Are you a last-minute holiday gift shopper? Personally, I have a knack for waiting until the last possible second to take care of my yuletide errands, but I always (somehow) pull it off just in time. Wanting to incorporate sustainability into your holiday plans but afraid that there’s not enough time? You may have not factored sustainability into your holiday plans months in advance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start now. Here are a few tips to have a very (last-minute) sustainable Christmas.
Photo Courtesy of History.com
Recycling is an easy way to make your Christmas festivities more sustainable. While plastic cellophane and metallic wrapping has to go to landfills, wrapping paper can be reused. When it’s time to open presents, take out a recycling bin. Make an effort to direct people to it after they’ve opened their gifts. If you have some over-excited present-openers that like to haphazardly rip and throw their scraps, resist the urge to toss it all. Pick it up at the end of the night and put into the bin. You’ll have a cleaner house and feel better about yourself.
While decorating the tree is a Christmas tradition, it’s hard to find time these days to take part. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the racks and racks of gaudy, expensive ornaments lining store shelves, each with more glitter than the next. You don’t need the most showy decorations to stand out. Instead, make creative ornaments from materials at home. It’ll give you the traditional display you want while also adding a unique, personal touch and saving some extra cash.
If you’re from Champaign-Urbana ,The IDEA Store is a great place to fulfill your last-minute eco-ornament needs.
Looking to spruce up your house before having guests over? Head to the store and buy some some energy efficient LED or solar powered lights. They may be pricier, but they typically last longer, which means you’re covered for next year. Less electricity used, same festive impact. And, remember, while those twinkle lights may look pretty, flashing lights actually use more energy, so stick with traditional.
If you find yourself wanting to have a more sustainable Christmas with only a few days left on the calendar to do so, don’t fret. Like those last-minute gifts, sustainability is something that can still be achieved with days to spare. Pair these tips with our other suggestions for a sustainable holiday and you’ll be good to go. May your days be sustainable and waste-free, and may all your holidays be green.
We’re halfway through December and deep into the holiday season. At this time of year, people tend to focus on how much stuff they can buy. Sustainability doesn’t have to take a back seat though. Check out this post on rethinking the holidays or this fact sheet for more info on how to have a more sustainable holiday season.
Some key tips include:
Reduce — Buy only what you need. When you do need to purchase something, look for recycled content or buy used.
Buy local food — When possible, support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint by buying local food.
Send E-cards — Communicating the holiday spirit should not be at the price of trees. Instead, consider sending e-cards, which are readily available on the web. If you receive greeting cards, repurpose them as gift tags on your holiday packages.
Eco-Friendly gift wrapping — Consider wrapping gifts in recycled material like a newspaper or using something that can be reused, like thin cloth. You can also reuse gift bags that you’ve received from others.
After the conspicuous consumption messages of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday provides an opportunity to think about how we can give back. Vox has some tips to help you choose which charities to support. Resources like Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and GuideStar can help you determine how your money gets spent.
ISTC is working to combat the effects of consumerism by coming up with solutions to some of the world’s greatest environmental problems. This important work would not be possible without generous support from our funding organizations and supporters like you. Thank you!
Those of us in the Great Lakes region (and the rest of the US and Canada) live in a so-called “throw-away society” in which consumerism is rampant, and goods are not often designed or produced with durability in mind. In fact, in recent years, more and more goods are designed to be explicitly or implicitly disposable. Even complex products, such as consumer electronics, are treated as if they are meant to be ephemeral. The classic example is the smartphone. These devices are astounding feats of scientific innovation and engineering. For perspective, consider ZME Science’s article from September 2017: Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. Despite their complexity, and the fact that you, and probably everyone you know, barely scratch the surface in terms of using these devices to their full potential, we are constantly bombarded with cues to upgrade to the latest model. And new models seem to be released ever more frequently, always being touted as somehow greatly more advanced than their predecessors. A simpler example is clothing–when was the last time you sewed up or patched a hole in a shirt or pair of pants? Something that once would have been done by most people as a matter of course might now be deemed peculiar. A modern member of our culture might wonder why one would bother to patch a pair of pants when a new pair could be obtained so cheaply.
Our “take-make-dispose” model can also be called a linear economy, and the message you receive in such a system is clear: if you have something that becomes damaged or has minor performance issues, you should just replace it. In fact, even if what you have is working well, the time will quickly come when you should just replace the old with the new. Replace, rinse, and repeat. A linear economy is one in which natural resources are extracted and used to create goods which will entirely, or partially, inevitably end up in landfills or incinerators. Some materials may be recovered and recycled, but over time these materials degrade in quality and are used for increasingly lower grade purposes, so that ultimately they will become waste, of little or no further use.
Of course, in order to replace whatever is being disposed of, new goods are required. And those new goods require as much or more resources as the ones that went before them–new minerals and other raw materials must be extracted. Extraction processes can have negative environmental and social impacts (e.g. pollution, habitat destruction, human rights issues related to labor practices, health issues related to exposure to chemicals or physical risks, etc.). Materials are transported to factories (requiring the use of energy in the form of fuel) where they are transformed into new products, again potentially with new human exposures to toxins or other adverse conditions, and potential new emissions of toxins or other substances of concern. In the case of products such as electronics, sometimes components are manufactured in places distant from each other and must be further transported to be brought together in yet another factory to create a complete device. And the finished product is in turn transported across the globe to reach consumers, resulting in more expenditure of energy, more emissions. By the time most products reach the consumer, a great deal of natural and human resources have been invested in them, and however positively the product itself may impact a human life or the broader ecosystem, the number of potential negative impacts all along the supply chain have stacked up. Clearly, any tendency to treat products as disposable, purposefully or incidentally, exacerbates those negative impacts by requiring the manufacture of more products, more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, as long as the demand for product does not diminish.
The tragedy of this linear cycle of use and disposal has lead to the advocacy for a circular economy–one in which extraction of resources is minimized and products and services are designed in such a way as to maximize the flow of materials through resource loops as close to perpetually as physically possible. In such a system, what might have once been considered “waste” continues to be valued in some form or another. A circular economy is built upon design for durability, reuse, and the ability to keep products in service for as long as possible, followed by the ability to effectively reclaim, reuse and recycle materials.
There are many barriers to repair, including costs (real or perceived), knowledge, confidence in those performing the repair (one’s self or someone else), and access to tools, instruction manuals and repair code meanings which tell technicians exactly what the problem is so they can address it. Manufacturers of a variety of products, particular those with electronic components (everything from automobiles to cell phones to tractors) have come under pressure in recent years over the attempt to monopolize access to parts, tools, and necessary information for performing repairs, leading to what is called the Right to Repair movement. Currently, 18 US states, including Illinois, Minnesota, and New York in the Great Lakes region, have introduced “fair repair” bills which would require manufacturers of various products to make those tools, parts, and pieces of information accessible to consumer and third-party repair shops. You can read more about the history of the right to repair movement and right to repair legislation on the Repair Association web site.
In an increasing number of communities around the world, citizens are coming together to share their knowledge, tools, and problem-solving skills to help each other repair every day items for free. I’m writing this on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and here are some examples of local projects that can help you repair the items you own:
Illini Gadget Garage. This one’s my favorite, but I’m admittedly biased, since I helped launch this project and coordinated it for the past few years. The IGG is a collaborative repair center for personally-owned electronic devices and small appliances. “Collaborative repair” means that project staff and volunteers don’t repair your device for you; rather they work with you to troubleshoot and repair your device. Assistance is free; consumers are responsible for purchasing their own parts if needed, though staff can help determine what parts might be necessary. In addition to working with consumers by appointment at their campus workshop, the IGG crew conduct “pop-up” repair clinics in various public spaces around the Champaign-Urbana community and across campus. Consumers not only benefit from the “do-it-together” approach, they also get access to specialized tools (e.g. soldering irons, pentalobe screwdrivers, heat guns, etc.) that enable device repair, which many folks wouldn’t have in their tool box at home. Though successful repair obviously can’t be guaranteed, project staff say that if it has a plug or electrical component, and you can carry into the shop (or pop-up), they’ll help you try to figure out and fix the problem.
The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign. Including both a downtown Urbana shop and a Campus Bike Center, this project provides tools and space for bicyclists to share knowledge and repair bicycles. This project sells refurbished bikes, and individuals who are willing to work on fixing up a donated bike (with assistance) can eventually purchase a bike at a discount. See https://thebikeproject.org/get-involved/join-the-bike-project/ for membership fees; an equity membership based on volunteer hours is available.
CU Community Fab Lab. Though technically a makerspace, this project provides access to a variety of tools that individuals may not own themselves, as well as a community of tinkerers and creative minds to foster sharing of knowledge. See http://cucfablab.org/inside-the-lab/tools/ for available tools. Note that some fees may apply for consumable materials. Workshops are also offered to help you learn various skills. The Fab Lab is free to anyone in the community during open hours.
Restart Project. Focused on electronics, this is a UK project, but you can host a “restart party” anywhere, and some K-12 schools, including some in the US are integrating restart centers to help teach repair skills and instill ideas of sustainability among students.
A sustainability gem hides in Champaign, just east Neil Street and the Springfield Avenue viaduct. Tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript strip mall, The IDEA Store, an “eco-edu-art marketplace,” has set the standard for creative reuse retail in downstate Illinois. Any preconceived notions one may have about traditional secondhand shopping will be suspended the second they walk into this expertly-curated hub of reusable goods.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Margaret Golden, ISTC Intern
Co-founded by Carol Jo Morgan in 2010, the IDEA Store accepts items that would normally be thrown in the trash and gives them a second life. This isn’t your average thrift shop. The IDEA Store exists more as a testament to the benefits of sustainability. Its specialty is showcasing how almost any household item has the potential for reuse, encouraging the community to refrain from contributing to landfill growth.
“My favorite thing about working here, of all the awesome things, is seeing people’s faces when they come in the door,” says the Idea Store’s Retail Manager Jessy Ruddell. “When you see one bottle cap, it doesn’t seem awesome, it seems like trash or recycling. But when you get a collection of bottle caps together, it can really inspire people creatively.”
The shop is filled with typical household items as well as more unexpected discoveries. You can find school supplies next to glass slides donated by the University of Illinois’ Art History department. A bin of rubber stamps is an aisle down from a collection of disconnected keyboard keys. There are greeting cards, yarn, fabric, candles, magazines, records, instruments, office supplies, metals, and even home improvement materials. The most interesting item the store has received? “We once had someone donate a desiccated tarantula,” Morgan said, in between bouts of laughter. “And it sold for $20!”
Morgan, who received her master’s in Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, has some advice for other retail outlets looking to incorporate sustainability into their business plans. “We know that there are cottage industries that have sprung up as a result of the IDEA being here. When you think about it, the raw materials we supply are so inexpensive, it helps their profit margin,” Morgan explained. “We’ve provided a sustainable place for people to shop. People with budgets, people without budgets, there’s something for everyone. We’ve filled a niche. That is the secret of success in any kind of nonprofit or business. You look where the need is and you fill that.”
The IDEA Store won’t be located at its current Springfield Avenue location for much longer. Morgan and team are in the process of transitioning the store to a new location at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. To accommodate an exponential growth in donations, the Lincoln Square storefront will be three times larger than the current location. This will allow excess items currently stored in the warehouses to be sold on the floor. The location also makes it much easier to donate materials. Instead of having to physically bring their donations in and hand them off to volunteers, customers will be able to drive around to the back of the mall and simply ring the doorbell to have their items collected. Keep an eye out for the new store, which has a target opening date of late October.
A crowdfunding effort will be launched August 20th to support the financial cost of the IDEA Store’s big move. Community support ensures that the shop’s growth will be successful and smooth.
The 4th of July is finally here and public venues across the country are gearing up for their annual fireworks shows. While it may be customary to view fireworks strictly based on their entertainment value, there’s more complexity to the science and environmental impact behind them than meets the eye.
The earliest documentation of fireworks dates back to ancient China. As early as 200 BCE, the Chinese discovered that when they roasted bamboo, it would explode as the air heated inside the hollow interior pockets. Some time between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, creating an early form of gunpowder. They stuffed this mixture inside bamboo stalks that were thrown into a fire to produce loud blasts. Eventually, they began attaching these shoots to arrows and launching them into the sky. Fireworks have come a long way since then and their environmental impact has become a growing concern.
With locations in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama, Mark’s Fireworks Factory Outlets has been one of the most successful fireworks retailers in the region since 1999. Sara Thoele, manager of the Effingham, IL, Mark’s location for over three years, believes that there are major benefits to be had in eco-friendly fireworks for both vendors and consumers. “I think that the fireworks industry can sometimes get a negative reputation for not having public safety in mind,” Thoele said. “So I think that making moves to be a more environmentally-friendly store would be a great demonstration that we do have the safety, health, and comfort of our communities in mind.”
Thoele pointed out that when buying inventory for the summer season, many fireworks purveyors focus solely on competitive pricing, appealing packaging, and the guarantee of reliable, functional entertainment. However, the appeal of an eco-friendly spin to the fireworks industry has powerful value for both retailers and the communities they serve.
Both the weather and the planet are heating up. We can’t do much about the current temperature, but there are things we can do to cool down the planet. Summer is the perfect time to develop new habits. Below is a list of sustainability tips and ideas to help you on your sustainable journey this summer that will hopefully last long after.
Reducing your meat consumption is one of the best ways to live a more sustainable life. Meat’s carbon footprint is much higher than that of plant-based foods. Summer is fresh fruit and vegetable season, so it’s a great time to start making them a feature on your plate. Consider making Meatless Mondays a habit.
Eat Farm FreshFood
Supporting local farmers markets is good for the local economy and for the environment. Local food travels a shorter distance between the farm and your plate than food sold in the average grocery store. Buying from local producers also helps the local economy by keeping your dollars in the community. Both Champaign and Urbana hold farmers markets every week during the summer. The Sustainable Student Farm also holds a farm stand on the quad every Thursday which is a great option if you live on campus and don’t want to travel far.
Bring a (reusable) Bottle
Staying hydrated in the summer is important, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the planet. Each day, people in the U.S. throw away more than 60 million plastic water bottles, most of which end up in landfills or as litter in America’s streets, parks, and waterways.
Although spring is traditionally when people deep clean, summer is also a great time to sort through your house and decide which things you no longer need. You can take old or broken electronics to the Illini Gadget Garage, which is an organization that works to keep electronic waste from entering landfills by offering guided repair sessions. For items you no longer want, get together with some of your neighbors and have a yard sale. Also, consider donating or recycling what you don’t need.
Ditch the Car, Ride a Bike
As the weather warms, switching out your car for a bike or a walk is a great way to significantly reduce your carbon footprint and get some exercise at the same time.
Volunteer at Sustainable Places
If you’re looking to get more directly involved in sustainability efforts but don’t know where to begin, try volunteering at different places to see what you are most interested in. There are a variety of volunteer opportunities in Champaign and Urbana. You can volunteer to help out at either of the local farmer’s markets, or if you’re interested in the process of growing food, you can volunteer at local farms like Sola Gratia, Prosperity Gardens, or the Student Sustainable Farm. There are also opportunities to volunteer at thrift stores like Courage Connections that sell recycled clothing and work to reduce the amount of textile waste that ends up in landfills every year.
Today is an important “holiday” of sorts for those of us who are sustainability professionals. On this day in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm Sweden, began (June 5-16, 1972). The purpose of that conference was to discuss human interactions with the environment, as well as encouraging governments and international organizations to take action related to environmental issues and providing guidelines for such action. This was the UN’s first major conference on international environmental issues, and it culminated in what’s commonly called the “Stockholm Declaration”—the first document in international environmental law to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Two years later, in 1974, the first World Environment Day was held on June 5 with the theme of “Only One Earth.” Since then, World Environment Day has been celebrated annually on June 5th. Each year has a theme around which activities center, and beginning in the late 1980s, the main celebrations began to rotate to different cities around the globe. Learn more about the UN Conference on the Human Environment at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/milestones/humanenvironment and the history of World Environment Day at http://worldenvironmentday.global/en/about/world-environment-day-driving-five-decades-environmental-action.
This year’s World Environment Day theme, chosen by the host nation, India, (New Delhi is the host city) is “beating plastic pollution,” with the tagline “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.” According to the World Environment Day web site: “While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. In total, 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single use. Nearly one third of the plastic packaging we use escapes collection systems, which means that it ends up clogging our city streets and polluting our natural environment. Every year, up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates. Plastic also makes its way into our water supply – and thus into our bodies. What harm does that cause? Scientists still aren’t sure, but plastics contain a number of chemicals, many of which are toxic or disrupt hormones. Plastics can also serve as a magnet for other pollutants, including dioxins, metals and pesticides.”
Choose which type of single-use plastic you’re ready to give up.
Take a selfie (photo or video) showing yourself with the reusable alternative that you’re ready to embrace.
Share your selfie on social media and “tag” three friends, businesses or high-profile people to challenge them to do the same within 24 hours. Be sure to use the #BeatPlasticPollution hashtag and mention @UNEnvironment.
Did you know that there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth? Soil holds an abundance of nutrients and is necessary for life on earth. Unfortunately, soil health isn’t something people often consider. Research shows that one-third of the earth’s soil is already moderately to highly degraded due to various issues such as erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, urbanization, and chemical pollution.
Soil health is essential for growing food. We can’t have a sustainable future if we don’t maintain it properly. Composting is one of the best ways to naturally fertilize and replenish our soil. Compost is composed of decomposed organic material that can be added to soil to nourish and encourage its natural regenerative cycle.
Composting turns trash into treasure. In addition to fertilizing the soil, composting enriches the soil and helps it retain moisture, reduces methane emissions, increases carbon sequestration, encourages production of nutrient-rich materials, and reduces the need for harmful chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, compost is an excellent way to reduce food waste because all fruit and vegetable scraps are compostable. This is beneficial because every year sixty million tons of mineral-rich food waste goes into landfills.
Compost also increases the ability of soil to sequester carbon, especially when combined with biochar. When paired with nitrogen, carbon improves soil health. Creating and applying compost is pretty easy. You don’t need fancy equipment or lots of land. Composting can even be done indoors in small spaces by vermicomposting, which uses worms to expedite the decomposition process.
Compost requires three basic ingredients: browns, greens, water, and air. Browns include things like dead leaves, branches, and twigs. They supply carbon. Greens include grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds. They supply nitrogen. The water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter. Cornell University recommends a 30:1 ratio of carbon (browns) to nitrogen (greens).
Turning is the final component, though it is not a necessary one. Turning involves moving the material on the inside of the compost to the outside. Nitrogen builds up in the center of your compost so turning the compost is necessary if you want to expedite the decomposition process. If you turn your compost more it will take a shorter amount of time to create the nutrient-rich soil.
Across the state, there are many efforts to encourage community-wide composting. Locally, the Champaign County Landscape Recycling Center recycles yard waste into two types of compost. Champaign County has been hesitant to implement a county-wide composting program that would include food waste after pushback from community members who were concerned about potential odors. Contrary to popular belief, compost is not waste and it does not emit odors, as long as it is properly maintained. The University of Illinois Extension has provided a great overview of how and why to compost if you are interested in creating an individual compost system.
The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an intergovernmental organization supporting cooperation among NAFTA partners to address environmental issues of continental concern, has published a new white paper focused on food waste in North America.
Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America provides statistics about the amount of food lost or wasted collectively, and by country, examines root causes and the environmental and economic impacts. It also summarizes current approaches and opportunities to reduce food loss and waste in the US, Canada, and Mexico. This white paper presents an overview of the accompanying foundational report, and serves as a key resource for policy makers at all levels of government, as well as members of the food industry.
Some highlights from the Key Findings section include:
“Approximately 168 million tonnes of FLW are generated in North America each year. This estimate encompasses all stages of the food supply chain, including the pre-harvest and consumer stages. Per country, this equates to 13 million tonnes in Canada, 28 million tonnes in Mexico and 126 million tonnes in the United States…When including all stages of the food supply chain, per-capita FLW in Canada is comparable to that in the United States (396 kilograms/person/year and 415 kilograms/person/year, respectively). The per-capita FLW generation in Mexico is much lower—at 249 kilograms/person/year. Nevertheless, when excluding pre-harvest and consumer stages, rates across all three countries are comparable: 110 kilograms/person/year for Canada and the United States, and 129 kilograms/person/year in Mexico.”
“Causes of FLW across the food supply chain include:
• overproduction by processors, wholesalers and retailers;
• product damage;
• lack of cold-chain infrastructure (refrigeration during transportation and storage);
• rigid food-grading specifications;
• varying customer demand; and
• market fluctuations.”
Among the many listed environmental and economic impacts, is the fact that market value of the food loss and waste in North America per year is US $278 billion.
What can you as an individual do? First, become familiar with the sources of food loss and waste and suggested approaches, as outlined in the CEC white paper and other resources highlighted on this blog in the “food waste” category. Let your legislators, and favorite retailers, restaurants, food service operations, and manufacturers of food products know that you appreciate any positive efforts they take to address food waste, and that you expect improvement aligned with strategies identified by CEC and other organizations focused on this issue. Check out the US EPA suggestions for reducing food waste at home, and further their Call to Action by Stakeholders. Also, check out the Save the Food web site produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council. The Love Food Hate Waste web site produced by UK organization WRAP also provides a wealth of tips and even recipes to help ensure food fills stomachs and not landfills. And finally, as you learn more about food waste issues and strategies for reduction, share what you learn and the stories of the actions you’re taking with others. A problem of this complexity and magnitude requires everyone to contribute to the solution. Your sharing knowledge and inspiration is crucial.