Color Your Life
In the words of unsung eco-expert Kermit the Frog (frogs are the indicator species, after all), “It’s not easy being green.”
I know because I’ve tried. And although I didn’t exactly fail, I’ve had to face the inconvenient truth that I have a long way to go.
My intentions were noble: For one week, my kids and I were going to follow a strict green regimen to see if it could be done. Turning off lights, skipping the heat cycle on the dishwasher, and kicking paper plates and disposable flatware was easy. But somewhere between hanging our laundry in the basement to dry, cutting back on hot showers, stocking up on pricey organic foods, diligently utilizing the dozen-plus reusable grocery bags I’d amassed, and taking public transportation, things fell apart.
I’m lying. Things never really got started.
It’s not that I abandoned my original mission, but I did change the rules—on the rationale that a cold-turkey approach might not have as lasting an effect as gradually incorporating green “moves” into our daily routine. This, I hoped, would filter down to my five kids and, collectively, we’d make green our favorite color. So I made up my mind to do three green things a day.
A couple of online “How green are you?” quizzes resulted in an average score of 68 percent and a patronizing, “Of course, it’s hard to be totally green. But when you make a trade-off, you know why you’re making it.” A second test pronounced that I was ready to take the next step in my eco-commitment.
That, I was not so sure of.
I did break down and buy florescent light bulbs. But their annoying buzz in classrooms and libraries drives me crazy, so I’m thinking it’s just a matter of time before they start singing off-key in my home.
Transportation wise, I’ve got some serious work to do. I drive a lot, and I rarely carpool because it’s more of a hassle than a convenience. I had 15,000 miles a year on my last lease, and I overshot it by 2,000 two months before the lease was up. I didn’t get a hybrid this time around, either. But my 2008 Honda Odyssey has an EPA fuel economy rating deemed the best in its class for the mainstream minivan segment. And frankly, if there’s a hybrid out there that seats seven or eight, I’m sure I can’t afford it.
In frigid temperatures, I was always taught to warm up the engine, so I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my vehicle run for several minutes. Then I read that it’s completely unnecessary. So now I turn off the engine while waiting for the kids, and I’ve started driving a bit slower and consolidating my endless pickups and drop-offs.
Among my failures is not making a concerted effort to join a sustainable food co-op. Despite a few lengthy waiting lists, there are many to choose from. I’ve also put off starting a compost pile—and spring is just around the corner. Shameful—as is the fact that my pets don’t wear hemp collars.
On a positive note, I’m completely weaned off disposable cups, plates and flatware at work and home—and to punish myself for forgetting those fabric grocery totes seven out of 10 times, I use plastic bags to scoop kitty litter and clean up after the pups in the yard. And since I abide by the notion that everything looks better in semi-darkness, keeping lights off is not a problem.
Now I buy only fair-trade, organic coffee and (when the craving hits) chocolate. I’ve started paying more bills online, I buy recycled napkins, and I’ve never had an obsession with having a perfect lawn. I finally called PECO and requested information on alternative energy, and I’m keeping my dry cleaning to a minimum.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that you don’t have to go extreme to go green. It’s easier than you think. Here are some suggestions:
• Get a home energy audit. Then put your house on a diet. This winter had lots of Main Line residents on the verge of cardiac arrest every time their PECO bill arrived. (Trust me, I was one of them.)
• Buy a solar charger for tech gadgets.
• Use power strips and unplug electronics that aren’t in use. When you turn a light off, it’s off. Not so with your TV, computer, VCR and dozens of other appliances.
• Harvest rainwater in a rain barrel.
• Shut down the A/C and open a window, or turn on a fan. Air conditioning sucks energy, leaving the planet a warmer place when the day is done.
• Buy green energy. Wind is the fastest growing energy source worldwide. It’s clean, fuel- and pollution-free, and available in Radnor through Community Energy, which works with PECO to provide residences and businesses with wind-, solar- and hydro-powered energy. Opt for 100 percent of your electricity to come from wind, or just a portion. Ultimately, you won’t be saving a whole lot of money—PECO still controls the lines going into your home—but you will be doing the planet a favor. And the more people who sign up for renewable energy, the less expensive it will become.
• Wrap your water heater. Cut your fuel use —and save about $30 a year—by insulating your heater with a simple jacket available at most hardware stores for only about $20.
• Dam your toilet with a “tank bank.” It’s basically a puffed-up plastic bottle with a valve that keeps some of the water from flushing—you can even make one yourself. Better yet, replace your traditional toilet with one that uses less water.
• Fix that leak. A leaky faucet can waste up to 20 gallons of water a day—a leaky toilet, an extra 200.
• Cover old, inefficient windows with plastic. A simple window insulation kit will do the trick—and you’ll reap the benefits in the form of reduced heating bills.
• Hang wash outside on nice days.
• Limit dry cleaning—or cut it out completely.
• Wash clothes in cold water.
• Trade in old machines for Five Star Energy Label washers and dryers.
• Use low-impact detergent. Made in Philadelphia, Laundry Dropps (dropps.com) are phosphate- and enzyme-free, and biodegradable.
• Skip the sink prerinse and heated-dry dishwasher cycle.
• Choose appliances that run on natural gas.
• Compost your scraps.
• Skip paper or plastic products when entertaining.
• Use recycled paper towels.
• Limit other disposable products.
Groceries and Meals
• Use a reusable to-go mug for coffee. Twenty-five billion polystyrene cups end up in landfills each year.
• Reduce food miles and support your local economy by eating a few locally sourced meals a week. It’s one of the greenest things you can do.
• Take reusable bags to the grocery store.
• Buy earth-friendly cleaning and bathroom products. And use natural pet-care products.
• Buy dried goods in bulk.
• Eat organic and stick with seasonal fruits and veggies.
• Give up bottled water.
• Eat only sustainable seafood and limit your meat intake.
• Dig out that dusty crockpot for meals that leave a minimal footprint on your kitchen and your utilities. And use the microwave more.
• Cut down on take-away meals that use wasteful packaging.
• When eating green, know where to pinch pennies. Fruits and veggies like asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cabbage, kiwis, mangoes, onions, papaya and pineapples retain the least amount of pesticide residue. So save your money for the organic alternatives to foods laden with the highest amounts of pesticides, chemicals, additives and hormones. See our black list in the below sidebar “Live Free, Eat Free.”
• Grill conscientiously. Propane burns cleaner than either wood or charcoal briquettes. Cowboy Charcoal and other natural products are much cleaner than traditional briquettes. And when you’re done, use SoyClean organic grill cleaner.
• Stop junk mail. Visit dmachoice.org and ask to have your name removed from the mailing lists of Direct Marketing Association members. And put a stop to those unwanted catalogs.
• Pay bills online.
• Cancel magazine subscriptions in favor of their online counterparts.
• Buy books on tape.
• Send invitations through evite.com and other online resources.
More than just garb made with natural products, sustainable dress takes a hard line on manufacturing and fair-trade practices. If money is an issue, you can make changes to clothing you already have with creative alterations. A good resource for hip, eco-friendly fashion is Arcadia Boutique (arcadiaboutique.com), a Philly store that specializes in women’s clothing, accessories, vintage items and gifts. Its featured designers use green materials and support socially responsible production.
• Praise polyester. Cambridge University scientists discovered that a polyester blouse uses about 55 percent less energy over its lifetime than a cotton T-shirt.
• Wear organic fabrics such as hemp, wool and bamboo. But don’t jump on the bandwagon until you’ve done your homework on harvesting and fiber processing—which, in the case of bamboo, are unregulated. And while it comes from trees, Tencel requires energy- and resource-draining processing.
• Use cloth diapers at home and disposable when on the go. Cleaning cloth diapers taxes our water and electricity supplies, while disposables are blamed for landfill overload, ground water contamination and un-eco-friendly manufacturing. Most parents aren’t likely to give up disposable diapers completely, so try a compromise.
• Breast-feed. No formula. No bottles. No cost. No-brainer.
• Buy only organic baby food. Better yet, make your own.
• Buy organic sheets, bedding, blankets, toys and bath products.
• Adopt from a shelter.
• Buy pet toys and accessories made from recycled materials or sustainable fibers (sans herbicides or pesticides). Examples include hemp collars (with matching leashes) and pet beds made with organic cotton.
At the Office
• Have your company’s tech team show you how to optimize the energy settings on your computer. And be sure to shut it down when you leave for the day.
• Buy recycled printer paper with a high percentage of post-consumer content and minimum chlorine bleaching. Print on both sides of the page when possible and reuse misprints as notepaper.
• Choose printers and photocopiers with double-sided printing capabilities. And if you really want to make an impact, software from GreenPrint (printgreener.com) helps reduce the amount of paper wasted in the printing process. One percent of GreenPrint’s sales goes to environmental partners American Forests, Sustainable Harvest International, the National Forest Foundation and Friends of Trees.
• Recycle old electronics, which contain hazardous substances that can seep into air, water and soil.
• When shipping packages, reuse boxes and use shredded waste paper as packing material.
• Hire an energy consultant. It’s a great way to reduce energy consumption and costs.
• Drive green. Visit Media’s Go Green Automotive (gogreenautomotive.com) for used hybrids and refurbished cars that run on biodiesel and vegetable oil.
• Get regular tune-ups.
• Whenever possible, walk, bike or use public transportation.
• Turn off your engine when idling.
• Go green chip. Invest in companies that share your environmental concerns.
• Name your favorite green organization as a benefactor in your will. And let it be known that you’d like to depart this world in a cozy ecopod (ecopod.co.uk), a sustainable coffin made from naturally hardened, 100-percent recycled paper.
In the Community
• Embrace your inner hippie. Start a serious “go green” effort in your community. If you need some inspiration, look to Narberth Greens (narberthgreens.org), a community-based initiative that offers an excellent online resource created and maintained on a computer powered by 100-percent wind energy. The grassroots organization supports a sustainable business network, community “clean sweeps,” an Adopt a Storm Drain program, and the forthcoming NarbEarth Day April 22.
• Participate in community recycling and hazardous waste events. Delaware County hosts 23 “drops,” where residents can dispose of household hazardous waste. Coming April 26: the county’s first-ever computer recycling event (9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Emergency Services Training Center, 1700 Calcon Hook Road, Darby).
Sustainable travel is hot right now. Philadelphia’s Arcadia Boutique just launched Away@Arcadia (arcadiaboutique.com), an eco-minded travel consulting service that offers group trips, starting with one to Costa Rica and Brazil. They also book customized eco-vacations and eco-honeymoons. And Conshohocken-based Down2earth Adventures (down2earthadventures.com) specializes in “sustainable, low-impact and/or responsible travel.”
Live Free, Eat Free
Adhering to an organic diet has always been a pricey endeavor. But as food prices continue to escalate, it’s gotten even harder. And, not all markets are equally stocked with organic items. The easiest way to cut corners and still feel good about what you are eating is to target those foods that are laden with the highest amounts of pesticides, chemicals, additives and hormones, and aim your organic dollars in their direction. Here’s a list to help you get started:
Beef: The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that beef contains the highest concentration of herbicides of any food sold in America. The NAS also found that beef ranks second only to tomatoes as the food posing the greatest cancer risk due to pesticide contamination, and ranks third of all foods in insecticide contamination. Similar to milk and milk-based dairy products, many chemical pesticides end up in the animal, which end up in you.
Milk: Because pesticides and chemicals concentrate in the fatty tissues of animals, they’re passed on through their milk, along with antibiotics and bovine growth hormones. Organic dairies do not use antibiotics or growth hormones.
Coffee: Many of the beans you buy are grown in countries that don’t regulate use of chemicals and pesticides. Buy only Fair Trade-certified coffee.
Peaches: That ripe peach you’re craving comes with a coating of 45 different pesticides applied to their delicate skin. If you can’t find organic varieties, or they’re out of your budget, stay safe with watermelon, tangerines, oranges and grapefruit.
Apples: An apple a day is only good advice when it’s organic. You can scrub and peel all you want, but that won’t eliminate chemical residue completely (and you’ll lose many of their beneficial nutrients). Safe alternatives are watermelon, bananas and tangerines.
Sweet Bell Peppers: Peppers are one of the most heavily sprayed vegetables available. Worse, their thin skins don’t offer much of a barrier to the 39 pesticides commonly used to keep them insect-free. Safe alternatives: green peas, broccoli and cabbage.
Celery: Celery has no protective skin, which makes it almost impossible to wash off the 29 different chemicals that are used on conventional crops. Broccoli, radishes and onions are better choices when you can’t find organic.
Strawberries: The average dose of per-acre pesticides strawberries receive is 500 pounds. If you buy strawberries out of season, they’re most likely imported from countries that use less stringent regulations for pesticide use. Blueberries, kiwi and pineapples are good alternatives.
Lettuce: Leafy greens are contaminated with some of the most potent pesticides used on food. If organic varieties are unavailable, skip the lettuce and dive into a head of cabbage or cauliflower, or a container of Brussels sprouts.
Grapes: Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically. Vineyards can be sprayed with 35 different pesticides during different growth periods of the grape, and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape’s thin, permeable skin. Safe alternatives: blueberries, kiwi and raspberries.
Potatoes: Potatoes contain a high amount of pesticide residue, with the added contamination of fungicide-amended soil for growing. Bad news for us skin lovers. Safe alternatives: eggplant, cabbage and mushrooms.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are fragile, with skin that punctures easily, making it a poor barrier to chemicals that will eventually permeate the whole tomato. No, they’re not the same, but they’re safer, so when out of season, buy green peas, broccoli and asparagus.
ALSO: Foodnews.org has a ranking (worst to best) of 44 different fruits and vegetables. The 12 least toxic foods are:
For the full list, go to Test Results: Complete Data Set.
And to download a copy of Pesticides in Food – The Wallet Guide, go to Bad Residuals from Daily Reruns of “Eating Your Food”.
Q&A: Environmentalist Richard Whiteford
Downingtown’s Richard Whiteford and former Vice President Al Gore share a common foe: global warming. As a certified presenter of Gore’s award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the environmental consultant and writer tirelessly crusades on Mother Nature’s behalf, lobbying Congress and serving on legislative committees for conservation legislature. In 2006, he received the National Sierra Club’s Environmental Hero Award. Also that year, Voyageur Press published his book, Wild Pennsylvania. Whiteford is currently the Pennsylvania and New Jersey organizer for Defenders of Wildlife’s national outreach team, working with diverse grassroots constituencies and the media to increase public support for wildlife conservation and mobilize citizen advocates.
MLT: What is our region’s No. 1 environmental concern?
RW: Without a doubt, sprawl. Vital farmland and watershed areas are lost to development to the tune of 2 acres an hour. As the population increases, this land will be needed to grow food to feed these people. And by changing watershed areas from water-filtering and water-holding areas to water-runoff areas, we’re drying up our water supply.
MLT: What is your take on “greenwashing,” and what should consumers be aware of when buying products boasting ecological benefits?
RW: It’s “buyer beware.” For electrical appliances, look for the Energy Star label. The biggest greenwashing scam right now is the multimillion-dollar “clean coal” campaigns the coal industry is promoting. They are positioning commercials in the states where the political caucuses are taking place, and they have billboards along major highways promoting the use of “clean coal” as America’s answer to our energy needs. No matter how you scrub it, when you burn coal you get carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas. The process of extracting coal from the earth is an environmental travesty in itself. In parts of Kentucky and West Virginia, the coal companies are lopping off entire mountaintops and dumping the debris into the valleys, clogging streams and destroying entire ecosystems.
MLT: How does your lifestyle reflect your commitment to green living?
RW: My family calls me the light Nazi because I follow every one around the house turning off unneeded lights. My office is in Philadelphia. We own a Prius; my wife drops me off at the train station when I go to the office. I also work at home on some days. I use a push lawnmower. If enough people got rid of their gas-powered lawn equipment, it would make a huge cut in CO2 emissions. People don’t realize that a single gallon of gas puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere that has a half-life of 150 years. Consider: I live in a neighborhood that has around 700 houses. If 700 people in my neighborhood burn a gallon of gas on a Saturday morning mowing their lawns, they put 14,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere that will damage it for at least a century. That’s just from my neighborhood.
MLT: What are some low-budget ways in which people can implement a greener lifestyle?
RW: If everyone in America replaces just one incandescent light bulb with a mercury vapor bulb, the reduction of CO2 would be equivalent to taking a million cars off the highway. Grow more trees, flowers and shrubs, and less grass. This will cut the amount of mowing needed. Replace old appliances with Energy Star appliances. Use cloth bags to bring your groceries home from the store instead of plastic bags. Stop buying bottled water and drink water from the tap. Use your own travel mug instead of using Styrofoam cups when you buy coffee or tea. Drive less; buy an energy-efficient vehicle; take public transportation or carpool with a neighbor or friend when possible.
MLT: Of all the presidential candidates, who do you think will actually “show up” when it comes to environmental policy?
RW: If the election boils down to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton against John McCain, that will be a win-win for environmentalists. They all understand global warming and other environmental issues. Having said this, a president only has so much power. Congress is where the challenge lies. People need to do two things: They need to watch how their legislators vote on environmental policy, and they need to call or visit their legislators and demand that they vote to support good environmental policy. Democracy won’t work if the people don’t work it.
MLT: What plant and animal species native to Pennsylvania are facing the greatest threat?
RW: Pennsylvania has a very large list of plants—over 2,000 that are on the brink of extirpation. Most of that is due to habitat loss from sprawl, some from invasive species that choke them out. We have 18 mammals that are struggling to exist in Pennsylvania—the Indiana bat, the least shrew, the snowshoe hare, the Northern flying squirrel and the Delmarva fox squirrel, to name a few. Of course, the bog turtle is a big one in Southeastern Pennsylvania. And right now, we’re watching a shorebird called the red knot go extinct. The red knot relies on horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware estuary to fatten up to finish its flight to the Arctic Circle. Fishermen shovel horseshoe crabs by the pickup truck load and use them for eel bait, leaving little to nothing for the birds to eat when they arrive.
MLT: What legislation should voters be aware of?
RW: Right now, two forward-looking, science-based bills are making their way through Congress. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has introduced the Safe Climate Act, and senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have introduced the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act. As of July 11, 2007, 139 members of the House of Representatives and 17 senators have signed on as co-sponsors of these bills.
MLT: Do you think people really get the depth of the world’s environmental crisis?
RW: Not at all. If they did, we would see some very abrupt lifestyle changes—but we’re not. If people really “got it,” you wouldn’t see gas-guzzling vehicles on the highway anymore.
MLT: If you could impact just one issue, what would it be?
RW: Global warming. There isn’t a more serious threat to life on Earth than global warming. For over 650,000 years, CO2 levels never got to 300 parts per million. But now we’re at 383 and destined to surpass 450 in 30 years if we don’t cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent within the next 50 years. We know that 55 million years ago, CO2 levels reached 450 parts per million and caused one of the greatest mass extinctions on Earth. We cannot allow that to happen again. That’s why global warming is such an urgent problem.
—Dawn E. Warden