Thursday, April 30, 2009

Restaurants Offer a New Kind of (Greener) Bottled Water

When Americans dine out we typically want to have a special experience, indulging in food and drink that we wouldn’t enjoy at home. We’ll order a pricey bottle of a mighty cab that we might never buy at the wine store or we might order a chocolate soufflé knowing full well that we’ll never make such a dessert in our own kitchen.

And so it makes sense that many of us find the concept of purified—instead of bottled water—difficult to swallow.

While a growing number of restaurants across the country are beginning to serve purified water, eschewing the bottled stuff that eats up massive amounts of fossil fuel getting here from exotic spots such as Italy or Fiji, many Americans continue to be hoodwinked by the perceived status and purity of bottled water, oftentimes leaving facts and the health of the environment to swirl down the drain.

In Chicago, green restaurateur Shawn McClain and his trio of restaurants, including Green Zebra and its exquisite vegetarian dishes and Spring’s evolved fare, stopped stocking bottled water and began offering Natura, an Italian based water purification system. While Natura’s process improves the flavor and purity of water, many diners scoff at paying extra for H20 that doesn’t come in a disposable bottle—regardless of whether it tastes any better or is more pure.

But the fact is that the purifier and others like it often creates water that’s more pure and refreshing than that found in a sealed bottle. Natura’s system involves active carbon filters and a UV radiation chamber which remove bacteria and eliminates impurities and offers the final refreshing dose of water in a dishwasher safe, reusable bottle. In essence, diners get the look and feel of bottled water without the environmental cost. And there’s plenty of research sprinkled across the Internet that shows that tap water bests many bottled waters when it comes to flavor and quality—even New York City tap water.

It’s a given that our bottled water habit is wreaking environmental devastation. Walk along a city street—or a beach nearly anywhere—and you’re likely to see an improperly disposed bottle of water washing ashore. And the bottle you’re likely to see is merely one of billions per year that we Americans empty and toss aside in a year.

Worldwide some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year, and much of this ends up in landfills, sluicing along inland waterways, rolling across intersections or bobbing in the Texas-sized island of misfit plastic waste bobbing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Ordering locally produced and purified water makes perfect green sense. In fact, if we’re more serious about addressing the critical environmental issues raised by our consumption of bottled water, we would be willing to pay extra for such water, much as we do for organic produce.

Ordering purified water in restaurants is a good first step toward breaking the bottled water habit, demonstrating that it’s neither trendy nor smart to order bottled water.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This St. Patrick’s Day, A Greener Ireland Awaits Leprechauns (and Tourists)

These days, Ireland is becoming known for more than simply verdant hills, green beer and leprechauns. In fact, the country has recently grown quite serious about becoming an eco-friendly destination for tourists. Renowned for its emerald-hued natural beauty which attracts flocks of tourists, Ireland is transforming itself into a country that is quickly becoming as environmentally green as its renowned, lush countryside.

The Irish government is aware that approximately 80% of tourists to Ireland feel that the country’s pristine environment and scenic landscapes are a “ very important ” factor in their choice of Ireland as a holiday destination, making its efforts to offer greener tourism options all the more important.

For those tempted to pursue a green visit to the Emerald Isle, the country’s tourism organizations make it easy.

When most tourists think of Ireland, thoughts turn to quaint inns and hotels. The good news is that there are a growing number of green options in this very fetching category. To encourage hotels to go green, the country offers Green Hospitality Awards. In 2008, 81 out of the island nation’s 960 hotels were honored with one of the new, but already coveted awards.

Many of these are featured on Greenbox, Ireland’s eco-tourism website. The country also participates in the European Union’s green hotel certification program, the EU Flower Eco-Label. Though the initiative is new, Ireland already boasts eighteen accommodations that have earned the label.

For a stay in a classic Georgian manor home, travelers can book a room at the Necarne Manor. With rolling lawns, woods and gardens and an equestrian center, the Gothic Revival estate is as beautiful as it is green. Guests can bike along a nearby trail to a nearby nature reserve and the inn uses organic, fair trade and locally-produced food, even sourcing compost from the on-site stables.

Those yearning for something edgier can try the yurt-inspired Gyreum Eco-Lodge which might best be described as über-green in an Al Gore-on-steroids kind of way. Wind turbines power geothermal heating, solar panels provide hot water, traditional toilets connect to a reed bed, and there’s even an outside compost toilet. Rain from the enormous roof is collected and used for showers and toilets.

For a green tour of Ireland’s, well, greenery, book with Ireland Eco Tours which visits well and lesser-known sites, all from the comfort of a vegetable oil-powered bus.

Even Dublin’s charming lanes and streets are turning green. Completely novel and yet to hit the roads in the U.S., Ecocabs offer Dublin residents and tourists a green alternative to traditional taxis. A fleet of modern passenger tricycles operating a free shuttle service daily from April 1st-December 31st, Ecocabs promote fitness while reducing noise, congestion and carbon emissions.

Failte, the Irish tourism agency, is so committed to greening that it has added an environment section to its web site. The section includes an environmental action plan and carbon strategy. The agency is currently working on environmental standards for conference centers and golf courses and has already reviewed environmental practices in the tourism sector. Talk about your transparent government, a copy of the report with recommendations is on its website.

But it’s not just leprechauns and tourist agencies that are green in Ireland—the Irish are pursuing as many green initiatives for their own benefit. May 22-24 is the annual National Greener Ireland fair which includes information on carbon footprint reduction, energy preservation, and organic produce.

On a grander scale, Sustainable Energy Ireland is a one-stop source for information about grants, saving energy, education, and business approaches to adopting a sustainable energy approach.

According to the Irish tourist agency, “The future of Irish tourism is inextricably linked to the quality of the environment. [The] scenic landscapes, coastline, rivers and lakes and cultural heritage are the bedrock upon which Irish tourism has been built.”

The efforts of the Irish to ensure their environment and tourism thrive are more than mere blarney. While the existence of leprechauns might be debated, the efforts of the Irish to go green are as real as the green hills of Ireland itself.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Will You Be My Eco-Chocolate Valentine?

For fans of chocolate, this approaching Valentine’s Day offers an ideal excuse to purchase a seasonal box of chocolates or to savor something special made with chocolate, that magical elixir the Aztecs prized as much as gold.

But chocolate might prompt heartburn if a person knew the damage it can do to the environment and how workers—including children—are often exploited in its production. In addition to promoting deforestation, commercial chocolate production often involves the use of pesticides, this in one of the world’s most life-abundant and diverse regions. Of course, using pesticides harms much of that life, causing considerable damage.

Maybe we don’t get warm and fuzzy feelings about saving all the creeping, flying and crawling bugs that abound in warm places, but if we thought about all the animals that rely on them for food, such as neon colored birds, monkeys, or even the aardvark, we might opt for organic or sustainably-grown chocolate.

Thankfully, as with so many food products these days, there are plenty of small-scale and artisan producers creating culinary works of art that offer a tantalizing array of flavors and combinations, while ensuring that workers and the earth aren’t exploited.

Herewith a sampling of earth-friendly edible gems that will warm your, er, heart:

Perhaps the greenest chocolate company in the States, haute chocolate creator Vosges, with boutiques in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas, uses 100% renewable energy—and that’s just for starters. From earth-friendly packaging to green shipping, the company takes seriously its commitment to the environment—and that’s even before it’s fired up the stove and begun crafting its prized confections.

It’s not everywhere a chocolate-hound can find organic peanut butter bonbons or Italian-inspired chocolates mixed with taleggio cheese or fennel pollen. To view the Vosges green policy, click here. Better yet, whether whimsical, hyper-creative creations for the new millennium or more traditional fare, click here to actually order the delectable stuff.

North of the Second City, Madison, Wisconsin, surrounded by scads of organic farms, boasts exalted chocolatier Gail Ambrosius and her luscious creations, including a dark chocolate salted caramel, raspberry truffle, and rose truffle, all featured at Chicago’s Eno, a wine, cheese and chocolate bar.

Ambrosius just returned from a trip to Costa Rica where she visited a 100% organic, fair trade chocolate farm. After tasting the chocolate, which possessed a fetching fruitiness, the confectioner brought back as much of the stuff as she could carry. And talk about your fresh: her latest batch was literally on the tree a week before she brought it home.

Acclaimed Terry’s Toffee protects the environment by offering Valentine’s toffee in beautiful, eminently reusable lacquer and fetching, sturdy hat-boxes. Handcrafted using traditional methods and quality ingredients, this delectable, buttery treat has been a favorite at the Academy Awards.

For those preferring their chocolate in liquid form, BREADBAR in Los Angeles offers a bowl of steamed hot organic chocolate, made using Master Chocolatier Patricia Tsai’s organic, single-estate cocoa beans. A second, seasonal enticement offers several slices of Cocoa Goji Berry Bread, Organic Hot Chocolate and a Chocolate spread.

A bit further north, San Luis Obispo’s Sweet Earth Chocolates views the environment and chocolate-making in much the same way as Vosges. The company provides ammunition for would-be cupids by offering a Vegan Heart Box containing chocolate hearts with peanut butter, vanilla caramel and chocolate caramel centers. Traditional heart-shaped boxes and a variety of other Valentine creations fly out of the fragrant kitchens of this über Earth-friendly company.

Finally, for those fortunate enough to live in New York City, Spoon’s decadent chocolate cake can be personalized and delivered to your Valentine’s Gotham City lair. Click here to see Spoon’s chocolate cake.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Green Destination: Honduran Farm Recycled into Tranquil Eco-Inn

When Flavia Cueva returned to her family home outside petite Copan, Honduras, she was inspired. After having spent most of her life in the American Midwest, Cueva felt compelled to return to restore the decayed farmstead. Overlooking the ruins of an ancient Mayan city, the ideally situated farm seemed the perfect spot to create a small inn.

Seeking to respect the natural world surrounding the farm, Cueva labored to create an eco-friendly inn, one that would be as comfortable and charming as earth-friendly. Hacienda San Lucas is now an eight-room, idyllic inn nestled in the bucolic, emerald green hills of the Honduran countryside. In addition to being 80% solar powered, the inn has been involved in reforestation efforts and recycles and composts. At night, candles light the large rooms and pathways—all of which are constructed of locally-obtained, natural materials.

Evenings are as charm-filled as mornings are mellow. Dinners at the inn are magical (think candlelight, a cricket serenade and twinkling stars). Set on a patio and illuminated by the warm glow of candles, the Mayan-inspired, multi-course meals offer a chance to chat up other guests or to simply savor the balmy night air.

The antithesis of bland chain hotels, San Lucas seems to have popped off the pages of a book by Isabell Allende or Graham Greene. With its wide verandas slung with hammocks, rock-hewn walls and tranquil, otherworldly air, the inn is an ideal spot to get off the grid—literally and figuratively.

A four-hour bus trip from Guatemala City, the green inn offers comfortable, charming accommodations in a remote setting. To tour the nearby ruins, Cueva will arrange for a guide to pick up and drop off guests. One of the most impressive Mayan ruins, Copan offers temples, ball courts, sculptures and every 13-year-old boy’s favorite: a perfectly-preserved sacrificial altar.

If the greenery and relaxed air of the inn overwhelm, a nearby yoga pavilion boasting a Parthenon-like perch above the ruins and river provides the perfect spot for a memorable workout.

As long as Old Man Winter casts his chilly shadow across much of the upper hemisphere, housebound northerners will set their sights on warmer climes. In Honduras as in much of Central America, the oppressive heat of summer is replaced by winter’s warm days and comfortable nights: the perfect tonic for sun-starved North Americans.

As green as the forested, emerald-hued hills in which it sits, Hacienda San Lucas offers comfort and respite from Old Man Winter, while taking it easy on Mother Nature. You can visit their website here or email them at
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