Friday, September 5, 2008

Urban buckaroo*

Earlier this summer, I wrote a little on the subject of actions we can take and changes we can make in our local communities and in our own lives to move toward sustainable communities. There’s ample talk on the blog-lines and in the media about energy policy, horizon technologies, innovative markets, and many other visionary solutions. I feel terribly clever when I write about these things, but I don’t know how to make any of them actually happen. Unfortunately, the collective-we would rather watch the house burn down than stop playing with matches. I can however talk about some simple choices just about anyone can make (starting today) to reduce their personal impact on the environment. I fear that the solution isn’t in the hands of business leaders, inventors, and politicians who will solve problems on our behalf. We have to be the solution.
I start with the evergreen issue of paper products. We use paper towels and napkins in droves- something like 3,000 tons per day in the US. And while my local Greenpeacers get the facts wrong, they’re on the right track about one thing: We’re cutting down wild forests for napkins, paper towels, and other disposable paper products. Aside from the more ethereal values, these forests provide clean water, clean air, habitat for game, and carbon sinks. Forests provide valuable services to people. Cutting them for napkins doesn’t seem like a good deal. Moreover, when we pitch our used paper towels, they take up lots of space in landfills, decomposing to produce methane. That’s it for the harangue.
Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to this. It’s easy to use fewer paper towels and napkins. Around the house, the alternatives couldn’t be easier. Invest in some kitchen towels and some sturdy but inexpensive cloth napkins. This isn’t exactly a visionary solution.
The real aha is this: When you’re at the office, on campus, running errands, or just out for fast food, bring a bandana. It’s a paper towel, it’s a napkin. Never again will you wash your hands and then groan because the paper towel dispenser is empty. If you happen to be in a gang, it’s good for that too. (You can showoff your “political gang” with red, blue, or green.)
You can buy bandanas anywhere in any style, often for well-under $2.00 each. It’s still possible to find some made in the USA (sorry to BIA readers in the Chinese textile industry), and if you’re cleverer than I am, you can probably find them made from organic cotton. After the first wash, you can generally toss them in with other laundry, so they don’t add to your water or energy bills.
I’ve brought one to the office every day for the last three years (and have had some of them much longer than that), and I have yet to wear one out or ruin any. This is a cheap, easy way to do something green. Be the solution.

*Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill is aware that one can also be a suburban, rural, campus, wilderness, or any number of other buckaroos, vaqueros, gauchos, gaúchos, or sabaneros (or -as, as appropriate). The author would also like to emphasize that it is not necessary to dress like a cowboy to carry a bandana.

Image sources:
British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range
Texas A&M University


E. R. Dunhill said...

It's worth saying again: Since they're über-cheap, the dye is not particularly fast when you buy them. Before their first use, I recommend washing them in a hot cycle with two rinses. Or you can hand wash them and thoroughly rinse them. After that, like I wrote, you can generally just toss them in with other laundry.

Motherhussy said...


I really enjoy when you write about "individual green-ness." Maybe it's just me, but when I hear Pickens and Co. on the television talking about all their grand plans to make over the way our country uses energy, it wears me out. Not that his ideas aren't noble, but thinking about the time, money, political persuasion, etc. that these plans will require, well, just exhausts me. And I care about changing my earth-damaging ways. Imagine how people who don't care much about global warming will react to this type of overwhelming "Extreme Makeover: Earth Edition."*

Now carrying around a cute little red (or blue, or green, or ecru) bandana....not tiring at all! And now I am looking forward to purchasing some nice dinner napkins. It is possible to be a consumer while still reducing damage to the earth--hooray!

*This is in no way affiliated with ABC's often tear-jerking "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." In fact, it doesn't really even exist as a television program at all--it should though.

E. R. Dunhill said...

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. I'm hearing a lot of people express frustration over the glacial pace of change and over the feeling that they're being left out of this process. Every person has the power to realize positive changes, and these small improvements add up to make a big difference.
Also, I plan to do a bit like this one every week for the next several weeks, so stay tuned.
As for your show idea, it sounds like something Doug Adams might have dreamed up.

Sue said...

erd, I don't like being a wet blanket, but...
bandanas (as you noted) have to be washed -- so do towels. And if you're using bandanas instead of tissues for your cold you should probably be washing them in hot water. (If you're someone with allergies like me who blows their nose at least once every 15 minutes that could mean quite a few bandanas in a day). Now washing requires water in someplaces in the U.S. a very scarce resource (although not always priced as if it is), and in someplaces the water is drawn from non-renewable or fossil underground sources. Even when its not there is the issue of water treatment -- and much depends on what type of cleaning agent is used in the water. Then of course there is the electricity required to heat the water and run the washing machine, and depending upon the outside weather on the particular day that you absolutely have to have those clean bandanas there may be the electricity to run a dryer. Now if your electricity comes 100 percent from renewable sources (which only a tiny percent of American's do) that's probably fine. But if you're like most of us, who get all or at least a significant part of our electricity from coal, then well, that's a problem. Because if its a toss up between using up trees (which can regrow) and using coal then you have to wonder which does more overall harm to the environment.
This is a bit like the lightbulb issue that you brought up months ago, where you cautioned people about throwing out existing still working lightbulbs in favor of compact flourescents. It's important to think through all of the resource uses before one simply declares that using some thing reusable instead of something disposable is the right way to go.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I make a distinction between paper towel substitutes and Kleenex substitutes. That's why I stress reusable substitutes for paper towels and napkins.
As for the laundry issue, the bandanas clean just fine in cold water. Also, since I'm only using one per day, I don't do extra loads of laundry or wash larger loads. While there are certainly some readers for whom this is not the best solution (and I encourage readers to consider their local geographies), for most people carrying a bandana or a single cloth napkin is a simple and effective solution to reduce waste.
If you use cloth napkins and kitchen towels at home as I do, you do need to consider water usage. For me, as for many readers, the daily waste reduction is worth more than ratcheting one load of laundry up one water-level, once a week. Again, a good cold water detergent generally cleans these fine. If they get particularly messy, you can soak them in a sink of cold water and Borax, which is a reasonably benign bleaching agent.

Motherhussy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue said...

I think its a matter of balance, and awareness of the complexity of environmental issues. It's a shame that some people react to complexity by becoming frozen into inaction -- as general rule I think more information is better than less.

If you have to clean up things really foul, messy and potentially germ carrying things (some of the things I deal with are cat pee and excrement that doesn't go where it is suppose to go) then judicious use of unbleached, paper towels from recycled paper (available on-line as well in some groceries today from sources like Seventh Generation) are often the reasonable choice. In our house we use approximately one roll of paper towels (or less) in a week.

Personally for at home and work napkin alternatives I like fuzzy polyester kitchen/bar towels that I found at Walmart, that are very absorbant, quick drying, and don't stain as badly as cotton, and wash better in cold than cotton does; they do well as "bibs" too -- I used to ruin too many work clothes by spilling lunch (eating at my desk is a necessity most days) down my front.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd why is it when we try and preserve the "earth" more ill will befalls man?..... limit the number of deer kills in our neck of the woods. more accidents caused by deer. allow over growth of plant life. forest fires occur.. allow a dangerous species to over develop, more attacks.... man should be allowed to reign over this planet, for his protection if nothing else....

Chris Crawford said...

Gee, I've been carrying around bandanas for years, and I never knew I was so green...

Yes, I use it for light cleaning, but when I'm wiping the tractor grease off my hands, I use the paper towel, not the bandana.

For years I used to carry around a regular handkerchief, but I never used it. My grand plan was to wait until I saw a female friend sneeze, then quickly offer my handkerchief, saying in my best faux-European accent "Ah, but a gentleman always carries a freshly laundered handkerchief in it!" while handing it to her. After she blew her nose I would look at her aghast and say in my best country-hick voice "Ah didn't know you wuz gonna put snot in it!"

But after twenty years of waiting futilely for my chance, I gave up and switched to the red bandana, which is more practical.

There is of course the inevitability that, for every principled person who does such things, there will be a sneering, SUV-driving, paper-towel-wasting ass who will laugh at the principled person. However, there is some cosmic justice. Those SUV-driving fools are getting kicked in the wallets these days. The value of their SUVs has nosedived, while my Prius is worth more now than when I bought it brand new.

Chris Crawford said...

Pat, when you write man should be allowed to reign over this planet, what does that mean? Parents reign over their children, but that doesn't mean that the parent kills the unruly child. It means that the parent accepts responsibility for the well-being of the child. In the same manner, we *do* reign over the earth and we *do* have a responsibility to use our power wisely.

Sounds like our necks of the woods are similar. Yes, cutting back on deer hunting leads to deer everywhere, but in eleven years in this neck, I've never hit a deer. I drive a bit more slowly at night and I watch the sides of the road more carefully. Not just for deer, but for all the night creatures that like to leap in front of the car at the last second. I have never hit an animal and had to hit the brakes hard only three or four times.

Fortunately, the solution to deer overpopulation is built into the system: mountain lions. Unfortunately, there are always a few nitwits who shoot mountain lions thinking that they are dangerous predators. What gutless fools! The mountain lion is a smart customer, and doesn't like trouble. All you do is get a couple of big dogs, leave them outside at night, and encourage them to bark at strange noises. The mountain lion gets the message and steers clear of the house. We didn't have any dogs when we first moved in here, and the mountain lion cleaned out two goats in short order. We got the dogs, and haven't had a speck of trouble since. I just hope that nobody shoots our mountain lion. If they do, then another will move into the territory and will have to be re-educated -- and in the meantime, it might blunder into a few of our animals and kill something.

And yes, if you let brush overgrow, you get bad forest fires. That's what brush hogs are for.

E. R. Dunhill said...

First and foremost, every problem and every solution is different. As long as you're writing about generalities, I can't respond with much specificity.
As for managing game, this practice has been used successfully in various forms by humans all over the world for centuries. Shouldn't reign include provision for one's children?
Some forest fires occur naturally, and some fires are necessary for the survival of some species of trees, which are in turn important food and habitat for wildlife, and in some cases contribute to the character of National Parks.
As for "dangerous species", most attacks on humans are the result of human ignorance or provocation. People should have the right to protect homes and livestock. But, we should also be sensitive to what land we develop. Predators, like any element of a natural system do what they do, and it seems wasteful to constantly pick a fight with nature. If someone drowned because he swims in dangerous waters, do you blame the river?
And, most important of all, why is my tip on how to produce less trash a bad thing? Does it do you some insult or injury for me and other readers to try to throw less stuff away? If lots of people do these kinds of things, you get something for nothing.

Pat Jenkins said...

now chris let's not over play my words. obviously reign means have dominion, and if that dominion is threatened by protecting the planet then our "concerns" have become misguided...

erd whenever man trys to "tame" existence problems occur. if one acts irresponsibly to the enviroment their actions should be contained. but to elevate the "world" above ourselves will lead to more harm against mankind. again i will say if this happens our concerns have become misguided!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

I'll make a deal with you. If any trees from boreal forests spared by BIA readers who carry bandanas show up to menace the Jenkins household, I'll drive to Ohio and help you fight them off.
In the mean time, I'll assert that the services that wild forests provide to people (clean air, clean water, habitat, a beautiful and profound place to visit) are worth more than another paper napkin. Reducing this kind of waste is an investment in something that is beneficial to people.

Chris Crawford said...

Pat writes . but to elevate the "world" above ourselves will lead to more harm against mankind.

But where does "the world" end and "ourselves" begin? Does "the world" not include the oxygen I breathe? I cannot elevate myself above that oxygen, lest I die, nor can I elevate the oxygen above myself. If I abuse the oxygen, then I suffer for it. And the same thing goes for every part of the world, albeit less directly. "The world" and "ourselves" are, over the long run, one and the same.

Pat Jenkins said...

firt erd i need to apologize to you. i was remiss in mocking your terps for their loss to middle tenn. sat. oh boy... he he.. i appreciate that, now if you can prevent the protected bats from invading my home, or any other species intruding my living space i will truly be indebted to you!!!....

now chris i am not saying we do not create a livable world. but if we stop using the "world" or allow it dominion, then our life does seem to be endangered!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
This is a very important point. I'm glad you've raised this. The human body is an open system. We are fundamentally connected to inputs like oxygen, water, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Likewise, we constantly introduce a variety of wates into our surroundings.
None of us are really alone. We're full of and covered with other organisms, mostly bacteria. Without some of these, we would die. Even our individual cells contain the relics of an eons-old bacterial invasion that ended in a truce.
Everything we do is predicated on the efficient and effective functioning of the machine called nature. We are not independent of nature anymore than my appendix is independent of the rest of my body.