Do what you’re doing, only do it greener (and cheaper)

Sometimes, when I see other bloggers writing about their work to go green, the trend seems to be “extreme green.” Someone with no car scoffs at the idea that someone else would think simply recycling plastic and reusing their bath water makes a lick of difference. Or see Friday’s post about the handmade tortillas.

Extreme greeners might get so caught up in their own great work that they later forget that the transition is hard. It’s no small feat to completely change the entitlement mindset that’s bred into Americans from our birth.

Doing things differently takes work. It requires changing our minds and persuading others to let us change. See my point in Monday’s blog about having to work to tell checkers NOT to give us a plastic bag, or any bag. For decades, people living a standard urban or suburban life have had to fight to find low-flow toilets and low-flow faucets. Now these things are becoming standard. Finally, the city makes recycling easy — for most of us.

But other aspects haven’t changed. We’re “supposed” to eat yogurt, because it’s good for our bodies. But in mainstream grocery stores, no yogurt option exists without yogurt tubs, which can only be recycled in extreme circumstances (for instance, we could collect our tubs and drive them about 40 miles to Boulder’s Ecocycle sites that accept them). Plastic bottles are recyclable, but their caps aren’t. I can buy bulk food at Vitamin Cottage, but it comes pre-portioned in little plastic bags — or I can bring my own containers and pre-tare them at Whole Foods or Wild Oats, but I’ll have to pay more.

When a dime isn’t a dime
The resource of money is no small thing. Many Americans are looking for their purpose. They want to live with meaning, they want to find their bliss. Every day, I hear the stories of people I know who have seen the reason they are on this earth. One is a blacksmith. One is a calligrapher and book crafter. One is a glass blower. One makes cards. One is a potter. Some are mothers or musicians. And all of them are spending their life’s energy doing other work to make money, because if they want to approximate a standard American life, they can’t do it with their passion.

If we work all day, we don’t have enough time to do many of the things that being really green requires. Most people cannot come home at 6 (preferably by bicycle), do the laundry by hand, whip up a dinner from home-grown or locally purchased ingredients (using no refrigeration or electricity), manage the garden that grows those ingredients, find a great outfit for the next day made of secondhand garments, and start again the next day. Eventually, one step at a time, maybe. This instant, it isn’t going to happen.

When we hear that the baby steps we’ve determined to do — out of guilt or grief, love or hope — are not enough, it can punch our motivation in the gut. It seems that whatever we do, it won’t be enough. The expression goes, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” If you’re not helping, you’re hurting.

But when it comes to being green, if you’re not hurting, you’re helping. Any little baby step is good. And if enough of us help a little, it’s something. Perhaps we all can’t — or don’t want to — reduce our impact by 90%. But if we all reduced by 10%, that still would be something.

Getting started a little at a time
How can you begin? Here are some easy ways to make little changes. Baby steps. You might find they become second nature — and after a certain number of baby steps, you’re really on your way.

  • Back to Monday’s post – don’t take a bag for just one item.
  • Shower too hot? Turn the hot water down instead of turning the cold water up.
  • Instead of gathering up the liners in each trash can in your house and throwing out several bags of trash every week, dump the bathroom garbage into the kitchen trash can and throw out one bag — then use the liners again and again. Or don’t use a liner unless you really need to keep your trash can spotless.
  • If you’re doing big box shopping, park in the middle of the parking lot and walk to the different stores instead of driving a few hundred feet to the next parking lot.
  • Don’t take a plastic produce bag if you’re just getting one item. Your single onion or your bunch of bananas will make it home just fine unwrapped.
  • Turn off the light. Turn it off when you leave the room, and question whether you need as many lights on in general.
  • Replace light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (but you’ve probably already done that). Especially replace things like porch lights that stay on for long stretches of time.
  • Do less laundry. Mama might have told you to change your sheets every other day or wash your towel daily, but it’s probably not necessary. I’m not asking you to live in filth, but especially in the winter, when you might sleep bundled in cozy PJs, your sheets probably aren’t that dirty, and if your towel dries thoroughly during the day, it can probably go a week, too.
  • Clean easier. I’ve been using baking soda to scrub my tub, and the dirt just comes off in clumps. No stink, no harm to the environment, use it just the same as scouring powder — it’s really cheap, especially in a bulk bag at Costco, and a perfect solution if you have pets like the cat we used to have, who had a strong craving to lick bleach! (Bad idea, cat.)
  • Use rags. Cut up some old T-shirts, towels or boxer shorts and use rags instead of paper towels for most clean-ups. Keep them in a box under the sink and grab one instead of disposable when you need to wipe a spill off your kitchen floor. Throw it in your regular laundry and repeat next week.
  • Use cloth napkins. They make your home look fancier and they’re easy to wash and re-use.

Even the 90% reductionists know Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even their radical change will take months or years. Oh, and the handmade tortillas? They didn’t turn out so great, after all – this time.

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4 thoughts on “Do what you’re doing, only do it greener (and cheaper)

  1. Stefanie says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I am a very busy graduate student and feel like I just don’t have the time (or energy) to do everything by hand, made from scratch, without using electricity or oil. But I am looking for these small things that I can still do and it’s encouraging to me that others feel the same way. So I plug (or rather, un-plug) away at it and hope that eventually all of those little, easy changes make a difference.

  2. Melissa says:

    This is exactly why our household is trying to pick up two green habits and stick to them. Hopefully then we can add two more, and so on. I appreciate that you don’t have a guilt-’em-into-green mentality. After all, it really is just a sensible and right thing to do, but better to do our two green tasks and stick to them, than to do nothing at all.

  3. mosaik says:

    Great post. While I’m working on the garden [a 2m x 3m effort because that’s affordable and doable at this point of time], I also work fulltime and have to deal with 2 [and soon to be 3] kids. Dad has a job that requires him to live away from home for 8 days out of every 2 weeks so I can’t just hand over the kids and ask him to do stuff with them. I would love to spend my evenings doing lots of useful things but to be honest if I lie down on the sofa I’m asleep within 10 minutes. It’s actually that reason that I have recently taken up knitting because it keeps me awake enough to actually see the entire TV program that I have been planning to see.
    So the little things mean a lot in this household. And consumerism isn’t going to go away in a hurry because children are expensive and generate a lot of junk due to their changing needs.And I am not the sort to buy lots of crap as it is! [Which in itself generates a lot of discussion about why I make those choices compared to other parents – it takes time but the explanation is necessary.]
    And yeah, while tortilla making can be fun and is not that hard, I have to admit that the thought of having to roll out all of those tortillas stops me from making the darned things unless there is a recipe that has caught my eye that absolutely requires me to use tortillas.
    Not having a fridge or freezer is not an option in my world. My question is what is the best possible most eco-friendly fridge and freezer to suit the needs of my family.
    I’ll happily switch most other things off – and I do as I turn everything except the fridge-freezer circuit off at the fusebox when I leave the house.
    Ditto for cars. I will have to replace my vehicle in the next couple of years so the same principles apply. I’ll adjust my driving habits as much as I can but we do need that car at this stage of our lives.
    And cloth toilet paper just doesn’t do it for me at this point of time!

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