Tu B’Shevat, an ecological holiday
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
I like knowing that we are not the first generation to become environmentally conscious. The Sages were aware that we are the caretakers of the world around us. According to rabbinic tradition, though created for our sake, the world does not belong to us. It is God’s. We have it on loan. And it is our responsibility to leave it for the next generation, unspoiled and intact. We have the ability and the responsibility to take proper care of our garden. If there were one holiday which challenged us to be environmentally responsible, it is Tu B’Shevat.
The challenge of course is how do we care for the environment? What are you personally doing to help maintain our environment? Recycling? Composting? Using “safe” products? Supporting environmental causes? Last year, Heather Wasilewski, chair of Shomrei Adamah, our environmental committee, along with Cantor Elise Barber, Andrea Chasen and David Lieber, offered several suggestions for ways you might be more environmentally engaged. Click the article links below to read about each topic.
Like most people, you probably do most of your shopping at the local grocery store and purchase your products in convenient packages that are designed to convey the product from the processor, to the store, to your home. Every day you are left with numerous bottles, cans, and wrappings of all sorts. If you care at all about the environment, you probably feel a sense of guilt about all this trash... so you RECYCLE. Just toss those bottles, cans, plastics and paper into the blue bin and you rest easy. Right? All the other stuff that goes into the trash... maybe someday they'll figure out how to make it recyclable.
There is actually so much more going on after that moment when the big truck takes away your recycling. Please watch this quick video that will enlighten you to a big problem that they recycling industry is having, known as contamination or wish-cycling. So, what should you actually be recycling in your blue bins? Our local Materials Recycling Facility (the Springfield MRF) has a nice website with posters that clearly show what's recyclable at the MRF. Some people are surprised to know that kid's juice boxes and cartons for broth and soymilk are recyclable, as well as aluminum foil and trays.
Still, there is a lot more recycling that you can do beyond your weekly recycling collection.
How about all those plastic bags and wraps that come into your house? You probably knew about recycling plastic shopping bags, but what about produce, bread, and cereal bags, and the wrap around toilet paper? These plastics are known as plastic film, and as long as the film is clean and dry, it can be recycled at retailers in the bins that are labeled "Recycle Plastic Bags Here." In some cases these wraps are made into new bags, but they are frequently made into plastic lumber. For more detailed information, click here. Once I learned about this initiative, I began hanging a plastic bag near my trash area to collect these wraps. When the bag is full, I put it in my car so I remember to take it out when I get to Big Y.
Another recyclable you may not have thought about is textiles. It is very common for us to donate our unwanted clothing and household linens to charity resellers, but you may not have known that the large resellers like Goodwill, Savers, and The Salvation Army are happy to take your stained, ripped, or threadbare clothing and even your hideous 1970s sunbleached curtains. Why? Because they sell the fiber to recyclers who will make it into cleaning cloths, rug pads, insulation and cushions. Go ahead and put the good stuff with the bad in your donation bags (just no wet, oily, or moldy items). The charity benefits no matter what the condition.
In the past two decades, electronic waste has grown substantially. Often these devices are made with valuable metals. Recycling them means responsible reclaimation of the metals, which means less mining (with all its environmental damage), as well as management of toxic materials, such as mercury and refrigerant gases. Large electronics stores such as Best Buy, have bins for free recycling of small items like old tablet computers, phones, and rechargable batteries. Your town's transfer station will likely take larger items like TVs, monitors, dehumidifiers and refrigerators, often for a modest fee. You also might see E-waste collection events that support your community organizations or you could even bring these items to a private E-waste recycler. The one closest to us is Gold Circuit E-Cycling in Palmer. I really like Gold Circuit because they also recycle foam for free.
Isn't it annoying when you buy a new appliance and it comes packed in giant blocks of styrofoam? What can you do with them? Bring those blocks to Gold Circuit and they will recycle them. They even take the squishy foam that electronics are generally packed in. Click here for more info.
If you are interested in recycling even more items, try using this guide to find parties willing to take them for reuse or recycling.
Reduce, Reuse & Recycle
You've all heard of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but have you thought about why they are in that order? It boils down to the inherent energy (resources) used to make things. If we reduce what we use and reuse what we use, we cut down on the fossil fuels and chemicals used to make things we use every day.
For example, if we reuse a drink bottle just three times, it's better for the environment than to make, use, and recycle three times. Why is that? Well, let's assume that bottle contains water. First of all, it takes energy to make the plastic bottle the first time, and then diesel to power the truck that transports the water-filled bottle to your local store. Then you buy it and use gasoline to transport it home along with your other groceries. You drink the water and toss the empty bottle in your recycling bin.
But the process doesn't end there. Next there is fuel to power the recycling truck, and electricity to run the recycling sorting equipment. After that, giant bails of plastic bottles will be sold, and transported with diesel fuel, to the plastic recycling factory which is usually all the way in China. Just think how many resources are used to transport our recycling to China! Then electricity is used to melt the plastic and form it into new bottles. Some new plastic will be added in too, because plastics degrade upon recycling. Now the bottles can be sold and transported, using more fuel again, to the water bottling company to be refilled and the process begins again. A lot of diesel and electricity are used during each trip.
So, before you choose disposable products, even those that are recyclable, I ask you to consider what went into producing that item? Is the free disposable coffee cup really free? Would you still be satisfied if your local forest were cut down to make disposable cups? Then there is the global warming that comes from all our fossil fuel emissions to produce and move around all these products. Who pays that cost?
What can you do now? Make an effort to avoid disposable products. Make it a habit to bring your own shopping bags with you. Don't let store clerks put one item in a shopping bag. Politely let them know why you are declining the bag.
- Cut down on the use of plastic food storage bags by storing food in washable plastic or glass containers.
- Reuse your empty cereal bags or produce bags to get more produce from the store or buy cloth produce bags.
- Use washable metal or glass water bottles instead of buying water bottles.
I'd like to teach you about home composting. Composting is an easy way to reduce your volume of trash and return valuable nutrients to the soil. By composting, we are participating in God's beautiful, natural growth and decay cycle.
I've heard that many of you feel intimidated by the idea of composting at home. Some are concerned about bad smells or about attracting vermin. With just a basic understanding of how composting works, these shouldn't be a problem.
What is composting? Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic material. It requires four things: "green" materials, "brown" materials, moisture, and oxygen. The hard work of decomposing the organic waste is done by microbes, worms, insects and fungi which are already present in the environment. Your job is simply to provide them with the right conditions to thrive.
Let me tell you a little about each of these inputs:
- "Green" materials: Think of them as freshly grown things. Green grass clippings, weeds, food waste. Generally, these are the materials that we are seeking to dispose of.
- "Brown" materials: Straw, dry leaves, wood sawdust/shavings/chips, coffee grounds, tea bags, and even used paper towels and napkins.
- Oxygen: The microbes that we want to see in our piles need oxygen from the air. If there isn't enough oxygen, a different kind of bacteria, called anaerobic bacteria, can thrive and they produce stinky methane and ammonia. That is a situation that we want to avoid.
- Moisture: The microbes also need a damp environment to thrive. When it's too dry, the pile heats up, but doesn't decompose, and when it's too wet, the water blocks out oxygen and the pile can get stinky.
There are many different systems out there for containing the composting materials while allowing it to maintain moisture and oxygen. At this link, there is a good overview of compost systems. They all have pros and cons; you just have to pick one that will work in your situation.
How to compost: I recommend that you purchase a covered scraps container for your kitchen. Cantor Barber says that she likes to use an ordinary plastic storage container on the counter. She empties it often to control fruit flies and can easily wash it in the dishwasher. When it's full, empty the scraps into the outdoor composting bin/pile/drum. Then you cover the scraps with an equal volume of brown materials. To provide aeration (oxygen), most compost containers have air holes on the sides. To further aerate it, some people turn their piles with a pitchfork 2-3 times a year, or by turning the drum on the spinning units. Doing so speeds up the process, but it is not necessary if you are willing to wait. As for moisture, home composting systems rarely get too wet, but it is possible that a heavy rain could pack down the materials in an uncovered pile. If you notice your pile getting smelly, a quick fluffing with a pitch fork, and adding some dry "browns" should remedy it. It's more likely that your pile could become too dry during a hot, dry summer. Just add some water with a garden hose and the microbes will quickly get back to work. This is biology, not chemistry, and precision is not required.
Over the winter there may not be a lot of biological activity in your pile, but come spring, it will heat up again. As you regularly add materials to your composter, you'll notice that the volume of material in there decreases as it decomposes. After one year it is generally time that you could take apart your compost pile/bin and you can apply the fully decomposed "black gold" to your garden beds or even sprinkled on your lawn. Any material from the top of the pile that is not fully decomposed should go back into the bin.
A few more pointers: In theory, you can compost any organic material, but in a home composting system it is best to avoid including meat, dairy, bones, and dog/cat waste, as they can attract vermin and lead to the growth of dangerous bacteria in your soil. If you are a serious gardener, you will avoid putting diseased plant material in the pile to avoid spreading the disease, and you'll avoid putting weed with mature seeds in there too, lest you spread them around when you sprinkle your compost around your yard.
Now I said that I'd keep this lesson simple, but if you'd like to learn more and become an advanced composter, here is a list of 100 things you can compost (scroll down half way to find the list).
The Importance of Eating Locally
We live in a time of plenty. At your local supermarket you can buy just about any food item during any season. We can buy berries, avocados, and tomatoes any time of year, fresh seafood thousands of miles from its source, and meat at prices per pound that are lower than that of some vegetables. But let's face it--industrial food production has some serious and well-entrenched problems. If you haven't read the commentaries lately, I'll give you a quick rundown of some of the major issues.
Growing massive fields of single crops means planting and harvesting efficiency, but it increases disease problems and therefore increased use of pesticides and fungicides. Herbicides are used to kill weeds that compete with the crop. Genetically modified plants are meant to reduce the use these chemicals, but they seem to be causing other problems and remain controversial. This system depends on regular applications of fertilizers. The net result is sick soil that requires lots of water and erodes easily, but the food produced is cheap.
Another major issue with the industrial food system is its carbon footprint. The sick soils I just mentioned don't hold carbon like healthy soils do. Nitrogen fertilizer comes from fossil fuels. Diesel-powered machines are used to tend the fields. Then there is all the fuel used to transport these crops far and wide, sometimes halfway around the world! Collectively, the agricultural sector contributes 13% of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to power production.
Another issue relates to factory-farmed animals. In the industrial food system, animals are primarily raised in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). These massive facilities raise huge numbers of animals in close quarters, and generate massive amounts of manure that must be properly managed or it can, and occasionally does, create environmental problems. Even worse, in my opinion, is that the conditions in CAFOs are indecent for the animals. It violates our Jewish principal of tza'ar ba'alei chayim, the suffering of animals. (One organization working on this issue is The Jewish Initiative for Animals.)
By now you are probably thinking, "this is just so terrible. What can I possibly do to help?" The simple answer is to buy locally produced food. While they may be more expensive and less convenient to buy, here are some of the benefits:
- Local foods are better for the environment. Avoid the carbon footprint of foods that are shipped vast distances. Also, family farms are generally able to raise a diverse number of crops and take better care of their soils and livestock. Organic growing practices are ideal, but certification may be too expensive for small farmers.
- Local foods are fresher. Fruits and vegetables begin to lose nutrients as soon as they are picked. Buying local produce cuts down travel time from farm to table.
- Local foods are seasonal. True, it would be great to have fresh tomatoes and berries all year round, but eating seasonally means avoiding "artificial ripening" with gases or eating a bland version of a fruit or vegetable that's been shipped thousands of miles. Eating seasonally results in the most delicious and nutrient-dense produce. It helps keep you in touch with the natural rhythm of the year, and gives you something to look forward to with each season.
- Local foods preserve green space and farmland. The environmental question of where your food comes from is bigger than its carbon footprint. Buying foods grown and raised closer to where you live helps maintain farmland and green space in your area.
- Local foods promote variety. Local foods create a greater variety of foods. Farmers who run CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, sell at farmers' markets, and provide food to local restaurants have the demand and the economic support for raising more types of produce and livestock.
- Local foods support your local economy. Money spent locally stays local. Purchasing locally builds your local economy instead of handing over the earnings to a corporation in another city, state, or country. Also, since the food itself moves through less hands, more of the money you spend will end up in the pockets of those raising and growing those foods.
- Local foods create community. Ever find yourself spending much of your time at the farmers market chatting and socializing in addition to purchasing your produce? Getting to know your farmer, cheese purveyor, fishmonger, butcher, workers at your local co-op, etc., creates a sense of community.
Here are some links that can help you to find local farms and farmers' markets:
Spring Cleaning Fever: How to Do It and Protect Your Environment and the World
In the spring and you can see the trees budding and the tulips and jonquils are opening their blooms to show off their vibrant faces. And you want to really clean your home and make it sparkle to capture the dazzle of this season.
Decades ago, when my grandmother wanted to deeply clean her home, she didn't reach for the Pine Sol or the Mr. Clean bottle, or any smartly named bottle of chemicals. They didn't exist. Yet her home always shone and it smelled like the season she was celebrating. So how did she do it? With just a small handful of the products that were already in her cabinets: baking soda, white vinegar, lemons and dish soap. Check this website out for helpful ideas. When we embark on our spring cleaning, or even our regular cleaning activities, we need to make sure that we are doing this work without adding harmful chemicals to our environment.
Take a walk down the cleaning supply aisle in any supermarket, and you will find bottles filled with chemicals that are toxic and, in some cases, carcinogenic. And when you finish using them, you've added these toxic chemicals to our water supply when you empty the bucket you filled to clean your home. Or perhaps you toss out the used up liquid into the soil that is feeding your flowers and shrubs. Yuck. If you can't eat it or drink it, you shouldn't use it to clean your home. That being said, there are shortcuts for those of us who have little inclination to make our own cleaning supplies. There are many environmentally-friendly products already on the shelves: but you need to dig a bit to find them. For a good list of such products, click here.
Added benefits of many of these products are the addition of herbs to enhance the smells such as lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary. Further advantages of using these products are that the companies who make them are doing so in carbon neutral ways and aiming for zero waste. So if you decide to use these products, be sure to recycle the packaging.
More reasons to clean using what you already have: you save money, reduce the waste in the landfill, and you are really practicing tikkun olam, repairing the world one home at a time. Oh, and even better: you are creating a better world for the generations to follow.
Chemicals in our space
Cantor Elise Barber
Other things to consider concerning chemicals in our space:
- Lawn care that does not pollute the environment and harm animals - animals including humans! Our committee member Ray Possick has been researching different green lawn care alternatives.
- Cantor Barber's favorite all-purpose cleaner (including windows) - 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon Bronner's Castille soap unscented or lavender, a few drops of lemon balm and lavender (disinfects) essential oils - Pour with funnel into spray bottle.
- A great alternative to Lysol and other toxic air fresheners are simple air fresheners that only include citrus oils for ingredients - available at most drug stores.
How You Can Improve Your Environmental Footprint
Heather Wasilewski & David Lieber
This article looks at electrical usage and how you can improve on your environmental footprint. I asked David what items in a home can be upgraded to have the biggest impact on electric usage, without compromising on comfort, and here's what he had to say:
- Most people have already changed their bulbs from incandescent to compact florescent. But LED is the new standard in energy efficient lighting. LED technology has improved significantly over earlier versions and the cost dropped dramatically. You can now purchase LED bulbs in all sizes and lighting color ranges. Not only do they use less electricity than incandescent or CFL bulbs to get the same amount of light, but they also last dramatically longer. They also don't contain mercury like the CFLs do.
- Your old refrigerator is costing you energy in two ways. Not only does it use a lot more electricity than new models, but it is also dumping heat into your kitchen. If you use an air conditioner in the warm months, you are again using energy to remove that extra heat. David recommends replacing your refrigerator every 10 years and vacuuming the coils (on the back or bottom of the unit) monthly to keep it running most efficiently.
- If you are upgrading your heating system and you use window mounted air conditioners, consider a system with central air conditioning. A central air conditioning system with a high SEER rating (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) may use only as much electricity to cool the whole house as one window unit.
- Hot tubs are a real pleasure, but the electric bill that comes with one might be overwhelming if you don't plan for it. Newer models are much more energy efficient than older ones, so be wary of "free" hot tubs, as they may be energy hogs.
When I asked David, "When giving energy savings advice to your customers, which thing are they generally the most surprised about?" He said, "Definitely the refrigerators. Lots of people buy a new fridge and put the old one in their garage. They keep it running, with just a few items in it much of the time. Not only are they using a lot of electricity to run it, but it also can't run efficiently in hot or cold spaces."
For more detailed information about refrigerators and energy consumption, the Energy Star website is a great resource.
How You Can Use Less Energy in Your Home
I'd like to talk about how you can use less energy for the heating and cooling of your home. Depending on the types of systems you have, the costs are reflected in your gas, oil, and/or electric bills. When I say "systems," I am referring to furnaces, boilers, air conditioners, baseboard radiators, and water heaters. To keep your home a comfortable temperature using less energy to do so, you can either produce more heat or cool using less fuel (called efficiency), or you can keep more of the heat or cool that it produces (with better insulation and air sealing to stop drafts).
Unless your water heater or heating system completely breaks down, it can be difficult to know when it is time for an efficiency upgrade. And it is almost impossible for the untrained person to know when air sealing or additional insulation are worth the installation cost. That is why a professional energy audit is so valuable. An energy audit is when a professional comes to your house and assesses the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems and the effectiveness of your insulation. They are also experts in the latest incentives from the utilities for improvements. The amazing thing is that they are free through the MassSave program. Furthermore, a Harold Grinspoon initiative, Ener-G-Save, will even help you get through the process of scheduling it and any subsequent work, quickly and efficiently. Utility incentives are changing frequently, and you can have an audit done every three years. If an upgrade didn't make sense in the past, perhaps a new utility incentive could change the equation. So give it a another try!
We, your Shomrei Adamah Committee, believe in the importance of energy audits. We urge TBE members to sign up for an energy audit through Ener-G-Save by calling 413-279-9141 or follow this link.