Making Connections

Self-help, community service

The Green Apartment

Solar panels, programmable thermostats and STAR appliances—when it comes to being green, homeowners seem to have all the fun! But there are simple ways that apartment dwellers can make their living spaces more green as well.

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Reduce Your Bathroom Water Waste

Photo credit: Hemera Collection/Thinkstock

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the bathroom is where over half of our household water usage takes place? What are some ways to take a bite out of that?
-- Shelby McIntyre, Chico, CA

YYes indeed, some 60 percent of our household indoor water usage happens in the bathroom. As such, updating old leaky fixtures and changing a few basic habits could go a long way to not only saving fresh water, an increasingly precious resource, but also money.

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Home Solar Energy

Converting an existing home to solar power can cost upwards of $25,000 and is probably not be a good investment for most people, strictly economically speaking. But if you’re building a new home, incorporating a solar system from the get-go is simply a matter of choosing solar over something else and therefore may pencil out much better. Photo credit: Student Design and Experiential Learning Center, courtesy Flickr.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it now feasible to provide all of a home’s energy needs—including air conditioning—with solar power alone? If so, why hasn’t solar caught on more, particularly in U.S. “Sun Belt” states from southern California east to Florida?
-- Tim Douglas, Burlington, VT

It has been possible for years if not decades to provide all of a home’s energy needs with solar power. The technology is here and is only getting more efficient and less obtrusive every day. The only real stumbling block is cost: Solar systems capable of meeting all of an average U.S. home’s energy needs start at around $25,000. Given how inexpensive the grid-based power we now get all across the country remains—and, bear in mind that many utilities are working more and more renewable energy sources, like wind power, into their mix—going solar alone just doesn’t pencil out economically for most people.

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Boxed Wine: A Green Option for the Holidays

There are no bottles in these boxes of wine -- just wine and the plastic pouch that holds it. It's a great "green" option for holiday parties. Boxing instead of bottling wine saves half the shipping weight (and associated carbon emissions) and keeps the product fresher longer. Photo: BotaBox.

Dear EarthTalk: Apparently boxed wine (instead of bottled) is becoming all the rage for environmental reasons. What are the eco-benefits of boxed wine over bottled?
--Justin J., Los Angeles, CA

With more and more wineries offering organic varieties to lower their eco-footprint, it’s no surprise that they’re looking at the environmental impacts of their packaging as well. The making of conventional glass bottles (and the corks that cap them) uses significant quantities of natural resources and generates considerable pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the process of manufacturing glass not only contributes its share of greenhouse gas emissions but also generates nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and tiny particulates that can damage lung tissue when breathed in.

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Life of the Party

Considering cancelling your annual holiday shindig because of cost? No need. "With planning and a little creativity, it's easy to throw a great party without spending a lot of money," says former caterer Denise Vivaldo, author of Do It for Less! Parties: Tricks of the Trade from Professional Caterers' Kitchens and Do It For Less! Wedding: How to Create Your Dream Wedding Without Breaking the Bank. Try some of her favorite themes for successful celebrations on a shoestring. Your guests will never guess that you didn't spend a bundle on them.

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Green Holiday Gifts

Dear EarthTalk: Dear EarthTalk: Can you recommend some sources for toys and other holiday gifts that are both safe and not harmful to the environment?
--Tracy Gately, Marblehead, MA

Given the massive recall of toys contaminated with lead last year, let alone all the other bad news about chemicals seeping out of just about every other conceivable type of consumer item, it’s no wonder that people are nervous about what might be inside the wrapping paper this next holiday season. Luckily, growing environmental concerns—-and consumer demand—-means that plenty of safe and green-friendly items are available for those willing to do a little more than just walk around the closest shopping mall.

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Have you voted yet?

68% (13 votes)
21% (4 votes)
Can't/don't want to vote
11% (2 votes)
Total votes: 19

Do you support the bail-out?

19% (7 votes)
65% (24 votes)
I don't know
16% (6 votes)
Total votes: 37

Earth-Friendly Chocolate

Dear EarthTalk: I heard a reference to “Earth-friendly chocolate” and was wondering about what goes into chocolate that would raise environmental concerns.
--Ben Moran, Providence, RI

Like coffee beans, the cacao seeds from which we derive chocolate can only be grown successfully in equatorial regions--right where the world's few remaining tropical rainforests thrive. As worldwide demand for chocolate grows, so does the temptation among growers to clear more and more rainforest to accommodate high-yield monocultural (single-crop) cacao tree plantations. What are left are open, sunny fields with dramatically lower levels of plant and animal diversity. Adding environmental insult to injury, most cacao plantations use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that further degrade the land that once teemed with a wide variety of rare birds, mammals and plants.

Your Tags: 
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I consider myself...

A Libertarian
13% (59 votes)
A Republican
29% (137 votes)
A Democrat
26% (119 votes)
A Green
6% (28 votes)
A Party You're Not Listing
1% (5 votes)
An Independent/Unaffiliated
25% (117 votes)
Total votes: 465

Money for Nothing: The Dark Side of the Lottery

Money for Nothing coverI have never won the lottery. Not really sure what I would do if I did, really. I think I would pay down the house, and maybe buy a new bicycle. I think I would buy Lynn and I a couple of new laptops, and certainly, the kids would get new bikes as well as some new clothes, but I am not a big car kinda guy, nor am I a big house kinda guy. I don't drink, and I don't gamble, and I have no desire to buy into horses, boats or racecars. I have a sneaky suspicion that Edward Ugel would hate me.

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The Hand-Sculpted House

Standard house construction has a problem, and it's wooden.

With the price of wood skyrocketing, and the ecological impact of all that wood, glue, nails, gypsum, Tyvek, fiberglass, paint and primer on the landscape, the cost of a house is quickly becoming more than just the price of the land and a few 2x4s.

The Hand-Sculpted House is the where, when, how and why--written by the "who"--of cob construction, an ancient building style undergoing a big revival. It explains everything, from the right consistency of soil to the best dance-moves to use when mixing up a batch of cob. Yes, I said soil.

I can hear the howls now: "A house made of DIRT?!?!? What, are you nuts?" Nope.

Cob is one of humanity's oldest construction methods. While "rammed earth" compresses dirt into a semi-resilient construction material, cob takes that same base element, dirt--or more specifically, clay--and then adds in sand for aggregate. Then we add structural integrity in the form of straw.

Walls aren't so much built as they are "knitted," or squished into place. Once dry, it is covered in plaster or mastic, and then painted. You have seen these houses before; you just didn't realize that that old English countryside house dated 1544 was actually made out of clay, sand and straw.

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Global Warming and the Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream, shown here in yellow and orange moving up the eastern U.S. seaboard, takes warm water from the Pacific Ocean and carries it into the colder North Atlantic, warming up the eastern U.S. and northwestern Europe by about five degrees Celsius (roughly nine degrees Fahrenheit). Melting ice in Greenland and other northern areas could disrupt the system, say some scientists, and plunge Western Europe into a new ice age and bring dramatic climatic changes all around the globe. Photo: Wikipedia.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the issue with the Gulf Stream in relation to global warming? Could it really stop or disappear altogether? If so, what are the ramifications of this?
-- Lynn Eytel, Clark Summit, PA

Part of the Ocean Conveyor Belt—a great river of ocean water that traverses the saltwater sections of the globe—the Gulf Stream stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up the eastern seaboard of the U.S., where it splits, one stream heading for Canada’s Atlantic coast and the other for northern Europe and Greenland. By taking warm water from the equatorial Pacific Ocean and carrying it into the colder North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream warms up the eastern U.S. and northwestern Europe by about five degrees Celsius (roughly nine degrees Fahrenheit), making those regions much more hospitable than they would otherwise be.

Among the greatest fears scientists have about global warming is that it will cause the massive ice fields of Greenland and other locales at the northern end of the Gulf Stream to melt rapidly, sending surges of cold water into the ocean system and interrupting the flow of the Ocean Conveyor Belt. One doomsday scenario is that such an event would stop or disrupt the whole Ocean Conveyor Belt system, plunging Western Europe into a new ice age without the benefit of the warmth delivered by the Gulf Stream. “The possibility exists that a disruption of the Atlantic currents might have implications far beyond a colder northwest Europe, perhaps bringing dramatic climatic changes to the entire planet,” says Bill McGuire, a geophysical hazards professor at University College London’s Benfield Hazard Research Centre.

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Greener Dishwashing and Laundry

Dear EarthTalk: What are the best kinds of dishwasher and laundry soaps to use in consideration of where all the wastewater goes after use?
-- Jessica Weichert, Waterford, CA

The average North American produces between 60 and 150 gallons of wastewater every day, much of it a result of washing dishes and clothes. Municipal water treatment facilities do their best to filter out the synthetic chemicals common in most mainstream dishwasher and laundry soaps, but some of these pollutants inevitably get into rivers, lakes and coastal areas, where they can cause a wide range of problems.

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A Greener, Healthier Cafeteria

Dear EarthTalk: How can we get schools to offer healthier and more eco-friendly cafeteria food to our kids? I don’t have time to bag a healthy lunch every day.
-- Leslie Morris, Richmond, VA

Now that many schools have stopped selling sodas and other unhealthy vending machine items to their students, improving the nutritional quality of cafeteria food is on the agenda of many parents and school administrators. And luckily for the environment, healthier food usually means greener food.

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Are You a Stay-at-Home?

83% (74 votes)
17% (15 votes)
Total votes: 89

Land Mines: They're Still Out There

A minefield warning in Punta Espora, Chile. An estimated 110 million mines are still scattered around the world in 78 countries, injuring or killing upwards of 26,000 people each year. Photo: Wikipedia.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the land mines issue popularized by Princess Diana and Paul McCartney’s ex-wife, Heather Mills? How many mines have been removed? How many are left? What is being done?
-- Jonas Schultz, via e-mail

Land mines were first widely used in World War II and have since been used in Vietnam, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and in about a half dozen conflicts around the world today. Initially, mines were used for defensive purposes, to guard certain areas and keep the enemy out. Today they are used for more insidious reasons such as to terrorize civilians and limit their movement. And, of course, many remain behind from past wars and continue to unintentionally kill or maim civilians, including many children.

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Does your family own a gun or guns?

50% (48 votes)
Yes, but we plan to get rid of them
0% (0 votes)
40% (38 votes)
No, but we plan to buy one
5% (5 votes)
We cannot legally own a gun in our country
5% (5 votes)
Total votes: 96

Just Who Owns All Those Guns Anyway?

My first excursion into critique comes by way of a hobby of mine that I know a few of you share: Firearms. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I find them fascinating from a mechanical as well as sociological perspective.

Note: Relax. We aren't going to turn into a gun-site here. Not gonna happen. Indeed, Lynn and I had many a discussion about whether or not this was on-topic. Eventually, we both decided that this site is about many things, including an emphasis on self-reliance, preparedness (fiscal and otherwise) and family care. Firearms are a part of those classifications for many of us here. Not for all, but for many.

Now, about this coffee table book. It's BIG, a good 14"x8”. Not the sort of book to leave on a shelf. This is the type of book that begs to be left out on a coffee table.

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Housewife Drag

Flylady says "Get dressed to shoes--lace-up shoes." It's her way of getting you to psych up for the day, to be ready for whatever comes.

My way is a little different. I need my "housewife drag."

For me, that consists of an apron. I need an apron. I have to have an apron. I cannot FUNCTION without an apron.

My favorite apron is an Indian cotton one I've had for years. It's light, it has huge pockets, it hides stains, it's cheerful and bright. I need about a dozen more of them, since the rest of my aprons are (really not that) white (anymore) canvas and weigh a ton comparatively.

When I have my apron on, I feel as if I can tackle almost anything. It's my armor against the outrageous spills and splatters of my daily round, and when I wear it, I feel like a real homemaker. Yes, it's a form of dress-up, and I don't care because it works for me.

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Five Ways to Get Outdoors More

get outside!Being outdoors should be a part of everyone's daily lives. But lately it seems as if people are forgetting about the natural world. The recent book "Last Child in the Woods" even gives it a name--"Nature Deficit Disorder"--and claims our children increasingly suffer from it.

Nevertheless, children are naturally drawn to the outdoors. If you let them, toddlers will pull you outside constantly. They have the right idea and we should all try and get out more. Here are five fun activities that the whole family can enjoy.

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Housekeepers for Homemakers

Ariel Gore says in one of her books, and I'm paraphrasing here, if you have to choose between spending money on a therapist or spending money on a housekeeper, choose the housekeeper.

I can already hear it, though: "Wait, you're a stay-at-home mom, why on earth would you need a housekeeper?" I'm lucky, if you want to call it that. I have had fibromyalgia and then a heart condition through much of my stay-at-home career, so I have an "excuse." But I heartily recommend housekeeping help for healthy homemakers as well. If you have the money, it's very well spent.

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Throw a Grown-Up Birthday Bash

Considering how much fuss parents make over their kids birthdays (theme parties, special dinners, cupcakes at school, etc.), and how little fuss they make over their own ("oh, I don't want anything special this year, honey"), you'd think birthdays were something you outgrow. While turning 33 may not seem quite as momentous as turning 3, or 13, you never outgrow an excuse to celebrate.

Your birthday is the perfect opportunity for you and your spouse to plan a date, start a tradition and take a break from the grind to remember that you can still have fun. Here are some tips from parents on how to make the most of the grown-up birthdays in your life.

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