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Maggie Puniewska

Maggie Puniewska is a freelance writer based out of the greater Chicago area. She has a B.A. in communications from University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. In addition to Please Conserve, she currently writes for the buzz, an entertainment magazine on campus. She has written and published on a wide range of subjects and her specialty for Please Conserve is conservation and environmental topics.

Pesticides from the pantry

Volunteer helping to prepare the organic pesticides. Photo by Maggie Puniewska.

The quick six: lemon grass, ginger, onion, garlic, pepper, and lemon juice. Dice. Put in blender. Voila! A homemade pesticide recipe. Because Cabanas Siempre Verde uses organic gardening methods, pesticides are no exception. “It’s actually not that much more work to use this organic pesticide,” said Marcos Garcia, founder of the organization. “Probably the most difficult part is to get all the ingredients and put them in the blender.” Even though this recipe lacks the harsh chemicals found in traditional pesticides Garcia assures they are just as effective and definitely more environmentally-friendly. Having eaten from the garden daily, I can attest that flavor was absolutely superior to that of our American grocery stores. Coincidence? I think not.

Renew in the loo

What comes in, must come out and it’s put to good use. Cabanas Siempre Verde encourages volunteers to use a compost toilet to take care of business, even though a regular toilet is provided. Sawdust is sprinkled after each visit, to mitigate the odor as well as enhance the composting process. After 4-6 months, the compost is ready to use.

“We use it for big trees as well as in the garden,” said Garcia. “It’s better for the Earth because you’re not using water and the springs are not getting contaminated.”

Eco-friendly and not at all smelly. Photo by Sonia George.

Always Green

A “Winter Wonderland” in Chicago? I think ‘tis a season more comparable to a winter inferno-land, minus the heat. There is absolutely nothing wonderful about blasting icy winds and sub-zero temperatures. In order to escape this scene of death, this winter I decided to lead a volunteer trip abroad to Costa Rica. Although the prospect of 80-degree sunny weather was definitely part of the allure, what truly captured my interest was the chance to work on an organic farm and really act on the green principles we try to encourage here at Please Conserve. Actions speak louder than words, right?

After two plane rides, 7 hours of layovers, and a 3-hour, slightly nauseating bus ride, I arrived with my group to the miniscule, yet vibrant town of Mastatal. Miniscule being a very accurate descriptor since this petit community cannot even be found on Google Maps. Yes, that is possible. So, here we arrived far from the wrath of the technology that engulfed our every day lives to a place of serenity and silence that we were not used to but by the end, couldn’t bear to leave.  And although I could chronicle the group experience, including everything from working on the farm to visits to the local bar (a frequent source of entertainment), I wanted to focus on the story of the organization where we volunteered, Cabañas Siempre Verde- from the uncertain beginnings to the passion that drives the will to continue.

The idea behind Cabañas Siempre Verde wasn’t your typical “this was my childhood dream” kind of story. As founder Marcos Garcia said, it just sort of…happened. Garcia had grown up on his family’s farm, the site of the organization today, so farming, and in particular organic farming, was always a daily part of life for him. In high school Garcia took three years of permaculture, an approach that teaches methods of sustainable land use. The next step was to go to a university, but this ambition was suspended due to lack of funds. Not wanting to remain idle, Garcia took courses in carpentry and English, which proved to be quite beneficial in his future endeavors. A couple years later, Garcia built the first cabaña, which is Spanish for a cabin. His particular structure was a roofed, open-wall dwelling, elevated about 10 feet off the ground. “The first cabaña was a test of my building skills,” said Garcia. “ I wanted to see how well I could do.”

Turning out quite well, Garcia decided to build a second cabaña and in 2005 took a stab at running a volunteer organization. “ I just put all my skills, carpentry, organic farming, and English, together,” said Garcia. And what a risk worth taking. The farm succeeds in attracting volunteers from all across the globe, all backgrounds, all ages. In fact, during my stay we were accompanied by a young couple from Belgium as well as a retired woman from Canada. “People continue coming and they come back,” said Garcia. “That inspires me to continue.”

During their stay, volunteers get the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, generally suited to their interests and abilities, and depending on what needs to be done at that particular time of the year. Because our group was quite big, we were split up into smaller teams who worked on everything from gardening, to digging, to building a compost toilet. And believe me, no experience was necessary. Volunteering to work on building a bench from scratch, I was reminded that my only carpentry skills were those I acquired in childhood…building with Legos. But with Garcia’s patience and natural ability to teach, I was able to build a fully functional bench and no one was injured in the process. Garcia says that he hopes that such experiences will allow volunteers to immerse themselves into the sustainable lifestyle and teach them practices that can be applied back home.

Although the work is challenging and the Costa Rican sun does not spare any mercy on Caucasian skin, engaging in such sustainable projects is immensely rewarding and proves that a green lifestyle is attainable. “You can be sustainable in every aspect of your life, especially food and work,” said Garcia. Garcia’s volunteer farm proves this point and this is something he truly takes pride for. What started as an unsure venture has turned into a green haven. How fitting then, that the other part of the name, “Siempre Verde” in Spanish means, “always green”.

For more information, visit:
The cabana, home to the volunteers. Photo by Sean Hill.

Just an everyday Mackaw sighting. No big deal. Photo by Sean Hill.

Gone with the Wind

Using wind turbines has been a major trend in alternative energy. Unfortunately, research from the University of Texas at Austin is looking at how the rising temperatures caused by global warming are reducing wind speeds, making turbines an uncertain investment. Winds occur when there is a strong temperature contrast, but with increasing temperatures, the discrepancy is decreasing. But researchers state that this data shouldn’t discourage wind turbine use, rather we should invest now, to utilize wind potential.

Breaking the Ice

Summer is a time for pools, popsicles, and parching pavement. Fortunately engineers at the University of Rhode Island are researching methods to use this hot heat to melt ice off roadways in the winter, power street lamps and signs, and heat buildings. Because asphalt temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees harnessing the heat would be very practical. Engineers are looking at a variety of methods including placing photovoltaic cells on highways and water-filled pipes under the road that would be heated. These methods promise another method of alternative energy use, diminishing dependence on fossil fuels.

Hurry with the Curry

Among vehicles and fossil fuels, cows are a top producer of methane, a greenhouse gas. But researchers in the UK have found a way to make the cows less gassy. In turns out that tumeric and coriander, two additions in curry, kill methane producing bacteria in cow stomachs. The study concludes that by adding these spices to feed, farmers could reduce methane emissions by 40%.

Calculating Gas

Calculators were previously used for basic math equations, but now they have just gotten a little fancier. Researchers at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station have developed a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator, a helpful device for farmers who trade this on markets. The calculator is available online and uses inputs such as crops, farming techniques, and fertilizers to determine how much carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide were produced. Researchers hope that this tool will assist farmers in making more environmentally-friendly decisions.

Surfs up, bills down

Before long, the ocean water in Hawaii could be used for more than just surfing. Several hotel owner in Waikiki are looking to use cold deep-sea water to power air conditioning. The cold water from the ocean would be pumped into a heat exchanger that would chill a closed container of fresh water. The fresh water would be used for the air conditioning and the sea water returned to the ocean. Hotels could potentially save 20% on their cooling costs.

And on his farm he had….energy calculators

Farms are more than just  cute animals and crops and fields. They also are major consumers of energy, which can be expensive. Realizing this, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Center put together a web page to help farmers calculate and cut down on costs. The site features energy calculators for many variables including animal housing, tillage, and nitrogen. It also has calculators for biomass as well as renewable energy.

Bring on the Butter

Paula Deen’s favorite ingredient may soon be powering your car. Researchers from the American Chemical Society are experimenting with butter as a potential source of bio-diesel fuel. Preliminary studies show that this fatty treat meets all but one test for bio-diesel standards. Further research is being conducted to see whether further purification or combining butter with other bio-diesel sources such as corn will make it suitable for use.


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