In celebration of Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary here are 40 great tips on how to live and work a little more sustainably each day. Try them out this week and see if you can make a few of them work all year.

Tips 21-30

21. Add some solar to your lifestyle. Put up solar panels on your house, add a solar hot water heater or even just get a solar battery charger for your Ipod. Take advantage of the energy the sun gives us every day and reduce your electricity consumption, even a little bit.

22. Reduce your trash. Start by finding out how much trash you and your family, or you and your company make each month. You can count bags, or find out the weight hauled away. Publicize the quantity in a place where everyone can see and make suggestions on reducing, reusing and recycling before your cohorts throw stuff away. Set a goal to make a real reduction. Try to reduce by at least one bag or 1% of your total weight a month for a year. If you keep up with the publicity you may be surprized by the results.

23. Learn more about your water. Find out where your water comes from. Is it from a local well, a city system or some bottles shipped from a far away mountain stream? How does the water actually get into your faucet or bottle? What is the watershed that feeds it? Where is the aquifer? All states and many municipalities have water management plans that explain where the water comes from and how it is managed both for quantity and quality. You can find them online through your local water company or the environmental protection agency. Check it out.

24. Call, email or text. Communicate electronically and save the travel or the postage whenever it makes sence. Using electronic communication reduces the amount of travel and mail required every day.

25. Bring a canvas bag everywhere you go. Stick a simple canvas tote in your purse or backpack. Use it whenever you go to the store, any store, instead of a shopping bag. Stick a couple of extra ones in the trunk of your car for when you need to buy a lot of stuff.

26. Re-sole and re-lace your old shoes. We all have old shoes that we don’t really wear anymore. Take them to a cobbler and get new soles and laces to give them a new life. If you think they are out of style or don’t fit anymore donate them so someone else can enjoy your old kicks.  

27. Antiques are cool. Need a new lamp, check out a thrift shop. Looking for furniture, try a garage sale. See if you can find that one thing you really need used. This works for office furniture and factory tools just as well as home goods. Find out where the local industrial thrift shops are and see if you can save a few pennies and find what you need.

28. Shrink wrap. Try to reduce the amount of packaging you use to send gifts or goods. Use smaller more efficient boxes and wrappers. Don’t add extra fill if you don’t really need it. Try to make it simple, safe for delivery and small.

29. Get your company involved. How can your business be a little greener? Are there places where you can reduce waste and improve the bottom line? Is there a way to make product delivery a little shorter and reduce travel impacts? If you could make one minor change to your products or services keeping up quality but making them a little more sustainable what would it be? Write it up and share it with your coworkers. Need some ideas on how to present your plan, check out some of the letters to my favorite companies on this blog.

30.Make a new parking spot. Find a safe secure spot outside or in for you and your friends to park bikes, skateboards, scooters, roller blades or other modes of transportation that don’t require an engine. Don’t forget the hooks for helmets and pads. Let everyone know that there is a new place for their transportation of choice and encourage them to try it out.

Come back tomorrow to see tips 31-40

In celebration of Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary here are 40 great tips on how to live and work a little more sustainably each day. Try them out this week and see if you can make a few of them work all year.

Tips 11 – 20

11. Buy used. Need a new car, try out a used one first. Most used cars have only been on the road 3-5 years and still are good solid vehicles. Try it out and see if it fits your needs. By purchasing used, we are extending the life of these vehicles and reducing the number of new cars that need to be built each year.

12. Write a letter. Reach out to your mayor, representative even your president and tell them how important the environment is to you. Remind them that you elected them and that you expect them to do what they can to keep our waterways clean, make our energy sources more efficient and our homes safe and beautiful. Need an idea for a letter, check out some of the examples in the Letters category.

13. Open your windows. We all need fresh air. If the temperature is comfortable, open your windows and air the place out. Air quality will improve and you’ll probably be pretty comfy.

14. Compost. Start a compost bin in your backyard or on your stoop. See how much waste you can divert from a landfill just by separating out the egg shells and banana peals into a compost pile for next years flowers.

15. Celebrate! Make Earth Day a holiday for your family and friends. Host a picnic, go for a hike or just spend some time together outside enjoying our shared home. It is a day to remember how lucky we are to have such a great place to live, and to remind ourselves that we need to work to keep it beautiful.

16. Challenge your partners. Share your plans to become more sustainable with your business partners. Tell these other companies that supply or receive your services and goods that you expect them to take similar steps and challenge them to show you real results. Set real goals that you both can achieve and hold each other to them.

17. Clean your filters. At work, at home, at school ask if the filters have been cleaned in your HVAC systems? If they haven’t anytime in the last decade make sure that it happens. The air quality in the building will improve and the system won’t have to work as hard to maintain the right temperature.

18. Turn the lights out. There is nothing more romantic than candlelight. Why not try a turning out your electric lights for a night and living by candlelight, or even just turning in early. You will save electricity and you might have a great time changing up your regular routine.

19. Eat Organic. Try to eat at least one meal a day made of all organic food. Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.  Try it out and see what you think. If you like that fresh chemical free taste stick with it.

20. Walk the stairs. Do you need to take the elevator to the third floor? Try walking the stairs for a week. Keeping the elevators idle will reduce electrical usage and beef up those quads and calves.

Come back tomorrow to see tips 21-30.

In celebration of Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary here are 40 great tips on how to live and work a little more sustainably each day. Try them out this week and see if you can make a few of them work all year.

Tips 1 – 10

1. Take a walk. Can you walk to school, or the store, or to work today? Go for it. It will add some exercise to your routine and save a few miles on your car. Plus, you will save emissions and money.

2. Disposable package? Use it twice. If every time we bought a plastic water bottle, or paper cup we used it twice instead of just once we would effectively double the life cycle of that bit of plastic and reduce our waste by half. It is simple math, but let’s try to reuse everything that we buy for only a single use at least once more before we throw it out.

3. Slow down your food. Eat local and in season. By supporting local farms and making choices that are in season we are getting the best food at the right time. Eating seasonally means that produce doesn’t have to be processed and it is fresh and delicious. When you are out to eat ask your server what is in season. If they can’t tell you, tell them to ask the chef. You’ll find out just how fresh your food really is.

4. Check the bottom line. Find out what it costs to keep the lights on when no one is in your store, office or house. Talk to your coworkers and family about reducing the time that the lights are on, or at least changing the light bulbs to a more efficient CFL or LED. Share how much you can save by making simple changes.

5. Time yourself in the shower. Can you reduce the amount of time the water is running? Try it for a week and see if you can shave off two minutes from your normal shower. Most normal shower heads use 2.5 GPM (Gallons per minute) so if you save two minutes off your normal shower routine you’ll save 5 gallons of water a day! In a year that is over 1800 gallons of water and over 12 hours of found time in your daily routine.

6.  Read a book. Learn a little more about sustainability and ways to make your life a little greener. There are tons of great books out there. Try Cradle to Cradle to start, or check out something else from my book suggestions post.

7. Pick up. Grab one garbage bag, walk around your neighborhood and fill it. Most of us live in a place where someone needs to pick up after all of the litter and mess. Today, let that someone be you.

8. Talk to your boss. This week, find a time to ask your supervisor how the company you work for is getting more sustainable this year? Ask them to provide specific answers, or challenge them to help you take steps towards getting greener. Be warned, this will usually lead to new projects, which may lead to added responsibility and potential promotions. If you are the boss, ask your employees the same question and set achievable goals.  

9. Car pool. For one week try to car pool with a coworker or a friend. Take turns doing the driving and see if you can cut down your combined mileage. It is a great way to save a few dollars on gas and repairs and improve a friendship along the way.

10. Plant. Pick your favorite plant, a tree, a vegetable, a flower and find a place to plant it. Take responsibility for it and make sure that it has appropriate water and sun. It is a great way to remind us all daily that we have real responsiblity for the earth.

Come back tomorrow to see tips 11-20.

Letters: Commuter Hell

April 18, 2010

The following letter was sent to the Executive Director of NJ Transit via email on April 17, 2010.

April 17, 2010

NJ Transit Corporation

One Penn Plaza East

Newark NJ 07105

Attn: James Weinstein, Executive Director

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

I hope this letter finds you and your colleagues well. Let me begin by saying that I am a long time passenger of NJ Transit. I grew up in Summit and my family often used the trains into Manhattan to explore the city. Currently I live in Bloomfield and have used NJ Transit, specifically the Montclair rail line for the past five years to commute into and out of midtown Manhattan. I find the service comfortable and generally convenient and am pleased to continue to use it.

I am writing about a specific series of incidents that happened on April 15th in order to highlight more systemic issues and the ongoing erosion of service.

On April 15th I left my office to start my commute home at 4:30 pm. I had an appointment at 6:45 and needed to stop at my house before the appointment, so I left plenty of time. I arrived at Penn Station, New York and got on the scheduled 4:52 train to Montclair. Up until that point everything was normal.

At approximately 4:50 the train conductor came over the public address system (PA) and told us that there was an issue with the Amtrak signals and no one was moving in or out of New York Penn Station. He did not have information on how long service would be delayed. A few minutes later he came over the PA again to inform us that NJ transit would be cross honoring with buses and PATH. Next I received an email alert on my blackberry that said that service was delayed in and out of Penn Station. The communications, while incomplete at this point were very clear.

At 5:12 pm the conductor came over the PA and told us that the issue was not affecting Hoboken and that we may want to consider taking the PATH to Hoboken and traveling out of that station. Now I was potentially late for my appointment and so I left the train and headed over to the PATH station. Much to my chagrin there was a tremendous crush of people heading both into and out of Penn Station at the same time at the Seventh Avenue entrance; creating tremendous confusion and a potentially dangerous situation. It would have been very helpful to have an NJ Transit employee stationed at the top of the stairs leading into Penn Station announcing the issue, or alternately an electronic sign should be posted at the top of the same stairs. That step would have improved the trip for thousands of riders.

I reached the PATH station and traveled to Hoboken along with hundreds of other displaced commuters. The Port Authority was ill prepared for the volume of commuters who were spilling over from NJ Transit.  The turn-styles were a disaster. I chose to pay an additional fare rather than deal with the bottle neck that was created for people who were cross honoring tickets.

Once I arrived in Hoboken I boarded next available train to Newark Broad Street. The Montclair train I had hoped to take had already left and I was hoping that if service was restored I might be able to grab another train.

I arrived at Newark Broad Street at 6:05pm. I still had an opportunity to make my 6:45 appointment. At Newark Broad street the digital displays that show the trains coming in and out of the station showed everything as if it were on time. The entire display was wrong. The automated announcements that were coming on were announcing the wrong trains arriving and departing. There was a woman with an NJ Transit coat and clipboard, who appeared to be there to help clarify things, but she was to busy on her cell phone to bother to tell anyone what was going on. To top it off none of the conductors on the arriving and departing trains were making announcements about their trains because they figured the automated announcements were working.

At 6:15 an announcement came over the PA that the next Montclair line train, which had been scheduled for 6:08 was operating 72 minutes late! One hour and twelve minutes delayed. At this point I had no choice to cancel my appointment. I was frustrated, and tired and angry that the system had failed again. I raised the white flag, called my wife and asked her to pick me up at Newark Broad Street.

I share this horror story of a commute with you because it highlights a number of issues that occur every day on NJ Transit. My experience on NJ Transit on April 15th could have been improved a number of ways.

Maintenance issues. It seems that every week, if not every day there are considerable maintenance issues that impact the daily commute. While I recognize that NJ Transit is a huge complicated system involving thousands of pieces of equipment and systems there must be ways to reduce the impact of breakdowns and catastrophic failures that cripple the whole system. As with anything I expect it costs money to make all the necessary repairs, but I also think there must be ways to improve maintenance without huge costs. This has been a systemic issue for years. I don’t claim to fully understand the options available, but I would suggest an overhaul of the maintenance process to identify key failure points and proactive solutions to avoid future issues.

Partner issues. I understand that NJ Transit rides on Amtrak lines as you cross over into New York City. I also recognize that your services do not control how Amtrak manages their equipment. As a customer of NJ Transit I honestly do not care. I pay your corporation a fee to get me from point A to point B and to manage whatever partnerships are required to get there. All to often I hear train conductors come over and tell the passengers that there is a ‘Amtrak problem’ with the tunnel, or a piece of equipment. If Amtrak has a problem that impacts your ability to provide service I expect you, NJ Transit, to step up to the plate and find solutions. Don’t make excuses, take responsibility and fix the problems.

Communication issues. While the train crew on my first train of the evening did an exemplary job of keeping all of us informed that was the exception, not the rule. Staff and crews need to be better informed as to what is happening and have a clearer system on how to communicate with customers. If NJ Transit staff are stationed at key locations to assist riders they need to really know what is going on. Electronic communications in Newark Broad Street and Penn Station need to be improved and coordinated. These systems while great in normal service fail miserably during service interruptions or delays and the crowds quickly devolve into chaos. This creates frustrating, frightening and often unsafe conditions. Similarly conductors should expect that announcements need to be made at every stop.

Outreach and ongoing improvement. I am a subscriber to the NJ Transit alerts on my blackberry. They are generally a great thing and have assisted my commute many times. That system was not helpful on April 15th as I had already started my commute and was therefore in the system. It would be very helpful to consider the primary approaches to all major stations and provide signage and updates at key entry points. By expanding the information outward away from the track entries you will allow riders to divert prior to even entering the station, both improving flow in the station and saving time on everyone’s commute.

NJ Transit like all Mass Transit systems is a complicated and requires constant attention. As a customer of that system I expect a safe, comfortable ride and when issues arise I expect effective communications and reasonable alternatives. For the most part NJ Transit has been effective in achieving those goals, but events like the ones that transpired on April 15th highlight places where the system falls down. I hope that you find these suggestions helpful and will share them with your colleagues.

While it is ironic that these happened on the same day fare hikes were announced, I believe this is an opportunity. As more money flows into the system, I am hopeful that you will divert to address these issues. I am available if you or any of your colleagues would like to discuss any of these points further. I am also sharing this letter publically on blog idesert.wordpress.com and I would be happy to share any response I receive from NJ Transit there as well.

Thank you for your ongoing diligence.

Sincerely,

Ralph Walker

Letters: Introduction

April 17, 2010

As a part of Igloos in the Desert I’ve decided to include some of the many letters that I write to various people about sustainability issues. Over the years I’ve found that the simple act of putting pen to paper with the intent of providing specific critique and potential solutions to issues is an effective way to make things happen.

One example I love, is when my wife and I bought our house a few years ago. We live on a quiet street that happens to be a tempting shortcut for traffic to a much used highway entrance. We would spend many a weekend afternoon sitting on our front porch watching cars whiz by in an effort to save a few seconds off their trip. We worried about the many children who lived nearby, and what would happen when we had our own children. Concerned enough, we decided to act by writing a simple pointed letter to our town representative and mayor.

About two weeks later, I was happily surprized to get a personal call from my representative asking for more information about the issue. We talked a bit and she came by one afternoon to see for herself. About two weeks after that we had a new speed limit sign on the street (ironically, in front of our house) and a larger police presence enforcing it for a few weeks.

Now the sign and the police presence didn’t completely solve the problem. We still have the occasional idiot who thinks the speed limit is 52 MPH not 25 MPH, but it has certainly improved.  Regardless, all of this transpired from a simple letter to the right people. The issue was identified, an improvement was offered and they took action.

In the past few years I have personally written dozens of letter to politicians, business people, colleagues, neighbors and friends. Starting now, I have decided not just to continue to write these letters, but to post them here and share the successes, and failures in getting someone’s attention about an issue. The goal is never to scold, chide or idly criticize, but instead to identify problems or issues and offer potential solutions. With any luck some of these letters will open a dialogue or send someone on a new path.

If my ideas resonate with you, or you have had a similar experience feel free to use the text of my letters and send them yourself, or better yet repurpose them based on your own experience. Email is just as good as an envelope and a stamp, in fact that is how almost all of my letters are sent now, but occasionally pen to paper is the best way to go. Use your own judgement there. If you do send a letter based on one of mine, please post about it. I would love to hear more stories about how this works out for you too.

A few notes:

  1. On all of my letters I include my personal address, phone number and email. I would suggest you do the same. I will not be including that information on these posts and similarly would suggest that you leave your personal information except an email address off any posts here.
  2. Typically, I try to send my letters to at least two people; someone near the top, and someone who is personally involved with the issue. For instance, in the letter to my town I included my Mayor and my local representative on the Town Council.  By doing this, I am usually able to gain traction quickly. I would suggest  you try the same.
  3. Please be sure to include names and title’s of the recipients on any letters you post, but again I would suggest you leave off address information.
  4. Finally, please send me updates if you get a response to your letter. I plan to do the same here.

Igloo Design

April 16, 2010

The Igloo is a beautiful thing. I think it deserves its own design category. It falls somewhere between architecture and sculpture and performance art; creating shelter, giving form and evolving with the seasons. Igloo Design is a step beyond Green Design. It is Design with a capital I not a little g.  

Here are some of the qualities of Igloo Design:

  • The igloo is tenacious, built for the harshest climate, but fragile in the sun.
  • The igloo has form that is designed for optimum function. It is no taller than necessary, but built just the right size and shape to capture heat and create a comfortable environment inside.
  • The igloo uses no more materials than necessary. Frozen water in the forms of Ice and Snow are the building blocks for this structure.
  • Only simple tools are required to build the igloo.
  • Igloo design has little regard for financial value or social status, it is about survival and efficiency.  
  • When the structure no longer has value to the builder it can be abandoned without remorse. The igloo will eventually melt back into the soil with the changing of the seasons.

Now maybe all this exists in the built world, but I have only seen it in the natural world. Pieces of fruit, eggs, cocoons all share many of the qualities described above, but buildings? There are few buildings in today’s world that even strive for the same goals. Our structures are carefully designed creations using a collage of materials to thwart nature and provide robust spaces for living. Our cities are filled with beautiful, crafty well thought out machines where we live and work.

Perhaps we need to put our pride and ego aside and humbly examine the simple qualities of an Igloo? Perhaps we need to rethink how we design buildings, not just to go Green, but to create structures that evolve with the seasons, literally and figuratively. I know that I have a long way to go in my own design work to create something as smart and beautiful as an Igloo.