13 March 2019

Avoiding Plastic, Week One

A week into my commitment to avoid single-use plastics, an update.

The knife and fork set that my dad gave me, with 1960s-era vintage plastic handles, is traveling in my bag. I’ve been packing lunch and even dinner to avoid take-out. I ate out once, and put the leftovers in a plastic container I had with me, rather than taking a new one that I would then end up throwing away.

For the most part, I feel pretty good about it.

Sunday, though, was a fairly epic failure. I drove my son to Jenkinson’s to apply for a job and went to a coffee shop to wait for him. I ordered a latte — in a paper cup, because for once I didn’t have my reusable mug with me — and didn’t think to ask them not to put on a lid.

He got hired on the spot. I didn’t even have time to drink the coffee before we headed back to join some people at a restaurant for lunch.

One fender-bender later, we got hung up for so long my friend ended up getting my meal wrapped up to take home. I ended up with a salad in a styrofoam clamshell, rice in more styrofoam, and tofu and broccoli in an aluminum container with a plastic lid.

Plastic 2, Heide 0.

Still, it’s been easier than I anticipated. It’s also making me take a hard look at my grocery cart. 

A bottle of ketchup or hot sauce that will last for a few months seems less problematic than the box of tofu that will make one meal, or the tub of vegan yogurt that I’ll finish in three or four breakfasts. I’m paying more attention to whether I can get a comparable item packaged in glass, which is fully and indefinitely recylable, unlike plastic*. I’m avoiding the containers of delicious but environmentally disastrous tomatoes. 

I said last week I thought it would be almost impossible. On Sunday, I was foiled by one mistake and one bad driver. But I’ve definitely reduced the amount of plastic I would otherwise have used during the week, and I’m feeling good about going into week two

* You can sterilize a glass bottle and refill it with beer, or whatever, or you can break it up and make a new bottle. You can’t make a plastic water bottle into another water bottle. Contamination problems mean that food-grade plastic can only be recycled for non-food uses, like fleece sweaters (that then shed microfleece particles every time they go through the washer) or plastic park benches. Either way, it’s not going away.

05 March 2019

Six Weeks without Single-Use Plastic?

Lent isn’t my holiday, but I hope those of you who observe it won’t mind if I borrow it to re-commit myself to a couple of environment-friendly habits that have been hard for me to get behind.

It’s true, global warming isn’t going to go away because of the individual actions of a few tree-huggers. (I will admit to being a tree-hugger.) We need corporate and government action. 

But we also need personal change. We need to find ways to say “no” to the endless cycles of consumption encouraged by capitalism and the marketing that supports it.

Lent begins tomorrow, March 6, and runs through April 18. Six weeks is a good time span to establish new habits. My goals: Buy nothing new, and give up single use plastics.

I don’t anticipate not buying new things is going to be difficult, not for six weeks. Once Lent is over, I’ll see how much longer I can keep it up.

Giving up single-use plastics is going to be a much bigger challenge. I’ve developed the habit of carrying a mug with me. I start my day with coffee and when that’s gone I switch over to water. So I don’t use water bottles or coffee cups.

But I’ve come to rely on take-out meals to get me through busy weeks, and it’s going to be hard to go six weeks without a take-out meal. It’s going to be hard to remember next time I’m at a reception not to grab a plastic plate and fork to have some cut up fruit or vegetables and hummus.

I might make it through six weeks without any single-use plastic items, but I’m certainly not going to be able to make it through six weeks without any plastic at all, because of the ubiquity of plastic packaging that comes with groceries. Most of those containers are bigger than single servings, so it’s not technically single-use, but it’s close.

I just went to the grocery store. I bought a couple of bars of soap in cardboard boxes, but inside the boxes — plastic wrap. Yogurt, in a plastic container, dishwasher detergent pods in a plastic bag. Garlic and onions, each in a plastic mesh bag. Almonds and walnuts, each in a plastic bag. Biodegradable plastic garbage bags — in a plastic bag. Calcium tablets in a little plastic jar, and two toothbrushes, both made of plastic and packaged in more plastic.

So at the same time that I’m trying to quit single-use plastic, I’m also going to try to limit the plastic packaging that comes with my food.

Wish me luck. It’s going to be hard.

01 February 2019

Biking in the Cold

I'm teaching in two places this semester. My home institution, Monmouth University, has graciously given me permission to teach at New York University, where I have the absolutely amazing privilege to run a graduate seminar on Medieval Ecocriticisms. What that means, though, is a lot more travel, and I'm trying not to drive if possible.

So  yesterday I biked 2.5 miles from my place on the Lower East Side to the NYU English Department, and then a few hours later, biked home again. It was probably at or close to the day's high of 17 degrees when I left, and down to 15 or so for my trip home. This morning, when I walked from my Long Branch rental to campus at Monmouth, it was five degrees.

I am not a hero, I am not an amazon, and I am not a monster. I'm just well prepared. For my bike ride yesterday, I wore a dress with warm leggings and a wool sweater -- and over that, snowboarding pants, a down vest, a warm winter jacket, down-lined gloves, a hat, and a gore-tex helmet cover. Plus Dermatone, a Swedish ointment that's kind of like lip gloss for the face (and, importantly, does not make me break out), to keep exposed skin from frostbite.

In the United States, our lives are organized, economically and culturally, in ways based on a historic sense of natural resources being endless. And on this large continent, for many decades we could reasonably believe that they were.

Twenty years ago I'd have said biking in single-digit temperatures was impossible. But I learned how to do it, and biking at 15 degrees yesterday was brisk, but not uncomfortable. I got cold hands and feet, but there are degrees of cold, ranging from tolerable to dangerous, and I was nowhere near danger.

Even as it's becoming clear that we not longer can operate on the assumption of limitless resources, we have built lives that are structured on that idea. Which means changing our lives means changing our ideas about how housing and communities and commutes are organized, among many other things. That's complicated, but it's not impossible. We can change our behavior, individually, and we can lobby our elected officials and hold corporations accountable. It's hard, but we can do it.

Also: Choosing to commute in the cold without the warm cocoon of a car is a good reminder that there are many people who don't have a choice: their jobs require them to be outdoors in all kinds of weather.

11 January 2019

What Will You Do? A Birthday Request

I’m turning 55 this month. Facebook has been encouraging me to set up a donation link and ask all my friends to contribute to my favorite cause. Instead, I’m asking my friends to do something about the environment.

Climate change has become a huge problem, and we are all going to be affected in our lifetimes. You don’t need me to tell you all the ways we’re doomed.

I’m not going to tell you what to do — we need action in so many different spheres and at so many different levels. If you’re going to keep up a commitment, it has to be to something that you feel is meaningful and that you are comfortable doing. 

We need government action, we need corporate action, and we need individual action. We need carbon taxes, we need businesses to adopt environmentally responsible processes, we need better public transit, we need better pedestrian and bike routes, and we need to stop consuming and wasting so much stuff at the individual level.

Maybe you’d be comfortable making a weekly phone call to an elected official — local, state, or federal — urging them to take positive action on some issue concerning the environment. Maybe you hold stocks, and you can try to persuade the corporations you invest in to take more environmentally responsible actions. Or you are vested in a retirement account and you can persuade its managers to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Maybe you want to try giving up fast fashion, spending more money on fewer items of clothing that will last longer. 

Maybe you want to try eating lower on the food chain, or cutting back on beef and dairy, which are worse for the environment than vegetable sources of protein but also worse than chicken and eggs.

Maybe you think it would be an interesting challenge to give up single-use plastics, whether water bottles, take-out containers, or soap and shampoo bottles. Maybe you can persuade your favorite take-out place to switch to paper containers. Maybe you’ll get a reusable coffee cup and get your coffee shop to put your morning brew in it instead of into paper or styrofoam.

Maybe you want to turn down the heat and put on a sweater, or in the summer turn up the heat and put on a fan. Maybe you can buy your electricity from a company that uses renewable sources, or even put solar panels on your roof.

Maybe you’re willing to give up your lawn, and the chemical fertilizers and pest control chemicals you’re using to maintain it, and instead create a yard full of native flowers and shrubs that will attract bees and butterflies and birds, and native trees that will do those things plus sequester carbon and provide summer-time shade that will reduce your need for air conditioning.

Maybe you believe environmental justice should be our biggest priority, and you want to volunteer for a few hours a month with an organization that helps both people and the environment.

Maybe you’re contemplating a move, and you want to choose a new home based in part on environmental criteria: well insulated? In a multi-unit building, so it can share heating and cooling via walls adjacent to other units? Close to public transit so you can take a bus or train to work or to school? Close enough to work so that you can walk or ride a bike?

My own commitments for the year are to recommit to a number of environmentally responsible habits, including use of public transit, avoiding take-out, and keeping my shopping for anything other than necessities to a bare minimum, and to get back to blogging about environmental issues. My goal will be to post weekly. Once a month, I’ll tell you what I am doing myself to help the environment. In other posts, I’ll provide more information about the things I’ve mentioned above, along with links to sources, as well as other ideas about things we can do to make the world a better place, big as well as small.

Do I have 55 friends who are with me? Please post in the comments section, or if you’d rather be anonymous, message me. Thank you.

14 December 2018

Six years. A moment. A lifetime.

It’s been six years since the Sandy Hook shooting, 20 little kids murdered by an angry white man, and it feels like just a minute ago, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

All the shootings since then, schools and other places, all the angry white men collapse in my mind and I want to run to where my son is and hold him tight and somehow make my body protect him from the violence.

At the same time I feel like I’ve gone through a lifetime of sorrow and loss of illusions that we cannot, as a nation, do anything about this.

We fetishize the Second Amendment, though we have legislative and judiciary branches of government whose job it is to update and interpret the law.

The claim that we already have laws and they don’t keep guns out the hands of criminals is disingenuous. With no nationwide concensus on gun laws, we have ended up with a patchwork of weak laws and loopholes that lets anyone with gas money drive to a neighboring state and buy as much firepower as they want.

We regulate cars and Sudafed, lettuce and Adderal. We regulate free speech and voting. We have, since the original composition of the Constitution, abolished slavery, prohibited alcohol and allowed it again, extended the vote to former slaves and to women.

Yet as a nation, we deem it impossible to create national limits on the sale of automatic weapons, or create national standards for background checks.

And so people keep dying. Children keep dying. People of color, women, gays. Straight white men get killed, too, some of them police officers. People keep dying, and we keep avoiding naming the killers: men, white men almost to the one, a slim majority of them involved in domestic violence.

As a nation, it seems we can’t imagine limiting the rights of these white men to their guns, and so every week we go through spasms of grief about another killing, and then we go right on with our lives. I’ve gone numb. How about you?

29 August 2018

Weather and the Street Grid

The National Weather Service has issued another heat advisory for several upcoming days in New York City. Right now, they are reporting that it’s 87 degrees, but feels like 93.

Lately I’ve been noticing quite regularly that my car and the bank that displays the temperature nearby are routinely recording temperatures higher than those being reported. It appears the weather services are using Central Park as their baseline.

But most of Manhattan is not park, and most of the parks are not Central Park, but much smaller public spaces, many of them with significant percentages devoted to paths, basketball courts, and other things that soak up heat. Next City estimates 15 percent of the borough is parkland, and 36 percent streets, which presumably includes sidewalks. Several years ago, Newsweek wrote about a study stuggesting 20 percent of Manhattan is yard space — but much of that is also paved. That leaves about 30 percent of the city’s surface covered by buildings.

In other words, a large majority of Manhattan is paved or covered in buildings.

Which means in a large majority of the city, the temperature is going to be higher than it is in Central Park. Earlier today, the weather stations were reporting a temperature of 91 with a heat index of 100. But at Apple Bank in my neighborhood, the sign said it was 100 degrees. What’s the heat index in that case?

And what are the implications and consequences of consistent underreporting of daytime and probably also nighttime temperatures in Manhattan and other heavily urbanized areas?

It turns out that large portions of Brooklyn and much of the Bronx, areas with waste transfer stations and industry that also house populations that are mostly people of color, are even more vulnerable to high heat than most of Manhattan.

I have no idea if the temperature reporting discrepancies are enough, given the relatively small land area of New York and other cities in comparison to surrounding areas, to affect our understanding of the severity of climate change.

But the effects on individuals would be significant. If the weather services is saying the heat index is 101, based on conditions in Central Park, but its actually several degrees higher in much of the city, then that alone is putting people in danger. Given that hundreds of people die of heat-related problems in New York City every year, and that people of color are disproportionatly effected, I think it’s time the weather services reported temperatures in the neighborhoods people actually live in, not idealized conditions in Central Park.

15 June 2018

Drugs and Money (and the High Cost of Health Insurance)

My asthma medication retails for $400 a month. Thank god I have health insurance.

The medication contains two ingredients, developed in the 1990s and the 1970s, that if sold separately, would be long out of trademark and available for pennies a dose.

But big pharma is manipulating medication availability so that they can rake in big bucks by finding ways to create new combinations in new delivery hardware to keep medications under trademark for decades.

USAToday reported two years ago what the CEOs of some of the pharmaceutical companies were getting paid:
AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of the medication I take, isn’t on this list, but its CEO, Pascal Soriot, made $13.4 million in 2016.

I have no idea what my health insurance company is paying for the medication after my $25 copay, though I suspect they're negotiating some kind of discount. Health insurers' CEO salaries have spiked in recent years, and they too are pulling in millions of dollars:
Salaries in millions of dollars, 2016
There are a lot of reasons why health care costs in the United States are spiraling out of control. One of them is that big pharma and health insurance companies are tossing the ball back and forth in an orgy of greed, while passing on increasingly high prices to consumers in the form of higher policy costs, higher deductibles, and higher co-pays.

Making people ration health care because they can't afford it is terrible policy. It often leads to higher health care costs down the road. The only way to stop this is to take the profit motive out of the picture.