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An end and a beginning: My last dispatch for ‘Going Green’

April 8, 2009

There were many successes throughout my month of green living. My compost pile, above, was not one of them. Photo by Andy Kroll

There were many successes throughout my month of green living. My compost pile, above, was not one of them. Photo by Andy Kroll

So this is it. My final post for “Going Green: Cutting Environmental Impact on Campus,” this fascinating, frustrating, peculiar, enjoyable and enlightening month-long project to live as sustainably and “green” as possible. No more blogging and writing and filming about solar-powered vibrators or Zipcars or “green” grocery shopping or unsatisfying Wendy’s salads or phantom energy. (At least for UWireGreen.com) In that sense, this post is an ending of sorts.

But it’s a beginning, too. The question I’ve been asked most often by friends, family and other journalists is whether I’ll keep up with my new green lifestyle. To be honest, I didn’t think twice in responding. With all this knowledge about sustainability and eco-friendly consumption, I fully intend to keep living as “green” as I can from now on. I may not be writing about it (as much), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to leave all of my appliances plugged in, indulge in 30-minute showers and eat steaks and pork each night of the week.

Prior to this project, I’d written about sustainability and dabbled in eco-friendly living, like going to the farmer’s market or driving my car less. But having to immerse myself into this kind of lifestyle and maintain what amounted to a public diary recording my experiences, plus some more objective reporting on “green” topics, showed me how many of my previous habits I could change and how much of an impact I could have. It’s an experiment I’d recommend to anyone even if only for a week instead of an entire month.

Now looking back at that month, it’s time to assess how I did starting with my goal of cutting my carbon footprint in half. As you’ll remember, I estimated my personal carbon footprint to be 35 tons of CO2 per year using the The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator. The average carbon footprint in the U.S. is 27 tons, and worldwide it’s 5.5 tons, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Did I reach my goal of about 17.5 tons? Sadly, no.

As I mentioned in my first post, The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator takes into the account “Home Energy,” “Driving & Flying,” “Food & Diet” and “Recycling & Waste” when calculating your footprint. And even though I made improvements in each of these categories—by eating less meat, by conserving energy in my house, by starting a compost pile, by recycling—the factor that pushed me past my goal was, again, the amount of flights I’ve taken in the past year. Granted, I didn’t fly at all during my month of green living, but the number of flights I’ve taken in the past year still boosted my total. Which is a reminder that flying less, if you can help it, is crucial to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Here’s my carbon footprint now:

picture-12

So I did manage to decrease my carbon footprint by an estimated 14 tons of CO2 per year and drop below the U.S. average though I’m nowhere near the world average. In short, I’m pleased with the result and now know how to decrease my footprint even more. (Adios airport, hello bus stop.)

Making a mosaic

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to lunch with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, who was speaking at my dad’s college in Kalamazoo, Mich., and a number of other people from the college. She asked me about this project, and when I explained what I had been up to, Williams pressed me on what specifically I had learned and could share with everyone at the table.

What I told her, and what resonates with me the most now that my month-long project is over, is that sustainable living isn’t some massive overhaul of your life or a revolutionary change in how you live. Rather, it’s the sum of a lot of small changes, some more noticeable than others: You unplug your computer when you’re not using it instead of leaving it on; turn the thermostat down 10 degrees or so before you go to bed; flip off the lights when you leave a room; bring your own coffee mug or water bottle with you; and many, many others.

In Williams’ most recent book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, the metaphor of a mosaic runs throughout each section, from Italy to the American prairie to war-torn Rwanda. That same metaphor, in a sense, can be applied to eco-friendly living: Lots of small pieces of change comprise the big-picture changes I set out to make.

My lonely car in the driveway, after a month without use. Photo by Andy Kroll

My lonely car in the driveway, after a month without use. Photo by Andy Kroll

Some of those changes, as you saw, were more successful than others. Cutting down on phantom energy was easy—I just needed to be more aware of the electricity and appliances I used. I embraced the idea of shopping at the Salvation Army, especially as it was something I did somewhat often before this project.

And one of the biggest surprises was my decision to cut my meat intake. At first it was painful. I missed hamburgers and steak burritos and pork chops, and I loathed the salads that replaced them. But with each day, I grew more accustomed to a meat-less diet, and soon finding non-meat meals at the grocery store became an adventure of sorts. Everyone can find the ground chuck at the grocery store, but can you find the tofu section (if your store has tofu at all)?

Not that there weren’t failures. Two words: Compost pile. As I write, a few inches of snow rest atop my compost pile, thanks to a freakish first week of April here in Michigan. Then again, I think the compost pile was doomed from day one, as I’ve come to think that I may have used the wrong fertilizer for the pile and that it was too cold for it to work, anyway.

But my roommates, the good sports they are, were willing to throw their orange peels and food scraps into my compost jar for the pile. Their encouragement leads me to believe that I could have pulled it off, had it been later in the year and had I read the directions more closely.

And my roommates weren’t the only ones generally supportive of the project. Throughout the month I received lots of feedback from readers who shared their thoughts on the project, critiqued my individual posts and, in one case, even sent me some vegetarian recipes to try.

Having the posts appear at Green.FoxNews.com shared my project with many more readers, and even helped spark discussion of my posts at environmental sites like Grist and EnvironmentalExaminer.com. The amazing Kaitlin Urka of Palestra.net and the University of Michigan’s own WOLV TV station, who shot, produced and edited the videos on UWireGreen.com, said the blog was even mentioned on Fox News’ program, the Strategy Room.

With that, I’ll be signing off. It was a pleasure, and I hope that some of the ideas and lessons and experiences shared here will be helpful to others as they try to go green, too. Thanks!

Spreading the word about sustainable living

April 5, 2009
Andy Kroll

My official month of green living has come to an end, though my goal is to continue with many of little lifestyle tweaks I’ve adopted and tested in the previous month. As I had hoped, the past month was an illuminating and eye-opening 31 days for me, someone who considering himself somewhat in tune with environmental sustainability and eco-friendly living. I didn’t really understand what green living entailed, however, until I consciously changed my own day-to-day behaviors, shopping habits, cleaning, the way I ate and the way I worked.

With my month-long experiment now finished, there are plenty of lessons and truths and observations I’ve learned and taken to heart. In today’s post and the post to follow, I want to point out a couple of those big-picture ideas I could’ve only learned spending 30 days changing my own lifestyle to be more sustainable and writing about it.

The first idea, which I’ll discuss in the post, involves dispelling a certain stereotype associated with environmentally conscious people.

Since around the 1960s, anyone who’s voiced even the smallest interest in decreasing his or her carbon footprint, reducing his or her personal impact on the environment or even deciding to eat more vegetables over meat have been labeled as a treehugger, hippie, environmental wackjob and the list goes on.

For the past 40 years, there hasn’t been a great middle ground between your average consumer and the types who camp out in trees to save them from destruction or the people who throw paint on rich people’s fur coats. It’s always been us or them, normalcy versus environmental extremism.

But having spent this past month, in 2009, living as green as possible, I can honestly say that anyone still peddling the “look at those nature-loving maniacs” label is behind the times. The people I met over the past month were of all ages—college students, single parents, retirees, upper-middle class newlyweds—and none of them fit the old environmentally conscious labels. And they weren’t all Greenpeace activists (not that I dislike Greenpeace, by any means) or members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or tied to any other similar organizations. They simply cared about the environment and their impact on it.

Which goes to show that eco-friendly living is catching on throughout the population. I see more “green” or “natural” or “organic” products in various stores than ever before; I hear more people in my classes, at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, talking about environmental issues, which are more mainstream and visible today.

Does that mean we’re at a place where promoting these kinds of ideas and messages is no longer necessary? Not at all. And access to these ideas, and eco-friendly products and foods and supplies, needs to be greatly expanded as well.

One of the main critiques of the environmental movement I have after my month-long project is the cost. To be fair, living green ain’t cheap. The health and environmental benefits are immense, but for some people (many college students included) the costs are still too steep. The Ann Arbor farmer’s market, for instance, for all its virtues and locally grown, healthy food, still costs a good amount for college student like myself stretching every dollar to its breaking point.

The kinds of information about living a more sustainable lifestyle need to be more accessible as well. Not everyone knows of Michael Pollan. Not everyone has readily available Internet access and can look up information about natural and organic food.

We could start by incorporating more information about sustainable living and healthy eating habits into our K-12 schools. Building sustainable habits with young students will influence them as they get older and could also encourage these students to talk to their parents sustainability-related issues as well.

Beyond the classroom, spreading ideas about living sustainably—growing your own garden, building a compost pile, reusing as much as possible—through community networks and newspapers is crucial, too. Anything to get more people interested in living sustainably is worth the effort.

While today’s post took a broader look at what I’ve learned from my green living experiment, the next—and final—post will address my personal experience and whether I succeeded in meeting my goal of cutting my carbon footprint in half. If readers have any thoughts on the ideas above, I’d love to hear them, either in the Comments section or in an e-mail. You can reach me at akroll [at] umich.com.

Getting more for your gallon

April 4, 2009

The Chevy Volt: the great hope for the future—and viability—of General Motors. Photo courtesy of General Motors.  The Chevy Volt: the great hope for the future—and viability—of General Motors. Photo courtesy of General Motors.

Last summer’s record spike in oil prices, which shot gas prices up to $4 a gallon or more, may have subsided for now, but the memory of painful prices at the pump still resonates with consumers and automakers.

Add to that the rising tide of legislators, policymakers and environmentalists calling for cleaner cars on the road, and the result is the one of the largest pushes for increased fuel efficiency in U.S. history.

The gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks that once ruled the road during the era of cheap gas are now looked at with derision. In their place are smaller, more efficient compacts and mid-size vehicles like the Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Emerging technologies like hybrid engines, combining electric power with combustion engines, advance fuel efficiency technologies even further, as seen in Toyota’s Prius (the “icon of green automobiles,” according to U.S. News and World Report), or Ford’s upcoming Fusion Hybrid model.

At the federal government level, vastly improved fuel efficiency is a priority, as seen in legislation passed by Congress in 2007 mandating that fuel efficiency for cars and trucks meet or exceed 35 mpg by 2020.

On Friday, the Department of Transportation announced that the combined fuel efficiency of 2011 model cars and trucks must be 27.3 mpg, a 2 mpg jump from the existing standard.

“These standards are important steps in the nation’s quest to achieve energy independence and bring more fuel efficient vehicles to American families,” transportation secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The 2011 fuel economy standards, an early step toward that 2020 goal, mandate that cars get an average of 30.2 mpg and light trucks—including SUVs, pick-up trucks and vans—get, on average, 24.1 mpg.

But can automakers keep up with federal fuel economy mandates? Will the technologies needed to achieve a 35 mpg industry standard be in place for 2011 models?

So far, international car companies seem to have lead the way in recent decades in improved in fuel economy.

The 2009 Honda Civic, one of the highest rated cars among foreign and domestic automakers. Photo courtesy of Honda Motor Company.

The 2009 Honda Civic, one of the highest rated cars among foreign and domestic automakers. Photo courtesy of Honda Motor Company.

Smaller cars like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic consistently lead all of the auto industry in getting the most miles for each gallon, earning 30 mpg and 29 mpg, respectively. (The 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid gets an impressive 42 mpg, but costs around $27,000.) These cars are priced at reasonable levels as well: A 2009 Honda Civic base model costs $15,505, and a 2009 Toyota Corolla base model starts at $15,350.

And, of course, there’s the Toyota Prius, the established leader in hybrid cars whose 2009 model gets 46 mpg, which has lead the way in alternative automotive technologies since landing on showroom floors in 2004, despite its slightly higher price. A 2009 Prius base model costs $23,375.

On the domestic front, despite the existential questions surrounding Chrysler and General Motors, both companies and the slightly more well-off Ford Motor Company have shifted away from larger, more expensive pick-ups and SUVs toward smaller, more fuel efficient cars like the Chevy Cobalt (30 mpg, around $15,000) and the more compact Ford Fiesta compact.

A row of new Ford Fiestas at the Port of Baltimore on March 26. Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

A row of new Ford Fiestas at the Port of Baltimore on March 26. Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

U.S. automakers haven’t enjoyed the same success as the foreign companies when it comes to more fuel efficient vehicles, but hope ambitious investments in battery-powered cars could help them elbow in on the emerging alternative technologies market—and, in the case of General Motors, prevent the company from complete collapse.

Much has been made of the Chevy Volt, a battery-powered, plug-in vehicle that would get 40 miles on a single battery charge and have an estimated range of 640 miles using the battery and gasoline-powered engine. The New York Times called the Volt “G.M.’s Latest Great Green Hope.”

Indeed, much of GM’s future success is pinned on the success of the Volt, the much anticipated new breeds of cars powered by a cutting-edge lithium ion battery that is slated to hit showrooms in late next year.

The major downside with the Volt is its estimated cost—upwards of $40,000 at first, which could turn off buyers despite the longer-term savings of less gas consumption.

“If you’re the affluent individual who wants to make a statement, it’s one thing,” Ron Pinelli, president of MotorIntelligence.com, an industry analysis firm, told The Times. “If you’re Joe the Commuter, you’re not going to spend $40,000 on an electric car. It’s insane.”

Martin Zimmerman, a University of Michigan professor and auto industry, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the viability and potential success of the Volt, and on the future of fuel economy in the U.S.

In the next four years, Ford also plans to unveil a battery-powered electric small car and commercial van by 2011 and 2010, respectively, and a plug-in hybrid vehicle as well by 2012.

But no matter how impressive vehicles with alternative energy technologies are, the chances that they’ll catch on among Americans is slim until they come down in price. While it’s true the savings in gas expenditures over the life of car will make up for the initial price, consumers will almost always balk at a sticker price in the range of $25,000 to $40,000.

In short, like all green technologies and products, affordability is crucial to success.

Fortunately, until the Chevy Volts and Honda Civic Hybrics come down in cost, there are affordable options with high fuel economy using existing technologies. And with the federal government nudging automakers toward better fuel efficiency, the country appears to be on the right track toward a more efficient, environmentally friendly auto industry.

But with the urgency surrounding the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions growing by the day, the question remains: Will fuel economy efforts by automakers and the government be too little too late?

Stocking the drawers with sustainable supplies

March 30, 2009

About every few months, my cache of writing and class supplies—pens, notepads, folders, printer paper—begins to run low, which means it’s time to visit the nearby big-box office supply store.

In months and years past, as I’ve run through thousands of pages of notebook paper and innumerable pens, I’ve developed a few personal favorites—the Pilot G2 gel pen, Office Max brand legal pads, the 6”x9” Steno Pads for reporting. But as I approached the office supplies aisle in the nearby Office Max earlier this morning, I noticed an entire section of “green,” recycled, curiously eccentric pens and notebooks and even staplers.

So, in the spirit of month of green living, I did a little investigating for my college-aged readers and myself on the new wave of eco-friendly office miscellany.

A pack of Terracycle brand, 100 percent recycled notebook dividers. Photo by Andy Kroll

A pack of Terracycle brand, 100 percent recycled notebook dividers. Photo by Andy Kroll

The first display, from the brand Terracycle, offered pens with recycled paper casings, biodegradable pens, notebooks made of recycled paper and Chips Ahoy! Wrappers and a slew of other binders and paper dividers made out of 100 percent recycled materials.

A quick look at Terracycle’s Web site says that the company was started in 2001 by two Princeton University students, Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer, whose flagship product is a natural, organic liquid plant food made from “worm poop” and packaged in reused soda bottles. Today, the company’s product offerings range from eco-friendly firestarting logs packaged in reused two-liter bottles to natural window cleaners to pencil cases made of used Capri Sun juice boxes.

For a green-minded shopper, what’s not to like? Inevitably, the price. Whereas a box of 12 plastic Bic ballpoint pens costs as little as $2.50, a four-pack of Terracycle paper pens runs upwards of $7.99—more than three times the price. The company’s three-ring binders and notepads also cost quite a bit more than less environmentally friendly brands.

The dilemma that never ends—“green” versus green ($), environmental cost versus cash-register cost.

Fortunately, a few aisles over is the display for a few other—and cheaper—eco-friendly office supply lines. The store brand “green” products aren’t as appealing from a environmental standpoint—Terracycle’s pens are 100 percent recyclable; Office Max’s are only 72 percent—but I could be splitting hairs here, getting a bit too picky with my green goals. (Granted, after a month of trying to cut my carbon footprint, you start to pay close to attention to “eco-friendly” labels and claims.)

Brown means recycled—and expensive. Photo by Andy Kroll

The brown label means recycled—and expensive. Photo by Andy Kroll

A two-pack of Zebra brand recyclable pens, I learned, costs $2.99, so even if I bought two packs I’d still end up with more money in my pocket than the Terracycle paper pens. Then again, that’s two times the packaging—and Terracycle’s products all come in recycled packaging as well. A dilemma, indeed.

While I mulled whether to fork out the extra cash in the name of being as green as possible, I checked out Office Max’s printer paper selection, figuring there would be plenty of eco-friendly choices here.

And indeed I was right, as the store’s paper selection (though I’m trying to print as little as possible nowadays) featured a wide array of options, each one color coded to indicate how much of the paper was made of recycled materials—and how much more expensive it was. 100 percent recycled “Multi-purpose Paper” runs $8.49 for 500 sheets—not all that more expensive from other less recycled options.

Against my own financial instincts (what little is left of them), I chose the expensive paper pens. Photo by Andy Kroll

Against my own financial instincts (what little is left of them), I chose the expensive paper pens. Photo by Andy Kroll

In the end, however, I decided against buying any paper at all—printer paper, notepads, legal pads. I can always use the unused backsides of the various legal pads strewn throughout my room, and if I’m trying to read more online and not print as much then how could I justify buying a 500-pack of fresh paper, recycled or not?

For college students out there—and everyone else who uses office supplies for that matter—try shopping with the environment in mind next time you hit up the campus bookstore or your own local big box. You don’t have to buy a Chips Ahoy! book; a few biodegradable pens wouldn’t hurt, though.

Updates, come and get your updates! I’m already writing the post-mortem for my compost pile (in my head). When I check the heat of the pile, I see there is none; nearly every morning one of the compost box’s sides has fallen, despite my repeated stabilization efforts (I blame squirrel saboteurs); and the pile on the whole seems lifeless.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, however. Having talked with a couple of compost experts I know, they surmised that I tried to start the pile too early in the year—I’d have had more success starting in early or mid April, they said. C’est la vie. I’ll try to keep the pile alive until the weather warms, and maybe the sun will breath some life into it. Fingers crossed.

Going green in bed: A primer on sustainable sex products

March 27, 2009

Yes, you read that headline correctly: Sustainable sex products. They do exist. In fact, as the green movement sweeps over the country, the makers of biodegradable condoms and solar powered vibrators and organic lubricants are elbowing their way into the U.S.’s thriving sex products industry.

Before introducing you to the world of sustainable sex, I must concede that, unlike my other posts, I haven’t actually tested out any of products described here. Not that I’m shy or wary of ordering “green” condoms, but with my girlfriend in sunny southern Florida and me still in Ann Arbor, it’s a bit difficult to try any of these products. (And even if she were here or I in Florida, my guess is that she’d rather stick with what’s worked for us so far. She did, however, help with the research for this article!)

Which means you, the reader, have an assignment: Test these products (safely, of course) and then report back with a comment or e-mail on how it went. I’m relying on you here, and can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

*     *     *

With that in mind, let’s start simple.

Environmentally friendly condoms: Regular, latex condoms found in any grocery store or pharmacy are the safest but can be harmful to the environment, as latex can take years to biodegrade after disposal.

More environmentally friendly natural lamb condoms. Courtesy of naturalamb.com

More environmentally friendly natural lamb condoms. Courtesy of naturalamb.com

Instead, you could try natural, lambskin condoms, which break down faster than latex; they don’t, however, protect against sexually transmitted diseases, so be smart about their use. And all brands and types—whether latex or lambskin or polyurethane—come with a good amount of necessary packaging, which ends up in the garbage too.

Verdict: Though eco-friendly condoms are a good idea, best to put safety over sustainability.

*     *     *

Thankfully, there are plenty of organic options in the lubricant market. Web sites such as Earth Erotics offer a healthy choice of organic lubricants, like “Hydra Water Based Lubricant,” made with organic extracts ($16); “Intimate Organics” brand massage balms ($16), whose ingredients include aloe, cocoa bean and goji berries and received the stamp of approval from Co-op America; and “Good Clean Love” brand personal lubricants, made of “99.99% vegan, 95% organic ingredients, with no animal products or animal testing” and containing no petro-chemicals or parabens.

Good Clean Fun natural lubricants. Courtesy of eartherotics.com

Good Clean Fun natural lubricants. Courtesy of eartherotics.com

Options abound when it comes to “green” lubricants, and they’re relatively affordable, too, compared to K-Y or Astroglide lubricants.

Verdict: Get online and order yourself some good clean lubrication (if you need it).

*     *     *

Admission: I know next to nothing about vibrators, other than some of them are shiny and most make a funny whirring sound. (This last bit I didn’t know until freshman year of college when a pair of single girls lived in the room next to mine. Oh, to be young again…)

A few hours of Internet perusing later, however, my vibrator IQ has, ahem, risen exponentially. When it comes to “green” vibrators, there are brands with rechargeable batteries (keeps batteries out of landfills); latex- and phthalate-free vibrators, the latter of which can lead to birth defects; and—yes—even solar powered vibrators, eliminating batteries altogether and harnessing the power of the sun for your own pleasure.

Behold—the solar powered vibrator. Courtesy of alternativecustomer.com

Behold—the solar powered vibrator. Courtesy of alternativecustomer.com

The downside of these kinds of eco-friendly vibrators is their price. Rechargeable vibrators range in price from $70 to $160, and a latex-free Laya brand vibrator costs around $50. The Solar Sensations brand solar powered vibrator, new to the sex products market, costs $32.95.

Verdict: I still know too little about vibrators to judge, so I’m leaving the reader to decide.

*     *     *

Those are some of the highlights of the burgeoning sustainable sex products industry.

You can also buy bamboo or organic cotton bed sheets or even eco-friendly lingerie and underwear. Either way, there are plenty of options out there for you to try.

Planet Green has some additional tips to make your intimate moments more “green,” too:

Sexy play can be green and efficient as well. As seen on TreeHugger TV, showering together can save water (if things get steamier, we suggest taking it to the bedroom and not leaving the shower running). In the winter time, some nice warm loving before bed can get the bedroom toasty, meaning the thermostat can be lower (see How to Green Your Heating, for more). A nice bike ride for two is a fossil-fuel-free way to get the blood flowing and can also be quite stimulating, especially for the ladies. And of course the classic candle-lit dinner is a delicious way to set the mood and save on energy bills.

So there you have it: The world of sustainable sex products. Now get out there, go green and get busy.

The sustainable college eater’s dilemma

March 27, 2009

One of the toughest aspects of my month of green living is eating less meat. Trading chicken, beef, lamb and the like for tofu, stir fries and the occasional protein bar has proved far more difficult than anticipated. And depending on the location and your own budget, eating less meat can be even more challenging, as I’ve learned in the past couple of weeks.

Today's lunch: A Wendy's side salad. Oh for the days of hamburgers... Photo by Andy Kroll

Today's lunch: A Wendy's side salad. Oh for the days of hamburgers... Photo by Andy Kroll

My parents are vegetarians. (Well, my dad is, and since where one goes the other often follows, my mom is quickly joining the veggie ranks, too.) When I visited them this past weekend, meeting my low-meat goals (I’ve cut my intake by 75 percent) was easy—protein vitamin shakes, breads and fruit for breakfast; salads and vegetarian sandwiches for lunch; and often tofu stir fry or occasionally fish (which my folks haven’t entirely given up) for dinner. On the drive home from their house on Monday, I thought to myself, I could do this whole vegetarian thing no problem.

Then I got back to school. The semester is nearing its end, I’m busier than I’ve ever been, thus time to cook is limited – if present at all. As a result, I eat out and on the run for probably a majority of my meals. And after two weeks of trying to eat mostly vegetarian meals with only a spare few servings of meat, what I’ve learned is this:

It’s really difficult to eat healthy, appetizing meals without meat on a college student’s budget.

Yes, there are fantastic vegetarian restaurants in Ann Arbor—but they’re hardly cheap for a college student trying to stretch out a dollar. And the vegetarian offerings at other restaurants are mostly delicious, but those places are usually sit-down establishments, which isn’t conducive to a busy college student’s schedule.

So what I’ve ended up eating as of late are a lot of slices of veggie pizza (delicious but a bit too greasy), paltry side salads from fast food joints and innumerable peanut butter sandwiches.

For anyone knowledgeable about food policy or rising obesity rates in the U.S., the dearth of quick, healthy food options is old news. But having not paid too much attention to what I eat until joining the legion of Michael Pollan acolytes and then beginning this project, I never realized how little healthy food is available for busy people on a budget. And, to be honest, the healthy-ish food out there right now—the salads and baked potatoes—tastes pretty awful. Not to mention that this kind of fast food usually comes packaged in excess amounts of plastic and paper all stuffed into an oversized paper bag bound for the garbage can.

So what to do for a college student-turned-semi-vegetarian? I could pack my own lunches with more vegetarian meals, which I plan to do when my schedule lightens and the next paycheck arrives. I could suck it up and learn to enjoy the Wendy’s “side item” offerings more; after all, my baked potato and plain salad cost a mere $4.50 or so today. I suppose moving back in with mom and dad is an option, but I’ve already done that once, and my parents have replaced my brother and I with dogs and a cat; us kids are old news.

A reader of one of my earlier posts was nice enough to send me a few vegetarian recipes, and I intend to use those soon. But do any other readers have some suggestions for a veggie-minded, cash-strapped, hectic college student? I’d love to hear them if you do with a comment here or an e-mail at akroll [at] umich.edu.

Wipe on, wipe off: My experiment in greener house cleaning

March 25, 2009

Pitching name-brand cleaner for nature's own disinfectant. Photos by Andy Kroll

Pitching name-brand cleaner for nature's own disinfectant. Photos by Andy Kroll

I thought the ingredients in a box of cereal were obscure. Then, after reading about the dangers of store-bought cleaners in the book “Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-living,” I did a little research on the bottle of 409 All-Purpose Cleaner sitting underneath our kitchen sink. Ingredients include “2-Butoxyethanol” and “Alkyl(C12-16)dimethylbenzylammonium chloride,” the latter of which I can’t even begin to try to pronounce. That alone is reason enough to green up my cleaning products.

Despite our best intentions, commonly used store-brand cleaning products can be quite dangerous and damaging to our health, not to mention harmful to the environment. “Many historically accepted practice, products, and ingredients are now known to be extremely dangerous,” said Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation in “Ready, Set, Green.” “Household chemicals may not be much different than cigarettes—many are carcinogenic, likely to disrupt our hormonal system, and likely to have adverse effects on children.”

Fortunately, the problem of finding eco-friendly, harmless cleaning products is easy and instructive. A simple and easy way to get rid of dangerous glass-cleaning sprays or grease cutters is to make your own cleaning mixture, which I recently did using the old 409 bottle mentioned above.

First, I went to the grocery store and purchased a bottle of white distilled vinegar—32 fl. oz. of nature’s own grease-cutting disinfectant for only $1.50. Next, I looked up a few recipes for making your own cleaning solution, which led me to a number of different sites. The constant answer I found on each site involved some simple mixture of the vinegar I’d bought and water. Easy enough, right?

The only discrepancy among all these different green cleaning sites was how much vinegar I should mix with

Making my very own all-purpose cleaner.

Making my very own all-purpose cleaner.

water. One site said 1 part water for every 1 part vinegar; “Ready, Set, Green” suggested 1 part vinegar for every 5 parts water; and many others. So I decided to go with the safe, happy middle ground—a 3:1 water to vinegar ratio.

Mixing the solution was easy; then it was time to test my new concoction. Much to my excitement, my new water-and-vinegar solution proved effective on some nasty, sticky stains on our Formica kitchen countertop. A couple of sprays, a wipe of the washcloth—problem solved.

Before reusing an emptied 409 or Windex bottle to mix your own all-purpose cleaner, be sure to thoroughly clean the bottle first. I haven’t read anywhere saying it’s dangerous to use an old bottle after cleaning it, so I think it’s safe. Also be sure to understand all of the ingredients you’re using, and don’t haphazardly throw things together—safety first, always. I’d also recommend labeling a clear, reused Windex bottle with the words “CLEANING SPRAY” so your roommates, girlfriend/boyfriend, etc., don’t try to water the plants or anything with your new cleaner.

Unlike some store-brand solutions, this homemade spray doesn’t have much of a smell, other than that of vinegar. My guess is that if you really want a scent of some kind, you could probably mix it into your solution. But I’d do a bit of Google searching before throwing some scents blindly into the mix.

Now, if you don’t feel like going through the effort of making your own homemade all-purpose cleaner, you can always buy one of the more “green” products at the store. They’ll be more expensive, and you should also read the label of these kinds of products closely—sometimes green is nothing more than a gimmick and a reason to hike the price.

A more eco-friendly dish soap for the roomies and I.

Dish soap for the roomies and I.

When it comes to products like dish soaps—Dawn, Dial, etc.—it can be a bit more difficult to create your own homemade version. Luckily, there are plenty of eco-friendly, biodegradable options at most grocery stores. They cost a bit more, but if you’re trying to live a more green lifestyle, they’re a worthwhile purchase. I figure that the amount of money saved by making my own disinfectant spray will help me to break even by spending more on eco-friendly dish soap, which I think is more than worth it.

Here are a few other housekeeping tips from the authors of “Ready, Set, Green” to keep in mind when cleaning up around the dorm room, apartment, house and so on. They may seem insignificant or pointless, but remember that lots of small changes add up to a major difference.

· Open windows and ventilate, even in wintertime, especially when you are cleaning or using glues, paints, or solvents. Wear gloves and goggles and even a mask if you detect any sensitivities.

· Use a reusable microfiber cloth instead of paper towels to clean. These create less dust and less waste.

· Don’t use hot water with toxic chemicals; it can cause them to off-gas more easily, releasing VOCs (carbon-based chemicals that vaporize and travel through the air at room temperature). Dilute cleaners with tepid water whenever possible.

· Rinse surfaces with water after you clean them, which removes toxic residues. Avoid synthetic waxes and polishes, which leave residue behind.

· Avoid spray cleaners that create fine mists, which disperse tiny particles into the air and spread around your home more readily.