December 1, 2010
My Chanukah miracle
Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
“There are two types of water that come out of your house — blackwater and greywater,” explained Marina Mintz, founder and principal of the Good Going environmental and sustainability consulting firm. Blackwater — otherwise known as sewage — goes straight to the sewer, where it belongs. Greywater is the lightly used water left after being used to wash clothes, vegetables, dishes and bodies, and it can be reused to flush toilets and to water plants. “You get to use water twice before it goes down the sewer,” Mintz said.
With no such system in place in my apartment, I got creative. Every time I turned on the shower, I held out a bucket to catch the not-yet-warm water, and later poured the contents of that bucket into the toilet tank. Like most toilets, mine dispatches gallons of water — one-and-a-half gallons of drinking water — into the sewer system with every flush. I don’t recommend reusing unfiltered dishwashing water for this purpose — the grease in the toilet tank becomes problematic — but “warm-up” water works perfectly.
At the end of eight days, I found that I had used about 100 gallons of water — 17 gallons over my target. Without greywater, I would never have gotten nearly that close. The flowers and herbs on the windowsill wouldn’t have made it through the week alive without greywater either.
Some people commute by bicycle to keep from burning fossil fuels on their way to and from work. Other people wear articles of clothing more than once before washing them to save water and electricity. If there are people who bike to work and wear their clothes more than once, I have to imagine that they smell pretty bad.
My ride for the week was a used, white mountain-bike frame that I built up from salvaged parts at the Bicycle Kitchen in Los Feliz. “I hope you’re not taking your life in your hands,” my mother said when I told her I was biking around Los Angeles, sharing the road with teenage drivers, texting drivers, drivers of SUVs and other vehicular disasters waiting to happen.
“One big issue that we were seeing is that motorists were consistently riding too close to cyclists,” Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) Campaigns and Communications Director Aurisha Smolarski said, explaining why her group worked with the city to put up the “Give Me 3” posters that can be seen on bus shelters around Los Angeles.
But once I got out on two wheels, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only were drivers regularly giving me 3 feet of clearance when passing, but that I wasn’t the only bicyclist on the road. With few exceptions, vehicles were accommodating, and I got more cheers than heckles. Roads with dedicated bike lanes (Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards) and “sharrows” — shared-lane markings like those painted onto the pavement of Fourth Street in June — are a pleasure to ride on, and the city’s bike plan unveiled earlier this year calls for more than 200 miles of new bike infrastructure to be built.
The only fossil fuel I burned getting around that week was the trip I took to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up my cousin on Day Six. The odometer ticked through 36.5 miles that night — more than my allotted 25 miles, but what was I to do? Not give her a ride?
I was standing on the roof of Lee Wallach’s house on the evening that marked the end of Day Three and the start of Day Four. Wallach is president of Faith2Green, a group that works to organize the Jewish community around environmental issues. He also consults with large firms to help them develop and implement sustainability efforts. “They’re different trajectories,” Wallach said of his for-profit and nonprofit work, “but it’s the same goal.”
Wallach is one of the greenest Jews I know, and I had asked for a tour of his house. We started with the artificial turf lawn and by the time we got to the solar panels, the office towers of Century City nearby had begun to glow.
“Any one of those buildings kicks my house’s ass,” Wallach said.
Making environmentally friendly choices can feel like an uphill battle. Wallach, as a consultant, might actually make his biggest positive impact on the environment by showing building owners how certain choices can help both the earth and their bottom line — say, installing a variable ventilation system in their parking garage.
But Wallach is just as proud of what he has accomplished on the grass-roots level, and that evening he turned away from the office towers and toward the houses on his block. He pointed to a few of his neighbors’ houses. One decided to do an energy audit to see if solar paneling would be cost-effective for his home; another asked Wallach for advice about drip irrigation systems; Wallach regularly exchanges cuttings of succulents and other desert-appropriate plants with a third. “It’s changing my little piece,” Wallach said of his contagious environmentalism, “and I also know it’s changing my neighborhood.”
Figuring out how much electricity my household consumes was as easy as checking the meter; it proved much more difficult to cut down that number. The average LADWP residential customer uses 6,182 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year — almost 17 kWh every day. In our one-bedroom apartment, we use a steady four kWh daily. One goes directly into powering the refrigerator. Our lights are almost all CFL-equipped; I even unscrewed four of the five incandescent bulbs in our bathroom and made sure to leave on only the lights that I needed. Still, like clockwork, over the course of eight days, the meter clicked up 30 kWh.
To make up some of the difference, I signed up for Green Power for a Green LA, a program that will add a surcharge of 3 cents per kWh to a certain percentage of our LADWP bill to cover the increased cost of providing power to the LADWP grid from renewable sources. In 2009, LADWP got 14 percent of its power from renewable sources and is said to be on track to hit its benchmark of providing 20 percent renewably sourced power by January 2011.
FOOD AND TRASH
“Local eating for you is going to be a breeze,” No Impact Man Beavan told me. “Transportation is not going to be.” He couldn’t have been more right.
Eating locally grown, unprocessed and preferably organic foods — the kinds of foods that require the least fossil fuel to produce and transport — is pretty easy in Los Angeles. In November, a month in which the offerings at most farmers markets in North America are much more limited, at the Adams and Vermont farmers market, I was able to buy both summer and winter squashes from the same local grower.
Produce in the United States is said to travel an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to the table. Some have questioned the accuracy of this statistic, but the message to me was still quite clear: If I could just subsist on heirloom tomatoes, organic lettuce, dirt-caked parsnips and rich-looking carrots from either Riverside (50 miles away) or Bakersfield (112), and limit the garlic and onions I bought from the farmer who drove the 200 miles from Fresno, I’d sail easily under the “one-eighth of average” benchmark.
But making good on my transportation commitment ended up making success in every other category harder to achieve. As it turned out, racking up 12 miles every day on the Frankenbike made finding time to cook meals from scratch nearly impossible and left me always hungry for highly caloric, highly processed foods. As my commitment to local eating flagged, my trash bin filled up.
Only 24 hours into the experiment, I was wolfing down a slice of pizza covered with mozzarella cheese that may have been shipped from New York, a bowl of rice that probably came from Japan and toasted seaweed flown from Korea and delivered by truck directly to our front door. Then I had to guiltily confront the contents of my trash bag: One paper plate. Two pieces of wax paper. One zipper-top Mylar bag. Four plastic tubs from a supermarket take-out counter.
It went downhill from there. Lunch on Day Three consisted of salad and a tuna melt. Dinner on Night Four was stuffed cabbage — although I knew that raising cows for beef requires approximately 16 times as much fossil fuel energy as growing the equivalent number of vegetable-based calories does.
I found it all but impossible to measure the miles most of my food had traveled before getting to my table — but in terms of trash, I knew exactly how badly I had done. At the end of eight days, I had produced 24 pounds of what the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation calls “solid waste”: 10 pounds of recycling, 7 pounds of compost and 7 pounds of simple refuse. Even if half of that trash were chalked up to my wife, it’s significantly more than the City of Los Angeles’ estimate of 3.3 pounds of solid waste per person per day that I was aiming for.
There is one refuse category that I feel less badly about: the 13 Clif Bar wrappers that I accumulated over the course of the week. As a company, Clif is trying to do good by the earth and do well in its business. They use organic ingredients, they work hard to maximize the number of boxes that fit onto each pallet they ship, and they won’t ship a truck until it’s full. Every one of their employees is given up to $500 to buy or retrofit a bike for commuting purposes. And when it comes to each bar’s Mylar packaging, they know they’ve got a lot of room for improvement. “We don’t feel like the packaging we use now is perfect, and we’re looking for something better,” Clif Bar & Co. spokesperson Renée Davidson said. “We would love to have some compostable packaging. It doesn’t exist.”
Over the course of my eight-day experiment, I occasionally felt like a guy riding a bicycle next to someone who was driving a Hummer. Sometimes it was literally true; other times, like when I was looking at millions of square feet in Century City office space from a 3,000-square-foot house covered in solar panels, it was more metaphorical. Regardless, the conclusion was the same: Nothing one person could do alone would matter unless he could make broader changes in society.