St C’s Environment Committee – “Green Tips”
Starting in the summer of 2014, members of the Environment Committee produced a series of “green tips” — simple, everyday actions people could take to live a more environment-friendly life — for publication in the St. Columba’s newsletter. Thanks to the support and efforts of Carol Janus at the National Cathedral, many of the tips were also shared more broadly with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington community via EDOW’s Facebook page.
The full set of “green tips” we produced is listed below.
WHEN “OFF” MEANS “ON.” A recent development – an unfortunate recent development, from an energy-consumption point of view – is that many electronic devices are “on,” and drawing electric current, even when they're switched off. It's estimated that one-fifth of all home energy consumption in the USA goes toward keeping our machines ready to run, as opposed to actually running them. Pull the plug where you can. Take a look especially at what's always “on” in little-used rooms. Go to this site for more information about what you can do to reduce your “plug load.”
HANG A LOAD. Clothes dryers are energy hogs, accounting for 6-10% of all residential energy consumption in the USA. To meet the energy demand clothes dryers create, power companies pump about 1 TON of CO2 into the atmosphere per year for the average household. Use the latest in solar-powered clothes drying technology – aka a clothes line – on just one wash load a week and you'll reduce your energy consumption and save money. Even better: hang two loads a week (you get the picture). Don't have a clothes line? Many types of portable models are available; here's a really good one:. Use it indoors, too. In the heating season it'll help raise your home's humidity.
SHOWER SMARTS. Make your showers more basic and efficient. Did you know that if you shave just 2 minutes off your daily shower time you’ll save 1,500 gallons of water over the course of a year? Of course, you’ll also save all of the energy – and money – it takes to replace and reheat that water, too. And speaking of shaving… Don’t shave in the shower – or if you do, turn the water off. Turning the water off while you soap up and scrub, and while you lather up your hair, will also reduce wasted water.
NEED A RENTAL CAR? RENT A HYBRID. Just about everyone needs to rent a car at some point, and for some – frequent business travelers, for example – it’s almost a way of life. The next time you need to rent a car, take your green habits with you on the road and rent a hybrid. Then try to make it your habit. Gas-powered cars are responsible for about 25% of all CO2 emissions in the USA. So eliminate a few hundred pounds of CO2 off the footprint of your next trip and go with a hybrid or other fuel-efficient car. You'll save $ on gas, too.
SWITCH OUT WHAT YOU SWITCH ON. Electric lighting is responsible for about 20-25% of the average home’s energy consumption. And so much of that energy is just wasted! Those old-style incandescent bulbs we've all been using for the last 100 years or so? They are the poster child of energy inefficiency, transforming about 90% of the energy used to run them into useless heat, and only about 10% into light. Compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED bulbs use 50% to 80% less energy than incandescent light bulbs, and they last up to ten times longer. Over the next few months, transition away from incandescent light bulbs to CFLs or LEDs. By switching just 4 incandescent bulbs in your house from to CFLs or LEDs you’ll use up to 80% less energy to light your home, and you’ll keep about 2 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the life of those bulbs. (If everyone in the USA made this 4-bulb switch we’d put about $4.5 billion in energy savings back into our collective wallets. And we’d be able to shut down 17 coal-fired power plants!) But why stop at 4? Replace them all.
HOLD THE PLASTIC SPOON. Stop using disposable plastic knives, forks, and spoons. Bring a spare set of silverware to work, and store another set or two in your car. Got a little spare room in your purse or briefcase? Put ’em there, too. Keep washable, reusable utensils handy and pull them out whenever you're about to chow down on the go. It’s pretty simple to get into the habit of saying “No thanks” to plastic that’s about to be thrown in with your lunch “for free.” Remember, too, if you're hosting a major event where washable utensils just aren’t feasible, do Mother Earth a favor and use disposable utensils made from corn sugar-based plastics or other biodegradable material.
SEE THE LIGHT. Just by paying a little more attention, you can (if you’re like most Americans) probably reduce the electricity that goes to light your home by 20% or more. The secret? It’s not rocket science: Just be a little more conscientious when it comes to using, and turning off, the lights in your house. Turn them off when they’re not being used. Take it a step further, if you can, and try to keep all of the lights off until the sun goes down.
CHARGE IT. Batteries are pretty much an essential of modern life. They power kids’ toys, television remotes, flashlights, garage door openers, clocks, smoke detectors, cameras, and just about every other gadget and convenience imaginable. But the standard alkaline batteries that most of us have used since forever come with some steep costs, both to our pocketbooks and to the environment. It’s pretty easy to “green up” – both your pocketbook and the environment – by going out and purchasing a battery charger and rechargeable batteries. A charger and 4 rechargeable AA batteries will cost about $20-$25 to purchase, and only about one thin dime every time you recharge after that. Since they can be recharged up to 500 times, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in economics to realize that your initial outlay will soon pay for itself, and that rechargeables will re-pay for themselves many times over throughout the course of their usable lives. And all the while you’ll be keeping some nasty stuff out of our landfills. One final hint: Try to avoid purchasing NiCad (Nickel-Cadmium) batteries; choose NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) rechargeables instead. NiMH cells don’t contain the toxic chemicals found in NiCad battery packs, and they offer 30% more energy capacity.
ARE YOU A PAPER PINCHER? Yeah, you know – a paper-pincher. It’s like being a penny-pincher, only with paper products instead of money. Paper manufacturing is a pretty messy process environmentally – it’s especially hard on water – and it uses a lot of energy. Not to mention trees. So think about ways to go easy on your use of paper. For example: use cloth napkins instead of paper, and sponges and cloth towels instead of paper towels for clean-up; paper that’s only been used on one side is perfect for kids’ art projects; don't ask for a receipt on your ATM transactions and credit card purchases, and say no when you're offered one; and always, always, always recycle what you can no longer use. Are you a gardener? Did you know that shredded paper is an excellent compost ingredient?
A CLEAN FRIDGE IS A GREEN FRIDGE. (And we mean that in a good way!) Wipe your refrigerator down once or twice a month. Old leftovers, spills, and soil and grime build-up can put undue strain on the unit, reducing its efficiency and wasting electricity. A clean fridge is an efficient fridge, one that will shrink your carbon footprint and save you a few dollars at the same time. BTW, make sure that whatever cleaner you use is toxin-free. Seventh Generation products are generally a solid choice, but there are many other options on the market as well. (And please – use a rag or sponge instead of paper towels. (But you already knew that…))
A CLEAN FRIDGE IS A GREEN FRIDGE – PART II. Now that you’re keeping the inside of your refrigerator clean, let’s talk about the outside. About twice a year, take 10 minutes and run a vacuum brush over your refrigerator’s condenser coils. The coils are a vital component in how your refrigerator keeps things cool. Over time, they attract grease and dust. A layer of grease and dust makes your refrigerator less efficient, forcing it to work harder to maintain the same “chill” level inside. And the harder it works, the more energy it uses. Ten minutes of TLC twice a year will lower your electricity bill and increase the lifespan and efficiency of your refrigerator. Bonus tip: Speaking of chill level, don’t overdo it. About 37/38 F will keep your fresh food fresh (without freezing your carrots), and there’s no need to go below 0 F in your freezer.
SUPPORT SOLAR COOKING. Here’s a tip that’s not just win-win – it’s win-win-win-win and maybe a few more “wins” after that. For nearly 3 billion of the earth’s people, open fires remain the predominant way to cook food and make water safe to drink. But open fires have many major downsides, even beyond the obvious problem of fire safety. Indoor cooking under conditions of poor ventilation exposes the lungs to unhealthy levels of particulate matter. This is especially problematic for vulnerable lungs, including those of very young children, who spend most of their time at their mothers’ sides. Harvesting plants for fuel denudes the land, leading to erosion of topsoil – desert-ification, in extreme cases – and loss of wildlife habitat. The burdens of gathering fuel fall particularly hard on girls and women, whose long, daily treks far from home in search of firewood make school impossible, and put them at greatly increased risk of atrocities such as kidnapping and rape. The list goes on and on. Solar Cookers International (SCI; solarcookers.org) is trying to change all that by promoting cheap, efficient solar cookers to needy communities throughout the world – a healthy alternative to open fires wherever the sun shines. Those few extra dollars in your pocket? Send them SCI’s way and attack a whole host of related environmental and humanitarian problems, all in one “swell foop.”
TOO MUCH PRESSURE!!! (OR TOO LITTLE). First, if you don’t already have one, stop by any hardware store (or gas station) and add a tire gauge to your tool kit. Then take a few minutes at least once a month to make sure the pressure in each of your car’s tires is right. Keeping the pressure right will ensure that the tires are helping your car perform at its best, and will also help maintain even tread wear, maximizing the lifespan of your tires. (Which is not just to your economic advantage – it takes a lot of resources and a lot of energy to produce a tire.) If your car is like most cars on the road, its tires are probably under-inflated. And, on average, a car's mileage efficiency drops by about 0.4% for every 1 pound of under-inflation. Not sure what the right pressure is? Your owner’s manual will probably tell you. Or open the driver’s-side door and check the door post for the recommended pressure levels for your car.
BE A ONCE-A-WEEK (OR MORE!) VEGETARIAN. You’ll take a HUGE step toward a greener life by reducing the amount of meat you eat. (A healthier life, too, but that’s a different story.) Here’s the main reason why: On average, animal protein production requires about six times the fossil-fuel energy of a comparable amount of plant protein. But energy consumption isn’t the only issue – animal agriculture over-consumes water, too. At 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food produced, grain-fed beef is the worst meat offender. Chicken is a lot better – 3,500 liters of water will yield a kilogram of food. But compare those numbers to vegetables: soybeans, 2,000 liters/kilogram; rice, 1,900; wheat, 900; potatoes, 500. Need any more reasons? How about erosion? Livestock are responsible, directly or indirectly, for much of the soil erosion in the US. Or how about the disposal of animal waste? In the summer of 1995, a spill from a single animal waste lagoon in North Carolina dumped 22 million gallons of animal waste into the New River. The spill – twice the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill! – was one of six reported in NC alone during that one summer. The bottom line is pretty clear: Meat production burdens the planet (not to mention the animals!), so cut back on the meat you consume. Put a delicious, nutritious, earth-friendly, vegetarian meal on the dinner table at least once a week. And make meat a condiment, rather than the main dish, in at least one other meal.
LET THE LEAVES DO THE WORK. Don’t put all those delicious leaves in plastic bags. (Yes, “delicious” – can billions of microbes be wrong?) Rake them up and turn them into compost. Or, easier still, don’t rake them at all. Just leave the leaves where they fall and mow over them. The little bits will break down over the fall and winter and feed your soil. By the time spring rolls around, there will be no traces of leaves left, and your soil will be revitalized. Not quite ready to say goodbye to raking? Try it out on a small part of your yard. In the spring, you won't be able to tell the difference – but your soil will thank you. For more information go to this site.
SHOULDN’T GREEN BE THE OFFICIAL COLOR OF THANKSGIVING? At the heart of it, we gather together at Thanksgiving to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of God’s creation. Which makes it the perfect holiday to observe in ways that are as earth-friendly as possible. Here are some ideas for being a little greener this Thanksgiving, while still having a deliciously good time:
- Buy local. To the extent that you can, reduce the carbon footprint of your feast and put locally grown food on the table.
- Lean toward organic. You don’t have to be 100% organic, but you can minimize the foods you serve that are loaded with pesticides, chemicals, additives, and hormones. Go organic – and local – with your turkey and you’ll be taking a big step toward a green Thanksgiving.
- Ban paper and plastic. If every family in the US bought one less package of paper plates a year, it would save almost half a million trees. Set your table with reusable plates, utensils, and cups, and use cloth napkins.
- Compost the scraps. Garbage = pure waste. Composting simply allows organic matter to decay and return to – and replenish – the soil.
- Stick close to home. Holiday travel creates a massive amount of air pollution. Consider choosing a central location for your family get-together, one that minimizes travel miles. Use public transportation to get to in-town feasts, if you can. If your Thanksgiving celebration involves out-of-town travel, see if you can get there by train or bus.
- Be proud and loud with your recycling! If you’re the host, make sure everyone knows where the recycling goes, and what can be recycled. If you’re the guest, and it’s not clear, ask! Model those reduce/re-use/recycle habits, and maybe Uncle Fred and Aunt Emma will finally get the message!
GREEN IS A CHRISTMAS COLOR. You’ve got to hand it to Ebenezer Scrooge – his approach to Christmas was as green as could be. No cards, no gifts, no travel, no decorations. Also no joy and no fun. Here are some things you can do to have a greener Christmas without being a Scrooge:
- Turn the activity knob down a little this year. Skip one holiday party, buy one less present, take one less trip – you get the picture. Resist the pressure to run yourself, your family, and your credit cards completely ragged, and seek out a calmer, quieter Christmas.
- Your gift-giving is under your control. Talk with friends and family and set some reasonable gift-giving limits. Instead of buying new stuff, look for simple green gifts, or antiques (the original recycling!), or make charitable donations in your gift-ee’s honor. Or avoid “stuff” altogether and give the gift of time to those you love – a nice dinner, tickets to a concert or sporting event, a museum pass, or a restaurant gift card.
- Wrap gently. Every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s there’s a “bump” in household garbage in the U.S. of about 1,000,000 tons, and most of that is Christmas gift packaging. When it comes to wrapping, let the three R’s – Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle – illuminate your green path. You don’t have to wrap every gift. If you do wrap, use wrapping paper and ribbons made from recycled waste. Or save your gift wrap and re-use it next year. Gift bags are a great reusable option. If you’re feeling creative, think outside the (gift-wrapped) box and use old maps, comics, magazines, wallpaper, etc. etc. etc. in place of regular gift wrap.
- An artificial Christmas tree is probably not a green tree – not if it was shipped in from the other side of the world, and not if it’s made of petroleum-based chemicals (some even contain lead!) and can't be recycled. For a real tree, try decorating a living outdoor tree, and decking your halls with boughs pruned from a live tree. Or bring a live, potted tree indoors, and plant it outdoors in the spring. If you just have to have a cut tree, look for an organically grown tree, and spare your family the pesticides and chemical colorants that douse many conventional trees. And then look for local “treecycling” events that turn cut trees into mulch or compost.
- Reduce your Christmas lighting display, and use LED Christmas lights.
- Green up your holiday travel. Nothing new here: Keep your vehicle tuned up. Combine trips. Carpool when you can, and use public transportation. Or walk! Try to stay local.
- Christmas cards consume vast forests of paper envelopes, cards, and stamps. Reduce your card list, and look for Christmas greetings you can deliver by email or telephone. Make some cards yourself – an excellent holiday project for the kids. If you buy cards, look for those that use soy-based inks, are made of recycled material, and are recyclable. Save old cards to be reused as gift tags, tree ornaments, or for gift wrapping.
- Think organic and local for your Christmas dinner. Holiday feasts are a wonderful part of the season’s festivities. Take a bite out of their environmental impact by buying organic and locally produced meat, produce, and beverages. Nip waste and excess leftovers in the bud, and try to make smaller, more realistic amounts of food.
ST. C’s SAYS “ADIOS” TO PLASTIC SPOONS. (“Auf Wiedersehen” plastic knives and forks, too.) We’ve urged you to keep a spare set of metal utensils close at hand – at work, in your purse, in the glove-box, etc. – so as to eliminate throwaway plastic utensils from your life. Well, guess what church has taken that advice to heart? We’ll give you a hint: It’s one of your favorites. Correct! St. Columba’s has phased out the plastic and phased in a complete set of stainless dinnerware for all groups to use, for any event, big or small. We have 240 dinner forks, dinner knives, and salad/dessert forks, and 120 spoons. You’ll find them near the kitchen in the locked closet next to the elevator; event planners can get the key from the office. After use, simply rinse them with detergent, run them through the sanitizer, and return them to the closet. Even for a large event the whole process is pretty quick – 10 to 15 minutes, max. “Merci,” says the planet.
PRACTICE YOUR 3 R’s. No, not reading, (w)riting, and ’rithmetic – but don’t get us wrong, they’re important, too! We’re talking about “Reduce/Re-use/Recycle.” Reduce what you consume; Re-use what you do consume; Recycle what you can’t re-use. Keep those 3 R’s in mind and you’ve got the simple key to everyday green living. With a little thought, you can even knock out all three at once! For example: Say you’re a human being. That probably means either (a) you’ve got a perfectly good [fill in the blank] that you don’t need but can’t bring yourself to throw away; or (b) you’d like to acquire a [fill in the blank] and pay $0.00 for it. (Or both.) Congratulations – you’ve got what it takes to become a freecycler! Freecycling simply means that Person A passes on, for free, an item he or she doesn’t want to Person B, who does. Sign up at freecycle.org and join the worldwide movement to re-use rather than discard. You’ll reduce the demand on landfills and on the natural resources and energy needed to manufacture new goods and bring them to market. And, when you are Person B, you’ll keep a little more cash in your wallet. You can accomplish the same sort of “green” ends, with an important twist, by donating furniture and other household items to “A Wider Circle” (awidercircle.org). A Wider Circle passes those no-longer-needed goods of yours to families in need, for free, allowing them to furnish a home.
BEEF IS A HOG. Putting beef on the dinner table – which Americans do more of than anyone else in the world – places HUGE demands on resources. For example, to produce an equivalent amount of food calories, beef requires 20 to 30 times more land than poultry or pork, 3 to 4 times more feed, 10 times more water, and produces 5 or 6 times more greenhouse gas emissions. So if you want to save the planet, cutting back on beef makes a lot of sense. Your cholesterol and your wallet will thank you, too.
THINK “GREEN” WHEN YOU SPRUCE UP YOUR HOME. Painting? Be sure to look for zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. New floors? Consider cork or bamboo – much more sustainably manufactured than hardwood. New kitchen cabinets? Make sure they’re formaldehyde-free. It’s become much easier in recent years to renovate your home in environment-friendly ways – you just need to color your planning green.
WHAT’S YOUR WWW (WORST WATER WASTER)? Yes, it’s arguably the #1 (and #2!) essential appliance in a civilized home, but your toilet is a major water waster. Every day, Americans flush 5 BILLION gallons of fresh, otherwise-drinkable water down the toilet pipes. Toilet running? Fix that leak! Old, inefficient toilets? Replace them with new, high-efficiency models – dual flushers (where you can choose either a big flush or a little one) are the best. Extra credit: See if you can eliminate (hah!) just one flush per day.
GOODBYE, OLD PAINT. Sometimes there’s no getting around it – you have to throw stuff away. Unused paint, for example. For latex (water-based) paint just open the can and let it dry out, and then throw it in with the regular trash. If there’s a lot left in the can you can buy paint hardener to speed up the process at just about any hardware store. If there’s a mega-lot left, consider donating it to a place like Community Forklift. (Better still: Estimate your paint needs carefully from the get-go to keep waste to a minimum.) DON’T throw away oil-based paint, even if it’s dry. Oil-based paint is considered hazardous household waste (HHW) and must be disposed of at an official HHW facility. In DC, the DPW’s Fort Totten Transfer Station is the place; for disposal facilities outside the city, check your jurisdiction’s website.
UP IN (no) SMOKE. Open your flue damper only when your fireplace is in use; otherwise make sure it’s closed. An open damper acts like a big hole in your house – because it IS a big hole in your house! – so it wastes energy, makes your heating and cooling systems work much harder than they have to, and sends your dollars up the chimney. Over time, all that heating up and cooling down can warp or crack a damper so it doesn’t seal well (a cold draft in the winter through a supposedly-closed damper is a tell-tale sign), in which case you can install a chimney balloon to plug the flue. They’re cheap, effective, easy to install, and easy to remove when you want a fire – or to clear the way for Santa.
10 SIMPLE ACTIONS -> 1 BIG EFFECT. (1) Turn your water heater down – 120 degrees is plenty hot. (2) Use cold water for laundry. (3) Set your fridge and freezer temperatures to their highest recommended settings (generally, 37 degrees and 0 degrees, respectively). (4) Make sure “sleep” mode is active on your home and office computers. (5) Turn the thermostat up a couple degrees in the summer, and down a couple in winter. A little too cold/hot? Get in the habit of first adjusting what you wear. (6) Turn stuff off – lights, TVs, etc. – when you leave the room. (7) Line dry your clothes – even eliminating just one dryer-load a week will help. (8) Shave a couple of minutes off your shower time, and turn the water off while you lather up. (9) Close your shades/curtains/shutters at night to keep heat in during cold months, and during the day to keep the sun out in the summer. (10) Run only full loads in your washer, dryer, and dishwasher.
9 BIGGER ACTIONS FOR THE LONG HAUL. (1) Switch to buying green power from your public utility. (2) When you buy new appliances, make sure they’re top-rated for energy efficiency. (3) Insulate your attic, exterior walls, basement, and crawl spaces. (4) Got a south-facing roof? Install solar electric panels. (5) Replace old, inefficient HVAC equipment with a high-efficiency furnace, air conditioner, or heat pump. (6) Install a solar hot water system. (7) Replace single-pane windows with double-pane. (8) Go geothermal for your heating and cooling. (9) Make your next car a hybrid.
“PLASTICS.” If you’ve seen Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic “The Graduate” (and if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you should) you’ll remember these immortal lines:
Mr. McGuire: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
Benjamin: “Yes, sir.”
Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”
Benjamin: “Yes, I am.”
Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”
Immortal lines; immortal substance. That’s the big problem with plastic – it virtually never goes away, never breaks down. (Well, one of the big problems. Another is that it’s made from a nonrenewable source – petroleum – whose extraction can be very non-earth-friendly.) It’s been pointed out that 99.99% of all plastic ever made is still hanging around, and is piling up at an increasing rate every day. We probably can’t eliminate plastic from our lives, but with a little attentiveness we can almost certainly cut back. Decline plastic bags for your purchases, avoid bottled water, steer clear of products that come in a lot of plastic packaging, and always, ALWAYS recycle everything plastic that you can.
FISH STORY. In general, more fish in your diet = a healthier diet. Make sure, though, that your fish choices are healthy for the planet as well. The best options come from healthy, well-managed populations which are caught or farmed in environmentally sound ways: Alaska halibut and salmon; albacore tuna (US, Canada); Arctic char; Atlantic mackerel; clams/ mussels/oysters/shrimp (farmed); Oregon shrimp; Pacific sardines; stone, snow, or Dungeness crabs (US), trout (farmed, US). Avoid overfished species or fish that are caught or farmed in ways that do considerable harm to the environment: Atlantic salmon (farmed); bluefin tuna; caviar (imported); grouper (imported); mahimahi (imported); marlin; orange roughy; shrimp (imported); snapper (imported); swordfish (imported).
BZZZZ… [SWAT!] There’s a reason why “bug” is a verb as well as a noun. But if you are considering using a mosquito spraying service, or if you already do, please think long and hard about what you’re doing. Read the “fine print” concerning the products used and their effects on the environment, your and others' children and pets, and local flora and fauna. The most common mosquito spraying agents, pyrethroids, are legally advertised as “natural,” but they are also extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life; to bees, butterflies, ladybugs, mantids and other beneficial insects; and to humans and their pets if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. If there are any cracks in the foundation of a house that is being treated, the sprayer must advise the people who live there to leave the house and take their pets with them during each application. Note the phrase: “each application” – all this damage to the world around us gains only a temporary respite, with little to no long-term effect on mosquitos. Are you sure you want to pay someone to repeatedly endanger your family, your pets, and all life around your property? Wouldn’t a bit of bug repellent on yourself and your children be a more effective and less harmful solution?
SOMETIMES YOU CAN BE TOO GREEN. $40,000,000,000 – that’s what Americans spend every year to keep our lawns lush, green, and manicured. That is a big chunk of change, people. And a lot of that money goes toward the purchase of various chemical “-cides” – pesti-, insecti-, herbi-, and fungi- – that yield lovely-looking green grass and a not-so-lovely toxic environment. Then we trim those lovely, toxic lawns with gas-powered mowers which emit as much pollution in one hour as a car does in traveling 100 miles. Go (less) green! Put your lawn and garden on a “-cides” diet, and, if you must use supplements, make sure they’re organic. When the time comes to replace your mower, consider a manual “reel” model – good exercise and zero emissions! If that’s just not feasible for you, why not go in with a neighbor and share ownership of an electric mower (or any lawn equipment, for that matter)? Sharing means that fewer resources are needed to extract, manufacture, ship, and store those items, and leaves more money in your pocket.
RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY – IMMEDIATELY! INTO THE RIVER! Too often that’s just our approach. We allow heavy summer rains to wash millions of gallons of water directly into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers – water that is too hot and too suffused with petroleum, chemical, and other pollutants to be healthy for our rivers. Solving this problem is largely a simple matter of slowing the process down, and letting the planet’s natural through-the-ground filtration system work its magic. Set up a rain barrel system to capture run-off from your roof before it hits the street, and use that water when you need to water your lawn, garden, and trees. (DC residents can obtain rain barrels for free through the Department of the Environment’s RiverSmart Homes Program, and they’ll set them up for you, too!) Where rain barrels aren’t appropriate, make sure your downspouts drain into pervious areas (permeable – not impervious) such as lawns, shrubs, gardens, trees, to spread out the “surge,” keep plants healthy, and let natural filtration work for the health of our natural waterways.
WHY BE A “LOCAVORE”? Experts – and man, aren’t they a pesky bunch? – tell us that each item in a typical American meal has traveled about 1,500 miles, on average, to reach our table. It takes 10 times more energy calories to produce, package, and ship that food than we take in from it! That’s why it’s important to “localize” your food supply as much as you can. Growing your own is at the top of the list, of course – you just can’t get more local (and more healthy! and more satisfying!) than your own garden. Other good choices: patronize farmers’ markets, join a Community Supported Agriculture arrangement (there are several possibilities in the St. C’s neighborhood), and buy products like apples, potatoes, and honey from the closest possible source. Buy local, and reduce the energy that’s needed to get food from the farm to your fork.
BOTTLED WATER MADNESS. Madness?!? Really?? Well, consider the following…. Despite having just about the safest, purest water in the history of the planet available instantly, on demand, right out of the tap, Americans consume about 50,000,000,000 disposable bottles of water annually. That’s 50 billion, people! It takes more than 17 million barrels of oil to produce those bottles, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. (And that’s not even including the oil used to get those bottles to market!) Adding insult to injury, we’re lackadaisical recyclers – every year about 38,000,000,000 used-once water bottles end up in landfills (at best) or as very long-term litter. But wait – there’s still more! Bottled water is also ridiculously expensive. Drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day is gonna cost you about 50 cents a year out of the tap. In bottles? About $1400. And do you want to know a crazy little secret? The product that the giants of the bottled water industry, Pepsi (Aquafina) and Coke (Dasani), are selling is: […drumroll, please…] municipal water! The same water that comes out of your tap!
Stop the madness; ditch (figuratively!) the bottled water. Get yourself a reusable bottle or two and become friends with your tap. If you want to filter it, water pitcher filters or filters you can attach to your faucet work great. Hydration is important for good health, and the way you hydrate is important for the health of the planet.
WE ARE COOKIN’ HOT! Humans cook food. Cooking is a key distinction between us and other animals, and may even have contributed to our eventual emergence at the top of the animal heap. So we’re gonna cook. But, armed with a little knowledge and a little common sense, it’s pretty easy to green up the way we cook. First, use the most energy-efficient appliance for the job: the toaster oven, microwave, and convection oven all use less energy than a conventional electric oven. It takes a lot of energy to heat up your oven, so when you do use the oven, try to cook in quantity. Turn the oven off and use its residual heat for the last few minutes of cooking (ditto for cooking on your stovetop, if it’s electric). Minimize oven cooking in the summer. Use your microwave to partially precook hard vegetables before you put them in the oven or on the burner. For stove-top cooking, match the burner and the size of your pan – a 6-inch pot on an 8-inch burner wastes 40% or more of the burner’s heat. Use lids whenever possible, to keep the heat inside the pan where it belongs. And finally, keep in mind that small appliances, such as slow cookers, bread makers, and pressure cookers, are generally much more efficient than their larger counterparts.
LEAVE NO TRACE – AND THEN SOME. One of the great, great advantages of living in the Washington area is the abundance of glorious outdoor spaces right at our collective doorstep – that great urban jewel, Rock Creek Park; the C&O Canal; Great Falls; the National Zoo; the Mall and its awe-inspiring monuments; the Arboretum; the list just goes on and on. Expanding to places somewhat further afield gives us the spectacular Shenandoah Mountains, the Chesapeake Bay, the Poconos, “wild and wonderful” West Virginia – an embarrassment of natural riches. Enjoy them! And when you do, turn your “Leave No Trace” dial all the way to “Extreme.” Don’t just leave the places you visit as good as you found them – leave them better than you found them! Tuck a small bag in your purse/pocket/backpack and pack out not just your own trash (of course!) but other stuff you come across that shouldn’t be there. Why not? Just think: YOU have the power to make wonderful places even better!
PLASTIC BAGS – WASH AND RE-USE, OR STRAIGHT TO RECYCLING? Since the dawn of time – well, ok, since the early evening of time – humankind has pondered the question: Is it better to wash plastic bags and reuse them, or does that use more resources than it saves? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an excuse to do away with that annoying little chore? Sorry, Charlie. The estimates are rough, but painfully clear. Yes, it’s probably true that you’ll use more water to wash a single bag than it took to make that single bag. It’s all the other costs – most importantly, the energy and environmental costs of extracting the raw materials and manufacturing the bags, emissions from transporting them, and the pressure they put on landfill space – that make washing well worth the effort, say experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Simply put, for every bag you reuse, one less bag needs to be produced, and that’s where the resource savings enter the picture. So keep washing those bags, people, until it’s time for the recycling bin – it’s the right thing to do.
SHOULD WE DISPOSE OF DISPOSALS? Another age-old question: Do garbage disposals despoil the water supply and/or overtax waste treatment systems? Or are they green machines, reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills and the energy needed to do the sending? The answer is a resounding “it depends.” The research is unambiguous about one point, though – under normal circumstances, you should always compost if you can. If you don’t compost, go ahead and use your garbage disposal under the following conditions: (1) Water is NOT a scarce commodity in your community. In the DC metro area this is rarely a problem, thank you very much, Potomac River. (2) Never put greasy/fatty material in the disposal – it can block pipes. (3) Your local water-treatment plant captures methane and turns it into usable energy. Methane is produced very rapidly in landfills, and is very difficult to capture efficiently in those circumstances. In the District and the surrounding MD suburbs we’re in luck. The Blue Plains treatment facility is state-of-the-art in terms of methane capture, scrubbing technology, and innovative methods for turning waste into energy and/or fertilizer. So for us the bottom line is: hold out the grease and fat, but otherwise your good old garbage disposal is the green choice. (Sorry – the jury is still out for northern VA residents. Staff of various Arlington County agencies have failed to respond to Ask Mr. Green’s repeated inquiries about methane capture at the county’s Water Pollution Control Plant.)
NOW THERE’S PROOF.[for April Fools’ Day] “Greenies” have known these things intuitively for years, but now the proof is IN. Recent scientific studies confirm the following seven facts: (1) People who recycle religiously (!) are 87.4% more appealing to whichever sex they want to be more appealing to. They are also judged by their peers to be “waaay better dressers.” (2) Hanging a load of laundry out to dry, instead of using a dryer, burns as many calories as are ingested in consuming a very generous slice of pecan pie. Or strawberry-rhubarb. Whatever. (3) 73.8% of all happily married couples first locked eyes together at a Farmer’s Market. (4) Installing a rain barrel will help that kinda gimpy knee that’s been bothering you lately. (5) Except in extraordinary circumstances, eating a vegetable-intensive, low-meat diet renders a person incapable of committing a social faux pas. (6) No MacArthur “genius” grant has ever been awarded to a person who drove when he/she could easily have walked. (7) The precise mechanism is unclear, but teenagers whose families maintain a compost pile exhibit only 34.8% of the parent-directed eye-roll behaviors of their non-composting counterparts. That’s fewer than 4 per day!
HEALTHIER YOU, HEALTHIER PLANET. At just about the same time every year (early January) the normally-svelte Ask Mr. Green tops the scales at about, oh, 9,000 pounds. Here are a few simple, easy-to-follow guidelines for healthy eating – healthy for you and for Mother Earth – throughout the year. (1) Eat more plants. Make vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, etc. etc. etc. the center of your diet. (2) Don’t consume more calories than your body needs. How will you know? Your scale is a pretty good indicator. If your weight is going up, you need fewer calories going in (or more going out, or both). (3) Eat less junk. You know what junk is – it’s food with lots of empty calories, lots of sugar and salt, processed to a fare-thee-well, and designed and promoted to be irresistible. Resist; a little won’t kill you but don’t eat very much of it. (4) Eat a variety of foods that you like. Plants are good, junk food isn’t – and then there’s a huge array in the middle to graze across in moderation. (5) Find the joy in food; having to eat is one of life’s great and simple pleasures, after all. Look for that pleasure in every meal. (Hint: Sharing food is an almost guaranteed pleasure-enhancer.) (6) Be the cook! The more you cook your own food, and the better you cook, the better you’ll eat. And speaking of pleasure: It’s hard to beat the profound satisfaction of feeding a wholesome, home-cooked meal to people you love.
COMPOSTING 101. Got a little space in a corner of your yard? Become a composter! It’s a win-win-win-win situation: nutrients for your lawn and garden; diversion of household waste away from the garbage can and back into use; benefits for the environment (a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers); and reduced pressure on already-overburdened landfills. It’s also just plain old satisfying. And here’s all it takes:
- Start your compost pile on the ground, so worms and other beneficial organisms can access the pile and work their magic. It can just be a pile, or you can fence it in a little to contain it.
- For the bottom layer use a couple inches of twigs or straw to aid drainage and aeration.
- As best you can, try to alternate moist and dry materials in subsequent layers. The most common moist materials are vegetable-based food scraps (avoid meat and dairy products); dry materials are straw, leaves, sawdust, wood ashes, etc. Think small: Big stuff will eventually break down, but a little up-front effort to make things smaller – chop up those broccoli stems, for example, and crush those egg shells – will make the whole process go much faster.
- Add manure (chicken, cow, or horse – not pet waste), grass/lawn clippings, or any nitrogen source. Nitrogen activates the compost pile and speeds the process.
- Keep the pile moist. Rain will usually do the job, but you may need to water the pile occasionally during dry spells.
- Cover the pile with anything you have – wood, plastic sheeting, carpet scraps. Covering helps retain moisture and heat, two essentials for compost, and prevents over-watering from too much rain. Compost should be moist, not soaked and sodden.
- Every few weeks give the pile a quick turn with a pitchfork or shovel. Oxygen is required for the composting process to work, and turning "adds" oxygen.
- Once your compost pile is well established, add new materials by mixing them in.
That’s Composting 101. Need a little more guidance? There’s LOTS of good information on the web – for example, check out this site.
“DE-ICER? NOT NICE, SIR,” says Mother Earth. Despite claims to the contrary, there really is no such thing as a completely “environment-friendly” sidewalk de-icer. The time-honored method – shoveling or sweeping your sidewalk, chipping away ice, and laying off the de-icer – is still the best approach. And it’s the only one that will build muscles and burn fat! In extreme circumstances – that is, when icy walks present a real danger to public safety – your most eco-friendly option is to use fine sand or ashes in moderate amounts. Both will help with traction and assist the sun in melting ice. Whatever you do, please DON’T use rock salt, or other forms of sodium chloride. Yes, it’s amazingly effective at melting ice, but it's also a highly corrosive toxin that ruins soil, contaminates groundwater, and is harmful to pets. If you feel you have to use salt, at least switch from sodium chloride to potassium chloride, which is less corrosive. And make sure you are not using too much; a single handful per square yard is plenty. But remember: What your lawn and garden and trees and pets and birds and fish and car body and your own body REALLY want you to do is pick up that shovel and get to work!
MOM WAS RIGHT – AGAIN. Remember when you were 7, and you wouldn’t eat your [fill in the blank: lima beans, cauliflower, whatever – but probably some vegetable or other], and your mom told you it was wrong to waste your food? Well, she was definitely onto something. Solid numbers are somewhat hard to come by, but the best estimates suggest that, conservatively, about 40% of the food grown in the USA goes to waste, as does about 25% of the food and beverages bought by US consumers. We buy it and we throw it away, to the tune of about 100,000 tons every day! The dollar value of this waste is pretty staggering – more than $150,000,000,000 worth of wasted food every year, just in the USA alone. But the issue not just money out of your pocket – it’s much larger than that. The greater loss is that wholesome food that could have helped feed people in need feeds landfills instead. And that the land, water, labor, energy and other limited resources used to produce, process, transport, prepare, store, and dispose of that wasted food are diverted from other, much more beneficial uses. And that the long-run health of the planet suffers, because food waste, which comprises the largest component of municipal landfills, quickly generates methane, a prime “greenhouse gas” contributing to climate change. What can you do? It’s not rocket science. The #1 step is simply to be more aware. For excellent specific guidance, check out the suggestions at stopfoodwaste.org.
FOOD PACKAGING – IT AIN’T ALL BAD. In the past, tree-huggers like Ask Mr. Green have often complained about massively packaged, plastic-encased food. But even Ask Mr. Green has to admit that some forms of packaging, especially for meat, can be an environmental boon. Why? It all has to do with waste. According to the UN, up to one-third of the food that the world produces never makes it to the plate. And that has HUGE costs in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, not to mention all the wasted water, fuel, fertilizer and other inputs that went into producing that wasted food.
Much of that potential waste and harm to the planet can be avoided by simply extending the length of time that food can linger safely on shelves and in fridges. Effective packaging is a key part of that strategy. Especially for meat. Meat provides only about 1/6 of humanity’s caloric intake, but those calories are very disproportionally costly in terms of cash, resources, and environmental impacts. So when we produce meat, we want to be sure that we waste as little as possible. Wrapping meat in vacuum packaging prevents oxidation, allowing it to safely spend several extra days on shelves compared to simply wrapping it on a polystyrene tray or draping it behind a counter.
Obviously, there’s an environmental tradeoff here. Packaging itself requires resources to produce. But the downsides from creating that packaging are substantially less than those associated with food waste. For example, producing a ton of packaging causes the release of between one and two tons of carbon dioxide; a ton of wasted food releases twice that amount. And of course, a ton of packaging can protect way more than a ton of meat. In recognition of this fact, conscientious supermarkets that used to focus on curbing the amount of packaging they use now consider extending shelf life a more important environmental consideration. So yes, of course, it’s still good to minimize the use of plastic in your life, and yes, of course, you should ALWAYS recycle whatever plastic you can. But when it comes to effectively packaged meat, all that plastic ain't all bad.
COMPOSTING 102. Or maybe this is 101A? Anyway… a compost pile is the simplest, lowest-tech method of composting. Another way to go is to use a compost barrel. (*Or two – see below.) Reap the same great benefits of a compost pile – turning potential waste into beautiful organic nutrients for your lawn and garden – with a little upfront investment but also a little less mess and a little quicker turn-around. The basic ingredients are:
- A bin or barrel. There are many many good ones on the market – see, for example, this one..
(*) Composting Pro Tip: You might want to get two, so that when one is full, and still “cooking,” you can stop adding new ingredients to it and start to fill the other.
- An indoor collector for kitchen scraps. Here’s one that looks like what Mr. and Ms. Ask Mr. Green have in their kitchen. But again – there are tons of possibilities.
- A supply of biodegradable bags for your indoor collector.
Set your barrel(s) on a firm and level footing – they can be pretty heavy when full – and you’re ready to go! Start collecting your non-meat/non-dairy kitchen scraps. Remember to think small: Big stuff will eventually break down, but a little up-front effort to make things smaller – chop up those broccoli stems, for example, and crush those egg shells – will make the whole process go much faster. The optimal mix for your barrel/bin is about a 2:1 ration of “brown” ingredients (coarse/dry stuff like dry leaves/grass, woody plant stalks, shredded paper/wood, straw, etc.) to “green” (soft/wet – kitchen scraps, fresh leaves/grass, composted manure, etc.). If you keep a compost pile going as well, you can regularly dig into that and throw it into the barrel – which has the added benefit of introducing worms to the bin and setting them to work. You’ll pretty quickly develop a “feel” for the process, and know whether you need to add more brown or green ingredients. If you need more guidance, Mr. Internet can be a very good friend – check this out, for example.
IS CLIMATE CHANGE FOR REAL? IS IT CAUSED BY HUMAN BEHAVIOR? Yes and yes. The science behind those conclusions is deep, but what’s right on the surface is pretty darn compelling. For example: 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. The next hottest years on record were 2019, 2015, 2017, and … 2021. And after that the hottest years were 2018, 2014. 2010, 2013, 2005, 2009 ... you get the picture. We’re on an unfortunate roll, people, your classic hot streak. What’s the main culprit? A dramatic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide [see chart], the main cause of which is the burning of fossil fuels. This is why we think being “green” is important, because everyone should care about the health of the only planet we have, and everyone should try to live a life that exemplifies that care.