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Via SustainableBusiness.com:

US Recycling Rate Inches Up: 34.1% in 2010

For 2010, the US recycling rate inched up to 34.1%, reports the US EPA.

That’s a slight rise from the 33.8% recycling rate in 2009, but still nothing to get excited about. The amount of garbage Americans produce is also inching down, from a high of 4.57 pounds per person a day in 1990 to 4.43 pounds today.

What’s in your garbage? Mine consists mostly of non recyclable packaging and my dog’s waste in biodegradable bags.

All paper and plastics that come into the house go out in my curb-side recycling.

All organic material goes into the compost bin to feed the worms.

Read the EPA’s Report

Valentine’s Day produces a lot of “stuff” that winds up in the trash eventually in the form of cards, stuffed animals and candy boxes. In the spirit of greener living, here are some ideas to make the sweets-for-your-sweetie meaningful and easier on the environment.

Pour It On Thick With Maple Sugar
Satisfy your sweet tooth with delicious, nutritious maple syrup. Real maple syrup is more expensive than corn or sugarcane sweeteners, but a little goes a long way. New England-produced maple syrup is available at local supermarkets, for a regionally-produced, sustainably grown, delicious sweetness.

Bundle up and attend local maple sugar events, including the Feb. 24 Maple Sugar Fest at Reeve-Reed Arboretum in Summit, NJ..

Make It the Thought That Counts, Not the Card
You can say it better than Hallmark. Tramp out a heart shape in the snow. Hide a list of the top 10 reasons you love someone in a pocket. Bake their favorite cookies. Let them drive the remote. Do their most-hated chore. Call them just because. Save the cards you receive to recycle next year.

Dress Up (or Down) and Dine Local
Pub-style or white-napkin, you know best what your sweetie craves. A close-to-home night out saves gas and supports local business.

Say It With Flowers — Greener Ones
If fresh flowers are a must, make them as “green” as you can by choosing ones that are grown with care for the people who grow them and the environment.

Commercially grown cut flowers that come from South America often are produced using pesticides and labor practices that put floral workers and their families are at high risk of chemical exposure and harm. If you want to learn more, read this February 2011 “Smithsonian” magazine article on the Colombia flower industry.

Eco-conscious grocers like Whole Foods Market sell cut flowers under their Whole Trade label that pledges better wages, working conditions and environmental practices.

Make Their Heart Beat Faster
Get moving for a heart-healthy Valentine’s Day. Stroll hand-in-hand or drive to the snow and hit the slopes.

Chocolate — Buy Better, Not Bigger
Bypass the generic big red heart-shaped box and spend a little more for an earth- and worker-friendly choice of organic, fair-trade or locally-made sweets.

With a drop of creativity, an extra dollop of planning, and of course some chocolate, you can show your sweethearts that you love the world we live in just as much as them.

Everyone poops. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about toilet paper. Specifically, 100% recycled toilet paper.

Three TP posts came across my desk this morning:

1. From Treehugger.com, a new WWF report on how U.S. consumer buying decisions are reducing habitat for critically endangered Indonesian tigers.  Read it.

2. Find out about Moka, a new 100% post-consumer non-bleached toilet paper that speaks to the forward-looking “dark green” consumer who thinks that “Beige is the New Green.”  Plus, the WSJ’s take on the trend.

3.Via EnvironmentalLeader.com major retailers including Kmart and Krogers are dropping products that originate from the tigers’ habitat.  WWF is urging retailers to monitor and audit their supply chains from forest to tree to pulp to paper…and onto supermarket shelves.

(Before we go any farther, let me be clear. I’m all for toilet paper. Just better toilet paper.)

We all know that non-recycled paper comes from trees. A lot of trees. We’ve gotten comfortable with recycled paper products like copy paper and grocery bags. But toilet paper? Now you’re getting personal.

Exactly. It’s personal, in the best sense of backing up our values with our dollars. That’s the ideal. Here in the the real post-recession world, purchasing decisions are also made on whether an item is easy, cheap and good. So let’s take a look.

Easy? Yes. One hundred percent recycled toilet paper is readily available from leading brands like Marcal at Wal-Mart, all major supermarkets, Staples and bulk shopping clubs.

Cheap? A fellow traveler did the math. She argues heavily for the less-is-more strategy, but even if you are a profligate TP-er, the difference in price does not rise to the level of break the bank.

Good? This one comes down to personal preference. We all have our bottom-lines but new 100% recycled products are light-years better than a decade ago. NRDC has a helpful chart to evaluate recycled paper choices.

Buying recycled toilet paper is not going to grow new tiger habitat overnight, but small actions by many add up. Go buy it.

And if you told your kids that it’s between stripey tigers or snowy-white TP, I’d bet on the tigers every time.

We’re halfway there

On Feb. 2, prognosticating rodents are hauled out of hutches and held high, their gloved handlers grasping them tightly around their furry mid-sections. Assembled crowds will wait to see if the groundhog casts a shadow, thus sealing our fate for six more weeks of winter or granting us an early spring reprieve.

The modern celebration of Groundhog Day, for all its silliness, coincides with solemn faith tradition observances including the Catholic celebration of Candlemas and the Wiccan observance of Imbolc. For me, it marks the half-way point on the gardening calendar between the darkest night of the year — the Winter Solstice — and spring’s official start on the Vernal Equinox.

We’ve been enjoying some unseasonably mild temperatures, but the real story is more sunlight. Six weeks ago, on the Winter Solstice, sunset was at 4:30 p.m. Today, it is at 5:15 p.m. The midday sun appears a few degrees higher in the sky and feels warmer on my face. We’re picking up one more minute of sunlight daily. That rate will double to two minutes daily by the end of February.

A gardener friend told me about her grandmother’s traditional Groundhog Day garden walk, during which her grandmother would “wake up” the trees and plants with a gentle tap from her walking stick. When I heard this folk tradition, it made sense to me as gardener wisdom. Inspecting each plant and tree carefully gives the gardener opportunity to observe disease or damage and make plans for pruning, repairing or transplanting.

Groundhog Day also ushers in the sugaring season, when maple trees (other tree species work too) can be tapped with a spigot and the flowing sap collected with no injury to the tree. It’s nice to imagine that a hard rap could wake up a sleeping tree and make the tree’s sap drip faster. The truth is that sap flow is triggered by increased sunlight plus warmer days and cold nights. Maple sap looks and tastes like water, with only the slightest hint of sweetness. It takes about 40 gallons of collected sap boiled down to produce one gallon of syrup. I’m looking forward to helping some friends tap their maple trees this month.

Groundhog Day is a time to spot spring harbingers. There might be early-blooming hellebores, snowdrops or early crocus varieties to see in sunny wind-protected spots. Along my neighbor’s driveway, a witch hazel bush has tight, swelling buds that will unfurl into red, finger-like petals during sunny February days and curl back into a protective bud at night. If you look carefully, some maple trees already sport a red haze on their crown.

I’ll bring my garden notebook out to the yard this week and take a fresh look at each tree, bush and plant. I might even give them a rap with a stick.

January lettuce in the cold frame

The poet Shelley asked, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” My answer to that question is that it will be here before we know it.

Most of my garden to-do items this month are indoors. All will help make spring clean-up and planting much saner. Hopefully one or more of these items will spark you into spring activity as well.

Learn from last year: Review notes and photos from last year’s garden. Pledge not to repeat any of last year’s mis-steps. Top on my list is planting more intensively for maximum production.

Dream a little or a lot: There’s nothing like a few hours of armchair gardening with colorful garden catalogs and websites.

Sketch out goals: What do I want to start, plant, move, build and divide? I’m thinking about new fences, flower boxes and plant supports as well as plantings and lawn repair.

Make a list: What do I need to buy in terms of seeds, pots, potting soil, and tools? What plants do I intend to sow from seeds and what will I buy as seedlings?

Take seed stock: Early, easy spring sowing options include radishes, lettuces, and peas. Toss your old seeds or test their viability. Order soon for best selection. Two mail order providers to try are Johnny’s Seeds and Fedco.

Check coldframe:  To-do tasks include covering it at night if the temperature will dip below 20 degrees, uncovering it the next day and harvesting greens weekly. I’m sowing new spinach and lettuces indoors this week so I’ll have transplants for February planting.

Fill feeders: The titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, house finches, juncos, and woodpeckers coming to feeders depend on us. Keep fresh water in the birdbath for bathing and drinking.

Tend houseplants: Keep up regular light watering. Remove browning or dead leaves. Regular up-close inspections help catch insect or scale issues before they get out of hand.

Enjoy winter’s blossoms: I try to have at least one house plant in flower every month. Currently, a foot-tall Snow Rose (Serissa japonica) pruned into a standard is bearing delicate tiny white flowers. If you don’t have a blooming house plant, ten dollars will buy you one.

Sharpen tools: Prices vary but figure on something like $5 per item to bring rusty dull tools back to useful service. Call your local hardware store.

Clean and organize: Scrub out last year’s pots and dry thoroughly.

Be inspired: Breathe in tropical scents with a day trip to the greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden or Wave Hill, both in the Bronx, N.Y. The New Jersey Flower & Garden Show is coming up Feb 12 – 15 at the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison.

Get ready gardeners. While it is the depths of winter, spring is on the way.

January is the EPA’s Radon Awareness Action Month
Take action on your New Year’s resolutions to live better by testing your home’s air for radon.

A simple test can tell you whether your home has elevated levels.

There are lung cancer risks associated with radon, so it’s important to know if it’s in your home.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has always been a part of the bedrock under New Jersey. The invisible and odorless gas moves up through soil and can enter homes through foundation cracks and openings around pipes and drains.

Tiny radioactive particles can be inhaled and become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

(According to the NJ DEP, of the annual 4,700 lung cancer deaths in New Jersey, as many as 140-250 may be associated with radon exposure. Non-smokers are lower risk but still affected.)

Free radon testing kits — including processing and mailing — are available in many NJ towns through the state-run Radon Awareness Program (RAP).

Completing the test is easy. Open the small round metal container and place it in the lowest livable area, which in my case means the basement. After two to four days, seal up the container and mail it for processing in the postage-paid envelope provided.

If your test results come back indicating an elevated radon level, the issue can usually be  fixed with inexpensive changes like sealing foundation cracks or installing a fan.

Contact your town’s department of health for information about free radon test kits.

The NJ DEP Radon Website offers more information on state-certified testing companies, do-it-yourself kits, and vendors who can help fix radon issues.

Breathe a little easier by testing your home for radon this month.

My frugal heart is going pitter-patter.

I knew saving all those Altoids tins would come in handy.

Here’s a great DIY present that blends a dash of electronics education with a splash of solar savvy.

Build your own solar-powered iPhone/iPod charger.

Brown Dog Gadgets also offers a ready-to-build kit for $25 plus shipping. Just add your own tin.

For gardeners, astronomers and nature buffs, Wednesday night into Thursday morning ushers in the Winter Solstice.

In my house, the Winter Solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year — means both that winter has begun and that the sunlight is returning. Even though the natural world seems to have stopped cold, the earth’s movement towards spring is underway.

Whatever your faith tradition, I believe that acknowledging the Winter Solstice is an opportunity to connect with the seasons and contemplate how we depend on the sun’s energy for life.

I like to light a lot of candles on this night to fill my house with bright warmth.

The Solstice will occur Dec. 22 at 12:30 a.m. eastern time, marking the moment when the northern hemisphere is tilted the furthest distance away from the sun. After this point, as the earth continues its tilted axis rotation around the sun, our daylight increases by about a minute a day through January and February. Those minutes add up. By March, our days will be 12 hours long compared to the nine hours we get today.

If I can stay awake, I plan to be in my backyard garden appreciating the darkness and welcoming back the light.

Green Living: Christmas Choices

December 16th, 2011 | Posted by Claire Sommer in Green Living - (1 Comments)

For the second year running, I’ve chosen not to put up a Christmas tree. Instead, I redirected that time and money to rehabbing the garden cold frame.

I’m looking forward to a very Green Christmas–in the form of flourishing winter spinach, kale, lettuce, and chard. Wishing you and yours the very best, however you choose to make the season bright.

Here’s a 2010 essay I wrote about getting more by choosing less:

The Year Without A Christmas Tree

Sometime next week, after all the shoveling is done and the last cookies are eaten and the thank you cards are mailed, I won’t be doing something I’ve done ever other year in my adult life.

This year, for the first time, I did not put up a Christmas tree. This was a deliberate choice on my part and one that came to me slowly. December was jam-packed with work commitments and holiday events. We don’t have kids, weren’t hosting any parties and were going out of town over Christmas. If I could jettison the tree, I could free up a significant chunk of time, as well as money for the tree.

When I floated the idea to my husband, his response was, “I’m fine but are you sure you are OK with not having a tree?” As the Keeper of the Ornaments after my parents downsized, he knows how important hanging these family heirlooms is for me.

Once I thought it through, I was. Doing so gave me more time and money to spend with friends and family.

For me, this greener living choice came down mainly to conserving my time and some money, but the environmental impact is worth thinking about as well.

In the end, Christmas comes just once a year and it’s meant to be enjoyed. The choices we make are generally the best ones we know how to make for our families. With Christmas 2010 behind us, I can say for sure that the choice I made was the right choice for us. Doing less meant enjoying more. I look forward to seeing how this lesson will help me make better choices in the year ahead.

Make 2012 a greener, healthier, money-saving year for you and your family. Here are 10 green ideas to get you going. Pick one–or more–as your New Year’s resolutions:

1. Draw on Community Resources — Before you buy something new, think of whether you can borrow it from the library, friend or neighbor.

2. Compost — Keeping your vegetable kitchen waste out of the trash saves your municipality money on hauling fees and puts valuable nutrients back into your garden.

3. Recycle — In most municipalities, it’s the law. Recycling saves your town on hauling fees and helps conserve landfill space.

4. Get Outside — Explore your town’s parks and playgrounds, wooded spaces and family friendly outdoor sports like mini-golf.

5. Cook More — Food you cook yourself for your family is definitely fresher, hopefully healthier and produces far less packaging waste.

6. Upgrade Wisely — Donate old working electronics or dispose of them properly.

7. Plant Flowers and Food — Gardening feeds the body and soul, supports beneficial wildlife, teaches our kids and connects us to the environment in a personal way.

8. Conserve Water — Think before you drink. While the water we save at home is a drop in the proverbial bucket, the actions of all of us lessen the strain on aging water treatment and delivery systems.

9. Clean Greener Inside — Ditch harsh cleaning chemicals and explore cost-saving, eco-friendlier, effective methods like chlorine-free  detergents and simple homemade window cleaners. It’s better for your body, children, pets and cheaper overall.

10. Ban Poisons Outside — I believe that serious outdoor chemicals — pesticides, herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers — have a time and a place, but generally said, not in my yard, and not in yours.

Here’s to a green, cleaner, thriftier 2012!