Noticing Sustainability Practices in Action

During the last few years, I have found myself noticing sustainability practice in action, and in
many cases where a little thought could have gone a long way to help something be more
sustainable. Before I get into a couple of these examples, I thought it might be a useful thing to
define sustainability. We throw this word around a lot, but what does it really mean?
I think a pretty good definition is simply “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”
Here's an example of sustainability we can put our heads around. I need to drive from point A to point B and back every day. Let's say it takes one gallon of gas to do this trip. Petroleum is extracted from the ground, and once used, disappears. I'm not going to get into the laws of thermodynamics, so for simplicity sake, let's just assume that once a gallon of gas is burned it is lost forever. While it did its job to get me from A to B and back, there is one less gallon of petroleum available to use. However, if I were to drive an electric car and had solar panels on my house or purchased utility electricity that is created using solar energy, I would drive from point A to point B and back consuming electrons in the process. The distance and energy consumption remain the same. However, I could recharge my battery with the solar panels. Creating this energy can be made every day without extracting a finite resource. The energy required to get from point A to B and back can be maintained at a certain rate or level.

With that context, here are a few examples I’ve seen of sustainability in action – and some
cases where it wasn’t.

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Putting salt down to melt ice is a great story and reminder that there is no such thing as "away." Salt that is put on the ground eventually goes somewhere. In Madison Wisconsin where I live everything on our roads and sidewalks that doesn't go into a filtration pond or rain garden ends up in one of our lakes. Salinity in our local lakes is rising which is cause for concern for wildlife and vegetation. here's a good rule 1 pound of salt fits in a 12-ounce coffee mug of thumb from Wisconsin's SaltWise site. And is enough to treat a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares. Unfortunately, any salt extracted from the ground and put on roads is fundamentally not sustainable because it "disappears" and becomes a solution in our surface and groundwater. in this case, the sustainable thing to do is be salt wise.

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Fast food restaurants are kind of a sustainability nightmare because of the consumables it takes to serve meals. Honestly, sit down restaurants are more sustainable dining option because plates, napkins and cutlery can all be washed and reused. However, we are not getting away from fast food and so the sustainable option is to separate and recycle as much as possible. Culver’s Restaurants does a nice job of very clearly explaining what they mean by plastic and what can go in there recycling bin. I'm also very impressed with the wide variety of plastic items they use that are recyclable.

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I love airlocks, they keep a direct wind from rushing into warm spaces. So why aren’t they being used? I was in New York City during the early January "bomb cyclone" when bitter cold and lots of snow hit the city. I noticed many revolving doors, a form of an airlock, not being used in many entrances throughout the city. Most had signs pointing to the “non airlock” door that when opened, allowed a gust of wind and snow into the building. PLUS, it was no fun sitting near the door with all that draft! The sustainable option is to use the airlocks at all times, winter and summer, to keep inside air in and outside air out.

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I am embarking on a home kitchen remodeling project. When we demolished the old walls and the chimney, we created a lot of debris. Construction projects inherently produce waste. The sustainable options are to find homes for as much of the waste as possible. During our deconstruction, we gave away more than 600 bricks on Craigslist and Next Door, though we didn’t find a home for the old mortar. But we did separate the lath from plaster to burn the wood in fires this summer. Broken up drywall is recyclable but not at the residential level, at least not that I know of. And that’s the problem. Here I am all into sustainability and I didn’t know what to do with broken drywall and old mortar.

Just an FYI, the dumpster above is not from our project, I snapped this photo as I was walking through my neighborhood which gave me pause to think about construction, waste and dumpsters.

If you’d like to see more examples of sustainable snapshots such as these, follow me on Instagram

Joshua Feyen is part of the organizing team for the Wisconsin Permaculture Convergence. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin where him and his partner tend their intensive urban lot which is home to chickens and a large variety of annual and perennial plants. 

Joshua Feyen is part of the organizing team for the Wisconsin Permaculture Convergence. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin where him and his partner tend their intensive urban lot which is home to chickens and a large variety of annual and perennial plants. 



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