BioCycle August 2017
If you are a reader of my Connections column in BioCycle, you know that I talk the talk. It turns out walking the walk — supporting what I say, not just with words, but also through my actions — is a little more complicated. I do try. This column will document my attempts to go from crawling to walking on my own. Spoiler alert: it is much easier to walk when you have others to hold onto.
City Living Footprint
Most of my week is spent in Seattle where we have a rental apartment. The apartment is across the street from Green Lake, which has a 3-mile trail around the circumference that is typically filled with runners and walkers. Just living in Seattle and taking advantage of the various programs and public facilities means almost everybody here is, from a carbon/sustainability vantage point, way past walking.
Like just about everyone else in Seattle, we have mixed recycling and food waste/yard trimmings collection. Our garbage in the apartment is segregated into three different bins. All I have to do to be green is to remember to put things in the right place. After that, I just take the short stroll to the different bins around the back and I am good to go. For positive behavior reinforcement, this is referred to as enabling. For reducing the carbon footprint of a municipality it is called good planning.
Transport wise, Seattle is not so green. I would say barely crawling. We just got a light rail system after many votes and years of gridlock. It turns out that people like leaving their cars at home and not dealing with traffic. The rail system is busy and doing well. I work mostly from home and getting from my bedroom to the couch does not require much in the way of transportation.
When I do have to go to the University I typically drive part way and walk or bus the rest. Sounds relatively altruistic. In truth parking on campus is hard to find and expensive. I car pool to swim practice when I can’t just walk across the street and swim in the lake. Truth be told, I car pool mostly because it saves money on parking, I get more time to visit with my swim buddy, and it assures that I attend practice regularly. Reducing my carbon footprint sounds great on paper but is not my motivation. It’s more of an added bonus.
I make an effort to turn off the lights at home but even if I left them on all day it wouldn’t be a big deal. Electricity here is primarily from hydropower, which has a very low carbon footprint. Our wastewater plant even harvests and uses its biogas (for two of the three plants, anyway).
To sum up, in Seattle I am as good as my column but a lot of that has very little to do with me. People within the municipal government and university system have made decisions that make being green the easy and cheaper way to go.
Country Living Footprint
On weekends we drive to our house on 5 acres in Cle Elum, about 90 miles outside of Seattle. There are no municipal services here. We do have running water (from our pump) and electricity (from that same low carbon equivalent hydro). The nearest store is 10 miles away and if you want something to happen to your garbage you take it to the dump. The heating system is a combination of propane and wood stove.
Being green here is no cakewalk. Largely thanks to my spouse, Chuck, we have made some strides. For example, we have a relatively intricate garbage system: Food scraps in one bin, regular garbage in a can, recycling in another bin and soiled paper in a can. Chuck built a compost bin in the back out of an old port a potty. All the food scraps go in there and once a year the compost gets turned, screened and used in the garden. It should be turned more often but I have no idea how you would even get in there to do that (although a bear did figure it out once). Certain times of the year there is a smell by the compost bin. I know that likely means some methane is being produced along with the compost, but so far all that has motivated me to do is develop a mistrust of home systems with regard to fugitive gas emissions. The regular garbage and recycling get smuggled back to Seattle where we take advantage of those lovely bins. The soiled paper gets burned in the wood stove.
At the house it snows or rains all fall, winter and spring and then not a drop falls from the sky until sometime in September. There is enough water in the spring that we have sump pumps to keep the basement dry. This year we used a portion of that water for my husband’s new greenhouse aquaponic system. We got early arugula and 5 trout so far, with tomatoes on the way. Most of the water goes straight out to the lower portion of the property. There are plans for sometime in the future to dig a pond but those are just plans.
Last year we tried capturing greywater for supplemental irrigation. While I was more than happy to go along (another example of Chuck’s initiative), the water got diverted from the kitchen sink to this big barrel hooked up outside. I have to say that if you try this, subsurface is the way to go. That water looked nasty and smelled worse. Chalk that up to a failed experiment.
We have made real strides in growing food, which tastes good and reduces trips to the supermarket. But growing food here is a high security endeavor. We have moles, voles and deer. That means fencing underneath the beds and fencing all around the garden. I am allowed to use a range of biosolids soil products on the upper garden but the lower garden is all Chuck’s compost and “material” from his composting toilet. We excel at growing onions and potatoes. At least I thought so until the moles and voles broke through the high security fencing and ate half a bed of onions. We are also not always so good at remembering to eat what we grow. I would say that the gardening part qualifies us for some level of pat on the back but have to admit that this is a work in progress.
Some progress has been made on our energy footprint — some on purpose, some with help. The propane hot water heater broke and we went electric. It saves on carbon and on filling the propane tank. Money was the main motivation there as electricity is cheaper than gas. In the summer I hang out the laundry rather than put it in the dryer. The sheets smell so good but sometimes have to be washed twice (the birds like to sit on the clothes line). Towels go straight into the dryer because drying and not exfoliation is the goal there. About a month ago we got solar panels put on the roof. We live in a state that still gives you subsidies for solar. That just got hooked up and now we can see how much energy we make via an app on the iPhone. In part because of the subsidy and in part because of the availability of low cost solar, our system should be paid off within a decade.
Do you think that I am close to walking the walk here at the house without municipal support? I would put myself at a rapid crawl. Based on this column and all information and experiences I am exposed to, that crawl is really not something to brag about. My takeaway from this column is if you really want people to go green, you have to help them. Make it very easy and/or very cost-effective. Going green without help is not easy and if my case is any indication, can often lead to failed attempts. Lending a hand is a great way to help a toddler start walking and a good model for our communities as well.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.