Thursday, June 12, 2008

Environmental Audit: What I've Done Lately for the Planet

Reading through The Huffington Post's new Green Guide and was struck by how much interesting green news there is and also how much of it is the same. But it also had me thinking about what I do to save the environment, which sounds rather noble and shouldn't. In fact, it should be as standard as cooking meals or vacuuming or all those other things that are sometimes chores and sometimes fun to do. So, here are the practical steps I actually follow (most of the time and to some extent) to save the environment.

  • Recycling. Never did it until I moved to Madison where it's mandatory. As in, you can receive a ticket if they (somehow) discover you're not doing it. Which means that even the college kids I live around recycle without thinking about it. I'd rather taken for granted tossing the toilet paper roll into the recycling bag (which is itself a paper grocery bag) until I was in Chicago to see the new baby and had to throw away the toilet paper a hotel. There was no recycling to be seen in the entire hotel or the city. And yet it's so easy here in Madison. What do we do? Every house has a different colored garbage can for recyclables and we put it on the curb on a certain day. The city's recycling gurus looks for what people will buy (unfortunately, they've had to stop recycling dairy cups b/c no one will buy it) and then collects it, processes it, and sells it. Simple as that. Can  your city do that?
  • Driving. We don't consciously watch our driving because we average about 250 miles a month. We do that by living within a mile of where I 'work,' having access to great public transportation (the bus outside our house is a block away and runs a few times an hour -- for those times when a mile when it's -37 outside.), telecommuting for Nate (though the plane trips to NYC every once in awhile probably negate all our driving improvements...), and living in a smaller town. It's nice to have choice as to when we get in the car and when we don't. I can drive every day or avoid it for a week. In fact, I've been driving every other day or so and I realized the other day I'm tired of being in a car! We even took the bus down to Chicago last time because it's far easier and just as affordable when you factor in gas. When you add parking, it's even cheaper. 
  • Materialism. I'm really starting to think about the impact of all our buying. Looking for better quality (so I replace it less frequently) and think carefully about how what I buy fits in with the overall scheme I have -- whether it's clothing or house decorating. Because while styles are tweaked, we rarely have the desire to go out and completely revamp a wardrobe. A little here and a little there -- so if I start with good stuff, then I need less in the long run. What I buy becomes a choice and not a necessity (i.e. holes in clothes, cats destroying slipcovers, etc.).
  • Organic and local. I've tried to avoid the bandwagon that asserts only local ingredients; even in the summer, it's not practical. Well, if I went to a dozen farms. The farmer's market tends to have the same stuff at most stalls. For instance, yesterday I bought: tomatoes, salad greens, spinach, flowers, ramps and green onions. I could also get asparagus and a few random other things, but that's about all that the mile long farmer's market has. The sad part is I knew exactly what I could get and bought the rest at Whole Foods earlier in the week; I should have more to buy at the farmer's market! We need a bit more diversity. I'm starting to buy organic whenever there's a choice and I do look to see where things are packaged and choose closer -- when there's a choice. Clothing has proven too expensive to do organic with, but I think that will change in the next 3-5 years. I'm also starting to shop at antique stores and thrift shops because there's always something neat and useful. And reusing is as important as recycling. We're even feeding organic cat food to the adorable ones.
  • Eating. I still eat meat, but much more rarely. And haven't really touched red meat in ages. Mainly because thinking about factory farming, red meat is the worst and chicken the least heinous so if I am out and feel like meat, I eat chicken or turkey or fish. But even that is more meat than I often want to eat. I'm consciously looking for vegetarian items, realizing that since restaurants offer so few veggie choices I'm voting for a more diverse menu by choosing that diversity -- and hoping that people will start realizing that the vegetarian options are usually delicious. Flexitarianism is what I'm doing, apparently. The impact of reducing the amount of meat in our diets even by 20% a week is astounding -- more than driving less in fact. 
  • Cleaning. For most stuff, except mildew really, I use all natural cleaners. I'm a huge fan of Seventh Generation as I think their philosophy is intriguing and their products are the best all natural stuff out there. I just recently started using loofah sponges from Twist and I love how they clean, but they fall apart too easily. Clorox is even jumping into the green movement by creating green cleaning products and the one we use is pretty snazzy. We get rid of our cat litter by using biodegradable plastic bags that are actually for dogs, but ought to be marketed to cat owners too. They're great!
  • Gift Giving. I try to give gifts that reflect the values I believe in. So if I can find something neat at an antique store, I'll get it. More frequently, I've started looking at local stores and try to find something cute. Of the recent gifts we've purchased, all five of them have come from a local store and three of the five have been antique stores. Also trying to buy organic stuff since if you're buying a gift, you want to give quality. But what I've noticed is we're giving more creative gifts and hopefully encouraging new interests.
  • Traveling. There are very few ways to make this eco-friendly, but I do look for organic and all-natural places to stay; there aren't many and the ones I find are usually booked. We do stay in B&Bs rather than hotels because we like the experience, but also appreciate supporting an independent business. We avoid eating at chains most of the time (except a few which are actually good: Chipotle, Noodles, etc. and support the things we support) and especially eschew them on vacations. 
  • Electricity. Yeah, I do all that. Replacing bulbs with CFLs (even though I don't pay the electricity bill -- that is virtuous!), turning off lights when I don't use them, avoiding phantom power loads, don't even own a tv so watch movies on the laptop (which also reduces the need for another electronic device). 
Now this is not to say that I don't do things that are terrible for the environment. I'm having a wedding that everyone has to travel to, though half the guests are from within four hours of the location. But nonetheless there's a carbon footprint. I still buy stuff that I shouldn't buy; spring cleaning routinely means a trunk full of stuff to the thrift store. I'd rather buy a book than get it from the library. Oh, there's my magazine habit. And I don't own a bike so even small errands require a car. I could take public transportation, but find a car more convenient for most things so only use the bus when I'm going to campus. So, this list is meant to encourage people and give me a place to chart where I go next. 

In short, I feel most of the things I do have become old hat. To claim that I am 'doing something for the environment' is silly because this is how I live. So what's my next step in moving my life more in tune with the environment? 

Here's the challenge of this post: most of what I've listed here is common knowledge. What are the next big or small changes we -- and more specifically I -- can make to reduce my unnecessarily large footprint? I'm thinking about specific steps as well as mind-changes. Many of the changes I don't make I hold on to because they make life pleasant and I'm not willing to change them; but where I can change things, but don't because of laziness, ignorance, or carelessness are fair play.

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