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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Entries in food (4)


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!


In Vino Veritas: The Carbon Footprint of Wine

I am a wine lover.  As a San Francisco resident, I live near one of the world's most productive wine regions.  Many of our local wines are fantastic, but I also enjoy the occasional glass from other parts of the world.   As I was sharing a bottle of wine with friends a few nights ago, I began to wonder about the impact of my favorite wines.  Does it matter where they came from?  How the grapes were grown?  How the wine is bottled?  From a purely environmental perspective, should I be drinking Bordeaux or California cabernet? 

A study published in the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE)—a niche I never knew existed before this week!— explored the carbon impact of wine production from the vineyard to your wineglass.  The study considered the carbon emissions of four factors: (1) the cultivation of grapes, including production of agrichemicals and use of fuel; (2) the fermentation process; (3) the production and transport of barrels and bottles; and (4) the shipping of the final product.     

Land, Air, or Sea?  The Method of Transportation Matters

It turns out that transportation is the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of wine.  The authors of the AAWE study, an NYU professor of wine and a sustainability expert, discovered that the method of transportation dramatically affects the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine.  Their findings led them to create a “green line” dividing the U.S. and running roughly through Ohio down, through Southern Texas. 

For wine drinkers West of this line, it is more carbon efficient to drink wine trucked from California—where more than 95% of the wine in United States is made.  To the East of the line, it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from France or Australia, both of which travel via more carbon efficient container ships, followed by a shorter truck trip.

These surprising results come from the dramatic difference in the carbon efficiency of transportation.  Unrefrigerated container ships are the most efficient—although they use very dirty fuel and emit other nasty pollutants in great volume—followed by trucks, and finally airplanes.  Air cargo can be delivered in a matter of hours, compared to the lengthy time required by container ships, but have over 11 times the carbon emissions

This means that it is more carbon efficient for a New Yorker to drink a glass of Bordeaux or Australian Shiraz than a glass of California wine.  In fact, wine traveling from Sydney to New York has less than a quarter of the carbon emissions as one trucked from California.  The efficiencies of container ships extend even to Los Angeles, where it is slightly more carbon efficient to drink wine from Chile or Australia than it is from Napa, where wine must travel over 400 miles by truck.  Below is a chart, put together by TreeHuger, which illustrates the study’s findings:

French Wine Best for East Coast USA If you live in New York your options, best to worst, are:

  • Bordeaux, France (which are shipped via ship) = 0.3 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chile (also sent by ship) = 0.4 pounds
  • Sydney, Australia (ship, again) = 0.9 pounds
  • Napa, California (driven by truck) = 4.4 pounds

French or Chileans Top Chicago Choice Here's Chicago's break down (it’s ship and then truck for all of them, except California which is all truck):

  • French wines = 1.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chilean wines = 1.6 pounds
  • Australian wines = 2.1 pounds
  • Californian wines = 3.2 pounds

Los Angeles’s Surprising Choices Chilean wines (very) slightly better than Californian:

  • Chilean wines = 0.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Californian or Australian wines = 0.6 pounds
  • French wines = 3.0 pounds

Of course, if you live in the Bay area as I do, the choice is obvious—Napa, Russian River, or Sonoma wines have a very small footprint compared to all of the calculations above.  It is also worth noting that transportation by train, if available for wine producers, provides a vastly more carbon efficient alternative to truck transport—trains emit about a quarter of the CO2 that trucks do.   

Other Considerations

The study also considered other factors in wine production, as noted above.  Globally, fertilizers have a notable contribution to green house gases.  However, for wine production, the study concluded that the impact is minimal—although fertilizers contain damaging pollutants.  Similarly, the fermentation process accounted for a small portion of the total carbon emissions associated with wine making. 

Packaging also played a key factor in transportation efficiency and thus, the overall footprint of wine.  Glass is heavy and requires more fuel to transport.  Some winemakers have begun to turn to alternatives to glass and heavy packaging—lighter glass, boxed wine, tetrapacks, and even plastic.  In fact, several producers now package their wines exclusively in tetrapack.  Apparently, these wines can be quite tasty, although I have yet to confirm this for myself. 

For those who cannot seem to let go of the experiential aspect of uncorking a glass bottle of wine, bigger is better.  The larger the bottle, the less its carbon impact.  A magnum has a smaller relative footprint than a standard bottle, which has a smaller relative footprint than a half bottle. 

So… what does all this mean?

If you are trying to “green” your wine drinking, choose larger bottles of wine—preferably organic—that have traveled fewer miles via truck.  For some wine enthusiasts, however, there is more to wine than its carbon footprint.  Sometimes, you might want that glass of French wine in San Francisco or California chardonnay in New York.  And wine’s footprint compared to other agricultural products or factors, has a relatively small impact.  The “green line” is simply another tool to use when considering our environmental impact.


Tackling the Grocery Store: The Impact of Food - Part 2

Last week focused on the grocery store behaviors that impact our carbon footprint.  Equally important and the topic of this week's post are the food decisions we make and their impact on the environment.

The health benefits and risks associated with food are widely discussed, albeit not always understood by the general consumer (check out summertomato for tips on healthy eating).  However, the ecological impact of our food is not the first thing that comes to mind when choosing what to buy.  Our shopping habits and biases often lead us to choose the most visually appealing, familiar, or cheapest option.  To overcome these shopping biases, I have found it helpful to consider the following general rules:

1.   Buy local

The greatest carbon impact of many foods comes from its transportation.  A tremendous amount of energy is required to ship food and keep grocery stores stocked with the variety we have come to expect.  In places with short growing seasons, like Britain, up to 95% of fruits and more than half of vegetables are imported.

The U.S. is the second leading importer of food, behind the European Union.  While the cost of food has increased—with the value of fresh fruit and vegetables doubling in the U.S. from 2000 to 2006—current food prices do not reflect the environmental costs involved in ensuring its delivery to our local store.

In Europe, this misalignment might be changing.  The European Commission announced that all freight coming into and out of the EU will require permits under the emissions-trading program by 2012.  The U.S. is slow to promulgate environmentally based regulation, but this does not mean that one day the cost of our globalized foods won't more adequately reflect the distance of its travel.

The best solution to this problem: buy local, seasonal products rather than those that have been shipped across the country or halfway around the world.  The footprint from transportation of local food is bound to be less, and you have the added satisfaction of supporting local growers.

Note: some foods that travel long distances may have less environmental impact than local products, if these products are grown in energy-intensive greenhouses.  Buying both local and organic ensures that travel and energy costs are minimized.

2.   Pick fresh over frozen or canned

Freezing and canning both require quite a bit of energy.  Canned foods also pose a health risk due to the high BPA content of the lining (even higher than plastic water bottles).  This is frightening considering that the FDA estimates 17% of the American diet comes from canned foods.

Look for fresh produce alternatives and consider canning your own fruits and vegetables in glass jars.  If you do buy canned foods, buy from companies that offer BPA free cans.

3.    Minimize refrigerated products

Storing frozen and refrigerated food also has a surprising impact on the carbon footprint of a product.  Take beer, for example.  In a recent study, New Castle brewery found that the greatest impact on the footprint of a six-pack of its beer, which is about 7 pounds of carbon, came from its refrigeration in stores.

Encourage your local store to minimize its refrigeration section and seek out enclosed rather than open-air refrigerated products.  Open-air refrigeration pours cool air into stores and eats up large amounts of energy in the process.  Most beverages do not need refrigeration.  Instead, buy beverages at room temperature and store them that way until they need cooled.

4.    Avoid the cow, and other meats if you can

If you are really serious about your carbon footprint, you might want to reduce your meat and dairy consumption.  Dairy and beef production requires a lot of water and energy.  Cows need land to graze—land that is plowed, fertilized, and sometimes loaded with pesticides; feed, which is often heavily processed; and energy and equipment for slaughter and distribution.

The average cow produces the equivalent of four tons of CO2 annually, mainly in the form of methane, which is 25 times as damaging to the atmosphere as CO2.  The carbon footprint of a single gallon of milk (in a plastic container) is somewhere between 6-7.5 pounds, although recent studies have found it might be closer to double this amount.

Beef has a carbon footprint estimated at anywhere from 10:1 to 20:1 ratio—that's 15 pounds of CO2 for every pound of beef on average.  Pork and chicken produce less CO2 but still far more than fruits and vegetables.  It has been estimated that a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on in your home.

Despite these grim statistics, I still enjoy the occasional piece of meat or exotic fruit.  Moderation is my new mantra—I will not give up my cheese addiction and I am not a vegetarian, but I am more conscious of the source and quantities of the foods I purchase.


Tackling the Grocery Store: Plastic Bag Rehab & Shopping Tips - Part 1

Grocery shopping can seem overwhelming—shelves of similar products in various shapes and sizes, rows of frozen and canned foods, and a mosaic of brightly colored fruits and vegetables available regardless of the season. 

Added to this confusion are a few entrenched (and environmentally problematic) shopping tendencies: (1) the use plastic bags and packaging; (2) thinking the cheaper choice is the better choice; and (3) not thinking about where our food actually comes from.  Fortunately, variety means other equally viable options also exist. 

Each of these shopping habits has a number of simple, climate responsible, alternatives.  Here are a few of my shopping solutions (later posts will follow to address our food decisions):

1.  Bring your own produce bags…

or better yet, avoid using plastic bags entirely.  Why do apples or oranges need separate plastic bags?  Most of the produce we buy can be purchased without packaging.  For those items that may need a bag (including bulk items), consider bringing your own bag with you.  Reuse produce, bread, or old shopping bags.  If you are forgetful, as I am, keep a couple handy in your car or bike bag.

2.  Bring your own grocery bag

For the last decade, plastic bags have been the target of many local initiatives.  San Francisco banned them in 2007 and is considering expanding this ban to all merchants.  Designers started anti-plastic bag campaigns.  By now, most of us are aware that plastic clogs our landfills. 

The carbon footprint of plastics varies but has been estimated at 6 kg of CO2 per kg of plastic produced.  Certain plastics have also been linked to various health risks.  The alternatives to disposable grocery bags are many—and come in all shapes, colors and fabrics.  They are portable, and like produce bags, can be stored in a convenient place for any grocery or shopping run.  

3.   Buy in bulk 

Buying larger quantities of non-packaged goods will reduce your trips to the grocery store and cut down on your overall packaging (and hence environmental) footprint.  For those serious about their carbon impact, consider bringing in your own bulk containers or a reusable bag, as described above.

4.  Packaging—less is more

Think about the amount and type of packaging of the food products you purchase.  Not all packaging has the same impact.  As I will discuss next week, the canning and freezing process requires a lot of energy.  Consider buying fresh fruits and vegetables (and local produce). 

Products with less packaging, or compostable packaging, reduces waste and the amount you send to the landfill.  For certain products, look for refills (like personal care and cleaning products). 

If you still find that layers of packaging in certain products as troublesome as I do, use your voice, or purchasing power to let companies know how you feel.  This can be an effective advocacy tool, especially given that retailers and consumer products companies rely on you for continued existence.


This blog is a space to consider environmental issues and our impact on the natural world.  Sometimes, the world shows us just how powerful and unpredictably it can impact our lives.  This is also a personal blog, and as such I encourage anyone who can to donate money or send thoughts to those suffering in Japan in the wake of the recent earthquake, tsunami, and pressing nuclear concerns.  There are a number of reputable charities doing great work (for a list, click here); I personally turn to MercyCorps to do what I can.  Every act of generosity, no matter how small, matters.