Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Top Ten Eco-Sins

Yeah, I crow about our petite carbon footprint.  But I also worry about the times that we fall short.

Let me count the ways:

10.  We still use plastic baggies for lunch.  Okay, we're using them very sparingly - one a day for my son's sandwich, and sometimes for the odd novelty that doesn't fit into a container.  I'd happily trade the baggie for a plastic sandwich trapper, but a) Freddie eats his turkey'n'American on a whole grain mini bagel, and they fit awkwardly into the containers; b) Freddie's beloved Stripey the Tiger lunchbox has an unusual shape that won't accommodate another plastic container.  When we upsize the carry-all, we'll find a suitable reusable substitute, too.

9.  We have only greened a fraction of our Health and Beauty products.  In fairness, I stockpile this stuff so far in advance that I routinely have a six months' supply on hand.  But I haven't stopped accumulating, either.  I'll admit it:  I like to bargain hunt.  I like Pantene.  They put coupons in the paper, and then my local Target puts it on sale and I am attracted, like a moth to the less-than-environmentally safe flame.  It doesn't help that green alternatives are pricey, and it could take many bottles of experimentation before I land on one that works.

8.  I am addicted to Coca-Cola.  Yes, I know.  It has no nutritionally redeeming value, and even the diet version does bad things to your system.  I've been cutting down, and buying 2-liters instead of full strength.  But it's an un-green weakness of mine.

7.  We don't compost.  More on this in a future post, as I'm still considering taking this on.

6.  I use those disposable scrubby head toilet cleaners.  Yeah, they're wasteful.  But I never know where to store my toilet brush.  So along with my Simple Green and Method Shower Scrub and Seventh Generation multi-purpose cleaner, I've got these little Clorox jobbies.

5.  I buy 100-calorie packs.  Possibly the decade's greatest contribution to over-packaging, second only to the Lunchable, I'm still a sucker because a) I have little willpower when it comes to an open bag of cookies; b) it allows us to keep a wider variety of snacks on hand and know that they'll be fresh when we open them, which is infrequently.

4.  I'm having our closets customized.  A true eco-chic warrior would repurpose some fabulous containers and completely kit out their closets without much expense or negative environmental impact.  Me?  I'm not that handy.  So out go the wire shelves and in come the custom-cut units.  I tell myself it's something more durable than furniture and thus a good long-term investment.

3.  J'adore television.  And no, not just the History Channel and A&E.  Trash television.

2.  I bribe my child with Matchbox cars.  The packaging crazes me.  I worry that they've been made by prisoners in horrible working conditions in Chinese factories with no environmental standards.  And lead paint.  But it's still just $1 - the cheapest incentive ever for potty training and other desirable behaviors.

1.  We eat red meat.  Don't get me wrong - we don't eat much, and we don't eat it often.  But I'm just not ready to give up my weekly cheeseburger indulgence.  It's not anything against veggie burgers, as much as it is the occasional longing for a good ol' fashioned burger and fries.

So there you have it ... my ten most grievous sins against Mother Earth.  Here's hoping the good stuff that we do outweighs our shortcomings.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Green Shoes, As Green as They Come

I need shoes.

No, really.  This is not a mad shopping urge.  This is a case of going barefoot if I don't find some shoes.  I've worn my two pairs of flip flops nearly paper-thin, and thanks to my advancing pregnancy, can no longer bend over to tie my Converse All Stars or old pair of Saucony running shoes.

So off we went to REI, where I snapped up the following: Simple Macaroons in certified suede, color green eyes.

The company strives to be 100% sustainable.  They readily admit that they're not there yet, but it's a noble goal.  They maintain guidelines for creating an ethical supply chain, related not only to the materials in their products, but the conditions in which they are created.  And much of the stuff of my new shoes isn't - it's recycled plastic or car tires or what-have-you.

We've also been buying Keen sandals for our son, attracted again by their sound environmental practices.  And the fact that the shoes are incredibly durable and practical - he's about to outgrow them, and there are years of life remaining.  Compared to his previous pairs of summer sandals, that's a miracle.

Not buying is, by far, the greenest of choices.  And buying second-hand is great, when it's possible.  But the odds of me landing on a pair of secondhand sneakers in my size isn't high, and the chances that I can take my toddler thrift-shopping enough times to find a pair for him?  Forget it.

For now, I'm sporting the greenest green shoes I've ever wore, and treading lightly on the Earth as I do so.

When Green Leaves You Blue

I'm suffering from another disappointment, green-cleaning-wise.

Seventh Generation bleach works.  Sort of.  Reasonably decently well.

But not nearly as well as Clorox.

And so it's one of those decision moments: accept dingier whites, or dirty up the Earth?

There do appear to be a few other eco-safe bleach substitutes on the market.  And, in all honesty, I'm calling on the product to bleach my husband's well-worn undershirt collection.  The average age of a shirt is more than five years, and some are closer to seven - so it's little wonder that they're showing their years.

Maybe it's time to go even more old school and figure out what predated bleach for whitening whites, and hope that my fledgling homemaker skills are up to wielding such primitive tools as lemons and vinegar.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sourcing Greener Products

Here's a hiccup on the path to shopping greener: I now have to visit at least six different stores to round up greener consumables.

It could be worse.  At the moment, I can buy the following at my local Target, which is about a mile away by foot:
  • Burt's Bees body wash and Baby Bee products
  • Weleda lotions
  • Palmolive Eco+ phosphate free dishwashing detergent (we used to use Seventh Generation, but Target no longer carries it - and I must say that Palmolive works better.)
  • Method cleaning products, hand soap, bamboo-based cleaning wipes
  • Microfiber cloths, sponges
  • Glad 65% recycled plastic kitchen garbage bags
  • Arm & Hammer Essentials 2X concentrated laundry detergent; I also sometimes buy All Small & Mighty because the smaller bottles are easier to tote home.
  • Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid - which smells absolutely divine and works well, too
But alas, Target sells no green paper!  But we can find the following at our Giant grocery store, at a bargain price:
  • Seventh Generation toilet paper
For a few things, we have to venture to Whole Foods, including:
  • Seventh Generation bleach (fortunately, it's not something I have to buy regularly)
  • Seventh Generation tissues (we can buy Kleenex 20% recycled at our Giant, but that's just not good enough)
  • 365 napkins
Even those three stores don't cover all of our basic needs, however.  I also need to go to:
  • Office Depot, for recycled garbage bags.  We could get these at Whole Foods, but I can actually walk to Office Depot.  And honestly, we use them so sparingly that our box of 100 will probably last for years.
  • Babies R Us, for Seventh Generation diapers.  Again, Whole Foods sells them, but WF is about twice as far away.  So if all we're going out to get is diapers, it makes more sense to go to BRU.
  • Lowe's for Marcal Sunrise paper towels.  We could get other products elsewhere, but these are actually pick-a-size - to me, this is an absolutely essential feature in a paper towel, as we rarely only use a tiny piece.
It's even tougher to find organic fabric clothing, linens and the like.  When we bought a new doormat, I had to order it from - but I must say, it's the perfect thing.

Still, plenty of these products were completely un-findable when we lived in a smaller city just a few years ago, so I suppose I'm not complaining, as much as I'm offering retailers a guide for how to get my business - stock more green!

I Squandered Your Carbon Footprint

"I squandered your carbon footprint yesterday," my neighbor told me.  "I drove to work."

My neighbor is actually a fairly green guy, from what I've observed.  He buys second-hand, takes mass transit to work most days and has traveled the globe extensively.  If his kids have new toys, it's because he's been to the Salvation Army or Craig's List.  While I'm quite certain he doesn't obsess about all things environmental the way Franklin and I do, he's not Part of the Problem.

What he is, however, is a father of three boys who often finds himself struggling with the reality that it takes him about twice as long to commute via mass transit as it does in his car.  And some days, it's just not an option to lose those minutes, especially considering that his two under-fives are in bed by eight.

My husband's job takes him downtown, an area easily accessible by mass transit and so congested that it would take longer to drive.  While no one loves to walk in a downpour, heatwave or cold snap, most of the time, there's little downside to making the greener choice.

As I look at jobs outside the home, something I very much hope to have shortly after Fiona's arrival, I wonder: how will I possibly go about finding something that doesn't require me to commute in a car?  And am I being responsible to actually consider that a deal-breaker in a potential job?

When our employers leave center city and investment in mass transit fails to keep up with rapidly evolving needs, it's impractical to ask families to make these sacrifices on a regular basis.

I don't mind reducing my carbon footprint so my neighbor can actually tuck his sons into bed at night.  I get that.  But I do fret that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of decent people out there, who really would be willing to switch to more sustainable forms of transportation, if only it didn't translate to such a direct sacrifice of family time.  We live in a city well-served by mass transit, but it's still daunting to make it truly functional for the majority of our residents, event those willing to give it a whirl.

This is a problem.

How We've Gone Green

The Greene Family made like our name starting about a year ago, when we settled into our new home in Metro DC.  Here's what we done in the past twelve months:
  1. Parked our car.  Franklin takes the bus and/or metro to and from work.  I walk Freddie to and from his nursery school.  We also walk to the coffee shop, Target, bookstore, the local restaurant where we eat out on Friday nights, the movie theater, parks, the grocery store, drugstore, farmer's market and post office.  We do still drive for some things, including groceries, but we're averaging about 25 miles/week in our car - and far, far more on our feet.
  2. Cleaned up our act.  We've steadily been switching to greener cleaning products and microfiber cloths/rags to keep our house spic and span.  They work just as well as conventional products, and we feel much better about them.  We recently cleaned up one of Freddie's big ol' apple juice spills without reaching for a paper towel - and it didn't even cross my mind that we'd done so until after the mess was mopped.
  3. Became EnergyStars.  Because we were moving into a new house, we had the chance to choose our appliances - and there's an Energy Star label on every one of them.  We've also been slowly switching to green lightbulbs, but because we're careful about energy use in general, it's amazing how few bulbs we've burned through in a year.  Lastly, we installed ceiling fans throughout our home.  This means that even in the humid, sticky summer of Washington DC, we're keeping our air conditioning set at a toasty 80 degrees without actually feeling uncomfortable.
  4. Gave up fast food in favor of home cooking.  While we were inspired more by health concerns than environmental impact, it quickly became obvious that we were meeting two goals with this change.  It's also one of those funny snowball effect things - if you're in your car, it is so easy to pull through the drive-thru.  But if you're on the Metro, you have to ask yourself: is there anything between my stop and home?  Do I really want to carry a large pepperoni pizza/a dozen tacos/a sack of burgers and fries through the neighborhood?  We're skinnier, healthier and contributing far less garbage.  We now eat out once a week, at the local place down the street, plus special occasions - which actually feel special as a result.
  5. Recycled, recycled, recycled.  The cardboard boxes we used for moving all went to our town's cardboard receptacle in the local park.  We discovered that we could take any kind of cardboard there, including cereal boxes and paper towel tubes.  So we do.  We've also become vigilant about recycling our glass, plastics and paper and have figured out how to recycle small electronics and other things, like batteries.  (We take those to Ikea.)
  6. Switched to reusable cloth shopping bags, refillable coffee cups and reusable containers for our packed lunches.  They're the little things that add up.  What's interesting is that in some cases - especially the cloth shopping bags - the reusable versions are far superior to the disposable ones.
  7. Greened our paper monster.  While we're generally using less, thanks to rags and cleaning cloths, the paper towels, napkins, toilet paper and tissues that we use are almost all 100% recycled content.  It takes some doing, however, especially considering our not-driving stance.  We can only buy toilet paper locally, so we're constantly remembering to stock up on the other items during our trips farther afield.
There's more to do, we've no doubt.  But I'm content with our progress, and I love knowing that our choices are making a positive impact on our lives, and the world we're leaving for Freddie and Fiona.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

All Wet

So most of our towels are pretty disreputable.  I'm okay with that.  Or I've been okay with that for years.  But some are so threadbare that they don't quite get the job done, and I've been slowly converting them from towels-for-people to rags-for-scrubbing.

Except that we will soon be down to our last few reasonable towels, and we'll need reinforcements.

Here are my options:
  1. Buy the greenest towels available.  These are available online, and would most likely be a bamboo/organic cotton blend.  So far, seems to get the best reviews for service and product.  They're in Florida - not horribly far, but far enough that I can't help but wonder:  how much does shipping my green purchase via UPS cancel out the benefits?
  2. Buy a reasonably green alternative that I can pick up via Metro.  Bed, Bath and Beyond is a mere three stops down the road from our house, and they sell both organic cotton and bamboo alternatives.  Sure, they've been shipped to the store - but the damage is already done, right?
There are no bamboo/organic cotton alternatives available at my local Target or Macy's, so walking to pick them up isn't an option.

And, of course, I can't help but wonder if bamboo is really as super-green as we think it is.  It's shipped from China, and as I understand it, there's no standard of sustainability in place.  So while we know it grows faster and requires less pesticides and generally has a greener impact on the planet, we're not entirely certain how green is green.  Would I be better off with organic cotton that's grown, we assume, in the good ol' US of A?

It's one of those situations where I'm probably going to buy the potentially less green product locally on the theory that:
  1. I'm not creating any additional pollution or packaging to ship the product to our address.
  2. I can actually see and touch the products, which will make me feel far more confident in the purchase.
  3. Hopefully I'm sending the signal that I'd like area stores to stock more eco-friendly alternatives in general.
I'm planning to test drive a towel before beginning the process of upgrading our household collection, so I'll report back here on how it fares.  Of course, given the competition in the house, it's easy to see that any thing will be an improvement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Are Consumers Done?

I'm morbidly fascinated with the financial mess in the headlines these days, even though we are, for the moment, blessedly avoiding the worst of the downturn.  It could change, of course, and so I'm part reading-the-tea-leaves, part rubbernecking.

But here's a factoid that threw me for a loop:  70% of our economy is based on consumer spending, consumer spending on things like dinners out, new televisions and fancy sneakers.

It's a set of habits that has landed many families in the red, but from my perspective, it's also pretty dramatically un-green.

When my husband and I settled down in our new home after nearly a year's transition involving four addresses in three states, we evaluated all the stuff we had and realized we didn't need any more.  It's been well over a year since my husband bought shoes, shirts or pants, including work clothing.  Because I lost more than 40 pounds, I have bought clothing, but a fairly modest amount - a pair of size 12 jeans, then size 10, then size 8 and finally a second pair of size 8 cords and a pair of size 6 cords before becoming pregnant and turning my old clothes into maternity wear.

Since moving in, we've also purchased two sets of sheets and a full size mattress/box spring to serve as our guest bed, plus two new hand towels for our "good" powder room, and a new comforter cover for our son.  Every over stitch of linen in our home is at least a year old, and much of it dates back more than a decade.  Our spare comforter is from my husband's freshman year in college.  And yes, we've bought furniture (a desk, Freddie's big boy bed and shelves, a bench for our entry way with wall-mounted shelves above.)  We have three TVs, two of which are more than a dozen years old and one of which is a mammoth, early HDTV older than our child - the only real gadget my husband has indulged in, ever.

Honestly - I don't get it.  I walk through Target, looking for a container for trail mix or a microfiber dust cloth and see women pushing trolleys spilling over with stuff - blankets and blenders and vases and toys.  Did they need this stuff?  Could they afford this stuff?  Where were they putting all of this stuff?

Calling for people to stop buying stuff they don't need makes all the sense in the world - it's frugal, in a world with precious little of the saving impulse, and it's green, in a world that is quickly squandering every resource.

But does being green bring the economy to a crashing halt, and if so, what's the answer?  And is anyone looking for it, or are our leaders just worried about how to get us back into Target, loading up our carts to spill over and put the economy back in black?

It's a colorful question, and I'm afraid the answer is not one that I'll like. 

Aucuns Detrius

My toddler, Freddie, makes his way to nursery school three days a week, lunch kit in hand.  When he first set off for the neighborhood school last fall, I found myself wondering how to green his lunchbox - and thinking long and hard about whether our changes would make my mornings unbearable.

As it turns out, we made three changes that virtually any parent can follow.  If they take a little more time in some ways, they save time and effort in others.  Best of all, they hit not one, but two of my principles - Do it Greener, Do it Cheaper.  (More on that in a later post.)

For now, here are our three changes:
  1. We use refillable plastic juice boxes instead of buying the ones at the store.  It's less packaging, which is always a win, but this one is especially green-worthy because it's tough to recycle juice boxes - or any container that incorporates plastic, cardboard and aluminum.  In fact, our son's school automatically disposes of them, while they happily return the plastic containers.
  2. We use refillable containers for apple sauce, mandarin oranges, raisins, etc. instead of using the single serving sizes.  Again, this cuts down on packaging and avoids the issue of whether the very busy nursery school teachers are remembering to rinse and separate each of the little plastic dishes and check the numbers stamped on the bottom.
  3. We aim to make most of our son's lunch minimally processed foods.  Kids might love Lunchables, but they're among the most overpackaged products in the market.  On the other hand, bananas, grapes and carrot sticks require no additional packaging beyond the reusable bowls.
While it does take a few minutes to fill up those containers each morning, the plus is that the containers are permanently labeled - I never have to fish for a Sharpie or a sticker.  For me, the time required to select and label is about equal to the amount of time required to fill.  And yes, they do have to be brought home and washed - but even my forgetful Freddie hasn't (permanently) lost a dish yet.  As long as you remember to tuck them in the dishwasher every night, it's a fairly fuss-free process.

As for the savings?  I'll admit, we're not talking thousands of dollars.  But here's a quick breakdown:
  •  Refilling your own juice box versus buying the pre-packaged ones saves about 7 cents per drink.  Assuming you spend $1.5o on the reusable juice box, it takes about 20 uses - or one month - before you see the savings.
  • Putting raisins in a reusable container versus buying individual boxes saves about 5 cents per serving.  If you spend $1 on the container, again, it takes about a month to make it back.
  • Apple sauce, mandarin oranges, peaches and the like are the real cost-savers.  Filling your own apple sauce container saves about 12 cents per serving; fruit is closer to 30 cents per serving.  You'll recover those costs in two weeks or less.
If you're packing 180 lunches each year, and assume an average savings of 33 cents per lunch, that's nearly $60/year saved, per kid!  Because our son eats all of these school-day staples on the weekends and evenings, too, it's easy to guesstimate that our savings our closer to twice that amount.

So it's green, it's frugal and it's relatively effortless - something to think about as you hit your local store for back-to-school gear. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Adventures in Eco-Savvy

A few years back, a friend of mine mused, "I'd cut down our family's carbon footprint, if only I could find the time."

We were discussing our mutual decision to go back to our demanding careers shortly after giving birth to our first children.  I'll admit - I didn't get it.  What did free time have to do with our carbon footprints?  Was there really any choice in how we consumed?  Wasn't this just the life we'd signed on for?

With the passing of time - and my transition to being, despite all plans to the contrary, a stay-at-home mom - I had my eureka moment.  My husband and I have taken steps in the past year to become significantly more eco-savvy.  Even in the midst of this crazy, madcap, time-stretched modern existence, it can be done.  And once the ball starts rolling, it's easy to keep on going, getting greener and greener and greener.

If we keep this up, instead of Mrs. Fern Greene, I guess I'll have to be known as Mrs. Emerald Kale.