21 March 2015

Less Plastic With My Groceries

I talk a lot about the importance of buying local food. I also complain a lot about how everything is packaged in plastic. The other day, my colleague challenged academics to make changes in our own lives, to lead on the issue of climate change. So I made a commitment to myself to shop more at the farmer's market: local food, no packaging. Here's the haul from today's shopping trip:

From the supermarket. Not local. Olive oil from Spain, gluten-free pasta from Italy, coconut oil from the Phillipines, chocolate from Spain, curry powder packed in France, capers from Morocco. Beans and hummus say they're prepared in the UK. Hummus doesn't say where the ingredients came from; beans admit to "EU and non-EU" ingredients.
The chocolate is not Fair Trade, ohmygod. I always talk about the importance of Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and the like. Since we moved (temporarily) to the UK, I've been buying a lot of Lindt because, well, it's made in Switzerland, and it's really, really good. I'm going to have to re-think that.

Local foods purchased at the supermarket: yogurt, eggs, honey. But there's a farm shop a few blocks farther on; I should go there for eggs and honey instead of going to the mega corporation.

From the farmer's market: swiss chard, potatoes, beets with greens, broccoli greens, apples, and a cauliflower. The cauliflower and part of the broccoli greens are already in a soup.

All in all, better than last week's shopping trip, after which I threw away a ton of plastic packaging. But I can still do better.

20 March 2015

...Okay, A Half Marathon, Then

With excitement and trepidation, I signed up for a marathon back in January.

Three weeks ago, I re-injured my ITB, which I injured 20 years ago, after which I had to take several years off from running.  So maybe signing up for a marathon was a bit insane in the first place.

I took a couple of weeks off from running, did some biking and swimming and lifting to maintain fitness, and was ready to give it another try, and then came down with a cold. Unfortunately, I never just come down with a cold; I'm coughing up yellow goop and get out of breath climbing a flight of stairs.

And so with heavy heart but also some relief, I've changed my registration to the half marathon.  I'm already in shape to run it; I'll have five or six weeks after I'm over this chest infection to get myself back in shape, but hopefully keep the ITB loose and happy.

Those last couple of long runs were really, really painful; I think I took on too much, too soon. I'm looking forward to scaling back and training for a race I think I can complete comfortably. And maybe I can find another race in July.

Meanwhile, I'm still using the event to raise funds for Sustrans, a UK organization that raises awareness about sustainable public transportation while pushing for the development and maintenance of bike lanes. 

If you're so inclined, you can follow the link to a page where you can make a donation.

Meanwhile, I'm still amazed that I've been able to run as much as I have. It feels like a miracle that it's possible.  And the support of family and friends, in person and via social media, has been pretty amazing, and has gotten me through a lot of long runs so far. Thanks, y'all.

19 March 2015

Going Green As Moving Target

Two years ago, I embarked on the project I called "Ten of Tens" -- ten days on each of ten different habits to make changes in the direction of environmental sustainability. My projects included packing lunches to avoid take-out (and all the plastic involved) at work; eating more local food; using less water for dishwashing and in the shower; learning about the environmental impact of the foods I eat; switching to fair-trade coffee, tea, and chocolate; not buying things packaged in plastic; and buying less stuff.

It was a partial success. I didn't eliminate take-out, which is terrible for the planet and the body, but I cut back. I continued doing most of my shopping at the supermarket, but I made an effort to get out to the farmers' markets more. I've been almost take-out free this year, but then again I'm on sabbatical, and my desk is five feet from my kitchen. Buying local is easier here in the UK, where everything in the supermarket is marked with point of origin, but I STILL don't get to the farmer's market enough. And I don't know, but I think it's gotten even harder to avoid bringing home plastic packaging. At Sainsbury's, even the recycled toiled paper is wrapped in plastic.

But I keep trying. When I'm finished with the sabbatical I'm planning on buying some stainless-steel food containers for packing lunches -- I've been using mason jars, and they're heavy, and they break.

As of right now, today, I'm going to try to stop first at the farmer's market every time I go shopping.

Another of the issues I wrestle with is how much clothing I own. The 333 Project has been on my radar for a while, and it's a great idea: limit yourself to 33 items of clothing, including accessories, shoes, outerwear) for three months.

But exercise clothes are excluded from the accounting, as are pajamas, undergarments, and "in-home lounge wear." I do a lot of different kinds of physical activities, and I own almost as many items of clothing for exercise as I do for the rest of life.  I've been trying to avoid having a separate wardrobe for all the different activities. And you get 33 items of clothing for each season -- so in a three-season climate, that's 99 articles of clothing.

I've been trying to overlap as much as possible, for instance buying hiking clothes that look neat enough to wear in town. I dress a lot more casually when I'm writing at home than when I'm teaching, but it doesn't seem fair to allow an entire additional wardrobe of casual clothing, so I'm trying to bring my casual and work clothes closer together. There's a decluttering recommendation that you only buy an item if you're getting rid of another item; I've been trying to go two-for-one, though not always successfully.

Moving toward sustainability isn't a one-shot deal. It requires continuous adjustments and renegotiations. I'm trying to do better each year; it's hard, and I fail a lot, but I know I'm doing better than if I didn't try in the first place.

17 March 2015

Inescapable Plastic

I try to avoid plastic, especially plastic that is designed for single use before it goes to the landfill. So I don't use bottled water or liquid soap and I haven't had a takeout meal in months. But it turns out plastic is still inescapable, because everything seems to be packaged in it:

Yogurt, hummus, salsa
Bar soap
Deodorant, even the hippy-dippy salt kind; shampoo, toothpaste, contact lens cleaner, hair gel
Hand cream -- though I paid a pretty penny for some from in an aluminum tube from L'Occitane
Medications and supplements
Toilet paper, even the recycled kind
Dish soap and laundry soap (unless you can find the powdered kind, increasingly rare)
Dry beans, rice, pasta

This is a partial list, but look around your own home -- you get the idea.

Fruit and vegetables can be found without plastic packaging at the farmer's market, but not at the supermarket, where I otherwise do the bulk of my shopping, so the farmer's market requires a separate stop at a separate location. I don't do enough of my shopping at the farmer's market: life gets in the way.

In other words, even though I cook most of my food from scratch, almost everything I eat comes into my kitchen packaged in plastic which then goes into the recycling bin a few days later.

Plastic recycling is a kind of a scam, it turns out. You can recycle a glass bottle and make another glass bottle; you can turn an old alumin(i)um can into a new one. But used plastic is more limited: it can't be made into another one of the same item. It can be used for pipes, carpets, fiberfill, and fleece clothing.

It takes less energy to make a recycled plastic product than a new one, and it's better to recycle plastic than to put it in the landfill -- but it's far preferable not to use it in the first place. How do we put pressure on the manufacturers to stop?

11 March 2015

The Cooking-From-Scratch Scam

A comment about organic boxed macaroni and cheese being virtually identical to the regular kind crossed my radar the other day and got me thinking about how the food industry has taught us that we don't know how to cook.

I do almost all of my cooking from scratch, because I'm dealing with a variety of different food allergies and intolerances that make much of what's available in a box inedible, but also because it's how I learned to cook.

The food industry has created all kinds of boxed products and has taught us that we don't know how to cook. But it's not actually that hard to get all kinds of basic meals on the table.

You can make a basic mac and cheese with milk, flour, butter, and cheese. Maybe a little mustard or cayenne, if that's how you roll.  You heat those ingredients while the pasta is cooking in a separate pan, mix the two together, and bingo, mac'n'cheese.

The same dish, out of a box? While you cook up some pasta, you mix milk and butter and cheese powder in a separate pan, and after the pasta is cooked, you mix them together. One ingredient less than from scratch. It takes a minute or two to grate real cheese, or to cut it up in little pieces with a knife if you don't have a grater, but you're waiting for pasta to boil anyway.

Pancakes, ditto. Egg, milk, flour, baking soda maybe a little sugar and salt, cinnamon or vanilla, chocolate chips or blueberries if you want to go all out.  Or in my case, gluten-free flour, ground flax seeds, and soy milk. And it doesn't even require measuring cups; I eyeball it all.

Spaghetti sauce. It doesn't take that much longer to saute an onion and a little garlic and some celery with some dried herbs and then add tomatoes and cook down for a few minutes than it does to open a jar of prepared sauce.

Mashed potatoes? Yes, it takes longer to clean potatoes, cut them up, steam them, and then mash them with butter and milk (or olive oil and almond milk) than to shake some flakes into a pan of boiling water. But it's not rocket science.

If you're juggling jobs, kids, commutes, maybe caring for an elderly or ill family member, finding the time to scrub potatoes can seem impossible. And it takes some planning: you have to shop, you have to be able to store perishables until you can use them. The Mate and I do a lot of cooking on weekends, and make enough for lots of leftovers. Some get eaten right away, others go in the freezer for next week or next month or next year.

Which is not to say that we never eat beans from a can, tomato sauce from a jar, vegetables from the freezer, or a whole meal of Chinese take-out.

Cooking basic foods from scratch avoids a lot of the carbon footprint of shipping and production, particularly if you buy local products in season. And you get to avoid the excessive salt and sugar and chemicals that go into the bottled and boxed products. And you avoid a lot of plastic packaging.

Want to try? Pick one dish, google some recipes, pick the simplest one, and make it on three occasions. Then you'll know it well enough to throw the ingredients together without worrying about measuring precisely, to improvise if you're out of something, or to experiment with different flavors.

09 March 2015

Lost in the Digital Debate

I've had the privilege of hearing and seeing quite a few live performances of classical music recently, and it's served as a reminder that in addition to dynamics and pitch and time, music has a spatial dimension that recordings can't capture, even high-fidelity stereo and surround-sound systems designed to give the feeling of sitting in the midst of a performance.

The length of a keyboard, the movement of fingers along strings, the arrangement of musicians playing different instruments -- these are lost in an audio recording.

A recording, whether analog or digital, is a substitute we've come to take completely for granted for hearing a live performance. We can listen to the same recording over and over and over again. Vinyl records lost quality in the repetition, the grooves worn down and the sound quality diminished over time, but CDs and MP3s retain whatever qualities they had in the initial recording, no matter how many times they're played.

Audiophiles argue fiercely over variations between analog and digital recordings, but both replace the presence of human beings with a flat piece of plastic that produces sound waves coming out of speakers. A record or a CD or an iPod can't interact with a human auditor.

Meanwhile, people are panicking about the demise of the book, as most of us move to reading on screens of various kinds, for various purposes. You might not have a Kindle, but you're reading this blog on a screen, and your email, and maybe Facebook or the news, scholarly articles or Google.

According to Socrates, written language is a lousy substitute for the spoken word. No matter how many times you ask a book a question, you get the same answer. We've moved since Socrates through stone and wax tablets and papyrus and animal skins to paper. In the past decade, we've fixated on the idea of the book as a physical object rather than a medium for transmission of language.

Watching hands on a keyboard last night, then walking home and hearing an owl hoot twice behind me and to my left, and another bird twittering to my right, I wondered what it is about ink on paper that, at this moment in time, inspires both devotion and fear of loss.