Sunday, December 12, 2010

Eating Local in December

Snow flurries nearly as light as air fell a few days ago and the sight started me to think whether or not it is possible to eat locally even in the winter months. The answer is: It depends.

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (a mouthful if there ever was one), there are farmer's markets throughout the state functioning nearly all the way up through Christmas.

In Winchester, the Freight Station Farmer's Market continues to offer milk and other dairy products, chicken and pork through December 21.

But what about fresh fruits and vegetables? The choices for these items during the colder months are definitely few and far between, but if the local fresh food buyer is willing to make a few small accommodations, there are ways.

First, think apples. Apples are one of the heartier fruits grown in Virginia, and can be processed in a variety of tasty ways. Remember, buying local doesn't mean buying right off the tree or harvested that morning. Turkey Knob, a company based in Timberville, VA, has an apple of the month club that does include the cold months Dec-March.

But if crunchy apples are not your thing, maybe apple butter is what you want. The White House brand, found in most of the large retail supermarkets and local stores, is a local company. Based in Winchester, White House makes cider, apple butter and apple sauce.

For the carnivores who want local, Virginia has that too, in the form of cattle and pigs raised on farms around the state. One farm, Hollin Farm, based in Delaplane, raises Angus beef that tastes better than the Angus burgers that McDonald's is selling, that's for sure. Pasture fed and no antibiotics, according to the company's marketing materials, buying locally raised beef is just a phone call or Internet click away.

Vegetables also are available on the Internet from the Virginia Organic Cooperative. With vehicles powered in part through bio-diesel, the certified organic Co-op -- and its partner the Virginia Green Grocer -- is a great way to get veggies in the winter months.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Recycling is Up in VA

A few days ago, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released its 2009 annual report on recycling activity in the state and the news is good -- people and businesses in the Old Dominion continue to recycle more and more each year, but the increase is slow. According to the report, the recycling rate in the state was 38.6 percent, up from 38.5 percent in 2008, and up from 29.8 percent in 2004.

So while the numbers are trending upward, peeling back the report reveals that the more toxic products that might find their way into our soil and water are being recycled in greater numbers, but the easy products -- paper, metal and glass -- are being recycled less.

Specifically, the 2009 DEQ report showed that used oil, oil filters and anti-freeze and electronics (the stuff that's really bad if leached into soil and water) is being recycled. Details on how to recycle motor oil there are helpful tips on the American Petroleum Institute's website. (Never thought that I'd promote the API, but at least here it's doing good work.) It's the law in Virginia for shops that change motor oil to recycle it. A quick scan of your bill shows the cost, usually a few bucks.

This holiday season, as millions of us pop into and out of stores like Best Buy and Staples, we should remember that these retailers have drop-off recycling. Using them is about as easy as walking through a door and handing old electronics to an employee or dropping a phone into a bin inside the door.

Another great thing to consider at Christmas and other gift giving time, is cleaning out your old stuff in a responsible and recycling way to make room for all of the new goodies that you're hoping to get or just buying for yourself. A few months back I noted that Goodwill Industries might be called the first large-scale recycling organization. Drop off your stuff that is in reasonably good condition and it and other thrift stores will make it available to a person who could really use it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hey... I'm Walkin' Here

I stopped short and held up my hand, my eyes locked on those of the driver of the car fewer than 25 feet from me. He waved me on, but I waved with more force and he nodded and rolled his car past me and into the drive-thru line of McDonald's.

I took a breath, scanned the road again and fast-walked across the parking lot. I made it -- a pedestrian in Northern Virginia on Black Friday.

But Black Friday or not, I walk frequently walk around where I live and for much of the distance I'm not walking on a sidewalk or one of the supposedly numerous walking paths that criss-cross where I live. In fact, as a New Yorker (fresh back from a trip back on this Thanksgiving) I can say that Northern Virginia west of Reston Parkway is not too pedestrian friendly.

I live right in the middle of a holiday shopper's paradise. I've a mall with a Nordstrom's and Sears (high brow and low brow), a Best Buy, Target, Marshalls -- you get the idea. There's nothing that I or anyone could want to buy that isn't within a mile of each other. But you'd think that the air was toxic or the ground ready to swallow a person if a count of the number of people on foot was a measure of safety.

But then the lack of people walking is a sign of just how dangerous it is to literally step out of your house around here. I'm living in car-land. People take their cars to the grocery store and then walk to their vehicle only to drive it a few hundred yards to the coffee shop. No wonder we've an obesity epidemic: walking is dangerous.

When the driver and I exchanged hand signs earlier today, I was on my way back from the Dulles Town Center Mall. I had successfully crossed Route 7 and scampered down a little hill the ringed the Sunoco station on Pidgeon Hill Drive. I waited for a car to pass in the McD's parking lot, and then stepped out. Whoa! The driver spun in from the right nearly on two wheels, but not so fast that he couldn't stop or that I couldn't freeze like an eight year old boy playing a school-yard game.

From about two hundred yards from the light at Dulles Crossing until I reached the Safeway in the shopping plaza -- roughly half a mile -- I didn't step foot on a sidewalk. I hiked over grass walked on so frequently that a trail was visible until I reached Route 7, dashed across at the light and then hugged the shoulder until I reached the little hill at Sunoco.

Even here in a plaza with a McDonald's, Starbucks, Safeway and various strip-mall shops there were no sidewalks. Everyone drives. No one walks. Well, at least no one for more than a few feet. Around here, the only people who walk any distance whatsoever have a dog on a leash and stroll the paths, or appear to be foreign born and wear the work clothes of landscapers. No wonder if I'm walking it surprises drivers so much.

But I like walking and riding my bike (which is a whole other story, believe me!), but doing either one appears to be like holding a winning lottery ticket -- totally unexpected.

Something has to change. We have to somehow get out of our cars and on our feet in enough numbers so that a pedestrian is not the novelty that he is now and that he is safer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I Do Proclaim!

If we stop to think just for a moment about all of the "Dedicated" days that we have either on the calendar, or that are running around unofficially, we'd see that Americans care about a lot of things, or some group wants us to care about its thing.

Huh? I'm talking about all the special days that we have. Not Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day and today -- Veteran's Day -- and a slew of other really important days upon which to reflect.

No, I'm talking about the rag-tag collection of days that "Cause X" wants us to reflect upon and that most of us just ignore if we even know that it exists.

One of those days is coming up on November 15: National Recycling Day. I heard about NRD through, a website that every card-carrying Green should take a look at every now and then.

But should we really care about National Recycling Day? Or should we treat it like it was... Oh, I don't know, maybe as important as National Kindergarten Day on April 21? I think kindergarten is a great thing. All that we really need to know to get through life and live it fully we learn in kindergarten. But do we need a day to remind us of that? Maybe.

But the days are not really around to remind us of anything. Truly important "days" are there to focus us. These "days" exist to force us to pause for a moment and realize what is really important: mothers, fathers, sacrifices by our servicemen and women.

So where would I put National Recycling Day? I'd put it on my list of important days, Class B. Just below the really important days because recycling, living green or in sync with our environment, appreciating and pausing for a moment to remember that the Earth we have is the only one that we're going to get is a good thing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Soccer Trash

This morning a fog so thick hung over the Potomac River as it passed through Algonkian Park that I couldn't tell where the water's edge met the boat ramp. Only a few feet from the edge, I could barely see the trees on the Maryland side of the river.
Welcome to a great autumn morning in VA!

A steaming cup of coffee in a recyclable paper cup and the sound of kids playing soccer on the pitch (field for you Americans) a couple of hundred yards away is the best way to start the day -- any day. But while I had a recycle trash can to dispose of my cup only a few feet from the bench that faced the river, the dozens of kids and parents on the soccer field didn't have a trash can, let alone one designated for recycling. And that seems to be the norm for most of the fields that our kids play soccer around Northern VA.

Kind of stupid really. Each team designates a snack family to bring the half-time and end of game snacks for the players. Usually these snacks either come wrapped in plastic or are hand sorted into mini Baggies. Drinks are foil pouches or little cardboard juice boxes, and all of them either are packed up by the parents and brought back home or forgotten on the sides of the field.

Why can't there be more trash cans on the fields? It's not as if Loudoun County doesn't know that the fields are being used each weekend by hundreds of thirsty and hungry kids. A few parents join me every week and collect our kids' trash after the game, and invariably we end up gathering another team's garbage, too. Do the parents of the other teams think that the county sends a clean-up crew around, or is that they just don't care.

Probably a little of both. But I know one thing: if there were more trash cans at the fields, even the careless parents would realize that the plastic wrapper on the Capri Sun straw needs to be thrown away.

So Parks and Rec... how about a few more trash cans.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The New Plastic

For awhile now I've noticed that science seems to be catching up with the green movement when it comes to plastic. A few weeks ago, I was in my local Caribou Coffee sipping a coffee and surfing the web on the store's free wi-fi when I noticed something different about the store's bottled water.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I hate bottled water. Besides the ridiculous mark-up for the stuff, it comes in plastic bottles. Plastic bottles last a few days fewer than forever in our landfills and billions of them are taking up space in them right now.

But as I turned in disgust at seeing the bin of bottled water my brain processed the full details of what my eye saw. Caribou is selling plastic bottled water in bottles that are designed to biodegrade. Huh?

Like most of the chain coffee shops around the U.S., Caribou sells water with a cause. Its stores sell water that supports the Project 7 nonprofit. The bottles are supposed to be biodegradable and are manufactured by a company called Enso.

I'm not going to hang around and see if the bottles do in fact biodegrade, but given Project 7's broad commitment to good causes, and Caribou's support of nonprofit's too, I'm giving the bottles the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Green Waste

Trash, like sports, is big business in the U.S. Consider Waste Management, one of the largest corporations involved in the trash business. Waste Management is so large that it has or has had sports marketing arrangements with NASCAR, the NFL (Rams) and the PGA Tour. All the while the corporation is polishing up its green credentials while trying to get more people to use their trash hauling and recycling services. Money, sports and trash.

Not that I'm not opposed to it at all. In fact, it was a trash can I saw recently in Arlington, VA that made me think about garbage and environmentalism.

I was on my way to the Rosslyn metro station when I did a double-take at a trash can with the ubiquitous logo. They're everywhere; that's not why I stopped, mouth slack ready to give my forehead a "V-8" slap. The trash can was different, but still a trash can. It was the words on the side that were special -- SOLAR.

Whoa! A solar powered trash can? Just what did a solar powered trash can do. Well, it didn't do what I thought it did. It didn't take empty, used up aluminum cans and pop out a fres
h, clean and shiny 12 oz Coke. Nope, not that. Actually, the trash can didn't do very much recycling at all. All it did was crush stuff. Give an aluminum pop can to a nine year old and he'll crush it like a bug. But it's not the crushing that made the can so cool, it was the solar power that juiced up the crunching.

Each one of us has passed by an overflowing garbage can at least once, including an overstuffed newspaper bin. Cities are cash strapped to pick up the garbage as it is, adding special recycling trips only adds to their burden. That's the smart idea behind the "Big Belly" solar powered trash compactor, produced by Massachusetts-based Seahorse Power Company.

According to the company's website, the solar powered trash compactors scrunch down garbage enabling the "cans" to hold as much as five times the waste of a similarly sized can. That the contraption is solar powered is a bonus, cutting the cost to local governments of running the machines through traditional electricity, and reduces trips by trucks that collect trash.

Later that day while riding on the Washington area subway, a billboard inside the railcar caught my eye. It
touted the another energy and waste deal -- ethanol. Ethanol can be made from corn or just about any other plant-based cellulosic substance. Corn is the number one source of ethanol in the U.S., but ethanol can be made from barley, wheat, sugar cane (as it is in Brazil in massive amount) and something called switchgrass.

Switchgrass is not your typical lawn grass; it's not even pretty to look at. But it sure is powerful. A Scientific American article points out that switchgrass can produce about 20 times more energy than ethanol. And it's cheap. Most of us think of it as garbage, something to be ripped up, torn up and planted over. Real trash. But there's value and more importantly, there's energy, in the ugly grass.

There's innovation going on all around us in an effort to reduce the negative effects of our standard of living on the environment that sustains us. And a day commuting showed me recently that how we handle our trash and think of energy sources might be signposts to a more sustainable future.