Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A traditionally built footprint

As I mentioned in my Earth Day post, I like to regularly (some might say obsessively) check my ecological footprint through websites such as Carbonfund or MyFootprint. And just as regularly, I'm frustrated to find that, even after taking virtually all the steps in 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, I'm still an energy hog by global standards. Last time I checked my footprint on Global Footprint Network, the site informed me that if everyone on Earth lived the way I do, it would take over 3 planets' worth of resources to support us all. I went back and tweaked my answers, trying to see what would happen if I ate fewer animal products or drove a bit less, but nothing seemed to make a significant difference.

As I tried to figure out just what I was doing wrong, it occurred to me that maybe it's not me, individually; maybe it's my whole country.  In other words, maybe any American is bound to use more resources, simply because of the way our society is structured. So I tried running a sample footprint for a 100 percent virtuous American—someone who was making the most ecologically responsible choices about everything, from food to home to transportation.  And what do you know, I found that even my hypothetical Lady Virtue was using up more than three Earths' worth of resources.

So I decided to try the same experiment with a fictitious character from a different country.  Lately I've been reading my way through the delightful Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith, which is set in Botswana.  So I decided to make Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of that series, the star of my new hypothetical scenario.  Mma Ramotswe, as she is known, lives in a small house with electricity and running water.  At first she lives alone; later she shares the house with a husband and two foster children.  She drives a vehicle described as a "tiny white van," and her diet includes plenty of fresh produce, but also meat, dairy, and lots of tea and fruitcake.  I decided to enter her moderately virtuous life just as it's presented in the books and see how it registered on the Earth-o-meter.  Data for Botswana isn't available on the Global Footprint Network, so I had to approximate using its nearest neighbor, South Africa, and make educated guesses about how much electricity, gasoline, and other resources Mma Ramotswe's lifestyle would use.  The result?  Mma Ramostwe, though a "traditionally built" lady (size 22), apparently treads much more lightly on the planet than I do.  If we all lived as she does, the website claims, we could all manage with just over one Earth.

So what's to be learned from this?  Not, presumably, that we should all move to Bostwana if we want to reduce our environmental impact.  More likely, that the most important changes eco-conscious Americans can make to reduce their environmental impact need to take place on a societal, rather than an individual, level.  Not just choosing renewable energy in your own home, but promoting the wider use of renewable energy across the country; not just eating local produce, but pushing for changes to the way farms are run in America.  And in the meantime, perhaps, not beating ourselves up too much over getting a score of three-plus Earths on the footprint quiz.  Marked on a curve, it's not as bad as it seems.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meet our tenants

Although our house is a modest one, we do have, at present, a few tenants sharing it with us.  Take a look:

They're right outside our kitchen door, on top of the light fixture, which means that for the past week or so we haven't been able to turn on that light (for fear of overheating the nest) or go out that door (for fear of scaring off the mama bird).  This was not my idea, by the way.  I think if they aren't even paying us rent, then our convenience should take priority over theirs.  But my big tough husband appears to have a soft spot for little baby birdies.

Anyway, it may not be a problem for long, because it's amazing how fast these little guys grow.  I could swear that two weeks ago, those little birds hadn't even hatched yet, and as you can see, they're still wee nestlings in this picture I took just two days ago.  But today I spotted two of them perched on the edge of the nest, and one of them flew away when it saw me coming (bonking its head on the awning in the process, but it didn't seem too fazed by that).  So perhaps within another week or so, we'll have the house to ourselves again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Furniture mods

As regular readers of this blog will know, we recently completed a complete redo of our downstairs bathroom.  Or rather, we almost completely completed it.  One thing still lacking was shelving.  We were making do with an old corner étagère from Ikea, but the little open shelves weren't really the most practical thing for storing spare towels and extra rolls of toilet paper.  So we were trying to figure out what else we could construct that would fit into that awkward little corner area, and our eyes fell on the old corner cabinet that used to sit in that same space before we redid the room.  The medium-toned wood finish was totally incompatible with the new color scheme, and the piece wasn't in such great shape anyway, so we'd been assuming it would just end up on Freecycle.  But at some point we said to ourselves, "Well, if we're just going to get rid of it anyway, what do we have to lose by trying to paint it?"  Nothing but a bit of white paint, and we knew we'd be needing some of that at some point anyway to touch up the woodwork upstairs, so the leftovers wouldn't go to waste.

As you can see from this "before" picture, what we had to work with wasn't terribly promising.  But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so we started by removing the doors and taking out those funny sort of bubble-patterned plastic inserts from the top ones (breaking one of them in the process, so we couldn't be tempted to put them back in when we were done).  The scalloped trim pieces on the top came off too, and the one on the bottom got sheared off to a plain edge.  We didn't dare sand the piece before priming it for fear the existing varnish would bleed into the white paint, so we just slapped on a coat of primer and forged ahead.

Two coats of white paint later, here's the not-quite finished result. As you can see, we haven't yet found anything to replace the inserts in the upper cabinet doors, although we've thought that some translucent paper or fabric might do the trick.  We even painted the black-finished hardware with a can of silver-toned spray paint (which we'd bought earlier for another project that ended up going nowhere) to make it a closer match for the rest of the hardware in the room.  The finished piece may not be exactly elegant, but it's presentable and certainly functional.  And the top makes a nice place for displaying my little collection of cobalt glassware, which had been sitting boxed up in storage ever since we moved into this house four years back.

So that left us with the old étagère.  We assumed this piece would now be the one to end up on Freecycle, since we didn't have another empty corner in the house that could accommodate it.  Our house has baseboard heat, so there aren't many corners in which you can actually place a set of corner shelves without blocking a heater.  But Brian took another look at it and, once again, thought, "Well, if we're just going to get rid of it anyway..."  So he decided to take a stab at modifying this piece too.  And here's the result, with the legs scooted forward so that it can fit right over the baseboard heater and tuck neatly into a corner of the big downstairs room.

Waste not, want not, at least where furniture is concerned.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shame on Starbucks

The other day, I decided to walk across the river to the nearest Starbucks and treat myself to a Frappucino, simply in honor of its being such a beautiful May day.  Now, every other time I've gone for a Starbucks run in recent years, I've remembered only just as I was walking in the door that I should have brought bring a reusable cup with me, on the general ecofrugal principle that it's always better to reuse anything (a cup, a grocery bag, a handkerchief) than to use a disposable equivalent and throw it away.  But this time, for a change, I actually remembered it before I left the house.  So I tucked my cup in my big handbag and set out, curious to see how the baristas would react to it.

Well, the result was a big disappointment.  The cashier wasn't too fazed at being presented with a reusable cup; I got the impression that my request was a bit unusual, but she did know how to deal with it.  She stuck a little sticky note on my cup, wrote my drink order on it, and queued it up behind all the other marked-up plastic cups.  From where I stood, I could watch its progress through the line, and I watched as the barista started mixing up my drink.  Rather than putting it directly into my cup, he measured out the mix in a disposable Starbucks cup, dumped it in the blender, whipped it up, and poured it from there into my cup—tossing the one he'd used to do the measuring into the trash.  So it turns out that bringing my own cup was not only a waste of effort; it was actually counterproductive from an environmental standpoint.  It resulted in exactly the same amount of waste, plus the water required to wash my reusable cup—and the plastic cup the barista used ended up in the trash, rather than coming home with me and going into the recycling bin.

So, two lessons learned: 1) I shouldn't bother bringing a reusable cup to Starbucks, and 2) if I really want to reduce waste, I should get my coffee fix at Dunkin' Donuts instead, where they not only know how to reuse cups but also use Fair Trade certified beans in all their espresso drinks.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


One of the storefronts on our town's main drag has, like so many others, recently lost its tenant.  And like many other buildings in this position, it's being given a bit of a facelift to prepare it for a new tenant.  What's different about this one is that instead of just sprucing up the building's looks with a fresh coat of paint and new lighting, the owners seem to be giving it a top-to-bottom energy-efficiency makeover.  There are new solar panels on the roof (which you can't see in the picture), and I got a glimpse of some traditional fiberglass insulation inside—but the most unusual part of this building's transformation is that they have actually been sheathing the entire building, on the outside, with sheets of polystyrene.

Yep, all those white squares covering most of the outside of the building: that's what they are.  Even the decorative trimwork that's being added around the edges is all made of smaller pieces of foam.  (Here's a close-up so you can see.)  They've got most of the building covered now, and they're in the process of covering the polystyrene with some sort of primer, which I assume will in turn be covered up with stucco.  It's a pretty innovative way to make a building more energy-efficient, I guess, and it's probably a lot easier than ripping out the walls to add insulation from inside—and whatever is less labor-intensive is probably cheaper and thus more frugal.  But I have to admit, it's not an appropach that would ever have occurred to me.  I'll be watching with interest to see how this project turns out.  (One thing the builders have working to their advantage is that this particular building could hardly end up looking worse than it did to start out with.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My desperate landscape

Some time last week, my mom recommended that I check out a show called "Desperate Landscapes" on the DIY Network. The premise is that the producers pick out a house that's got the worst yard in its neighborhood, and in a single day—while all the neighbors are off at work—they transform it into the best-looking yard in the neighborhood. I watched a couple of episodes on Hulu, and while I found it somewhat interesting to watch the transformations, I quickly found myself getting annoyed with it. Basically, this show has the same problem as most of the shows that focus on interior redesign or remodeling: they're working with an essentially unlimited budget, so they don't have to make any choices about how to spend their money most effectively. They can just put in anything they think will look good. And the result is indeed a yard that looks good, but it's a $25,000 yard that looks good—not something an ordinary homeowner can aspire to.

Unless, of course, they can win the contest that I just saw announced in the Star-Ledger. Submit photos or a video of your own desperate landscape, and you, yes, you, could be the lucky recipient of a $25,000 yard makeover and the subject of a one-hour special episode. (Well, actually, you probably can't, because the deadline is tonight. But someone will.)

Now I admit, our yard has plenty of problems. The "foundation" shrubs are so overgrown that they're starting to block the windows, while the "lawn" is basically a monoculture of dandelions. And since we absolutely refuse to use herbicides, pretty much the only way to get rid of the weeds is to replace them with something that can grow better than they can—no easy task for a site with full sun and clay soil so dense it could easily form bricks without straw.

But even with all its flaws, when I go over my checklist of things I'd like to do in the front yard—or even the front and back put together—I honestly can't come up with $25,000 worth of stuff that needs to be fixed. With that budget, they'd have to replace absolutely everything (lawn, shrubs, walkways, walls, driveway, everything) just to get the money spent. And I don't want to replace everything. I certainly don't want them tearing out my little cherry tree that we planted together for our anniversary, or all the creeping phlox that I've taken such pains to plant, weed, and divide over the past several years. In fact, it would be about as anti-ecofrugal as you can get: deliberately trashing stuff that's still good in order to spend more money.

So I decided, instead, to enter the other contest covered in the Star-Ledger article, called the "Yard Smart Intervention." This one, sponsored by yard equipment maker Briggs & Stratton, has a smaller grand prize of $1,500 (plus some power tools and a one-day consultation with their landscaping expert). This amount would be enough to cover everything I'd like to do in the front and back yards put together—or at least, everything except the front steps, and those aren't an urgent priority. Plus, I have a much better chance of winning this one, since they're actually picking three prize winners, one each in May, June, and July. For an ecofrugal homeowner, three chances to win $1,500 worth of improvements are better in every way than a single chance to win $25,000 worth of improvements that you don't really need or want.

So, my entry is now in the running, and voting starts in 13 days. Wish me luck.