My week of green living

I'm green ... At going green, that is. That's not to say I'm eco-oblivious. After all, I don't drive an SUV. I buy only cage-free eggs. I turn off lights when I leave a room.

I’m green … At going green, that is. That’s not to say I’m eco-oblivious. After all, I don’t drive an SUV. I buy only cage-free eggs. I turn off lights when I leave a room. My trunk is filled with reusable shopping bags-granted, they invariably come to mind only when I’m up next in the checkout line. And I’m a fierce nonbeliever in bottled water (can you spell S-C-A-M?).

"Good job!" said my mentor, green activist Sloan Barnett, author of Green Goes With Everything: Simple Steps to a Healthier Life and a Cleaner Planet (Atria Books, 2008). I was thinking Maybe this green schtick won’t be so bad! When she proceeded to give me my 13-step to-do list: things like tossing toxic cleaning products, swapping all the plastic containers in my kitchen with glass and buying organic foods.

All right, so maybe this is more complicated than I thought. But that’s OK; I can read labels and toss (er, recycle) plastic; heck, I like Whole Foods …

DAY 1 Green awakening

Other people gulp a shot of O.J. to wake up. My eye-opener? Brushing my teeth. And until today, I’d just let the water run while I did my ADA-approved three-minute routine. But this time I used a little water to moisten the paste, then turned off the faucet until it was time to rinse. No sweat.

I also skipped my usual Starbucks (sure, the paper cup is partly made of recycled material, but still …) and instead boiled a cup of water and tossed it over some Folgers granules. With some organic half-and-half, it was actually tasty, and I got to sip it while putting on my makeup. If I make this a habit, my boss and my bank account will thank me-the former, for being alert upon reaching the office; the latter, for saving several bucks a day.

Then there was the grooming. Barnett says, "Pick one product a week and replace it with a safer, greener choice." This morning, I made not one but two switches: 1) I used an Alba Botanica organic moisturizer and 2) applied a Body Shop foundation. All of the Body Shop’s products are natural, not animal-tested, made of sustainable raw ingredients and packaged in eco-friendly material. Even better? It makes my 47- year-old skin look smoother! Proof positive: Completely unsolicited, a 28-year-old colleague told me I look younger now than I did a year ago.

DAY 2 Pedi-power

I walked to work today. It’s 3 miles door to door and takes about 50 minutes. I even carried a tote with some green gear-a mug, a set of silverware, my son’s circa-1993 Power Rangers bowl and a home-packed … well, let’s call it "lunch": two hardboiled eggs and an oat ‘n honey bar. While perhaps not the greenest foods on their own (an apple would have been a better eco-choice than the prepackaged bar), they did save me from having my customary $5 bowl of tomato-cheddar soup driven to my office, thus sparing the world some fossil fuel while reducing demand for plastic containers.

But back to the walk. It was invigorating and gave me a chance to organize my thoughts. And since I was actually trying to get somewhere, it was a lot more motivating than, say, circling a track or using an electricity-sapping treadmill. Footnote: A coworker who spotted me en route asked where I was walking from. When I said "Home!" she looked duly impressed … and I felt pretty proud of myself.

(Clearly such foot-powered commutes are impossible for some folks; if that’s you, Barnett recommends taking public transportation, car pooling and avoiding gas guzzlers.)

DAY 3 The paper chase

I’m sorry. I can’t give up my New York Times. Sure, tree huggers recommend reading it online, but curling up with my laptop? I don’t think so. Plus I’ve never read a paper or magazine I didn’t pass on to another reader. Take that, carbon footprint!

What I can give up? Those mailboxclogging catalogs. I actually weighed the tomes in my mailbox this morning-they came to a whopping 4.5 pounds! So I logged on to www.catalogchoice.org, a free service that lets you pick and choose which catalogs you do-and do not- receive. Farewell Pottery Barn, Neiman Marcus, Ulta, Bloomingdale’s …

And the mug I now keep on my desk means I can skip my daily Styrofoam cups. That’s a big deal, since, according to the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program (which analyzes how long it takes for objects to break down in the ocean), a single Styrofoam cup survives for about 50 years. And after wondering for years if the sheets of paper tossed into my office’s big blue container actually got recycled, I called the company administrator to ask. "Yep," she said, adding that recycling bins for glass and aluminum are on the way.

Good news all around! I thought as I reached for the daily "Priority List" memo that had just landed in my "in" box. I didn’t simply recycle it, I asked the woman who distributes the list if she could e-mail it to everyone instead. "Sure," she agreed. "I don’t see why not!"

DAY 4 Light right

I’m doing my very own energy audit today by leaning on the good folks at Energy Star, as per Barnett’s recommendation. To do so, I went to www.energystar.gov and clicked "Home Improvement." There, you can find tools and tips to assess and improve your own energy usage.
For starters, I focused on my air filters, figuring it was a bad sign that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d changed them. Shame on me, because dirty filters not only force your heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system to work harder and waste a ton of energy, they also cause a debris buildup that can lead to premature system failure-and a several-thousand-dollar bill.

The whole operation took just 10 minutes (mostly because I had to climb on a chair to replace a filter), and I felt foolish for having put it off so long.

Next, I went to my water heater and turned the temperature down from 140 to 120 degrees. Easy enough-and well worth the effort, since each 10- degree reduction shaves 3 to 5 percent off water-heating costs. And from now on, I’m washing all my clothes in cold water. No matter the instructions on your machine-washable garment, Barnett tells me cold is safe for everything.

Then, armed with new compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, I followed Energy Star’s advice and replaced the bulbs in my home’s five most-used fixtures. Each CFL shaves $20 to $30 off energy costs and lasts about four years. And since they generate less heat than incandescent bulbs, they’ll help my air conditioning operate more efficiently in summer.

Another Barnett tip: "Before you crank up the heat, try snuggling up in your favorite slippers and sweater." So when it was time for Top Chef, I wore my ratty Rutgers sweatshirt over a T-shirt, my favorite sweats and a pair of red crocheted slippers-and turned the thermostat down 2 degrees. I definitely felt toasty and Barnett says that small adjustment will cut my heating costs by 2 percent.

DAY 5 Unplugged!

I went wireless about two years ago, canceling my landline. Yet, until this morning, my cordless phone was still on the wall, plugged in. Bad, bad, bad, says Barnett, who explains that even if you’re not using certain appliances, keeping them plugged in leaves them in energy-sucking "standby mode." The Energy Department estimates that 25 percent of the power used by home electronics is consumed while they’re turned off!

While it’s not a panacea, I discovered a worthwhile device called the APC Power-saving Essential SurgeArrest ($24.99 on Amazon). Simply plug your computer, printer, scanner and monitor into the strip; every time your computer shuts down or goes to sleep, the strip cuts power to its peripherals.

DAY6 Shopping smart

I put it off till now. The supermarket run. Truth is, I’m a lazy cook. At the end of a long day, pregrated cheese on tortilla chips (microwave for 1:30) or a bowl of Grape-Nuts hits the spot. But it wasn’t just food I needed; there was still that matter of cleansers. Instead of taking the easy way out and going to Whole Foods, I decided to go to my ordinary supermarket, where buying organic might require some reading.
Following Barnett’s advice, I shopped the store’s perimeter first.

Some things in my cart: Earthbound Farm Organic Salad Mix, $3.99; organic broccoli, two heads for $4; organic red delicious apples, $1.69/pound; organic salmon fillet, $12.99/pound (versus $7.99/pound for nonorganic!); Land O’ Lakes Cage-Free All-Natural Eggs ($3.99); and Seventh Generation eco-friendly glass/surface cleaner, laundry detergent and dish liquid. (I logged on to www.seventhgeneration.com for $1-off coupons.)

I even had my reusable bags ready. How did I remember? I moved them from the trunk to the back seat, and wrote my shopping list on a Post-it note that I stuck to one of the bags. And when I got home, I made myself a broccoli omelet-on a non-Teflon pan. (At high temperatures, the coating has been proven to release up to 15 types of toxins. Safer? Cast iron, copper, stainless steel.)

DAY 7 Final thoughts

While I’m nowhere near being as green as Kermit, I’ve had a revelation: Simply keeping the environment top of mind when making everyday decisions-Can I bundle my errands and make one trip instead of five? Can I save my scraps of paper for the recycling bin rather than tossing them in the (more convenient) receptacle under my desk?-helps the planet.

What’s more, many of the steps I’ve taken this week have been one-offs. Changing light bulbs, turning down thermostats and investing in a surge protector are one-time-or once-in-a-while-activities that go a long way toward conserving energy. Admittedly, some of Barnett’s to-dos are a little daunting. Did I immediately get rid of all the plastic in my kitchen? No, but I am slowly switching over to more glass.

What’ll I do going forward? It’s like going on a diet: Consistency counts. So I won’t beat myself up for the occasional slip-up-like ordering in lunch or indulging in an extra-long, extra-hot shower-but I will be aware of the lapse and try to balance it out with an extra effort elsewhere. For example, I have a big old computer monitor that was bound for the trash heap. But I learned that Staples will recycle computers, so I vow to get rid of it responsibly-just as soon as I can find help transporting the behemoth!

And focusing on the rewards, even little ones, helps. Every time I see that "Priority List" e-mail, catch my daughter unplugging her cellphone charger unprompted or realize that the crossing guard recognizes me on my walk to work, I feel like I’m spreading green karma around. _   

How to get started

Sloan Barnett, author of Green Goes With Everything (www.greengoeswitheverything.com), set me on the path to green with these tips:

  1. Gather all your cleaning products and put any that say "Danger" or "Poison" or contain bleach and ammonia in a garbage bag. Next, call your sanitation department and ask how to dispose of them properly. Finally, replace them with green cleaning products. (If you must use paper towels, look for those made of 100-percent recyclable, unbleached paper. Better yet, use a washable, reusable cloth.)
  2. Replace one grooming product a week with a safer, greener choice (those made with wholesome raw materials, listed as at least 95 percent natural or featuring biodegradable packaging, for instance). Some good options? Burt’s Bees, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Origins Organics. Not sure if your products qualify? Check out www.cosmeticdatabase.com, where you can find detailed information on many personal care products.
  3. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, which contains less processed, prepackaged goods, choosing organic and locally grown produce when possible.
  4. Swap all the plastic containers in your kitchen with glass.
  5. Replace your laundry detergent with a natural, nontoxic one so the clothes you wear and the sheets you sleep on have no fumes for you to breathe in.
  6. Stop buying bottled water. Instead, purchase a metal water bottle that you can use over and over.
  7. Use reusable bags-even if you’re going to the department store.
  8. Turn off your computer when you’re not using it. Even the fans used to keep the computer cool use a lot of energy.
  9. Buy a power strip and plug in as many of your electronic appliances as possible; switch them off when not in use.
  10. Try snuggling up in your favorite slippers and sweater beforeyou turn up your heater.
  11. Print double-sided if you insist on printing at all.
  12. Drive less.
  13. Read your favorite newspapers online.
Categories: Central Jersey Health & Life