Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth day: it ain't easy being green

Time for our Earth Day checkup in this little experiment we like to call our household.

First, we did explore all the cleaning potential of vinegar, and it does a great job. Learned that if you don't like the smell you can add essential oil. I like tea tree and lavender myself, and lemon is good because we've been trained by the household product companies that lemon=clean. Check out Heloise for all your vinegar uses. She has the most useful column in the entire newspaper, in my opinion. My big setback in this department is my stockpile of cleaners purchased from my local Sam's Club in a fit of nesting. I don't feel comfortable just pitching it all out, so I use it sparingly when needed. What I find though is that I don't actually need the chemicals in most cases, so i save the really harsh stuff for like scrubbing grease film off the range hood or persistent rust stains from the sink. That does not include drain cleaners and bowl cleaners. We've managed to get through the year using natural means of unclogging things and cleaning toilets. And I've not purchased a single chemical product. ('cept the Swiffer stuff, but I'm working on that, okay?) We also learned, at 4am, that a good scrubdown with baking soda and water does an excellent job of removing puke-smell from a carpet. Next to explore: borax.

We've also taken good steps as a family towards getting away from harsh body products. I recalled in my camp days having used Dr. Bronner's magic soaps and now I find that they have a whole line of products. Good old peppermint is still my fave, especially for a bright morning shower, but like the lavender for bath time too. For the boys I happened upon the Rainbow Research products at my local Whole Foods Market. It has a nice natural fragrance that doesn't assault you with the pungent green apple or bubble gum smells of the regular products. Pricey, but they don't bathe as much as I might like so no big deal.

We took a step backwards in the single serving disposable department. For one, I am not giving up my Swiffer till the kids go to college. Just isn't happening. Also, our dear friends gave us a Keurig coffee maker for Christmas. Ken was ecstatic. I was not so much when I learned that you have to buy these expensive little coffee shell things for it, at an average cost of 50 cents a pop. However. It makes a damn perfect cup every time. And no wasted pot if you just felt like a cup or two. And you can get fair trade brands. And if you peel out the cotton liner you can recycle the plastic mini cups. And I'm dumping the grounds in the compost. And did I mention it's a really nice cup of coffee? In fact, since getting it I almost never go for coffee shop coffee anymore, so that's keeping me off the road, right?

For the first time ever I charted out our energy usage going back to '06. Happily I found that most of our utilities have come nicely down over the years. First we gave up watering the lawn. We've also been bumping the thermostat a degree a year or so warmer in the summer and colder in the winter, which really has worked out. In a failed experiment we also bought an electric space heater. Worked great and saved us maybe $70 on our gas bill over three months, but bumped up our electric by maybe $170 for the same period. Grr. Ah well try again. We're doing all the stuff they say to: compact flourescents (we'll be switching to LED's hopefully) cold wash for the clothes, we don't let the water run. I'd like to hang the wash in the summer but my suburb homeowner association doesn't allow it. Maybe we can get that changed! At any rate, it all helps and it all shows up on your bill too. Also two months ago we got all Energy Star appliances for the kitchen, so it will be interesting to track how that impacts our electric bills.

We continued using our cloth napkins, and the same package of paper napkins I bought for Zack's birthday party last year is still in the island. Speaking of parties I am jazzed that green is so in because now when we have a cookout or whatever I don't feel bad about hauling out my coffee cannister full of never-used Wendy's knife-and-fork packs that I save from trips to fast food, and the what we refer to as "heirloom gift bags." I am also feeling a lot more confident this year in scaling back the kids' birthdays, something I've really been wanting to do for a while now, but have been reluctant to do. We aren't giving up the party, just the scale and also making it no gifts (except for grammas of course; that would be a little much I think.) We have tried to tell people to scale it down in the past but for some reason they don't get it. They have sometimes actually bought more stuff, which just won't do. No kid needs a pile of 20 gifts for every birthday.

Speaking of the kids, we have greatly reduced our consumption of fast food this year. We are now down to once every other week, give or take. The boys are right on board with me on the kids-meals: another plastic toy made in China that will end up in the landfill won't do at all. My kids are 3 and 5 and they totally get it. In fact, the few times I let them have kids meals they hated the toys they got. So now we have three basic conditions for fast food: one, that we only have it sparingly because we are not eating anything good for us, two, that we don't need a crappy toy, and three, that we only stop if we are already out on another errand. They are perfectly happy to share the drink that comes with the ten piece nugget meal. The reason I added this little thing in here was because we try to make our kids aware of the process of what creates trash and what happens to trash. Watching endless hours of Dirty Jobs helps. They really seem to understand the whole concept of reducing being the most important part of the chain. They know what can and can't be recycled, and they even will encourage us to buy the glass jar of peanut butter over the plastic one, because they know it's easier to recycle. Cool people, kids are. If you give them a chance they will wow you with their ability to learn and adapt. I also can't let this pass without saying, Nate learned to go potty! No more diapers, thank goodness, that was one of our two bags of trash every week!

We really went wild in the garden. This year we've planted (or will plant) peas, lettuce, carrots, beans, black eye peas, yellow squash, zuccini, corn, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cabbage, winter squash, melons, blueberries, various herbs, a pumpkin or two and green onions, a strawberry patch, and two each of blackberry and raspberry bushes. We are now looking at pear trees to add too. And we're getting a better composter to plop out in the middle of a butterfly garden. Craploads of work but totally worth it, considering I have the time. Hopefully we will get a lot of good local eats out of it, and if we're lucky we will recoop the cost of all the plants and seeds in a reduced food bill. My favorite garden book this year, at the advice of my friend Erin, was Square Foot Gardening. If you are interested in gardening but have limited space, check it out.

Finally we visited the government's carbon calculator widget. Very surprisingly we are doing ok. Well below the national averages for various things. But they give you a lot of ideas to improve your number.

Now we have a nice list of things to research and/or do in the upcoming year:

---Check out solar panels. Apparently the government gives you all kinds of tax credits, plus I love the idea of being "off the grid" and not having an electric bill. Kind of a daydream right now, but it could be very worthwhile in the long run.
---Check out window replacement. This is a little more affordable for us, and likewise you get a tax credit.
---Make a better effort at only buying clothing that is either thrifted or made from natural fibers, scrupulous companies and sustainably. I really drop the ball on this cause I have two little boys and there's this Old Navy, like right down the road...
---Start using the LED light bulbs in the house.
---Do a better job of combining trips in the car (did great when the gas was $4 a gallon)
---Have a clean sweep garage sale, after which we donate all the unsold stuff to the kidney foundation or Amvets.
---Really get back into the simple habits: shutting off the tap, turning off the lights, and heck maybe not even watching so much tv.
---Pay more attention this year to buying less heavily packaged stuff. We have a bag of trash a container of recycling most weeks but I think we can do better!

I like to post these conversations because I feel like the dialogue on the environment in the country is a little, well, crazy. The celebs tell us to take public transport and use one square of TP while they jet off in their private jets, which they of course "offset their carbon" because of the power of their message. Balls. I'd rather hear real stuff that real people do to do their part, not because Washington or some pop star said to, but because conserving our resources and protecting our ecosystem is just plain the right thing to do. We can't all run out and buy a hybrid, and honestly if you already have a good, efficient vehicle that you maintain well, I don't think you should until you are actually ready to do so. But we can all be aware of things like the continent of trash floating in the Pacific, leading to the fish bellies full of plastic, among other things, and maybe take a moment to ponder that before tossing that empty water bottle into the regular trash. We also don't need to erroneously politicize the environmental movement like we do everything else (and I aim that on both directions, if you get my meaning.) I believe if we take care of things in many small ways, on our own, we can accomplish a whole lot.


  1. wow! you are amazing!!!!

    we're pretty green here - but not nearly as green as you are. wtg!!

  2. You're too kind! Actually I would say about 80% of my drive to environmentally goodness has been to save money. More green in my pocket.