Category Archives: Sustainability

Incentivize Me

IMAG0594I did our tax return yesterday, via TurboTax online. If you haven’t used TurboTax before, it leads you, step by step, through various types of income, deductions and credits you might be eligible for. One of the items I passed by was tax credits for purchasing electric or alternative-fuel vehicles.

I have an alternative-fuel vehicle. It’s my human-powered bicycle. But it doesn’t count for credits on our tax return. Those tax credits are for people who buy relatively expensive motor vehicles.

The tax credits are supposed to encourage people to buy these vehicles. They are slowly becoming more common.   I am still not going to buy one. They are still too expensive for us. We also prefer to have a larger family vehicle, due to the number and type of activities we are involved in (including Girl Scouts), and we do not want to buy a second vehicle just for my commute and the occasional instances when we could use a second car.

There IS a program that benefits bicycle commuters, if your employer chooses to participate.  Employers who provide free or discounted transit passes for employees can deduct those expenses on their tax returns (more info here). These employers can also provide a $20 per month cash benefit for bicycle commuters, to defray the costs of bicycle commuting (and the employer then deducts that expense as well).  The League of American Bicyclists has details (if you don’t see anything, scroll down).

The other option for employers is to allow employees to purchase transit passes using pre-tax dollars, which then decreases the employee’s taxable income. This option doesn’t have a bicycle component.

My employer does not participate in either option, but hey, it’s a public school district. There’s no tax benefit to them. They already give us good health and retirement benefits. They could participate in the pre-tax transit option (many school districts do, including Portland Public), but honestly, in our area it’s relatively difficult to get to the schools by public transit.

So I’m out of luck for tax credits and commuter benefits. And really, there’s plenty of benefit to my bike commute anyway. I get exercise, and we save money by not owning a second car. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were more ways to encourage people to choose alternatives? The United States famously pays farmers not to grow crops.  In light of the most recent climate report, are there more ways we could pay people not to drive?


Recycled Sit-Upon

Now that the big race is over (and aside from going back to full-time work in a couple of days), the next big thing is Girl Scouts! We have a big camping trip this weekend, and one of the things on the packing list is a sit-upon.

A sit-upon is just what the name says: something you sit on. It’s usually water-resistant and often cushioned. It can be as simple as a cut square of plastic or vinyl. My troop has never made sit-upons! So we will be doing it tonight at our pre-trip meeting. We don’t have much troop money right now, so I decided to look for a recycled-craft idea, and found this one.

Yep, it’s just plastic grocery bags. I folded the handles to the inside, then folded them in thirds and flattened them into strips. I wove six strips together. Then I folded the ends in and stapled them. That’s it! The Girl Guide leader who posted the idea suggested that you could also finish the edges with duct tape.

That should take care of all these plastic bags we’ve been holding on to. :-)

Carless, Not By Choice (guest post)

Today’s post is a guest post from my co-worker, 3rd grade teacher Alethea Mellor, who recently found herself carless due to mechanical problems. Alethea’s definitely been making the best of it, and has been cheerful about her car-free state (at least in public!).

Let me start by saying that I love my car. I love driving it and would probably never willingly give it up. For years, before kids and when it was just me, I didn’t even own a car and it didn’t seem to be a hassle, but over the years I had become completely dependent on it. As a busy single mom, I couldn’t imagine life without it.

About 6 weeks ago my car broke down. It needs a new transmission and I can’t afford it just yet. Forced into a carless situation, I am learning (and even sort of loving) to survive without a car. Some of the daily errands I had dreaded are becoming routine on foot.

Getting to work/ school: I am fortunate enough to work at my youngest son’s school, just 1 mile away from home (which is also a mile from the middle school for my oldest). We walk to and from school each day. It takes about 20 minutes, and we get our exercise in and usually some pretty pleasant conversations.

Grocery Shopping: I have great friends who take me shopping with them from time to time. I am very grateful for this, but the timing doesn’t always work out. I have also discovered I do a fair amount of shopping there and get it delivered. Sure, it’s more expensive, but I’m also not paying for gas or a taxi. I can pretty much always finagle a free delivery just by purchasing a handful of featured items. If I just need a few things, I will take an empty backpack and 2 reusable bags with me on a run. I make sure I end up at the grocery store and stock up on what I can carry. My walk home is my cool down.

Appointments/outings: If I need to get somewhere, I just run or take public transportation. I have been a runner for a while now, and I just use it as a form of transportation. My friend calls me Forrest Gump, because if I need to get somewhere, I just run. It’s a great way to get my workout in and get where I’m going. Sometimes I will get a ride from a friend or call a taxi if it is late at night. I justify the expense by all the gas money I am saving.

Because I haven’t been driving around, I have been getting a lot more exercise in. I have been spending more time with my kids since my outings are more planned and we have to walk a lot of places together. My kids are getting to know our neighborhood on foot rather than whizzing by in a car. All in all, it’s not so bad. Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to having my car back, but I don’t mind being carless for now.


A Week’s Biking In Pictures

I’m currently coordinating Walk and Bike to School Challenge Month at my school. Our bike rack is small, but mighty. We also have a lot of walkers!

Meanwhile, in interesting loads for the Xtracycle, I biked a fully loaded crockpot to work for a potluck.

And on Friday I biked both of my younger girls to their school, where we had an early meeting with a teacher. I really wanted to get an action shot of our shadow, but I didn’t quite dare try.

Tomorrow, we’re going to give Sunday Parkways a whirl — this is an event in Portland where they close off a number of streets to auto traffic and let the rest of us play! That’s my Mother’s Day treat.

Saying NO To the Breakfast Burrito

A few years ago, I had a regular habit of not leaving myself enough time to eat breakfast and being “forced” to stop at 7-11 to pick up a couple of breakfast burritos and a canned coffee.

That’s one of the reasons I continued gaining weight even though I was bike commuting every day.

I gave it up when I became determined to lose some weight. And then I joined Weight Watchers, and I really knew I couldn’t be doing that.

But recently, on a couple of occasions, I convinced myself again that I needed those burritos. And they were goooood. I know they’re junk. I know they’re nothing like a REAL burrito. But they’re SATISFYING junk.

Today they were calling to me again. I had a little trouble getting the kids up this morning, and didn’t have time to eat. And right up until that last corner where I’d have to turn to get to 7-11, I though I was probably going to go there.

Except, at the last minute, I didn’t. I said no. Because I haven’t been doing well with weight loss lately, and this wasn’t going to help me get back on track. I hated doing it, but I said NO to the breakfast burrito.

Instead, I ate the perfectly good food I had on hand at work: a fiber bar, an orange, and a cup of chai tea (I’d already grabbed a piece of string cheese at home to tide me over).

And yes, when I got to work and had to deal with…well, WORK stuff, I did feel resentful and deprived and wanted the comfort food. But I do know I made the right choice.

NOTE: This was yesterday. Today I was considerably more depressed and discouraged and I went and drank a couple of sodas. But I did still avoid the breakfast burritos.

Dollars for Decent Food

One of my colleagues handed out prizes at school recently, saying, “…and if it breaks before you go home today, well, it’s a dollar store prize.”

And that’s a lot of what you find at the dollar store (Dollar Tree in our case) — cheap plastic toys that don’t last long. So why do we keep going there? Well, this time it was because the kids wanted to spend their allowances. Thankfully, they did make some good choices — bubbles for blowing, crayons, a perfectly good water bottle.

I got some supplies for our Girl Scout meeting (you can get cheap craft supplies and school supplies at Dollar Tree, although quality may vary). But I also did much of our grocery shopping for the week!

What?! That doesn’t sound like a recipe for finding decent, sustainably produced foods, right? Well, it’s not like shopping at the farmers’ market or Whole Foods, of course. But I can’t afford Whole Foods right now, and the farmers’ market isn’t open yet anyway. So I looked around for some of the basic items we needed for the week and found: snack crackers, graham crackers, pretzels, tortillas, jam, hot dogs, shredded cheese, chicken pot pies (the husband eats them for lunch), and cornbread mix.

No, that isn’t a lot — but we didn’t need a lot, because we have a fairly full pantry right now due to ordering canned and dry items from Azure Standard. And it’s definitely not organic health food, but these are the same things I would have bought at a regular grocery store anyway. I do buy meat and eggs from local farmers, and I often buy organic veggies, but I don’t buy organic everything, and I do get moderate amount of moderately junky stuff like snack crackers.

The jam is the one thing I normally wouldn’t have bought, and felt rather guilty about — it’s basically flavored sugar goop, not real jam, and I’m usually a little more careful about that.

As a bonus, the cornbread mix was from Marie Callendar’s, and it’s something I haven’t seen at our regular grocery stores for a while.

It’s not something I’d want to do every week, but by shopping at Dollar Tree, I saved money as well as some time (because we were going there anyway). Both of those are good for my sanity.

What’s your experience shopping at dollar stores? Ever find anything really exciting?

Space for Flexibility

It’s spring break, and yes, I have PLANS. Not for going anywhere — plans to get things done. Too often, I put too many things on my list, and feel discouraged because I don’t get everything done.

Here’s my list from 2010: 7 Things To Do Over Spring Break. Looking back, that was a fairly reasonable list. We didn’t get our house totally cleared out or the garden totally prepped, but I had already recognized that that would probably be the case.

This year I made lists, too, but I assigned some of the things to particular days. For instance, my Monday list included:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Dr Appt.
  • Phone shopping
  • Girl Scout stuff
  • WordPress user group meeting

And then my Tuesday list (that’s today):

  • Bike shop
  • Car tires

Friday we have more doctor appointments and a Girl Scout event. But I didn’t schedule anything in particular for Wednesday and Thursday, and now I’m glad — because I’m actually a day behind!

Phone shopping (my husband and I were eligible for upgrades) took longer than expected, and I was really tired afterward. I didn’t get any Girl Scout stuff done between that and the user group meeting. So I need to do that today instead, and may not have time for the bike/car stuff.

But that’s OK! I have room in my schedule, and I don’t have to rush. I won’t give in to the anxiety, and I will take time to enjoy the break with my family. So far we’ve baked cookies, visited the park, and played Just Dance 3. Plus the general reading, watching TV, playing computer games and hanging out. After all, it’s spring break!