Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Across the river: Life outside of Yangon

Our apartment sits at the end of a block, in a thin strip of neighborhood called Kyee Myin Daing. Kyee Myin Daing is nestled between the colonial era train tracks of San Chaung and the Yangon River.  It is a former Yangon suburb subsumed by the city as it sprawls out and up and continues to develop. 

Our apartment is the top floor of a sixth floor walkup, with windows overlooking a busy road and the river beyond.  Every morning, I wake up and look out at the river and its constant stream of traffic.  I wake to the sound of outboard motors grumbling by; loud speakers blaring morning prayers or calls for donations; and vendors singing out offerings of their goods.  A cacophony of local life marks the beginning of the day.

Looking down at our street from our apartment

It’s been several months since I arrived, an outsider to join a partner who although foreign, found his place in Burma long ago.  Everything remains raw, vibrant, colorful, and loud.  Despite my continued sense of wonder, and daily experience of often overwhelming newness, my wanderlust remains. I want to explore other parts of the country.  I hope to see other neighborhoods in this changing city.  I long to see what is on the other side of the never empty river.

Perhaps an equal curiosity in our presence allowed me to cross the river and get a glimpse into life on the other side.  One of our neighborhood trishaw drivers, Aung Lay, invited us to visit his community and family’s home, in a village across the river called Ouq Youn.  I knew little about Aung Lay before our afternoon adventure.  He is young, yet soon to be wed.  He is an excellent cane ball player.  And he greets me with a smile and a wave when I bicycle by on my way to work in the mornings.

We met at our favorite neighborhood teashop.  Saturday morning, and a break in the early rainy season showers meant blue skies washed clean of the grit of the city’s pollution.  Aung Lay led us towards the river.  We passed construction workers on a break from paving the road that passes our apartment, standing by the bamboo thatching protecting the fresh layer of cement.  Water pooled in puddles, glimmering in the morning sun.  We made our way to the river. 

Our ride awaitsSmall boats waited to ferry passengers and products.   Vendors lined the waterway, offering produce and prepared foods.  Workers passed heavy bags up the docks and onto waiting trucks. Aung Lay and Matt chatted with a one of the boat’s owners and soon we were on our way.   We passed the cargo ships that are daily fixtures on the river.  

In a few short minutes, we approached a very different looking riverside: a woman bathed her baby and young son in the shallow waters; young boys splashed and played; a few boats sat anchored waiting for use.  We disembarked.

At the edge of the Yangon River, in Ouq Youn

Our explorations immediately began.  Compared to the noise, to the bustling market and the stream of people in our neighborhood, Ouq Youn village is quiet.  The community appears inaccessible by car.  Instead, we walked the single, narrow pathway past small thatched homes, passing a woman walking with her small pig and chickens finding shade in shadows.  We crossed the bridge over a creek, which is now submerged in water from the seasonal rains. 

Stream crossing in Ouq Youn

Inland, a pond blanketed by lily pads sits enclosed by a chain link fence.  Villagers trickled by, carrying buckets to collect the freshwater for use.  We stopped to take in the view and admire the modest wooden shrine at the edge of the pond. 

Collecting freshwater

I love taking photos.  The act—finding the right perspective to try to capture the beauty or truth or uniqueness of the moment—can be isolating.  It can also be intrusive.  Living in a country that is not my own, and being so conspicuously a foreigner, I worry about inserting myself into new contexts.  I never want to make others feel that they are on display for me.  This is especially true of children.  Much has been written about the trend towards volunteer tourism, and the tendency to travel to developing countries and take photos with local children.  I am aware of this trend, and cautious in my camera use so that it doesn’t become a barrier to interaction or a sign of disrespect. 

But Aung Lay encouraged me to take pictures.  He is proud of his village, and wanted to share it with us ever since I moved to the neighborhood.  So I took photos.  At first, I asked for permission.  But soon I was collecting small followers.  The village children ran in front of me to pose.  They gathered, grouped, and surrounded us.  We laughed together.  We gathered a trail of local kids, interested in the new people in their village.  My photos reflect some of the happiness that greeted us.  I am grateful to Aung Lay for this small window into his world, and into life across the river. 

My discomfort taking pictures of daily life in my new home remains, and I firmly believe that it should.  I am able to take a few photos of the market now, and have been requested to document the local cane ball games by the boys who play regularly (more on this in the future : )).  People have grown used to me with my camera.

With Aung Lay on the way back homeWe returned, and I experienced my first sense of home. The loud noise of our bustling street seemed a welcome greeting.  Our old Auntie on the corner shouted at us to purchase mangos.  We happily obliged.  I am more settled, but do not want to lose the wonder I experience at my reality.  I continue to crave quiet.  I am still an outsider.  I always will be, as should be the case.  But the familiar faces grow in number, and I’ve found a new friend—Aung Lay, after seeing his home and world across the river.



An Assessment of Television’s Environmental Impact: Common Sense Considerations to Reduce Energy Consumption

My life recently shifted—away from friends and family, career, a splendid city, and the life I had built for nearly a decade to the unknown of a new country, city, and job.  With this transition came a new perspective and radical changes that are mostly welcome, sometimes challenging, and always unexpected.  These changes will soon be reflected in my postings.  However, before my departure I finished research on a topic I long avoided due to my lifelong addiction—television.

While my new life means that a television is no longer my low maintenance companion, offering entertainment and the constant hum of background noise, it does not mean that its presence is no longer felt.  Many homes in Thailand have at least one television.  In the country I left, the numbers are staggering.  The U.S. is home to almost as many televisions as people—approximately 275 million televisions live in our homes and offices.  

We are a culture that loves its TV.  I am no exception.  But what are the costs of our devotion to small screen entertainment?  What are the ecological impacts of our televisions and viewing habits?

The Creation, Life, and Disposal of Televisions

There are three stages in the "life" of a TV that create environmental impacts. These are (1) manufacturing and transport; (2) use; and (3) disposal

(1) Manufacturing and transport

Making a television is an energy intensive industrial process. This process requires fossil fuels to provide the considerable amounts of energy necessary to manufacture the highly refined glass and semiconductor components that make up modern television sets.  These components are comprised of non-renewable materials that contribute to the increasing problem of electronic waste

Once a television is manufactured, it must then be packaged and transported to its point of sale.  Some large retailers have made efforts to reduce their ecological footprint vis-a-vie transport (Sony, for example, now has a policy of shipping its goods by rail or sea rather than truck or air to reduce its energy costs).  Others have incorporated transport concerns into the CSR or corporate social responsibility programs.  However, while some CSR programs are effective, others should be viewed with skepticism and employ more rhetoric than actual corporate accountability. 

(2) Use

The environmental impact of your television will vary based on the type of television you own and how often you watch it.  Old-fashioned televisions use cathode ray tubes (CRT), which require more electricity than televisions based on newer technologies.  Yet new technology does not necessarily mean smaller carbon footprint.  Plasma televisions ionize gas to create the colors needed for its pixel cells, and this process requires significant amounts of energy to brighten the screen. 

Currently, the best choice for energy consumption is a flat-panel liquid crystal display, or LCD.  LCDs use fluorescent backlighting, which draws less energy than traditional technologies.  LCD technology has also advanced so that the backlighting is only on for certain areas of the screen or as needed, an improvement on earlier models that required backlighting to be constantly on full. 

An emerging technology that offers further energy reductions are sets using organic light emitting diodes or OLEDs.  OLEDs use an array of small LED lights in a very thin screen, promising to double energy efficiency from the best available current technologies. 

Size also matters.  Larger screens and longer duration of use increase energy use.  Standby or vampire power further increases energy drawn from TVs (see previous livingneutral post on how to reduce standby power usage).  Even when a television is off, it is not completely shutdown and still requires power to remain on standby.  There are ways to reduce our standby power consumption, or eliminate it entirely, which are discussed in a previous entry. 

Manufacturers are also mindful of this issue, working to improve efficiency to stay in line with energy star ratings in countries like the US and Japan.  Choosing a certified energy efficiency model will ensure that these kinds of considerations went into the design of your television.  If possible, try to find a manufacturer that complies with ROHS, or the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive. The ROHS requires the elimination of hazardous substances like lead and mercury in electronics imported into EU member states.  Because the US does not have similar restrictions, many available electronics still contain lead-based solder, mercury, cadmium, and brominated fire retardants.  Manufacturing with these chemicals creates toxic waste and emissions and pollutes disposal sites.

Broadcast power further contributes to TV’s broader environmental impact.  Transmission of broadcasts signals requires large amounts of power.  Alternatively, programs downloaded via the internet require much less energy on the front end to reach your screen.

(3) Disposal

Even at the end of its life cycle, a television continues to impact the environment.  According to the EPA, approximately 20 million televisions are disposed of in the US annually, with more than 80 percent going to landfills.  Toxic chemicals from these TVs can leach into soil and groundwater, creating environmental and health hazards.  Recycling offers a promising alternative.  However, it is important to understand where the television goes when recycled.  Often, they are resold in developing countries.  CRT tubes can also be melted down to make products like car batteries.  This often occurs in countries where environmental regulations are non-existent or go unenforced. 

In summary—if you are in the market for a television, consider an energy efficient model that complies with international standards.  Letting go of your need for a massive screen will also lower your energy bill and ecological impact.  Finally, try to use a television for its full life cycle, and do not simply discard it into a landfill once its reached expiration date. 

With recent news that we’ve passed the 400 parts per million carbon dioxide milestone, it is important that we begin to make changes in our lives.  These might be radical—giving up the use of a television entirely as I have—or small—using energy efficient models for the duration of their lifespan.  We owe our future selves and generations the foresight to make better decisions today.  Indeed, our choices should be obligations—to reduce our ecological impacts and encourage businesses through our behavior.


Style and Sustainablity: The Environmental Impact of Handbags 


When I received a request to research the sustainability of handbags, I had two reactions.  First, I felt a surge of guilt, knowing that the leather handbags sitting in my closet are far from eco-friendly.  Second, I thought information and alternatives to traditional products would be easily found.  Nearly every woman I know owns at least one handbag.  Surely, this must mean that information on the issue would be prolific.  I assumed incorrectly.  As I’ve discovered, there is little transparency in the fashion industry.  Unlike other products, there appears to be little push for eco-friendly handbag substitutes and consumers seem content with mainstream design.  I must confess that I have been guilty of purchasing based on aesthetic whim rather than considering looks and environmental impacts.  While the impacts of individual products remains unclear, here is what I was able to learn and what will now inform my future handbag decisions:

The Impacts of Leather

Most designer handbags are made of leather.  Leather requires cows, and raising cows creates impacts due to their grazing, the land needed to raise them, and the carbon emissions they produce.  Leather manufacturing also has environmental costs, at all stages of the three-step process: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting.  Dehairing during the preparatory stages uses chemicals such as sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, and sodium sulphydrate.  This process creates air pollution (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming).  Chemicals are also used in traditional tanning processes, and the amount of energy required to create a usable leather hide is 20 times greater than what is required to produce synthetic materials.

Leather biodegrades, albeit slowly for a natural product.  The 25-40 years it takes for leather to decompose is much shorter than the 500 or more years it takes for petro-chemical derived materials. Where leather production occurs also affects its environmental impacts.  For example, India is the third-largest producer and exporter of leather.  Its lax environmental laws, however, allows tanneries to create far greater amounts of hazardous waste without repercussions.  Producers have dumped wastewater directly into waterways and wetlands.  This occurs in other countries with loose environmental regulations, and at times in those with more stringent laws.

There has been a move by local artisans to use vegetable and naturally tanned organic leather, which greatly reduces the toxicity stemming from the traditional process.  This does not eliminate the ethical and animal-cruelty arguments against leather's use, and the reasons designers like Stella McCartney refuse to incorporate it in their products.  Vegetable tanning also uses the same energy intensive process as its traditional counterpart.

Alternatives to leather are discussed below.  Bear in mind, however, that petro-chemical based materials have vast environmental impacts.  The use of plant-derived or renewable fabrics is on the rise, which offers a promising shift in the handbag industry. 

Environmental costs of traditional production

There has also been a move to place a monetary value on environmental impacts by large corporations.  PPR, parent of upscale designers like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Girard-Perrecaux and Sergion Rossi, claims that it will incorporate the impact of ecosystem services in its reporting by 2015.  This means that monetary costs will be associated with the environmental impact of these companies' products.  Puma, also a PPR brand, recently estimated its ecosystem costs at $196 million a year.  These costs cover water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use costs.  Half of these costs are related to raw materials.  Louis Vuitton has also implemented a carbon inventory to measure its footprint and reduce carbon emissions.  They have also agreed to donate 15% of online sales to The Climate Project, but admit that eco-friendly materials are not a priority in its product lines. 

What does this mean for the impact of individual products?  First, that the environmental impact of raw materials—like leather, cotton, and rubber—are not only drastically underestimated in current production, they aren’t a factor at all.  While the promise to estimate impact by these high-end designers is admirable, these costs do not affect companies’ net earnings and are currently not addressed in most corporate reporting.  This means that the impact of a product-line, much less an individual product, is often not calculated.  If it is calculated, it need not be transparent.  Little information exists about these products because such information is not required.  This also means, when selecting an individual product, material matters.  Eco-friendly handbags are made out of eco-friendly materials.  It’s that simple.

Eco-friendly Handbag Materials:

What are eco-friendly materials?  Look for organically grown fibers.  Traditional cotton, for example, requires oil for production and use of pesticides and fertilizers needed for cotton.  Alternatively, organic cotton is durable, washable and reusable and does not rely on pesticides. Bamboo is also an excellent substitute for traditional materials.  Organic fibers are biodegradable and do not require the bevy of chemicals often used in synthetics, or traditional materials via pesticides. 

Recycled materials are also popular in handbags.  Foil wrappers, seat belts, and other recycled materials are repurposed into fashion items.  If you like the look, Ecoist makes an array of recycled handbags.  It’s worth considering, however, that even recycled materials have impacts.  Recycled vinyl, for example, will take 500 years to biodegrade in a landfill and will leach its chemical contents into the ground.  This may make naturally tanned leather preferable. 

As well as being functional, handbags are often a reflection of style, an individual statement used on a daily basis.  For those wishing to make a statement about their commitment to renewable energy, they can invest in a solar powered bag.  Others may wish to choose organic materials or plant-based bags.  In the past, solar bags have meant a sacrifice of style.  Yet the handbags made by Noon Solar are attractive and functional.  They can charge your electronic gadgets in a matter of minutes.  Each is made with vegetable tanned and dyed leather with an interior of organic hemp and cotton hand-dyed with natural pigments.  The hardware and panels are also removable so the bag is fully biodegradable should you ever wish to part with it.   Noon Solar’s collection includes non-solar bags made out of natural materials, including organic hemp, cork and cotton.

Buy Local, Used, or Nothing at All

Before purchasing a new handbag, stop, look in your closet, and consider if you really need a new one.  If you are like me, you probably use the same one or two bags most of the time.  If you are going to get a new bag, you may want to visit a second-hand store.  You can find great vintage or well-loved bags there, and sell or trade one of your own underused bags at the same time.   If you are looking for a unique, new bag, turn to local artisans first.  A simple internet search will turn up many, or visit local craft fairs and ask the vendor how he or she makes their products.  This is a link to a local designer I found in the Bay area.  Local purchase also reduces the impacts from manufacture and transport of large brand-named bags.  Finally, any bag you purchase should be one you intend to use.  Environmental impacts aside, finding a versatile bag will allow you to get more use out of the bag, offers to weather ever-changing trends, and prevents additional purchases and an accumulation of unused bags. 


Transit Eco-Footprint: A New Year's Resolution to Cut Back on Car Use

A new year means beginnings— a fresh start for some, resolutions for many, and an opportunity to make goals and shift routines in need of change.  We often reflect on our lives and look for opportunities to grow, improve, and find gratitude for what we love.  It is also a perfect opportunity to reflect upon our relationships, with others and with the world we live in. 

Transit—our means of mobility—is an important, ubiquitous way we interact with our environment.  It is also an easy place to make small changes with big impacts.  Cutting down on car commuting, riding bikes, or increasing use of public transit can reduce our transit eco-footprint and shake up our daily transit routine. 

The Costs of Travelling by Car

Ninety percent of Americans drive to work (and only 0.6% bike to work).  Commuting by car has significant impacts—both environmentally and financially.  As Americans seek space and sprawl out from urban centers, the seeming financial benefits of reduced mortgages and a lower cost of living may be offset by the costs of long commutes to financial centers.  One estimate, based on IRS calculations, concluded that a two-car commute of 19 miles each way would cost $125,000 over 10 years.  Add to this cost the hours spent in a car, which for many adds a full work-day onto the week (with 6 hours in a car), and the costs and time spent after 10 years may equate to 1.3 working years of time.  The costs are considerable, and make city living— and the access to transit that often accompanies urban density—appealing for those who work in financial centers.

The EPA calculates the cost of automobiles using three variables: (1) internal variable costs, which include vehicle operation, fuel and travel time as discussed above; (2) internal fixed costs, or the costs of car ownership associated with insurance, fees and depreciation; and (3) external costs such as road upkeep, which are collectively imposed.  Combined, the cost of owning and operating a car is around 40 cents per passenger-kilometer.  This estimate was made over a decade ago, meaning that with inflation and as fuel costs have risen, the current cost is much higher. 

Environmental Costs

The impacts of transportation, like all environmental impacts, fall into three categories: direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts.  Direct impacts are the immediate consequences to the environment; indirect impacts are those impacts to environmental systems; and cumulative impacts are the additive, combined impacts of transport activities.   

Our lives have become so intertwined with transportation activities, from commuting, to freight delivery, and travel, that it has become dominant source of pollution and environmental impact.  Transportation accounts for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in some states.  Yet, the environmental or external costs of transportation are often unaccounted for, and may be responsible for up to 30% of estimated automobile costs.  A failure to consider these costs results in their subsidization by society, by future generations, and by the health of the planet. 

Environmental costs include the following: climate change, air quality impacts, noise, water and soil quality impacts, biodiversity factors, and land use changes.  Hostra University did a thorough analysis of the environmental implications of transportation.  Their conclusion: “better transport practices, such a fuel efficient vehicles, that reduce environmental externalities are likely to have positive economic, social and environmental consequences."


A few months ago, we explored solutions to the problem of automobile impact, which included car sharing, car pooling, and reducing car use.  Car pooling could save up to eight billion gallons of gas each year, and leaving your car behind twice a week would save an average of 1,600 pounds of CO2 emissions a year.

Cars produce a full pound of CO2 each mile, although not all cars have the same impact.  Driving an SUV versus a hybrid will have different environmental consequences.  The EPA suggests that before buying or renting a car, consumers check EPA's Green Vehicle Guide and the EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide.  These guides provide information on the emissions and fuel economy performance of different vehicles. 

If you must drive, drive smartly.  Avoid overuse of brakes, hard accelerations, and idling.  Remove racks that are not in use, and maximize efficiency when using cruise control.  Keep your car maintenance up to date, your tire pressure correct, and remember to change your oil. 

Better yet, take a break from the car.  Use public transit, walk or bike.  70% of car trips in the U.S. are less than 2 miles, which translates to an easy 10-minute bike ride.  Bike commuting also has health benefits: the average person will lose 13 pounds in the first year of riding to work; this saves approximately $544 in medical costs annually, and bicycles are 50% faster than cars during rush hour.  This site provides a great infographics that show the benefit of cycling. 

The results of a resolution to drive less: Cutting back on our reliance on automobiles will reduce our environmental impact and lessen the cumulative and direct costs of our car culture. 


Green Holiday Habits: Tips for an Eco-Friendly Holiday Season

An inundation of Christmas music and gift advertisements, a series of food comas, and invitations to ugly sweater parties can only mean one thing—it’s holiday season again.  It’s a time to celebrate with family and friends, to show gratitude, and make plans for the coming year.  The holidays also mean gifts, cards, wrapping paper, lights, Christmas trees, parties and travel. These material things impact our environment.  At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, here are a few suggestions to cut down on your holiday eco-footprint.   

Reduce Your Paper Use

1.  Holiday Greeting Cards

A staggering 1.5-1.9 billion holiday greeting cards are sent in the U.S. each year.  The impact of this volume of paper, combined with packaging and the transportation costs to deliver these cards, adds up quickly.  Paper waste accounts for 40% of the contents of our landfills. The paper products industry is the third largest source of green house gases, behind petrochemical and cement manufacturing.

The alternative to paper cards is simple, cheaper, and more environmentally sound: email.  For those concerned with etiquette, Huffington Post's Ms. Eco Etiquette and the Post family agree that e-cards are the greener, logical alternative to paper holiday cards.  E-cards, once a bit garish and obnoxious, now come in a number of attractive and witty forms.  Paperless post is an excellent example.  Another email option that I always enjoy receiving are holiday email updates from family and friends. This can come in the form of a recap of the year and often includes photos and other personal flourishes. 

Emails do have an eco-footprint, albeit much smaller than paper.  An email has 1/60th the carbon footprint of a traditional letter.  Still, our virtual impacts add up: internet use accounts for 3% of U.S. energy consumption

For those who just can't let go of the tangible card option, consider purchasing recycled cards or buy form local card makers.  Miss Eco Etiquette also suggests Botanical PaperWorks, cards made of 100% post-consumer waste that include plantable wildflower seeds.  A recycled card that grows into a beautiful plant—what could be greener?!  If you receive greeting cards, try to reuse them.  Recycled cards make excellent gift tags, postcards, and bookmarks. 

2.  Wrapping Paper

In addition to the large amount of paper consumed through holiday cards, wrapping papers' near ubiquitous use—an estimated 98% of consumers claim that they will wrap presents for the holidays—contributes to the large volume of holiday paper waste.  Nearly half of the timber harvested makes its way into paper products, and paper requires more water than any other industrial activity in developed countries.  Between Thanksgiving and New Years, Americans dispose of a million extra tons of trash a week.  That’s 25% more waste than the rest of the year.  Half of the paper products we consume goes towards packaging, wrapping and decorating products (with wrapping paper and shopping bags accounting for 4 million tons of trash annually). 

Instead of wrapping gifts in new paper, try to reuse other gift bags or paper and recycle or reuse any paper from gifts you unwrap.  Note, however that most conventional giftwrap is not recyclable.  Tape also complicates the process: it isn’t biodegradable or recyclable.  By wrapping three gifts in recycled paper, we could save a collective 4.5 million yards of paper Boxes can also be reused, and look for “tree-free” giftwrap made from bamboo, hemp, or cotton.  Newspaper, fabrics, shopping bags, and even cereal boxes can also be repurposed as giftwrap.

3.     Gift tags and invitations

The same suggestions apply to gift tags and party invitations. Try a DIY option, think about reusing household items (file folders, old cards, etc), send e-invites, and be creative!

Lessen Your Electricity Load

If you must decorate your house with lights, upgrade to LED lights, which use 90% less energy than conventional lights.  This can also save you $50 a month on your energy bills.  The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if everyone replaced their conventional holiday lights with LED lights, we could save 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each month.  Switching to smaller bulbs also reduces energy consumption. 

Another simple energy-saving solution is to simply turn lights off.  When you are not home or asleep, there is no need to illuminate an unseen room or space. 

Be Tree Friendly

Christmas trees are a must in many households. Of course, there are fir-free alternatives.  These, however, require energy and materials to manufacture and supply, although the one-time purchase of a fake tree can save energy.

If you, like many, want a live tree and the pine smell it brings, then at a minimum recycle your tree as soon as possible.  Fresh trees can be ground into woodchips rather than taking up space in a landfill.  Earth 911 provides further info for tree recycling in your area.  

And . . . a few miscellaneous things.

Consider donations in lieu of gifts or buy local.  Look for organic, sustainable foods and try to keep your portions and leftovers minimal.  Making a few changes can ensure happy holidays for generations to come.  Be well and enjoy!