Taking on…the Basement

There are saw blades hanging from the ceiling, old rusty nails piled in a corner, and odd metal instruments that are apparently called vises but look like torture devices. And there are definitely spiders hanging out in the cracks and corners.

The set of a horror movie? Nope. Welcome to my basement.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m living in a house I’m renting from my parents. It belonged to my grandparents previously, and all in all has been in my family for over fifty years. We’ve accumulated a lot of stuff, and in the basement, the stuff has accumulated a lot of dust. My grandfather was a bricklayer and a very handy guy, and he was also thrifty. Over time, he accumulated the equivalent of a hardware store.

As my grandfather’s health deteriorated, the basement moved into disarray. My dad (rightfully so) was reluctant to toss out any of the old tools, nails, and other hardware. I thought he was silly, but after almost two years of living in the space and dealing with home repairs, I’m grateful we have so many supplies. Still, they need better organization.

When I started sorting through the accumulation, I kept finding things I had no idea we had. Two rolls of twine?! Damn, why did I buy any for the garden? Chicken wire, a hand saw, lightbulbs, screws, nails, washers, light plates, a drill, several different sets of wrenches… It’s overwhelming. I may finally be able to distinguish between a phillips and a flathead screwdriver, and I can navigate Home Depot, but the combination of old, out-of-style hardware, useful items, and rusted junk makes my head spin.

As I’m going through and sorting things for future use, I’ve created a couple of piles.

1. To sort and store aka “I know what this is! And I can/will use it!”

2. Obvious junk. (An old VCR that won’t turn on, a used florescent light tube, and two giant bags of bills and receipts from the ’80s). Remember to practice responsible recycling, y’all.

3. Will never use aka “Give to Dad.”

4. WTF? aka “Ask Dad.”

My poor father. Hey, at least I’m finally learning what a washer (the metal kind, not the clothes washing kind) is for.

Pile #4 is smaller thanks to this helpful resource. The pictures on the site were created for teaching people English, but they work just as well for teaching people like me what the funny metal things do.

As time consuming and frustrating as sorting and decluttering can be, I like learning new things. I’ll probably never get into carpentry, but at least I can do basic home repairs. Oh, and I might even end up with enough space for a work bench / grow light setup for starting seeds. Wouldn’t that be great?!

Spring Forward!

Wow, it’s been over a month. Apologies, my readers. Many apologies. I’m transitioning between jobs and dealing with some rough patches at home. Everything is going smoothly now, so no worries. But I am sorry for the absence. I’ll try to post more regularly, especially as spring comes on!

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The first sign of spring? Poor quality photos of sprouting garlic.

Speaking of spring, who hates spring cleaning? When the sun starts to come out of hiding and the first bulbs poke their heads above ground, I start to get especially restless and head into ‘clean everything’ mode. Unfortunately, I hibernate during the winter, and the grim inevitably accumulates. Add the dust to the new kitten’s unfortunate penchant for bathmats over litter boxes, a persistently clogged drain, and  my regularly scheduled clumsiness, and cleaning has been, well, even less fun.

But! Remember how I was complaining about my grimy, yellow-tiled bathroom? No matter how much I cleaned, the pale yellow tiles and the off-white walls just looked dirty. I finally caved and dug around in the painting supplies until I found a gallon bought on clearance during move-in. It’s a sort of dark cerulean.

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Yellow isn’t my favorite color, but it doesn’t make sense to replace perfectly good tile. The white paint was peeling and discolored in spots and generally in need of an update. We’ll see how the yellow and blue end up working together once the rest of the decor is added. I’m thinking a black bathmat to hide dirt, an old towel from my parents house with a variety of colorful fish, and maybe a silly picture or two on the walls. I like the idea of whimsical art in bathrooms.

I’ve also been hard at work prepping the yard for my spring garden. Carrot, radish, and mustard seeds are in the ground, along with sugar snap peas. I’m also starting seedlings at home! Banana peppers, bell peppers, and eggplants just sprouted. The tomatoes have been up for about two weeks and look like they’re about to put out a second set of leaves.

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A raised bed, before being leveled, shored up, and filled.

Oh, and cauliflower. Don’t forget the cauliflower. My fingers are crossed, because unlike the nightshades, the cauliflower seedlings aren’t doing too well.

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Again, sorry for the bad photos. The good camera will be coming out soon.

 

Doubts

Readers of this blog might assume I am wholeheartedly for zero waste. That I am a die-hard environmentalist. That I espouse ‘green living’ without question.

In reality, doubt often consumes. How effective is zero waste? I ask myself at night. Does any of this make a difference? When I read articles like Adam Corner’s, “‘Every little helps is a dangerous mantra,” I cower a little and move to bury my head in the sand. Corner asked people what might really make a difference in tackling climate change. He wrote:

Scientists and engineers described the unprecedented scale of energy system change necessary to decarbonise rapidly. Social scientists argued for a transformation in the way we view ourselves, our consumption, and our role in society. Economists demolished the idea that economic growth could be maintained forever in a fossil-fuel driven, finite world. Policy experts questioned whether our current carbon targets were fit for purpose.

Not exactly comforting words, but they’re true. Science shows we’re headed for catastrophe. Though I am most well versed in the climate impacts of consumption, they are far reaching and interconnected: racial and economic inequality, gender violence, and vulnerability to disease all tie together. If you’d like me to quote stats, I can, though I’m partial to leaving more of the depressing stuff out of this post. These are paralyzing thoughts. Catastrophe? Violence? I want to hide, and sometimes I do.

And yet.

I had a lovely conversation with a friend the other day about living two practices simultaneously. The first would be one’s day job: employment at a non-profit, or a community organization, or in government, working towards gradual change. The other – espousing and living out radical ideals. Sometimes I look at my choice to move towards zero waste this way. In the face of overwhelming odds, I have two reactions. Climb in bed, or stand and fight. Most of the time, I choose the latter.

As an environmental writer and investigative journalist, my day job’s responsibilities include illuminating corruption and consequences. I look at a variety of issues through the lens of climate, though it is imperfect and certainly not the best or only way. At night, I try to shake off the ick and walk the talk. I want a better world? Cool. Let’s make one.

And yet.

Though I have a drawer full of handkerchiefs, I find myself using regular tissues without thinking. I haven’t found a good substitute for packaged salad greens, and though I buy them in as big a container as possible, I can’t imagine going without during the winter months. I drive to the pharmacy, even though it’s only a ten or fifteen minute walk.

I’ve been leaving a little more of myself out of the more recent pieces, partially because in my personal life I’ve been absolutely failing at zero waste. Am I working really hard to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle? Hell, yeah! Am I succeeding? Hell, no! I am stumbling along and falling just as often as everyone else. Maybe more often. Probably. Who am I, I wonder, to advocate for anything?

In other words, doubt is my new best friend. He sits on my shoulder and chatters in my ear.

I want to end  this piece on a positive note, but I also want to stay true to my reality. From talks with friends, most folks wonder whether anything they’re doing is really making a difference. And it’s so hard to tell. I don’t know. We don’t know. Such an enormous part of all of this is faith. Faith in each other, in a future that we can change, and in our ability to keep trying.

I want to drop-kick doubt out the window, but I also belief that constant questioning has enormous value. Doubt doesn’t need to be paralyzing. What sort of creature would I be if I didn’t occasionally stop and wonder, what am I doing? Is this right? Okay? Helpful? Doubt helps me take a critical look at myself. I just need to make sure it doesn’t keep me from continuing to do.

 

Friday Five (Three): Laundry Day

Did you know?

It turns out the aluminum and fragrances in many deodorants are what causes the discoloration of your shirts.

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I may hang clothes from the bookshelf. And yes, that’s a sweater. After a year of drying like this and it has yet to lose its shape.

Cold water kills germs just as well as the hot water you’d get out of your tap. Plus, less fading and shrinkage!

Should you air dry your laundry in the winter? I never connected it before, but this winter my hands have been a lot less dry, and it might be because I’ve been air-drying laundry in my bedroom. It’s freezing in here, so I dive under the covers. But hey, if my hands don’t bleed, I can deal with the extra blanket.

 

Book Review: Overdressed, the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

When my mom first saw “Overdressed, the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” sitting on my shelf, she asked me why I was planning to read it. “Won’t it be depressing?” she asked. Well, yes. The book, by Elizabeth L. Cline, is not a happy read. It’s still a worthwhile one.

Cline begins the book with an anecdote I found easy to relate to. “My synapses started firing, my pulse quickened, and before my thinking brain could kick in, I was standing at the cash register with my bright red shopping basket brimming with seven pairs of plucked slip-ons.” Who among us hasn’t felt the thrill of finding a coveted item marked down to a ridiculously low price?

But, Cline asks, how many pairs of shoes do we really need? Excess can be fun, but at what cost? I wear two pairs of shoes regularly: my own collection of footwear is gathering an obscene amount of dust.

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Cheap fashion has not only changed the way we dress: it’s changed the way we think about clothes. No longer a luxury, fashion is considered a necessity. Low prices mean the latest trends are available to nearly everyone. Our taste for cheap excess is not only wrecking the planet. It’s creating a lot of hardship in other people’s lives.

Skills that preserved the life of garments, like mending, have been lost or exported to sweatshops overseas. Sewing, a highly skilled job, is rewarded with low-grade pay. Clothes are made with flimsy fabrics that fall apart quickly and are either donated into a system that exports much of American’s discards to Africa or tossed into the trash. Even a lot of clothing people try to recycle can’t be used. Synthetic materials, for example, end up in landfills.

Cline doesn’t just provide depressing anecdotes of how cheap fashion is wrecking the world. She proposes solutions, and good ones. She suggests alternative practices, like learning how to mend or finding a tailor, that can preserve the life of garments. She learns how to make her own clothes.Her suggestions aren’t practical for everyone, but the fundamental point of her book is. We don’t need so much stuff. Even if we bought half as much cheap clothing from retailers like Forever 21 and H&M, we’d put enormous pressure on the fast fashion industry to change some of its practices.

You’ll have to read the book yourself to get more details. Suffice it to say that once I got through the first chapter, “Overdressed” became an engrossing read. And a motivating one. I think one of the things my mom was asking, when she called the book depressing, was why I would choose to read something that would make me feel guilty. “Overdressed” did make me feel guilty, but it also made me angry. And anger motivates action.

Though donating clothes can be problematic, I chose some of my higher quality garments to consign. I put the work clothes I no longer wear aside with the intent to consign them as well if I change sizes or finally come to terms with the unlikelihood I’ll have a job with a business or business casual dress code in the near future. My closet is now significantly emptier, and I have a new resolution for the new year. In 2014, I plan to buy nothing new. (Except maybe some underwear. I really don’t want to buy underwear used).

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This is why I don’t do personal photo shoots.

The Zero Footprint Baby

How do you raise a zero footprint baby? Should you buy toys? What about relatives who need to fly to visit? If you need a refrigerator, where do you buy the most energy efficient model? The answers to Keya Chatterjee’s questions were far flung: she found some with family members from India, others on the internet, and ended up ordering a refrigerator from Silicon Valley.

Chatterjee, the Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, was kind enough to take time out of her busy work day and speak with DC EcoWomen about the challenges of raising a zero footprint child, writing a book, and juggling a full-time job.

Read more of my interview with Chatterjee about The Zero Footprint Baby at DC EcoWomen!

My 2014 Bucket List: Consignment

For the past month, I’ve been in a bit  of a rut with my freelance work. I was sick for two weeks with colds, which meant missed opportunities for interviews and a lot of lost writing time. After running into another dead end today, I decided I needed something to cheer me up.

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remember this dress? I dyed it red, but it didn’t fully mask the stain. time for cloth recycling! (it’s not a good material for rags, and I don’t have the skills to turn it into a skirt).

I’m sending stuff away.

Readers of this blog will know I’ve been having trouble parting with some of my possessions. What you probably don’t know is that, despite my zero waste goals, 2013 was a year of accumulation. I toyed with the idea of modest dressing, my new job required a uniform, and I just wanted… stuff. 2014 is going to be different. And, to start the year off right, I’m going to consign some of the items I’ve held onto, even though they don’t really fit.

Here are some of the items that were most difficult to part with.

1. Peep toe nude heels

I love these shoes, but I never ever, ever wear them. I rarely wear heels to start with, and then I’m usually going to meetings where it’s not particularly polite to let my toes show. I think I’ve worn them twice in the year and a half since I bought them.
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2. Purple sweater.

I’d like to love this sweater, but ever since someone threw it in the dryer during college, it’s a few inches too short on my arms. I don’t love the color purple, either. It would be perfect for someone a little more petite.

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3. Patterned maxi skirt

I get compliments every time I wear this skirt, but the construction makes it stifling in the heat. I mostly wear maxi skirts in the summer, and this one just doesn’t make sense when it’s 90 degrees outside. I’ll stick to shorts, thanks very much. Even my jeans make the day feel cooler.

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4. (at tie) Payless pumps and black dress heels

I’ve owned the Payless pumps for ages. They were my first pair of heels, and I loved them. But they’re plastic, and they hurt my feet. They’ll make a wonderful pair of heels for someone else. I bought the black dress heels from a thrift store and have never worn them. Turns out, I usually wear flats if I’m going to be dancing or walking, and I’m at the very least walking to and from public transit for most events. Hills and heels are not a friendly mix.

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5. (Most of my) silver bangles

I love these, but I never wear bracelets. Or, almost never. I have skinny wrists and small hands and they almost always fall off or get in the way when I’m typing. There are a few other bracelets in my ‘give away’ pile. I wear necklaces and earrings. It’s time to admit that bracelets are not the right jewelry for me.

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The list goes on, but I won’t bore you.

Here’s what I’m trying to find.

1. Jean shorts. My old pairs of shorts have lasted me years and years, but they’re so short I’m starting to get uncomfortable. I figure by the time it’s shorts weather, I’ll be able to find at least one decent pair.

2. A purse that can fit my laptop before my favorite old one disintegrates. Mine is like this, and I love it. I’ve had it for at least five years. If I can I want to find the same thing again, but that seems unlikely. I know it was made in Guatemala and I got it fair trade at a green festival.

3. An evening clutch with a shoulder strap. I don’t have one, and every time I go out I end up holding my wallet or tucking my ID in my bra and holding onto my phone. I’m thinking about this one, although I’m sure I can find something second hand.

Donate or Sell?

Want to shed your extra stuff but make at least a little money off of it? Everyone recommends Ebay, but I’d rather let someone else handle the sales. I chose to use ThredUp, an online consignment store with great reviews. They’ll even donate your profits at your request. And, of course, there’s always your local consignment store. DC has a few, but most of my items are middle to low end brands and not suitable for typical consignment.

Cloth Recycling

Some of my stuff is going away because it’s just not useable anymore. Torn and stained t-shirts, for example. I have a couple of things that I’ve kept for sleeping, working out, and gardening, but there are only so many I need. (I kind of love that my yoga pants are splattered with purple).

Storage

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My work wardrobe, to be donated if my sizing shifts.

I put quite a few things I wasn’t ready to part with but that were nicer than I need in my “work” clothes section. I have a full wardrobe there, but I’m really not going to dress up in suits to sit in front of the computer all day or to serve drinks and food. I’m at a time in my life where I do think it makes sense to hang onto the nicer stuff. It’s the right size, but if that ever changes, even the work clothes will have to go away.

 

 

 

 

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Cleaning House

As we prepare to have guests over for the holidays, there’s always a frantic scramble to put everything in order. Anyone who knows me will tell you I hate cleaning. I put off dusting until there’s a fine layer of gray at the top of every bookshelf and delay sweeping until the dust bunnies threaten to hop out of dark corners. In some ways, transitioning to zero waste has made cleaning up after myself easier. With a very basic set of tools, I can clean almost every part of the house.

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1. Castille Soap

I use Dr. Bronner’s lavender bars and concentrated liquid soap on everything from my face, hands, and body to the kitchen sink. Though I’ve tried out several other soaps, I keep coming back to Dr. Bronner’s because of their effectiveness and relative cost. The bars are moisturizing, easy to find, and they last. In a pinch, you can also use the soap to wash your hair, to scrub dishes, and to clean laundry.

2. Vinegar

From scrubbing off shower scum to killing weeds, white vinegar is another staple in my home. Reader’s Digest has a great list of vinegar’s 150 uses. Plus – it’s super cheap!

3. Baking soda

We keep one box in the refrigerator, one next to the cats’ litter box, and one in the pantry. On its own, baking soda provides the abrasion needed to scour, and combined with vinegar, it’s magic. I grab the baking soda (and vinegar) whenever it’s my turn to clean the bathroom, when I need to dislodge food that’s been baked onto the stove, and when there’s a clogged drain. Bonus: the five-year-old inside never tires of creating ‘volcanoes.’

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4. Microfiber cloths

I have a stash of old, hole-filled towels, but as they fall apart into rags too worn to be used, I’m turning to microfiber cloths. Lightweight, easy to store, and super absorbent, the cloths are good  for scrubbing, dusting, and mopping. I toss them in the washing machine when I’m done.

 

Friday Five (Seven on Saturday?) Gift Giving Edition

In the spirit of the holiday season, here are seven! (not five) more ideas for zero waste gifts. Check out my previous post for more gift giving ideas.

1. A growler filled with beer from a local brewery.

2. Reusable utensil set.

Great for the jet-setting and eco-conscious friend.

3. Stainless steel drinking straws.

I have yet to meet someone who didn’t laugh out loud in delight with the discovery of these in our cutlery drawer. We use them not just as straws but as coffee stirrers and to muddle drinks – and toss them in the dishwasher when we’re done! My sister came to visit and liked them so much she bought a set of her own.

4. Cookbooks! (Preferably the e-book version)

Do you struggle to use up leftovers? Want to cook more seasonably? Check out The Art of Simple Food, volumes I and II by Alice Waters.

I haven’t read these myself, but they’re on my wish list as a zero waste cook:

Winter Foods, Recipes and Cooking Tips from Even’Star Farm

Simply In Season, Expanded Edition

5. Donation to Doctors Without Borders

Relatively uncontroversial, this is my favorite group to ask for donations for. So far, there have been no objections. (Tip: if you’re going to ask people to donate money in your name in leu of gifts, provide them with a list of charities and non-profit organizations to choose from. You’ll avoid making anyone uncomfortable by donating to groups they don’t agree with).

6.  Beautiful bottles and other multi-purpose storage containers.

Bonus points if you fill these with homemade mixed drinks or layered baking recipes. Extra bonus points if you tell your friend they can give the jar back to you if they can’t find a use for it.

7. For the homeowners on your list, how about a book on Edible Landscaping?

 

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