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12 Ways to Go Green

By Joe Wilkes
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EarthOne of the things we all want to do is to become more environmentally conscious and slim down our carbon footprint—the measure of our impact on the environment. From sweeping changes like making our packaging "greener" to little things like switching to filtered tap water at the office instead of using big plastic water cooler jugs, we're trying to do our part to try to make our planet as healthy as we try to make our bodies. After all, no matter how much we work out and eat healthily, if our environment is sick, before long, we will be too. Here are some ideas for going green. You might not become Leonardo DiCaprio or Al Gore overnight, but just changing one small habit every month could add up to a big difference for the planet and your pocketbook too.

Raid the refrigerator

Crappy RefrigeratorI've been in the same apartment for about 10 years. And the apartment came with a refrigerator that had been there a lot longer than that. My first clue that something might be up with the door seal was the layer of rust that pitted the length of the door. My second clue should have been that my electric bill was about $80 to $100 a month, which is pretty steep for a one-bedroom apartment, even in L.A. Finally, last year my fridge gave up the ghost and my landlord sprung for a new Energy Star-rated fridge. Not top of the line, but a decent $400 model. My electric bill dropped $60 the first month. If I had bought that fridge when I moved in, I would have paid it off in electricity savings in just over six months, and I would have pocketed around $6,800 that instead I parceled out to Southern California Edison over the years. Try placing a dollar bill in your refrigerator door—if it comes out too easily once the door is closed, you might have a bad seal. By having your refrigerator resealed or by upgrading your refrigerator, you can save a LOT of money, not to mention what you're doing for the planet. Refrigerators are the worst power consumers, but it's worth checking all of your appliances, including air conditioners, televisions, microwaves, etc., to see if they are Energy Star-rated and if it might be worth your while to upgrade. Some electric companies will offer incentives to replace power-abusing appliances.

Don't be a dim bulb

Fluorescent BulbYou've probably seen more and more of these spiral-shaped fluorescent bulbs around. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) cost a bit more than regular incandescent bulbs but only use about a quarter of the electricity—one bulb can save you up to $30 over the course of its lifetime (which is long, up to 15,000 hours compared to the paltry 750 to 1,000 hours of the incandescent bulb). Count up the light bulbs in your house—that's a lot of money saved. With numbers like that, you can see why countries like Australia have begun phasing in these super-green bulbs by law, and have started banning incandescents. But even on a voluntary basis, the green you save by going green should be a pretty good incentive. For those who believe fluorescent lighting is too cold and don't want their living area lit like an airport restroom, take a look at the newer CFLs—as they've grown in popularity, manufacturers have developed new ways to adjust their color temperature. People who visit my CFL-lit abode can't even tell I've replaced my incandescents—and my electric bill dropped another $5 a month. Again, check with your electric company to verify whether any incentive programs exist for replacing your bulbs with CFLs.

Sack the plastic bag

Cloth BagOnce better recycling techniques were developed for plastic bags, supermarkets were off to the races using the cheaply produced plastic bags. They even put the paper bags in plastic bags. The problem: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that only about 1 percent of the bags get recycled. The rest end up in landfills or as litter, where they begin their 1,000-year decomposition process, leaching their petrochemicals into the soil and groundwater. Other bags go on to become toxic threats to wildlife and sea animals. Many stores have begun refusing to carry these eco-terrors, and almost all now offer some reusable alternative at a reasonable price. Some supermarkets offer discounts or prize drawings for customers who bring their own bags. Plus, the cloth bags are a lot nicer—they don't dig into your hands. And since I keep about 20 in the back of my car (because about another 10 are usually forgotten in my apartment), I always have padding for fragile items.

Ban the bottle

Plastic BottlesWe've featured a number of articles in this newsletter about the putative health benefits of bottled water, and largely, we don't believe the hype. The bottled-water industry is largely unregulated, so you can never be 100-percent sure what you're going to get. Tap water, on the other hand, is heavily regulated by the EPA, in addition to state and local agencies, so you can be pretty sure what you're going to get. And there are plenty of affordable filters available to make the tap water taste as good as your favorite bottled brand. You'll save tons of money by switching to tap, paying pennies instead of dollars for a liter or two of the wet stuff, but more importantly, you'll be helping the environment in two ways. First, much like the plastic bags, the petroleum-based plastic bottles are largely eco-unfriendly. They can be recycled, but the ones that aren't end up on the millennium-decomposition plan with their plastic bag brethren. Secondly, there's the enormous transportation costs—especially if you're getting your fancy water shipped in from Fiji or Norway. Does American water really taste that much worse that it's worth polluting the oceans, the air, and the land to transport a bottle of H20 halfway across the globe?

Better bathroom habits

Shower HeadAnd we're not just talking about leaving the seat up or down. Our morning hygiene routines can be the most wasteful part of the day. Starting with brushing your teeth—if you leave the sink running while you brush your teeth for two minutes, about three gallons of water are going down the drain. Then when you hop in the shower, you're using 2.5 gallons of water per minute. And if your toilet's a bit on the older side, add another 5 gallons per flush. So a 2-minute tooth brushing, 10-minute shower, and toilet flush send a grand total of 33 gallons down the pipes. You can knock down the total by cutting your shower time in half. You can also install a low-flow shower head or faucet aerator, which can cut your water use in half and save you up to $250 a year. Also, if you still have one those water bottles that you stopped using in April lying around, you can fill it with water and put it in your toilet tank. By displacing the tank water, you'll have less wasteful flushes. Replacing your toilet with a newer low-flow model can reduce your flush from 5 gallons to as low as 1.5 gallons. And honestly, if your toilet is old enough to be a 5-gallon model, it's probably a little crusty anyway.

Shop local

Farmers' MarketSummer is the perfect time to start getting to know your local farmers' market. If you don't know where yours is, do a little Internet surfing—most communities have farmers' markets or at least cooperatives that allow you the opportunity to shop locally. The advantages are many. You help support your community. You get food so fresh that it may have been in the ground the day before. You can get food with fewer chemicals and preservatives or at least be able to look the producer in the eye and ask, "What's on your apple?" You can save money since you aren't paying for the food to be shipped from some faraway land, which wastes petroleum resources and causes air, sea, and land pollution as with the bottled water. If you have to shop at the supermarket, check what you buy to see where it's produced and try buying products produced locally. Also, don't be afraid to let your supermarket managers know that you'd like them to stock locally grown stuff. If they know you're interested, they'll also be interested. Even better, shop at independently owned grocery stores where the person making the buying decisions is on site.

Walk, don't drive

TrafficAs a resident of Los Angeles, this is almost heresy to say, but by getting out of your car, you'll be saving fuel and helping your health. You inhale way more pollutants when you're inside your car than when you're outside walking past the traffic. Plus, you're giving yourself huge cardiovascular benefits by getting out and stretching your legs. Think about all your daily errands and consider if any of them could have your car taken out of the equation. Even small changes in your routine can lead to big overall savings in gas and make you and the planet healthier. Think about carpooling or taking public transportation if it's available. You save gas and you can read the paper in the morning instead of cursing the slowpoke driving five miles per hour in front of you. If you have to drive, there are still some ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Try not to be a stop-and-go driver. People who habitually ride the brake and accelerator use up to 30 percent more gas than the people who drive more evenly. Keeping the pressure in your tires up is another way to make your drive more efficient. By losing the junk in the trunk, you can make your ride lighter and you use less gas. By keeping your windows rolled up, you reduce the drag on your car—your car becomes more aerodynamic and requires less fuel. And by going 50 miles per hour instead of 70, you can save 25 percent in fuel efficiency.

Less paper, more room

TrashIf there's one thing that single-handedly contributes the most to the messy rooms piled with junk that I call home, it's paper. By the end of every week I have a waist-high stack of newspapers poised to collapse in my living room. My bedroom floor is littered with subscription cards which have fallen out of magazines that I already have subscriptions to. The top of my desk is a distant memory, buried under stacks of mail mostly unopened. My bookshelves have been crammed to bursting, because apparently on my next day off, I plan to plow through the hundred or so books I impulse-bought to read in my spare time. All of this is at odds with the minimalist aesthetic I claim to pursue. I recycle as much paper as I can, but do I really need all this in the first place? Where to begin? First off, take a magic marker with you when you check the mail. Three magic words, "Return to Sender," or three others, "Remove from List," can begin to make your life a lot less cluttered and ultimately save a lot of paper. Hopefully, people will stop sending you junk, or at the very least, the junk never makes it into your home. There are also services available online that for a small fee will get your name and address scrubbed from most lists. Check with your various credit card and utility companies to see if you can go paperless and receive your bills via email. Also, email the companies who send you catalogs to tell them you'd prefer to receive their information electronically. See if electronic versions of your favorite newspapers and magazines are available. Most have the extra advantage of having an online archive, so, unlike me, you won't have that milk crate full of old New Yorkers that you never had time to finish reading but couldn't bear to throw away. Get to know your library. You can save a fortune on books, and instead of taking up residence in your home, those books that turned out to be not-so-hot only visit you for two or three weeks.

One man's trash, another's treasure

Thrift ShopAs a consumer society, we literally have tons of stuff that we discard every year. Sure, a lot of it we should never have bought in the first place, but once we have it, we're stuck with it; and if we don't get rid of it, we can't get new stuff! We try to recycle the stuff we can, and can sometimes even talk the city into coming and picking up our toxic stuff like old fridges and TVs. But some stuff just seems destined to go to the junkyard or landfill. Before we let our misguided purchases shuffle off to begin their centuries of decomposition, however, try finding a new home for your soon-to-be-orphaned junk. Have a yard sale. It's a great way to make a little cash and meet your neighbors. You can get your neighbors involved with the sale too. Everyone's got some junk to get rid of. Or see if any of your local thrift stores or charities would be interested. Or try posting on a trading site like eBay or Craigslist—you might even make a buck or two. If you don't even think it's worth a buck or you're just feeling charitable, give the stuff away on Freecycle.org. The important thing is to keep it out of the landfill.

Go green when you clean

VinegarIf you're like me, the most toxic place in the house is under the kitchen sink. I have enough chemical solutions to start my own meth lab, which is probably a bit of overkill when all I really need is a little something to wipe off my stovetop once in a while. And the scary part—I'm spraying all my surfaces with these toxins and then making food on them. I'm paying top dollar to coat my kitchen in poison and then send toxins down the drain to pollute the groundwater or the ocean or wherever my drain ultimately goes. So I'm getting rid of my most hazardous cleaners and going old school with the cleaning. Almost all of your kitchen-cleaning needs can be handled with baking soda or distilled vinegar (although not together—remember those make-your-own-volcano science projects?). If there's something that these two cleaning titans can't handle, try Googling around for a green solution. There are message boards all over the place and someone must have found a way to solve the problem without having to resort to chemical warfare.

Veg out once in a while

VegetablesBeef, chicken, pork, lamb. They're all delicious, and in low-fat, preferably organic varieties, they're also nutritious. But the environmental cost of bringing meat to our dinner tables is huge. Rainforests are cut down to make way for grazing land. All of the cows bred for beef create an enormous methane problem, the old-fashioned way. Plus it takes thousands of gallons of water to produce meat, aside from the fact that it burns tons of fuel and creates tons of pollution to transport it. If we all went vegetarian, or even better, vegan, just one day a week, it would make an enormous impact on the environment. A veg-out day could have cleansing properties for your body and make it a bit easier on your pocketbook.

Have a green Christmas

LED Christmas LightsThe lights, the sounds, the presents—the holidays are here. And even the Grinch wouldn't ask us not to indulge in our annual festival of excess, but there a few things we can do to help the environment without spoiling the fun. Like try hanging LED Christmas lights instead of incandescents. You'll save a lot of energy for the planet and a lot of money on your electric bill. Buy recycled gift wrap. Or find creative ways to wrap presents that don't require gift wrap—like using reusable gift bags or making the gift wrap part of the present. I wrap my tabloid-loving friend's presents in the latest supermarket rag. Think about exchanging e-cards this holiday season. It's less of a hassle, saves a lot on postage, and helps the environment by saving paper and the fuel required to deliver the cards via snail mail. If you can't imagine the holidays without a mantel full of cards, at least buy recycled cards. And when the holidays are over, you can take the fronts of the cards and donate them to various charities that recycle them and sell them to raise money the following year.

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