Aran Blogs on No Impact Week
Click here for more stories from No Impact Week.
So far this week:
Click here for more stories from Day 1: Consumption.
British Columbia, Canada
No Impact Week kicked off with a challenge to reduce personal consumption, and do more with less. Starting Sunday and running through the week I will be buying nothing but the necessities. This challenge is a relief after the holidays, as my credit card is still smoking from buying presents for friends and family, dining out, and bringing in the New Year with parties.
As I currently track all of my personal expenses, I know by looking back over past months that I rarely go through an average week without spending at least 10 to 50 dollars on various “wants.” Usually it’s the little things that add up: a latte on a cold morning, a beer out with friends, a movie in a theater, etc. When you add all of your tiny daily expenses up it is quite surprising how much money you are spending on these little wants over the course of a week.
Is there anything wrong with spending $4 a day on a latte before work? For many this small indulgence is a key ingredient to daily happiness, and worth every cent. But $4 a day times 365 days in a year is $1,460. That’s a round trip ticket and weeklong vacation in Hawaii!
It's said that during a recession sales of chocolates and alcohol spike because people spend less on big-ticket items, but still seek happiness from splurging on little things. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little indulgence in chocolate and alcohol, but it's wise to ask yourself if it's really the product that’s making us happy, or the act of buying itself?
Consumption for consumption’s sake generates shallow, short-lived pleasure. This week, I am going to focus on enjoying myself as much as possible without spending money with the hope of experiencing a deeper, more fulfilling form of happiness. In place of shopping for new clothes I am going to look at Freecycle and other sharing websites where I can swap things I no longer want for used stuff. Instead of going out to dinner I am going to be hosting a low-waste, local organic food potluck and games night.
After auditing my day-to-day expenses over the last few months, I have determined that there are a few things I can cut out which will allow me to save up for something much more rewarding. By focusing on creation, as opposed to consumption, I think this week will end with better memories and a fatter wallet.
Click here for more stories from Day 2: Trash.
Day two of No Impact Week was all about trash. Our personal trash, to be specific. The goal was to “find out if wasting less improves your life."
Starting on Monday and continuing throughout the week participants, were instructed to “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” as much as possible (in that order!). To accomplish this we were encouraged to collect all of our garbage as we progressed through the week, and set it aside for review. We were also instructed to put together a “no-trash travel kit” of reusable items: a mug, grocery bags, utensils and food containers, cloth napkins, and produce bags.
Initially, I thought this challenge wouldn’t be that hard. Trash didn’t seem like a big issue for me: I already recycle most of my waste, avoid take-out, and use cloth grocery bags whenever I shop. But when I sat down to think about my personal waste output, I discovered a lot of room for improvement. As I recently moved into an apartment building, I could no longer compost my kitchen scraps in my backyard. I was now sending all of that great, nutrient rich material to a landfill! I also noticed that I was throwing away countless plastic produce bags from grocery shopping, when I could be using reusable mesh bags for my produce. Lastly, I realized that I was creating a lot of garbage by buying small quantities of the same thing every few months when I could be buying it bulk.
I began by tackling the biggest waste problem I faced: food scraps. I hate the fact that I am sending so much compostable material through my city’s waste system! With a little research, I discovered that a nearby community garden had compost bins that were underutilized. I got in touch with the organizers, and after some discussion about materials allowed, was granted use of their bins. I then purchased a container with a carbon filter lid that I could store my food scraps in for a week without worrying about any smells escaping. This allows me to cut my waste output by half, and also create nutrient-rich soil for the local community garden.
The other problems regarding grocery shopping were quite easy to fix once I had identified them. First, I picked up some mesh bags for my produce, so as to no longer have to use plastic bags (I found onion bags to be good for this). Second, I studied my grocery list and identified items that I could buy in bulk, such as nuts, rice, beans, sugar, oils etc. I then did a bit more research to determine the best place to get these in bulk so I could save myself time and money in the future.
With these few changes the rest of my year will be a lot less wasteful, and I think I’ll even save some cash as well!
Click here for more stories on Day 3: Transportation.
For day three of my one week carbon cleanse, the challenge was to begin taking alternative transportation for the rest of the week. No driving!
When I last participated in No Impact Week, the transportation challenge was the most fulfilling, as I ended up selling my vehicle and taking public transit and riding my bike a lot more. Over the past year I have learned a lot about being car-free in a city. Although you save money and carbon emissions, there are some drawbacks—such as lack of freedom to get out of the city quickly, the inability to visit friends who live farther away, and the challenge of transporting gear around for outdoor adventures. Although frustrating at first, there are always ways to overcome these obstacles.
Here are some lessons I have learned:
Riding a bicycle in the city: Overcoming the fear of death.
This was a big one for me, as I was seriously sketched out about riding my bike in traffic. Having large metal boxes whizzing by your unprotected little body is not relaxing. You can overcome this fear by doing the following:
- Purchase a map from an outdoor/bike store and learn the bike routes. There are always safer routes to take on a bike.
- Wear reflective high visibility clothing at all times! I live on a bike route, and from my window I have witnessed three bike vs. car accidents in the last month alone! I blame the cyclist in all three accidents, as they were invisible at night, and flying through a roundabout. Always assume the car cannot see you.
- Wear a helmet. That should go without saying, but about 20 percent of cyclists I see don’t have one. From my own experience surviving an over-the-handlebars bail, I know they work. Picking embedded gravel out my the helmet kinda reinforced that.
Escaping the city: When you really do need a vehicle.
I love adventures. I live for them. The biggest pain with not having a car is not being able to get out of the city and climb a mountain easily. Here are my recommendations for how to accomplish this if you don’t own a car:
- Befriend people who have cars. Do this by joining Meetup.com groups, and talking to people in your social circle or at your gym.
- Carpool. Put the word out when you need a ride somewhere on a certain date. Chances are there is someone going that way already. Be sure to always chip in on gas.
- Join a car-sharing network. Check out Zip Car and other car co-ops. They usually have deals for weekends!
Taking transit: Learning the system.
I have to admit I used to hate public transit. It was confusing, and always seemed to run behind! After forcing myself to take transit for a year, here are some things I have learned that make it easier:
- If you have an iPhone, check out the “directions” feature of your maps app. If your city supports it, your transit info will be hooked up to that app. This means all you have to do is type in where you want to go and hit the bus icon. The app will give you the next bus leaving closest to you, and any transfer info you need. I use it every day. If you don’t have this magical app, you have to get a bus schedule and learn the routes.
- If you can’t afford a monthly or yearly pass, buy a booklet of bus tickets to save a few bucks. They usually sell these at convenience stores.
- Buses can sometimes be late, or even not come at all. Don’t be afraid to call a cab. Cabs are usually only going to run you 10 bucks or so within a city, and will generally get to you within a minute.
Besides the above tips, have a positive mindset when you are experimenting with alternative transportation. If you ever get frustrated with things, remember what it’s like to circle the block looking for parking for half an hour, then paying $4 or more an hour for that parking spot when you finally get it. Alternative transportation is usually less of a headache!
Click here for more stories on Day 4: Food.
First off, I went online and found out what was in season in my region. The NRDC’s “Eat Local” map was helpful, as was “Eat the Seasons.” I then went to Google and searched for farmers markets in my area, but unfortunately the next one was not for another week. Things are a little slow in January.
I looked for another place to purchase quality seasonal food. I found that the Whole Foods Market (although usually expensive) had some good deals on specific items advertised on their website: kale, carrots, rutabagas, and other root veggies. I combined them with barley and lamb that my brother had hunted a few weeks earlier to make a hearty winter stew that would last the rest of the week. Everything in the stew was from within 50 miles of where I live, making it an incredibly low-impact meal.
Although this meal is very seasonal and local, it’s not vegetarian. In order to cut down on the amount of meat I consume I am constantly trying vegetarian meals in order to find the good ones that taste great and fill me up. My favorite so far is curried chickpeas with couscous.
Click here for more stories on Day 5: Energy.
I just moved into an apartment that was built in the 1950s. Energy efficiency was not a big priority back then, and all of the windows are thin, single-pane glass, which do little to insulate. The building also has central heating—very difficult to control in the apartment. In the house that I used to live in, I did a lot of work to winterize what I could by installing door sweeps, putting plastic over the windows, sealing cracks, and laying down thick carpets. In my new place I can’t do any serious renovations, and am even unable to put plastic over the windows because of how they are designed.
Although hampered by this, I was still able to find a few areas for improvement. For heat use, the first thing I did was turn all of the radiators down as low as they could go—if it gets really cold, I’ll just put on my long johns. For weatherization, I made a note to pick up some drapes for the windows—curtains can make a big difference in helping insulation. To address energy efficiency I took stock of all the types of light bulbs in the house, and created a list of CFL or LED light bulbs I needed to buy to replace the incandescent bulbs I currently have.
As I run a business from my computer I spend way too much time plugged in. In order to get a bit of distance from my laptop I went for a run and read a book. I have to force myself to unplug and get away from electrified life more often. The constant bombardment of distractions that comes with being online takes a toll on your mental health. You save energy, and are also able to recharge your personal batteries when you spend time in nature or in a quiet place without outside interruptions.
From auditing my energy use I discovered a few ways of saving power around the apartment, but the biggest revelation was that in order to save the most power, I simply needed to get out of the apartment more often! Rain or shine I will be outside this weekend.
Click here for more stories on No Impact Friday: Water.
Friday morning I sat down and spent some time online, reading up on the global state of drinking water so I could better understand just why it was important to conserve it. Although I try to be conscious about how much water I use, it’s hard to see the scarcity as I live in a very wet, rainy, water-soaked region.
The April 2010 National Geographic Magazine cover story on water opens by stating that although most of the planet is covered in water, 97 percent of it is salty, and 2 percent is fresh water locked in snow and ice – leaving less than 1 percent for us to use. Even in Canada, which is ranked as the third most abundant country for renewable water, we face scarcity in many areas. 60 percent of Canada’s rivers flow into the arctic, which is away from the most populous areas of the country.
Just a short way out of my city you can view the Cleveland Dam and the Capilano Lake water reservoir, which provides around 40 percent of Vancouver’s fresh water. Over a 10-day period in 2006, a series of landslides into the lake caused the turbidity of the water to rise tenfold, and the city was forced to issue an advisory to boil water. Sales of bottled water rocketed, and suddenly people began to think about how they use their water. Apparently almost all of the watersheds in my region have been seriously compromised by heavy logging in the past, leaving them susceptible to landslides. It’s interesting to see just how fragile our freshwater supply is, even in areas where it is seemingly abundant.
While conserving water is practical (a lower hydro bill is great!) it’s also responsible. The less water that flows through a municipal waste system, the less chance there is of pollutants ending up in the environment. Many cities are faced with waste systems that can no longer handle the demands of the population, which often results in overloading that leads to untreated sewage flowing into lakes and rivers. By being conscious of your water use you are also helping save the environment and reduce your city’s costs. It’s win-win-win!
In our apartment we have lowered our water use by installing a 0.5 GPM faucet aerator in the bathroom sink, and a 1.5 GPM dual-setting swivel faucet aerator in the kitchen sink. I am particularly fond of the dual setting swivel faucet aerator, as it allows you to “pause” the flow of water with a little lever – making it really easy to rinse your dishes efficiently when washing. We also use a 1.5 GPM low-flow showerhead with “showerstart” technology, a little device that prevents the water from coming out of your shower until it reaches the right temperature (no more wasted water down the drain while you wait for it to get hot!).
For our toilet we scrapped the “let it mellow” policy in favor of a dual-flush conversion kit. For only $25 you can install one of these devices that give you the option of a normal flush for solids and a 70 percent lower volume flush for liquids. Combining this with an adjustable toilet flapper allows you to significantly reduce your toilet water usage, without compromising the air quality or cleanliness of your washroom.
We complement these relatively inexpensive household water saving products with a few good habits, such as taking shorter showers, washing dishes in a small tub of hot water in the sink, and not letting the tap run when brushing teeth or shaving. It’s actually quite easy to save a lot of water with a few simple actions. It all adds up...
Click here for more stories from Day 7: Giving Back.
For Saturday the goal was to find a way to give back to your community and/or environment. I had spent a fair bit of time online trying to find some volunteering opportunities in my area for Saturday, but was a little disappointed by the lack of information online. Craigslist had the most information, but almost everything was for international work—there were very few volunteering options locally.
Thinking about what I was most passionate about, I decided that a beach cleanup would be a good idea. I grew up exploring beaches, and marveling at the incredible ecosystems they contained. From the mucky clam beds to the vibrant tide pools filled with anemones, starfish, and crabs, I have never lost my childhood love of coastal beaches. The one thing that always ruins walking on a beach is finding a half-empty container of motor oil, a broken beer bottle, or a jumble of disintegrating Styrofoam. It doesn’t take an oil spill to kill wildlife on a beach, or pollute a marine environment – the amount of toxic trash that litters the average beach is shocking.
So on a brisk, sunny morning, I made my way down to the beach with my brother to begin our trash-treasure hunt. Before we had even set foot on the beach we had already picked up two food wrappers and a Tim Horton’s cup. It was amazing that in a country that prides itself on sustainability and environmentalism there were still countless individuals that had no problem with throwing their trash on the ground.
Slipping over boulders and clambering over driftwood, we systematically removed every piece of garbage we could find as we slowly made our way up the beach. The high-tide line was a gold mine for bits of Styrofoam and plastic bags. Before long we had worked up a sweat, and were lugging a heavy bag of trash. It was a good workout!
At one point a middle-aged couple walking down the beach stopped to ask what we were doing. When we replied they looked surprised, and the man asked: “Are you doing this alone?” I replied that we were. He paused a minute, straightened up, looked me right in the eyes and said with utmost sincerity: “Well thank you for cleaning the beach.” I blushed and mumbled something in response, before continuing with my work. I was quite surprised—I couldn’t remember the last time I had been thanked so sincerely for something.
After about 45 minutes to an hour our bag was filled to the brim, and we had to turn back. It was a pretty great feeling walking back down the beach, knowing that for the time being there was zero litter along that particular stretch. It will be interesting to see what it looks like next week – hopefully we can make it around the point before our bags are full …
Take a break from everything. Ohm shanti.
The last day of No Impact Week was about getting outside and into nature. Powering down our computers and switching off the lights and appliances, my brother and I headed north – out of the city and into the mountains. A light snow was falling, and as the range began to loom above us with rays of sunlight setting their slopes on fire, we grew silent. We were humbled by the awesome beauty of our surroundings.
Entering the dark and quiet of the forest to start our ascent, the stresses and worries of my life began to drop away with each step I took. My attention turned to the soft murmur of streams, and the whisper of wind in the treetops high above. I breathed in crisp, fresh air thick with the scent of hemlock, cedar, and fir. Staring upwards into the canopy, I watched, transfixed, as a shaft of light breaking through the dark boughs transformed slowly falling snowflakes into swirling, sparkling gold. I felt small and insignificant. Meditating on the wonders surrounding me, I could feel my batteries recharging, and my emotions calming.
Completing our hike, we returned home through the hectic chaos of a busy city. The petty annoyances of traffic seemed less important, and we were consciously aware that we had fewer wants. Nature had filled the cracks that the week’s stresses had created – cracks that would normally have been filled with consumption as a reward for enduring the trials and tribulations of modern life. Fast food, shiny toys, and the latest accessories seemed less important. For the time being, we had regained some perspective.
A year after doing the No Impact Experiment the first time, I can see how it changed my life. I was reminded how important community is, and since then I have become much more active in my city and group of friends. I am happier because of it and I find myself compelled to do it again. I can’t recommend a better way to kick off the New Year.
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