Rethinking Our Energy Goal

Truth be told, we’re having problems with the goal of living within our solar energy budget. We haven’t been able to complete the initial worksheet. It is unbelievably complicated to try to track usage like turning a light on and off every time I enter the pantry. I’m wondering if there isn’t a better, easier way to make a dent in our energy use.

I’m thinking of sabbath. Observant, orthodox Jews don’t do “work” on the sabbath, including answering phones, turning on light switches or using stoves. Perhaps we should allow the TV to rest on Saturday and the computer to rest on Sunday.


Eliminating organic food waste! Week 3

Day 17 of the project and I’m feeling like I’m getting into a new groove of managing food and food waste.  Got a bit of a late start on the project after being in Yosemite for the past week so I wanted to share the results of my baseline week and the beginnings of starting these new actions:
My three actions are:

(1)Commute by bike

(2)Eliminate food spoilage waste

(3)Compost all food scraps via worm bin

One of my big goals for adopting these actions is to eliminate all organic waste (mostly food since I live in an apt with no yard).  Having a worm bin to ‘dispose’ of most food waste is certainly an improvement over throwing these items in a landfill (where they will turn into a sludge, taking up space, not decomposing and wasting valuable nutrients that could be reused).  However, composting does not solve the problem of food going bad in my refrigerator and being wasted (even if it is composted).  For this reason, eliminating food spoilage waste AND having a compost bin for food scraps (from cooking) is definitely the two-part solution for eliminating organic waste in my lifestyle.  I believe that diverting organic food waste from my trash can will significantly reduce the amount of waste that my boyfriend, Kevin, and I make.  We buy most of our food in bulk at the co-op and, therefore, don’t have a lot of waste that is created every day except for food.

Compost all food scarps via worm bin

We are still working on getting the worm-composting bin up and running again.  I actually built and used one over the last 2 years but after moving 3 times in the course of a few months, the compost bin needs to be restarted with some new worms!  This weekend, I’ll be emptying the old contents of the worm bin (only about 8 inches deep after 1.5 years of composting) into my parents larger outdoor compost bin, and restarting from scratch.  I believe composting worm can be found at Interior Gardens in NE Minneapolis, anyone else doing this action who has found them somewhere else?

Eliminating food spoilage waste

This has been the most exciting action so far.  At the beginning of each week we use the spreadsheets for this action to inventory all food which needs to be used in the next week or it will go bad.  From the baseline week information, we discovered that most of what is wasted in our apt. is fruits and cheeses.  After cleaning out the fridge to get rid of anything which was already spoiled, we made a list of about 10 items.  Most of this food is produce from our CSA.  Since we get a box weekly, the goal is to use (or preserve) everything we get by the end of the week, so that we can start fresh with each week.  We went through all of the items listed and came up with a plan for using them over the next week.  We looked up recipes and wrote dates on our spreadsheet for when everything will be used.  This makes shopping and deciding what to eat simple and easy for the rest of the week.  In addition, keeping on top of everything that is in our fridge creates a cycle of cooking with what we already have, letting ingredients for meals ‘piggy-back’ off of each other to use everything.   Fingers crossed for no food spoilage waste!

making pizza sauce with leftovers

week 3 fridge

Commuting by bike

This action has been both difficult and easy for me.  I am an architectural intern working a contract position, so I go into our studio (located in NE) only once a week.  The rest of the week, my only commute is to my serving job which is only 1 mile from my apt in Uptown.  Biking to the restaurant definitely beats driving, I can get there faster (since I don’t have to park) and I can bring my bike into our restaurant office so I don’t have to keep it outside.  Biking to NE however, is a disaster.  Even going somewhat out of my way to go through downtown on 1st Ave, I am biking during rush hour.  Bike lanes are either full of cars (no room to bike even on the shoulder) or dangerous with people turning right.  Once through downtown, the roads in NE are terrible for biking, full of potholes and brick paving.   This commute is only 4.7 miles, but defiantly the worst bike commute I have ever done.



The Inevitability of Trade-Offs

Oil and Gas versus Water

Saving water is one of my husband’s goals in the Three Actions Project. We have already done a lot to “create the conditions for success” when it comes to saving water for typical household activities. We have a clothes washer that operates with less water and low-flow showerheads. We have a bucket in the shower and in the wash basin to collect water for flushing toilets (gray water) and we keep a large bucket in the kitchen to reuse excess washwater in the garden (I use biodegradable soap). These are things we already do every day.

But in the summer months, this is not where the majority of our water usage occurs. My garden and food processing are the water hogs.

We have water in MN, we don’t have oil. So I’m working on reducing the distance food travels to get to my table. This year the distance for at least some of our tomatoes, cabbage, onions, kale, chard, beets, lettuce, peppers, zucchini, raspberries, ground cherries, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, leeks, cucumbers and beans is no more than 50 feet.

I try not to be water wasteful. I don’t water lawns, which can survive drought by going dormant. I have lots of native plants and bulbs on my boulevard and I rarely water them. But if mother nature doesn’t water the vegetables, I have to. I’m working on getting a rainwater system going, but it’s not there yet.

We eat something from the garden almost every day, but I’m also learning to process vegetables for winter. I’m most familiar with water-bath canning. I can tomatoes, sauce and pickles – things with high amounts of acid. It takes quite a lot of water to wash the vegetables and fill the canning pot. And it takes a fair amount of natural gas to heat all that water. If I’m going to be canning two days in a row, I save the water in the canning pot, but I have a very small kitchen. I can’t keep a huge pot just sitting around. If it’s not going to be used soon, we “water” the compost bin (compost breaks down faster when it’s got the right amount of moisture) or the veggies. But I do feel guilty when I pour all that water out.

In the past month, I’ve been canning with my neighborhood Transition group (Transition Longfellow). We’ve been teaching folks how to pickle and can and doing it together. This saves water because many people are using it one after another. It also saves gas because we are doing more in the same canner so we don’t have to keep heating extra water. It’s too bad there aren’t places set up in each neighborhood where people can go to do this kind of work together – saving money and gas and having fun while they do it!

I recently bought a pressure canner so I can process low-acid foods like beets and green beans and meat. At first I couldn’t understand why people said it was more efficient because a pressure canner takes far more time. Now that I’ve processed soup and broth, I see what they mean. The pressure canner uses only a couple of quarts of water – as opposed to many gallons used in the water canner – and once it reaches boiling, I can turn the gas on the stove down to the very lowest setting. Pressure keeps the heat high.

But it’s clear to me that I need to learn more about other methods of food preservation, too.

Zero waste is clearly a longer-term goal

Last week we missed garbage day so on Tuesday night we sat down to sort through two week’s worth of garbage looking for clues on how we can reduce waste. We have a long way to go before we meet our goal of zero waste. So what were the stand-outs?

Activities generate a lot of waste. In the last two weeks we:

    Hosted National Night Out: This resulted in the purchase – and disposal – of 40 plus pop cans, left-over invitations and packaging for the invite paper. People brought food to share and left me with plastic containers, tin foil and foil chip bags. Next year I’ll make lemonade and maybe I can come up with some cute invite idea that doesn’t require me to purchase postcard paper.
    Built Little Free Libraries: My husband organized a group build of 15 little free libraries. We are left with plastic packaging for hardware and plastic sheets that protected the windows, packaging for labels and laminates. Hm, where can you buy individual hardware pieces unboxed?
    Started the Three Actions Project: We generated paper printing out info.

Over the course of this year we are pushing ourselves to look into every nook and cranny of our house and property to see what needs cleaning, repair or removal. This inevitably generates waste.

    I tackled a set of drawers that held 18-years-worth of family photos, throwing away many dozen old, bad photos. The checklist provided by Three Actions asked me if I had ideas to reuse them so I thought about whether there was some “crafty” project I could do but what would I have in the end? Stuff I don’t need. I’m thankful for digital cameras that allows me to NOT print out bad photos, and for shareable online photo albums.
    We replaced a rusty old mailbox, a rusty outdoor light, and an impossibly difficult-to-set thermostat with a super-easy set-back thermostat. I’ll try freecycling the old thermostat.

Other people generated waste for us!

    We generated 14.5 oz of paper printouts in two weeks, but the Star Tribune, various fundraisers and a couple of catalog companies sent us 5.5 lbs!!! of paper that we didn’t ask for. Although we sent various companies a postcard 3 years ago asking to be removed from their mailing list, if you make a purchase they put you right back on it. It’s a constant struggle to stay removed, but we made a list and will follow up.
    We bought a new mailbox, house numbers, light fixture and thermostat and along with them came 1.75 lbs of cardboard packaging. I started bags of peanuts to bring to UPS for reuse (there is one in Highland Park that takes it) and saved the brown paper to use for wrapping paper.
    Of course, it didn’t help that we brought 1.5 lbs of paper into the house in the form of free papers and flyers.
    And we received 1.6 lbs of real mail.

In the end we recycled 45 pieces of metal (all food related), 5 glass jars (all food related), 11 pieces of plastic (all but 1 food related), and more than 10 pounds of paper.

We had 3 lbs 12 oz of non-recyclable garbage. Even though I grow my own veggies, and bring my own bags and containers to the coop, I was still not able to avoid food-related plastic. We had no actual food waste because we have a worm bin, a 3-part compost bin and we participate in the City of Mpls composting program, which takes food that can’t be broken down in a home-sized compost pile (like chicken bones and food-contaminated packaging).


Hello Three Actions community!

Nick and I are finally feeling confident in our chosen actions and are excited to continue tracking. Our actions are listed below. But what I keep reflecting on is how many of these actions are not available to us due to our unique living situation. I work as a Hall Director at a local institution and live in a 2 bedroom apartment on campus with Nick and our trusty (read crazy) cat Bliss. We share the building with 113 sophomores, juniors, and seniors in college. We can’t even control our own AC much less monitor or modify most things as the actions suggest. It was an exercise in frustration as we worked to find items that we either weren’t currently doing or we had no control over.

This made me think about how excited I am to not live in a residence hall someday and to feel like I have some control (going on the 9th year in a row) and also how lucky we are to have some of these items already taken care of. The institution I work for is deeply committed to sustainability and it was good to see that many of these actions are a part of the choices they make. Nick and I share goals around being sustainable both for the good of the planet and also in firm belief that what is good for our bodies makes us better at who we are.

We just started composting and share a CSA this summer so it was exciting to see some of the things on here that we are still in the new phases of incorporating into our world. We are excited to continue to do these things that are a part of our routine and to increase our commitment. Here goes!


Our Actions:

1. Eat 50% local food-For us this means being conscious as we buy our groceries (most of which come from Seward Coop, Mississippi Market, and farmer’s markets….and the CSA always helps) Doing more than 50% might be hard as we love coffee and chocolate WAY too much! 🙂

2. Change dishwashing habits-We have a dishwasher and then do smaller loads/not dishwasher friendly loads in the sink. We usually only run the dishwasher 1-2X a week but overuse water when washing dishes so let’s start being aware!

3. Track your transportation energy-So I walk to work (hehehe….down the hall) and Nick is great about using the car but we can be better. Bike time?

Goodbye Chipotle: Eliminating To-Go Food Waste

This is Trevor Drake reporting from Minneapolis. One of the actions that I selected was to “eliminate to-go food waste.”

During the baseline week, I’ve been taking notes on which places I’ll be able to frequent, and it looks like Noodles is one of the few. If you sit-down to eat at a Noodles restaurant, your food comes on a ceramic plate along with real silverware (wrapped in a napkin, however), and drinks in a non-disposable plastic cup. This is easy to deal with — I can just bring my own silverware (and request no butter — see flatbread below).

Chipotle, however, makes it almost impossible to order a meal without generating waste. Burritos come wrapped in foil, in a basket with wax paper. Utensils are plastic, drink cups are waxed paper, and chips comes in a paper bag.

If you count the number of waste items generated from these two pictures, you should come up with 3 for Noodles versus 6 for Chipotle — twice as much!

This is unfortunate, because Chipotle could probably implement zero-waste and offer all compostable products. This would even add value to their “ethical” marketing campaign. For now, however, it looks like I’ll be going 60 days without Chipotle!


PS — I did send an email to Steve Ells, Chipotle CEO, requesting composting at all restaurants. Let’s hope for the best!

Starting Out with the Three Actions Project

This is Leslie. I’m participating with my husband, Peter. We are the parents of five young-adult children. Our recognition of the threat posed by climate change and our concern for our children’s lives and futures has caused us to significantly shift our lifestyle in the last two years to one of greater sustainability.

Our household has already taken action on many of the menu items for the Three Actions project but we are by no means at the bottom of the chart. We believe involvement in this project will give us the discipline to measure our progress and the opportunity to develop new habits.

We have chosen two actions together, and each of us chose one action separately. Our shared actions are:

  1. Eliminate All Waste. Every year for the past five years, we’ve chosen to work toward one significant sustainability goal. The goal for 2012 was to become a zero waste household after seeing this video, but we haven’t made significant progress. Instead, we’ve been “creating the conditions for success” (more on this later). We believe that the act of photographing and measuring will help us be more successful and we appreciate the information the Three Actions project has provided as background.
  2. Reduce Plug Loads by 33%.  Our house has a 3.2 kW solar electric system (as well as solar hot air panels), which is small for a household but it’s all the space we had on our roof. In June, our PV system produced 3/4 of our electricity. We considered choosing the goal of Living Within our Solar Budget, but we felt this “lesser” goal would provide the kind of measurement that we needed to reach the larger goal. The worksheets that came with the Three Actions project will help us understand where our energy is being used so we can either change our usage or determine if we should add an off-grid solar component for some discrete uses (like powering our freezer, which is an essential part of our program to eliminate food waste).

My separate action is to Eliminate Food Waste. Like every other American, we undoubtedly have food dying in our refrigerator at this very moment. But our household has an even bigger challenge: our garden!

I joined the urban farming program of the Permaculture Research Institute for Cold Climates (PRI) and have turned about 1/3 of our city lot over to organic food production. We produce (more or less successfully) cucumbers, zucchini, squash, collard greens, kale, chard, lettuce, peppers, green beans, carrots, radishes, garlic, leeks, onions, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, rhubarb, horseradish, mint, oregano, sunflowers and strawberries. We’ve been expanding our  plantings of fruits and berries, though our harvests are still quite small.

So far this summer we’ve harvested more than 100 pounds of zucchini and cucumber, 51 heads of garlic, 40 hot hungarian peppers, a few pounds of tomatoes, and bushels of greens.  I’ve managed to stay on top of it with canning, pickling, cooking and freezing. This goal will help me keep on track. Plus, I’d like to see how far into the winter we can get eating our own produce.

(PS: Our household also blogs on our sustainability efforts, the activities our of neighborhood sustainability group, and things occurring around the Twin Cities at Think of It As An Adventure).