It's Easy Being Green - Composting and Native Plants in the City

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For the first time since I was in college, I find myself living in a city.  It was a big change for me, and one of the very first things I had to figure out was how to best be “green” in my new home.  The first thing I did was put in a compost “bin,” and the second thing was planting native flowers and shrubs around my house.

Urban Composting: Boy, this one can be a challenge.  Living out in the country, I could just toss my food scraps out in the field, or into dedicated space where my food scraps could decompose before being transferred into my vegetable garden.  My current property is not suitable for a vegetable garden, but that did not mean I couldn’t still compost my food waste (and when one makes most of one’s own meals, there is a lot to compost).  I’m not the biggest fan of closed compost bins – you have to have the balance of green and brown waste just right, or you can quickly end up with a smelly, slimy mess. I prefer the lazy man’s compost pile, so I drove four fence stakes into the ground as the corners of my compost area, and then enclosed them with wire fencing.  My compost area measures about three feet on each side, and into it go all my food scraps…and used Kleenex, paper towels, and garden waste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  what about rats, raccoons, and other “varmints”?  The general rule of thumb is not to put meat or dairy into your compost bin – these smelly items are more likely to attract unwanted critters.  The only visitors I can verify are squirrels, but I suspect I’ve probably had opossums and raccoons as well (I’d be surprised if I didn’t). As far as I’m concerned, however, they are welcome to help themselves to any scraps that they like…I’d much rather they got them than to have my food waste go to the dump.


Native Plants: Outback, along the side of the house, and out in front of the house, the previous owner had planted sedums, spirea, and hostas – your typical urban landscaping plants.  These may look nice, but they don’t contribute much to the ecosystem, so I promptly pulled them all out and have been systematically replacing them with native species. Illinois is “The Prairie State”, but over 90% of the prairie is gone, tilled under for agriculture and development.  This has led to the drastic decline of insects and birds. By planting/restoring native flowers, shrubs, and grasses on my tiny plot of land, I am not only helping keep the native plants from going extinct, but I’m also providing food (and shelter) for native insects, which in turn provide food for our native birds.  Plus, it makes the neighborhood attractive.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

There are many little things each of us can do to help make our footprint on this planet a little greener.  Starting at home is the easiest way to make a visible difference. We can cut down on our water and electricity use, keep our homes cooler in winter and a bit warmer in summer, set out our recycling - all those things that should be automatic for every home everywhere.  But even in the city, we can do a little extra by composting our food and yard waste, and replacing our landscaping with native (and/or edible) plants. It doesn’t require much effort, and the payback is immense.

It's Easy Being Green - Voting for a Healthy Planet - With Your Fork!


Even if you can’t put solar panels on your roof or a Tesla in your garage, you can still greatly reduce your carbon footprint with what you put on your dinner plate. Analyses by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (UN FAO) estimate that the global average for anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is between 14 and 18 percent. That’s more than WRI’s estimated emissions for the transportation sector, which is 13.5 percent! That means that changing what we eat is just as important as how we move around the planet. Looking for a way to lessen your footprint when it comes to your diet? Try these suggestions!

Think Global, Eat Local

On average, food now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from the field to your table, which is 25 percent more than just 20 years ago. It now requires more energy to grow and transport the food than we actually consume from the food. Fortunately, there are many local growers in the region. You can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm where you invest in the local farm and then enjoy fresh produce throughout the season - it’s a wonderful way to develop a sense of place when it comes to your meals. If you like more control over what produce you’re are receiving week-to-week, try one of the area’s fine farmers markets. Just make sure you ask if the vendor grows their own vegetables. If a vendor is the only one at the market with tomatoes in June, chances are they are shipping them in. Buying local not only helps the environment, but it also helps the local economy and connects you to where your food comes from. Growing your own garden is another way to keep your diet local. Plus, if you compost your food scraps, you are keeping waste out of landfills and rebuilding the soil in your garden.

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Cool Beans

Last year, 21 billion pounds of coffee were consumed. These beans were grown across 27 million acres in the tropical forest, vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. Because of the high demand for coffee, traditional ways of growing coffee have given way to industrialized methods which cause deforestation, water pollution, and loss of soil quality. If giving up your morning cup of coffee is totally off the table, there are still choices you can make to lessen your impact on the planet. Look for shade-grown coffee beans. This means that the coffee trees are planted under native trees, mimicking how the coffee trees would grow in nature -this helps the birds and maintains the biodiversity of the forest. You can also look for the Rainforest Alliance Certified label. Moreover, the Fair-trade label ensures that the farmer growing and harvesting the coffee beans gets a fair, livable wage.

Avoid the K-Cup coffee makers! As convenient as they may be, they are an environmental nightmare. According to the Story of Stuff, the amount of K-Cups in the landfill could wrap around the earth 11 times! It is more environmentally friendly to opt for home-brewed coffee in a french press or coffee pot (just make sure to unplug the coffee pot when not in use so it doesn’t zap unnecessary power). If you can’t live without your K-Cups, they do make a reusable K-Cup filter. Making your coffee at home also reduces the extra energy consumed by coffee shops; it also ensures that you are using responsibly sourced, shade-grown and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Skipping the latte and the creamer also helps reduce the carbon footprint of your coffee. Milk represents 60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee with a few tablespoons of milk; or as much as 90 percent for a latte! For more information on sustainably-sourced coffee, check out Audubon’s guide to Bird-Friendly coffee.

Sustainable, bird-friendly coffee agro-forestry.

Sustainable, bird-friendly coffee agro-forestry.

Pass on the Palm Oil

Coffee is relatively benign compared to the environmentally destructive industry of conflict palm oil plantations. Rainforests sequester most of the world’s carbon, but they are being bulldozed for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, 18 million more hectacres of rainforest are slated to be converted to palm oil plantations by 2020! Not only is this practice bad news for the climate because of the intense carbon emissions from deforestation, it also poses immediate disastrous effects on forest peoples and the wildlife of the forest, particularly Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and orangutans. Palm oil is found is many processed foods - actually, it’s found in roughly 50 percent of consumer goods, from lipstick to detergent. Read the ingredient label and pass on foods that contain palm oil. For a great resource on palm oil, the many aliases it goes by, and the foods it is found in, click here.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Eat More Plants and Go Pasture-Raised

We have all heard that reducing our meat and dairy consumption can make a huge impact on the planet. According to an FAO report, “The global livestock sector contributes a significant share to anthropogenic GHG emissions, but it can also deliver a significant share of the necessary mitigation effort.” Cattle raised in CAFO’s or confined animal feeding operations for beef production and dairy contribute heavily to GHG emissions. On the other hand, cattle raised in well-managed pastures can actually help to store carbon back in the soil.

But just how much does it matter? If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like not driving your car for five weeks!That’s just one meatless meal a week. Check out Meatless Mondays for a source of recipes and information. You can also check out Seafood Watch to ensure you are making sustainable choices with your fish and seafood consumption. Simply going vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet. If you are purchasing a lot of heavily processed and packaged vegetarian meals (with soy shipped from other parts of the world), this can also have a big impact. So remember to eat local and whole foods whenever possible and skip the packaging.


Want to Go Deeper?

Check out Yale’s Climate Connections for more ways to reduce your carbon footprint with your diet!

It's Easy Being Green - Greening Your Time Online

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As much as many of us would love to totally unplug from the technology in our lives, it may not be realistic for us to do so. Technology has become integral to our daily lives, and much of how we live is dependent on it, no matter how we live. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy says that the average American uses enough electricity to burn through 41 lbs of coal each day. That’s also equal to 30,491 burritos a year. I kid you not! While we probably can’t and won’t stop using our electronic technology right now, there are some ways we can be greener about it. Explore some of the ideas mentioned in this article and try to implement at least one of these strategies in your daily digital lifestyle!


Use a Green Search Browser

There are 2.3 million Google Searches per second, each of which generates .2 grams of carbon dioxide emissions. What if I told you that these searches would plant a total of 46,000 trees and remove 46,000 kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if they were done with Ecosia, a revolutionary tree-planting search engine?!

Ecosia was founded in 2009 when founder Christian Kroll wanted to act on his concerns about deforestation. Their business model is simple: the revenue from advertisements that appear as the top few options from your searches goes straight towards planting trees. Ecosia has planted 52 million trees and counting! They are also very transparent with their financial reports and can show you directly where your searches are planting trees. You can use Ecosia by simply searching on their website ( or adding it to the browser that you currently use!

Fundraise for your Favorite Nature Non-Profit on Facebook

If you have a Facebook account, you have probably seen your friends host fundraisers for non-profit organizations on their birthday. In just 2018, Facebook birthday fundraisers generated $300 million in donations to charities all throughout the world. All donations made to birthday fundraisers go straight to your favorite charity-- Facebook collects none of it! It’s easy to set up and is a very low-effort way for you to raise awareness and funds for nature non-profits on your special day! Click here to get started!

Shop with Amazon Smile

When you shop with Amazon Smile, a version that is virtually identical to the classic Amazon, 0.5% of the price of your purchase goes to a charity of choice. Since the average Prime user spends $1,400 a year on Amazon, their regular purchases would generate a $7 donation to their charity of choice. That may seem small, but if you extended that across the 80 million Prime users in the U.S., that is equivalent to $560 million donations. Severson Dells could certainly find a use for all of that money! Consider making this small change to your online shopping habits to make donations without any effort or additional cost at all.

Opt-Out of 2-day Shipping

Amazon is well known for its free 2-day shipping option with Amazon Prime, and several other online retailers offer similar programs. This express shipping is a major convenience-- I know I have used it countless times! However, if you are not in a last-minute pinch, consider choosing eco-friendly shipping. The slower ship time allows for your package to be consolidated with others if you are making multiple purchases and optimize their distribution process. In addition, many 2-day shipping supply-chains involve airplanes, which generate 2% of the global carbon emissions. Opting for slower shipping could take airplanes out of your supply-chain-equation. Sometimes you can even get credits for choosing slower shipping, as it saves these companies money too! Amazon’s No-Rush Shipping for prime members adds credits to their accounts instantly.

Use a Green Computer

While it is always best for the environment to use what you have or buy used, sometimes you just have to purchase something new. If you are in this situation for computers, consider purchasing a green computer! Many manufacturers are making options made from post-consumer recycled material that use less energy. For example, Asus has launched a Bamboo series that uses Bamboo in the construction of their laptops and is packaged in 100% natural and recyclable materials. The HP Slim Desktop PC 290 (ENERGY STAR) is a great desktop option that received a perfect score on Energy Conservation from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. The EPEAT registry is a great place to search for eco-friendly tech items across different categories, too.

Use a Solar Charger

Whether you are on the trail or your back porch, many of your electronics could benefit from solar charging! Recent innovations have made solar-panel chargers the size of a tablet accessible to the masses for under $50! Many feature rugged designs that are waterproof and can be dropped from considerable heights without damage. Check out a list of the best portable solar chargers of 2019 here.

Limit Vampire Power

Vampire power is a term used to describe the energy electronics consume when they are plugged in, even if they are turned off. The U.S. spends around $3 billion a year on vampire power. In fact, 25% of the energy your products’ energy consumption happens when they are turned off! Reduce vampire power by completely turning off and unplugging your tech when it is not in use. This means your TV, toasters, and computers should all be unplugged when you go to bed. You can also use power strips like this one to turn off multiple devices at once if you don’t feel like reaching behind your TV stand to unplug your TV every night.

Dim Your Screen

It take more energy to light up a white screen than a dark screen. Most people won’t notice a monitor or screen dimmed from 100% to 70%, but a dimmed screen could save 20% energy. Internet browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox offer “dark” modes to help save energy as well.

As you can see, there are many simple solutions anyone can adopt to green their online life. Just imagine how much energy could be saved if all internet users applied these ideas to their lives!