Friday, May 29, 2009

Greener Vacay's

Since our new baby is going to be born in the next few weeks, my husband and I decided that we'd better take advantage of my parent's offer to let our son have a sleep-over at their place. This way we could have a night to relax, go out to dinner alone, maybe even see a movie and stay overnight at a nearby hotel. A little "stay-cation" to use the newly coined term for taking a vacation without really leaving your general area.

We decided to stay at a Springhill Suites hotel in Schaumburg, and I made our reservations online tonight.  What I didn't expect was to see an option to "Green your hotel stay. Offset your carbon footprint and help preserve the Amazon Rainforest".  Hmm, I thought, I wonder how expensive that will be. But being into the whole "eco" thing like I am, I clicked on the link to "Learn more and Donate now!".  Turns out it's cheap! Marriott's family of hotels (of which SpringHill Suites is a part of) did a carbon footprint study that revealed $1 will offset one room's occupancy for one night. There is a $10 min for this tax-deductible contribution, so I figured I'll also be offsetting 9 other rooms that night, or we can look at it as that we've offset the last 9 nights of hotel stays, or even the next 9 going forward!  Any way you look at it, it's a win-win. We get to help the environment (more specifically, the Amazon Rainforests and reduce our carbon footprint), feel like do-gooders, and take a small tax deduction.  And all for less money than the tax we are paying on the hotel stay!

So the next time you make a reservation at a hotel, see if you can donate to make your stay carbon-neutral!  Or you could go one more step and make options like this factor into your decision regarding where to stay in the first place...or even better, plan your destination around a stay at a "green" hotel!  Here are some to check out: Washington Hotel, Hotel Metro, or check out the "Green Hotels" members in many states across the US. Happy vacationing, and here's to our planet!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A New Way to Eat Your Veggies

This article was written about my friend John Logli and his business partners who started their own CSA near Rockford last year. How cool that they won the green business award! If you live in the Rockford area, check out their site and sign up to receive their fresh organic produce and eggs!

A New Way to Eat Your Veggies

Shared via AddThis

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Worms Work in our House...

So we've been a little busy around here lately!  Last week I hosted a Worms & Wine party with the Urban Worm Girl, and it was such fun. I have been wanting to start composting in the city for a long time now, but didn't know where to start...

When I was a kid, I remember my family had a compost pile out in the corner of our yard where we would throw coffee grounds, banana peels, eggshells, veggie scraps, fruit cores, rinds, etc.  My dad would throw lawn clippings on the pile too, and apparently my parents used the compost for our garden and planting beds  (I was not a part of the "using" process, or if I was, I don't remember...).  Most of my memories about the compost pile are of avoiding it while climbing over the fence because it smelled horrible. 

Although this type of composting is great in many ways, it requires some attention to keeping the mixture's composition in balance and you need to mix and turn the pile regularly.  Plus, you need outdoor space, which I have precious little of. There are also composting tumblers you can buy to help with mixing this type of decomposition composting, and if you are going this route, they are definitely worth looking into. But I didn't want to use one of these on my balcony either, and I didn't like how outdoor composting in Chicago limits you to the warmer seasons, and in the Winter you would be back to tossing all your food scraps.

So, in researching online, I learned that you can compost indoors with the help of WORMS! All the sites said this method would NOT smell (which I was somewhat skeptical of), but I decided to learn more. I started making more and more friends while living in the city who were like-minded and had also heard of "vermiculture" (composting with worms), and some who had tried it or were doing it successfully!  I learned that it doesn't smell because the worms are eating the scraps before they really decompose. Also, all the food is covered by the worm's bedding to protect it from air exposure, make the worms feel like they are underground, and keep bugs from finding it. This was really interesting to me, but I still had a few issues: Where could I put these worms in my place? Where would I get the worms from? Was I ready to do this? Could I convince my husband to get on board and agree to worms in our house?

I admit, the idea of having worms living in your house might sound really weird at first, but I got over it when I weighed all the positive effects it would have on our lives and our Earth. First, after we began recycling in earnest around here, we noticed how much of what still went into our garbage can was food waste. This bothered me for 2 reasons - first, it took a long time to fill the can, and all that organic garbage started to smell before it looked ready to go out, second, I felt like sending all those food scraps to the landfill was a sad waste of matter that could be broken down and go back into the soil, enriching it for future food to grow. Vermiculture offered a major solution to both of these issues, and would also produce natural fertilizer for our balcony's new veggie garden this summer.  The process also yields a liquid, commonly referred to as "worm tea" or "liquid gold", that can be diluted to half-strength with water and then used as a fertilizer for our houseplants.  And all of this is organic and safe...instead of some scary chemicals that I would have to call poison control over if AJ touched and then put his hand in his mouth.

Then this year, Urban Worm Girl was featured in the Chicago Tribune, and 4 people saved the article for me.  I was like, "Ok, it's time to get this going!  No more procrastinating!" So I emailed (Stephanie, the Urban Worm Girl) and set up a date for my worm bin demo. I decided to make a party of it, and sent out an evite to many family and friends, thinking a couple might be interested. I called it Worms & Wine, a name borrowed from a vermiculture event at A Cooler Planet, one of my favorite stores, and proceeded to buy organic and biodynamic for the party from Red & White.  Red & White is a new wine store on Milwaukee Ave., and the guy working there was very helpful in helping me pick out the bottles, as well as helping me to stay within my budget. The party went really well, and AJ had a blast as well. We had over 15 people come out, and I know that at least one of them has already gotten a bin from Stephanie and started composting as well!  I'll be covering the event in and upcoming Chicagonista article, so watch for it there for the lowdown...

So, here's the process going on at our house...first, we chop our scraps up into more manageable peices. This picture shows some fruit scraps like cantaloupe rinds and seeds (which have since sprouted in the bin! I mixed them back into the bedding, so we'll see if the worms will eat them before becoming cantaloupe farmers themselves!), banana peels and strawberry tops. Since we started with a pound (or roughly 1000) worms, it will take them a couple months to keep up with our scrap production, so we have been keeping the overflow in a tupperware container in the fridge.  I guess that the older scraps become softer (more ripe?) and are even easier for the worms to eat, so that should help them to process it all. I can't wait until they get to the point where they can eat all of our desirable scraps! (I say "desirable" because the worms should not be fed meat, dairy, spicy foods, or food containing oil, butter, etc.  Like AJ learned in his Curious George episode on compost, "no mayoniase!")  The next shot is of the inside of the bin. Most of what you can see is the cardboard and newspaper that make up the bedding.  If you can click on and open the picture, you might be able to see one worm on a pice of cardboard in the lower right-hand corner of the bin, but since they don't like light, they quickly burrow down into the bedding when I open the lid. As time goes by and the worms eat more food scraps and more of their bedding, the look inside the bin should change over to mostly just looking like rich soil. I think this is supposed to take a couple of months.
 Then we will add a new tray to the tower with new bedding and scraps, and the worms will migrate up into it, leaving the composted casting fertilizer behind. This is what we will put onto the soil in our garden outside, and share with friends if we harvest more than what we can use. The last shot to the left is the worm's new home sitting happily undisturbed (for the most part, AJ has gotten used to it there already and largely leaves it alone except when it's time to feed and say "hi" to the worms...) under out stairs. 
I hope this will reinforce in AJ our belief that all creatures big and small are important in God's green earth. We all have a purpose, as well as a responsibility to treat the world and its inhabitants (including ourselves!) with respect and love.  He already is a big fan of the worms, and when we start to use the compost and the "tea", and then harvest the vegetables from the garden, we will be showing him how all these things work together to nourish one another.  We eat the food, the worms eat the scraps, the worms fertilize the plants, and the plants make more food!  Here's to the worm's role in that cycle!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Water Consciousness...

Water. I use it and drink it every day. I just turn on my faucet and it comes out, I flush my toilet and it fills back up, I run my dishwasher and washing machine without even thinking about it. It's so easy to take it for granted, isn't it? In the past few years, our family has learned a lot and made the switch from common purchases like Cascade Dishwashing Liquid, Tide, and Clorox Toilet Bowl Cleaner to Method brand's Smarty Dish, 3x concentrated laundry detergent, and Lil'Bowl Blue. The Method products are non-toxic, biodegradable, and contain no phosphates. They also actually get my dishes, clothing and bathrooms clean, without draining or flushing harmful substances back into our water supply. Ecover also makes a dishwashing tab that really gets your dishes clean without the phosphates. The phosphates are actually illegal to USE in Chicago, even though they're all over the grocery shelves...hmmm.

(...and not to go on a total tangent/rant here, but in researching this post, I remembered that I am kind of appalled at these. I know cleaning your toilet is not the most fun job, but for goodness sake, do they have to make MORE crap to toss into our landfills - or maybe I should say our oceans? Try to think like your one thing you can keep cleaning and re-using. This disposable mentality is getting us into real trouble, people!!)

We definitely need to pay attention to what we're flushing down the drain, because it does show up again doesn't just go "away" and it cannot all be removed during the processing that water goes through. Same thing with the medications and prescriptions that you might be flushing after their expiration. Look for a drop off site for these since many communities have certain places or dates that you can drop them off to be properly disposed of. Chicago has this program now, which is pretty cool.

But this is not enough. I recently saw the Oprah show on Earth Day where she had an expert on (I think it was Jacques Causteau's son?) told us about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I had no idea, but this is a huge swirl of actual garbage that has collected in the Pacific. There is apparently at least one in every ocean, but this one, twice the size of TX and 90 ft deep in some places, is the largest. The worst part is that since we are all connected, this garbage is coming back to haunt us in many scary ways. One is in our food supply. The animals and fish that are affected by all this plastic are caught in fishermen's nets and end up on our plates, and in their flesh that we consume are high levels of plastic toxins like BPA and phthalates. These chemicals are if a small fish eats the plastic, and then is eaten by a larger fish (who is also eating the plastic) and so on, by the time the largest fish lands on our plate it can have high levels of of toxins that we happy consume over a candle-lit dinner. And little pieces of garbage is only the beginning. There are huge things like refrigerators, tires, microwaves, etc. out there too! How sad. How gross! And I won't even get into the sad stories about the fish, birds and turtles that die or are severely handicapped due to living in these great garbage swirls...

The effect is that we as consumers really need to start paying attention! If you aren't already, start to ask yourself if you want this ziptop bag, old toy, toothbrush, etc. to end up in the landfill or the ocean. Since the answer is likely to be "no, but what am I supposed to do with it then?" we need to face the fact that our choices in lifestyle and purchases may need adjusting. Buy in bulk when you can. Buy things that come in containers you can re-use, or re-fill (but not those toilet scrubbers!!). Bring your reusable bags to the store every time you shop. Make more things at home from scratch! That might eliminate several problems at once. Some may think me crazy, but I am seriously thinking about taking my dusty breadmaker off the shelf and baking my own sandwich bread. Then I won't have to fill my freezer with one of the only corn-syrup-free breads in the aisle I like when it's on sale, and I won't have to worry about all of the plastic bags they come in floating away in the ocean next year either. I know it's super hard to not make ANY garbage (though one of my friends somehow manages it!!) but with careful consideration and a little more effort, we can make much less "garbage" and severely reduce our footprint on this earth and its oceans. You can always start buying a reusable container for your kid's sandwiches instead of a plastic bag. I actually use a plastic bread-shaped box right now, but I have my eye on these Snack Taxi's, available locally in Chicago at A Cooler Planet.

This past weekend, my husband, son and I met up with my sister and her family at the Brookfield Zoo for their Planet Earth celebration.
We and the kids had a lot of fun, and learned even more about water at one of the booths. I signed up and took the H2Oath (part of why I'm writing this post!) that has to do with preserving or increasing water quality, reducing water consumption, and how to advocate and get involved with water conservation. You can find lots of helpful links at the Chicagoland Zoological Society's site, and sign up to take the oath too! This is a great thing to teach your kids about as well, and they make it fun with a little water-drop character named Agua. And if you get a water bill, working as a family to conserve your water usage at home will actually save you money, too! Now who doesn't like that?