One of biggest points of contention for the original participants in the No Stuff Experiment was whether or not digital media counts as stuff. Is a book I read on a Kindle or Nook or a song, TV show, or movie I play from my iTunes library a material good? And, perhaps more importantly, is digital media a sustainable alternative to print books, CDs, and DVDs?

I’m not much of a technology buff, but I’m also not opposed to the advance of technology. I appreciate the fancy electronic gadgets in my life and the ease they bring to certain mundane tasks. I love a good word processor, for example. The Internet allows me to conduct my rudimentary research for these blog posts from the comfort of my home. Etcetera, etcetera. Still, the whole new world of digital consumer goods is a little overwhelming to me, and so I’ll be tackling the issue piecemeal. Today, because ebooks are too big a part of my work life,* I’ll start with music.

It’s pretty clear that by purchasing music through iTunes, Amazon, or one of the streaming services that also offers downloads folks are avoiding the environmental costs of mining, manufacture, and distribution associated with CDs. CDs are made from various mined metals and petroleum-derived plastics that are processed, molded, stamped, sputtered, coated with lacquer, and printed with chemical dyes until they look like what you bring home from the music store or, since those are a dying retail breed, Target. The jewel cases CDs are sold in are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a controversial material made from some potentially carcinogenic chemicals as well as some decidedly carcinogenic ones. And here is the kicker: the EPA estimates that, after all this mining and processing, 100,000 pounds of these products become obsolete every month and millions of CDs are thrown away each year.

In addition to saving us the upfront costs of manufacturing and the hassle of eventually having to find a way to dispose of these things in an environmentally responsible manner, buying from a digital music service saves us the fossil fuel involved in transporting CDs from the manufacturer to the store to the home via plane, truck, rail, and car. I found one study on this particular topic, and it was written by a couple university professors for Microsoft and Intel. The study compared six scenarios of music delivery: (1) CD bought at retail store, (2) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by truck, (3) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by air, (4) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and used digitally, (5) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and burned to a CD, and (6) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files, burned to a CD, and stored in a jewel case. The researchers concluded, “Purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80 percent from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not. . . . This reduction is due to the elimination of CDs, CD packaging, and the physical delivery of CDs to the household.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a giant leap forward in the eco-friendliness of music delivery. And with cloud-based services, like Amazon’s Cloud Player, Google Music, and Apple’s iCloud, delivery is becoming even more streamlined. These services store single copies of songs in the cloud so that multiple users can access them without downloading individual files into their personal digital music libraries. The Guardian discusses the potential energy savings of this method here.**

Still, we haven’t covered a bunch of hidden energy costs: powering our personal computers, charging our digital music devices, and powering and maintaining music e-tailers and all those server farms. And these are just the few power sucks I can think of off the top of my head. This brings us back to those original questions.

uno.  Is digital music a material good? I’d be hard-pressed to argue that digital music is material—it’s not physical; I can’t touch it. But it is “manufactured and produced for sale” (Merriam-Webster’s definition of the noun good), and it can clutter up your iTunes library as quickly as CDs can fill your shelves. Channing and I have a shared iTunes library on our shared home computer. It contains what to my amateur eyes appears to be every Grateful Dead recording known to man. With shocking frequency, I encounter albums in the library that I’ve never heard before, either because the music is Channing’s or because I purchased something and then forgot about it (shame on me). Just the other day, Channing told me he’s always surprised what is and is not on his iPod, probably because he has just as hard a time navigating our vast collection as I do. Moral of the story: if it creates clutter, I’m going to consider it stuff. I think we were right in deciding that digital wares fall in the “nonessential stuff” category.

dos. Is digital music a sustainable alternative to CDs? It’s better, sure, but I don’t think it’s especially sustainable. At least not while we’re relying on fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. Refer back to those hidden energy costs. Sigh.

Hey, I love music, and I want everyone to feel free to buy digital music with a clear conscience. No impact is an admirable goal but a tough one at this stage of the game (for me, anyway). So all I’m asking is that next time you go on an iTunes shopping spree you make your purchasing decisions with a little more attention and care than I used when buying those albums I still haven’t listened to. Think not just about the monetary cost but the environmental costs as well, and then, once you’ve narrowed down your selections to those you just don’t want to live without, pat yourself on the back for not buying CDs.

*I work in book publishing.

**This article led me to several other articles about cloud computing. If you’re interested, the Guardian discusses the energy and climate change issues surrounding cloud computing here and here. Greenpeace updated its cloud energy data in April 2011, and you can find that report here.

Spring/Fall Cleaning Series, Part 2

On Wednesday, I finished Elaine St. James’s third book about simplifying, Living the Simple Life. Around the time I picked this book up from the library, I also scheduled my first—and, I hope, annual—Fall Cleaning Day: Monday, October 10. My office was closed for Columbus Day, and Channing was out of the house at work all day, so it seemed like a great time to finally tackle the paper, office supply, workout gear, and crafting station insanity that was our office (note the past tense!).

And, then, inspired by some tips from Living the Simple Life, I started my fall cleaning a day early.

Fall Cleaning Day Eve, October 9

The first clutter nooks I tackled were my closet and dresser. I had actually cleaned out both of these clothing and accessory receptacles in January, in an initial, short-lived burst of purging mania. (And I mean mania. When I declutter, I am quick and brutal, but only occasionally methodical. Generally, I toss items into the donate pile with wild abandon, and I never look back. I highly recommend this approach.) Since it had been only nine months since my last purging spree, I assumed these would be easy jobs—and I was right. I cleared the closet of spring and summer wear I hadn’t touched that season and pulled a twin-size duvet off the top shelf for Freecycling (neither Channing nor I had any idea why we had this duvet in the first place). Channing gave a dress I had worn only once to his colleague; I’m donating the rest of the stuff. Tip 1: If you haven’t used it in a year, toss it.

Cleaning out the dresser was a slightly more delicate task. Channing and I share a relatively small, hand-me-down dresser with eight wide drawers—four for him, four for me. Keeping my drawers less than overstuffed is an extremely difficult task for me, so I knew I needed to make some hard and fast decisions. Taking some advice from Ms. St. James’s book, I thought about what I really needed in terms the two categories of clothes I store in the dresser, i.e., running/biking clothes and lounge wear. I decided to get rid of all but two or three of each clothing item (three running tees, two long sleeve tees, two pairs of running tights, etc.), and then I tossed some extra worn-out t-shirts in the discard pile for good measure. Oh, I also finally parted with a couple slips and some jewelry that I’ve worn maybe once in the last eight years. Tip 2: Be honest about how many items you actually need.

My next project was our linen closet, which was bursting with towels we never use. The biggest clutter culprit was our ridiculously extensive collection of dish towels. Channing and I each entered our relationship with a decent supply of dish towels, and since 2008, when we moved in together, we’ve received at least one set of kitchen towels as a gift every Christmas. These towels were taking up an entire shelf of the linen closet and were threatening to encroach on a second shelf. Number of towels we actually use? Maybe a quarter of our supply. On this go-round I cut the collection in half. I will revisit the issue in the spring. Tip 3: Don’t worry about purging every single unessential thing on the first try. You can go back for a second round.

The linen closet also houses bath towels, hand towels, washcloths, beach towels, sheets, and assorted blankets. I kept all of the sheets because we have only one extra set. I also kept most of the blankets—all but one or two of them are Channing’s, and he wasn’t present to approve discards. Per a suggestion in Living the Simple Life, I kept four bath towel sets—one each for me and Channing plus two extras for guests or for us when we can’t do the laundry right away. And I donated or Freecycled all but two of the beach towels. Tip 4, from Living the Simple Life: Keep enough for everyone in the household plus two. This isn’t just a towel rule; it can be applied to any shared household item, for example, dishes and flatware.

Last, I tackled our understair storage. Or rather, I tackled the excess of reusable shopping bags we store under the stairs. I figure I rarely use more than five shopping bags in one outing, so I Freecycled all but seven of the bags (you know, just in case). This effectively cut our supply in half. Oh, then on a whim I grabbed the old newspaper and back issues of Outside magazine from under the coffee table. The newspaper went in the recycle bin, and the magazines went to my friend Sarah. Tip 5: Give your old stuff new life by giving it to a friend or neighbor.

All of this decluttering took about an hour.

Fall Cleaning Day, October 10

The big day arrived, and I started early, with what I knew would be the most difficult and time-consuming job of the day: the office storage closet. First, I pulled my magazine file off the shelf. This file holds copies of magazines my writing has been published in. Taking some advice from Channing, who has eliminated nearly all of his paper records in favor of digital record storage, I decided to scan my clippings from each issue and recycle the actual magazines.  Bye-bye, magazine file.  Tip 5: Making digital copies of paper files reduces physical clutter.

Next I started going through our junk drawer and office supplies. I donated our rubber-band ball to Channing’s office, I gave some craft paper to Sarah to use in her classroom, and I Freecycled some (empty) notebooks. I chucked a couple pens that were past their prime and generally reorganized our supply of printer paper, card stock, and envelopes. I discovered a new yellow ink cartridge and loaded it in the printer, so we can now print stuff again, and I gathered all of my empty old ink cartridges so that I can mail them to the recycler. Tip 6: You probably don’t need all the pens, rubber bands, and paperclips scattered around your house. Collect them and donate them to the supply closet at your work.

I found a huge box of cassette tapes that I had forgotten about in the closet. I’ve set it aside for PC Recycler’s next recycling event. I also found that exercise equipment I mentioned a couple weeks ago—and promptly Freecycled it. Tip 7: Looking for a place to recycle something unusual? Try Earth911.com.

I needed a break from the closet so I moved on to our bookshelves—not just those in the office, but those in our living room and kitchen too. (While I was in the kitchen, I pulled out my bamboo steam basket and posted it on Freecycle—wild abandon, I tell you.) I cleared three shopping bags worth of books off our various shelves, including a collection of Shakespeare paperbacks from my school days (I have a Shakespeare app on my iPad) and my three hardcover Harry Potters (5, 6, and 7).*  The three Harrys will go to the elementary school where Mom works. Sarah went through the other books and pulled out some for herself, plus The Outsiders for her middle school students. I donated the remainder to the library on Thursday. Tip 8: Parting with books is surprisingly easy. Ask yourself, when am I ever going to read this again? And then send those you opt to purge to a good home—this will make you feel better.

The living room bookshelves also hold Channing’s vinyl—which I didn’t touch—and our DVDs. I’m planning to take DVDs of Gilmore Girls, season 2, and the Dick Cavett Show to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of making a good trade. Channing is going to offer his Rolling Stones DVD to my dad. Tip 9: If there is an independent record store near you that makes trades, take advantage!

Finally, I tackled my paper files, which I had stored in a green crate the size of one standard file drawer. Most of the stuff in my files was so old I could just shred and recycle it. (I took out the paper recycling three times on Fall Cleaning Day.) Other items needed to be scanned for digital archiving. I did end up keeping a handful of paper records, like printouts of my tax forms from the last three years, but I am able to store what’s left in the magazine file, which is about a quarter of the size of the green crate. I not only had financial records, old leases, and car insurance invoices; I also found high school and college papers and a notebook from the Romanticism class I took in 1999—twelve years ago! I tossed it all. Good riddance. Tip 10: Whether you keep your personal files on paper or digitally, I’d recommend a clean sweep now to ensure everything’s up to date and to remove obsolete records; then do quick, regular maintenance sweeps every three to six months to keep the time you spend on your files to a minimum.

The work isn’t done—we still have all of Channing’s office crap to go through—but I’ve felt a lot lighter this week. Every small step toward eliminating clutter counts.

*Full disclosure: I will probably buy the complete set of Harry Potter ebooks when they are released next year. Is anyone else excited about Pottermore?

Test-Driving Cookbooks

October 13, 2011

One of my favorite new hobbies since starting the Experiment is checking out cookbooks from the library. At the beginning of the year, I gravitated toward specialty cookbooks, such as The Gluten-Free Gourmet and Super Natural Cooking, and borrowed them one at a time. Once I got the book home, I’d flip through it, page by page, and mark the most appealing recipes that highlighted seasonal ingredients. Then I’d incorporate as many of these recipes as possible into our meals for the three weeks before the due date. I experimented with different pizza crusts, innumerable preparations for beans, and two or three sweeteners for homemade ice cream (honey is by far the best). At the end of each three-week trial period, I logged the best dishes in my iPad recipe app before I returned the book to the library.

Once the CSA pickups started in June and I had specific vegetables in the fridge that needed to be cooked pronto, I had to change my strategy. These days, I borrow three cookbooks at a time, and I favor more encyclopedic volumes, like The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook (first the “new classics,” then the “original classics”) and Gourmet Today. These types of books are more likely to include recipes for unusual ingredients like celeriac and to have several ideas for dealing with hearty greens. (Am I the only one who’s become totally bored with chard sautéed with garlic and kale and white bean soups?)

Each week after I bring home my veggies, I scour the indexes of my borrowed cookbooks for inventive ways to prepare squash and eggplant and green beans and cabbage—or whatever it is that’s now in the refrigerator. Sure, I could conduct similar searches on Epicurious or Chow, but I prefer a better curated collection. A good cookbook is the product of years of meticulous writing, testing, and rewriting, and even the larger tomes have personality and a point of view. For example, I trust Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook at times I need a cake to come out perfectly on the first try.  I rely on The Art of Simple Food for good basic recipes for soups, meats, vegetables, and pastas that can easily be embellished. If I need practical advice, say, an appropriate herb substitution for mint, I turn to the Joy of Cooking.

Borrowing cookbooks from the library has introduced me to new chefs, home cooks, and palates. I’ve become more familiar with the best of the best without sacrificing my limited shelf space—which will become even more limited if Channing and I can find a used butcher’s block to put in the place of our kitchen bookcases. Some of the cookbook authors I’ve met via the library, like Ruth Reichl (Gourmet Today) and  Lynne Rossetto Kasper (The Italian Country Table), write recipes perfect for my cooking style, i.e., local, seasonal, American, often vegetarian, and occasionally adventurous. Others have been less helpful. I checked out Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef a few weeks ago because I dig his food philosophy. But not one of the recipes spoke to me—I could find very few of my CSA veggies in the index—and I ended up returning the book unused. I haven’t given up on Jamie, but now I know to try him in a different season (spring, perhaps?) and to pick up one of his more recently published titles.

So I guess you’re wondering how I’ll use this knowledge once the Experiment is over. Will I go on a cookbook-buying bender? I doubt it. I’ve stopped logging recipes from my library books in my iPad because it’s time-consuming and just adds to my digital clutter (hmm, topic for another post?). I figure these books and tons more will still be in the library next time I want them (assuming they aren’t burned). And besides, how can I make a lifetime commitment of shelf space to a new cookbook when I haven’t even started my way through the library’s Jacques Pepin collection or cracked the cover of Baking with Julia?