Have you ever done something you thought would be a good idea but were uncertain about, and in the end, it turned out to be a great idea? Such is the case with the building of Violet the campervan. Many of you know that in 2018 I converted a Ram Promaster high-top van into a camper. I had a basic conversion done via Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs, and I have been adding to the build ever since.
There is nothing like having a house on wheels. Yes, standard RVs may offer some additional amenities, but their bulky size and price make them less than ideal for my purposes. My little van is spacious enough to live in, yet it fits nicely into a standard parking slot.
I’m always desperate to travel out West, but gas prices have kept me local this year. However, this has turned out to be a plus as it has forced me to explore the wonders of the Midwest. Last month, I took separate trips to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and most recently, Minnesota.
Julie’s parents are aging, and we want to visit them more often. However, we don’t want to burden them by staying at their place. In addition, her job can be stressful, so combining a visit with a mini-vacation seemed like a great idea.
She is our trip planner and tasked herself with finding a campground and some activities. Although I like to boondock when I solo travel, I usually stay at a campground when I travel with her as I want the experience to be as pleasant as possible. The nicer the amenities, the more likely she will come along on my next adventure.
Although she takes on the travel itinerary, I assume the rest of the preparation responsibilities, so the week before our trip involved many tasks. For example, washing the outside of the van, cleaning its inside, stocking the pantry, buying special foods she likes, planning meals, etc. All of this is time-consuming, but I have plenty of time.
This trip took us to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, and the Wildwood Campground. Campground hosts and campers are typically amiable, and this place was no exception. We were welcomed to the campground and quickly dispatched to our site. One of the luxuries of camping at an actual campground is the “facility.” No cat hole digging or sponge baths are needed! Taking a shower at home seems routine, but having a real shower when camping feels like a bonafide luxury.
Yes, we try to do some fun activities when we camp, but daily activities are also joyful. Everything takes longer when camping. Hygiene activities take planning. When the evening cools down, extra time is required to build a fire. Even cooking a simple meal is more involved than when at home. Yes, it may take longer to cut vegetables using my trusty Buck knife, but it does the job. Interestingly, food tastes better when you put just a little more effort into its preparation, and meals become a significant part of the day, as opposed to the eating-on-the-run that happens too often in the real world.
On this trip, we kayaked down the scenic St. Crox river one day and toured several quaint towns on another. Naturally, we also spent a day visiting Julie’s parents. They are in their 90s, and I was concerned about over-taxing them. We planned to bring them lunch and then walk to give them a little break afterward. We would return for a short visit after our walk and leave before we overstayed. However, to my surprise, they wanted us to stay longer, which we were delighted to do. I lost my parents many decades ago, so it is especially lovely to have a close relationship with Julie’s parents. They have always been gracious and welcoming to me, which is much appreciated.
If you separate our activities over the last four days, many would seem mundane. However, they add up to a lovely mini-trip when you explore them in total. Julie gained some needed R-and-R and I got an extra shot of adventure.
I believe that we all have interests and activities that are inherently natural for us as individuals. The physical exercise that best resonates with me is walking. I started walking several years ago, and it is something that I not only enjoy but also that I look forward to. However, if I don’t walk for several days, my formerly easy treks become tiring. I’m not too fond of that feeling. Insufferably hot days have challenged me; I typically walk during the late morning or early afternoon. Naturally, these are the highest temperature times for such escapades.
I checked my iPhone’s weather app and confirmed what I already knew. Today’s high temperature would be around 100F. Another sweltering day, it was time for a change of plans.
I’m a comfortable stroller. I love to listen to the sounds around me, smell the smells, and ambulate at a rate where it is easy to think, meditate, and say hello to those who cross my path.
Lately, I have developed a habit of spending my early mornings writing, reading, and doing mundane tasks, like checking my email. However, today was a time to mix things up. After I woke up and cleaned up, I immediately got dressed. I had gotten some new trail runners for Father’s Day to replace my worn-out Asics hikers. So I slipped them on and went out the door. The temperature would be rising soon; it was time to move.
The air was warm and welcoming. Perhaps the humidity was too high, but a light breeze compensated for the increased moisture. The weather felt perfect.
I made my way to The Riverwalk and onto its paths. I was utterly alone. Perhaps the specter of the repressive weather report kept people away, or maybe it was the early weekday hour. I celebrated the scheduling freedom of my retirement as I put one foot in front of the other. I inhaled the sweet smells of flowers mixed with the green aroma of grass. Both tickled my nose and triggered camping memories. Birds chirped, and leaves rustled. Otherwise, all was quiet. Even the sounds of my footfalls were dampened by the thick rubber soles of my new Salomons. My steady pace continued.
I love walking on The Riverwalk. Dirt paths, brick paths, grassy fields, and covered bridges. My times there feel like I am at a vacation destination, but today was special. I was walking in my private estate. I became lost in my thoughts yet acutely aware of my surroundings. The playground was empty; the beach was quiet. My walk continued over a covered bridge to the south side of the path. No one was at the paddle boat pond; the park benches were vacant. My walk continued. Peace washed over me.
Soon my loop was almost completed. I sat on a quiet bench to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. Then up, then walking, I continued. I exited onto Jefferson Avenue to find that the city was waking. A few cars whizzed by me, and ahead was a man ambulating in my direction. My space, private no more; it had been mine for a few privileged moments—a period of exclusive beauty. A gift of nature was given to me because of a change in plans—a change with delightful consequences.
Do you ever get surprised when a simple change in your life gives you an unexpected benefit? I celebrate such discoveries. I choose to look at an obstacle as an opportunity. Life is often what we make of it. Having to change plans isn’t always negative; our attitude and acceptance can be the secret sauce to happiness.
If you are a vandweller or adventurer, you know that there are a few things that you must have, and one of the most important is a source of power to run and charge your electronic devices. Many vandwellers have 12-volt fridges, fans, and lighting systems. All have devices that need to be charged.
If your needs are simple, there are many small battery banks that will do the job. However, if you desire creature comforts, like a fridge, you will need a bigger battery system as well as a way to top off your battery. If your travels take you away from traditional campgrounds, your recharging system will most likely consist of solar panels.
In 2018 I purchased a new Ram Promaster and had a basic camper conversion done at Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs. This conversion gave me a functional camper, but I have spent the last four years adding and subtracting to its build, refining the design to fit my needs.
At the start of my van journey, I knew that I wanted a fridge, and I also knew that I would be doing a lot of boondocking. In 2018 most vandwellers who needed power cobbled together their own systems using AGM batteries, solar controllers, converters, inverters, and solar panels. I didn’t want this hassle, and there seemed to be a new option on the block, the solar generator.
Now common, these devices were fairly novel in 2018. However, the concept seemed perfect for me as everything needed for a full electrical system was available in a simple plug-and-play box. The big player in the 2018 market was Goal Zero, a Utah-based company that built quality products.
My initial setup consisted of a Goal Zero 1250 Solar Generator (100 AH battery) and 300 watts of Renogy solar panels mounted on my campervan’s roof. I modified an existing storage bin in my van (a boot box) to become her power center. The Goal Zero did the job, but it had some significant drawbacks. Its 12-volt receptacle was not regulated, so I was always afraid that its voltage would drop and my fridge would turn off (this never happened in the two years that I used the unit). It used an AGM battery which was both enormously heavy and had a power usage limit of a maximum 50% percent draw, so its usable capacity was 50 AH, not 100 AH. In addition, AGM batteries have a limited number of recharge cycles. Lastly, charge time using any source was fairly slow for the Goal Zero.
I increased my battery capacity by daisy-chaining two more 100 AH AGM batteries giving me a usable capacity of 150 AH (50% of 300 AH), and I started to expand my electrical use. With this system, I could run a tiny microwave and use an induction burner at medium or lower power. I love the idea of free energy, and so my power needs expanded further by adding a Webasto heater (which uses power to run its fan) to the mix.
With my Goal Zero system, I was able to get by, but I always had to be very mindful of exactly what I was doing. Worse was the weight of the system. The Goal Zero was so heavy that I needed help to lift it out of the battery box, and with two additional and very heavy AGM batteries jammed into the box, it was impossible to do any troubleshooting when I was solo and away from home. The answer to these problems came with Bluetti’s Indiegogo campaign for the AC200. I can’t remember the exact cost of the unit, but it was very reasonable at the time. I bought one, replaced the Goal Zero, and I haven’t looked back. I have had the AC200 since 2020, and I feel that I can give a fairly balanced review. Please note that the AC200 has been replaced by the AC200P, which is similar to my unit, but the battery was changed from Li to LifePO4 and increased in capacity from 1700 AH to 2000 AH.
Pros of the Bluetti
-Significantly lighter (around 60 pounds) compared to my old Goal Zero. I can easily lift it.
-Lithium batteries can be discharged to 10%, so my available power is the same as my previous three battery super-heavy system.
-Depending on the battery’s chemistry lithium batteries can be recharged from one thousand to several thousand cycles. I think mine can be recharged well over 1000 times. This would give my battery a decade of life based on its current use.
-The unit can use up to 700 watts of solar for faster charging. I increased my roof solar to 400 watts, which is the max that I can fit on the van’s roof.
-The AC brick charges significantly faster than my Goal Zero unit. At approximately 500 watts/hour.
-You can buy an additional charger and double your charge rate to around 1000 watts/hour.
-You can fully charge your unit in 3 to 3.5 hours. In real terms, charging to 100% is faster than that, as I never bring my battery down to 10%.
-The 12-volt power supply is regulated, so I always have the correct voltage for my fridge and any other voltage-sensitive devices (like my Webasto heater).
-The unit has a 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter. I can run my induction burner at its full power without worry. Naturally, excessive use will quickly drain my battery.
-Induction charging pads are available on the top of the unit for phone charging (sadly, they don’t seem to work with my particular iPhone).
-A 60-watt USB C port is available for charging small laptops or iPads.
-The display panel provides tons of information for the geek in me.
-The availability of a powerful inverter has opened up the world of free energy. I not only use an induction cooktop and microwave, but I also have a little Keurig-type coffee maker and even a small electric pressure cooker.
Cons of the Bluetti
-The display is always on; you can’t turn it off. If you are light-sensitive, this could be a problem at night. Naturally, you can cover the display with something like an index card to darken it.
-The unit requires a higher voltage from solar instead of the 12 volts required by other units. I had to rewire my solar panels in series from parallel to give me around 48 volts of output. In itself, this isn’t a big deal. However, I carry some smaller battery banks that I can’t charge with my solar array because they require 12 volts.
-My biggest concern with the Bluetti is phantom power loss. The unit has to be on to accept solar charging. In fact, if solar is plugged into the unit, it will switch itself on. If the unit is on with no load (both DC and AC power turned off), it will drop (on average) from 100% charge to about 90% in 24 hours. This is a very significant draw. If my battery charge is lower, the percentage drop is even greater. I have read about this phantom loss concern in Bluetti’s forum, so I know that it isn’t specific to my unit. I have also contacted Bluetti about it. The only option given was to turn off the unit, which is not always practical.
If I’m running my fridge, I not only have to deal with the power usage from the fridge but also an additional 10%+ reduction from other sources. Those sources include the phantom loss and any overhead loss incurred by the unit’s voltage regulation circuitry.
If the unit is completely turned off, it continues to lose power, but at a much slower rate. This is in contrast to other solar generators that I have used that will maintain a 100% charge for months when off.
I can easily recoup the phantom loss if I have full sun exposure. In addition, I have a 2KW inverter connected to my car battery. If I am driving, I’ll switch the inverter on, which connects to the Bluetti’s AC brick allowing me to charge from both solar and AC.
However, there have been times when this power loss has been an issue. I was recently camping for a weekend in a partially shaded area. I was stationary for the entire weekend. I was very conservative with my power use and only ran my Dometic fridge plus very light usage of my house lights. In addition, I used a 650-watt microwave (950-watt input) once for about 3 minutes during the entire weekend. I used a small battery bank to charge my phone (more convenient). Finally, I idled the car for about 25 minutes once during the weekend to power my car’s inverter to charge my Bluetti.
Total time off-grid was from Friday at around 4 PM to Sunday around 11 AM. By Sunday, my battery was at 50%. This battery usage was acceptable but a bit troubling. If I was going to stay at that site any longer, I would have had to have moved the van into the direct sun (options were limited), or I would have had to go for a drive to charge the Bluetti via my car’s inverter.
I hope that this phantom power loss has been eliminated in newer units. Ten percent is 170 watts of lost power. The lower the battery, the greater the percentage loss. For instance, at 50% capacity, I have 850 WH. A 170-watt loss is now 20% of my total capacity. This phantom loss was not present in my Goal Zero or smaller units (like my Jackery 500) that I use, so it is unclear why this is happening with my Bluetti unit.
There are so many things that I like about my Bluetti AC200. However, the phantom power loss is a concern; I have found workarounds for it. My favorite features (compared to my old Goal Zero 1250 system) are its lighter weight, smaller overall footprint, fast charging, and 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter.
The Bluetti is competitively priced for a brand-named unit. However, there are now a number of no-name brands that are more reasonable. With that said, buying a no-name brand can be a bit of a crap shoot. I saw a review where a unit could not be turned off of eco-mode. It would turn off if it didn’t constantly have a draw on it. This could be a real problem using an intermittent draw device like a fridge. I watched another review of a different unit that didn’t allow for pass-through charging. In addition, no-name units often have very poor product support.
If you are looking for a solar generator to complement your car or van setup, it is very reasonable to consider Bluetti. Mine has served me well since 2020.
I laid in bed feeling both sweaty and cold. I could feel the breeze from the ceiling fan above. I had one leg outside of the blanket and the other inside in a feeble attempt to regulate my opposing temperature perceptions. Julie was asleep, but her foot brushed up against my bare thigh. I turned on my side and pulled her close to me in an effort to gain some comfort. My mind was racing, but why? I tried to calm myself and fall asleep. I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. “That is ridiculous,” I said to myself, “Stop catastrophizing; you have taken this trip many times before.”
I woke up in a haze and sat up in bed in an attempt to get moving. I had taken a shower the night before, but I still needed to brush my teeth and wash my face. I looked out of the window and realized that I would have to shuffle the cars so that Kathryn could get to work. My head was full of cobwebs; I felt hungover.
Now downstairs, I grabbed the keys to Julie’s Ford Flex and faced a coolish breeze as I made a dash to the car in my slippers. On autopilot, I backed the Ford out of the driveway and onto the street.
William was still sleeping. He had a morning ZOOM meeting with his university research group, and that would delay our departure. I resisted the urge to make sure that he was up for the meeting. He is now a senior in college, and I accepted the fact that he knew how to manage his time.
I dropped a capsule of low acid coffee into the Keurig and waited for my mug to fill. I found some Costco drumsticks in the fridge from last night’s dinner. They were delicious then, but this morning my tastebuds were not in the mood for garlic. I took two bites and tossed the leg into the garbage. Now in my study, I sipped coffee and mindlessly scanned Facebook, then YouTube, then my emails. The coffee was starting to kick in, and I could feel the fog lift and my focus return.
Will appeared and informed me that the meeting was shorter than expected, and he was ready to leave. I sent him into the basement storage room to retrieve a sleeping bag for himself, and I also instructed him to bring one of his pillows. He ambled off. Now in the fridge and pantry, I gathered items. Mustard, catsup, some hotdogs, syrup for pancakes, the list went on. I couldn’t find my pocket knife, A strange and slightly ominous sign.
We were going to Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, to hike trails that I had been on many times, but would be a first for William. I continued to try to shake off my foreboding feelings as ridiculous as we pulled out of our driveway. Our adventure had begun.
I booked 2 nights at the Skillet Creek campground, which was only minutes from the state park entrance. Our narrow and deep site abutted a creek. I decided to back in and park close to the road. The spot was fairly level, but I had one of my intuitive feelings and didn’t want to pull way back into the site. This meant that we couldn’t connect to AC power; no bother, as I have solar panels and a house battery powerful enough for any of our needs. I’m always solving scenarios. I like to plan ahead for contingencies.
We started off with the Tumbled Rock trail, as it is fairly level and features gorgeous views of Devil’s Lake. The hike is less than 3 miles and runs through open areas as well as some that are forested. We finished the hike and returned to the main portion of the park. Devil’s Lake State Park has quite a few amenities, so we ambled to the general store to buy some souvenir tee shirts for the rest of the family. Feeling mildly triumphant, we piled into Violet the campervan and headed out of the park and back to Skillet Creek. A fortunate occurrence presented itself on our right; a local was selling firewood for $5 a bundle. We stopped and picked up two parcels.
The rear cargo door on Violet seemed a bit strange as I opened it. It was almost as if something was stuck in it. I tossed the wood into Violet’s garage and closed the door. However, that felt strange to the point that I reopened the door and shut it again. I shook my head, pulled myself into Violet’s driver’s seat, and drove back to camp.
Once at the campsite, I went to get the wood, but I couldn’t open the rear cargo doors, which was the only way that I could access Violet’s garage. I always bring tools to fix things, but they were also in that space. I grabbed a multi-tool that I kept in her glove box and pried off an access panel on the door. It was clear that the lock’s latch cable had detached. I could diagnose the problem, but despite trying, I couldn’t fix it. I calmed myself and paused for a few minutes to think. Violet’s garage contained a lot of items that we would use on the trip, firewood, lawn chairs, and our extra water, to name a few. However, we could get by without them. “I guess we are having tonight’s hot dogs boiled on the ol’ induction burner instead of roasting them on an open fire,” I chuckled to Will. Our dinner was camper good. Hot dogs, store-bought macaroni salad, and chips. We agreed to reconvene at 8 PM for a movie. I had downloaded Full Metal Jacket from Netflix, which is what Will had requested. The evening ended with the Kubrick classic, and then it was time for bed. Perhaps the door malfunction was the reason that I was intuitively feeling worried. Still, we had worked past this problem, and I continued to feel unsettled.
My sleep was hampered by a light rain that quickly escalated into a major thunderstorm. Violet shell is sheet metal, and every raindrop that hit her roof was amplified tenfold. I started to worry more. I have climbed the ridges around Devil’s Lake many times, and I knew that the quartzite boulders on the path get extremely slick when wet. Eight years ago, I took a tumble on top of the North Ridge during a rainy climb and fell squarely on my right humerus. It took physical therapy, a trip to an orthopedic surgeon, and over a year for the pain to subside. Now older, I rely on my trekking poles to give me more stability when navigating uneven terrain. I remembered that my trekking poles were also in Violet’s locked garage; bad luck. I was starting to feel uncomfortable with our morning’s plans. However, I didn’t want to disappoint Will. I wanted our trip to be a happy memory for him. I wanted him to think that his old man was cool. Would this be the second strike to our father/son adventure?
The rain kept coming down, and my intuitive voice said, “You may get stuck here.” I completely discounted the thought, noting that I had deliberately backed into my spot and was only yards from the camp road. “Violet has front-wheel drive. Stop worrying about silly things,” I said to myself.
Morning broke, and Will started to rouse. After a few minutes, I told him that I needed to talk to him about something. “I don’t think that it is wise for us to climb the ridge today. I hurt myself on that climb in the past because the rocks were wet. How about we make a change in plans? I can take you to my favorite diner in Baraboo, and then we can go to a movie. Do you want to see the new Top Gun, Maverick?” Will responded with a flat “OK.” Logically, I knew that he was waking up and still half-asleep. However, I felt like I was disappointing him. I had planned an exciting guy adventure, and now I was offering Will a movie.
After Will woke up a bit, he helped me break down camp. I continued to yammer about the diner as I slid the key into Violet’s ignition and turned it. I checked the site one last time and pulled the van’s gear selector down and into drive. I slowly eased on the gas. Violet moved forward an inch and then got stuck. I tried to roll back and forth in a slow and deliberate way, but she wasn’t going to budge. I have recovery traction tracks in Violet’s garage, but they were locked behind her malfunctioning rear door. I had planned for a mud emergency, but I couldn’t get the tracks that I needed. It felt like Violet was sabotaging me. I quietly swore to myself as I consciously plastered a confident smile on my face. “It looks like we need some help,” I announced. Three major problems in short order, three strikes…were we out?
We walked back to the campground office, it was closed. I looked for the emergency phone numbers sheet that I saw when we checked in, but it was gone. Compulsive me had snapped a photo of the sheet the night before. I found the image and read off the numbers to Will. “Remember these numbers and repeat them back to me when I’m dialing,” I requested. Will nodded. I punched the digits into my iPhone and hit your green dial icon. The other end of the line picked up, and someone said, “Skillet Creek Campground.” I told the listener my dilemma, and he told me that he had a tow strap and that he would come out and help. Soon he was at our campsite, out of his pickup truck, and stretching out a tow strap from his hitch to Violet’s front bumper. Even with his friendly help, it took some effort to free Violet from the mud. Then we were back on the road heading out. Three misadventures in less than 24 hours. Violet’s back door broke, we had torrential rains that ended our hiking plans, and we had gotten stuck in the mud. Our father/son bonding trip was turning into a sh*t show.
The diner was less than 10 minutes away, and we were fortunate to find a parking spot directly in front of the establishment. Life was looking up. I have eaten at the Broadway Diner many times, but it was a first for William. After a short wait, we were seated in a back room booth. The first order of business was coffee. Our cheerful waitress was happy to comply, and the hot beverage elevated our mood. I really like the Broadway as it serves a traditional diner-type menu cooked with perfection. William ordered a breakfast combo, and I got chicken fried steak with eggs. Both portions were enormous and could potentially evoke a heart attack for anyone with a cholesterol count above 100. However, being campers, we savored every bite. Our conversations continued as we ate.
Adult children are a wonderful thing. At times you hear yourself in their thoughts, and at other times their opinions are completely contrary to yours. Will is intelligent and thoughtful, and having a conversation with him is both enjoyable and informative.
Will asked, “Dad, how would you feel if we saw a different movie?” I said, “What did you have in mind?” “Everything, Everywhere All At Once,” he offered. “I never heard of that movie,” I said. “One of my Twitter followers suggested it,” he said. “Do you have Twitter followers?” “Yes, I have quite a following,” he said. “Oh, I want to follow you,” I said enthusiastically. “Dad, we have to keep our boundaries,” Will retorted. ….Skunked again.
We found a theater in Madison that had an early afternoon viewing time for the movie. Madison was about 45 minutes away, but it was on the way home. As we piled into Violet, Will offered to get me a Coke Zero from Violet’s fridge. “Thanks,” I said as I took a sip of the cold syrupy beverage. I started her engine, plugged the theater’s address into my phone’s GPS, and pulled out. Our adventure continued.
On the way, William shared with me several Spotify playlists of Blues music. He had separated them into different categories like Mississippi Blues and Electric Blues. Will has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and he was even able to describe the original album art to me. A Muddy Waters song started to play, and Will asked me, “Have you ever heard of Muddy Waters?” I said, “Not only have I heard of him, I saw him in concert.” Score one coolness point for dad!
We both enjoyed the movie, which was a comedy with a message. Its slapstick elements had me laughing out loud, but it was its message that impacted me the most. The movie centers on an Asian immigrant family that owns a laundromat. The mother gave up her family in China to marry her husband and move to America. She is a tiger mom, overly critical of her only daughter, and very dissatisfied with both her easy-going husband and her life.
Improbably, it is determined that she is the chosen one to save the multiverse (based on the real theory that there are an infinite number of parallel universes). She is given the ability to travel to her alternative lives. In some, she is rich and famous; in others, she is highly accomplished. All seem better than her current dull life with her financial woes, passive husband, and unsuccessful daughter. If she wished, she could switch to any of these lives, but she would have to give up what she currently has. Eventually, she realizes that she wants to stay in her own universe. It is far from perfect, but she accepts that life isn’t supposed to be perfect. She knows that there are things that she can do to make her life better, and she starts to understand that she has many good things in her life that she had previously taken for granted. We left the movie feeling lighter from all of our laughter. We felt just a tiny bit wiser. Our conversations continued as we drove into Illinois, past Rockford, and finally into Naperville.
A father and a son, two adults with similar yet different viewpoints and interests. Mike and Will driving down the highway while having both deep and silly conversations. Onward we traveled, wholly satisfied with our modified adventure, arriving home a bit early but happy. I turned to Will and flashed him a genuine smile. This is our universe, and I’m happy that we are in it. He nodded.
We are messing up our earth; there is absolutely no doubt that this is true. From microplastic contamination to the planet’s warming, human contributions are the leading causes of discretionary destruction. To think otherwise is delusional.
The industrial revolution made expensive things inexpensive. For example, the invention of the power loom made cloth affordable, leading to less expensive clothing. However, the industrial revolution’s driving forces were expansion and profit, not human safety or environmental health. Initially, individual workers were sacrificed for growth, but now the entire planet is offered up.
Today, I’m writing about ecological misinformation and the practice of greenwashing, which is a marketing ploy used to sell products by making some things seem wrong for the planet, and others appear eco-friendly. Greenwashing is accomplished by manipulating facts and distorting the truth.
As consumers have been taught that utility devices like mobile phones and cars are status symbols that need to be regularly updated. We have been programmed that old is bad. Watch a home improvement show to witness how perfectly functional kitchens or baths are demolished and replaced. Do you have a stunning granite countertop? That’s old school, landfill it and buy a quartz one! Why? Because some guy on HGTV told you it was the thing to do.
At the same time, we are told false facts, making it difficult to sort through what is real and what is not. For example, there is no link between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s disease, and Teflon is entirely inert when used in standard cooking scenarios. Additionally, the main detergents in regular dish soaps are biodegradable. Yet, if you ask most people, they would say the opposite. So why are these falsehoods promulgated? Sometimes this is due to the illusory truth effect, and at other times false facts encourage consumers to replace their pots and pans or buy expensive eco-friendly products.
Are you aware that you would need to use a reusable cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use plastic one? That number is a conservative estimate as some studies report that you would need to use the cotton bag 7000 times! I’m not supporting single-use plastic products; I’m illustrating that what appears to be simple on the surface can be much more complex when scrutinizing a claim.
Do you feel that you are helping the environment by driving an electric vehicle (EV)? You are, but the facts are more complicated than you may think. Due to their large lithium batteries, the manufacturing of an EV has a considerably larger environmental footprint than a gas-powered vehicle. In addition, most of the electricity in the US is produced by burning fossil fuels (61%), which creates greenhouse gasses. Over the car’s life, an EV will eventually have a lower environmental impact than a gas-run vehicle. However, the crossover point is at the 50,000-100,000 mile range. If you buy an EV with extended-range batteries, it will take longer for this crossover to occur. Due to this, some experts believe that hybrid vehicles may be better for the environment than full EVs.
How about food waste? Who wants to spend time and mess dealing with a composting bin when you can buy the $500 Lumi, a tabletop machine that can compost your food waste in 24 hours! That is amazing. It almost sounds too good to be true… well, because it is. Lumi claims that it uses groundbreaking technology, but multiple other devices have done the same thing in the past (the Zera, the Cloey, and the Tero, to name three). Does Lumi turn food waste and recyclable plastics into compost? NO. Lomi is a gadget that dehydrates and chops up bio waste into a pre-compostable material. So what do you do with that dried stuff? You can put it into your composting bin and turn it into dirt just like you would with any other composting waste, or you can throw it into the garbage just like you would toss out your other regular garbage.
It takes carbon-producing energy to make the plastic Lumi, and it takes greenhouse gas-producing electricity to run it. The pre-compostable material is just dried out regular bio-waste. The composting process will likely be slower than expected since the bacteria and critters that do the actual composting need water for their biological processes, which Lumi removes. Lumi is a garbage volume reduction system, basically a greenwashed garbage compactor. Slick commercials can’t change that reality. However, you can buy one and pat yourself on the back that you are at least thinking about doing something good.
Recycling is better than tossing items into a landfill. First, however, you have to make sure that you are recycling correctly. Items like paper and aluminum can be effectively recycled. Many communities have pickup programs, but it is critical to follow their recycling guidelines. Wrong items can contaminate and plug up the recycling system. For example, paper is a good candidate for recycling, but greasy cardboard pizza boxes are not.
In the 1980s, the plastic industry created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, which lobbied for recycling options to avoid anti-plastic laws proposed in the1970s. This council was a PR effort as the plastic industry knew then (as it does now) that plastics cannot be effectively and efficiently recycled. Those little icons on the bottom of plastic containers are cute, but they don’t mean much. Imagine if anti-plastic legislation had been passed in the 1970s; perhaps we wouldn’t have state-sized islands of plastic garbage floating in our oceans.
When I decided to write this post, I thought it would be a reasonably straightforward process to research better products and practices for the environment. I was wrong. But why is this? Companies’ efforts to increase sales and stockholders’ demands for immediate profits have turned environmental consciousness into yet another marketing strategy. It doesn’t make any difference if a product is kinder to the environment; it is more important to make the consumer think that it is. This is accomplished in various ways, from using the color green on the packaging to adding buzzwords like “eco-friendly” to placing badges and stickers on products that proclaim meaningless or unsubstantiated facts. For instance, many products that formally contain the ozone-damaging chemicals CFSs now proudly proclaim that they are CFS-free on their labels. However, The use of CFCs is illegal in over 190 countries, including the US. This badging may make consumers think that a product is environmentally conscious, but such labeling is simply a marketing ploy.
Nestle is one of the world’s largest corporations and is an excellent example of how companies place profit over people. In the 1980s, Nestle heavily advertised their baby formulas in poor African nations, suggesting that they were better than mother’s milk by using extremely deceptive practices. African moms wanted what was best for their kids, but they couldn’t afford the expensive formula, so they diluted it. The result was malnutrition and the death of infants. These practices are now banned in many countries, but Nestle continues to utilize them in places that lack good legislation.
Nestle is also one of the leading manufacturers of single-use water bottles and other single-use plastic containers. We are all aware of the horrific and unnecessary environmental impact that these products pose. Nestle responded to increased consumer awareness by promoting recycling programs for plastics. However, this was a solution in advertising name only and has allowed Nestle to continue to sell these items. During a coastline cleanup in Malaysia, much of the plastic garbage on beaches was from Nestle companies. Let’s not forget that Nestle frequently uses resources in poor areas to their advantage. They can buy a tanker of municipal water for next to nothing, repackage it in plastic bottles and sell it at a 35% profit. The consumer gets to buy something that they could have gotten for free.
Nestle bought Nespresso, a coffee pod brewing system languishing far behind the Keurig brand. So Nestle launched an ad campaign for Nespresso, touting that its aluminum pods were more recyclable than the plastic Keurig capsules. They also announced that they had their own recycling centers to process the pods. Based on these claims, sales of the Nespresso soared. But were these efforts advertising hype or genuine concern for the environment? Only 5% of Nespresso pods are recycled, which means that 95% are not.
We are encouraged to use eco-friendly cleaning products with trendy names like Method, Mrs. Meyers, and Seventh Generation. But unfortunately, these brands are owned by giant corporations like Unilever and SC Johnson, companies that make the traditional consumer cleaning products that most use. In addition, these green products may have similar ingredients to non-green one. Sometimes, a brand may emphasize eliminating one group of chemicals, like phosphates, which have been banned in all home detergents since1993, while de-emphasizing the inclusion of other ingredients that environmentalists may consider suspect.
I watched one reputable reviewer who noted that she preferred Method dish soap to some of the other environmentally friendly brands because it cleaned just like regular dish soap. Why is that? Because its main cleaning ingredient is the detergent SLS, just like good ol’ Dawn. In addition, green cleaning products are typically packaged in small plastic containers. Multiple small containers use more plastic than larger single-volume vessels. Unfortunately, good advertising and pleasant fragrances make us imagine that these products are better, and we are duped into paying a premium price for that belief.
You may be buying organic foods because you don’t want to contaminate the environment with dangerous pesticides, but what about the fact that your purchase may have been transported thousands of miles on trucks that use diesel fuel while being packaged in plastic to preserve its freshness?
How about buying products only from environmentally ethical companies? Some companies pledge to be environmentally responsible but then subcontract their work to outside factories that are not.
Even the use of natural and sustainable fabrics can be environmentally damaging. For example, Argentina is one of the world’s largest wool producers; its wool industry uses non-indigenous sheep whose harder hoofs severely damage fields, destroying rich grasslands.
Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft were touted as ways to reduce car emissions. Still, the opposite happened as their drivers do a lot of random cruising between contracted rides.
It is almost impossible to determine the overall impact that a product causes on the environment due to the deception and misleading information that consumers are given.
Let’s look at some actual things that can be done to help the planet.
We can demand more from our legislators.
Many hate big government, but it is essential to remember that we have a government for a reason. When I was growing up in the 1960s, polluted rivers caught on fire, lakes died due to acid rains, and poorly regulated practices created ecological disasters like the Love Canal tragedy. As a result, laws were instituted at both local and national levels, and these regulations had a significant and positive impact on the environment.
I remember the Senate hearings where CEOs from major tobacco companies stated under oath that cigarette smoking was not damaging to health. This was a bald-faced lie, as these individuals had long known that tobacco was addictive and dangerous. Nevertheless, the tobacco industry was interested in selling more cigarettes. Yes, smokers would die early, but there were always those kids who they could capture as future smokers. Do you remember Joe Camel, a phallic-like cartoon camel designed to encourage boys to start their addiction early? If it were up to industry, we all would be smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
In the 1950s, about 54% of the US population smoked; currently, that number is around 16%. Much of this change is due to legislation and the incorporation of education, investment in stop smoking treatments, and the institution of high cigarette taxes. Sometimes we need big government to protect us from big industries.
However, some legislation can be ridiculous, case in point is those California cancer warning labels on just about everything. They are so generalized and ubiquitous that they have lost any meaning.
Since companies use greenwashing to increase their bottom line, consumers need governmental regulations and standards that define the environmental impact that a product poses.
If we can’t trust product labels, product claims, or commonly accepted facts, what can we currently do to slow down our planet’s destruction?
We can be thoughtful
The more we unnecessarily use a resource, the more we negatively damage our environment. Leaving lights on, watering the grass when unnecessary, doing partial loads of laundry, running a half-full dishwasher, keeping our thermostat settings hotter or colder than necessary… The list goes on. Did you know that many intelligent electronics, like TV sets, use almost as much electricity when off as when on? Some subvert this process by unplugging infrequently used devices when not in use.
Imagine the reduction in electric power needed if every household raised their AC temperature by a few degrees and turned off the lights in empty rooms. If you have several errands to run, can you combine them in a single trip? Can you walk or bike somewhere instead of driving? Can you substitute environmentally friendly activities for some of your ecologically damaging ones? Small changes amplified over thousands of users can have a significant effect. The key is to develop a plan that you can reasonably follow and then stick with that plan.
We can recycle stuff.
Recycling has been around for quite some time, and some items like aluminum and paper can be recycled reasonably effectively. However, recycled items need to be adequately prepared to be recycled. If your community has a recycling program, check its website for guidelines for preparation and separation. For instance, items must be cleaned before being recycled in many cases. In other cases, recyclables have to be separated into categories. Even if your community has a plastic recycling program, despite what you may think, plastic items are not generally recyclable. Therefore, limiting your plastic use is better than recycling plastics that will likely go into a landfill or the ocean. For more information on this topic, see this link.
We can avoid all or none thinking.
It is fun to get pumped up about things, and it is easy to come up with elaborate plans. For example, “I will exercise at the gym for 90 minutes every day,” or “I will become a zero-waste consumer.” Yes, these ideas are great, but they only are helpful if you do them. It is common to come up with a complicated or elaborate plan, and when it fails, it is then easy to abandon everything and go back to business as usual. A much better approach is to develop a plan that you feel that you can do. Can you can advance that plan further? Great. If not, you are still doing more than what you did before. Assess your plan every week, and write it down; adjust as needed. Any action is better than no action. Remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We can use things longer.
A lot of energy goes into manufacturing things, and that energy use results in the production of greenhouse gasses and toxic waste. When Julie was studying for her Ph.D., one of her professors reused his brown lunch bag until it was no longer usable. He could use a bag for a week or two. In other words, he was using a single bag when others would use 5-10 bags. This was a simple act that didn’t have a single negative effect on him, but it had a small positive impact on the environment.
My daughter uses a reusable sandwich container instead of plastic baggies for her lunches. I brought my meals to work in a soft-sided reusable lunch bag when I was employed. When my bag got grimy, I tossed it into the washer with other items, allowing me to use the same bag for years. Reusable sandwich containers and lunch bags have a larger carbon footprint to manufacture than single-use items, so the key is to use them for as long as possible.
Buy well-made things. Items don’t have to be the most expensive, but they need to be of sound construction. High use items like coats can last for many years if they are well-made. Avoid fast fashion and consider a capsule wardrobe. Fast fashion items are designed to be worn a few times and discarded; think of the horrific environmental pollution every time a throw-away piece is manufactured and then tossed into a landfill. A capsule wardrobe allows the wearer to have a minimum of clothes and still look presentable. Fewer clothes mean less is manufactured, leading to a minor environmental impact.
I mentioned that you have to use a cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use bag. I’m not promoting the use of single-use plastic bags. Instead, I’m urging that reusable bags be reused repeatedly. Surprisingly, reusable plastic bags may have a less environmental impact than cotton bags. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) need to be used only 2 and 22 times to beat out single-use plastic bags. In addition, natural bags made out of material like hemp are more environmentally friendly than cotton bags. It is best to buy high-quality bags, as the longer you use them, the lower their environmental impact. Sadly, those who opt for reusable grocery bags forget them 40% of the time. As another aside, the manufacturing of paper grocery bags has a considerably more negative impact on the environment than single-use plastic bags. However, paper bags are biodegradable, whereas plastic ones are not. It is all so complicated.
Consider the environment when deciding to upgrade anything. Is that kitchen remodel needed? Do you have to buy a new car? Anything that you continue to use is one less thing that must be manufactured and one less thing polluting a landfill.
We can use less.
Apply this philosophy to all things, and you will be helping both the environment and your pocketbook.
I have previously written posts on how I have simplified the use of our household chemicals. I buy one bottle of an all-purpose cleaner which I dilute 1:32 into a reusable spray bottle. For good measure, I add a drop or two of dish detergent before filling the rest of the container with water. I use this concoction to clean countertops, tables, the inside of the microwave and fridge, and just about anything with a surface. I have used the same high-quality plastic spray bottle for years, and a single bottle of all-purpose cleaner lasts a very long time.
It would be challenging to give up paper towels completely, but I use reusable towels for about 60-70% of my cleanups. In addition, I make an effort to print less, and I try to store more documents electronically.
Solid hygiene products are similar to liquid ones, minus the water. For example, a soap bar lasts about as long as a bottle of shower gel. However, a soap bar doesn’t have a plastic bottle that needs to be discarded in a landfill. Sold bars of shampoo and conditioner are well-liked by consumers. Likewise, you can buy laundry detergent sheets that eliminate throwing massive empty plastic jugs into the garbage.
Your dishwasher uses the same amount of water and energy if you wash one cup or a full load. Please make an effort to run your dishwasher less by filling it first. The same logic can be applied to laundry. Do full loads of laundry instead of washing piecemeal. Do you live in a sunny area? Consider purchasing a solar dryer, also called a clothesline.
Do you have a white-collar life? Consider wearing certain clothing items more than one time before you wash them. For example, I wash my jeans when they are dirty, not every time I take them off.
On average, Americans throw out 30-40% of the food they purchase. Arid areas in the Southwest have been irrigated for decades and have become the nation’s breadbasket. Water is a limited resource in these places, and agriculture uses more water than any other user. Most farms are run by corporations, and crops are cultivated using gigantic fuel-burning machines. Foods are then processed in huge energy-consuming plants and shipped across the country, sometimes in refrigerated cars. Think of the greenhouse gasses created and the chemicals used for all of these processes. If every citizen eliminated food waste, we could significantly reduce these hazards.
The bottom line
As I researched this topic, I became acutely aware that it is impossible to evaluate how green something is. I came to understand that many companies emphasize their commitment to the environment as a marketing ploy rather than a concern for our future. Sadly, you can’t trust what manufacturers, web pages, or YouTube influencers tell you.
Even if you are an educated consumer, it can be impossible to understand the environmental impact of a product. Labels can be deceptive, and companies that promote one aspect of being ecologically responsible may be using that fact as a red herring to disguise the other environmentally damaging things that they are doing.
However, by using the suggestions listed above, you can have a tangible personal impact on the environment. Naturally, an individual’s influence is small, but one’s efforts are magnified when combined with others. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and being more environmentally friendly starts with a single action.