Molly 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.
About a month ago I completed my sustainable design graduate thesis project, 100 Days Without Oil. I used my life as an experiment to understand our dependence on fossil fuels and try to eliminate this from my life as much as possible. I developed a lot of valuable habits during those 100 days and am hoping that this week of 'No Impact' living will be a helpful reminder as well as an opportunity to share what I discovered for myself during that time.
Consumption is a hard topic for me to wrap my head around, possibly because it can relate to so many of the other themes this week. There is consumption of water, consumption of fossil fuels, consumption of non-local foods, and consumption of material items....
In the end, it seems that our collective unawareness of all that we consume may be at the core of finding out how to live more sustainable lifestyles. It's a good introduction to the week.
In order to narrow down my focus today, I looked at what materials I consumed every day and identified two categories: 'temporary' consumption (that which goes into the trash after only a short period of time), and long-term consumption (which still eventually ends up in a landfill: clothes, gadgets, appliances, etc.)
To lessen unnecessary consumption, I made a list of the 'temporary consumables' I use every day, and noted the ways I attempted to eliminate these during my thesis project. Many of these habits I have since begun to slip out of, but almost none were difficult to manage once I developed the habit:
- To-go coffee cup? Bring a reusable thermos.
- Printed paper for class readings? Read on your laptop instead.
- To-go lunch waste? Eat in or ask if the place allows you to bring your own take-out containers as many restaurants and fast food places do.
- Receipts? Tell check-out clerks that you don't need a receipt so they know not to print one.
- Plastic or paper grocery bags? No need to get all bent out of shape about which to use when you have a third option: Just bring reusable bags.
- Food packaging? Buy in bulk in reusable containers.
- Food preservation? Put leftover produce and meals in Tupperware instead of plastic bags. I have a bad habit of using plastic bags in the fridge, which creates a lot of unnecessary waste.
I've been brainstorming today on how to reduce and create a second life for more long-term consumables:
- Shop at second hand stores. I shopped at Buffalo Exchange almost exclusively for about a year awhile back. Clothes were cheap, it was easy to trade them back in and get store credit, and I found more unique, one-of-a-kind stuff than you'll find at any other store.
- Limit transportation. I found when moving to Minneapolis from Phoenix that biking was often a much more efficient way of getting around than driving. A unexpected side effect of bicycling everywhere was that I shopped a lot less. Once I was more conscious of using my own physical energy and time to run errands, I thought twice about what stuff I really needed and how much effort I wanted to put into getting there.
- Thrift it. I have a friend who has about 20 different glasses which make up his cup collection. Each one was carefully selected over time at various thrift stores. Who needs a matching set of dishes when we can all have our favorite glass when we are over at his house?
Today's task included:
- Cleaning out my closet for clothes to sell, trade, or give away.
- Revisiting some of my old no-waste food habits (refillable coffee cup, bulk buying at the grocery store...)
- Making dinner out of leftovers in the fridge.
Click here for more stories from Day 2: Trash.
I feel that trash may be one of the easier ways to make big impacts with small (but consistent) changes to our lifestyles. In my experiment, I managed to eliminate organic waste with worm composting, dramatically reduce food packaging waste by buying in bulk, and focus on reducing ALL waste, not just waste which cannot be recycled.
Starting a compost bin was quite an adventure, having never grown up composting and being totally unfamiliar with it. I started composting without worms. I built a bin made of two rubber tubs which stack inside of each other. One is slightly shorter than the other and has holes drilled into it so any liquids drain into the lower bin to reduce sludge buildup. However, after a few weeks of 'composting' I had attracted a lot of bugs in my bin and the food was molding and rotting.
Consulting with a friend who is a composting veteran, I realized that it is easier to start with some organic matter (dirt) already in the bin, and that ventilation is crucial without worms. By this point, my bin was full of maggots (yeah, gross) and we decided it was best to start over and do it the right way.
My friend brought me some worms from his bin and I started with a little dirt, food scraps, my new worms, and some damp newspaper for bedding. Once I had enough accumulated compost I could stop adding newspaper. The worms have done the rest of the work for me for four months now. Two of the common misperceptions about composting are:
1. Common Misperception #1- It doesn't matter if you compost because organics will just decompose in the landfill.
I thought this for a long time until I learned that decomposition can only happen in environments with oxygen. Since landfills are so tightly packed with matter, they become anaerobic environments, turning any organic matter into sludge at best (or simply not decomposing at all). Because of this, that banana peel you are throwing away might as well be a milk jug because it isn't going anywhere.
2. Common Misperception #2- Compost will accumulate and I have no where to put it!
Worm composting is somewhat magical, in that the worms seem to moderate their population to eat as much waste as you throw in the bin. More food=more worms, less food=less worms, and after four months, my compost is at the same level it was the first month. The compost becomes a dense, nutrient-rich mixture which is perfect organic fertilizer for indoor plants or to use in a backyard garden in the spring. However, accumulation has proven not to be a problem.
The second big change to reduce waste is getting in the habit of buying in bulk. Luckily, I live two blocks away from one of the most awesome coops in Minneapolis, the Wedge, where there is a huge focus on stocking local bulk foods. For over three months, I was able to buy only local food and make no packaging waste by buying milk in reusable containers, bringing my own egg trays, and using mason jars to fill up with bulk foods, spices, and oils.
The only exception was cheese (which in the future could be packaged with compostable wrap). I found local breweries within biking distance which sold
refillable growlers for beer or only bought drinks on tap, no bottles. I changed eating habits and learned to cook with what I could find in bulk when options get more limited. In the process, I learned to cook from scratch many recipes which I would normally just have bought pre-made: tortillas, fresh rolled pasta, crackers, bread, pasta sauces, pesto, scones...the list goes on. I eliminated countless preservatives and food additives from my diet which normally come in package foods. According to one of the managers of the Wedge, most of the food in bulk is much fresher than packaged foods as it is allowed to bypass a few steps of the shipping and storage process.
I also saved money. Anytime you are buying pre-packaged food you are also buying the container. A link to a blog post on this is found here.
Lastly, I focused on reducing ALL waste, not just waste which cannot be composted or recycled. Although recycling is certainly better than simply throwing items into a landfill, there is still a significant amount of energy involved with transporting this waste. Recycling trucks (as well as garbage trucks) get around 3.2 miles per gallon, so a trip to even a nearby recycling center contributes significant carbon emissions and fossil fuel depletion. The better option is to find ways to eliminate this waste in the first place, only using what you absolutely cannot avoid. While there are not yet many alternative options for household items, food packaging has come a long way and ends up being the majority of our packaging waste anyway.
I collected all waste for the ‘100 day’ project and ended up with a box of glass bottles and another box of paper products, milk pull tabs, caps for jars and bottles, twist-ties and some plastic packaging. I ended up with half a paper bag full of material which could not be recycled, and about 3 paper bags full of recycled material.
In the end, while I have not figured out how to eliminate ALL waste, a major dent has been put in this impact by adopting different food-buying habits and feeding my worms!
Click here for more stories from Day 3: Transportation.
45 percent (19.15 gallons) of every barrel of oil (42 gallons) is gasoline.
This means that the petroleum created to run our cars is by far the largest single use in each barrel extracted from the earth. While transportation isn't the biggest total energy user in our daily lives, it is the biggest petroleum user. Using public transit or walk/bike commuting is a huge opportunity to decrease carbon emissions.
While I've always biked around when I had the time or it was convenient, starting to bike everywhere I go has been a very different experience. Before, on days when I was running late or the weather was cold or rainy I would just jump in my car. Getting into the habit of putting on a raincoat, mittens, and face mask and pedaling hard to get places on time turned out to be a much more enjoyable experience than battling traffic in a late panic.
My typical commute during half the week is an 8-mile trek to the St. Paul University of Minnesota campus. Most of the way there I can travel on bike paths. By the time I get to class in the morning I'm already feeling like I've done my workout for the day. Also, I hadn't realized how much time I spend inside until I started spending a significant amount of time outside getting around. It started to really matter what time the sun came up in the morning and set, and how cold it was going to get at 10 p.m. when I'm biking home from my studio.
In the winter months now I'm putting my bike away and taking the bus. Luckily Minneapolis has an amazingly navigable bus system and my Uptown location connects me to almost anywhere in the city I want to go.
However, there are plenty of snow bikers still out there ...
The City of Minneapolis has a page on their website specifically dedicated to winter biking. What may surprise summer bikers is that 50 of the 60 miles of bike trails throughout the city get plowed just like city streets here. According to some friends that are hardcore winter bikers, the bike trails are usually the first to get plowed. As it should be.
I feel lucky to live in a city that promotes biking by providing the infrastructure of bike paths, and has one of the largest bike commuter populations in the nation. A couple of bullet points from Shaun Murphy of the Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs:
- Minneapolis has 4,800 residents (2.5 percent of all workers) who regularly commute to work by bicycle, while the entire metropolitan area has 9,700 bike commuters (0.8 percent of all workers). So 50 percent of the regular bike commuters live in Minneapolis. (Source: Census data)
- Don Pflaum (City Bicycle Coordinator) estimates that about 15,000 bicyclers are seen each day during the warmer months in Minneapolis. (Source: Minneapolis Public Works estimate)
In my thesis project I calculated the equivalent 'miles per gallon' of a bicycle by converting human calories burned into MBtu's as gasoline is, and discovered that a bike gets 759,493.7 miles per gallon.
This means biking is 19,230 times more efficient than driving a subcompact car that gets 30 MPG, and if you run out of fuel on a bike ...
... eat a sandwich.
Click here for more stories on Day 4: Food.
Starting to change my diet to a more sustainable one includes buying local and organic foods, reducing food packaging waste, choosing to eat at restaurants which source locally, and starting to grow as much of my own food as possible.
Trying to buy only local foods was not difficult in August and September here. Even into October I was surprised by how many local foods could still be found at farmers markets and local co-ops.
However, as November arrived everything had disappeared from the shelves. In my project, that meant that I had to learn to preserve foods by canning, freezing and dehydrating. I lived off of preserved foods for 3 weeks and the effort it took to provide food for only myself for a few weeks made me appreciate how much work it had to be for early settlers in the Midwest. In the end, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible at this point) to eat local foods year-round in Minnesota. It takes a great deal of planning and actual sacrifice. I had to give up coffee, all tropical fruits, the majority of spices and herbs, and rice. My diet changed to one filled with apples, potatoes, and whatever local vegetables I could find that week.
To avoid accumulating any waste with food purchases, I buy everything in bulk. This also involved some sacrifice in that my days of eating premade foods were over. As a result, my time in the kitchen about tripled every day. I learned to cook many foods from scratch that I would have ordinarily just bought in packages: tortillas, bread, crackers, granola, and even butter and cheese. While I am eating fresher food there is a huge battle with the time it takes to prepare everything. It goes to show that the connection between women entering the workforce and premade meals appearing in American pantries.
Photo Album: Eating local in a frigid Minnesota winter isn't easy to pull off, but lots of fun to try.
Eating only at restaurants that source their ingredients locally is another goal of mine. There are many more 'local' restaurants than I imagined in Minneapolis. A pizza place down the street has the motto, "planet-saving pizza." They compost all waste, source as many local ingredients as possible, and deliver by bike and electric car (in superhero uniforms of course). It is really refreshing to see so many new restaurants with these goals in mind.
However, they go through the same struggle of finding local food as the weather turns colder. After talking to a few restaurant owners, I have yet to find a place which actually preserves local foods throughout the year.
Lastly, I've started to grow my own food. Living in an apartment in the middle of the city—without a yard—led me to set up a large grow table in my living room. It is located by a south facing window and I use a high powered 4-tube fluorescent grow light to supplement the light. I have been experimenting with what foods can grow well indoors and have managed to grow bell peppers, jalapenos, and lots of herbs and greens. Everything grows about twice as slow because of the limited light, but it has been great to walk into my living room every morning in the middle of winter to find a lush green garden! And, my food only has to travel about 10 feet!
I'm struggling with many of the same problems greenhouses do with aphids and other pests, and am trying to remedy these problems. Maintaining an organic garden has been quite challenging. Recently the table has become infested with aphids and I've had to resort to organic sprays to control them. I thought about introducing ladybugs but I'm not sure how that would go over with my two roommates.
Modifying my eating habits to be more sustainable has been one of the more challenging and exciting aspects no-impact lifestyle changes. I've spent more long nights cooking with friends than I can count, learned to grow vegetables for the first time in my life, ate healthier, and saved money buying bulk foods and eating out less.
Click here for more stories on Day 5: Energy.
In order to determine what my energy (electricity) use is, I got a Kill-A-Watt meter which plugs into any outlet and tracks the kWh amounts used over time. I was surprised to discover that many of the things that have a low wattage, such as light bulbs and my refrigerator, ended up being some of the biggest energy users because they are on all of the time. For example, my refrigerator uses 68.1 watts per hour, but this adds up to 1,634 watts per day. In contrast, my high-wattage hairdryer (which would use 1200 watts if on for an hour) only uses about 200 watts per day since it is only on for about five minutes.
I found wattage to be a somewhat misleading measure in that it was important for me to add up both watts per day for all of my appliances and watts per day to find what the big energy users were.
There are some things which I can easily do, like eliminating my hairdryer and not using as many light bulbs at a time. I found that oftentimes I had more lights on than I needed. For example, when I am working at my computer I don't need extra light in the room because the glow of the screen is enough.
But I couldn't eliminate all big energy users—my fridge, for instance. Instead, I started using a mini fridge. This meant I couldn't buy as much food at one time because less fit inside. But this ended up being a positive change since I started only buying food I needed for a day or so. I wasted less food because with less around I could always see exactly what I had and planned meals around that.
I researched how much energy was involved with various methods of cooking: toaster oven, electric oven, stove burner, and microwave. I found that microwaving is about equal to the energy use of an electric stove top burner. An electric oven is about twice as much. Using an electric tea kettle is much more energy efficient to heat water than a stove burner. I've tried to minimize my oven use and use a toaster oven when possible instead, since this is such a big energy user and is typically overkill when cooking for only myself or a few people.
All of these changes allowed me to reduce my total energy use per day from 6,800 (6.8 kWh) to about 3,200 watts (3.2 kWh).
In an effort to better understand solar power and how much is needed to power certain appliances, I constructed a solar-powered stereo which could attach to my bike. I bought a cheap 5-watt solar panel that trickle charges a small battery to power the speakers. By being able to store the electricity in a battery I could power the high-wattage speakers for at least a day of riding at a time.
Click here for more stories on Day 6: Water.
Like I did for electricity use, I measured how much water I was using each day from every fixture in order to determine how much it was and reduce it. By measuring flow rates, and timing myself doing everyday activities (brushing teeth, showering ...), I found that while there are quite a few different uses of water, there are three big ones that greatly contributed to my overall water use: showering, laundry, and toilet flushing.
Focusing on reducing the three biggest uses has helped me reduce both my water footprint and feelings of worry and guilt when I turned on the tap.
Even though my shower faucet is technically 'low flow' at two gallons per minute (typical is four gallons per minute), a 10-minute shower alone adds up to 20 gallons per day. Taking one-gallon bucket showers for all but one day of the week brought my water use down from 140 gallons/week to only 26 gallons. I used a bucket and sponge standing in the bath tub and found that this was more than enough water to wash up every morning without washing my hair. I have pretty dry hair, so I can get away with washing it once a week.
Sundays became the big "wash day." I would heat five gallons of water using a solar camp bag and take a longer bucket shower to wash my hair. Changing my showering habits made me realize that long morning showers ultimately served a ritual rather than an important purpose. Rinsing off with significantly less water did the trick just as well and saved 95 percent of the water.
I changed my laundry habits from using 42 gallons/load in the washing machine to only about 12 in a five-gallon, handwashing bucket. Handwashing allowed me to use about half the detergent I normally would. I filled the five-gallon bucket with clothes and detergent, let it soak, and then used my feet to stomp it. I was surprised to see how dirty the water got even when my clothes didn't seem that dirty. After the water was pretty dirty I would dump and refill the bucket with 2-3 gallons of water and squeeze and shake the clothes by hand to get the rest of the detergent out. Finally, I rinsed with another three gallons of water and hung clothes to dry in the bathtub. It's less convenient than throwing clothes in the washing machine, but it was sort of a stress reliever. It was satisfying to actually see my clothes getting clean and knowing it was only using my energy.
Toilet flushing uses 2.6 gallons of water per flush. I cut this use by one gallon by putting a milk carton filled with water in my tank to lower the water level for each flush. I estimated that before the project I flush about five times a day. To cut down I fell back on an old saying, "If its yellow, let it mellow..." This went over fairly well with my roommates (they are doing it now too). These changes reduced my toilet flushing water from 10 gallons down to only 3.2 (two flushes per day).
Overall I was able to change my water use from 54 gallons per day down to only 15—just by focusing on the three biggest culprits.
Colin makes a good point on his blog: Ultimately the goal of our efforts should be one of “doing more good” rather than “doing less harm.”
As cliché as it sounds, I can identify with this feeling. It is one of the conclusions I have come to after my project as well. As a designer, I feel like I have spent quite a bit of time struggling with how to best help to change people’s lifestyles to more sustainable ones in their homes and workplaces. I always had a feeling that while what I was working on was often more sustainable than it would have been if I didn’t have those goals, it never seemed to have the impact on people that I was looking for. I got bogged down by the reality that no matter what I designed it would still only impact the people who inhabited that space.
When I started my '100 days' project, however, I had a very different feeling about what I was working on. It wasn't that I had figured out the 'right' way to design, or found out about some new technology. On the contrary, I had hundreds of more questions in my mind every day. What I discovered was that by sharing my experiences, what I was learning and struggling with, and finding solutions to be was somehow a much more meaningful way to work because it allowed other people to learn and change along with me. Instead of going through my career making a difference in a few people's lives whose home or business I was designing, I could help people find ways to change their lifestyles by simply finding ways to share what I discovered as I went along.
In this way, there is no pressure to have all of the 'right' answers. In fact, there may not even be 'right' answers to many of the questions we are facing with climate change. Forcing people to feel guilty every time they turn on the tap or buy a tropical fruit will never be a feasible solution. Each person values different things. Thus, it is easier to change certain habits over others for each individual. By focusing on the things we CAN change first, we can feel good about these changes, and later find individual methods which work for us personally to tackle aspects of our lives we have a more difficult time with.
With the theme of 'giving back' today, I think that one of the most valuable things we can each do is just to share our experiences with other people. I didn't realize how valuable this was until recently when doing this project. Being honest about my own struggles allowed people to feel like they could try something, while not having to figure it all out the first time. For example, I got my parents to track their electricity usage. By doing this, even if they aren't making any changes right away, they are aware of what the uses the most energy in their homes. Allowing these issues to come into our conscious mind is a way bigger step than I could have imagined.
My criticism of the No Impact Experiment is that it takes the approach of complete elimination. In Colin's blog he states, "For one day or afternoon or even one hour a week, don't buy anything, don't use any machines, don't switch on anything electric, don't cook, don't answer your phone, and in general, don't use any resources.” While, for the sake of experimentation, this is an appropriate approach, it doesn't present an accurate picture of our future to try to find ways of living which in which we have NO energy, NO communications and use NO resources.
To switch our energy dependence from one on fossil fuels to one on renewable sources will call for a dramatic reduction in overall energy. But I feel that the ideal of using the least possible resources eliminates the opportunity for solving some of these problems creatively. With a constant emphasis on REDUCTION and ELIMINATION, we can easily get tunnel vision and forget that this may not be the only solution.
I was skeptical about what the actual impact of doing only a one-week project would be, knowing how long it took me to truly adopt change in many of these topics. However, I think the value of this week (and Colin's project) is that it creates an awareness in people's minds about how their lifestyles impact the environment. I would argue that although many people are subconsciously aware of these issues, actually taking a brief amount of time to try out a different way of living is one of the most powerful methods of change. In my project, I had been 'aware' of the importance of buying local foods for years. But it wasn't until I actually tried to eat ONLY local foods for a period of time that I became personally connected to it. Taking that step made the issues MY OWN. And rather than feel guilty about the things I wasn't doing, I tried everything I could and was able to focus on the things which I found myself feel most connected to.
Overall, I think the No Impact Week is a great way to introduce ACTION to those who have been aware of climate change issues but aren't sure where to start. The real value is in those individuals who take what they have briefly learned about a wide range of topics this week and expand them to make long-term changes in their lifestyles. Being introduced to issues in this way allows people to transition from awareness to making real change in their daily actions.
I'm a graduate student in Sustainable Design at the University of Minnesota. After seeing Colin's movie, No Impact Man, I modeled my thesis project '100 Days Without Oil' to have some of the same themes. In my project I used myself as a metric to take a closer look at how dependant we are on petroleum in our daily lives, trying to eliminate my use on this rapidly depleting resource as much as possible. With the project over, I'm interested in taking a second look at the No Impact Project, and comparing my experiences with those of Colin's family and other participants.
That means, we rely on support from our readers.
Independent. Nonprofit. Subscriber-supported.