Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How green can you go?

Treading lighter on this singular planet of ours is a personal challenge of mine. While I am doing things that I had never conceived of before (e.g., bringing my own towel to work to dry my hands), I am looking for the next step to take. One of my most problematic areas is petroleum consumption. For me, this is more than just the gasoline in my car and the natural gas heating my home and my water; it includes all the plastic holding and wrapping my food. Learning ways to reduce my consumption is important to me, but this is a difficult thing in our oil-based society. (Challenge: think of one thing not touched by oil or oil-based products. Hint: clothing is not one of them.)

What about if you are just getting started? You would like to live greener, but do not know where to get started. There are many posts out there that give you hints, usually along the lines of:
  • Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth.

  • Change your incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents.

  • Wash your laundry in cold water.

  • Turn down your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Take showers rather than baths.

  • Insulate your water heater and your exterior electrical outlets.

These are easy things, the low-hanging fruit as many people say. However, I am not sure how many people really do these naughty things like let the water run while brushing teeth. This was never advice I had to take because my mom told me run the water only when I needed to wet the toothbrush, rinse the toothbrush and fill the cup to rinse my mouth.

The greatest advice that few people really emphasize is reduce the amount you use. This may be as simple as using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush rather than the inch suggested by the toothpaste manufacturer or as large as letting your car sit in the garage at least one day a week. If you usually take the car out every day of the week and sometimes multiple times a day to run errands, driving less has a greater effect than changing light bulbs (but CFLs help too).

Generate less garbage by using handkerchiefs, towels and napkins rather than using the disposable paper equivalents. Start composting rather than throwing away food. Think about not only the food but how it is packaged. Buying food with fewer wrappings and boxes means less to throw away or recycle.

Get at your ick factor. I am sure that the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" philosophy would not go down well in some households. Challenge yourself to try it anyway. How about cloth wipes rather than paper? For some people, that is too much, but urine is not dangerous and in fact, makes a great fertilizer. Just use cloth for urine wiping only and see how you like it. If I have offended your sensibilities, purchase toilet paper with the highest post-consumer recycled paper content you can find. Fewer trees will be cut down to wipe your bum.

Go old fashioned. Whether you use a drying rack or a clothesline, hang out your cold-wash-and-rinse laundry. If you mow your lawn, try a reel mower powered by human rather than gasoline or electric engine. I hear it is great exercise and nearly noiseless. Collect rain water and use it to wash your hair (so says my grandmother) or water the new shade trees you planted around the house. Shade is great for keeping the house cool in the summer. Bonus points for planting trees that produce something edible.

Get dirty. Who says you need a lawn? Go native (the naked part is optional) and use plants adapted to the area you are in. Generally, this means lower maintenance and less demand on water. Put in edibles. Be rebellious and put asparagus, beans and rhubarb on your front lawn. Personally, I think okra plants have gorgeous blossoms. Edible does not have to mean ugly. Put in herbs along the sidewalk and people might come from miles around just to walk past your house (and maybe take a sprig or two of basil, oregano and spearmint).

Try a greener item or idea that makes you a bit uncomfortable. You might find you like it. How do you know if you never try it? By extending your reach, you learn what you are capable of accomplishing as well as learning your limits. My colleague may have me beat in petroleum consumption with his constant bicycle usage, but I win in the nondisposable department (go cloth!)

Lest you think I left the frugal part behind--I bet you save money as well. See what trying something new will do for the planet and your bottom line.

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