Sustainable Living Archives - Eva Varga

February 17, 2015

Soil is a complex mixture of minerals, water, air and organic matter that performs many critical functions. In the United States, more than 80 percent of the population lives in cities or suburbs. While the downtown areas of cities are covered with asphalt and concrete, there are still lawns, trees, gardens, and parks. Under all this city space, even under the concrete, is soil.

soilsurbanlifeSoils Support Urban Life

Before we began using pipes, drains, pumps, and other infrastructure to manage stormwater, nature provided the “green infrastructure” to slow, filter, and move water to where it belonged. In forests and wetlands, water is still managed naturally. The foundation of this network is the soil. It is the drain, the pipe, the pump, and the water treatment plant all in one.

As urban areas have grown and we’ve continued to pave over our soils, demands on both natural and manmade stormwater management systems have increased. The last few decades have brought a shift from traditional “capture, convey, and treat” drainage systems. Instead, many cities are beginning to focus on more sustainable systems to manage storm water runoff.

Often referred to as “green infrastructure”, these sustainable systems include rain gardens, living roofs, and the growing trend to plant vegetation native to the region. These practices can delay the arrival of water that reaches the sewer system and thereby reduce flooding.

The biggest benefit green infrastructure, however, is the potential reduction of pollutants entering the storm water system. Pollutants like nutrients (from fertilizers), road salt, and bacteria, can negatively affect aquatic life and public health. Green infrastructure captures these pollutants, especially those that might run off at the beginning of a storm.In both of the cities I have called home in the past few years, a few public buildings have even converted their roof tops to green space. These green roofs not only help to reduce pollutants but provide habitat for pollinators and small birds. In addition, they can provide learning spaces to learn about native plants and sustainable agricultural practices (drip irrigation, etc).

Bring it Home

The Soil Science Society of America recommends that urban dwellers consider rain gardens for their yards and compost their appropriate food wastes. Help the soil serve you by making rain gardens, making and using compost, and making an urban garden. Here are several resources and lesson plans to get you started:

  • Do the Rot Thing – Download this free composting curriculum to bring the science of composting into your curriculum
  • Build a Two-Can Bioreactor or small-scall indoor composting unit, or on a smaller scale consider a …
  • Soda Bottle Bioreactor that will enable students to design and carry out individualized research projects, comparing variables such as reactor design, moisture content, and nutrient ratios of mixtures to be composted.
  • Soil Science – Learn about basic soil science, and then explore some unique characteristics of soils found in urban areas.
  • Exploration of Run-off and Infiltration – In this unit, students design and conduct experiments on runoff and infiltration, either outside or in the classroom
  • Nourishing the Planet – Download the free soil science curriculum to help students realize the challenges of feeding a growing world
  • Dig It! Secrets of Soil – Visit the Smithsonian exhibit’s website to access 10 online interactive learning modules

September 18, 20131

In my daughter’s letter to Santa this past Christmas, she asked for a better environment.  A sustainable lifestyle has been a topic of discussion often in our family with reducing our carbon footprint as our goal.  We like to travel so we make concerned efforts to reduce our consumption in other areas. While we still have a long way to go, we are making progress and I share with you a few of our steps to a more sustainable lifestyle.

carbon footprint10. Reusable Canvas Bags

We have stopped using plastic and even paper bags upon making purchases long ago. It was the easiest change to make. When we sometimes forget to bring in our canvas bags, we simply carry them in our arms or put the items back into the cart, keeping the receipt handy if questioned.

9. Stainless Steel Bottles

We each have our own water bottle that we keep with us or easily accessible in the car. Rather than purchase bottled water, we refill when we can. Restaurants are always willing to allow us to fill our bottles. While we were at the Grand Canyon recently, we were impressed to discover that the park system has now eliminated the sale of bottled water.  Instead, refilling stations can be found throughout the park ~ even the elk have figured out how to operate the dispensers.

While I am not opposed to the occasional soft drink, we also limit our consumption by not purchasing them for the home. Instead, we treat ourselves to the occasional soda only when we dine out.  Relatedly, while we do not often eat at fast food restaurants, when we do, we abstain from using plastic lids or straws.

8. Buy Fresh & Seasonally

The kids and I have been reading labels since they could read. We avoid things with high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and artificial additives. We try to buy only fresh foods – particularly organic.  We buy our milk from a local farmer and regularly visit the farmer’s markets.

Relatedly, we do much of our shopping at Costco buying our staples in bulk. This not only saves money but also generally reduces the amount of trash we generate as there is less packaging.  We consciously purchase products with less packaging. For example, we buy loose leaf tea rather than using factory made tea bags that are often wrapped in plastic.

7. Reuse / Shop 2nd Hand

I am not a big shopper. This makes it easy to not consume products and materials that I really don’t need. So many clothes are now made outside the U.S. – the amount of energy required (fossil fuels) to bring these products to us is astounding. We thereby try to purchase only what we need, even then first trying to find them second hand.

One of my favorite resources is We have been able to find many goods that others have wanted to pass on. Similarly, we rely on word of mouth (and today, Facebook plays a major role). My daughter recently received a Singer sewing machine from our landlord when his wife wanted to pass it on. I’m a little surprised his daughter didn’t want it, but we are very pleased to be the recipient of such a wonderful gift.

6. Unplugging & Energy Efficient Appliances

We have over time upgraded to energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs whenever possible. When not in use, we unplug our electronics: toaster, coffee pot, mobile phone chargers, etc.  Even if nothing’s attached, many chargers still use energy (if it feels warm, it’s using electricty).  The natural lighting in the house is great so we use electric lights only rarely and then only for a short time.

5. Plan Errands

I plan out our errands around town to avoid unnecessary trips. I plan ahead to squeeze in as many tasks as I can in the time we have available and cluster them to make a circuitous route back home. I love it when I can spend two-three days entirely at home.  Similarly, we coordinate our milk pickup with another family to avoid both of us driving out to the farm every week.  When the kids get a little older, we will bicycle more often but presently we live across town from most of our lessons – swim team is 8 miles from the house.

4. Line Trash w/ Newspaper

This is the most recent change we have begun to undertake. Though it is a little more time consuming (and occasionally messy), it again saves money and has a significantly smaller impact on the environment.

3. Cloth Diapers & Napkins

When my kiddos were in diapers, we used cloth diapers and laundered them in home.  I am surprised I hadn’t realized it then, but thanks to a close friend (Thank you, Jennifer!!)  I have recently also begun to use cloth feminine napkins myself.  By simply switching to cloth we not only reduce our carbon footprint, we also save money.

2. Mindful Eating

Vegetarians save at least 3,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat eaters. We’ve thereby increased the number of vegetarian meals we eat each week.  We are also mindful of waste.  I have read that about one-quarter of all the food prepared annually in the U.S., for example, gets tossed, producing methane in landfills as well as carbon emissions from transporting wasted food.  I thereby make a concerned effort to prepare just enough for our meal.  When dining out, we frequently share meals.  This not only saves in energy but also assures we don’t over eat.

1. Drive a Hybrid

We haven’t yet converted to a hybrid. Our cars are paid for and run well. We just aren’t excited to make car payments again. We know, however, our next automobile will be a hybrid. We drive so much, it is the logical choice. However, we follow a strict maintenance plan – air, oil and fuel filters are changed according to schedule and the tires are properly inflated and rotated.

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While these changes are not necessarily achievable overnight, the gradual lifestyle changes will have a big impact on the environment.  I know we have a long way yet to go; there are more changes we can make for more sustainable living.  We continue to seek out actions and lifestyle changes ourselves.

What choices have you made as an individual or as a family for sustainable living?