah is a psychotherapist with plenty of issues of his own. He’s in love with his brother’s wife Margaret. He struggles with unresolved resentment about his relationship with his deceased father. And he, along with the other characters, live in a city that’s not only seceded from the United States, but has also encapsulated itself in a huge dome in order to protect itself from terrorism and other outside threats.

As you might imagine in this environment, Noah stays pretty busy with his psychotherapy practice. Though skilled at helping other resolve some of their own emotional problems, he’s distant from those around him. His eventual affair with Margaret fails because he’s unwilling to allow her to leave Adam, her successful and politically-connected husband, and move in with him (Noah, like many of the residents of the city, lives in a single room). He’s frustrated because, despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to help a difficult patient who’s obviously dying. And he just doesn’t get the ideas underlying "clown show" performances by an underground street theater group that seems to pop up everywhere. Continue reading

Building Bridges: Scarcity vs. Abundance

This post was orginally publised on sustainablog on Sunday, November 30, 2008.

From biodiversity loss to peak oil to the need for recycling, many of the messages coming from the environmental community have one common underlying theme: scarcity.

Messages of scarcity take their power from the fear they produce. As marketing guru Seth Godin points out, fear is a powerful emotion that can make people act. Tell people that there isn’t enough of something to go around, and you can bet that many will act quickly to make that they get theirs…

That may be one of the supreme ironies of environmental messages involving fear: it may ultimately lead people to desire those things we claim are in short supply. Can you say "Drill, baby, drill??

Finally, there are no shortages of fearful messages out there, and since people seek security when they’re scared, they’ll probably embrace the message that produces immediate comfort… or, at least, validation. "Energy independence" works as a message in one instance because it ties directly to a fear many Americans find familiar: the fear of violence from outsiders. We have vivid images associated with this fear — it’s something we know. Tell people that we take money out of the hands of "state sponsors of terrorism" by leveraging domestic energy supplies, and they start listening closely.

Continue reading

Building Bridges: Which “Red” Communities are Going “Green?”

This post was originally published on October 23, 2008 at sustainablog.  I’m still looking for input, though!

I wrote my first "Building Bridges" post on a lark: the article I referenced on carbon offsets tied in nicely with ideas about bridging the divide between the environmental community and "Red America" (which tends to distrust, at the very least, environmentalists). Since then, I’ve been digging into existing success stories… and I’d love your input.

An artist is captured under the bridge in the Japanese garden at Huntington Gardens, San Marino, California.

For the next round of posts, I’d like to feature "case studies" of "red" communities (and I hate that designation, but it conveys the rights characterization) that are implementing "green" practices. I’m particularly interested in "homegrown" initiatives put forth by local residents, as I think ideas that come from within will get a better reception — we’re all a bit more open-minded about ideas that come from people we know and trust. So far, I know about the following communities:

Continue reading

Five Resolutions for America Recycles Day

November 15th is America Recycles Day! As my sustainablog colleague Robin Shreeves noted on Tuesday, it’s an occasion that can create mixed feelings for us "greenies": yes, it’s great to have recognition of the importance of recycling in our daily lives, but the very existence of America Recycles Day reminds us that, in many cases, American’s don’t recycle… or, not nearly enough of us, anyway. We need to address that issue on the level of mindset as well as accessibility: many of us don’t think about our disposal of "waste" as we should, but many others don’t have access to convenient recycling services… and we’d like both to change.

I’d imagine both of those issues will receive plenty of attention today. I’d like to bring up another concept that doesn’t get discussed as much: recycling as a moral yardstick for one’s commitment to environmental protection and restoration.  You know what I’m talking about: the mixture of disbelief and downright contempt many of us experience, and express, when we find out someone doesn’t separate recyclables out from their home waste stream.  "You don’t recycle?!" We often "ask" this rhetorical question with a tone reserved for question like "You don’t vote?" or "You don’t wash your hands after using the bathroom?" Failure to recycle is a personal and social failing akin to passing gas at a cocktail party…

OK, maybe that’s a little strong, but I do think we tend to approach the act of recycling as a sign of virtue.  I don’t know that this is always the best way to get more people not only separating out waste paper and aluminum cans from the "trash," but also thinking about the impact of their consumption choices.  As someone who’s been guilty of all the above-mentioned sins, I’d like to share my resolutions for this America Recycles Day (why wait until New Year?).

I resolve to remember that recycling is part of a hierarchy.  You know what I mean: the three Rs.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It isn’t just a catchy phrase; it’s a prioritized list. It’s good to recycle those individual serving sized yogurt containers; it’s even better to buy products like yogurt in larger containers and create our own individual servings.  And then reuse that container for leftover storage. Ultimately, we want to recycle less… because we’re not buying so much stuff that needs recycling in the first place. This often has the additional benefits of saving us some money… and that’s a great argument to use when trying to show someone else the benefits of going green.

I resolve to remember that convenient, affordable curbside pick-up isn’t available everywhere. Recycling still takes some effort in many places: not just separating materials, but storing them and transporting them to a drop-off point. In others, it can cost $30+/month for curbside pick-up, and in these tight economic times, many will see that expense as one that can be shorn from the family budget. Creating group "recycling pools" may be one effective way to get more people doing it: overall, let’s take time and expense into account, and see if we can find ways to minimize both. It’s easy to say "it doesn’t cost that much," but why not give others the benefit of knowing their limitations in terms of time and treasure, and find ways to work within those limitations?

I resolve to believe that people can understand and appreciate the higher costs of poor resource management. If we really want to get people acting, let’s take the time to explain concepts such as "externalities" — in this case, the fact that we are paying the costs of our buy-and-dispose approach to consumption in other ways — higher local taxes, or decreased local services, because of increased landfill fees, or the need for more frequent trash pick-up, for instance. Let’s explain those costs in terms of the things they value: "the environment" may not do it for them, but schools, or parks, or police and fire services might. However we explain it, we should keep in mind that this kind of approach provides people with a sense of control: they can make choices that will make a difference for themselves and their communities. We can’t overstate the costs and impacts, of course, but let’s take the time to find out, and show others, the real expenses of business as usual.

I resolve to remember that guilt isn’t usually a great motivator. "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." I still don’t know why you’d want to catch flies, but the old maxim has a lesson for us here — providing people with a sense of empowerment and reward will do more to change behavior than chastising them for not acting. We’ll get more people acting if we show them how such actions create benefits for them, their families, and their communities.

Right now, the "vinegar" method isn’t just the approach of many environmentalists; it’s the underpinning of the whole recycling industry. Generally, it costs us to provide a recycling company with the materials they’ll sell. Is there any other industry that relies on such a model for materials basic to its existence? I realize the costs involved in recovering recyclables doesn’t create a high profit margin, but programs like Recycle Bank are finding success with the idea that rewarding people for recycling is much more effective than using "don’t you care about the environment?!" as a way to get others to pony up. Let’s start thinking of ways to make recycling (and other green acts) more immediately rewarding.

I resolve to remember that all of my previous resolutions can, and should, be applied to other actions that benefit the environment. Recycling isn’t a magic bullet for environmental restoration… it’s one action among many. It’s part of a larger mindset that recognizes we should use natural resources with care and concern for future generations.

So, let’s use those blue bins… but lets also keep their use in context. We want higher recycling rates… along with lower levels of consumption, and a growing sense that abundance doesn’t equal more stuff. The we’ll really have something to celebrate!

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, Ph.D., is the founder and editor of sustainablog.

Image credit: Editor B at Flickr under a Creative Commons license