Soda Maker

I have been wanting to purchase a counter top carbonation machine for a while.  These jobbers take tap water and add carbonation.  Voila!  Seltzer made at home.  You can also add whatever flavoring you want to make soda or spritzer or what have you.  Problem:  they require a big investment.  OK, we’re not talking solar panels, which are even better an idea but cost what some might literally call a fortune, but still, these babies are pricey.

How pricey?  Well, I have pretty much decided that Sodastream is the brand to get.  The entry level model cost a hundred clams.  That gets you what you need to get started, including the replaceable carbonating cartridges.  Once you use up the carbonation you can send them back and get more (for a fee, of course).  The top of the line model cost twice that for the basic package.  Of course, you can also buy extra bottles, extra carbonators, flavor mixes, what have you.  They make four models of increasing sleekness, although they all do pretty much the same thing.  The one I want, of course, is the top of the line model.  I would be happy to settle for a “lesser” one but that one contains less plastic and uses glass (instead of BPA free plastic) bottles.  Go figure.

I placed a few bids on the classy one on eBay but the bids went too high.  Not worth it.  Then I found a mid-range model on eBay and bid on that, but got outbid.  It is hard to find a bargain on these things apparently.  I will get one at some point.  I have some cash set aside from my birthday and other events.  I’d rather spend less if I can.  Duh.  The thing is, it pays off in the long run.  We got through spurts of drinking seltzer but that gets expensive and there are lots of plastic bottles.  Not only do the bottles get created in the first place but I have to deal with recycling, and that chore is a big fat hassle.  I’d like to leave that one behind.  And save money.  They estimate a liter of seltzer costs about 20 cents with this thing.  I guess that depends on how you factor in the original purchase price but still, it will save money.

And we will drink more seltzer and other fizzy drinks if we have one of these on the counter.  I love to drink the bubbly stuff, but I often don’t, either because we are out or because I can’t bring myself to buy any more.  This would alleviate both of those issues.  A carbonating cartridge makes about 60 liters so if we had a couple of those we could make a lot.  And we could have soda parties, just for fun.  We could make tonic water for summer beverages.  We could go places with this thing, be popular, make a name for ourselves.

Or we could just enjoy some fizzy drinks.  Either way.  I just need to get the best price I can and make the plunge.  Soon.  Soon.

What Am I Doing?

This summer I read an article in Orion Magazine that has really stuck with me.  It was Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jensen.  Here is an excerpt:

An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

He goes on to talk about water (more than 90% is used by industry and agriculture), energy (individual consumption is 25% or less) and waste (municipal waste accounts for only 3% of the total).  The message that I took away was not that what we do doesn’t make a difference.  It does, and we need to do it.  But if we want to make the kind of change required to address climate change, then tackling it by recycling and carpooling won’t cut it.  We need change on a bigger scale.

The basis of our economy, of any capitalist economy, is that we need to grow and grow, endlessly.  A business is seen as a failure if it fails to grow.  Making a profit isn’t good enough.  We ask that businesses make more profit every month/quarter/year.  The GDP needs to grow, employment needs to grow, sales need to grow, new home starts need to grow.  We can never have enough.  That is the problem.  I love to get a raise, but when I’m told I can’t have one this year I make do.  My home doesn’t need to get bigger every year.  I don’t need to gain weight.  In many spheres of our lives, we know that growing is not always good–it comes with a price that often we don’t want to pay.

So why is it that we need to keep growing, in the big picture, in our economy?  The idea is so ubiquitous that it isn’t even questioned.  We hear regular reports on the news about “the economy,” as if any of us really know what that is.  The “economy” isn’t growing so things must be bad.  No, people are out of work, so things are bad.  People are out of work because we constantly depend on growth.  When growth turns into shrinkage, people lose jobs.  We don’t work with a sustainable model where our economy is flexible enough to accommodate fluctuation.  Or at least our values aren’t there.

We need to deal with climate change, but with a mindset that we need to keep growing, it is difficult to talk about shrinking carbon emissions.  I keep hearing talk of the search for some technological silver bullet that will allow us to keep up the same habits and yield lower carbon emissions.  It’s not going to happen.  We need to make major changes to how we think about our economy, agriculture, transportation, everything.  Changing light bulbs isn’t enough.  Changing systems is what we need.

This morning I heard the mayor of Pittsburgh, Luke Ravenstahl, noting how the city has been trying to change its image from dirty and industrial to “green.”  The very next sentence in the story noted that the city has this huge supply of bottled water ready for those coming to Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit.  Excuse me?  You just said you are going for a green image and you are offering bottled water for a summit where world poverty, which commonly involves issues of access to fresh water, will be a major topic of discussion?  Um, bottled water has too many issues to list.  Am I the only one to see the irony here?

After seeing the film The Age of Stupid the other night (moving and powerful and a must see for anyone who isn’t a climate change denier), and continuing to ponder Jensen’s article, I have been thinking about what the heck I might do.  I have made personal change.  That is necessary both to send a message to others that one is serious and to actually make a bit, however small, of difference.  I have changed light bulbs and I use the clothesline whenever I do the laundry.  I try to limit waste.  I compost.  I grow some of the food we eat.  I also, however, have been writing to my congressional representatives.  I at least need to do that.  If I want us to make big changes, I have to let some of the people in a position to make those changes know what I think.

What else might I do?  I am not all that sure.  That is one of the problems here.  We all need to stand up, to get involved, to cry for something bigger than tax incentives for solar panels we can’t afford even with incentives.  We need to get out there and take action now.  Climate change is a problem that won’t wait for us.  I’ll start by writing.  I will write on October 15 about climate change for Blog Action Day.  You should, too, if you have your own blog.  And I’ll talk to people.  I need to do more and I will figure out my place in the solution to this problem as I go.  I’m getting started.  We all need to.

Earth Day at Disney World

We took a fairly last minute family trip down to Florida this week.  We had only planned it a week out.  This made for some good pricing for us.  We stayed at Disney World resorts.  I had never been there and, although I probably would not have picked that place to visit, with all the beautiful places in the world waiting to be visited, I am glad I went.  We happened to be there on Earth Day, which felt like living irony.  Disney World is one of the last places I might think of as embodying the spirit of Earth Day and I was on the lookout for how the two might meet.  I did find a few things.

Disney World promotes that the place offers lots of shopping.  On its constantly looping television channel a perky young woman asks “Like shopping and dining?  Well you’re in luck, cause there’s tons of it.”  Oy.  Our excessive consumer culture thrives there.  All that shopping means tons of one-use bags, of course, but Disney is trying hard on that front.   They really are pushing the cloth totes they have available at every check-out counter.  Apparently they have a goal of eliminating plastic bags altogether.  They still need to work on not selling lots of plastic crap, but getting rid of plastic bags is a good step.

We flew into Orlando.  From the airport we caught a bus to our resort/hotel.  We visited the Magic Kingdom theme park (I still can’t get used to calling it a “park” which to me means a green space to take a walk or to have a picnic) on Wednesday;  we took a bus to get there.  We checked out other sights by taking other buses or the monorail.  We didn’t get in a car until we got back to Burlington and drove home from there.  Granted, Disney could have worked to place more things closer together so walking is more of an option, but that buses transport visitors, rather than personal cars, is pretty big.  They have limited parking, and the bus system really is convenient (I was wishing that our own public transportation system in Vermont could be so easy and reliable), so they got that one right.

On Earth Day itself, there was some kind of Earth Day themed event, although I never saw what it was.  I did see the parade/street party which, I have to admit, was pretty spectacular.  It was a show of shows.  The announcer at one point reminded everyone that it was Earth Day.  It wasn’t much but at least it was an acknowledgment of the day.  “Who wants to be Green?” he shouted.  A limp cheer rose from the crowd.  It was better than nothing.

The Magic Kingdom does have recycling bins.  They sell too much bottled water, but at least those bottles can be recycled.  Since many places I visit simply don’t offer the option of a separate bin for recycling, it was good to see.  At one point while I was standing at a curb, a man passed me and said “excuse me I just need to toss this,” then reached over the popped his empty water bottle into the trash.  It is one thing to offer a recycling bin, and another to overcome the general apathy against using them.  People need to drink water, and lots of it on a hot day in Florida when they are walking far more than they typically walk, but bottled water just isn’t the answer.

One way Disney addresses this is by offering a plastic reusable mug.  We purchased a meal plan that included a mug for each of us.  We could fill it with hot or cold beverages as much as we wanted.  This included water, but also soft drinks, coffee, tea, juice.  It was a good deal, financially, and they must save tons (literally) of waste with those mugs.  They probably save a lot of money by hauling less trash and by purchasing fewer disposable cups.  That one seems a win win.  Even if one does not purchase a meal plan, the mug can be had for $15.  That would pay for itself with a few drinks.

There were a few other things, like the towel policy that most hotels have adopted these days, so I have some optimism.  Disney has a long way to go (do they need to leave all the doors open at the shops when it is 80 degrees and the air conditioner is running?) but they have made some visible steps to cleaning the place up.  Waste costs, in money, time, lost opportunities, clean air and water.  Disney has moved forward in reducing some of this waste.  I applaud that.  I hope they continue to move forward, as they have a large, captive audience.  If they can get millions of people to at least think about recycling and to stop using their cars, if only for a few days, they can make a difference.  Imagine what they could do if they leveraged themselves fully.  Solar panels on the Magic Kingdom castle anyone?

Dropping Electricity Use

For a while we were pretty consistent with our electric bill.  We had a bump here or there, a jump in usage that we usually could not definitively explain, but we averaged 400 kilowatt hours per month.   Before we moved to this house two and a half years ago, I paid attention to how much our bill lowered  my checking account balance, but I paid little attention to how much electricity we used.  Not that we wasted electricity–we did what we could to minimize usage.  I just didn’t pay attention to the actual number.

Now I do pay attention.  Our last electric bill posted only 296 kilowatt hours of electricity.  I was pretty happy with that, especially since it was for most of March.  We use more electricity in the winter and March, in these parts, is definitely winter.  In the winter we keep lights on longer.  The heating system, although it is propane, kicks in and uses electricity.  We don’t use the clothesline but rely on the electric dryer.  We bake with our electric oven more.  We make coffee or tea more often.  We just use a lot more energy in the darker days of the year.

So I was proud that we managed to use less than 300 kilowatt hours for the month.  We haven’t changed our life dramatically, but we have made some changes.  The light bulb thing, although it has been drilled into us all so much we are becoming numb to it, makes a huge difference.  Incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy–you can feel it in the form of heat.  Any incandescent bulb we fave feels to me like it is just spitting electricity into the air.  I feel the heat and I feel energy being wasted.  So we have changed most of our bulbs.  Why not all of them?  We have a bunch of those candle flame shaped fixtures and those bulbs are hard to find in a compact fluorescent version.  But we are slowly getting there.

Every time we change out a couple of light bulbs it seems to make a difference.  The other big difference has been turning down the dryer.  We used to always dry everything on the highest setting.  Once we turned it down to the medium heat setting we could see a difference on our electric bill right away.  We do wash lots of clothes.  We have a couple of small children in the house.  Once we can start using the clothesline again (soon!) we will use even less electricity.

We don’t have cable box on our television that sucks energy 24/7, and now that Vermont has switched to digital–and we still don’t have a converter box–we can’t watch any television at all.  We watch DVD’s but not as often as we might now that the weather is warmer and we are spending more time outside.  We will start grilling soon and use the stove less.  I am hoping that on one of these bills we be able to get it down under 200 kilowatt hours.  That may be tight but it is possible, I am sure.

I am glad we don’t have a 5,000 square foot home.  That would make our challenge even harder.  I still see people who leave light on all the time, even when they are not home.  That just seems like kind of a Duh!  I try to avoid the Duhs.  Next month–going for 280.

Earth Day? For Real?

I got a flyer in the mail from Price Chopper yesterday.  Normally I just toss these.  They may have better prices on some things now and again, but it isn’t worth traveling extra distance to get there.  I save more in transportation costs by going somewhere closer.  But this flyer caught my eye.  At the top, on an extended page that stuck out of the middle, was a banner reading “Together, We Can do Our Part to Make Every Day Earth Day!”  Oh really?

First, Price Chopper, you are sending me a flyer that I do not want or need.  It requires paper, ink, transportation, labor, and I will not even look at it.  How does that make Earth Day every day?  Second, what exactly do you mean?  The small print says to “see pages 4 & 5.”  The first thing I see on those pages is an inset spread with “certified organic” produce.  That is a good start (although it is only USDA organic) but all three things listed are in plastic tubs.  Spring greens (two types) and strawberries, shipped across the country in plastic bins?  Earth Day?

The flyer lists three things I can do (“You Can Help!”).  The first suggestion is to recycle my plastic bags at the store.  How about not taking them at all?  The second tells me to use compact fluorescent light bulbs.  Done.  The third:  “Shop locally to save gas and the environment.”  That is why I do not need the flyer and do not shop there.  Thanks.

Then they list three things they can do (We Can Help!).  First they tell me they recycle 1,700 tons of plastic each year.  That is good, but reducing plastic in the first place would make a bigger difference.  Second: “Price Chopper installed low energy LED Lighting in new and recycled stores.  Other than not having much clue what a “recycled” store is (turning an old building into one of their stores?) this is great.  I believe that one day we will leave compact fluorescent bulbs behind and use only LED lights.  They use way less energy.  Finally, they note that “Price Chopper uses local farmers each year for produce.”  On that one I am curious just how much local produce they use.  A few pumpkins in the fall hardly will make a difference, but as much as possible would make a difference.

The flyer seems like one more feel-good marketing gimmick.  Inside the flyer are:

  • Cut flowers, probably shipped thousands of miles and grown with bundles of pesticides
  • A variety of ham products from pigs raised, I am sure, on nasty factory farms
  • Lemons sold in plastic mesh bags
  • Plastic tubs of margarine
  • Cans of whipped cream
  • Bottled water
  • Plastic “candles”
  • Aluminum foil baking pans
  • Paper napkins wrapped in plastic

Earth Day every day?  I will buy some of these things at some point in the future, I am sure, even though I try to avoid them.  But let’s cut down on the Earth Day crap.  If every day were Earth Day we would not be buying any of the items listed above, and Price Chopper would not be selling them.  Maybe someday we will get there, but it ain’t happening this year. Price Chopper is making some good progress. Cutting down on flyers that don’t get read would be another step in the right direction.


The last day of the conference I attended in New Hampshire was yesterday.  My roommate–let’s call him Bob–and I had a morning run together, a short and slow four miles, then we each packed up to leave later in the day.  By the time I got down to where things were happening, I had missed the “coffee and snacks” listed on the agenda.  I was hoping to grab something (anything after a run, even a short run, to refuel) and then head one level down to the meeting I was going to attend.  The only thing still out was the coffee and tea.

So far I had been using the dinky little cups with saucers to drink coffee.  They would always put out foam cups and lids along with these ceramic cups but I boycotted them, even though almost everyone else used the disposable vessels.  I just couldn’t do it.  The one-use cups are too much to bear at times–use it and toss it.  Stupid.  But yesterday morning I wanted more than the meager amount that would fill the mini washable jobber.  I would not be able to refill for the hour plus meeting.  So I hesitated, bit my pride, and filled a wasteful foam cup.

Back up to morning one of three.  Bob and I had a conversation about one-use beverage containers, including bottled water and coffee mugs.  That first breakfast he took the initiative to bring a pitcher of water to the table, rather than use the plentiful bottled water available.  This was a gesture aimed largely at me, and served to send an unspoken message to others at the table as well.  I was happy to see it.  No bottle water, no paper cups.  We were on the same page.

Jump back to morning three, as I grudgingly fill the tossable cup, all too aware that my stainless steel travel mug is sitting on top of my packed bag, ready for the trip home, but too far to retrieve in my haste to get to the meeting for which I was already late.  Hot coffee pours from the spout into that evil container and this comment floats down into the steaming brown liquid:  “Paper cup, huh?”

It was Bob, of course.  He then fills his own re-usable travel mug with coffee.  He did not need to say more.  I was busted.  I was, and am, a hypocrite.  I make decisions like everyone else, and sometimes I make poor ones.  That was a poor one.  Perhaps my brain was addled from too little food.  Perhaps a sense of laziness, or even urgency, came over me at that moment.  Perhaps I needed to decide too quickly.  In any case, my principles lost out.

In far too short a time, I tossed that cup.  The lid cracked within a half hour.  I ended up using my travel mug after all, sipping through the next event and again on my way home, as I mulled how I can make a difference in the world.  It was a good lesson for me.  Laziness is not an option if I want to live by what I believe.  It is easy to be lazy.  Our culture is one of ease, or leisure.  We are not ones to give up a cup of coffee because we forgot to bring a mug.  Bringing a mug, or a cloth grocery bag, or a water bottle, are easy to forget;  and if we do forget, it is easy to find a disposable alternative.

We are a throwaway society.  I am not proud of that, but I am a part of that.  If I want, I can work to change that of which I am a part.  That is not easy, and it may mean I sometimes give up that cup of coffee, but it is the right thing to do.  I will be a hypocrite again.  I will forget my travel mug or my bags or my water bottle.  But getting busted has its benefits.  It highlights my hypocrisy, and it helps me to keep trying.  From now on, most of the time at least, I will turn down the foam cup.  If it means I can avoid using a cup once and then tossing it, I can get by waiting a little while for my jolt of joe.

Sausages and Tofu

We don’t eat meat in our house.  I guess that isn’t totally true but almost 100% true.  My daughter is pretty good at counting but she can count way higher than she needs to in order to count the number of times she has eaten meat.  I have cooked meat in our house exactly twice, and when I did so it had been many years since I had cooked meat at all.  Tonight for dinner we had cheese quesadillas and salad.  It was light fare but was just what we needed.

My daughter likes breakfast sausages.  She has eaten them only a few times.  The last time was at a community breakfast at her school.  There were many families there.  It was a fund raiser for the local pre-school.  We had tons of fun and my daughter wanted some sausage, like many of the other children there.  I hate to be the parent who says no all the time, especially when I don’t have the best of explanations.  I didn’t want to eat it, and this particular sausage wasn’t exactly of the highest quality, but why the heck not let her have it?  She’ll try to some time anyway.  And it won’t kill her.

I hear people talk about how they could never be a vegetarian.  As if they would have to jump right into eating tofu and beans and kale at every meal if they decided to stop eating meat.  I think most people eat plenty of meals that don’t contain meat without even thinking about it.  Peanut butter and jelly?  Macaroni and cheese?  Breakfast cereal?  Who eats meat at every meal?

Anyway, I am currently of the mind that we won’t have meat much in our house at all.  My wife and I are on the same page with that one.  But if the kids want it once in a while when it is offered, I will let them try it, as long as it isn’t too nasty.  I made them fried chicken a couple of times here at home, at my daughter’s request to have chicken.  She thought it was OK and my son just said no thanks.  I have cooked up chicken many a time and this was, and I’m not just saying this, really good fried chicken.  I ate it right up.  The second try provided the same results.  Salad is a bigger hit.

We do eat tofu occasionally.  It is good stuff if you prepare it right.  Kind of like cauliflower.  That stuff isn’t exactly great plain, if you ask me, but in a gratin, oh baby oh.  I can whip up some tofu into a tasty meal.  We even eat meat substitutes.  For me, it isn’t that I don’t like meat as a food.   It just seems irresponsible to eat it.  Eat it if you want but, knowing what I know about where it comes from, I don’t want to support such a destructive and unhealthy system.

We have talked about trying to eat meat that is locally and responsibly grown.  That is where the chicken I fried came from, a local farm.  At this point that is hard to do, more because we are in the habit of not eating meat than anything else, but meat still has a larger ecological footprint, even if it is raised in the best way possible, and that factors in as well.

For now we don’t buy it, don’t prepare it and don’t really eat it.  I won’t be a hindrance to my children experimenting with it if they want to do that. Maybe if they experiment with that they will be more careful experiementing with things like smoking banana peels.  And we will likely cook up something fleshy again at some point.  But for now I will toss that fake sausage on the pizza and bake the tofu pot pie.  That will do me more than just fine.

Not So Selfish

I watched our neighbor this morning drive along the road and pick up all the cans and bottles that my children and I gathered and placed by the roadside yesterday.  I had mixed feelings about this:

1. I was excited that someone else would take the time to clean up.  We were planning to head out shortly to pick all of those up.  The children, in fact, were looking forward to it.  But someone else beat us to that.  I don’t know if they were happy we had gotten things started, or upset that we had dug the ugliness from hiding under the winter’s layers.  I hope the former.

2. I was disappointed because the children really were excited to follow up on our previous day’s project.  When I told them what was happening, and they looked out the window to see for themselves, they were disappointed as well.  But I told them we could head up the road in the other direction and they got fired up again.

Today’s haul was a lot bigger.  We walked a lot farther, for one, but there were just a lot more items to collect.  We could not carry them all there were so many, so we left another batch to be picked up by someone.  My wife walked the kids up the road while I went for a run.  I met them on my way back and she ran herself.  I carried most of the load for most of the way.  The children wanted to carry everything they collected–they each had a bag–but the bags got too heavy for the longish walk.

We picked up three dozen beverage containers and left about ten to collect later.  Over 50 empty containers.  That is just way too many.  That was in a not-quite-a-mile stretch of road.  The nutty thing is how many I saw while I was running, farther up the road–at least as many.  The idea of that many containers getting tossed makes me squinch up my forehead.

I have tossed empties out the window myself.  I am not proud to admit that.  It happened only once, when I was a teenager.  There were a few of us in a Chevy Suburban drinking beer in the back on a long drive.  The driver was clean and we were being responsible–just a couple apiece over a couple of hours.  But we were underage.  We were afraid we would get pulled over by the police for some reason, I don’t remember why, so we tossed the “evidence” to the roadside.

The thing is, that memory still haunts me.  It wasn’t my idea and I was not the one to do the tossing, but i rue my abetting that act.  I don’t even have the consolation that we were pulled over.  I try to make it up now.  I imagine who tossed these glass bottles and aluminum cans and create my own stories.  I am proud that my children are so excited to clean things up.  They do not creat such stories.  They trust my answer to their question of who would toss their trash out the window.  Sometimes it is a mistake, I tell them, and sometimes people do things we would not do ourselves.  They have entered the world of trying to understand the array of human motivations.

I can’t imagine they will ever solve that mystery.  No one ever has.  But I hope they pursue it their whole lives.  It is a mystery that offers many questions worth asking.  Those questions make the mystery worthwhile.  As a parent, I will do what I can to engage them in the mysteries of the world.  I hope all of them are not as dirty as this on

Plastic Crap

I have way too much plastic crap.  It is all around me.  This computer is mostly plastic.  I eat off plastic.  I wear plastic.  I drive around in a vehicle made largely of plastic.  I am swimming in plastic.  I mean this, at least occasionally, literally.  Have you ever been to one of those kid play spaces where one can wade through a sea of multi-colored plastic balls?  I have.  It was a nice swim.  And it was lots of plastic.

Seriously.  Look around.  Plastic is everywhere.  And we take it for granted.  If you do a little reading about plastic and if you start noticing, it gets a little scary.  Think about this:  Except for a minuscule amount that has been incinerated, every bit of plastic ever created still exists.  It doesn’t go away.  It doesn’t biodegrade.  It doesn’t go back to the earth.  It sits around and clutters up the place.

Here is something you should know.  In the North Pacific Ocean there is a patch of water that spins slowly around so that everything floating in it eventually comes together.  It is called the North Pacific subtropical gyre, and it contains more plastic than any other place on earth.  It covers the surface of the ocean in an area about twice the size of Texas.  For those of you not familiar with United States geography, Texas is a state and it is, as the locals like to brag, really really big.

And then there is this:  this gyre is one of five.  There are four others.  They are filled with bottle caps and chairs and bags and toy dolls and flip flops and logs of Styrofoam.  All the plastic that gets tossed aside somewhere without being buried eventually makes it to the ocean.  It floats about and floats about.  It never goes away.  Some of it breaks down into smaller pieces but it never loses its molecular structure.  The plastic bag that you used one time to carry a plastic bottle of lotion (that you also used one time) flies out your window and will be around for hundreds of years.  At least.

One woman decided she would try to keep things in check.  She decided to try to reduce her plastic use so that as little plastic as possible was added to her life.  She keeps a blog that I have been reading, and I recommend it.  It is inspiring.  It has made me keenly aware of my own plastic consumption and waste.  She calls it Fake Plastic Fish and its tag line is this:  Fake Plastic Fish… they’re cute, and if we don’t solve our plastic problem, they could be the only kind we have left.

If you want to read a fascinating, albeit disturbing, article about plastic, check out Our Oceans are Turning Into Plastic… Are We? It is a thorough read that should get you thinking.  If you are a thinking person, that is.

I now try even harder to keep plastic out of my house.  I have been an advocate of reducing plastic use for a long time, but these days I have been ever more aware of how much it is a spawn of the deh-vill, as my friend Skip would say.  Look around.  I bet you see plastic everywhere you turn.  My guess is that anyone reading this has plastic on his or her body at this moment.  Fleece?  Watch?  Hair clip?  Buttons?  I dare you to tell me you have no plastic on your body.

Again, I have way too much plastic crap.  All these toys and markers hanging around the house don’t help.  I don’t want to revert back to 150 years ago, when plastic did not exist yet.  Plastic has made a huge difference in all our lives.  Think of medicine and food safety, for a couple examples.  But, since only a small percentage of plastic gets recycled, even that which gets dumped into the blue bins to be recycled, I ask you this:  Is that mocha frappuccino you had recently really worth it?  That plastic cup was molded, packed, shipped, unpacked, pulled from a plastic sleeve, filled with that cold frothy drink and served to you.  You enjoyed it for half an hour, if you are a slow sipper, and that cup’s plastic will outlast your great grandchildren’s great grandchildren.

Makes you want to get a good (stainless steel) travel mug, doesn’t it?

Solar Class Take Two

I went to the second of three classes last night to learn about photovoltaic power, presented by Gary Beckwith of the Solar Bus.  I learned a few things.  I feel that I have a good basic understanding of solar power but there have been lots of holes in my understanding.  Those holes are getting filled in.

Here is one thing I learned.  I had the idea that a grid tied system meant you would generate your own energy and what you did not use would be sent back to the grid, and you would get paid for that power.  If the power goes out, you still have power.  Not so.  With a grid-tied system, if the grid goes down, so does your system, so no power, even if the sun is shining.  This makes sense from a safety perspective.  If the power goes out and someone is working on the power lines, they might get shocked if your system is sending power out.

You can set up a battery back-up system, but this needs to part of the plan from the start.  Modifications are not simple.  An off-grid system relies on batteries.  Any electricity goes into the batteries and you always draw from the batteries.  With a “hybrid” system, electricity comes from the panels themselves and the system only draws from the batteries if the grid is down.  Phew.  Who knew things were so complicated?

I also learned that Vermont’s incentives for installing solar power only apply to grid-tied systems.  A self-contained system won’t qualify for any tax credits.  And not only does the system have to have the ability to feed power back to the grid, but it needs to be installed by only qualified installers.   No DIY of you want to get a tax credit.  Maybe that will change.  It seems silly not to offer tax credits to any system that reduces fossil fuel use.

If we made some efficiency changes a system for our house might cost $20,000 before any tax credits.  We talked last night about how long it might take to make that back.  Who knows, really?  It would depend on lots of variables, but we are talking twenty years before the energy would be pretty much “free.”  Of course, we wouldn’t do it just for financial reasons, but it would be nice if the cost were a little lower.

Gary thinks that even if we made no changes in technology, the cost of solar systems could be cut in half just with increased production and economies of scale.  But not enough people are creating demand because the systems cost too much.  A Catch-22.  I would love to see increased tax (or other) incentives for installation of alternative energy systems.  Then perhaps we really could make the investment.

I would love to install a system that integrates a wind generator and solar panels so we could generate energy most of the time.  I’ll see what our last class has to offer.  Already, I have enough information to think about solar energy in a more informed way.  One of these days, we will take the plunge and make it happen for us.  When “one of these days” might be, well, that remains undetermined.  Until then, I will continue to try to just use less energy.  That won’t cost anything.