Posts Tagged ‘caroline selle’

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For Earth Day,  A Story Of Renovation

There’s Never A “Best” Time To Start

I started trying to reduce my waste at the absolute worst time. After college, a few friends and I decided to move into my grandparents’ former home, which was still filled with their possessions and in disrepair. With no jobs lined up and plenty of free time on our hands, we traded our first year’s rent in exchange for fixing up the place.

Although it took some time before we could move in, today we are happily settled (though we are still renovating). Our kitchen is tiled, the walls are painted, and most of the light fixtures are in working order. The house feels like home. It took a lot to get there.

First: To The Dumpster

Most of the first few weeks consisted of throwing things out. Proper disposal was key: we took old pesticides, oil based paints, and appliances to the local landfill, which has a hazardous waste disposal program. When we first started going through the house, it quickly became clear: we had no idea what we were going to do. If there were ever a lesson in how much we leave behind in our lifetimes, this was it. My grandparents weren’t excessive consumers, but they both grew up in poor rural families and apparently saved everything they ever owned. So much for reducing waste – we had to figure out how to dispose of old oil paint, ratty, stained carpet, and a plethora of rusty nails.

Fix The Foundation: Flooring

Throughout the renovation process, flooring was one of the trickiest matters. Our budget was “as small as possible,” but we had to do something. We learned the hard way – with mold and rot – that the base level of plywood does not make a good bathroom floor.

Old carpet, unfortunately, went in the trashcan, and I resolved never to install carpet in a future home. In hindsight, I learned that carpet can sometimes be recycled. However, if you have hardwood floors (like we did) beneath the carpet, it doesn’t make sense to put it in in the first place. If you’re going to install, smaller pieces are more eco-friendly, and remnants are available for a discount at many stores.

After the carpet was removed from the living room, upstairs, and kitchen (yes, kitchen), we needed to put something on the floor. I researched many options, including vinyl tile (the cheapest), but ended up settling on ceramic tile for the kitchen. Because I was putting something new in my home, I didn’t want the off gassing from vinyl (which is highly toxic). Vinyl is also toxic throughout its life cycle Linoleum was an eco-friendly option, but we couldn’t find a color we liked. Since the area we wanted to tile was so small, we decided it wouldn’t affect the budget too much and was the most viable option.

Next, we started fixing what we had. We restored the hardwood floors on the main level, though we just cleaned the ones upstairs. We visited a building materials thrift store, the Community Forklift, and bought paint for the peeling front steps and the upstairs bathroom. The furniture in the house was in great condition, but we put felt pads on the chairs and tables to protect the floors.

Personalizing Your Home.

Finally, we started to create a home we wanted to live in. The living room couch was fine, but we added a washable slipcover to adapt it to the colors we wanted. I started landscaping, tearing out weeds that had become small trees, and planting native and drought-tolerant species in the beds already in the yard. This year, I added cedar raised beds, chosen for their durability, and filled them with compost.

Throughout the renovation process, we threw out as little as possible and reused what we could. My grandfather had a host of building supplies in the basement, and the nails we used to hang pictures all came from his stash. When we were mostly finished renovating and needed some dishes, we went to the thrift store. I kept the bookshelf from the master bedroom and all of the old light fixtures. We refused to throw out anything useable and kept most of the old linens, though we took the extras to the thrift store.

An Act Of Remembrance.

For me, the renovation was as much an act of remembrance as it was restoration. I didn’t hold onto items that were no longer useful purely for remembrance, but every morning I use my grandparents’ old, stained teakettle to boil water. Some of the tools in the basement helped me start my first solo vegetable garden, and the small yellow lamp on my desk once belonged to my grandfather and now helps me write.

Reducing Consumption. 

Renovating the house only reinforced my commitment to reducing my consumption. I gained some incredible insight into my grandparents’ lives and learned bits and pieces of their stories I never heard when they were alive, and I’m living in the midst of their legacies every day. I wonder, too, who first owned the giant soup pot we found at the thrift store. Who did some of my cookbooks once belong to? And when and why did my grandmother buy those knee-high black leather boots with the three inch heels?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

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Does your furry friend have an outsized carbon pawprint?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

Each morning, as the cats wind around my legs and meow for their breakfast, I wonder exactly how much damage their canned cat food is doing to the earth. I make every effort to keep my own life sustainable, my carbon footprint low, but I adopted two carnivores.

Dogs can be vegetarian, but cats can’t. They need taurine in their diets, an amino acid that only comes from animals. Forget species: most pet food is problematic anyways. In fact, according to Robert and Brenda Vale, authors of Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, a medium-size dog is worse for the environment than an SUV. The worst part of the impact comes from diet. Cats, in comparison, are kind of like a Smart Car. They’re not guzzling gas, but they’re still emitting CO2.

So how can we make our pets more sustainable?

Let’s start with food.

No matter how I budget, there’s only so much of my salary I can afford to spend on sustainably sourced pet food. Plus, my cats like the cheap stuff. Friskies generates more meows than Dave’s, so we’ve settled on Iams, an in-between brand I can still pick up at the local grocery store. None are particularly great options. Purina touts its sustainable practices, but it’s owned by Nestle. I feed the cats a fixed quantity of wet food along with an open supply of higher quality and more eco-friendly dry food.

Vets generally agree that wet food is healthier for pets. If your budget stretches a little farther than mine, you might consider buying dehydrated food, which has a lower carbon footprint when shipped. It’s rehydrated by adding water at home. And if you’re really into getting high quality and eco-friendly food for your pet, you can make your own.  Unfortunately, it’s time consuming and expensive.

My favorite place to find a balanced blend of sustainable and healthy food is the Big Bad Woof, a local pet store chain with locations in Maryland and DC. The employees are always helpful, and there’s a good selection of brands at a variety of price points. The store carries supplies for all common household pets, including birds and small rodents.


If you’ve ever cared for a kitten, you know a balled up piece of newspaper can be just as engrossing as a fancy, ten dollar toy. Cats love boxes. Anything lying around the house. My kitten chases bouncy balls and a laser pointer, and anything tied to a swinging string.

Your cat might chatter at the birds and squirrels outside, but keep them indoors. Not only will the pet avoid being hit by cars, getting into fights with other cats, and a variety of nasty diseases, you’ll keep the predatory instincts in check. Cats are reportedly responsible for billions of small mammal and bird deaths each year.

Dogs, similarly, can be entertained without spending much money. Plenty of parks allow canine companions, and there are several hiking trails in the area that do as well. There are also quite a few companies making more sustainable versions of dog toys, in case you want to pick up something more durable for your pet to chew.

Some smaller pets, like hamsters, enjoy playing in old paper towel or toilet paper tubes.


The stinky part, and the least exciting part of owning a pet. For cleaning up after a dog, some stores and online outlets sell biodegradable doggy bags. In theory, the whole thing degrades in the landfill. Since most landfills are too tightly packed to allow for much biodegradation, I’m a fan of using plastic newspaper bags, tortilla packaging, or anything else that might end up in the trash.

Cat waste is a more serious problem. About 2 million pounds of litter head to landfills each year. Clay litter (the most popular kind) is strip mined, but it lasts longer and contains smells better than many other options. One alternative is pine pellets, but many cats don’t appreciate the change in texture. Some people toilet train their cats, but my supposedly fastidiously clean animals prefer to use the toilet to drink. The lid stays closed now.

Any animal could, in theory, have its waste composted – but not for any compost you’ll put on edible plants. Plus, there’s the smell to contend with. Small animals that live in wood shavings, like hamsters, produce less waste and therefore less smell. If you’re comfortable composting, go for it! (But keep it very, very separate from anything going near your food).

Can we really shrink the pawprint?

In the end, pets don’t create as much of an environmental challenge as humans. It makes more sense to address our own shortcomings first. However, if you really want to make your pet’s life more sustainable, start with food. Go to your local pet store and talk to some experts. When it comes to toys, reuse, reuse, reuse. And, well, waste is difficult. Composting is probably the best option, but it comes with many challenges.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a piece about responsible pet ownership without a disclaimer at the end. Spay and neuter your animals. Puppies, kittens, and other baby pets are cute, but there are already too many animals without homes.

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The Zero Footprint Baby

How do you raise a carbon neutral baby? Should you buy toys? What about relatives who need to fly to visit? If you need a refrigerator, where do you buy the most energy efficient model? The answers to Keya Chatterjee’s questions were far flung: she found some with family members from India, others on the internet, and ended up ordering a refrigerator from Silicon Valley.

Chatterjee, the Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, was kind enough to take time out of her busy work day and speak with DC EcoWomen about the challenges of raising a zero footprint child, writing a book, and juggling a full-time job.

Before the birth of their son, Chatterjee and her husband were already well acquainted with green living. They had no refrigerator, buried their compost, and had solar panels installed in their backyard. “Some people counted calories,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “We counted kilowatts.” But a baby changed the math. A former employee at NASA, Chatterjee had the skills to do the research and the training to write up the answers she found. “I wrote the book because I feel that climate change is an important issue for parents and there wasn’t really anything out there about the individual choices parents can make,” Chatterjee said. “The more information I was compiling, the more I thought, I don’t want everyone to do all this work.” Thus, The Zero Footprint Baby was born.

The Zero Footprint Baby looks at all aspects of childrearing, starting with pregnancy. And, of course, Chatterjee addresses the issue of diapers.

“It’s actually funny because I realized long ago in my head that it was possible to not use diapers,” she said, “thinking back to how my family members live in India. There are no books about it. It’s just normal life.” Surprisingly enough, diapers aren’t a huge part of the carbon footprint of a baby. “It’s really more the decisions that parents are making,” said Chatterjee. Though she ended up raising her son without any form of diapering at all, Chatterjee found that the size of your house, the number of flights you take (or relatives take to visit you), and medical care are all a much bigger part of the carbon footprint.

She was surprised to find how much the medical system impacted the numbers. The carbon footprint of the United States medical system is much higher than that of the United Kingdom. “It was interesting to read about as I was reading about the medicalization of birth.”

Though Chatterjee decided to breastfeed her baby, her book lists tips for reducing the carbon footprint of a formula fed child. Don’t drive to pick up the formula, buy in bulk whenever possible, and buy brands with as little secondary packaging (like shrink wrap inside a cardboard container) as possible, she suggests. In fact, many of the chapters include alternatives to some of Chatterjee’s choices, and she explains many of her own personal compromises. She and her husband eventually decided to buy a refrigerator to store breast milk, though they purchased a specialty and extremely energy efficient model.

With The Zero Footprint Baby, “My aspiration was to provide a sense of community,” Chatterjee said. “I feel very strongly that people should do whatever they can and not feel stressed about what they can’t do.”

“The biggest challenges were interacting with people around us and explaining what we were doing,” she said. “You put yourself out there, then you open yourself up to criticism.” One of the arguments she heard most was, “Oh, you’re not doing one hundred percent of what you can do… It’s a prioritization question. There will be criticism no matter how you choose to parent.”

Her book is already making an impact: The Zero Footprint Baby was featured as one of EarthShare’s best environmental stories of 2013.

When asked how she managed to transition to such a low impact lifestyle, “We wouldn’t have done any of the things we’re doing if they were hard for us,” Chatterjee said. For example, she explained, her family doesn’t use a lot of heat or air conditioning. Instead, they go to the pool in the summer or museums in the winter. “For us, our lives are much more rewarding.”

Written by Caroline Selle, Zero Waste Girl