Saturday, November 29, 2008

Family Thanksgiving Day Trip

Nearly every year we take at least a day trip the day after Thanksgiving, most often to a place of nature. This year we went to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. We especially liked the small-size redwood forest and hiking trails. It was a great place for a family outing.

Almost all regional areas of the U.S. have botanical gardens. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of most of the major arboretums and botanical gardens in the country.

Friday, November 21, 2008

News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 5 (Final)

This is the final post in a 5-part article regarding the Los Angeles Auto Show. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4.

Next stop, GM. GM suffers from the same legacy-induced poor management and infatuation with over-proliferation of vehicle brands as Ford and Chrysler, except GM has even more brands that it is staggering to maintain. Its future development is hinging on fuel cell, while its current hybrid offerings are a full line of gasoline/electric vehicles.

On display were the gas/electric Chevrolet cars of 2009 Malibu Hybrid ($26,225, MPG 26/34), 2009 Silverado Hybrid, and 2009 Tahoe Hybrid.

The 2009 Malibu Hybrid gets slightly less MPG than the Camry Hybrid but is priced the same. offers an interesting review of this Malibu Hybrid, comparing it to the Camry. If you prefer GM vehicles over, let's say, Toyota then the Malibu Hybrid offers you a second, noteworthy sedan option. The Saturn Aura Hybrid (a GM brand, $26,685, MPG 26/34) is, again like Ford's brand excesses, just a repeat of the Malibu Hybrid under a different brand name.

The 2009 Silverado Hybrid is actually not going to be available until early 2009 but is a leap forward in terms of being the first hybrid pickup truck.

The 2009 Tahoe Hybrid is available now at select dealers and is pricey --$51,405, and for a 4x4 the MPG is 20/20. This doubles the city MPG (compared to a regular Tahoe) but is $14,000 more than the base model so to buy a hybrid large SUV with significant towing capacity is really going to cost you. If you don't need such a large SUV, then go with something like the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid or 2009 Saturn VUE Hybrid (which I talk about below) for half the price. GM's GMC 2009 Yukon Hybrid is basically the same price, same MPG, same everything at the Tahoe Hybrid -- note to GM, just stick with one brand and save yourself a half billion dollars.

GM also has the Cadillac brand. Within Cadillac, the only green vehicle is the 2009 Cadillac Escalade ($72,865, MPG 20/21). Essentially, again, this is the same vehicle as the Tahoe Hybrid or Tahoe Yukon, just with the Cadillac sticker slapped on and a lux-induced interior/exterior -- that's what you're paying $21,000 more for -- prestige.

Finally, under GM's Saturn there's also the 2009 Vue Hybrid ($28,625, MPG 34/32). If you're looking for a hybrid SUV, then I would compare this SUV with the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid. They are priced similarly and get basically the same MPG. You would want to test drive both, see which one gives you the most room and maneuverability, compare features and reviews, and then make a choice between the two.

In my last stop at the show, I visited BMW. BMW is hyping up its "EfficientDynamics" term, which really just means it is reducing fuel consumption and emissions. Available in 2009 is a BMW 7-Series which they are saying is a hybrid vehicle line using a lithium-ion battery, but little real information exists on the actual offering -- which keeps BMW's hybrid offerings as concept driven for now.

That said, car batteries for these hybrid cars have usually been NiMH batteries. But most people believe we are headed toward lithium-ion batteries if the manufacturers can overcome some safety and manufacturing issues. Here's a history of batteries and where we are going. With the increased use of batteries in the world, one can only hope there is not only environmentally friendly production and material sourcing but that used batteries are reclaimed and recycled.

In Conclusion:

In all, I would say the industry is moving full throttle with hybrid (gas/electric) and clean diesel technologies. What's on the horizon, though, is a throbbing interest in fuel cell from nearly every manufacturer. I see more promise in fuel cell than electric. But I think electric will really continue ramping up in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be a crossover into a fuel cell/electric, fuel cell/clean diesel, fuel cell/cellulosic ethanol as a way to bridge the gap. Fuel cell, I feel, offers amazing sustainability for the auto industry and protects consumers' transportation lifestyle and fuel security.

It is very hard to tell where the sustainable diesel (algal diesel) or cellulosic ethanol is going -- there was amazingly no overt push at the auto show for its use.

Obviously there has to be significant downsizing in the auto industry, especially from the U.S. Big 3. Chrysler will likely not survive and may merge into one of the other Big 3 by the end of 2009; in such a scenario, the only real value in a merge would be the Jeep brand and any hybrid technology Chrysler can fork over in the merge -- other than that, I don't see much more value for Chrysler.

Ford and GM will likely survive, but they will have to significantly downsize -- which I don't think the consumer will be hurt by. They need to lose redundant brands ASAP, probably shrink to less than half their current size, and continue a focus on fuel efficiency and hybrid alternatives in order to keep up with Toyota. Any remaining brands that Ford and GM keep should be more defined by design and environmentally friendly features -- down to recyclability of the vehicle at its end of life and starting with every bolt and seat stuffing.

Honda has always been the odd man out -- they will struggle in competing with Toyota's strong hybrid offerings. However, I believe Honda's sights on fuel cell will give them the advantage in the long term -- and the company will publicly state this is the way they want to go, which is why they are letting Toyota have its 15 minutes of fame right now.

Bye, bye Nissan and Kia -- it's hard to tell how much longer they can go without serious development and marketing of alternative fuel vehicles. Certainly the long-term view is not very strong, except for Kia's concept fuel cell vehicle.

I left the show wishing there was some vehicle that would really "wow" me with some type of hybrid technology. Not really.

So, for the next five years I believe that unless you are buying a luxury or ultra-luxury vehicle, the "pretty" factor will become less of an interest for the general buying public. Though, which has been proven by celebs stocking up on Priuses, even the elite find eliteness in buying an average brand with the "Hybrid" nameplate on it. Most of us are wanting to be wow'd by environmental prowess, superior fuel efficiency (above 50 mpg), new technology into hybrid and fuel cell vehicles that are within an average-person cost range, practical advances in alternative fuel distribution (i.e., for fuel cell, what it will really cost to plug in an electric vehicle), zero emissions, and overall safety assurances. If you can give us a unique yet functional design (a la Prius) on top of that, then that gives it some "cool" factor as well -- until the day when all vehicles are hybrid of some sort, which means we'll swing back to newer designs being a focus again.

If you are in the market for a new car, your budget will dictate what you can buy. If you can afford at least $25,000, then go for a hybrid. Otherwise, go to and find the most fuel efficient car you can that also gets good reviews -- such as on And you can also find out which vehicles are offering tax credits at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 4

This is the next post in a 5-part article regarding the Los Angeles Auto Show. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The Volkswagen 2009 Jetta TDI was given the award at the auto show as Green Car Journal's 2009 Green Car of the Year. The Jetta TDI uses "clean diesel" technology and requires Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel fuel -- ultra-low sulfur diesel is required in all 2007 and later diesel fuel vehicles and can be used in all diesel vehicles. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Audi all formed a cooperative to push clean diesel technology. While Mercedes uses its Blue-Tec technology that sprays a chemical on the harmful diesel emissions to turn them into nitrogen and water, the Jetta TDI has a NOx-storage catalyst (NOx = nitrogen oxide which is a harmful particulate) that holds the NOx emissions until the car can burn it off. The base list price is $21,990 with MPG 29/41 from the EPA (independent MPG turns out 38/44) -- I like this base price with the higher MPG, but this price is not much different than a base price for a Prius. And a Los Angeles Times article recently reviewed the new Jetta TDI and compared it to the Prius. You'd save yourself $420.00 in fuel per year if you went with the Prius.

Honda has available the 2009 Civic Hybrid Sedan ($23,550, MPG 40/45) which is serious $1,500 more expensive than the Prius but with similar MPG. Traditionally Honda's base vehicles have nearly everything you need standard, so if you are considering a hybrid make sure you check what you get for the base price and compare the two. The Civic Hybrid has an AT-PZEV ultra-low emissions rating, is a gasoline/electric hybrid, lots of safety features, 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty (8-10 year warranty on battery pack), and NiMH battery. U.S. News' 2009 review lists some complaints, primarily weak in-town driving -- so, word to the wise -- test drive both a Prius and Civic Hybrid a few times before you decide between the two.

Also available is the 2009 Civic GX which runs on natural gas and the 2008 FCX Clarity which is a fuel cell vehicle running on hydrogen. Although the GX is available now for $25,090, there are refueling barriers and the MPG isn't all that impressive (24/36). What has had me really excited for the past year, though, is the FCX Clarity. The Clarity has significant barriers to overcome when it comes to refueling, but I believe hydrogen fuel cells are the best future alternative fuel option. The Clarity has zero emissions, doesn't require any reliance on fuel imports, and has an amazing MPG of 77/67. The car actually expels clean water (that's the technical emission) but no emissions in the current sense.

In the research I've done, hydrogen refueling stations have the best chance actually happening if the car companies who are making fuel-cell concept vehicles band together and push infrastructure development in major cities, expanding from there to all across the U.S. -- almost like a fiber optic expansion. If you write your congressional representative and ask for much higher MPG requirements (above 50 MPG) and federal incentives for hydrogen refueling stations, this infrastructure development and the cars to demand it will happen sooner.

As far as alternative fuel vehicles for Kia, the company only has a concept fuel-cell car in development but no hybrids in its showroom. This is disparaging news for this company. When I asked a sales person about what are Kia's plans for the fuel-cell car, such as a refueling plan, he lamely answered that the car was just technological exploration with no refueling ideas whatsoever. While this was just a sales guy who generally knows very little about business-building strategies, I was so put off by this lack of PR preparation that I immediately left the Kia area. Ugh.


News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 3

This is the third posting in a 5-part article regarding the Los Angeles Auto Show. Read Part 1, Part 2.

I inadvertently bypassed the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid on the Los Angeles Convention Center floor, but looking it up online it is eerily the same color and has everything the Escape and Tribute have. I guess I didn't miss much. So, what's the deal?! Does Ford, which also has Mazda and Mercury as one of its brands, really need three hybrid SUV's that are all essentially the same thing, same engine, same color!, same design, same everything?! This is all part of the management and company choices that make one's head bobble -- seems like a big waste of money to me to keep all those brands going. Listen to me Ford, consolidate.

Anyway, let's move on. Toyota was next. Lots of press action in the Toyota area today. Toyota has a full line of 2009 hybrids that we are all familiar with -- the Prius, Camry Hybrid, Highlander Hybrid (SUV). I kept on wanting there to be something news breaking about this line, but it's just a solid line of hybrids. That's it. Simple. Functional. All have a basic 3 year/36,000 mile warranty.

For the 2009 Prius, the starting price is $22,000 and it gets an estimated 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. Those are impressive numbers and make the Prius a fabulous option for a commuting and around-town car. The 2009 Prius is also considered a "second-generation" Prius with lower emissions and better fuel economy than the first generation line of Prius', as well as a re-engineered battery (smaller, better, NiMH). The second-generation remodel also classifies the Prius now as a mid-size vehicle, with it being slightly larger than before. And it has an AT-PZEV rating -- virtually no emissions.

The 2009 Camry Hybrid lists for $26,150 (MPG 33/34) -- when faced to choose between a Prius and this Camry, I think you'd be better off just going with a Prius. Though, I wish they would put the same Prius fuel economy in the Camry because I like the way the Camry looks, and the Camry is easier to see out the back window -- many women cannot see completely out the back window of the Prius because you have to be sitting up pretty high and be tall enough to see clearly out the back.

The 2009 Highlander Hybrid, an SUV, lists for $34,700 (MPG 27/25). This SUV is more expensive as a base price than the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid and gets less MPG. Reviews online give higher marks for the Escape Hybrid than Highlander Hybrid. I would seriously compare base prices and what you get between these two SUV's before buying.

Next, in the luxury arena was Mercedes-Benz. The company's main push is clean diesel through what they call Blue-Tec -- an engine technology that sprays a chemical onto the emissions before they reach the outside of the vehicle in order to convert them into nitrogen and water. I think there is some merit in this innovation, especially if algal fuel (a renewable biodiesel) enters the market and provides us with more sustainable diesel fuel. But personally, I prefer fuel cell technology as the best option on the long-term horizon.

Onto Chrysler. That part of the show was sad. Chrysler had its vehicles there but that's it. No extra lighting. And no people. It was the silent part of the show. Almost like everyone knows Chrysler is dead but no one wants to say it. I have not minded Chrysler's slow death so much because they have not had any alternative fuel vehicles coming out of the company, but, much to my surprise at the show, there were these interesting Chrysler EV hybrid-electric vehicles on display. However, I found out they are only concept vehicles with a possible rollout of 2010. I believe this is too little too late. And Chrysler probably won't last that long. Sorry Jeep lovers.

Nissan's small section was really odd. There was no overt emphasis on any hybrid or fuel efficiency technologies. No cars had any labeling or placard that would tell you info either. I have known about the Nissan Altima Hybrid, and the company does have a 2009 version ($26,650, MPG 35/33) which would be in competition with the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid -- all family-size sedans. The Nissan Altima Hybrid has limited availability and carries only standard features for the base price.

Part 4...

News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 2

This is the second posting in a 5-part article regarding the Los Angeles Auto Show. Read Part 1 here.

Upon arriving to the show I first visited the Ford area. There was lukewarm-to-moderate press interest in the Ford showroom area. Ford has only one hybrid vehicle available now -- it is the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, a mid-size SUV that gets 34 mpg in the city, 31 on the freeway, about 500 miles on one tank. Compared to most standard SUV's, that's a 10-20 mpg savings. The hybrid system uses a NiMH battery that recharges when you brake. Starting list price is at $29,305. I like how they have made the seats from recycled materials and plant-seed material, and you get a basic warranty of 3 year/36,000 miles. By law, they have to give an 8-10 year (depending on where you live) warranty for the high-voltage battery, electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) and the DC/DC converter. Like many hybrid (gas/electric) vehicles I saw today, it would have been better if the fuel tank also accepted E85 in case we move toward more non-corn alternative fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol (made from the cellulose of switch grass, prairie grasses, or corn stalk waste). But I found this SUV to be the best buy-now option if you want a hybrid SUV.

The 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid is essentially the same vehicle as the Ford Escape Hybrid. Mazda is a Ford company, and it's Tribute was painted the exact same color at the show as the Escape Hybrid and looked nearly the same as the Escape Hybrid ... weird . But the Tribute Hybrid is currently only available in California and under a limited run, so who knows if they will continue producing the vehicle.

Again, speaking about E85, another thing interesting about this show is that I did not see any overt attempt to tout product with flex-fuel or E85 options from any manufacturer. While some vehicles will have that standard now, especially among GM vehicles, I thought this was a clear sign that the most innovation is coming in electric, fuel cell, and clean diesel -- not flex-fuel.

Another area of innovation interest that surprised me was in emissions -- lower or near-zero emissions. This is an innovation area that has not been widely talked about in the media.

For Mazda, it has two Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV), which are vehicles that are "90% cleaner than the average new 2004 automobile" -- as stated by Says "a PZEV must have near-zero evaporative emissions and its emission control equipment must carry a 15-year/150,000 mile warranty. To be rated as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV), an automobile must meet all the above criterion for a PZEV rating and additionally must make use of "ZEV-enabling clean technology” such as alternative fuels, electric drive, or other advanced technology systems. " PZEV vehicles have come about due to California's more strict emissions standards. The 2009 Mazda3 and 2009 Mazda6 both are PZEV vehicles. All Mazda vehicles' basic warranty is for 3 years/36,000 miles.

Part 3 ...

News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 1

This is Part 1 of 5 in a report about the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Today I was at the media-only day at the Los Angeles Auto Show. When it's only the media, you have a lot of blank space everywhere with the people scattered throughout the showcases -- mostly a mix of corporate folks in suits, photographers, reporters, and lots of photos and video being done for magazines, newspapers, and broadcast. The visual impact is stunning, with all the shiny cars favorably displayed. The big-wigs from these auto manufacturers strut around in their suits but usually disappear once the show is open for the public.

The atmosphere seemed pretty subdued everywhere except for the Toyota area and the luxury vehicles (BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz). One could only add in the subtext of the economy downturn and the U.S. car manufacturers' complaining to Congress as further drama to the show. Interestingly, the ultra-luxury cars (Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Lotus, Aston Marin, Bentley, Spyker) that have mountains of admirers yet few buyers were showcased in a side concourse and had the most people pouring over them -- mostly men were there, salivating over the vehicles and the pretty young girls in fall-out tops who stood by those dream cars.

With the exception of the ultra-luxury vehicle (which I feel fall more in the category of art and collecting, not just a "car"), the most vehicle innovation is coming in the form of "greenness." With the exception of the ultra-lux car, it is my opinion that how green a vehicle is will largely determine not only its future but also the future of its manufacturer. This is a significant trend in the auto industry, which was previously dominated by design and safety as its marketing strongholds.

After walking the showcases, some of these manufacturers have obviously come too late in the game or have refused to participate outright in being green. I believe this is pure stupidity on the management's side and will cost them, their employees, and their business dearly. To this point, at the end of my roundup, in Part 5, I will post my predictions for the general auto industry in the next 5-10 years.

Part 2 ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How To Be Eco-Friendly During That Time of the Month

Grist Magazine recently did a two-part review (Part 1, Part 2) of eco-friendly feminine hygiene products. It's an interesting and informative read. The review and reader comments were revealing. Lots of opinions. Lots of insight into yet another product category that is undergoing a 180-degree change in consumer demand, what it is made of, and how it is packaged. The bottom line is that with nearly every feminine hygiene product there is still a great opportunity for improvement -- absorbency, packaging, feel, keeping it in place.

As women, we should be aware that there are better choices than the standard tampon and pad product line that we've been purchasing from the grocery or drug store. And some of the newest, more eco-friendly and safer products are not yet widely available in store but rather online -- such as at or Of course, you can write an e-mail to your local store to stock a more environmentally brand once you know what you'll buy.

And that is key. Just like you arrived at choosing your preferred selection of standard feminine products by trial and error, the same will be true for choosing more eco-friendly versions. You'll need to try some new brands and see what works for you. From there, you can ask your local store to carry your preference.

Here are the key things you want to look for:
  • Look for Less Packaging Overall: If you are not going to go the washable or reusable route (such as the cup or a washable pad) then you want to look for products that use the least amount of packaging.
  • Avoid Plastic: Ideally you want to purchase a feminine product that uses no petro plastic or synthetics in its construction or packaging. If it does (such as packaging wraps for tampons or pads), you can at least recycle the clean packaging. Ask the manufacturer to make their packaging and any plastic completely biodegradable. Even if packaging wrappers could be made out of recycled paper instead of plastic that would be an improvement. And if you love that smooth plastic applicator for tampons, ask the manufacturer to make it out of biodegradable plastic (such as plastic made from corn).
  • Look for Organic and Chlorine Free: If you are purchasing pads or tampons, look for organic cotton that is chlorine free.
  • Seek Out Biodegradable: Any disposable product that has components, such as an applicator, that is biodegradable on its own would be preferable over recyclable.

Here are some more eco-friendly brands and options:

This is a video from Maxim that points out some differences between synthetic and more eco-friendly feminine options. I still don't like the plastic wrappers, but the video is worth watching to understand some of the health and safety, as well as environmental, issues:

"Flow" Film Provokes Streaming Thought

An Official Selection for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and Winner of Best Documentary at the United Nations Association Film Festival, "Flow" is a thought-provoking film about how water is being bought up and dried up. Just one more reason to avoid bottled water when you can and write your government officials asking them to promote policies and legislation that would 1) reduce water pollution and 2) conserve fresh water.

"Flow" Movie Website -- film available on DVD on 12/9/08
Article: Purifying the Facts
Article: Weening Off the Bottle

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Europe's Environmental Legislation Could Forecast Our Future

In many ways, Europe is more active at improving its environmental stewardship than the U.S. One piece of legislation in Britain, which passed the end of October, could spell a forthcoming trend in the U.S. As reported by Environmental Finance, "The UK government on Tuesday [October 28, 2008] passed its landmark Climate Change Bill, including amendments that will require companies to report on their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012."

The report further stated "Many industrial and power generating companies already report their emissions under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Large commercial and public-sector organisations will be obliged to report emissions under the UK’s forthcoming Carbon Reduction Commitment, a cap-and-trade programme scheduled to start in 2010. However, the bill will extend reporting much more widely."

Imagine if there were such a reporting requirement in the U.S. Surely, if there were, there would then be some media some where that would post a scorecard of sorts for consumers and investors. And as consumers and investors become more savvy about choosing more environmentally friendly products, this transparency would force these companies to come clean -- literally.

Scientific American published a catch-all article on November 5, 2008 that summarizes current environmental issues, and what the outgoing and incoming administrations may do about these issues. Carbon reduction is likely to happen under the Obama administration.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mothers Are Key Influencers

A study from the School of Behavioural Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia found that mothers "are the most important people in the lives of young adults, and their children do care what they think."

Here's the breakdown --
  • 40% - mothers
  • 25% - fathers
  • 17 % - romantic partner
  • 12% - friend
  • 6% - sibling
Says Associate Professor Jennifer Boldero, "This survey tells us that mothers are still clearly having an impact on their children well into adulthood."

With this survey's results in mind, it is unquestionably important that mothers influence their children for good. And the environment is one area where mothers can have priceless impact in terms of creating an eco-friendly and safe home environment and raising children who care about the planet and their individual impact on the planet. Imagine the possibilities!

(Picture above by Bryce Brown)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Youth Eco-Activity Ideas That Have Impact

I love this post at -- youth groups who are making a difference for the planet. If you are a leader for a scouting group, girl scouts, or other youth group, use this post to get some ideas for this fall on how you can get involved with local restoration projects, including helping to protect pollinators.

Know How To Do The Eco Vote

As you make your ballot selections for tomorrow, go to your state's League of Conservation Voters' page to find out voter endorsements and recommendations for ballot measures and propositions.

Go to the bottom of this page, select your state, and hit "go". You'll be taken to your state's LCV page.

Alert: Government Back Peddles on BPA

In a major turn of events that could lead to more consumer safety, the Washington Post is reporting that on Halloween the FDA's Science Board agreed that the FDA was in error in August 2008 when it said that "a chemical widely used in baby bottles and other plastic packaging for foods and beverages posed no health risks." That chemical was the highly controversial BPA.

What this means is this: the FDA is succumbing to both public outcry and overwhelming scientific evidence that BPA causes harm. Experts expect that because of the Board's error admission, there will be more attention given to BPA within the agency and perhaps a ban on the chemical as early as 2009 -- or at the very least a mandated labeling of any product with BPA.

See my earlier post here: BPA Talk -- What Should You Do?

BPA is at unsafe levels in one of every 10 servings
of canned foods (11%) and one of every
3 cans of infant formula (33%)

Source of above chart: Chemical analyses of 97 canned foods by Southern Testing and Research Division of Microbac Laboratories, Inc., North Carolina.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Does Solar Power Make Sense For You?

I love this article in yesterday's "Home" section of the Los Angeles Times -- "Do The Bright Thing". The author goes through the latest trends in residential solar outfitting, as well as her own research on whether or not it would benefit her to make the investment. A good read.
I talk about solar options a lot in my upcoming book, The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green. But the LA Times author does come to the same conclusion that I came to -- sometimes it makes sense to install a complete solar system to produce electricity for your home ... but othertimes it doesn't make sense and you need to look at other options. Those other options include a host of home improvement measures, including adding trees to your property to help your home cool down.