Why You Should Remember the Passenger Pigeon

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, January 27, 2014

An estimated 2 billion birds darkened the sky above John James Audubon’s head in the autumn of 1813, a flock of passenger pigeons more than 50 miles long that would take three full days to pass out of view. “The birds poured in in countless multitudes,” Audubon wrote. “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

When Dr. Andrew Stern visits schools to teach children about the now-extinct passenger pigeon, he slowly dims the lights, turning up a radio until the sound of white noise shakes the building.

“It’s a little scary,” Stern said. “That’s what it was supposed to be like. More [birds] than is imaginable. The fact that they were gone in a little over 50 years is astounding.”

The passenger pigeon, now 100 years extinct, was once one of the most common birds in North America. Probably the largest number of birds of a single species that has ever existed on earth, says Stern. Naturalists of the time describe the enormous migrating flocks being more than a mile wide and 300 miles long, a billion birds passing overhead for several days at a time.

“That intense experience of witnessing a flock is gone,” Stern says. “No one will ever experience it again.”

In just 50 years they were hunted to near extinction. The last passenger pigeon alive died in captivity in 1914.

As executive director of arts-based environmental nonprofit The Lost Bird Project, Stern leads his team in their 2014 Fold the Flock campaign to share the birds’ story. The group calls on participants to fold their own origami passenger pigeons, symbolically recreating a flock of the lost birds. Participants can download the pattern from the Fold the Flock website, and add their own creations to the virtual flock, now numbering 7,829 paper birds.

The passenger pigeon is one of the five birds memorialized by sculptor Todd McGrain in the 2013 documentary The Lost Bird Project, the nonprofit’s first undertaking. McGrain now works with his brother-in-law Stern as creative director of the organization.

Unlike other groups that focus on extinction, Stern and his team have no plans to save a species. They instead hope to help America consider its loss. Fold the Flock is not a call to action, but a call for remembrance.

“The nature of memory for the natural world is very short,” he says. “There’s a thing that’s called ‘environmental amnesia,’ where you sort of assume unconsciously that the way the environment was when you were young is the baseline. And if it needs to be restored it should be restored to that. But that’s a completely artificial concept.”

Rather than place blame or induce guilt, The Lost Bird Project hopes to educate by preserving and sharing the memory of what’s been lost.

“Nobody alive has ever heard [a passenger pigeon], ever seen one. It’s gone, and most people know nothing about it,” he says. “So this is an attempt to shake up the amnesia, and say ‘We remember this. We remember the passenger pigeon and its lesson.'”

The colorful paper birds are intended to be a fun, family-friendly medium through which to spread the word. Most important, Stern says, the project creates much-needed community among participants.

“Separation is the cause of the whole thing,” he says. “We’re separated from each other, we’re separated from nature. So we create community, have everyone fold a paper pigeon so they feel like they belong, like they’re doing something together.”

Purchase the Fold the Flock passenger pigeon oragami kit for $12.95 or download a free folding pattern at foldtheflock.org

Read online at SierraClub.org

Green Stocking Stuffers for Everyone on Your List

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, December 17, 2013

Green Stocking Stuffers for Everyone on Your List

With only a few shopping days left before the holidays, most people have their big presentswrapped and ready to go. But don’t forget that sometimes great things come in small, stocking stuffer-sized packages. We’ve collected small gift ideas for everyone on your list, from the outdoor adventurer to the environmentally conscious shopper. Hang your stockings by the chimney with care, and fill them with a few of these green gifts:

For the budding environmentalist: Amateur artists will love recycled crayons from Crazy Crayons ($3-$10), which can help teach children about the importance of sustainable living, and to be conscious of what they consume and discard. If your youngsters are the more adventurous type, give them the tools to explore: try magnifying glasses, binoculars, and guides to your backyard flora and fauna. Gifts like Wild Republic’s plush birds play real bird calls, and encourage your little ones to get outside and start exploring. 

For the die-hard cyclist: Even the most devoted athlete has to take a break every so often. For a beer after a long ride, they’ll love Resource Revival’s recycled bicycle chain keychain bottle opener ($12). If your cyclist is a foodie, try Anna Brones’s beautifully illustrated cookbook The Culinary Cyclist (Elly Blue Publishing, 2013, $9.95). Beyond delicious and easy recipes, Brones’s book gives readers genuinely useful lifestyle tips, explaining how to shop by bicycle and have “an impromptu picnic without breaking your champagne glasses in your bike pannier.” (Check out a few of Brones’s recipes here on the Green Life.)

For the outdoorsy type: Practical and perfectly stocking stuffer-sized, the Lifestraw personal water filter ($19.95) is a great gift for campers and backpackers. If the hiker on your list has a favorite park, opt for Liberty Bottle Works’ Topo water bottles ($11.99-$26.69), which come printed with topographical maps of several American wilderness areas. 

For animal lovers: Animal lovers of all ages will appreciate a wild animal adopted in their name ($25-$100), or the sponsored care of a rescued farm animal, from Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary ($10-$50).

For gardeners: Greenaid sells small seed bomb tube kits for the guerrilla gardener on your list, packaged by themes like garden herb and golden poppy ($4.99-$11.99). For the more festive, check out Earth Easy’s Christmas tree grow bottle kit ($19.95). The green-thumbed recipient can raise their own Scotch pine for holidays to come.  

For conscious consumers: If your loved ones don’t yet own a reusable shopping bag, this should be first on your list. Pick up a pack of four from the Sierra Club ($15.99), or buyclassic Chico bags individually ($5.99). Reusable hand towels are another everyday essential for busy environmentalists. People Towels sells two packs of beautifully designed towels and a handy carrying bag for $15.99, or individually towels from $6. 

Read online at SierraClub.org

Book Review: EarthArt

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, December 12, 2013

Book Review: EarthArt

In Bernhard Edmaier’s EarthArt: Colours of The Earth, (Phaidon, 2013) we learn that chemical weathering is responsible for the vivid, highlighter-hued yellow of the Crozon Peninsula in France. Flip a few pages, and we read that the rusty-red shade of crusted salt lakes indicates the presence of halophilic bacteria, microorganisms that thrive in saline conditions. A few chapters back, electric blue seas are explained by the depth of their water, jade green wetlands by their algae, and on and on as Edmaier and Dr. Angelika Jung-Hüttl take readers through the rainbow.

A number of things make EarthArt much more than just a coffee table book, chief among them the geologists’ succinct and engaging scientific explanations of the colors and textures seen in Edmaier’s aerial photos of the earth’s surface. Accompanied by a quick introductory overview of color theory from Aristotle to Newton, the authors’ brief descriptions of the science behind the natural hues in each color chapter add a depth to Edmaier’s photos that make the book not just a work of art, but a genuinely good read.

Flip through the pages for a view of our planet as few have considered it before, jewel tones fading into deep and dusky hues, bumpy mountain ranges into smooth ribbons rivers and flat matte oceans. Grouping the images by color offers the reader an unusual and arresting picture of the earth’s surface as a whole. Seldom are we given the opportunity to see the world as a progression of color, from glaciers to lava and back again. The grouping highlights the unique textures only aerial photos can capture: were it not for the Pared Norte glacier’s velvety surface, its reddish browns would flow seamlessly across the page into the dusty, craggy mountain range of the Dolomites. For geology buffs and artists alike, EarthArt is a window into a very unique and fascinating picture of the earth’s surface. 

Read the full post online at SierraClub.org

New Styles for Fashionable Cyclists

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, December 6, 2013

New Styles for Fashionable Cyclists

The number of Americans commuting by bike continues to rise, and fashion designers are sitting up and taking notice. Neon spandex generally isn’t considered appropriate office attire, but the fits of most slacks and dresses don’t lend themselves neatly (or safely) to pedaling. Anyone who’s caught a pant leg in their gears or toted an wardrobe change in their backpack knows the importance of stylish cycling clothes. Fortunately, the number of sartorial options for style-savvy bike commuters are now numerous. Check out these designers for fashionable duds with your eco-friendly commute in mind:

Vespertine: Having had their reflective safety vest featured in Vogue, this company has certainly earned their “Haute Réflecture” label. Vespertine pieces are woven with threads that are invisible indoors but shine under a car headlights, making you visible from within 2,000 feet. In addition to reflective and work-friendly shirt dresses, trench coats, and jackets, the company sells a number of chic and shiny accessories. Choose from belts, scarves, bow ties, and jewelry, all designed to keep you fashionable and visible on the road. 

Outlier: The New York-based company began with a basic pair of sturdy commuter pants, inspired by “the intense feeling of exhilaration and liberation that comes from riding in the city.” Since then they’ve added blazers cut to allow greater range of movement, air-forged women’s button downs that defy sweat, and a number of other elegantly designed basics guaranteed to withstand whatever your morning commute throws at you. 

Iva Jean: Anyone who’s ever tried to ride a bicycle in a pencil skirt will be blown away by the company’s Reveal Skirt, which discretely unzips to reveal extra fabric, allowing for a greater range of motion and easier pedaling. To sweeten the deal, through December 15, 2013, 10% of all online sales at Iva Jean will be donated to World Bicycle Relief.

Levi’s: While the original Commuter line received some mixed reviews from the critics, shoppers seem to love the Commuter Trousers. With reflective cuffs, a high rise, and reinforced water-resistant fabric disguised as work-friendly khakis, these slacks have earned some serious fans in the commuting community.

Yakkay: The Danish helmet manufacturer has caused quite a stir since their high-fashion helmets hit the U.S. market last year. Yakkay offers traditional hard helmets with a number of interchangeable covers, from herringbone riding caps to striped fedoras, all U.S. CPSC certified. Obviously safety always trumps style, so do your research before you buy.

Read online at SierraClub.org

Slow Cycling Gains Momentum: 5 Ways to Slow Down

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, December 5, 2013

Slow Cycling Gains Momentum: 5 Ways to Slow Down

There’s a new cyclist in town, and he’s eschewing spandex and speed for comfy clothes and picnics. Slow cycling — intentionally setting out for a leisurely ride, with the goal of socializing and exploring — has become organized. Groups have cropped up in cities all over the U.S. as the slow cycling movement has picked up speed, and some even vie for last place in slow bicycle races.

Though bicycling at a leisurely pace is nothing new, organized rides have traditionally been the domain of those riders looking for a serious workout. But as urban transportation changes more and more Americans are taking to their bicycles as means of everyday transport, increasing the number of competent but casual cyclists on the road. 

“It’s getting really expensive to drive in the city,” says Sarah Murray, founder of Chicago’sSlow Bicycle Society, where dapper duds are preferred over lycra, and speed is capped at 8 mph. “To have something to do where you’re kind of getting around by bicycle and meeting different people is a win all the way around. It’s just an easy thing to do.”

When Murray started cycling, she was eager to share her new hobby with others, but had trouble finding her place in the bicycling community.

“I stopped driving, and I was exuberant about my new bicycling world,” she says. “I looked to see what groups I could join to sort of get in the mode and meet people, and everything was for fast [riders]. They’d say ‘Oh, we’re having a slow ride, it’ll be 15 miles per an hour.'”

Murray began gathering her friends for slow rides to restaurants, bars, and picnic spots, taking their time to socialize and explore the city. The rides caught on, and now the official Facebook group boasts 343 members of varying ages and backgrounds. 

“People are usually excited to participate [in part] because they’re afraid to cycle in the city — and that’s one of my goals, to get people not afraid to ride their bicycles in the city,” Murray says. “The streets are theirs too, and it’s so much better for the environment to jump on your bike to ride to Target versus getting in your car to go half a mile.”

Thinking of taking up slow cycling? Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Choose a comfy bike. Racing-style bikes have low handlebars that will leave you with a sore back after a long, leisurely ride. If possible, find a cruiser or other upright frame to take slow cycling. 

2. Stay safe. While you may not be rocketing down hills, safety still comes first on your bike. Bring your helmet, make sure to stop and signal at lights, and consider your clothes. Long, flowy skirts or loose pantlegs can still get caught in gears, even at a slow speed.

3. Choosing a theme isn’t necessary, Murray notes, but it certainly is fun. Some groups choose costumes, themed destinations, or specific geographic areas to explore as a way to bring their riders together. “The goal is to create community,” she says.

4. Remember to share the road, especially when in groups. Leave room for others to pass, and be prepared for faster cyclists to do so.

5. Keep an open mind, and welcome newcomers to your group. “There’s space for everybody on the road,” Murray says. “You don’t have to be any particular type of cyclist, just show up and ride.”

Read online at SierraClub.org

Give Green, Fight Waste, Make Change

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, December 3, 2013

Give Green, Fight Waste, Make Change

Black Friday has made the news in recent years for the frenzied and sometimes dangerous enthusiasm it incites in the nation’s most devotedshoppers, many of whom gather outside malls and big box stores as soon as they’ve downed their turkey. But the Environmental Protection Agency gives us another reason to think twice about having participated in the biggest shopping day of the year: the estimated25 percent increase in household wastein the United States between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. That translates to about 1 million extra tons of gift wrapping and product packaging (including those endlessly frustrating plastic blister packs in which all electronics are packaged). A number of groups have come together to fight the waste that seems to come hand in hand with the Black Friday, claiming the holiday week for less wasteful and more sustainable causes. Here are a couple ways to give sustainably this month: 

Giving Tuesday: #GivingTuesday began last year as a charitable response to Black Friday, and had a pretty big impact. According to event organizers, 100,000 people across the U.S. came together to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by making charitable contributions to more than 2,500 participating organizations, donating an estimated tens of millions of dollars online.  

This year, more than 7,000 charitable organizations will participate in #GivingTuesday, rallying their supporters to give generously on December 3. Charitable partners are listed online, and even sorted by cause and location, and you have almost 200 environmental partners to choose from. Help the Sierra Club Foundation fight dirty fossil fuels, protect ecosystems, and promote clean energy. Then check out the #GivingTuesday partner databaseto find more causes close to your heart.

Fair Tuesday: Another movement inspired by Black Friday, #FairTuesday aims to inspire conscious consumerism this holiday season by encouraging shoppers to buy fair trade, ethical, and eco-friendly brands this Tuesday. In its first year in 2012, the movement reached 3 million people and brought together 135 partners in 13 countries.

searchable database of partners accompanied by a handy map allows participants to browse for fair-trade and eco-friendly gifts and services, and in many cases enjoy special #FairTuesday discounts. You’ll find everything from organic and sustainable foods to clothes and home goods, all gift-worthy and benefiting a worthy cause.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Outdoor Activities to Beat Holiday Stress

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, November 27, 2013

5 Outdoor Activities to Beat Holiday Stress

The holidays often bring families together, which can be both a wonderful and an extremely stressful thing. If you’re anticipating a full house of stir-crazy relatives this Thanksgiving, plan a moment to give everyone some much-needed breathing room and get outdoors. Younger family members can run off some energy and adults can work up an appetite with these outdoor activities perfect for your holiday celebration. However you celebrate, take a minute to step outside this Thanksgiving (if only to avoid your grandmother asking for the fifth time why you aren’t married yet). 

“Turkey Trot”: Many cities host annual Thanksgiving walks or runs to benefit charity. These events are a perfect opportunity to get outdoors and give to others. Most have kids’ races as well, so the whole family is welcome. 

Take a hiking scavenger hunt: If organized group exercise isn’t your thing, gather the family and head up the mountain. While many Americans post up on the couch for the day, enjoy having the run of your local hiking or biking trails. More active members of your group can work up a sweat in preparation of the feast to come, while others have the option of enjoying the sights and sounds of fall. And though hiking scavenger hunts are technically intended for children, you could totally find six different trees before your little cousin. 

Make a centerpiece: Though this activity is generally geared toward younger participants, holidaymakers of all ages can enjoy the search for the perfect table topper. Scour the backyard for leaves, branches, and pine cones — anything clean is fair game!

Visit a national park: Though many parks are closed for the holidays, some will stay open and welcome holiday visitors. In Florida, rangers at the Everglades National Park will be hosting guided programs to celebrate the holiday weekend, and others are even open to campers. Find an open park near you

Check out fall foliage: Go see the colors of fall before they disappear! We’re headed toward bare branches, and Thanksgiving is a great time to take a walk or drive to see the changing leaves in your area. Bonus points if you collect leaves for your centerpiece while you’re at it.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Tips for a Low-Carbon Thanksgiving

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, November 21, 2013

5 Tips for a Low-Carbon Thanksgiving

Most of us are aware of that Thanksgiving can take a toll. Between the hours spent cooking and decorating, then arguing with your crazy uncle about politics, and pretending to like your little sister’s new boyfriend, it can be an exhausting holiday. For many, the meal makes it worth the stress. But don’t take too much comfort in your holiday feast. A University of Manchester study has shown that the dinner itself has a significant impact on the environment. The report finds that a turkey-n-trimmings feast for eight produces approximately 44 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, 60% from the life cycle of the turkey alone. Here are a few tips for reducing the carbon footprint of your favorite dishes, and keeping your Thanksgiving meal green: 

1. Shop Local: Thanksgiving is a seasonal meal, which means you should find all of the fruits and veggies you need at your local farmer’s market. The farm-fresh goods should be pretty guilt-free purchases, as they’ve traveled little and bypassed refrigeration and storage. The trip may mean planning slightly further ahead than is convenient, but it’ll be worth the fresh flavor added to the meal. 

2. Buy Ingredients, Not Dishes: The Center for Food Safety recommends skipping pre-packaged and processed foods in favor of side dishes made from scratch with fresh, bulk ingredients. While more time consuming, this extra step eliminates or reduces the need for machinery and packaging, which have significant climate impacts. 

3. Eat Your Veggies: Since your turkey probably takes the most energy to produce, consider either going meatless or serving a smaller bird and increasing the number of side dishes you serve. You might also reduce the impact on your waistband and wallet as an added bonus.

4. Cook Just Enough: Thanksgiving has earned a reputation for excess. Most of us take our seat at the table planning to eat ’til it hurts, followed closely by a tryptophan-induced nap. But this expectation of overindulgence usually results in a lot of leftovers, and a lot of good food wasted. Make your food miles count by buying just enough to feed everyone comfortably, or inviting others to join in the feast. 

5. Consider Your Turkey Purchase: Avoid factory-farmed poultry and instead seek out a local, heritage, or organic bird. Localharvest has great tools for finding turkey farmers in your area, and learning more about heritage breeds.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Healthy Takes on Classic Comfort Foods

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, November 8, 2013

5 Healthy Takes on Classic Comfort Foods

Whether it’s the changing weather, a hard day at work, or the approaching holidays, around this time of year many of us find ourselves reaching for comfort foods — the saltier, crunchier, greasier, or sugarier, the better. For those without iron willpower, fall is often a season of cheesy, fried, baked, deliciously unhealthy meals and snacks, sometimes from unknown or unsavory sources. However, there is hope, for your cravings, arteries, and food ethics: there are delicious and healthy comfort foods out there. We’ve collected a few of the easiest and most satisfying healthy comfort food favorites for you to try. Next time you feel tempted to turn into a drive-through or reach for boxed mac ‘n cheese, try one of these eco-recipes to sate your appetite: 

For Dinners and Snacks: 

1. The classic grilled cheese is not itself unhealthy — it’s when we get generous with the cheese, butter, and white bread that things start getting bad. There are a few quick variations, however, that can make this go-to comfort food less of a hit to your healthy diet, but still the cheesy, crispy treat you’re craving. Ditch white sandwich bread in favor of a whole grain or country loaf, and lose the mounds of mild cheese in favor of something stronger, like a sharp cheddar or mozzarella. You’ll end up with just as much salty flavor, but far less fat and calories. Or skip the cheese entirely and opt for one of these vegan sandwiches. Finally, some grilled cheese aficionados swear by a pan lightly coated in olive oil over the classic buttered bread to achieve a perfect, crispy gold crust.

2. In cold weather, a cup of hot chili can warm you up from the inside in the most wonderfully salty, hearty way. And thankfully, homemade chili is most often pretty good for you. Meat eaters have the option of choosing to avoid factory farmed beef or turkey, and buying lean meat to keep it healthy. One of the great things about chili, however, is that it sticks to your ribs with or without meat. Great vegetarian recipes aren’t hard to find — check out this easy one from the blogging chefs at Two Peas & Their Pod. 

3. Artichokes are the vegetarian’s ribs — a meaty finger food you really dig into, with all the fun of dipping sauces. And, even better, they’re incredibly easy to make. While the traditionalmayo and butter dipping sauces contribute much to the comfort of this food, there are healthier (and equally delicious) alternatives. Try substituting some or all of the mayonnaise in your dip for yogurt, and add herbs and olive oil. 

For Dessert: 

1. Holidays wouldn’t be the same without hot chocolate, which is generally pretty good for you. But the individual packets of coco sold in grocery stores are frighteningly full of unnecessary ingredients, including palm oil, corn syrup, gelatin, and a whole host of others that sound like they belong in a lab, not your food. This year, choose unsweetened cacao and add natural sweeteners and warm spices. If you’re going dairy-free, nut milks will add even more flavor to your cup. 

2. For a delicious and healthy indulgence, sweet cornbread drizzled with honey will fill you up and hit the spot, without saddling you with post-meal guilt. Better yet, if you have half an hour and a handful or basic ingredients, you’re all set. Try a basic recipe for a simple treat, or get adventurous with healthful alternatives like this recipe for sweet yogurt cornbread from Happy Wife Healthy Life.

Read online at SierraClub.org

The Internet’s Best Live Animal Cams

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, November 4, 2013

The Internet’s Best Live Animal Cams

Every good internet procrastinator has explored the live puppy and kitten cams the web has to offer. Hours intended for studying or working can easily and happily be spent watching fluffy baby animals play on your computer screen. But it doesn’t stop there — there are more wildlife cameras broadcasting online than any one person could hope to view, from cockroach cams to bear live feeds. Viewers can observe animalsthey might never safely have the chance to safely approach the wild, and explore new places otherwise inaccessible to them, all from their laptops. We’ve collected a few of the more unique animal adventures you can explore right now online. Watch the live video feeds below. 

On the farm: Country kids who’ve moved to the big city can get their farm fix watching thecalves of South Mountain Creamery on the Animal Planet Live! channel. There is no bad time to watch baby animals play, but if you happen to be up early, there’s nothing to get you going quite like watching these little guys romp around, ready to start their day. For a little more variety, visit MareStare.com and peruse their extensive list of live feeds from numerous farms and stables, including the Pelican Acres’ Nigerian dwarf goats as well as the horses, donkeys, and sheep of many rescue organizations.

Read the full post online at SierraClub.org

5 Terrifying Food Additives

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 14, 2013

5 Terrifying Food Additives

You probably remember the horror of pink slime, the ammonia-laced beef “filler” used in school lunches and Happy Meals until many food manufacturers retired the product after the loud and angry public outcry last year. But pink slime is creeping backinto our burgers and tacos, joining a whole host of ingredients and additives you may not know you’re eating. In the Halloween spirit, we’ve collected a few of the most frightening, guaranteed to give you a chill: 

1. Shellac, or “Confectioner’s Glaze”: Derived from the secretions of the Kerria lacca bug, shellac coats many of the hard candies we know and love, especially Halloween treats like candy corn. The resinous material makes sweets like jelly beans look bright and shiny. 

2. Castoreum: Next time you’re having a hard day and are tempted to down a tub of vanilla ice cream, think about this; castoreum, a flavoring extracted from glands near a beaver’s anus, may be the secret ingredient that gives your sweet treat its satisfying flavor. Castoreum has been used in foods and perfumes for years, in some cases listed simply and vaguely as a “natural ingredient.” The good news: most industry experts agree that today worldwide castoreum consumption is very low due to the difficult process of milking a beaver’s glands. Yum. 

3. Gelatin: The realization that swearing off gelatin doesn’t just mean ditching Jell-O can be a hard one for new vegetarians, and a test of will. Gelatin is a binding and stabilizing agent in many processed food products, and regardless of your opinion on meat-eating, a rundown of the additive’s components may give you pause. Gelatin is derived from collagen found in various animal by-products, including connective tissues. 

4. Carmine: Depending on your opinion of eating bugs, the origins of natural food dye carmine may or may not gross you out. The coloring agent is made from the processed bodies of Coccus cacti bugs. At one time the insects lent their vivid hue to coffee drinks, fruit juices, yogurts, and a number of other food products. 

5. L-Cysteine: L-cys for short, the food additive is a common dough conditioner and flavor enhancer used in human and pet foods. And it can be made from human hair, duck feathers, or hog bristles. Food manufacturers who will admit to using the hair-derived additive are few and far between, but some (like Safeway) don’t hesitate to own up to using duck feathers as a conditioning agent in baked goods.

Read online at SierraClub.org

5 Eco-Inspired Halloween Costume Ideas

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 9, 2013 

5 Eco-Inspired Halloween Costume Ideas

We’ve covered alternatives to the cheap, plastic costumes that line the shelves this time of year. You know all about going vintage, handmade, and hand-me-down to reduce yourHalloween waste. But when October 30 rolls around and plans for an elaborate costume based on your favorite literary character have fallen through, your options may seem limited: a bed sheet ghost or a quick trip to the nearest grocery store for a “Sexy [Whatever they have left]” costume? Put down the plastic, and make one of these easy, eco-inspired costumes that let you send a message (and still get the respectful “ah, you are very smart” head nod that your Holden Caulfield costume would’ve prompted) without too much effort or waste. 

Energy Vampire: Remind your fellow partygoers about the waste of standby power from unused but plugged in appliances. A large box can easily be turned into a computer with fangs, or a suit and black bed-sheet cape can be decorated with large paper power outlets to show the terrifying danger of wasting energy. 

Endangered Species: Spread the word about your favorite furry (or scaly, slimy, or feathered) friends who face extinction. A grey tracksuit with a paper-cone horn and ears becomes a message of solidarity for endangered rhinos, and animal costumes are cute on everyone. Search the endangered species list for your favorite animal, or search online for detailed DIYs, like this caribou costume tutorial from YouTube user BouTheCaribou.

Mother Earth: There are a lot of Mother Earth costume interpretations out there, so go with what feels right (or whatever is handy). Forgot to rake the yard? Glue a bunch of leaves to a dress and wear green tights. A great Mother Nature costume can also rely largely on pretty, ethereal makeup. It’s quick, easy, and spreads the word for a good cause, so if your friends try to guilt trip you about not putting effort into your costume, you can give it right back with a lecture about their unnecessary SUV.

Global Warming: Grab a fan or a spray bottle and a blue shirt, add green construction paper continents, and voila! You have a terrifyingly serious threat to our health and safety. Go scare Al Gore.

FrankenFood: Are your friends appropriately frightened about GMOs on their dinner tables? Scare them with monster fruit! A homemade fruit costume easily turns into its creepy counterpart with the addition of some zombie makeup and a few large bolts to the neck. 

Now that you have your costume, go forth and frighten (and educate!). But don’t be get preachy. Nothing ruins Halloween like a preachy genetically modified apple. 

Read online at SierraClub.org

Junk Drawer Recycling Challenge

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 9, 2013

Junk Drawer Recycling Challenge

Everybody has a junk drawer. When we move, the junk drawer becomes a surprisingly large junk box of items that don’t really belong anywhere — the contents don’t go in the kitchen, but not necessarily in the living room, and definitely not in the bathroom. What do you do with the accumulated knick-knacks and not-quite-trash of years past? Avoid adding to our ever-growing landfills and recycle your leftover junk with these programs.

ReCORK America collects wine corksat grocery and liquor stores throughout the U.S. Deposit your collection during your weekly shopping trip, or look up the location of the nearest collection bin. These souvenirs of happy nights with friends can be recycled into soles for shoes and fund the effort to plant trees.

Broken crayons see new life with the National Crayon Recycle program, whose representatives estimate they’ve diverted more than 92,000 pounds of unwanted crayons from landfills. With crayon production in the U.S. around 12 million per a day, they can use all of the help they can get. Parents can box up the stragglers and send them off to be given a second chance at coloring within the lines. 

Keys are the ultimate junk drawer menace. It’s like they multiply in there, and you don’t know what any of them actually unlock. So into the junk drawer they go, where they produce mysterious key friends and gather dust. Instead, try boxing them up and putting them to good use raising money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Keys for Kindness is a family-run organization that recycles keys in hopes of finding a cure, and that old key to the back door of the basement of your old apartment building can help.

Yes, your 4th grade spelling bee trophies are an important part of your history, but it is time to let go. Every child outgrows her trophy collection at some point, but the mementos of hard-earned recognition can be difficult to part with. The little gold soccer players can go on to do good, however, as programs throughout the country collect and recycle old trophiesTotal Rewards and Promotions, Inc uses discarded trophies for parts, re-engraves them to sell online, and donates them to charities that can’t afford to buy them new. 

And for everything else, TerraCycle collects junk of all kinds, from empty Scotch tape dispensers to used highlighters. The company offers free shipping for most items it collects, and awards you a monetary credit for each item recieved, which it will donate to the cause of your choice. Check out its website to see what it’s collecting now. 

When in doubt about what to recycle where, check out Earth911‘s quick-search tool to find recycling locations near you. 

Read online at SierraClub.org

6 Unique Sharing Services to Cut Your Consumption

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, October 8, 2013

6 Unique Sharing Services to Cut Your Consumption

Some life lessons learned in kindergarten stick: don’t eat glue, don’t run with scissors, friends don’t hit one another. For some of us, the importance of sharing was a hard one to learn — what kid wants to give away half of their cookie? Fortunately, we’ve warmed up to sharing, and learned to harness the power of lending, borrowing, giving, and renting to care for the environment. We’ve collected some of the greenest of what the sharing economy has to offer — from rental chickens to leftover Chinese food, here’s a small sampling of ways you can depend on the kindness of strangers to reduce your consumption and waste: 

1. To eat: Whether you have too much or too little, when it comes to sharing food, you have options. If you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, start or join a community garden. If you have lots of leftovers or made too much for dinner, services like Eat With Me andLeftoverSwap let you share your bounty with others, instead of tossing it in the trash. 

2. To farm: Interested in learning more about what urban homesteading has to offer your pantry? Give it a test run. A surprising number of groups and individuals throughout the nation rent out egg-laying chickens along with coops, bedding, and feed, at surprisingly affordable prices. Many of these groups hope to help decrease the number of abandoned chickens flooding animal shelters, which some attribute to the ever-increasing popularity of urban farming. If it doesn’t work out, simply send the rented chickens back, guilt-free. Do a quick search for chicken rentals in your state, and get farming.

3. To get around: Car sharing is nothing new — from Getaround to RelayRides, there are lots of easy options that make it easy to abstain from car ownership. But bike-share programs are also cropping up all over the U.S., making green transportation easy and accessible for all. Have a bike you seldom use? Put it to work for our environment with peer-to-peer sharing organizations like Splinster.  

4. For household goods: In this day and age, borrowing a cup of sugar isn’t as simple as knocking on a neighbor’s door. But that doesn’t mean you should forgo borrowing the Jones’ stepladder in favor of buying your own and adding to the dusty pile of seldom-used goods in the garage. Websites like NeighborGoods and The Freecycle Network allow users to post and search for items in their community — everything from video games to bike helmets. Give it a shot, and help keep reusable items out of landfills. 

Can’t find the tool you need on your block? Check online to see if your community has a localtool lending library, and if not, consider starting your own

5. For outdoor adventures: We know that ski resorts and campsites aren’t always as eco-friendly as we’d like them to be. Fortunately, you can take a few more steps to green your trip. Websites like GearCommons and Backcountry Ride let you connect with others who have gear and rides to rent or share. 

6. For the kids: Healthy kids grow like weeds, which means clothes and toys are outgrown quicker than parents can replace them. Instead of tossing out things that have fallen out of favor, search for toy libraries and co-ops in your area, or check out websites like thredUP and reCrib, which resell gently-used clothing and kids’ gear online.

Read online at SierraClub.org