Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Opt Out of the Yellow Page's Yellowed Pages!

After years of complaining about phone book litter by tree huggers and building owners alike, it seems as if Yellow Pages is finally getting the message that millions of Americans would like to see printed phone books disappear! I'd be willing to bet that it's been quite a while since most Americans turned, rather than scrolled, through the Yellow Pages. Yet it seems like another stack of these monstrous directories appears outside the front door of my building every few months or so.

Fortunately, the City of Chicago accepts phone books for recycling, but many towns and municipalities do not. Nor do many of Chicago's phone books find their way into a blue cart; most wind up rotting on the front steps or entry way, in the same place they were dropped off.

Late last year, cities began taking the matter into their own hands. It was Seattle, not a California city, who led the way in banning unsolicited phone book deliveries last fall, although a similar proposal found its way onto lawmakers' desks in San Francisco shortly thereafter. I rejoiced when I saw a posting last month on Tree Hugger that Yellow Pages has created a site for residents to opt out of receiving phone directories!

In Tree Hugger's interview with Neg Norton, president of the Yellow Pages Association, Norton said the company created the opt-out site because, "it doesn't make any sense for us to deliver phone books to people who don't want them." Amen! He also went on to predict that a very small amount of people would actually sign up to decline directory deliveries, as the company's surveys and studies show that 75% of households still use printed phone books.

Seventy-five percent seems awfully high to me; do 75% of households even have a land line anymore? At any rate, I went immediately to the opt-out site and entered my zip code. It showed that I was signed up to receive eight (eight!) directories a year, including the Guia Telefonica and the Russian Yellow Pages. Huh? I refused delivery of all of them. So if you're as sick of phone book litter as I am, take a minute to opt out, and pass this information along to any and every one you know who might like to opt out, too!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Junk Mail Experiment

During my annual inbox purge, I came across a forward that I received last fall, but never bothered to read. The only reason I didn't delete it is because the subject matter-- clever ways to reduce spam, junk mail, and unsolicited phone calls-- actually piqued my interest. So I skimmed its contents and was particularly amused by the proposed solution to curb unwanted junk mail.

Now, I'm already on just about every opt-out list that I know of, but I still get my fair share of crap in the mailbox each week. The author of the forward suggested sending the utility company's ads back to them with their payment stubs, but I pay my bills online, so that's not a problem. Then the author shared some suggestions from Andy Rooney, the shouty old curmudgeon with woolly eyebrows who rants about some mild annoyance or other at the end of every 60 Minutes episode. I normally mute the guy, but this time he was in print, and he actually seemed to have a point.

Apparently, Rooney saves the return envelopes from the junk mailings he receives, then stuffs them with generic letters, advertisements, and application forms and drops them back in the mail. This forces companies to dispose of their own junk mail, and it also makes them pay-- twice!-- for sending it out in the first place. Even if there's nothing in the envelope, it still costs about 50 cents to return it to the sender. It sounds like he's careful to shred anything with his name or information on it, yet Rooney crows that the amount of junk mail he receives has decreased dramatically in the years since he's been single-handedly keeping the postal service in business, and that if we all would just do as he does, we could eliminate it entirely.

So I decided to try it for a week. I returned a blank application form to a credit card company, I sent AARP (they shouldn't be sending me stuff yet, anyway!) information on how to save 15% or more on car insurance, and I enclosed pledge forms supporting spay and neuter campaigns to an airline (on which I've never flown) that still wants me to join their frequent flier program. Granted, it was kind of fun, but my conscience kept me from making the experiment as effective as it could have been.

I decided from the outset not to return mailings to charities (many of them don't send out postage paid envelopes, anyway!), which automatically disqualified the majority of the junk mail I receive. But of the mailings I was willing to return, it was kind of fun to give these companies a chance to experience firsthand the frustration of receiving junk in the mail. Ultimately, though, I decided that my time would be better spent doing just about anything else. I guess I'm not cantankerous enough to single-handedly eliminate junk mail, but at least I tried!

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Lieu of Roses...

... give your Valentine some fair-trade chocolate! Or plan an activity together; depending on how much you're willing to invest in this Hallmark holiday, you could go ice skating, make reservations at a nice restaurant, see a museum, volunteer, or even cook together. Whatever. Just no roses. Especially cheap roses. I'm serious-- do or give anything but roses!

Not only are roses cliche, they're also ruining the already fragile ecosystems of some of the developing countries from which our supermarket bouquets are exported. In Kenya, for example, the cultivation of Valentine's Day roses is draining (and polluting) Lake Naivasha, a precious and crucial source of water for the region. And in Colombia, the roses they export have been sprayed liberally with highly toxic pesticides and dipped in a myriad of chemicals by the time they hit store shelves. In addition to ruining their soil, surface water and groundwater, the workers who are repeatedly exposed to these chemicals (many of whom are single mothers) are at higher risk for health problems. Many children whose mothers came into contact with these pesticides and preservatives during their pregnancies showed signs--both physical and mental-- of developmental disabilities or delays.

So next year, consider starting a new tradition. Guys, I speak from experience when I say that, while flowers are nice, I'm much more impressed by a gift or a gesture that was well thought out and came from the heart. It doesn't have to cost a lot; in fact, I usually prefer that it doesn't! It just has to show that you care.

However, if you (and/or your Valentine) is/are dead-set on giving/receiving a colorful bouquet, consider buying organic. OrganicBouquet.com offers a variety of Earth-friendly options, including some rose alternatives that are grown a little closer to home. Potted plants are also nice (I like orchids!); they generally don't wither in a week and, when watered, can be enjoyed year round. So get creative, guys-- you can thank me later!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Spy... With My Little Eye...

... the contents of the blue recycling carts being tossed into the same truck as the garbage! For shame, Streets and San guys! Yes, I am aware that there was a blizzard last week. Yes, I know that many of you had to work overtime to salt and plow all the streets in this city. And I'll even admit that, since the city doesn't plow the alleys, it's a crap shoot as to whether the garbage trucks can even get down the alley ways at all.

But this is Chicago. The city that works. So man up, boys; if you can collect garbage, you can collect recyclables. Our recycling rate in this city is shameful enough as it is; let's not use a couple feet of snow as an excuse to make things even worse.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Say Ye Now, Groundhog?

Here in Chicago, outlandish weather forecasts are not at all uncommon among the local news stations. In fact, a rush-hour flurry or a sudden downpour is usually all it takes for meteorologists to cut in to the evening's top stories with "breaking news" of the (usually obvious) precipitation affecting portions of the viewing area, and to dispatch rookie reporters to the lake front and expressway overpasses to confirm that-- "live, from outside"-- the white stuff that's hitting my window is, in fact, snow.

So when forecasters began making their catastrophic storm predictions last week, I tuned in to Chicago's Very Own, WGN, to see what my buddy Tom Skilling had to say. He is by far the most level-headed, non-alarmist meteorologist in the tri-state area, so as soon as I heard him calmly describe the impending blizzard as a "storm of historic proportions", I took notice. And as it turns out, he was right on the money.

In this (delightfully snarky for NPR) article posted yesterday, an Atlanta meteorologist said (in response to the "monstrous monikers" that have been attached to the megastorms of recent winters):"Just in passing, I've overheard conversations about the intensity and danger of impending storms. People refer to the storm systems by their TV names, which lets me know that being creative gets people's attention."

But since terms such as "Snowmageddon" and "Snowpocalypse" are so East Coast 2010, I'd like to present to you a medley of the Chicago versions, coined specifically for the Blizzard of 2011. Here goes!

Snowly cow! Snowtorious B.I.G. himself has descended upon the Windy City. We've learned that Mother Nature's first name is, in fact, Snowprah, and that no one was excluded from her first "Favorite Things" episode of February. In a shrieking voice, loud enough to be heard over the howling winds, she has declared that, "you get a blizzard... and "you get a blizzard... everyone gets a BLIZZZZARRRRD!" Only this time, it's not just a room full of hysterical middle-aged women in brightly colored tops who are squealing "SNOW-M-G!"; school children everywhere are overcome with joy to learn that, what started as a snowrnado last night has closed even the Chicago Public schools today. And since this blizzaster has all but crippled transportation in the city, tomorrow's not looking good, either.

It warms my heart (but not my hands) to know that residents are banding together in the wake of this snowtastrophy; in this magical time-- after the snowfall has ended but before the lawn chairs appear (to claim "dibs" on their owners' dug-out parking spaces)-- neighbors are helping neighbors clear drifts from their front doors, shovel narrow pathways for brave commuters and dog walkers, and they're also responding to all-too-literal questions of, "Dude! Where's my car?!?"

On my quiet little side street (that probably won't see a snow plow or a back hoe until sometime this weekend), the only modes of transportation I saw in the two hours I was out unearthing my car were el trains, skis, and snowshoes. Plenty of people ventured out of their homes to marvel at the mess, though, snapping pictures like tourists while trying not to lose their dogs or kids in the waist-high drifts.

I know that 48 hours from now, we'll likely be back to business as usual, cursing the city's never-fast-enough response to snow removal, screaming "oh SNOW you didn't!" at drivers who cut us off or park in a way that is considered stupid-- even for blizzard standards-- but for today, I'm going to do my best to enjoy Blizzardpalooza 2011.

And as for the groundhog... I saw Punxsutawney Phil on the news, smugly predicting an early spring for those out east. Closer to home, our resident rodent in Woodstock, Illinois, wouldn't even come out. Groundhog's day was cancelled. What's that supposed to mean? My guess is that it doesn't bode well for any of us Chicagoans... well, except for maybe the meteorologists.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Alma Mater Goes Green!

I admit, I perused the cover article of my latest alumni magazine with a mixture of excitement and envy. The feature story championed all the ways the University has "gone green" in the decade since my graduation, outlining both the big and little steps they are taking toward environmental sustainability.

While the seeds of environmental change had already been planted during my time there, the fruits of these labors did not materialize until after I had left; the University began offering a minor in environmental studies my senior year (but by then it was too late for me to add the program and still graduate on schedule) and it was offered as a major in 2005. The LEED-certified Welcome Center opened in 2008, and the GREENetwork, a task force that formed the year after I graduated, meets monthly to oversee the many environmental initiatives that are taking place campus wide.

Those are the biggies, but there are plenty of smaller and equally innovative practices taking place in nearly every aspect of campus life. Student volunteers run a second-hand clothing store from one of the residence halls; the cafeteria has gone trayless and has installed a "Hydration Station" of filtered and flavored waters, meant to encourage students to carry reusable water bottles; and prospective students and their families sip beverages from ceramic mugs that encourage their users to "Think Green", referring both to the environment and to the school's colors.

Even the University's staff are doing their part: the grounds crew has abandoned the practice of blanketing the lawn with pesticides, opting instead to spot-treat areas when necessary; custodial workers have switched to machines and cleaners that use both less water and fewer chemicals; and 65 pairs of aging laundry machines have been replaced with energy efficient models that use much less water and less energy.

Although I did take one environmental science class during my undergrad years, I would certainly have taken more had they been offered. I might have even taken more science classes if the ones that most interested me didn't have crazy prerequisites (like surviving the infamous Bio 101). That this liberal arts school is now taking a liberal arts approach to the environmental sciences-- encouraging students in the program to complete coursework in biology, chemistry, political science, and anthropology-- pleases me to no end; I only wish I could have gotten in on the fun!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Alderman Wants Brockovich at Water Testing

Well, I'll be. Alderman Ed Burke has invited renowned environmental lawyer, Erin Brockovich, to the soon-to-be-held public hearings on the level of hexavalent chromium recently discovered in the city's water supply from Lake Michigan. This is the same pollutant found in the now groundbreaking case of the residents of Hinkley, California, vs. the Pacific Gas and Energy company, a case that Brockovich researched, launched, and championed all the way up to the highest courts, which ended in a $330 million victory for the plaintiffs and fame and good fortune for Brockovich. What's more, according to Burke, Brockovich's people say she is "available". So an environmental rock star may be coming to Chicago! I am beyond excited about this.

The level of chromium-6 found in Chicago's water supply last month was 0.18 parts per billion, which is now nine times higher than the acceptable 0.02 ppb adopted by California officials just this month. Although nothing has been said about limiting the amount of Cr-6 in our local water supply, officials vow to begin quarterly testing for the substance, and to report their findings online. The EPA has also agreed to review it's current chromium limits, and to consider separating the villified chromium-6 from its cousin chromium-3, which is an essential nutrient.

While chromium levels can knowingly be reduced through fancy water filtration systems, carbon filters (like the one in my fridge) have not yet been proven to separate this chemical out of the tap water (yikes!)

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Is the sudden flurry of recent news reports on the "aflockalypse" keeping anyone else awake at night? My eco-insomnia started on New Year's Day with a chilling story of 5,000 blackbirds falling from the Arkansas sky, and it seems like every time I turn on my TV nowadays, there's another report of mysterious mass wildlife deaths. We're barely a week into this new year, and already we've got reports of species turning up dead in Kentucky and Arkansas and Sweden, in numbers of Biblical proportions. And it's not just birds; dead fish have washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, dead crabs were found littering a beach in Britain... what (or who!) is next?

So what's going on here? Is our civilization being punished once more with a series of plagues? Did the Mayans correctly predict the coming of the end of days? Or is there something to the many conspiracy theories floating around, warning of covert government operations and chemical/biological warfare testing and the like?

Even though I'm exhausted, my judgement isn't clouded enough to buy into any of these crazy conspiracy theories, and I suspect that the day after the Mayans say the Earth will end will be remarkably similar to January 1st, 2000 (judgement day for Y2K); surprisingly uneventful despite all the hype. Nor do I entirely believe the reports that are telling us not to worry because scientists have decided that the blackbirds in Arkansas were literally scared to death by New Year's Eve fireworks the night before. I am worried, and I don't think the real answer is as simple as the (sometimes conflicting) news reports would lead us to believe!

I resolved not to spend another sleepless night speculating about the disturbing events of recent days, but to instead try and find a more logical explanation. So I turned on the Internet, set my common sense filter to "high", and started searching reputable biological and environmental sites. And here is what I found: sudden mass wildlife deaths are nothing new, nor are they uncommon. The U.S. Geological survey actually keeps a running tally of all reported die-offs here. In fact, scientists believe the species-specific deaths are more common than even this chart shows (as they think most die-offs go unreported) and that the media coverage (not the deaths themselves) is the only thing that has changed in recent days.

In reading through this chart, I see that most of the species on this list are birds, but that the suspected causes of death vary. While trauma is listed quite frequently, so are a number of various diseases. And I know (even from my limited training in biology and ecology) that toxins/pollutants and loss of habitat are other contributing factors. That in itself should give us plenty to worry about; I read somewhere else that as many as one in six species of birds are in danger of becoming extinct!

What's more, animals often succumb to disease, pollution, and other environmental factors long before humans. Some scientists suspect that these dead animals are the "canaries" in our proverbial coal mine, and it's high time we stop and listen. Just as animals can predict and detect severe weather and instinctively know when to take cover, many human diseases start in wildlife populations (bird flu, swine flu... these aren't just cute names!). If we want to stop their problems from becoming our problems down the road, we need to work to protect the environment we all share; humans are not immune!

The beauty of biodiversity is that every creature plays a vital role. We may not know what purpose each species serves in relation to our own existence, but we don't want to find out after they're gone... Sweet dreams!