sustainability


self-portrait with compost, recycle, trash signsat solar living instituteA famous amphibial puppet speaking of the color of his felt famously sang, “It’s not easy bein’ green; It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.” “Green” has seeped into so many things – far too many – that the word has been overused to the point of being meaningless. This is precisely why, two years ago, a group of professional organizers decided to redefine their specialty from green organizing to the more ecologically- and holistically-infused environmentally-conscious organizing.

Steeped in the traditions of voluntary simplicity and sustainable living, this work stems from the values and ethics associated with helping others adapt simple lifestyle changes that support them wherever they are on the environmentally-conscious path. It’s about building awareness and engaging in dialogues to guide clients to a place where they can observe and effect change in the choices they are making each and every day.

Most of us are already working to reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible, and environmentally-conscious organizers encourage these practices and more. What will create more impactful and lasting change is exceeding these foundational R’s and allowing ourselves to go deeper.

Take, for example, the multi-faceted practice of reducing. Choosing the path of less packaging, reduces the need to recycle or throw away resources. This is especially powerful when you consider that 25% of landfill contents in the U.S. is product packaging. By reducing consumption of single-use disposable plastics (i.e. packaged and bottled water), we reduce the need for more fossil fuels while reducing the risk to ecosystems from oil drilling and transport of these resources. Reducing the need to store cases of plastic bottles creates more physical space while having the added health benefit of reducing your family’s exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found in certain plastics. The effects of our choices can be cascading.

When we begin to make time and allow ourselves to rethink our choices, refuse what we don’t need, repair what needs fixing, and let food waste rot into nutritious compost, we’re moving closer to what’s most important in our lives. That’s often the end goal of organizing for many of our clients: creating the time and space to do what matters most.

Each of us has the power, through small acts each day, to make ripples of change in the places where we will see and feel those shifts most directly – in our homes and communities. As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote in her book, Green Washed, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, “…consciousness is a starting point, not an end point.” As we stand on the precipice of Earth Day 2014 (April 22), where are you going to start? Hint: It takes one small step.

~~~~~
This piece was originally written for and posted on NAPO’s Get Organized Blog.
~~~~~

jalapeño pepper“Oh darn,” I remember saying out loud as I stood before the cutting board while the sharp aroma of freshly grated horseradish and ginger danced in the air. I was preparing a batch of fire cider, when I realized an ingredient was missing: the jalapeño pepper.

After getting everything else chopped, zested, squeezed and assembled in the jar, I set out for the store. There’s a little corner market of great convenience a block away, but I opted for a grocery destination that’s a bit further afield.

Because the co-op where we do the majority of our grocery shopping doesn’t stock all the basics – like sustainably raised meats (the co-op has no meat unless you want pet food) and breads from a favorite bakery that no other retailer carries –  it’s not uncommon for me to swing by this particular neighborhood market on a somewhat regular basis. The walk over the hill, down the other side, and back again has become part of the weekly grocery  ritual and easily happens more than once or twice a week. The sidewalks on my route are practically empty and that makes it the preferred option over the very flat and far less strenuous alternative along a busy retail corridor just one block away.

On this particular morning, I decided there was no time like the present to squeeze in a morning constitutional while also getting a necessary errand off the list. I admired the changing light of the season and the way it highlighted features and details of the historic Victorians along the way. Blooming flowers in the trees overhead begged passersby like myself for a little nod to their beauty. (Remember, I live in San Francisco and plants are blooming year-round.) At the market I chose a little pepper, paid with exact change (I love when that happens!), slipped said pepper in my pocket, and headed back home.

By the time I unlocked the front door, I had logged 1.6 miles. To some, it may seem absurd to walk so far and take so much time for one little thing. But you know what? This is my kind of multitasking. How often does grocery shopping truly invigorate your body and soul?

More than four weeks after the fact, I can tell you that the results are most invigorating. We are sipping and breathing fire over here!

jalapeno pepper and fire cider

Of all the things to get me excited, who knew the prospect of talking about my trash on national television would be one of them? Early last month, a crew from the PBS Newshour came to the house to interview Sven and me about residential composting for a story they were producing about San Francisco’s journey toward zero waste. Sven wrote about the happening, its genesis, and more in a most read-worthy blog post, Talking trash with PBS NewsHour.

Five adults and a large TV camera on a tripod in a 10×12′ kitchen was nothing short of cozy. Scrambling eggs and making breakfast while said camera (off tripod) and cameraman followed us around the kitchen was strange and amusing, but I have to say the most anxiety-inducing aspect to this whole experience came a few weeks later when we got the call notifying us the story, San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City, would be airing that very afternoon. We wondered if our reflections about how simple and normal it is to participate in the city’s municipal composting program would make the final cut.

newshour_kitchen

Well over an hour of filming was edited to 55 seconds (far more than we ever imagined) of airtime and soundbites. My line about putting Qtips* in the compost and Sven’s comment about his inability to toss an apple core in the trash when there’s no compost bin in sight have generated some awesome conversations both on- and offline. What was it about these two nuggets of  revealing insight? They show how awareness and shifts in thinking can impact reflexive behaviors and habits.

Adhering to San Francisco’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance has enabled us to reduce our landfill-destined waste to almost none. It’s affected our choices of what we buy (nearly all purchases are daily essentials) and how we buy it (with no or as little packaging as possible). This was most clearly illustrated in the lingering shot our compost/recycling/trash zone received.

residential compost and recycling

Allow me to make introductions: Compost, the most frequently used and emptied receptacle, is on the left. The recycling container is the largest bin in the system. San Francisco’s single stream recycling allows us to collect all paper, glass, metal, and approved plastics in one container. Trash is often a landfill-destined crunchy plastic bag that’s attached to the side of the recycling container with a binder clip. The day the NewsHour crew came to visit, the trash bag was a Newman’s Own pretzel bag. Other weeks it might be a cereal box insert or a paper bag that a loaf of freshly-baked bread came in. It can take us two weeks or more to fill the “trash.” The milk cartons and takeout container have been rinsed and are waiting their turn to be filled with compostables. The lower shelf holds a ceramic planter that we use for collecting wine corks and spent batteries (mostly batteries from client’s homes that I empty from my work bag). These can be recycled at the local grocery co-op, a destination one or the other of us visits each week. And finally, the multi-purpose dishpan is where future trash and compost bags reside until called for duty. When needed, the very same dishpan is used for hand washing delicates or large stacks of dishes. Everything pictured above is a reuse of items we each purchased or acquired at least ten years ago and used for other other purposes.

Establishing a kitchen compost/recycling/trash zone is different for each and every household. Assessing available space and how you move through it, your aesthetics, lifestyle, and what your municipality requires all contribute to the choices to be made. It took us a few tries, over a couple of years, to perfect this setup. Lidless receptacles eliminate extra steps and effort, but they are not for everyone. We realize going lidless is a luxury in a pet- and toddler-free household. Because we regularly cook from scratch, food scraps add up quickly and force us to empty the compost bin a couple times a week. As such, even after a couple of days, the compost doesn’t smell. When there’s a risk that it might, a little sprinkle of baking soda will neutralize the possibility. During these winter months, orange and lemon peels do the trick!

Since the NewsHour story aired, Sven and I have found ourselves talking trash with friends and colleagues on the sidewalk, at parties, and in restaurants and stores. Some have come to us with composting and disposal confessions, while others have declared new shopping and disposal aspirations: several people will stop buying trash bags and others declared have a personal challenge to reduce their actual trash to match ours.

We knew compost was nutrient-rich, but what a surprise to discover that talking about it could nourish our community and beyond in so many ways.

newshour_deb72 newshoursven72

*Next time, I’ll be sure to say “cotton swab.”

Credits: Screenshots (three color photos) ©PBS Newshour.

I was visiting my bank yesterday afternoon when a woman walked in to inquire about their services. She was talking to one of the tellers across a table covered with plates of heart-shaped cookies, bagels and cream cheese, and freshly cut fruit. This was Valentine’s Day at the bank. As she spread cream cheese on a bagel wedge, I heard her ask for clarification when she was told the bank offers free checking accounts that had no minimum balance requirements. a heart drawn in the sand“Wait, no minimum balance? You mean no fees?” she asked. Perhaps she felt as though she was waking from a dream or falling in love.

Moving your money to a bank that supports their customers and invests in the local community and economy truly makes a difference. Many friends and acquaintances have expressed interest in switching from their big fee-collecting banks to a smaller community banking environment. They think it’s a great idea and they want to do it, but it’s a multi-part project that cannot be completed in one sitting. It takes time and patience, and it feels daunting. I encourage them by saying that when they are ready, they will make the time.

So how exactly do you move your money? (more…)

circle bank photo shoot

Reviewing a test shot with photographer Stuart Lirette (photo by Sven Eberlein)

UPDATE: October 24, 2013 – More than 1 1/2 years have passed since this post was written. Circle Bank has since been purchased by a larger “community” bank, and the changes in tone, values, and services have left me very unsatisfied. As a result of their transition, I made a change, too: I liberated another space and took my business to a local credit union. Happy happy!

There I was in one of the most uncomfortable places you will ever find me: on the lens side of the camera. Always one to shy away from the spotlight, the photographer whom I had just met was adjusting a light that was shining in my direction.

I took a leap and stretched beyond my comfort zone by asking one simple question at my bank: how can me and my business be featured in one of your ads? Before I knew it, it was happening.

(more…)

For starters, I haven’t started a revolution…yet! But this blog post is a bit revolutionary for me. This paragraph aside, the story you are about to read was penned by my partner, Sven, around a series of photographs I shot on a historic day in the sustainability movement. It was a foggy morning that found us on our way to Sacramento to pursue what we hoped would be our first true documentary collaboration. His recorder in hand, my cameras’ viewfinders taking turns at my eye, we’re happy to share the fruits of this creative jam session. The day was…

January 3, 2012: California becomes the sixth state to adopt law that allows the formation of corporations whose main purpose isn’t to make money.

A day at the Secretary of State’s office in Sacramento, where California’s first twelve businesses filed to operate as benefit corporations.

Vietnam Memorial, Sacramento
California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, only a short walk from the Secretary of State’s Corporate Filing Office, honoring Brien Thomas (B.T.) Collins, Vietnam War veteran and CA Assembly Member, who “never wavered in the belief that one should give something back to society.”

I hope five or ten years from now we’ll look back on this day and say “this was the start of a revolution, because the existing paradigm isn’t working anymore. This is the future.”

- Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia, California’s first benefit corporation.

(more…)

As my home inches closer towards zero waste and we attempt to reach the goals set forth by the City and County of San Francisco, there’s been one baffling piece of the puzzle: what to do with the caps and lids from recyclable containers? I realize that in the grand scheme of things, these are small details, but you know how it is: the devil is in the details, I love the details, AND I got stuck.

Think about it. What do you do with the lids from milk, juice, kombucha, vinegar, olive oil, wine, and beer bottles? And how about the wee tops from tubes of toothpaste, mustard, and tomato paste? Ooh, and the larger lids of the variety that “pop” when you open the jars from store-bought sauces, pickles, and sauerkraut? Do these go in the trash or the recycling bin?

My inquiring mind needed some answers, so I approached the source – San Francisco’s Department of the Environment – with my dilemma and a group portrait of lids and caps I collected just for this purpose.

bottle tops and jar lids

(more…)

Once upon a time, I decided it’d be cool to learn how to make a gigantic flat of luscious tomatoey goodness last a long long time. I would purchase San Marzanos from my friends at Mariquita Farm and turn them into sauce that I would stow in the freezer for the winter months. Freezing was great, but longevity was limited.

I’d always wanted to try my hand at canning, but the risk of accidentally creating a lethal stockpile of botulism kept any attempts at bay. I wanted professional guidance and in 2009, I stumbled upon classes offered by a the folks of Happy Girl Kitchen Co., a local independent producer of yummy things in jars. (Trust me, try the okra sometime!)

I signed up without hesitation and took a class…

tomatoes!chopping tomatoes

tomatoes and basil ready for canningjars of tomatoes in the canning pots

(more…)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers