Did you know today is Blog Action Day? Today, October 15, you’re supposed to post on your blog about the environment, and donate the day’s earnings to an environmental charity. Sadly, I am not currently cashing in on my thousands hundreds tens of loyal sporadic readers, so the latter half of that doesn’t really apply–I guess I’ll just have to do the bloggy part of it.

I’ve been thinking about my ecological footprint over the past few years. I was damn good in college when I didn’t have a car and lived in a tiny apartment near school. Various life changes came and went, and I commuted more or less, carpooled sometimes, took the bus sometimes. Right now, I work from home and live within easy biking/walking distance of downtown, so my transportation footprint has been lower than it’s almost ever been, little car trips within town notwithstanding. I tend to eat at home more often, mostly vegetarian, and waste less food (though I am still not great about this; I pack up leftovers and then they sit forgotten in the fridge for weeks, alongside the bendy carrots and sprouted onions).

On the other hand, I haven’t been so good on other fronts. The city I live in doesn’t make it easy at all for apartment dwellers to recycle. We still do it, but half of our study is full of giant, unsightly plastic bins full of cans, paper, and bottles and it is a total ordeal going down to the recycling center to sort things out. There are about 20 different bins to sort things into–brown glass, clear glass, green glass, aluminum, steel, newspaper, white paper, mixed paper, magazines, plastics (but only certain ones!), plastic bags, egg cartons, etc.–and there are various other things about the recycling center that make it a real drag. In the summer, the bins are sticky and full of bees that fly out in your face, Candyman-style, and there is frequently this sort of creepy guy working there. He comes up to me and goes “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am?” and when I say “yes, what is it?” he just keeps saying “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am” and following me around. I think he’s developmentally disabled, autistic, or something, but for a while I was taking it personally and getting freaked out because I heard him talking to someone else completely normally. Upon further unpleasant encounters, I’m sticking with my original theory. It’s still not a fun experience, but it’s not creepy in the same way. Anyway–I digress–the point is that recycling in Bloomington sucks if you don’t get curbside pickup. Which we don’t, because for some reason the recycling guys come down our street, picking up recycling from all the houses on our street, but they refuse to pick up from our apartments and just drive on past.

I don’t have a yard anymore, so I don’t compost anymore. I miss my compost bin a lot. I still feel pangs of guilt whenever I throw away banana peels or carrot tops or moldy leftovers. I loved chucking that stuff into my big crawly compost bin and turning it over with the pitchfork to see the steam and the zillions of worms. I’ve been thinking about making a worm bin, but (whispering) it seems kind of gross. I’ve read all about how your worms can die if you don’t feed them the right stuff, or get their bedding too wet, or don’t feed them enough, and there is really nothing I want to deal with less than a big, drippy box full of dead worms. Or a kitchen floor full of dead worms who have tried to make the great escape from their home planet. I would keep it out on the balcony, but here, unlike in California, that’s not a viable option during the winter.

We don’t have energy-efficient lightbulbs, mostly because we have cathedral ceilings and no ladder, and it’s a pain in the ass to climb up there and change the bulbs. I actually don’t know what we’ll do when they burn out–call Maintenance, probably, as ridiculous as that sounds.

And here’s the relevant part. I have been pretty bad about buying stuff–specifically, knitting stuff–without much thought at all about its environmental impact. So here’s me, thinking about it. (I don’t know that I’ll change my ways anytime soon, because making a change in your habits is a lot harder than talking about it. But thinking about the issue is a good start.)

To start with, yarns can be made with varying degrees of eco-friendliness.

You’d think acrylics, “petro-yarns,” are obviously not eco-friendly. However, there is a material called ecospun that’s made from recycled plastic soda bottles. There was some ecospun roving in a sampler bag of fiber I bought at the LYS–it wasn’t bad, wasn’t great either. I did a search to see if I could figure out a way to get commercially spun ecospun yarn, and to my surprise, found that Wal-mart apparently sells it. Who’d’a thunk it? (Actually, as my MBA student boyfriend points out quite often, Wal-mart is moving fast in the right direction–towards zero waste, 100% renewable energy, and carrying sustainable products–because they’ve discovered that being eco-friendly will not only buy them good publicity but will also save them money.)

Cotton has a reputation for being incredibly bad for the environment. Look at the stats on this page–it uses 25% of the world’s insecticides, more than 10% of the world’s herbicides, and is the fourth most heavily fertilized crop–after, oddly, soybeans. I have to read up on this stuff; I thought the whole point of crop rotation with corn and soy was that soybeans were nitrogen fixers and didn’t need tons of fertilizer dumped on them. This is probably a naive, city mouse thing to think. It takes 1/3 of a pound of chemicals just to grow the cotton for one t-shirt! That’s lightweight jersey knit from thread–think of how much more went into making worsted weight yarn.

There are many organic cotton yarns out there, though, happily. I have some Foxfibre Pakucho in my stash. Elann.com now carries Pakucho cotton for $2.98 a skein. This is an organic cotton–i.e. grown without pesticides and herbicides–and it’s color-grown, with the browns and greens being the natural color of the cotton rather than dye. And the colors get darker and more intense as you wash the yarn!

Sari silk yarn and 2nd Time Cotton are two yarns I know of that are made from by-products of the textile industry. Soysilk is made from industrial waste. Colourmart and Discontinued Brand Name Yarns sell mill ends that might otherwise be discarded. All these are admirable for getting fibers out of the waste stream and upcycling them into consumer goods again. I could go on, but I’d be reinventing the wheel, since there are other sites out there that have done the roundup, very thoroughly–here’s a treehugger post about eco-friendly yarns, the Worsted Witch has a treasure trove of useful information about this topic, and Interweave Knits just had an article about organic wool yarns.

The most eco-friendly choice is probably to buy old sweaters at the thrift store and recycle the yarn. It’s usually a major pain in the ass, but the only extra energy expended for your hobby is the energy you personally spend snipping up the seams, unraveling, skeining, washing, and winding the yarn. Plus, as a bonus, it’s really cheap. Or you could buy fleece right off the sheep from a local farmer and spin it yourself–also a good choice.

Anyway, on to the biggest thing I wanted to talk about. One of my biggest problems, environment-wise, is stashing. I love to buy yarn. Love it! I’ve kicked the habit of shopping for the sake of it, the “must-have” mentality, in most other areas of my life–the average age of my shoes is about 5 years and they are mostly full of holes, I’ve stopped buying books and DVDs and instead get them out from the library, I am usually able to admire pretty things and then put them back on the store shelf. (Having to try and move cross-country with or get rid of all my stuff was very helpful in curing packrat tendencies.) Unfortunately, my crafting hobbies have really messed me up in this regard, and in particular, knitting.

I don’t currently get the same thrill from sewing and spinning, so I can resist fiber and fabric sales pretty easily. However, seeing yarn I like online at a good price is sometimes unbearable–I think of the pleasure of knitting it, and the beautiful objects I could be making from it, and the money I’d be saving. Resisting Knit Picks is easy because I know the yarn will always be there at approximately that price, but when I see a limited-time sale, or clearance items, it’s like a Pavlovian trigger, and I feel like I’m about to lose out, big-time. And I end up wanting, and craving, and clicking “buy,” and then winding up with a big pile of mail-order yarn and guilty feelings–and, as a side effect, causing some measure of pollution and waste for something I might not end up using within the next few years.

All the environmental costs of manufacturing the yarn aside, one of the big issues with internet yarn shopping is the energy and pollution caused by shipping the yarn everywhere. Looking for the cheapest price frequently means buying from somewhere far away, for example, buying Rowan yarns from Jannette’s Rare Yarns or Cucumberpatch. And even within the US, my favorite mail order yarns come from a long ways away–Northampton, Seattle, Point Roberts, WA, and so on.

The trail gets smoggier as you look back along the supply chain. (I’m no expert on this, so forgive me if I get the details wrong.) The yarn moves from the distributors to these retailers. The distributors get the yarn from the mills. The mills get the material to spin from yet another source–the sheep farm, cotton farm, or whatever. All this trucking of materials back and forth uses up a lot of gas and creates a lot of pollution. This calculator estimates that an SUV emits 1.57 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile! Rahul did a case study for school about this; I’ll have to ask him about the exact numbers later, but the emissions numbers for delivery trucks were similar–in other words, very large. (Whatever happened to the Pony Express? Those were the good old days! We had horses, none of these newfangled horseless automobilators and iron flying machines. And back then, it cost a nickel to send a letter, and in those days nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees for a quarter,” you’d say. Yes sir!)

International shipping costs have gone up a lot, and I suppose that’s good, from an environmental standpoint, because it brings out the costs of transportation into the open and hits people in their pocketbooks, discouraging a lot of frivolous international purchasing and shipping things around the world unnecessarily. Same with the crappy exchange rate.
When it comes down to it, that’s going to be the real thing that makes me change my ways, I think. I’m aware of all these issues and I try really hard to be good, in many ways, but sometimes my ideals seem to exist in a different world from the one I’m currently living in. I know in that big thinky brain of mine that I shouldn’t be eating those trans-fatty deep-fried morsels made from factory-farmed, debeaked, miserable chickens cut up into little pieces, but sometimes I smell the Proustian aroma of McNuggets and get lost in my personal Mcmemories and Mclongings and Mchunger and end up eating a crispy, juicy 10-pack. Same thing with that cashmere yarn made from goats’ down shipped from Mongolia (adding to desertification and environmental destruction along the way [edited to add that Marsha sent me this great link to a Colbert Report interview on this issue]) to Italy for spinning and then to New York for distribution and then to a retailer in California to ship to me. If it costs too damn much for that yarn, though, that is ultimately what is going to keep me from buying it.

Now I am going to say something really unpopular, but please keep in mind that I am the blackest of black pots here, and I’m not telling anyone to change, just trying to bring these issues into people’s minds. (Plus, I have to say something different than what all the other blogs are saying for Blog Action Day, right?) Ready? How’s this for a controversial statement: Yarn swaps are bad and so is destashing. I’m not talking about local swaps within your area, with a girl at work or a guy in your local Stitch ‘n’ Bitch. I mean Secret Pal swaps with folks across the country or across the world, or mailing the stuff you don’t want across the country to someone else who could have bought the same thing at the LYS around the corner. The same carbon footprint transportation issues come up. I bought a couple of skeins of Regia sock yarn from a woman across the country last year and never used them. They just sat there for a while, and then I destashed them to someone else across the country. That’s a lot of mailing yarn around, and I probably would have used the yarn eventually if it had sat there long enough. I should have just let it marinate in my stash. It’s really very frivolous, sort of gross, really, the idea that I am rolling in such an abundance of yarn that just because the sock yarn wasn’t a shade I really loved, I wouldn’t use it, and should instead send it across the country to someone else. And also sort of gross and frivolous is the idea that you would go out and specifically buy a metric crap-ton of yarn and stuff to pack into boxes and send to a random stranger. Not all at once, either, mind you, because that’s bad Secret Pal practice, but in carefully measured shipments designed to tease and amuse. Lots of little boxes flying back and forth all over the country in FedEx trucks and on airmail planes. It’s decadent!

Um. That said, I have participated in many swaps and destashing sales, really enjoy them, and have no particular intention of stopping. But it is kind of gross, when you think about it. I kind of feel like I should go give a bunch of money to charity right now to get that sticky feeling of uncontrolled consumerism off my skin.

During my month of eating local last year, people brought up other issues to take into consideration in this whole mess, and they may apply here, too. Some people said that mass surface transportation is more efficient and the chain of boats and trucks bringing an apple from New Zealand to San Francisco might end up creating less pollution than the farmer driving his little diesel jalopy up to SF from Fresno. The Mexican strawberries you buy might be organic while the local ones are grown with pesticides. Your dollars might support development in third world countries if you buy the Indian-grown basmati rice instead of the stuff grown in the Sacramento delta. And so on.

I think we should certainly think about that last part when weighing the problems of buying non-local yarns against their social and economic benefits in other countries: companies like Malabrigo, Manos del Uruguay, Frog Tree, Shokay, Be Sweet, and Mirasol all do good work in creating jobs and building up local economies outside the First World. Looking at that list, though, I realize I’ve never actually bought or knit with any of those yarns. So if I can’t kick the “I want” mindset, maybe the first thing to do is to stop lusting over that Karabella cashmere and start lusting over some Malabrigo instead.

Phew! That sure was self-righteous. I am going to go knit my mail-order yarn for a while now and watch my library DVDs. I’m done with my Jess jacket, by the way–I’m waiting for her to dry, and she just needs buttons after that, assuming she still fits after blocking.

Happy Blog Action Day!