Mushrooms or Plastic? Replacing Polystyrene Foam

EcoCradle wine shipper

EcoCradle wine shipper

What do you get when you buy something like a TV that comes in a large box? Besides the product you want, you get trash.

The bulk of that trash is a polystyrene foam, made from oil, that is mostly air and otherwise the most toxic and difficult to recycle of plastics. And very bulky. It lasts about forever, too.

I reported a couple of years ago about a company called Ecovative that grows packaging (and insulation, and automobile parts, and surfboards, and basically any other application of polystyrene foam) from mushrooms.
After you have taken your product out of the box, you can compost mushroom packaging or otherwise return it to the earth.

Here’s a TED talk given by one of the inventors, Eben Bayer. It includes a marvelous time lapse to show how the product is grown by stuffing agricultural waste, inoculated with mycelium (mushroom roots), into a mold, and then letting it sit in a dark place for a few days.

The video is about two years older than my post, so I had to check to see that the company is still in business.

It is. And it sells not only finished products, but Grow It Yourself kits.

If you own or work for a business that uses foam packaging (or about anything else), purchase mushroom packaging instead. Or grow your own.

If you don’t own or work for a business that can use mushroom packaging, you can still help companies switch from plastic foam to something you can actually use after you take your product out of the carton. Read Ecovative’s instructions.

18 Ways to Reduce Wastepaper at Home

world's largest paper wad, belatedly recycled

Minnesota’s giant paper ball, which set a Guinness record.

Do you remember the promise of the paperless society? Hah! We’re awash in paper. Not only paper for reading and writing, either.

Making paper first means cutting down trees and all the energy and transportation that requires. Then it requires a lot of water and a lot of chemicals, making lots of wastewater that has to go somewhere.

One of the easiest ways you can make a difference to the environment is to use less paper. You know the 3 Rs of recycling: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And that’s the order of importance.

Here are some ways to allow less paper in your home, and then reuse at least some of it before recycling it:

1. Don’t put mailing address on business cards

You hand out business cards because you want people to get in touch with you. But why should they send you mail? If you provide only your city, phone number, and email, they won’t have the option.

2. Buy food in bulk

waste cardboard

Waste cardboard

You’ve heard of “Whole Paycheck Market.” Health food stores have the reputation of being unnecessarily expensive. But if you can buy flour, sugar, rice, dried beans, etc. in bulk, it’s actually less expensive than buying packages in regular grocery stores.

You don’t pay for the paper or plastic package. You don’t pay for the machinery and labor necessary to make the package and measure the food into it. You can find much greater variety of foods in the bulk section, too. Where else can you find spelt flour or hazelnuts?

Stores that sell bulk food supply paper or plastic bags to put it in. You don’t need them. Take your own jar and have it weighed first.

3. Take reusable shopping bags to the store

Paper or plastic? Neither! Get a collection of cloth shopping bags in various sizes and keep them handy. Some stores will even take a nickel or so off your total purchases for every cloth bag you use.

Just remember to launder them from time to time. Especially when you bring home raw meat.

4. Prefer electronic receipts

You go to the store. The checkout clerk hands you a paper receipt. You file some of them for record keeping. Otherwise you just get rid of them immediately, or at least as soon as you reconcile your bank statement.

A growing number of stores ask if you want the receipt sent by email. Yes. You do. You can file the keepers on your computer and delete the rest. The little bits of paper you don’t take home can add up to significant savings.

5. Cut down on catalogs

You probably get a lot of catalogs in the mail, along with advertising flyers, and offers to buy insurance or get a new credit card. And most of it goes straight to the recycling bin, unopened. You can take control using an online service like Catalog Choice.

6. Receive and pay bills electronically

Too bad there’s no “Bill Choice!” You have to get and pay bills, but you don’t have to get paper bills and pay with a check. At least when it comes to utilities, credit cards, mortgages, bank statements, and other regular accounts, you can receive the bills online, save them on your computer, and pay by automatic bank transfer.

7. Subscribe to newspapers and magazines online or use the library

wastebasket with newspapers

Reading something in print can be a pleasant change from too much time staring at a computer screen, but newspapers and magazines soon become wastepaper.

If there are some magazines that you don’t read cover to cover, subscribe online. Or read them at the library. The trees will appreciate it.

8. Buy ebooks, or use the library copy

You probably have books that you use frequently. By all means get them in print. You get other books, read them, and set them aside. You’ll look at some of them from time to time. Buy them as e-books. You can save more books to your Kindle or other device than you’ll probably ever acquire. Other books you’ll read only once. That’s one of the things the library is for.

9. Use cloth towels, dish cloths, and napkins

Despite the commercials for paper towels, you don’t leave any more germs behind with a cloth dish towel than with a paper towel. You can launder and reuse the cloth.

Same with cloth napkins. Single use products are nearly always a poor environmental choice. In the case of paper towels and napkins, you can’t even put them with the recycling after you’re through. (But you can compost them.)

10. Prefer washable plates and table service

paper towelsPaper plates etc. are very convenient for cookouts and picnics. They also leave a huge pile of waste, and that’s just the paper plates and cups.

I was once invited on a picnic by a very elegant woman and her husband. As she unloaded the basket, she took out fine china and stainless steel forks and spoons. Not silver, she wasn’t that elegant.

It seemed very odd at the time, and she certainly was no environmentalist. Eating off nice table service is just, well, nicer. As long as you have to put all the leftovers and containers back in the picnic basket, you might as well put the dishes back, too. Loading the dishwasher is not a major chore—not any more than emptying the trash.Think of the landfill space you’re not using and the money you’re not putting in the trash.

11. Use a handkerchief instead of tissue

You can use a tissue only once, and you have to carry around a box or package, too. More paper. Use a cloth handkerchief multiple times a day and then put it in the laundry hamper. If you’re worried about germs, you know you should wash your hands frequently—whether you use up paper and have to find where to put it or you use a handkerchief.

12. Use your printer as little as possible

The promise of the paperless society was mostly the promise of the paperless office. Amazing how many people print out emails. We use as much office-type paper now as we did before we had email and hard drives, if not more.

You can eliminate quite a lot of wastepaper by choosing not to print something. If you need to print an email or print from a web site, look for the “printer friendly” option. That way you’ll print only the information you need, and not all the stuff in the sidebars, the ads, and other wasters of paper and ink. You can also choose black and white for most print jobs.

Many modern printers make it fairly easy to print on both sides of the paper. You use half as much paper per print job that way.

By using these first dozen tips, you have greatly reduced the amount of paper you have to deal with, but you haven’t eliminated it entirely. So the second of the recycling 3 Rs is “reuse.” Just as “reduce” comes before “reuse,” “reuse” comes before recycling.

13. Donate magazines when you are finished with them

When you’ve finished reading a magazine, someone else might appreciate reading it. You can collect magazines and give them to a nursing home, for example.

14., Use the back of paper printed on one side for notes

use for scrap paper

Good use for the back of a piece of paper

Use a notebook if you need to keep the notes. Otherwise, use scrap paper.

Even if you always print in duplex mode, you will get plenty of mail that you have to read printed on one side of a page.

So keep that paper around and reach for it when you need to write notes.

15. Use the smallest piece of paper you can

The standard paper size in the US is 8½ x 11. Chances are you don’t need that much when you write yourself a note. You can, if you want, cross out a short note and put the paper back on the stack for the next note.

Or you can cut your scrap paper into smaller sizes and use them. Either way, you get maximum use from each sheet of paper.

16. Write shopping lists across the card

Whenever you read anything about “green” grocery shopping or money management, a standard piece of advice is to make a list. Most likely you’ll write it on paper.

You can, of course, buy pads of small paper for that purpose, or you can use the small sheets you cut for yourself. I used to work in libraries and accumulated what I hope is a lifetime supply of catalog cards and other 3 x 5 inch cards.

I used to make a list by writing one item on a line, one under another. But that means throwing out the list with plenty of room on the righthand side of the card. So I started writing my lists across the card. I scratch off each item I put in the cart. When I get home, I put the card back in the magnetized clip on the refrigerator and keep using it until it’s full.

There are stores I don’t shop at regularly and don’t buy very much at them in any case. I can use the same card for lists of what to get for a month or more.

17. Don’t take note paper to the library

Or anywhere else you’re likely to find a copier. There is always a recycling container near the printer. It’s free note paper. Use it.

Once you’ve reduced and reused, the only thing left to do with wastepaper is recycle it. Recycling doesn’t just mean sorting trash into two different containers and taking them to the curb. Your municipality will sell what it collects to companies who will use it to make new products. And so finally,

18. Buy recycled paper

wastepaper bales

Wastepaper bales ready to be made into something.

Recycled paper for printers and copiers used to be horrid gray stuff that jammed the machines. It was brittle and deteriorated quickly. Not any more. You can find paper made from 100% post-consumer waste that’s every bit as good as paper made from cutting down trees.

It’s a little more expensive. Why? For one thing, people haven’t gotten in the habit of buying it. It stays longer on the store shelves. Stores have to charge more for products that move more slowly. When most people prefer recycled paper to virgin paper, it will become the less expensive.

If you must use paper towels, try recycled ones. Even self-cleaning ovens need to be wiped out, and the ash will likely ruin a cloth. Try recycled toilet paper, too. I confess I haven’t. I bought jumbo packages of paper towels and toilet paper before I became committed to sustainability. I still have enough to last a couple more years.

The first recycled paper towels and toilet paper were every bit as bad as the first recycled office paper. They have probably improved just as much.

So take control of the paper in your house. Don’t let it control you!

Photo credits:
Minnesota paper ball. UPI
Waste cardboard. Pixabay
Wastebasket with newspapers. Some rights reserved by waferboard
Paper towels. Some rights reserved by Moms Helping Moms
Good use for the back. Some rights reserved by Sacha Chua
Wastepaper bales. © Copyright Wilson Adams and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Solar Panels on Famous Landmarks

Solar Valley Micro-E Hotel

Solar Valley Micro-E Hotel, Dezhou, China

Contributed by Stuart Amm

Renewable energy has been a topic that has generated a lot of interest in recent years. It has gained a lot of column inches in the media in terms specifically of climate change worldwide and how it will inevitably affect us all.

Also, we have unfortunately been witness to some terrifying weather pattern changes resulting in a number of related natural disasters. Weather scientists claim that this is a pattern set to continue as climate change continues to take hold.

We as individuals have the opportunity to make a difference even if it means small changes in our behaviour. Recycling more household products, choosing renewable energy options are just two things that can be done. If everyone made a small change, the world’s environment would reap the rewards.

Solar panels are one option for incorporating renewable energy into the home or business. While many may see them as off limits due to being expensive, this is actually not the case any longer with more affordable options available.

It should also be noted that in the long run, they can actually end up saving money in terms of energy costs. This StoryMap created by Half Price Shutters in Australia highlights how some of the most famous world landmarks have chosen to install solar panels. Continue reading

Communicating Sustainability: Creating Concern without Smugness

eco friendly habits

Doesn’t it just bug you that Americans don’t seem to care enough about the environment? After all, it’s our only home, and we need to keep up with the maintenance.

But here’s part of the problem: a lot of people think “greenies” are nuts. And the zealots who scream the loudest for attention are nuts! Not to mention smug, self-righteous, and obnoxious.

We have to do a better job of communicating. But communicating what? Advocating sustainability entails manifold messages.

Environmentalists try to address society as a whole. Eco-conscious individuals (that’s you and I) try to influence family, friends, and neighbors.

Companies that make “green” products want to persuade people to buy them instead of something else.

Some companies list sustainability as a corporate goal, and their officials must communicate its importance to employees, stockholders, and the public.

Why does the basic message about taking care of the environment so often fall flat on its face?

Continue reading

6 ways to turn waste plastic from a problem to a resource

plastic wastePlastic is everywhere.

You know that just chucking it in the recycling bin doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, most of it never gets recycled at all. That’s because in our wasteful society, plastic seems like a waste disposal problem instead of a resource.

The world has produced and consumed more plastic since 2000 than in the entire 20th century. Much of it becomes disposable bottles, table service, shopping bags, food packages, and much more.

Disposing of plastic has become an environmental nightmare. Plastic is not a single substance.

The familiar recycling triangle on many plastic products contains the numbers 1 through 7. So are there seven kinds of plastic? No. The number 7 means “none of the above,” a catch-all for who knows how many other kinds of plastic.

Fortunately plenty of companies and inventors are working to find new technologies to separate plastics and clever uses for waste plastic, sorted or unsorted.
Perhaps once these products become better known, people will be more willing to take the effort to recycle it. Here are just a few things we can do with waste plastic.
Continue reading

Electricity storage has arrived

models-powerwall@2xAlternative energy has cleared a major hurdle: what good is solar energy when the sun isn’t shining, or what good is wind energy when the wind isn’t blowing? Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors has unveiled a variety of lithium-ion batteries to store electricity.

Now, the sun and the wind can charge the batteries, and the batteries can supply electricity on the darkest, calmest night. Tesla has reduced the cost of battery storage to $250 per kilowatt-hour, which no expert expected to see before 2020.

Does this advance mean that we can all go off grid and the electric utilities can go out of business? No. First, even at a lower than expected price for the batteries, they do not yet make economic sense for homeowners. Second new batteries have advantages for utilities, too. Continue reading

Nature and People Are Not Enemies: Beyond Conservation



Don’t you love the awe-inspiring beauty in our national parks and state parks? Let’s be grateful for the vision and tenacity of the people who fought hard to protect these natural areas from development.

But did you know that the conservation model of environmental protection is based on some questionable assumptions? Today it actually dissuades people from taking care of the environment.

John Muir established the ideal of a national park as a nature preserve where no humans live at the end of the 19th century. He built a cabin and a water-powered mill in Yosemite, then a state park, and considered it a temple.

He wrote, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”

Eventually, he advocated emptying the park of all other occupants, which meant eviction of the Miwok Indians, who had lived there for generations. Continue reading

Long Term and Short Term Benefits of Solar Energy

Contributed by Tim Smith

home solar energy

When used properly, solar energy provides tremendous benefits to both residential and commercial environments. Many of these benefits are immediate. Some of the benefits do not become apparent until later on. These short and long-term benefits are what make solar energy a choice for those interested in long-term sustainable energy use. Continue reading

How Urbanization Affects the Environment

Infographic contributed by Kenneth Gray, Gottcha Wildlife

Until very recently, nearly all of the world’s population lived in rural areas and lived from farming or hunting, but the percentage who live in urban areas has recently increased dramatically. According to the Population Reference Bureau

  • about 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1800.
  • about 14% lived in urban areas in 1900, and 12 cities had a million inhabitants or more.
  • about 30% lived in urban areas in 1950, and 83 cities had a million inhabitants or more.
  • about 50% lived in urban areas in 2008. More than 400 cities had a million inhabitants or more, and 19 had over ten million.
  • by 2050, it is projected that the urban population will reach 70%, with most of the growth coming in currently less developed countries.

The article explains the social implications of rapidly growing population in the developing world. Cities also have a different environment than rural areas in terms of temperature, for example, or what happens to rainwater. The following infographic looks at the environmental impact of urbanization. Continue reading

11 Reasons Why We Still Need Earth Day

Earth Day 1970 speaker

US Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, addressing an estimated 40,000-60,000 people as keynote speaker for Earth Day in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia on April 22, 1970.

Can you believe it? We’ve just observed the 45th Earth Day. American society as a whole has not always given thought to what people do to the environment. But you do now. You probably wouldn’t think about it if Earth Day had never captured the popular imagination.

In 1969 Senator Gaylord Nelson conceived the idea of holding a national teach-in on environmental issues and picked the date of April 22, 1970.

The event, named Earth Day by one of the college students who helped coordinate events, succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination.

Earth Day has been observed on April 22 every year since then. Why was Earth Day necessary in 1970, and why is it still necessary now?

1. The economy depends wasteful spending

Have you ever heard economists and politicians complain that consumers don’t spend enough? Probably every time there is general discussion about economic troubles. It’s the number one complaint and has been since the Eisenhower administration.

The American economy suddenly faced a new problem in the prosperity that followed the Second World War. Always before, humans had to face problems of scarcity. Continue reading