living green

Happy May Day

The weekend of or just after May 1st was always one of my favorites growing up. April in MN tends to still be pretty chilly, with the occasional snow storm – because it is, after all, “Minnesnowta”. But May, May is when it actually gets warm, when you’re actually safe to tuck your winter clothes away. The sun is gaining strength and the lilacs are about to bloom. And man, walking into a back yard lined with lilac bushes is so sweet in the spring. Intoxicating, almost. I think when you live in a place known for its winter weather, the welcoming of spring is so much sweeter.

And the artsy/hippy/inner-city neighborhood I grew up in celebrates May Day with flair. There’s a puppet theater in the neighborhood that puts on a May Day parade every year on the first Sunday of May. The parade is filled with fantastical creatures, lots of flowing fabric, tons of stilt walkers, and a healthy dose of social and political commentary, as May Day is not only a celebration welcoming spring, but also International Workers Day. When I was little, my dad would paint my face in preparation for the parade – usually my request was Siberian tiger. The parade route passed just a couple blocks away from my house, so we could walk to see it, and usually I could count on watching at least a little bit of the parade from my dad’s shoulders. The parade would lead everyone to the park, where we would watch a play about the earth welcoming the sun back for the spring. The play would culminate in the sun coming out from its hibernation on the island in the pond and sailing across the pond to warm the earth again. And there would be dancing and may pole decorating and good cheer.

I have such sweet memories of May Day as a child. Every year that I’m away I long to be back in Minneapolis for this celebration. It’s certainly one of those traditions that I hope to share often with Husby and Cheeks. These years that we are away we may just have to start making our own traditions, like delivering May baskets to our friends and neighbors!


Making Electricity

Before delving into the details of different electricity sources I’m going to give a basic overview of how the electricity that comes to your home is made. Despite the fact that I’d been studying physics, before I toured a hydroelectric plant in Tanzania I only had a theoretical understanding of how we actually make electricity at a power plant. I was fascinated on the plant tour, and count that among the defining moments in inspiring me to want to study and work with renewable energy.

So to start: what is electricity? It’s moving electrons. Typically we move the electrons in metal wires because metals tend to have plenty of free electrons just hanging around ready to move, and also plenty of spaces for the electrons to move into.

How do we convince these electrons to move? Electrons will start moving in the wires when there is a moving magnetic field nearby. In a typical coal or natural gas fueled power plant, the fuel is used to move big magnets in order to produce a moving magnetic field.

The coal or natural gas (or sometimes petroleum, but not much in the U.S.) is burned in order to heat up water in pipes. As the water heats to a boil it changes into steam. The steam rises through the pipes until it gets to a condensation tank. Here it cools down and changes back into liquid water. The liquid water is heavy, so it falls to the bottom of the tank, and as it does this it turns a turbine. The liquid water is then pumped back to the furnace where it can be heated up again.

The turbine is connected to a big magnet inside of a large coil of wire. When the turbine spins from the condensing water, it turns the magnet which produces a moving magnetic field, and the moving magnetic field causes all those free electrons in the wire coil to move throughout the wire.

For each source of electricity (except solar, we’ll get to that later), the objective is to spin that magnet inside the coil of wires.


The sources of electricity

It’s 10 am and I have already used a light,  a toaster, a stove, and the internet. I also plugged in my computer and took food out of the refrigerator. All of this without a thought as to where my electricity comes from besides “the wall”. This is my privilege living in a country with a reliable grid. I don’t think about the time of day, the season, or the weather; I just plug in and use.

Unfortunately, being so disconnected from the sources of electricity makes people careless. We don’t think about how much we use or where it is coming from except when we pay our electricity company.

So how much are we using?  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012 Americans used nearly 11,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. For perspective, that much electricity can light a standard 60 watt bulb continuously for 21 years!

Most of that electricity (68%) is produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum. There are two big problems with using these materials. The first is that they are in limited supply so we have to expend more and more energy to get them. And the methods we use (mining and fracking) are damaging to the environment. The second big problem is that they release large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. In fact, electricity and heat generation are the largest producers of man made carbon dioxide emissions.

Luckily, these two problems have the same solution – switch to renewable energy sources. We’re slowly moving in the right direction by investing in nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, biomass, and solar electricity. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket; we need to diversify electricity production. We need to pursue all of these options to have the hope of making our electricity production carbon neutral.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore how we make electricity from each of these sources (plus clean coal/carbon sequestration). I’ll also explain the science behind the sources and the pros and cons of each.  Let me know if you have any questions you want me to answer.

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Some thoughts on Earth Day

Happy 44th Earth Day. And coincidentally, happy anniversary of the birthday of Vladimir Lenin. Did you know that when Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 it was thought that the date was chosen because Earth Day was some part of a communist agenda? Actually, the date was chosen in conjunction with college students school schedules because Earth Day was originally a teach-in day for Earth friendly practices and peace.

When I was seven I won the Earth Day poster making contest that my school put on for my age group.  I can still remember the oversized squirrel I drew in my nature scene. What I really wish I could remember was the poem I wrote on the poster as well.  I’m sure it was a gem.

Today we’ll be celebrating Earth Day by (what else?) taking a trip to the community garden to drop off our compost and give the pile a good turn.  We’ll read Cheeks The Lorax too, for good measure.

I hope you take some time today to be thankful for this beautiful planet!

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Our embarrassing hot water issue

We have a secret. A shameful, wasteful secret.

We live on the fourth floor of an old apartment building. The water heaters that provide our hot water are in the basement. In the winter it can take as long as 5 minutes of running the water in the bathtub to finally get hot water. The issue here is that old metal water pipes take a long time to heat up, so instead of the heat from the water coming out of the tank coming right up to my shower, it is “spent” heating up the pipes. And four stories worth of pipe is a lot to heat up.

Some quick googling tells me that a regular tub faucet turned on high lets out about 7 gallons of water per minute. Which means during the past 3 winters that we have lived in our old apartment building Husby and I have let 35 gallons of water run down the drain each time we wanted a hot shower. As a comparison, that is more water than I used in the average week while I was living in Tanzania. Ugh, I feel awful just thinking about it.

There are a couple things we do to try to lessen this waste. We stack our showers as often as possible, meaning that if one of us hops in the shower right after the other gets out so the pipes only have to heat up once. Or we’ll take our showers shortly after doing the dishes.  We don’t need hot water to do the dishes, so we can use the water that hasn’t heated up yet for that, and heat up the pipes at the same time in preparation for a shower.

In the summer it’s not quite so bad. The pipes aren’t as cold to begin with, so that don’t take as long to heat up. And we’re far more likely to jump into a cold shower in the summer as well.

If we had access to the pipes in our building, the other thing we could do to help lessen that amount of water would be to insulate our pipes, keeping them from getting so cold in the first place that it took so much hot water to heat them up again.

For now, we look forward to the warmer weather and do our best to reduce the amount of wasted water in pursuit of a hot shower.

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Can I compost that?

Can I Compost That?

Spring is in the air. The hyacinth are blooming. And you’re probably anxious to give your compost pile a turn. Or at least I am.

Have I mentioned before how much I love compost? Because I love it so much. Because it just does it. Compost just happens. And there is nothing we can do about it. Even when we try our best by putting our waste food into a tied up plastic bag and then sending that bag to be buried in a landfill, it’s still going to turn into compost – just compost that is now in a plastic bag and mixed in with all our other trash that doesn’t break down. And, may I ask, what good is it doing there?*

Have I inspired in you a love for compost yet? Are you itching to start your own pile yet? Or maybe you want to maximize the pile you’ve already started building?

There are plenty of guides on what you can or cannot put into a compost pile out there. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Most of them are playing it safe and give you a very specific method of making your pile. This isn’t a bad thing. They will help you to build a pile and help you keep from attracting animals and upsetting your neighbors – both good things when it comes to the success of your compost. But compost just happens. Organic materials break down into humus naturally. When we build a compost pile we merely are helping it along.

So what can you put in your pile? Pretty much anything organic. What should you put in your compost pile? Well, depending on where you live and the size of your compost pile, maybe you should be a little more discerning.

Can I compost that? Residential area/small pile/community garden edition

In a residential area you probably don’t want to attract animals to your pile, because they will make a mess of it. You also probably want to keep the smells down from your pile because you’re a good neighbor. Small piles (less than 1 cubic yard) don’t really get hot enough to break some materials down quickly to prevent them from smelling, and smelly compost piles attract animals.

  • fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster
  • produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process
  • lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster
  • weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds)
  • paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster
  • cooked fruits/veggies/grains? not if they are cooked in oil, the oil will attract animals and smell
  • animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? not unless your ok attracting raccoons, crows, cats, dogs, etc
  • compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down
  • chicken scat? yep! chicken poop is a great fertilizer, but it’s too strong to be applied directly to plants. Put it into your compost pile to break down for a while first.
  • coffee grounds? yes! coffee grounds are a great addition to your compost pile. In fact, I believe that adding coffee grounds to my indoor compost pile has helped keep the smell down and keep flies away.

Can I compost that? Rural area/large pile edition

If you are able to build a pile that is consistently 1 cubic meter in volume or larger, it probably has enough mass that it will get quite hot in the middle. This enables the pile to break down more complex materials quickly, preventing smelly, animal attracting results.  If you’re in a rural area, with greater distance between you and your neighbors, and plenty of wildlife around anyway, you may not care so much about the odor of your pile. Just keep it a bit further away from your house and garden.

  • fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster
  • produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process
  • lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster
  • weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds).

If you have a big, hot pile it can handle weeds that have gone to seed. The heat will kill the seeds.

  • paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster
  • cooked fruits/veggies/grains? yes! your big pile will take care of the smell
  • animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? yes! but don’t put chicken or fish bones into the pile unless they are ground up. These bones can shatter and be very dangerous if eaten by loved pets or wildlife
  • compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down

Wait! Compostable plastics shouldn’t go in either of the types of compost piles mentioned above? It’s true, unless the cups are going into huge scale compost piles – like the kind that are built from city-wide compost projects, the pile does not get big/hot enough to break down this material and actually compost it. Otherwise the cup will break apart, but the flakes of plastic will remain intact in the humus.

  • chicken scat? yep! chicken poop is a great fertilizer, but it’s too strong to be applied directly to plants. Put it into your compost pile to break down for a while first.
  • coffee grounds? yes! coffee grounds are a great addition to your compost pile. In fact, I believe that adding coffee grounds to my indoor compost pile has helped keep the smell down and keep flies away.

Do you have any questions about what you can or can’t compost? Leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to add them to this list!


*Actually, all that food/organic matter that gets thrown into our landfills is finally being put to use in some places. As the matter breaks down it releases methane, and some landfills are starting to harvest that methane to use for energy. Like the bio-gas I wrote about previously in Michigan’s Green Currents program.

Interested in reading more about compost here on building earth? Check out the compost tag, for all the articles I’ve written on the subject.

Keep up with building earth by following us on facebook, pinterest, or on @buildingearth on instagram

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I’ll admit it, we’re probably a little bit more nutty about recycling than most. Detroit doesn’t have city recycling, so we have to bring it in to a center ourselves. And at our particular center, when we drop off our goods, we have to sort them into the appropriate bins. The first few times we brought our recycling in, we had put all our recyclables into the same bag and then had to sort the bags at the center. This meant we were running all over the place when we would suddenly find a aluminum can in the midst of all our 1s and 2s plastic.

So we decided to switch our method and sort at home as we set aside our recyclables.  This doesn’t really take up any more of our time, but it does take up a good deal more space to keep a separate bag for each material. In fact we have a whole wall of our small apartment devoted to our recyclable bags. Also, Michigan has deposits on beer and pop containers (both bottles and cans) so we keep those separate from our general recyclables, because they will get returned to a different location to collect the deposit money.

Recently my mom came to visit.  Between the regular trash, the compost, all the different bags for the recycling, and the deposit recyclables, I think she had our system all figured out by the time she left, 2 weeks later.

All this to say, we’re a bit jealous of cities that have single source recycling. But you make time (and space) for what is important to you, and keeping our waste out of landfills (or in the case of Detroit, the incinerator) is important to us.

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The great thing about working to reuse things is that it also helps contribute to our ability to reduce. Reuse helps keep goods out of landfills for longer, and depending on what you are reusing, helps to reduce the number of less favorable by-products of manufacturing.

Husby and I are always pleased when we can get at least a 2nd use out of something.  Some quick examples of things we reuse regularly

  • Cloth diapers for our newest family member
  • Lots of hand-me-down baby clothes, blankets and toys. We requested for our baby shower that gifts be 2nd hand and got some of the sweetest, well pre-loved gifts to share with Cheeks McGee
  • We bring our styrofoam style egg cartons back to the farmers we buy our eggs from. (Cardboard style egg cartons get torn up and added to the compost)
  • I love to can produce, so each year I am able to reuse the jars and screw-tops for our pantry items

I mentioned in my post on reducing that we use reusable grocery bags and bring our own containers for bulk items.  I know this is an action that is always included on lists of how to “go green” and yet so many times I’ve heard friends and family mention that they just never remember to bring their reusable bags along with them to the store. Honestly, I don’t always remember either, but I’ve developed a couple habits that have helped get those bags to the store with me.

  • I try to always keep a reusable bag or two in the car, so if I find myself making an unplanned trip to the grocery store after work, it’s with me.  To help remind me to restock the car, I put the grocery bags right by our apartment door.  We have a small entry way, so there’s not much room there for extras, which means the bags won’t go unnoticed next time I’m headed out.
  • Since the grocery store is walkable for us, we make it a Sunday afternoon outing.  Having a set routine helps us to remember the bags.
  • We also buy milk that comes in returnable glass bottles.  Those bottles have a hefty deposit on them, making it worth our while to bring them back, and bringing back the bottles gets us to bring the bags along as well, to carry the bottles with us.

As for bringing our own containers for bulk goods, when I’m making my grocery list on Sunday morning I try to put the appropriate container into my grocery bags as I add it to the list. We also have a set spot in the kitchen where all of our empties go, so we know to pack them all with us for our trip to the store.

I think that bringing so much with us to the grocery store in the way of reusable containers and making planned, regular trips helps us remember it all and be sure to bring our shopping bags along as well.

There’s always room for improvement though. Around here we’re working on remembering to take those shopping bags with us to non-grocery stores as well.

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I know it is the most important imperative in the well-known triplet “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but in our consumer driven world it is also often the most difficult to practice.

Husby and I often reminisce about living in Tanzania. One of the things that I loved was the lack of pressure to have more stuff.  The cultural differences and terrible transportation options that came with living in a rural mountain village made it pretty easy to say no thanks to bringing anything other than the bare necessities home. This practice toward minimalism has stuck with both of us now that we’re back living in the States, but we certainly haven’t achieved it in its full expression.

But with the goal of reducing our impact firmly in place, we do have a few areas where we feel like we are succeeding.


We currently live in a modest, one bedroom apartment.  It certainly wouldn’t be considered small by NYC standards, but it’s not a giant space either.  Because of this, many of our rooms serve multiple functions.  Our office area shares a room with our dining area, and our “nursery” minus the bassinet occupies a corner of our living room. And the new baby shares a bedroom with us. Our lease will be up soon, and we will be moving when it is, but we hope to be able to find another modest, one bedroom apartment when we do. Our old apartment also features two tiny closets – not much storage at all. To help us stash out of season things away, we have a few of those large storage bins serving double duty. One poses as a coffee table and two stacked on top of each other are just the right height for plants to enjoy our windows.


We live in a pretty walkable neighborhood.  There is a grocery store just a couple blocks away and plenty of restaurants and boutiques within spitting distance. I can even walk to my hair salon and my CrossFit gym. Husby is a big fan of walking, so we also frequently walk the couple miles downtown and to the riverfront.  Because of this we are able to maintain a single car household even when both of us work outside the home.


I’ve written before about how we reduce our electricity use, and about Husby’s obsession with unplugging electronics that are not in use to reduce phantom loads.  Additionally we hang dry our laundry. When Husby had to do some traveling this past winter, he often chose to take the Megabus rather than renting a car or flying to his destinations.


Certainly this is the hardest area for us to work on reducing, but also the area that provides the most opportunity. We work hard to reduce the amount of packaging we bring home. That means that we bring cloth bags with us to the grocery store, as well as bring our own refillable containers with us to stock up on bulk goods. We buy items that we use consistently and frequently in bulk – like buying our liquid soap by the gallon. We also are working to choose quality over quantity. Saving our pennies for higher quality clothing, furniture, and cookware to ensure that it lasts longer, and stretching the life of what we already have in the meantime.

One thing that helps me to focus on reducing the amount of stuff that we have is to constantly have a “to donate” pile.  We’ve been making frequent trips to the Goodwill to drop off goods that we no longer have any use for. Keeping a donation pile going reminds me to constantly edit my possessions and work towards reducing the accumulation of possessions in the first place.

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Back when Husby and I were attempting to straighten out our apartment composting situation, one of the things we dabbled in was vermiculture. Vermiculture is composting with worms, and in the right conditions the worms eat your kitchen scraps and poop them out as vermiculite, a fabulously rich in nutrient garden addition. In a traditional compost pile, the work of changing the scraps is done primarily through bacteria, fermentation, heat, and time.

You can order special worms for vermiculture, but that’s not really necessary, as any worm has to eat and excrete. In fact your garden variety earth worm will frequently crawl its way into the outskirts of a compost pile and happily live and eat there. So, seeing as how in the summer in the great lakes region, you can go into pretty much any locally owned hardware store and buy “bait”, Husby did just that and brought home about two dozen earth worms.

The trick with indoor vermiculture is that you need to create the right environment for your worker-worms, as they will be contained in whatever sort of container you are keeping your compost in, and won’t have a chance to safely retreat from the pile if it is no longer meeting their needs. Worms don’t want it to be too hot, and if you have a compost pile that is primarily kitchen scraps in a small enough space, the natural rotting process of the food will build up quite a bit of heat in the center of the pile – great for a compost pile, but not at all great for the worms.  So it’s very important that the vermiculture pile has enough space to spread out, and is mixed with plenty of “brown” or carbon rich materials to help keep it cool. Good brown materials include shredded newspaper, torn up egg cartons (the cardboard kind, not the Styrofoam) torn up brown paper bags, and dried leaves. You also want to have airflow, which may mean holes in the container or a breathing material for the lid. Finally, starting out with an inch or two of dirt will give the worms someplace to retreat to if the center of the pile gets too hot.

Unfortunately our new pets did not fair so well. We made a couple of mistakes – our bin was just too small for the amount of scraps we were adding to it, and the worms didn’t have anywhere cool to retreat to once the scraps started rotting. But retreat they did, right out of the bucket and across our wood floors.  Which, by the way, are also not the right environment for worms to thrive in. Unfortunately, Husby and I didn’t realize we had a problem until we found a couple poor, dried out, worms on our floor. We mourned our pets and decided it would be best to wait on our vermiculture plans until we have space for a larger bin.

If you’re interested in starting your own vermiculture compost, Husby highly recommends the book The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City. It looks like they’ve released a new edition since we got ours. I’ll keep you up to date on our future (hopefully much more successful) attempts at raising worms and making black gold.

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