Sunday, December 12, 2021

Moving in a New Direction with (Hopefully) Cleaner Air

White air purifier that many people think looks like a giant iPod shuffle. Lots of stuff visible in the room around the unit.
The Coway Mighty HEPA Air Purifier
Right around the time the pandemic started making headlines for being "a thing" in the United States, my husband and I got sort of nominated by default to keep an eye on plans for two frack well pads proposed for our exurban northern Allegheny County, PA township. And that was a new thing for the two of us to undertake though fracking is nothing new in Pennsylvania. My parents live about an hour south in Washington County and historically the drive to visit them was miserable until the other side of Bridgeville. When fracking really got going in the 2010s, the miserable part of the drive shifted more to the Houston exit where you'd often get mixed in with convoys of water trucks and Ford F150 brigades speeding by as a sign of fracking induced "economic prosperity." Even Allegheny County had a few well pads in the outer reaches where crowded subdivisions give way to open forest and farmland. I'd been tangentially aware of all of this for quite some time. I thought that too many people live in my community for there to be fracking close by.

I was wrong.

Since I found out my error early in the process for these two specific well pads, there was plenty we could do to force the drilling company's plans into the spotlight. Being tenacious people (or as our 16-year-old puts it: annoying), Tim and I began to drown ourselves and our neighbors in information. We scrutinized the township ordinance and the conditional use application. (After first learning that the ordinance and conditional use application exist and what each required of companies that wanted to do business here.) I went to an environmental webinar every night and before long I was either a climate activist or a community organizer or something. Whichever name I picked or had assigned to me, I was something new. Life had once again shifted and I was off in a new direction. I've been keeping notes on our frack fighting experience. When this new great adventure is over, I hope to put that information somewhere that people might read it.

The board of supervisors will render a decision on the first of the two frack pads this week and as I strive not to look at that outcome as a referendum on my life's work for the past two years, it kinda will be. This ending (or half ending, there's still another hearing and decision that will happen in early 2022) is an apt time for reflection. Getting really informed on one environmental topic brought all kinds of new issues into my life. I've been thinking about the way I interact with the world, what difference I can make, and slingshotting wildly between hope and despair. My growing tendencies toward anti-consumerism and desire to #breakfreefromplastic have been reinforced by the climate action community and decimated by modern life in the real world. Here are just a few victories and setbacks experienced during two fairly isolated pandemic years.

  1. There is no way to realistically #breakfreefromplastic in southwestern PA. Taking the advice of very wise Twitter advice-givers, I picked a couple of things and tried to replace them with zero-waste alternatives. The results were mixed.
    Eco-Strips Laundry Detergent: A delightful concept, a cardboard sleeve of pre-measured detergent is delivered in eco-friendly packaging. Each load of laundry takes one sheet of detergent stuff. No measuring liquid. No plastic. Should be wonderful. It was for a while until I noticed that the washing machine smelled like death. Or sewage. Or dead sewage. Now I have to use old-fashioned Tide most of the time and earth-saving laundry strips occasionally. The clothes (and washing machine) smell good, but it all feels like failure.
    Dish Washing Block: Sort of weird to use because it's bar soap. For dishes. I got over this and learned to lather and then wash and it worked for a while. It seemed like it clogged the kitchen drain and made it so the water backs up unless the disposal is running. Obviously, this might not be the dishwashing block's fault, but I went back to mostly using Dawn in the plastic bottle of failure. The sink is back to draining moderately better than it did during the dish block trial.
    Eco Bamboo-Charcoal Floss: The little plastic floss container isn't creating a whole lot of waste, but I did read that the Oral-B Glide floss preferred in our home was full of carcinogens and then I just couldn't enjoy oral hygiene. Enter bamboo floss in an adorable refillable glass container. This has been an absolute delight and a total victory.
    Seventh Generation Dishwasher Packs: Another attempt at consuming less chemicals. Did you know that dishwasher tabs interact with the specific water chemistry in your home and either make the fats from dirty dishes into little globs that rinse down the drain or alternately turn your dishwasher into a grease coated hellscape? I do now! I actually called the company and got my money refunded for this failure.
  2. Just not buying stuff. Not buying stuff is a bit too subjective for the failure/victory narrative. Do we still buy stuff? Yes. Is it usually stuff we can eat or otherwise use to keep ourselves relatively healthy? Yes. Do we still have way too much stuff? Yes. It's fair to say that we're consuming less since we're putting out less than half the garbage at the curb each week than we were two years ago. Unrelated fun fact: we now pay twice as much for garbage pickup. Yay!
    1. Knowledge is power that sometimes forces you to buy stuff from the devil's Amazon. Much of the frack fight is centered around the health impacts of the extraction industry. Air and water quality are adversely impacted and the air in Allegheny County already isn't great. But I'd been soldiering on in the face of copious reading on the illnesses brought on by benzene exposure and TENORMS and whatnot. I made it through two summers without allergy medicine (mostly because allergy medicine started giving me migraines, but still). I was drinking lots of water, not thinking about what might be in it, and feeling good. Then I started with sinus symptoms in November. A few weeks later, the sinus pain had a good friend in ear pain and a corresponding headache and I started to think this might be related to the plume of woodsmoke that rushes into our home every time the door opens. We can identify at least four neighbors burning extremely smokey fires to heat their homes. Those particles are in here, says the internet. There's no way to keep it out. And so, environmentalism led me to the purchase of a HEPA air purifier made in China. Hopefully, not Uyghur China, but I didn't think of that until the friendly unit was already here. Buying a big hunk of plastic to counteract actual smoke from one's neighbors: fail.
    Not that the world needed me to prove that individual action is not the answer to the climate crisis, but my list does lean in that direction. It seems we're all looking for a way to feel good, physically and emotionally, while waiting on the sweeping systemic change that could really make a difference. It won't be sweeping, but for now, I am cautiously optimistic that next week's vote on one well pad in one tiny part of SWPA will be affirming of the work I've done outside of these failed "green" consumer purchases.