The ABCs of Being Green
Being earth-friendly means being animal-friendly, too. That's why many eco-conscious people are interested in products that aren't tested on animals. Today it's not just mice that are used as human surrogates to test products from shampoo to cosmetics—even dogs and rabbits are sometimes test subjects. To find products that haven't been animal tested, look for labels that say "cruelty-free" or "no animal testing," and research the products. The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) and Earth911 both offer consumer guides.
These materials can decompose under natural conditions, meaning they won't be hanging around for your children's children to deal with. Many companies are developing biodegradable products, so that your shopping bags, take-away cups and more won't spend a lifetime in the landfill.
Most moms know about Bisphenol A, commonly found in hard plastics including baby bottles, reusable cups, and in the lining of metal food cans. Studies have found that BPA exposure influences brain development, thyroid function, cancer, and obesity, among others, with infants and children most susceptible to its effects.
This sturdy, fast-growing grass is more than a decorative plant or a crunchy addition from your local Chinese take-out place: it's also an alternative to traditional building materials and fibers. While oak takes 120 years to mature, bamboo needs only three, making it infinitely more replenishable. Durable enough to be used in construction and flooring, it's also used as a textile for everything from sheets to clothing, and has been compared to cashmere in its softness.
Reducing your carbon footprint—the environmental impact of an action, such as how much greenhouse gas is emitted—is good for everyone and has become important to eco-savvy families. Shrink yours by turning off unnecessary appliances, reducing waste, and rethinking the ways you get around. "I don't live too far from work, so I started walking to save money on gas and reduce my carbon footprint," says Laurel G., a California Motherboard Mom. "I get up a half hour earlier to walk, and aside from saving money and being good for the planet, it's good for me, too," she says.
Disposable items, while convenient, have become a dirty word in these eco-friendly times. Opt instead for reusable materials that will have less impact at the landfill. "Paper plates, paper towels, napkins, plastic spoons, and forks have all been banished in our house," says Motherboard Mom Samantha P. of Oklahoma. "We spend more time washing dishes, but I feel good about not having bags and bags of trash to throw away after every event."
Thanks to the growing trend of using your own reusable shopping bags, the question "Paper or plastic?" has almost become obsolete. That's good news for the Earth: When you use your own bags, less greenhouse gas is emitted in the making of plastic bags, less plastic ends up in the landfill (where it takes 500 years to decompose), and fewer birds and marine animals die each year from encounters with plastic debris.
Produced by workers who have earned a living wage, Fair Trade products allows laborers in developing nations to support their families by sharing them with you. Look for the Fair Trade Certified label on goods like coffee, chocolate, and bananas and you'll be helping to promote sustainable development and community growth around the world.
Fuel-efficient vehicles save money on ever-rising gas prices while also keeping pollutants out of the atmosphere. "The fuel we burn in our cars fills the air with 1,300 million tons of CO2 each year: that's seven tons per driver, or about 80 times that driver's body weight," says David Bach, author of Go Green, Live Rich. "Changing what and how you drive can save you a small fortune, clean up the air we breathe, and help turn the tide on global warming." Consider a hybrid-electric car to reduce your expenses, or go carless once a week and opt instead for walking, biking, or public transit.
While the term "green" has become synonymous with eco-friendly living, some companies try to cash in on environmentally minded practices without the conscience to show for it. Do your homework by checking with sites like Consumer Reports Greener Choices to get the scoop without the spin on products and practices labeled "green."
One of the easiest ways to live greener is to grow your own food. When the source of your dinner is your own backyard, it's easier to drum up interest in healthy eating and your kids will connect the dots between growing and eating. Talk about local! Not to mention that you won't have to worry about unknown chemicals on your homegrown fruits and veggies and you'll reduce your grocery bill, too.
Indoor Air Quality
Most people are surprised to learn that indoor air pollution is up to 10 times worse than outside. That means keeping your household free of harmful particles is essential, says Bach. "It's a huge irony that the products we buy to keep our homes clean are the source of poisonous chemicals—toxins that cause cancer, asthma, and other lung problems," he says. He recommends making your own cleaning supplies or buying from environmentally trusted brands like Seventh Generation and Shaklee.
Want to see what you're breathing while you and the family are watching Dancing With the Stars? Try Techtron Labs' Indoor Air Quality Test Kit, available from greenhome.org. This mail-in kit assesses indoor air particles including mold, bacteria, and even carcinogenic fibers like asbestos.
The green movement thrives on reusing items. Enter Motherboard Mom Samantha P. of Oklahoma: "I save glass jars from sauces and dips, adding to my collection to be used as candleholders," she says. "Fill a quarter of the way with play sand, add a votive...beautiful! I have added wire around the top to a few so I can hang them outside!" Jars can be just the beginning of your recycle, reuse, refresh adventure!
Found on your electric bill, this unit of measurement reflects the family energy use. Small steps like replacing traditional lightbulbs with long-lasting compact fluorescents (on average, they use 66 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer), turning off the lights when you leave a room, and investing in energy-saving power strips can significantly reduce your household's energy expenditure, saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint.
Similar to the "latte factor," Bach coined this phrase to refer to the small, everyday purchases we often fail to think about. "The phrase applies to buying not only fancy coffee, but fast food, cigarettes,
bottled water—you name it," says Bach. Cutting down on these purchases can have significant effects on both your wallet and your waste: "If you have a habit of drinking a bottle of water a day, kicking it could save you $500 a year." And will keep those bottles out of the landfill.
If you're a proponent of the local food movement and are committed to eating food grown within 100 miles of home, you're a locavore. Shopping at farmer's markets and even growing your own food has many benefits, says Sara Altshul, author of Kitchen Cabinet Cures and contributor to the Whole Green Catalog. "You're not dealing with the pollution from shipping food, and because local farmers practice sustainable agricultural methods and are less likely to use pesticides, you're also benefiting the earth."
One indicator of poor indoor air quality, mold flourishes with moisture and can grow on many household surfaces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it may cause allergic reactions, aggravate asthma, and worsen respiratory problems. The EPA offers advice on how to remove and prevent mold at its website.
There are three letters that often precede important words in the green lexicon. Nonrenewable energy sources like coal, petroleum, and natural gas are found in limited quantities and can't be sustainably produced. That's why the green movement is keen on getting power from renewable resources like the sun and wind. The goal: to sustain our electricity usage and curb the negative environmental effects caused by burning fossil fuels.
Nonprocessed foods are better for the planet and you. At the supermarket, go with the Grandma test: would Gram have recognized every word on the ingredient list? "When an ingredient list turns your tongue into a pretzel, it's something you want to avoid," says Altshul. She believes food produced with little or no preservatives and chemicals are better for a family's health: "The diagnosis of kids with ADHD is rocketing and I can't help but make the connection between that and the highly processed foods that kids are eating, including fast foods."
Keep your house a haven by seeking nontoxic cleaning supplies free of harmful chemicals. "There's evidence that links traditional cleaning supplies to asthma, allergies, ADHD, and all kinds of harmful things," explains Altshul. She recommends shopping for nontoxic alternatives at your local supermarket or making your own with simple ingredients like baking soda and vinegar.
In a consumer society, companies use perceived or planned obsolescence to sell more: by making products appear out of style (perceived) or selling badly constructed products designed to fall apart (planned), consumers are forced to continue buying as landfill waste grows. Sidestep this with careful shopping that avoids the trendy items and focuses on quality. Be your own stylemaker!
Look for the USDA-Certified Organic label to guarantee your food is grown without pesticides. If you're worried about the grocery bill, consult the Environmental Working Group's list of high-pesticide foods. You'll be able to figure out where buying organic is essential (apples and other fruits where you eat the skin) and where conventionally grown is A-OK (bananas).
The energy used when appliances are off, also known as standby power or idle current, totals 5 to 15 percent of your monthly electric bill, according to Bach. He suggests putting everything on a power strip to be turned off at night and on vacations to save an average of $94 on your yearly electric bill.
Being inquisitive is key to living the green life. Don't take claims at face value: Bring your curiosity with you when shopping for household products, cosmetics, and food. For example: At the farmer's market, ask how produce is grown and harvested and how the animals are raised. Some organic farmers can't afford full organic certification but do use organic practices.
Recycling is perhaps the most prominent refrain of the push toward earth-friendly action. Paper tossed in the recycle bin may find a new life as a napkin or magazine, and glass and plastics can be reformed for future packaging. Many cities allow you to put recycling out like trash, making it easy to incorporate into your routine. Pair your trash can with a recycling can and sort your waste accordingly. (Better yet, make a third container of compost.)
Why bother? Every ton of paper that's recycled saves 17 trees. It takes 95 percent less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials.
Food, fabric, building supplies—you'd be surprised at how using your scraps can benefit the earth. Food scraps thrown into your compost bin can end up providing extra nutrition for your yard. Leftover fabric can be stitched together in a colorful quilt (your Grandma would be so proud!) or filled with lavender for drawer sachets. If you're not so good with a needle and thread, donate fabric to a local senior center where it will find a new life in someone else's capable hands. Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits will gladly use your building supply leftovers.
You wonder why you have so many garbage cans? The average American produces more than 4 pounds of garbage a day, according to the EPA! Much of that could be recycled. For example: A typical family consumes 182 gallons of soda, 29 gallons of juice, 104 gallons of milk, and 26 gallons of bottled water a year. That's a lot of containers hitting the trash if you're not recycling.
Where recycling remakes materials in a new form, upcycling creates entirely new products from them. For those daunted by upcycled products you see on the market, from notebooks made of tires and belts from a car's old seatbelt, don't be, says Bach. Upcycling in the home is easy to do and isn't fancy at all, he says. Turn an old sweater into a pillow, or punch holes into scrap paper and make it into a notebook with three rings. "It's these little things that add up to help the environment and your wallet in a big way."
Similar to traditional composting—using organic matter like food and yard waste in your garden—vermicomposting adds a secret ingredient: worms. How does it work? Worms or not, composting can help suppress pests and diseases and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Your garden will flourish and you'll reduce your landfill contributions by 50 percent. Starting your own system doesn't require much: Keep a small container on the counter for food waste and empty it into a compost pile or bin (you can build your own or buy one) in your yard. Many towns have also developed their own composting systems with curbside composting.
The next time you're planning a trip, consider a volunteer vacation. These nontraditional family trips are an excellent way to put your family values to work (literally) in a different part of the country or the world. "They can cost as little as $20 plus travel and expenses, but the memories will be priceless," says Bach. "You'll save money, have a terrific adventure, and provide valuable manpower on projects that are helping the planet and all its inhabitants." To get started, check out the Sierra Club or Habitat for Humanity.
This environmentally friendly alternative to dry cleaning lets you guiltlessly launder those "Dry Clean Only" garments. A professional wet cleaning involves a slow-rotating washer and steam, water, and biodegradable soap as cleansers in place of perchloroethylene (perc), a carcinogen used in traditional dry cleaning. To find a greener drycleaner near you, check out the EPA's guide.
This kind of landscaping reduces the need for supplemental irrigation, saving water. Even during times of drought or water restrictions, xeriscape plants—including some forms of lavender, salvia, and yucca—can survive and flourish.
That raked pile of leaves, those grass clippings—instead of piling them on the curb for pickup to the landfill, compost them. Just like food waste, yard debris can be a great source of nutrients and minerals for your garden, keeping weeds at bay and helping your garden retain moisture. And no energy is spent by trucks hauling to the already too-full landfill.
In a perfect world, we would all have no negative impact on our environment or would be able to offset any negative impact by reusing waste. No carbon footprint. Zero impact. While that's not very realistic these days, it's possible to reduce your impact in little ways every day as writer Colin Beavan demonstrated in his No Impact Man blog and book. For a year he and his family bought only local food, turned off the fridge, used no electricity or toxic cleaning products, produced no garbage—in the middle of New York City. If Beavan can do it, we can at least review our green ABCs!