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Here’s a guest post I wrote for the NJ Audubon’s Weis Ecology Center Sustainability blog.

I enjoyed writing this educational, consumer-focused piece for visitors to the NJ Audubon website.

7 Ways Sustainability is Positively Changing How We Work, Live, and Raise Our Kids

Have you heard the “S-word” recently? Sustainability. It may have come up on a company’s website under Corporate Responsibility, or your town’s environmental commission. At its simplest, Sustainability means living and working today so that future generations can thrive.

Sustainability grows out of what we used to call being “green” or “environmentally friendly” at home and at work. But, Sustainability is bigger to embrace global challenges.

When we talk about Sustainability, we are talking about combating climate change, building green cities and businesses, improving human health, shifting to renewable energies, and preserving the environment, as a start. These are the things we need to do to leave our children a greener, bluer world.

Whatever you call it, Sustainability is changing how we work, live and raise our kids for the better. Here’s 7 ways—big and small—to get you thinking:

1. Healthier homes: Once hard to find, less-smelly and less-toxic “low VOC” paint is now available at every home improvement store. Safe, effective cleaning products without poison are on every supermarket’s shelves. While still pricier, growing demand for organic milk, eggs, produce and everything else has brought it into reach for more families.

2. Renewable & Clean Energy for Everyone: If someone in your neighborhood, town, or schools doesn’t have solar panels already, you will soon. You might not drive a hybrid car but odds are you know someone who does. More municipal vehicles are being run on lower-polluting natural gas.

3. Savvier Workplaces. Being green is good for business, so companies of all sizes have learned to cut expenses with more efficient CFL and LED lighting, less packaging, starting recycling programs and being more conscious of environmental issues. Don’t see this happening at your job? Start a Green Team and show the bosses how Sustainability helps the bottom line.

4. Lower Energy & Water Bills—We all know that it’s cheaper to save energy than to make it. Put that into practice with energy efficiency fixes like low-flow showerheads, and draft-sealing kits that save you money immediately. Shopping for new home appliances? Energy Star-rated appliances use less electricity, less water, and need less detergent to run well.

5. Technology Connections—From long-distance learning on Ipads to Skyping and live-streaming content, technology brings us together even when we are oceans apart. An amazing pay-by-text app let us donate money to help victims of a natural disaster within minutes. None of us would have been able to imagine that 10 years ago.

6. Stronger Communities—Sustainability helps us take action locally to make our neighborhoods and communities better. Take a look at the Sustainable Jersey program for inspiration about how NJ citizens are taking action to make their hometowns healthier and better places to live.

7. Belief in a better tomorrow for our kids. Here in New Jersey, we just came out of the hottest summer on record. Climate change from increasing carbon emissions is heating up our planet and impacting our lives today. While sobering, I choose to believe that the tide has turned and we can—and are—taking action before it’s too late. I see this truth in school gardens popping up all over, corporate giants like Wal-Mart installing acres of solar panels, recycling becoming normal, and kids who can name 20 kinds of birds on the wing.

In every area of our lives, from work, home, in our town, and at school, Sustainability is about the solutions we are finding together.

In honor of the EPA’s national “Fix a Leak Week” (yes, that’s a thing), here’s a household tale of a quick flood and a slow leak.

I don’t know why my husband and I decided to come home early, but I’m glad we did. The second we opened the door, we both heard the ominous sound of running water.

We bolted down the basement stairs to discover about an inch of water covering half the basement floor.

The supply tube that brings clean water into the downstairs toilet had given way and water was spewing out across the floor. A quick turn of the stop valve right next to the wall stopped the flood so we could survey the damage.

We were lucky that we got home so soon after the flood started. Mopping up took only an hour. With a new $5 supply tube from the local hardware store, we were back in business.

It got me thinking about how much water we wasted that day down the drain and how much impact it would have on our monthly New Jersey American Water bill.

That math was complicated by my discovery that the upstairs toilet also was wasting water with a slow leak from the tank into the bowl.

The EPA says that an American home can waste, on average, more than 10,000 gallons of water every year due to running toilets, dripping faucets, and other household leaks.

Considering that one out of 8 people on this planet do not have access to safe drinking water, that’s a crime.

An easy way to check for tank leaks is to place a drop of food coloring in the toilet tank. If any color shows up in the bowl after 15 minutes, you have a leak. (Flush immediately after the experiment to avoid staining the tank.)

Since I wanted to know how much water I was wasting, I checked the water meter before and after a set period when no water was being used.

In one hour, the meter showed three gallons of water gone.

Three gallons of water doesn’t sound like that much, but over a week, it adds up to over 500 gallons of clean, processed water gone literally down the drain. At a few pennies per gallon, over a month, that’s another $5 on my monthly bill.

Fixing this problem required a few tools and a $15 replacement valve and float kit from the hardware store. No more running water, no more leak.

To learn more about fixing common indoor leaks, visit the EPA’s WaterSense site and download New Jersey American Water’s Water Leak Detection Kit.

Green Living: Greener Cleaning

February 21st, 2012 | Posted by Claire Sommer in Green Living - (0 Comments)

If you want to know what is in your cleaning products, and what might be a potential health risk for your family, pets and the environment, I suggest you do some homework.

I started at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services database listing ingredients in common cleaning products with potential health effects and safety and handling instructions.

To help American consumers select less-toxic choices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a safety rating that permits certain consumer products to carry the Design for the Environment (DfE) label.

According to the EPA, “When you see the DfE logo on a product it means that the DfE scientific review team has screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects and that — based on currently available information, EPA predictive models, and expert judgment — the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.”

I have issues with the words “least concern” and “based on currently available information” but at least the DfE rating is based on a consistent scientific approach.

All good-sized supermarkets offer cleaning products with the DfE label. You can use the links above to investigate ingredients before you buy.

Here’s where I net out on chemical safety: while one particular chemical might be rated as “safe” for most people, pets and places, I have concerns about the accumulated load of chemicals we all breathe and consume in regular life. Plus, some of us are hardier than others. It just makes sense to lighten the load where possible.

Even better than buying green is to make your own cleaning solutions.

Use plain white vinegar for cleaning, disinfecting and shining and baking soda for scrubbing. Due to its high acidity, white vinegar can be used straight to combat germs and mildew and diluted half-and-half with water to clean countertops and hard surfaces.

Adda few drops of essential oil to a vinegar and water mixture in a spray bottle for a personalized scent.

Baking soda is an effective, gentle abrasive cleaner when mixed with water into a paste. Let time do the hard work by leaving it on overnight for baked-on food or stains.  A neat tip is to put baking soda into a shaker designed for pizza cheese, so it’s handy and ready to use.

Bleach is the big guns, meant to be used sparingly, cautiously, diluted and in a well-ventilated area. Never mix bleach with anything other than water. Bleach’s best partner is time. You can get the same results with a one-tenth bleach solution as with straight bleach if you let the diluted solution sit for 10 minutes. Mix up just what you need for each cleaning session because diluted bleach breaks down after 24 hours. Remember to rinse the cleaned area with water, taking care not to let the bleach solution touch your skin. More safer bleach use tips.

If you come to my house, I can’t promise that my counters will be spick and span, but at least they will be safe and clean.

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.