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Top Ten Smartphone Apps for an Eco-Friendly Home and Lifestyle

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By Neila Columbo
September 18, 2012

Boston, Massachusetts – With an abundance of ‘green’ articles at our fingertips on how to make sustainable choices in the daily features of our lives and at home, SCGH is here to help parse through the vast web of information. Alas, these top ten smartphone apps below help us navigate through our day to manage our household and personal life, reduce our environmental footprint and learn some very interesting facts along the way that will impress even the most environmental savant.



iViro help users create more sustainable homes and living spaces.  Perform a customized energy analysis to receive a detailed overview of your home’s heat, cooling, electricity, water and appliance energy consumption patterns with annual cost and CO2 emission estimates. Additional features provide ideas on energy-saving alternatives and strategies to ensure your home is energy-efficient and cost-efficient while reducing its environmental impact.
Download Here (Free)


A simple yet powerful concept, the EcoCharge app will ring an alarm when electronic devices are fully charged to increase battery life and prevent unnecessary energy use. In place of leaving a cellular phone or laptop continuously charging at home or work when the battery is fully charged, it helps users become more aware of energy use while providing great eco-friendly tips on how to stay connected and energy efficient with our favorite tech gadgets and devices.
Download Here ($0.99)


GoodGuide provides ratings for products and companies to help consumers assess their environmental, health and social performance. Its iPhone app allows users to browse its database, which includes 170,000 products ranging from food, personal care and household items, to find the most eco-friendly in each category, as well as a barcode scanning feature that provides details such as nutritional value, energy efficiency and ingredients.
Download here  (Free)


Recyclebank rewards its members for making eco-friendly choices, providing points for daily activities such as recycling, water usage, energy efficiency, and purchasing green products.  Members can view their points balance, report recycling activity to earn points and order rewards with its app.
Download here (Free)

iRecycle’s iRecycle connects users to its comprehensive database of 100,000 recycling centers in the U.S.,including information on what can be recycled and what local recycling options are available. As well, the new version has a social sharing feature that allows you to share recycling searches via Facebook and Twitter.
Download here (Free)


Seafood Watch

Designed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Seafood Watch interactive app helps users choose sustainable seafood and sushi options at restaurants and markets. It provides the most current recommendations for seafood and sushi as well as information about how each item should be fished or farmed. Its new Project FishMap feature lets you contribute to the app by sharing the names of restaurants and shops in the U.S. you have found sustainable seafood as well as how to locate spots other users have found.                                                                                                                             Download Here (Free)
Farmers Market Finder

Allows users to locate over 2,700 farmers markets across the U.S. Each farmers market has been verified from market organizers, and the app provides details on how to find CSAs, the types of farm produce and meat/poultry for sale, hours of operation, contact information, and real time data such as weather cancelations. The app is currently available to residents of California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington DC.
Download here (Prices range from $0.99 to $4.99)


Carbon Footprint

Users can track fuel usage and find a number of interesting statistics that relate to driving habits and fuel efficiency of one’s vehicle. By entering information when fueling your gas tank, Carbon Footprint can calculate your miles per gallon, dollars per gallon, dollars per mile, and dollars per day. It also provides your projected carbon dioxide emissions in a year as well as your total carbon emissions to date.
Download Here ($0.99)


Created by Water Efficiency magazine to provide an accessible way for individuals to interactively learn about their ‘water footprint’ and how to reduce water consumption, this app calculates how much water you use across four categories: food, beverages, products, and household items.  Users can search through items by category or alphabetically, and its “total” function calculator compares the water footprint of various items.
Download Here (Free)


Calculate your personal ecological footprint with statistics from the World Wildlife Fund with this multi-functional app, including your daily energy consumption, the food you eat (and how far it has to travel) to your carbon emissions from commuting activity and travel. The section “Ways to Improve Your Result” educates and shares ideas on ways to reduce your footprint.
Download Here (Free)

For related articles, see:
Success for Sustainable Sushi Smartphone App
This App Can Fight Forest Fires
National Parks App Helps Hikers Navigate Nature

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Can You Recycle Bras? You Bet!

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By Kara A. DiCamillo

How many of you have bras in your drawers that you are itching to toss out? Unfortunately, all of the pieces that make up a bra, such as hooks, underwire, and elastic, will never biodegrade. Wouldn’t it make you feel better to know that your bra was getting a second life instead? Believe it or not, bras are a sought-after item!

Over in Japan, women are encouraged to recycle their brassieres so that they can be converted into fuel. Meanwhile, Oxfam is working hard to upcycle bras in the UK with its Big Bra Hunt campaign.

Here in the U.S. of A, we have an Arizona-based organization called The Bra Recyclers. The organization buys and sell recycled bras, which are then redistributed to communities in need around the world. There are drop-off sites around the country through the Bra Recycling Ambassador program, or you can ship your donation directly to the organization.

Through Free the Girls, another American organization, your bra donation goes to help women fight sex trafficking. Free the Girls hires women who were sold into prostitution at a young age. Since the trafficking survivors have a history of being abused by men, Free the Girls gives them the opportunity to work with other women and earn a living selling secondhand clothing. You can participate by hosting an event, or even collecting bras at your place of business.

Sierra Club Green Home could not be happier to see an opportunity to both recycle and help people. Do you (or your roommate, or sister, or girlfriend) have a neglected bra that is lying around, just waiting to be worn? Before you toss it, consider recycling it with one of these great organizations.

For related articles, see:
Home Recycling Advice
Common Trash That’s Actually Recyclable
Dressed to Impress at LAVC’s Arbor Day Celebration

© 2012 SCGH, LLC 

PILOT Pens from Recycled Plastic

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By Kara A. DiCamillio

We are starting to see more and more items made from recycled materials, and one of the most popular materials seems to be recycled bottles. They have made appearances in clothes, handbags, and most recently carpeting for the new Ford Focus Electric cars. So when I saw the new PILOT pen recently while purchasing a few office items at Staples I cannot say that I was surprised, but I was definitely excited and picked up a couple of packs.

The new B2P, or Bottle 2 Pen, gel roller from PILOT is part of a bigger company initiative called BeGreen. Through the program, plastic bottles are collected and fed through a shredder. All the plastic is then melted and cut into pellets which, in turn, are shaped into the PILOT BeGreen pens.

The company’s website states that “almost every hour, close to 250,000 plastic bottles enter the landfills and comprise close to 50 percent of the recyclable waste.”

According to PILOT, these pens are made from 89 percent recycled content. It’s retractable and one of the best features is that it’s refillable, so we can reuse the plastic portion over and over again. The new B2P PILOT comes in blue, black, and red ink and personally, I love the packaging as well. The pen itself mimics a water bottle and PILOT has done a great job of the design of the packaging where it stands out from the pack on the shelf.

There are currently 10 pens from PILOT, range from ball points to permanent markers, made with recycled content. They are priced about the same as other brands, so Sierra Club Green Home hopes that more companies will take PILOT’s lead. The B2P sells for $2.49 – $27.48.

For related article, see:
Be the Office Eco-Hero!

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

Ecological Printing 101

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By Albert Segovia
January 4, 2012 

More than a quarter of landfill waste comes from paper, according to the Environmental Paper Network’s 2011 report. While large publishing companies are slowly making changes to reduce their impact, Sierra Club Green Home readers can do their part as well. Here are the basics: buy consciously, recycle properly, and reduce paper use.

  • Buy consciously: Look for paper and print products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This supports responsible forest management, and directly benefits the communities who supply raw materials from forests.Nontoxic ink cartridges are also widely available. Compared to oil-based ink, soy- and vegetable-based ink cartridges emit considerably fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Recycle properly: recycling helps to offset the high levels of waste associated with printing. Make sure recycling bins are available in your home, neighborhood, and workplace.
  • Reduce paper use: print on both sides of the paper, write notes down on scratch paper (or type them into your phone) instead of printing, and check the print preview to ensure that you are not printing unnecessary pages.

Sustainable printing certifications also exist for companies who wish to reduce their facilities’ ecological footprint. Organizations such as the nonprofit Sustainable Green Printing Partnership exist to promote and implement this type of sustainability.

Print with the source and destination of your pages in mind, and you’ll be helping address a major source of our waste. Spread the word about sustainable prints!

For related articles, see:
Send the Write Message with eco-friendly greeting cards.
Opportunity Green Start-up: PrintEco saves paper when printing pages from the Internet.

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

The Future of Plastics

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By Debra Atlas
December 21, 2011

We use a staggering 2 million plastic bottles every five minutes in the United States, the large majority of which are PET plastic. And our rate of recycling is worse than dismal: not quite 13 percent nationwide.

Glimmers of hope are emerging. In states with mandatory recycling laws, the recycling rates are almost 28 percent for PET plastic. Only 10 states have the so-called “bottle bills,” yet those states have the highest rate of recycling in the country. Of these, two made major headway in 2010:

  • California reached 82 percent recycling; and
  • Washington state achieved an overall recycling rate of 49 percent.

It begs the question: What would happen if the rest of the country implemented similar laws?

Plastic is a large expense in the beverage industry. The global price of oil directly affects the type of plastic being produced. In 2008, when the price of oil soared to more than $100 per barrel, companies began scrambling to find alternatives to plastic bottles.

Enter bioplastics. Several companies have created bottles made from plant-based materials. Coca-Cola Company launched its Dasani PlantBottle, made with up to 30 percent plant-based material, and its Odwalla brand PlantBottle, made with 100 percent PLA (polylactide or polylactic acid), a polymer made from renewable plant materials.

Another beverage company to make the switch is Nature’s Bottles. Its PLA bottles are made from Ingeo, a purportedly non-GMO, corn-based material that is touted as the world’s first biopolymer to show a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

PLA is fairly unique, says Mike Centers, executive director of BioCor, a northern California-based recycler of PLA. You can recycle it relatively inexpensively compared to PET and other plastics, he says. And it can be made into useful products such as clamshells (traditional throwaways) and even beer cups. All the beer cups at the Oakland Coliseum stadium are made from PLA.

Centers launched BioCor in 2010 to help create a market and an infrastructure for collecting plant-based waste material, both industrial and post consumer. Watch this video on end-of-life PLA:


According to research firm Pira International, nearly half of all bioplastic packaging in the world is PLA.

The market for the material is thriving, says Centers. Bioplastics is a high-growth industry. In fact, manufacturers want to use PLA to develop secondary markets, Centers adds.

Coca-Cola took “an innovative approach” with the Dasani PlantBottle, says Centers. It took one of the chemicals that make up PET and found a way to derive it from plants instead.

“They’ve captured the imagination of what everyone’s trying to do but haven’t gotten there yet,” Centers says.

HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a petroleum-based plastic, one of the most common types of plastic products found today. Both HDPE and PET types of plastics are moving towards being plant based, says Centers.

But it all depends on the price of oil. If oil is high, Centers says, more manufacturers will convert to PLA as a packaging source.

One company that recently announced it is jumping onto this bandwagon is PepsiCo. Earlier this year, the giant beverage manufacturer revealed its plans to market a 100 percent plant-based PET bottle. It had examined the possibility of using PLA but found that it did not meet the company’s needs.

There is definitely a bright future for PLA.  It can be recycled as easily as PET plastic, and it takes only 27 to 50 days for it to break down in industrial composting facilities.

Companies interested in utilizing plant-based plastic can reach out to companies such as Nature Works (an independent company that owns the patent for Nature’s Bottles and invested in by Cargill and PTT Chemical) or a converter such as Jamplast or Mirel that can make products out of PLA. Or learn more about BioCor and its progress at

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

Recycling Soap to Clean the World

(By Casa Laguna Inn, courtesy of Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau)

Blog post by Gustavo Grad
December 20, 2011

LAGUNA BEACH, CA — It may feel small, but I learned from reading the Laguna Beach Independent newspaper that “all of Laguna Beach’s hotel and lodging properties have agreed to recycle hygiene products to benefit children and families in need through the nonprofit Clean the World Global. They have committed to saving lives and protecting our planet. Hospitality partners here will collect and recycle hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and gels to help fight the global spread of preventable diseases, the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau announced.

When one looks at what the numbers could add up to and the impact, this effort to recycle is not insignificant in the least, even for a little seaside town.

Eighteen hotels with 20 rooms or more and four smaller properties in Laguna have joined the partnership to recycle, for a total of about 1,200 rooms. These hotels include Aliso Creek Inn, Art Hotel, Best Western, Capri Laguna, Carriage House, Casa Laguna Inn, Crescent Bay Inn, Holiday Inn, Hotel Laguna, Inn at Laguna, La Casa del Camino, Laguna Beach Inn, Laguna Cliffs Inn, Laguna Riviera, Montage, Pacific Edge Hotel, Seacliff Laguna Inn, Sunset Cove Villas, Surf & Sand Resort and Spa, The Tides, The Retreat, and Travelodge.

Clean the World says it has hospitality partnerships to recycle with more than 1,200 hotel properties throughout North America, including 143 partners in California. Since the organization’s founding in 2009, Clean the World’s California hospitality partners have contributed more than 70,00 pounds of soap and nearly 68,000 pounds of bottled amenities. At 3 ounces apiece, that equates to 375,088 bars of soap—enough to provide more than 75,000 children with a month’s supply of soap, Clean the World estimates.

Laguna Beach, California, is a resort and artist community in Orange County, with a population of only about 24,000. This embrace of loving kindness from all these hotels going green to make a difference may seem small, but each day 9,000 children worldwide die from diseases that can be prevented by washing with bar soap.

“Laguna Beach is Southern California’s premiere seaside destination, and a city deserving of praise for its promotion of sustainability and social responsibility,” says Shawn Seipler, CEO and co-founder of Clean the World.

Think globally, act locally.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

A Greener Christmas Tree

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By Debra Atlas

Every year, 25 to 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the United States. Their ornaments and decorations help brighten our holiday. But after the holiday, they end up curbside as trash or, in towns offering such services, as recycling. A sad fate for such a wonderful part of Christmas.

Around the country, a new tradition is growing: renting a living tree for the holidays.

John Fogel was the first to offer this unique service in 1992 when he opened Original Living Christmas Tree Company in Portland, Oregon. He digs live evergreen trees up, root ball and all, pots them, then rents them for the holidays. Later, he picks them up and delivers them to parks, school districts, and other groups who pay around $10 to have the trees planted on their property.

“It’s something that’s good for business, for the environment,” Fogel says. “It’s about hope, feeling good about the planet and innovation.”

There are benefits to renting as opposed to buying a cut tree:

  • Rented trees last longer;
  • They are reused year after year until they are eventually sold and replanted as mature trees;
  • You will have less mess—and no needle loss;
  • Each tree that is rented reduces the amount of wasted holiday trees that end up in landfills; and
  • Delivery and pick-up are included in the price of the rental.

Fogel accepts only the number of orders he knows he can find buyers for who are willing to plant the trees come January. This year he’ll accept around 200 living tree orders.

People can learn to make their own potted Christmas trees with the information on Fogel’s Web site. After the holidays, simply put an ad on Craigslist or contact your local parks department to donate it for planting.

Fogel plans to expand his operation through franchising. Anyone interested should contact him via the Web site.

Since 2005, residents of San Francisco have been able to rent live Christmas trees through a partnership between the San Francisco Department of the Environment and Friends of the Urban Forest. Residents can choose from four different species of evergreen trees: southern magnolia, small leaf Tristania, the strawberry tree, and a New Zealand Christmas tree (nothing like a traditional holiday tree). People can even give the gift of a planted tree named in someone’s honor. After the holiday, the trees are picked up, then replanted in neighborhoods around the city.

It’s all on a “first come, first served” basis.

In California, there are a few well-known Christmas tree rental companies:, founded in southern California by landscape architect Scott “Scotty Claus” Martin in 2008, serves the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange County areas. Customers can choose from a variety of trees, including two-foot-tall baby sequoias, hardy blue cedars, and oh-so-fragrant seven-foot-tall Monterey pines. Orders include a watering tray to protect floors and you can even “adopt” a tree that they’ll bring back to your house year after year. Customers also can purchase “green” ornaments, LED lights, and stocking stuffers.

In northern California, serves the Monterey Peninsula, Santa Cruz, the San Francisco South Bay area, and Salinas. Choose the date you want your tree delivered (up through December 23), and you can even visit the nursery to pick out your own tree. They also carry LED lights to keep your green tree energy efficient.

Plant Manning, founded by Eric Manning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has been offering live Christmas tree rentals for more than 20 years. Serving both northern and southern California, Manning delivers potted Colorado Spruce or Redwood Christmas trees to your home or office in his biodiesel-fueled bus and guarantees post-holiday pick-up. And you can adopt the same tree each year.

Manning’s business model is a bit different than other live tree rental companies. Because people ask for the same tree year after year, he trims the trees like bonsais. His vision is more long term, he says. He wants to keep the trees thriving for generations.

This is the real spirit of re-use, says Manning. “And there’s no waste,” he adds.

Rates and delivery dates will vary, so check with the tree rental dealer in your area. You can go online to find one in your area.

For related articles, see:
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
Let There Be Light This Holiday Season!
Tree Tip

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

Racing to Zero: Documentary on Waste in America

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By E.Q. Lam
December 11, 2011

For more than a year, filmmakers have been laying the groundwork for Racing to Zero, a documentary on how Americans can reduce their waste to almost nothing. They have researched the issues as well as solutions. They have recruited experts, including a “garbologist.” They have produced a trailer capturing what the film is about. And now, they are ready to start full production in January.

A Kickstarter campaign to raise initial funds has achieved nearly $7,000 in pledges, with 26 days remaining to reach its $8,000 goal. Producer Diana Fuller says she is confident the 60-day campaign will be a success. The project will be funded only if it achieves $8,000 in pledges by January 6.

“What is really exciting are the people coming to help,” Fuller says.

She says people are contributing not only money but also their comments about the subject. By involving supporters of the documentary in the process, they develop a vested interest and consciousness about the issues, Fuller says. That is part of her vision to create a “wave” of cumulative action against waste.

“This is not about making a film; this is about a consuming passion,” Fuller says. “… I think it’s wonderful this project involves as many people as possible.”

Film Focus on Solutions

Last year, the United States created 250 million tons of trash, a large part of which ended up in landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. As the trash decomposes in landfills, it emits methane gas, a toxic greenhouse gas that causes 23 times more environmental damage than carbon dioxide (CO2). See what happens to trash in the film’s trailer:


Films dealing with trash have focused on the sheer magnitude of the problem of disposing of unwanted things. Racing to Zero will look beyond that to solutions by tracking efforts (for example, at the city level) to reduce garbage. The original intention of the film, then called Trash24, was to show what happens to garbage in a 24-hour day. Thus, renaming the project Racing to Zero presents a broader artistic canvas to work with, Fuller says. To her, “racing to zero” means diverting as much as possible from landfills through strategies such as inventive repurposing, recycling, and composting.

For Fuller, an arts administrator, this film is a way to present all kinds of information in a directed way. “The thing that came to me was that there’s so much. It’s such a huge thing, and people tend to think, ‘Oh well, what can I do about it?’ … It seemed to me an awful lot of people—including myself—didn’t know the answers,” she says.

The film will educate viewers about where the trash comes from and where it goes—what Fuller envisions as “a tale of revelation, hope, understanding, and responsibility.” The challenge for the artists involved in making Racing to Zero is to present the issues and solutions in an attractive way for viewers to take to heart.

“We want every person to get something out of this, to make a change,” says Fuller, who hopes the film will help change the culture of waste by opening people’s eyes. “People in this country have never really broached the subject of ‘When did I start leaving a trail of waste? Why did the minute I get out of bed did I start leaving a trail of waste?’”

The Value of Garbage

Racing to Zero seeks to inform people in a new way about their relationship to trash.

“I thought I knew all about recycling. … I started realizing I don’t know,” says Christopher Beaver, the film’s director, who has documented other environmental issues. “If you think you know about recycling or garbage, think again.”

One fact which caught Beaver’s attention in research for the film is that some 50 million Americans suffer from food insecurity that could be remedied simply with the edible food that Americans throw away.

William Rathje, an anthropologist and archaeologist, can provide even more insight into how Americans handle waste. Rathje, currently a consulting professor at Stanford University, has studied trash since 1973 and pioneered the academic discipline of “garbology,” which looks at trash as telling remnants of society. He is one of the experts who will be featured in the film.

“One of the most important reasons for Racing to Zero is a goal: It sets a goal for people,” Rathje says. “The problem is that once you recycle, you lose the goal, because recycling is the goal and you’re doing that, and that’s the end of that. And you don’t think about doing more and more and more. And the concept of the documentary Racing to Zero is to alert people to the fact that there’s a particular goal … . What they’re doing is great, but there’s a lot more to be done. The goal is to recycle and reduce and reuse everything to the point that there’s no garbage.”

Through decades of study, Rathje has observed consumer behavior which he calls the Fast Lane Syndrome: People eat what is quick and easy (prepackaged fast food), leaving fresh food untouched to spoil.

“When people go shopping, most people know what’s good for them, and so they buy fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, etcetera,” Rathje says. “But they also know what their lifestyle is, so they buy frozen dinners, etcetera. By the end of the week, the frozen dinner trays and head of lettuce are in the garbage.”

Rathje’s first principle of waste is to do what one does on a regular basis: “It’s very important for people to follow their normal pattern of behavior,” he says.

As examples, he recounts studies in the 1970s, when beef and sugar shortages propelled people to stock up on related products. But people did not know how to store or use them properly, or they would buy specialty items such as hot dog buns for barbecues or paint for home improvement projects and not use all of them—resulting in more waste as the items were thrown out, Rathje explains.

“If I’ve cooked something I’ve cooked a dozen times before, I have no problems. Stick with your normal behavior and you’ll waste a lot less,” he says.

Another nugget of knowledge Rathje offers is that while aluminum makes up only one or two percent of recycling programs, its value can pay for 40 to 60 percent of the programs. “Aluminum is one of the few recyclables where you get the money back,” Rathje says, explaining that bauxite is expensive to turn into aluminum. “Aluminum is really the workhorse of recycling in America.”

Calling for Change

Racing to Zero’s filmmakers are adamant that the film be personal and present solutions that any ordinary person can immediately implement. “I think education is incredibly important to all of us to be able to change,” Fuller says. “We have to know that we each create 4.3 pounds a day of garbage. … Industry itself has to be made to—if it doesn’t want to—understand the threat to the consumer that it makes through irresponsible manufacturing. … But it also is in our hands to start changing these patterns.”

Fuller says she hopes that the film will make consumers more aware at the point of purchase, in the store. The amount of packaging around a product creates more waste than the product itself.

“Think carefully about what we might not use in both food and other things,” Fuller says. “The packaging alone is going to last longer than the product. That’s what’s nuts.”

Rathje adds, “When you buy things at the store, you need to be a bit aware of whether it’s recyclable or reusable, or you’re buying a package that reduces the amount of garbage that is generated by your purchase.”

He gives the example of buying concentrated orange juice, which comes in a relatively small package, rather than the big plastic or glass containers of orange juice.

Unlike other environmental issues, garbage is at the doorstep of every individual, says Beaver, but so are the solutions. One person can have a “huge impact” on recycling or waste management, he says.

“If everybody would pull as much responsibility as they could for themselves, that would [help] the racing toward zero. Recycling is one of those places where you can make a difference,” Beaver says. “In terms of recycling, there is a lot that an individual can do. … And then that will lead to other things. People will say, ‘I wonder what else I’m wasting.’”

Fuller echoes the stance that, with regard to waste management, people can have an immediate effect on the solution. “Every person can make a little bit of difference,” she says. “… That becomes the collective reparation. But you can’t change till you understand. You can’t prepare if you don’t know what you’re preparing for. It is a real puzzle: We [Americans] consume more than any other place on earth, … so what are we going to do with it? It has to go both ways—the government, institutional side—right down to the individual, the collective, the block-by-block count.”

For Fuller, the process of producing the film is as important as the end product, if people are engaged. For Beaver, the possibilities do not end with completion of the film: “I hope it’s going to ignite the imagination of anybody who sees it to go further, … to come up with more and better solutions.”

To back this project by pledging at least $1, go to its Kickstarter campaign page.

Check out more articles by E.Q. Lam.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

Brokenness into Beauty: Piece by Piece

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By Caneel T. Cardwell

LOS ANGELES — Sophie Alpert’s idea to create beauty out of brokenness has grown into an art organization larger than she could have imagined. Piece by Piece, which teaches impoverished individuals to make artwork from recycled materials, stemmed from Alpert’s desire to make a difference in the lives of these people.

“The hope is that people use us, and it’s a step up, and they buy a car or a new suit or something and move on,” says Alpert, founder and executive director of Piece by Piece, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007. Piece by Piece holds workshops that teach homeless and underserved individuals how to make mosaic art from broken pieces of glass, china, metal, and more.

“We have a lot of those stories, where people go on,” Alpert adds. “We’re not trying to create artists; we’re just trying to help people get to the next step in life.”

One look at the work these Skid Row and South Los Angeles participants have to offer, however, verifies that many of them have become quite talented in mosaics—even if they are not aspiring to make a career out of art.

Alpert says even she did not realize how incredible the art was going to become, and that one of the participants has gone on to work in a mosaic career.

“I pretty much just thought that if at the end of the day, I helped some people earn some grocery money, by selling pots and frames, I’d be happy and I’d be done,” she says. “I just didn’t realize that with time on their hands, and really nothing to do … and no direction and nowhere to turn, that people would embrace this project and get busy all day long. And get more and more talented.”

Participants are learning this talent from mosaic artists who are recognized in their field, Alpert says. Several of the artists are paid instructors who are dedicated to the organization and regularly teach at the workshops, which are held twice a week. Others are visiting mosaic artists who teach workshops on occasion.

The Seed That Started It
The yearning in Alpert’s heart to help these underserved and homeless participants began more than 20 years ago when she was working in a daycare center for children, where she became acutely aware of the poverty and homeless conditions in Los Angeles. She stopped working there in order to raise her family, but never forgot that place.

“I just never got the whole situation—the dire need—out of my head,” Alpert says.

It was a trip to South Africa that gave her the initial idea that the organication was founded on, when she visited several micro-enterprise agencies helping HIV-positive women. The women were given free materials—beads, in this case—and would create art, then were able to earn income from selling the products.

“I took that sort of seed home with me and thought, ‘What can I do to replicate this sort of model to something that makes sense in Los Angeles?’” Alpert recounts.

She says the first thing she knew she needed to do was to find a material that was easily accessible to anyone, because it was pointless to teach people a skill if they couldn’t go out and do it on their own. With her husband being in the recycling business, it made sense for her to start there—with an idea of recycling something that was someone else’s trash. She also knew that she wanted to do something green.

“That was the motivation for using recycled material, and the fact that it was very accessible—broken china, cups, glass, copper—whatever found objects we could incorporate,” Alpert says. “I loved the whole metaphor of creating new life out of something broken—which is pretty much what these people are doing. It’s giving them hope for the future.”

Growing … Piece by Piece
It took a while for the word to spread about the program and the needs for broken materials, so Alpert says she began by going through trash bins, with a few items here and there from her husband’s scrap yard.

(Courtesy of Piece by Piece)

Now, however, through word of mouth and having made contacts in the community, stores that sell stained glass, mirrors, and the like will save things they were going to throw away and give the non-profit a call to come pick it up.

“People have been very kind,” Alpert says. Artists continue to pick up materials occasionally from her husband’s yard, and participants also bring their own items.

“They are finding things that are on the street. A table that was thrown out … whatever it is … and the next thing you know, it’s a mosaic,” Alpert says. “I can’t even dream up half the things that people create. If you look on our Web site, it’s just a tiny portion of what is made. It’s just unbelievable the things—the creative possibility of things—that people are doing.”

Making a Difference, One Person at a Time
Some of the participants attend both workshops every week, but also—because it is a transient population—there are new participants every week. Regardless of how often they attend, it is a positive experience for them.

“Piece by Piece has opened a new door for me and my family,” participant Cyndi Hayes says on their site. “My daughters love to create all different kinds of stuff. Such as picture frames, hot plates, mirrors, and so much more … . I can’t speak highly enough of all that [the group] has done for me.”

Alpert says the organization encourages participants to move on, and one of the non-profit’s success stories demonstrates how well this can be done. The story is about one of the first individuals to attend the workshops.

“She was a mother of four children, homeless and living in the building in South LA that we were holding the workshops,” Alpert recounts. “She earned enough money to buy a used car and was able to go out and get a job, and she’s been working ever since.”

For a while, mosaics continued to be supplemental income for the woman. Alpert would give her more tiles and glass when she would see the woman, so that she could work on the mosaics on the side. “She’s really moved on,” Alpert says.

Others, like Hugo Sulecio, are able to provide necessities for themselves with their mosaic work. “I have been working at the mosaic classes for one year,” he says on the official web site. “I’m so excited working these classes that help a lot [to] put away my stress and support myself with my food, clothes and other things.”

Stress relief was not a benefit Alpert had in mind when the work began, but she says it definitely happens.

(Courtesy of Piece by Piece)

“I didn’t anticipate that the program just in itself would be such a therapeutic program,” she says. “I mean, to do nothing all day and have nothing to look forward to in your life—and all of a sudden you’re creating some beautiful piece of art and filling your time. You’re not thinking about your problems, and there’s the hope that you’ll sell it. It’s really just supposed to be a really tiny piece, but for some it’s become so much more. The people that come week after week, it’s like a little family—a community—to them. A huge support system. That’s a benefit I didn’t plan for; it just happens.”

This direct impact and watching people’s lives change, Alpert says, is the most fulfilling part of being involved. She has seen individuals start out not speaking to anyone, but over time they become mentors in the workshop and teach new people how to do something.

Sales Points
Handing the artists their first check, Alpert says, also is an incredible feeling.

“I’ve had people cry; they’re just in disbelief. It’s just amazing, an unexpected,” she says, adding that some people sell a piece right away—although it doesn’t happen all the time. “It varies, but nobody’s ever not been thrilled or happy.”

That brings in the biggest challenge—selling the art. Because the organization’s mission is to help these participants provide something for themselves by selling their work, moving the artwork is critical—and there is a lot of artwork.

“The economy is not great, and the quality of work has skyrocketed,” Alpert says. “It’s gorgeous. And some of the pieces are not $35 anymore. They’re $500 … so that’s hard.”

She adds that because the participants are so motivated to work on their mosaics, she cannot keep up with the inventory. Having a place to sell the work is crucial. Their Web site does have an store where some of the artwork is sold, but the online shop is a new venture.

“We’d love to have a retail venue,” Alpert says. “We’ve talked about it. It all takes resources and time, but it’s something we hope to figure out.”

Until then, they rely on angel venues: galleries that will host the work without taking a huge cut out of the profits; and craft-type fairs. The group gives the artists 60 percent of the income from the sale and keeps 40 percent for operating expenses, so giving a large portion over to a gallery for hosting is not possible. Alpert says the organization has been able to do that in a few galleries over the years, and they also hold one large sale event each year.

Commissioned work also is bringing in some of the income lately. “People come to us,” Alpert says. “Somebody just gave us their holiday list for 80 holiday gifts. That I love.”

She adds that the artists also do centerpieces, mosaic flower pots, frames, and more for weddings and other venues where people want to give back to the community. They also have done centerpieces for Universal Studio’s charitable foundation, Discover A Star Foundation, in the last few years.

One of the big projects they are currently working on with a community redevelopment agency is a public art mural in Hollywood. The organication was awarded $75,000 to create the mural on a supported housing building, the Gower Villas, helping disabled adults and seniors. Alpert says they will try to get the residents involved in the project at some point, because they try to involve the community in its projects, and also because the residents are invested in their neighborhood.

A Place for Work Space
The mural project and other commissioned projects are separate workshops from the Monday and Friday workshops that are held each week. The workshops take place in a donated room space of an apartment building that was used to house homeless families. The group usually takes a break from workshops the last week of the month so that staff can regroup and collect more materials.

The workshops help about 40 people a week, on average, though Alpert says some of those individuals are counted twice because they attend both workshops. It requires a lot of help to hold each workshop—which is open to the community—in the donated spaces, because many times there are other classes being held later.

“There might be a parenting class in there an hour later,” Alpert explains. “So we are broken up, set down and grouting—it’s just a whole messy project when we’re there—and then we’re gone. So we need a lot of staff, and we also have a lot of volunteers, too. It’s wonderful, inspiring, hectic—and busy. A lot goes on. And when we leave; you’d never know we were in there.”

Alpert, who works pro bono, says that the paid staff includes an artistic director and program director, part-time bookkeeper and administration, as well as the art instructors. While they do have financial support from some partner agencies, foundations, and individuals who help in various ways through donations or donated space, the need to sell the mosaics for the benefit of the participants remains critical—and help is always appreciated.

Those who wish to help Piece by Piece by donating financially or with their time, or those wanting more information, can email Alpert directly at [email protected] or [email protected], or call 818-789-8102. Information also can be found on the Web site,

Caneel T. Cardwell is a former newspaper reporter, now a freelance journalist and gluten-free food blogger. Read her blog at

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

Old Plastic Bottles Bring Light

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By Debra Atlas

PHILIPPINES — Millions of people in the Philippines live in (relative) darkness. The cost of electricity is beyond the means of many, so residents of poorer communities resort to candles or kerosene lamps, which pose serious health and fire hazards.

Using electricity 24 hours per day, something most of us take for granted, raises a household’s expenses by approximately 40 percent. In a country where the average income ranges from minimum wage to less than $1 a day, this added expense is not seen as crucial.

However, there is an incredibly simple solution that is both greener and safer.

The Solar Bottle Bulb was originally developed by students at MIT and spearheaded by Mac Diaz, the innovative founder of MyShelter Foundation. It uses plastic water bottles and a little bleach to bring light to the darkness.

To create the bulb, developers fit 1.5 liter plastic bottles containing water and bleach snugly into holes in a metal roof. Sunlight refracts through and off the water, creating free solar lighting equivalent to 55 or 60 watts of clean white light. The bleach inside the bottles prevents algae from forming inside them. The bottles do not heat up and are designed to produce clear light for approximately five years.

The MyShelter Foundation is currently distributing thousands of these lights to homeowners across the Philippines, where oftentimes homes are built so close together that little to no light can get through the windows.

The Isang Litrong Liwanag (“A Liter of Light”) project is a sustainable lighting project whose aim is to bring light to low-income communities. The organization envisions lighting 1 million homes by 2012. So far, they have distributed 10,000 solar bulbs.

The installation of these bulbs is brightening more than the homes they light: They are helping to create a better quality of life for entire communities.

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.