How We Change Our Water

The last post I wrote was about the affect of industrial pollutants like PCBs and mercury on the waterways in the Great Lakes area. Shortly after I wrote the post I heard about the Riverwatch group in Indiana. This is a group of volunteers who are trained in how to monitor streams and rivers in Indiana watersheds. Because this subject was on my mind already I signed up to attend training at Gibson Woods in Hammond, IN on April 30th. (A lovely park I never knew about. I urge people to go. The pond is beautiful.)

A stream may seem like something small when thinking about what’s going on with Lake Michigan but those streams are important. Understanding what a watershed is, exactly, helps us understand that what we do impacts more than just our immediate location. A watershed is ALL the land, above and below the surface, where water that runs off/out of it ends up at one point. We all live in a watershed. You’ve probably seen the signs along highways saying that such and such and area is part of a watershed. What that means is that whatever we put onto the ground in that area or into the water ends up in our larger bodies of water, including Lake Michigan. When we hear about a body of water that’s polluted we tend to think of industry or perhaps farms causing that pollution but we need to remember that we contribute as well. In fact pollution directly from something such as a factory discharging into water is only 25% of the pollution (point source pollution). The remaining 75% is from the land use in a watershed.

How do we contribute? One way is what we put on our lawns or gardens. Nitrogen and phosphorous are ingredients in chemical fertilizers. They are also something that the Riverwatch group tests for in waterways. Just like these chemicals promote the growth of plants and grasses, they increase the growth of algae in water. This algae grows too fast, causing plant death. As the plants die and decompose, the oxygen in the water decreases and fish can die. (One extreme example is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico)

The picture at the right from NOAA shows this area and it's dissolved oxygen (DO) level (something else Riverwatch tests). For aquatic life to be happy the DO needs to be at least 5 ppm. On the picture that doesn't start until the lightest shade of green.

People can help to reduce their impact on the water in their area by avoiding chemical fertilizers. If possible, using native plants in your yard is a good idea. Check out Clear Choices Clean Water for details on ways to do this. To find environmentally friendly lawn care products, I recommend Clean Air Gardening.

Some of the other sources of phosphorous include manure from farm field run off or human waste from failing septic tanks or from municipal treatment discharge. A further source of phosphorous is detergents, so much so that many states are enacting bans on phosphates in detergents. This is good for the environment but many people complain their dishes aren't as clean. I've found that a product called Lemi Shine works WONDERS for cleaning dishes and removing hard water stains.

As far as nitrogen, the ways to reduce phosphorous help but the main source of nitrates in Indiana water is sewage. Unfortunately the only way to reduce that source is infrastructure investment and improvements, something I am not going to address at this time but if you want to understand some of the issues with it check out the movie "The Crumbling of America" from the History Channel. I don't see it on Netflix but it still comes on the History Channel occasionally.

I hope this post gives you some things to think about. Remember, no matter what size, we all have an impact on the environment and every little bit we can do to lessen that helps.

No fish for you!


I live in NW Indiana. Indiana probably brings to mind corn and flat land but there is more than that here. Southeastern Indiana has the beautiful Clifty Falls State Park while northwestern Indiana in on the shore of Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan, for those who don't know, is on the of the five Great Lakes. These lakes hold 1/5th of the entire world's fresh water and provide drinking water to tens of millions of people in the US and Canada. They also provide recreation and tourism to people around the world. Unfortunately, the health and beauty of these natural wonders is being threatened

PCBs and mercury are contaminants that collect in soil, water, and microscopic animals. Mercury goes up the food chain as the these microscopic animals are eaten by larger animals and those animals eaten by larger ones and so on. PCBs mainly reside in the fat of a fish but mercury is bound to the muscle, the part of the fish we eat. This is a definite concern for those who fish in Lake Michigan. One tributary to the lake, the Grand Calumet River, is so polluted that the state of Indiana says not to eat any fish from it. Period. Lake Michigan itself has many other fish that are so full of mercury or PCBs that pregnant women and children under the age of 15 are told not to eat them and the rest of the population is told to only eat once every month or two. (2010 Indiana Fish Consumption Advisory Complete Report)

The pollution of Lake Michigan is a concern for the surrounding states. The water in it is retained for 99 years. What was dumped years ago is still there. What we dump now will be there long after we are gone. So what can one do? There are some groups, including the Sierra Club, who offer ways we can help. Here are some links to them:

Sierra Club Great Lakes Program

Alliance for the Great Lakes

National Wildlife Federation

Easy tips for making work more eco-friendly

I've been trying to make the place I work a little more eco-concious. It's slow going and some things I just can't control, but there are a few things I've done that you can do too.

Tips the average worker can apply

  1. Ask yourself if I need to print this. - Think about how much paper offices use each day for stuff that is printed, then discarded. We could all try to do better in this by asking, "Do I really need to print this document?" If so, try printing it on fewer pages or by printing on both sides of the paper. If it's an internet document, you can use the tool GreenPrint World to preview your document and remoce those pesky last pages with just one line on them or to remove unnecessary images.

  2. Bring your own utensils, plates, cups, etc. - If your office provides plastic utensils and styrofoam cups, you can cut down on their use and subsequent disposal by bringing your own, reusuable utensils from home. I drink coffee every morning and bring it with me in a stainless steel travel mug. I then use this mug to refill the coffee at work, plus the travel mug keeps it warm.

Tips a business can use, cheaply

  1. Recycle - Most waste haulers have a recycling program. You can contact them, sign up for it, and then put recycling containers in prominant places such as the lunchroom. Just recycling the aluminum cans and plastic bottles from machines can help. Even better, recycle the paper from the offices and the junk mail.

    Remember to always recycle your e-waste so the toxic chemicals in printers, computers, etc. do not enter the landfill. Many places will remove it for you and recycle it for a reasonable fee. Have a collection day a few times a year for broken or non-working electronic items to be brought to a central location for pick-up.

    Another easy, free, tip is recycling printer cartridges. Most laser toner cartridges have a mailing or UPS label in the new cartridge so that you can ship the old one back. If not, check the company's website for information on printing a label. HP is very good about doing this and they also have a box you can order to fill with spent ink-jet cartridges and then ship back, all for free

  2. Buy recycled paper - Most office supply stores sell recycled paper products. Purchasing products made from post-consumer recycled paper helps to prevent new trees from being cut down. The higher the recycled content, the less energy and water used to make the paper and the less waste produced.
  3. Purchase compostable or biodegradable breakroom supplies - If you aren't able to switch everyone to using their own, reusable utensils, there are more options available each day for purchasing compostable or biodegradable supplies. Sugar-cane plates and hot cups, disposable cutlery made from cornstarch, the list goes on. Just start searching your office supplier's site or catalog for the words "compostable", "biodegradable", or "recycled" to see what they offer and find what works best for your workplace.

These are just a few things I've done where I work, what have you done where you work?

Resources - facts about recycled paper - recycled paper info - tips on choosing paper - recycling paper in the workplace - starting a recycling program at work - e-waste recycling - HP recycling information - Baumgartens, a supplier of compostable utensils and other supplies

Funny thought...


I hate when I forget my bags.

How to stop being a packrat

I am a packrat. I fully admit it. I have a hard time getting rid of stuff. Over the past few weeks, though, I have been trying to reduce and de-clutter, and do it in a way that's good for the environment.

First, I cleaned out all of my closets. I had tons of clothes I haven't worn for various reasons. If your closet is overflowing, take a day and go through it and ask yourself, "When did I last wear this?" If it's been a year, ask, "Why haven't I worn this? Does it not fit right? Is it something that isn't flattering or just not my style anymore?" If it's a yes to those answers, then put it in a pile to donate, provided it's in good shape. I took most of my stuff to the Goodwill in town, as it's only a few blocks away, but you can check shelters in your area or post the items for free on places like Freecycle, if that's easier for you. If it's something a bit pricier or a unique vintage item, then you can try selling it on eBay or Craigslist. Vintage items seem to sell best on eBay and then you know that someone really wants the item and will enjoy it.

After sorting out all the items I could get rid of, now I had to put the stuff to keep back in the closets. I am not an organized person. Since I had everything out and pared down, I took the opportunity to rearrange and organize my items into storage boxes, that I then labeled. It's so much easier to find things when you label the boxes so that you can see them when you open the closet.

I also have a bad habit of keeping papers. I don't want to throw them away but I also don't have the space to store them and many of them aren't important. I had tons of recipes I had printed from blogs and cooking sights. I kept those and sorted and arranged them in binders so I could find them later. I sorted out the important papers I should keep, and filed them in the filing cabinet. The rest I tossed in the recycling bin. Remember to shred anything that contains personal information before getting rid of it.

My place is coming along now. Int he future, I will post about my adventures buying and selling furniture on Craigslist.

Organic Patio Gardening

Nothing is better than the taste of a freshly picked, perfectly ripe tomato. However, those of us who live in apartments may think we can't grow huge tomato plants. That would be wrong.

I've been able to grow tomatoes and other vegetable for a few years using different containers. The first ones I tried were the Topsy Turvy tomato and herb planters. Both are meant to be hung up. The tomato planter has the plant growing out the bottom and the herb planter has multiple spots to plant herbs. I live on the bottom floor so this was perfect for me as I could hang it from the deck joists of the above patio.

When the apartment complex I lived in put in corrugated roofing between the top and bottom patios, I didn't get as much sun on the upside-down planters. Most of the sun hits the ledge of my patio, which is at ground level. Since tomatoes love sun, I tried using an Earthbox last year. I had seen these on "Mexico, One Plate at a Time" with Rick Bayless. The planter fit on my patio perfectly and the tomato plant grew well. It was huge and produced plenty of tasty tomatoes.

I ordered more Earthboxes this year to expand my growing. They are really easy to use. There is a tube that you pour water, which keeps the plants watered. They have attachable caster if you need to be able to move them around, as well as a staking system for large plants like tomatoes.

Many large hardware and garden centers sell organic potting mix and fertilizers, so you can fill your containers with this and be on your way to having fresh, organic vegetables, no matter where you live!

Greening the workplace, Pt. 1

A few months ago someone at work approached me about recycling. I would love to recycle here. I get so many junk catalogs and mail that could be recycled, not to mention all the cans and bottles from our vending machines. Unfortunately, recycling is not my decision to make. I've gone to our Purchasing Manager about contacting our waste disposal company. I know they have single-stream recycling so we wouldn't even have to rely on people to seperate their items. I think I need to write up a plan and actually go to him with it, along with the others who support recycling.

At least we recycle our e-waste. My boss wanted to just throw it away, but we have a standing PO with a company to take our old computers and such for recycling.

So far, the only "greening" I've been able to do is replace our plastic cutlery with compostable ones and try out a compostable coffee cup to try to replace the styrofoam ones. I found the coffee cups and cutlery from Baumgarten's in the Conserve line. I was having a hard time finding a greener option for disposable coffee cups that wouldn't burn people's hands. These work really well! Having everyone bring their own, washable dishes would be best but most of our employees work in the plant and there isn't space to store and wash all those dishes.