Easy Changes You Can Make to Green Up Your Life

February 10, 2011 at 2:39 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I hope putting the word “changes” in the title didn’t scare you off already.  Anyways, I recently moved to a small town where recycling isn’t available locally.  Of all the things I love doing to stay current and reduce my impact on the environment, recycling has got to be one of my favorites.  Naturally, I was really upset to find out that there was no local service.

I decided to deal with the problem using a multifaceted approach.  On one end, I have implemented some pretty hardcore “waste prevention” changes in my life.  On the other end, I’ve decided to keep a stash of things to take to the next town over periodically.  In order to justify the trip just to recycle, I need to have a lot and be saving a lot of resources with what I recycle.  Therefore, I keep paper and cardboard.  You might not think it, but paper and cardboard are huge resource users.  They use a ton of freshwater (because they come from forests) and they take up a lot of energy, especially oil, to get to your door.  I’ve also found that some metal recycling can be done locally.  I’m working on figuring out plastic.

I have also switched to as many ‘green’ products as I possibly can.  Wherever I can make a replacement with a wiser choice, I do so.  I’ve decided to share the changes I’m making with my readers.

Waste Prevention Tips

If you can’t recycle, the next best thing is to reduce the waste you produce in the first place (it’s the soundest practice of all, really).  I’m also aware that many of the people with access to recycling are what we call “lazy piles” in that they refuse to take action and do the right thing.  If that sounds like you, then this section should really help you out.

Reducing Junkmail

Not only is this a great thing to do environmentally, but many of us hate receiving and sorting through a ton of junkmail anyway.  Pre-approved credit cards, insurance offers, Victoria’s Secret catalogs (ok, maybe some of us want to keep those), or unwanted solicitations and promotions from local chains.  Many people think there’s no way to fix this problem – after all, if you ask at the post office, they’ll tell you they are legally obligated to deliver anything that says “current resident” in the address line.

However, you CAN significantly reduce your junkmail through several services.  Many of you have heard of the “Do not call” list to get rid of unwanted phone solicitations.  There is also a “Do not mail” list.  You can find it here:

http://environment.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=environment&cdn=newsissues&tm=2&f=20&su=p504.1.336.ip_&tt=2&bt=1&bts=0&zu=https%3A//www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/home.action%3Bjsessionid%3D15B51561CD238A52EBA4FA4A8708B583.tomcat2%23

You’ll be required to sign up and give them your email address and the street address you at which you would like to stop receiving junkmail.  If you’re worried about email spam, make use of a temporary email service such as 10 Minute Mail or Mailinator.  These services are handy any time you don’t want a service to have your real address, as long as it’s a one-time activation.  You can opt out of credit offers, catalogs, magazines and a bunch of other junkmail here.  It will take a little bit of effort up front (you don’t have to screen like they say you do for a week or whatever), but it’s definitely worth the reduced headache.  Take a look at these statistics, which I quickly pulled up from about.com:

  • 5.6 million tons of catalogs and other direct mail advertisements end up in U.S. landfills annually.
  • The average American household receives unsolicited junk mail equal to 1.5 trees every year—more than 100 million trees for all U.S. households combined.
  • 44 percent of junk mail is thrown away unopened, but only half that much junk mail (22 percent) is recycled.
  • Americans pay $370 million annually to dispose of junk mail that doesn’t get recycled.
  • On average, Americans spend 8 months opening junk mail in the course of their lives.

Go Paperless

When you stop the junkmail flow, you’ll still receive things like monthly bills from utilities or statements from your bank.  Most utility companies offer you the option to sign up on their website for electronic mail instead.  You can completely opt out of receiving paper bills at your address.  This reduces emissions and paper usage.  You can save these bills to your hard drive if you want a record.  Many utility companies offer a small reduction in billing if you go paperless or authorize payments such as direct debit or similar services.  Also, if your energy company offers green energy sources, you can find ways to opt into it on their website (for example, I have opted to receive a certain percentage of my monthly power from wind energy, and I pay a small fee for this extra service).  It’s a great way to support alternative energy sources and make them cheaper and more economical for everyone.  Supply and demand, anyone?

You can receive your bank statements online as well.  Usually, you want a way to keep these for your records so you can save them to your hard drive or print them at home.  Either way, you’re still saving a significant resource footprint when you do this.

Reduce Your Dependency on Paper Products

I talk about this one all the time.  If you’re still using a roll of paper towels every few days or eating off of paper plates, then shame on you.  It’s not hard at all to buy a pack of matching cotton kitchen towels and use them to clean up the counters, stove, dishes, whatever.  See my post about kicking the paper towel addiction here.  You’ll spend less at the store and throw away less at home.  It’s a no-brainer.

Use a Water Filter

Another inconvenience of living in the country in a small town is not having access to drinking water that is *quite* as treated as bigger city tap water.  We have pretty good water where I’m at – especially when you consider they do nothing other than pump it out of wells and disinfect it with chlorine.  But some people are just pissy about the taste of their water and demand a higher quality (whatever that is).  Most often, people simply buy an assload of bottled water at the store and toss the bottles when they’re done.  How many people who are ignorant enough to rely on bottled water as their primary source of drinking water are smart enough to recycle?  Ok, maybe that’s not fair, but ya’ll piss me off sometimes.  Anyways, a friendlier alternative is to use water filters.  There’s only a million ways to filter your drinking water – on the fridge, straight out of your tap, in a pitcher, you name it.  There’s a water filter to fit everyone’s desired level of convenience.

Use Tupperware or Pyrex Instead of Baggies and Plastic Wrap

Tupperware and Pyrex are brand name food storage containers.  What do you do with a plastic ziploc bag when you’re done with it?  Throw it away.  You can’t really clean them out that easily.  And what about plastic wrap?  Not only do you throw plastic wrap away, but you also lose the use of your dishes by using them to store food in the fridge for weeks.

Instead, consider using Tupperware.  Tupperware comes in varying degrees of quality and provides a pretty good seal for your food.  I suggest its use in most applications where you want to store food in the fridge.  Its square-ish shape makes it great for storing partially used blocks of cheese, which is something I have a problem with when I use my Pyrex.

For those of you who demand a higher food quality, Pyrex is a great solution.  I personally love this stuff.  It comes in any number of varieties you can think of and it’s ultra-convenient.  For example, you can bake a meatloaf in a glass Pyrex baking dish.  Then, without removing it, you can store it by putting the plastic lid it came with on top.  Voila!  Effortless food storage.  Pyrex also comes in circular storage containers that make it great for storing pasta dishes, sauces, or liquids.

Another advantage Pyrex offers over plastic products is that plastic doesn’t leach into your foods.  I hate that plastic taste you get from Tupperware and baggies.  And when you use Pyrex to heat something up (such as microwaving), it doesn’t change the taste of your food by getting hot plastic into it.  Heating that dish up at work won’t suck as much.  And one final thing I like Pyrex for is the ability to store foods like tomatoes or pumpkin, which ordinarily leave Tupperware stained red and orange, respectively.  Pyrex cleans up GREAT in the dishwasher since it’s glass.

Using Tupperware or Pyrex means you won’t be throwing away single-use baggies or plastic wrap, and it will also save your dishes and pots and pans from being used up as storage in the fridge.

Reusable Shopping Bags

This is another thing I talk about all the time.  Despite the fact that it’s a great idea and ridiculously easy to implement, most people haven’t made the switch yet.  If you use these bags instead of taking home a new plastic bag from the store each and every time you go, you won’t have a buildup of unused plastic bags below the sink.  You’ll avoid throwing them away, where they sit in landfills and never deteriorate.  They won’t blow around in the wind or in the city, get caught in trees or creeks or in your gardens.  They won’t make that annoying plastic sound that makes me want to crush babies.  But most of all, you’re saving a huge amount of oil when you do it, since disposable plastic is a major waste of oil.

The biggest problem people face with making the switch to reusable bags is breaking their old habits.  Of course, there’s difficulty involved in breaking any habit or making any habit a new one.  I suggest you keep the bags in your car.  I know it’s somewhat annoying to do so at first, but put the bags in your car every time you’re done unloading them.  Don’t wait or you’ll forget.  Soon it will become second nature to you.  Or, if you’re really worried about it, keep half in your car and half in your home.  I think six is a good number to have.  If you’re worried about what people will think of you carrying around a blue shopping bag when you go into the store, let me ease your fears by saying this: people respect you for it.  I’m not shooting that out my ass.  I’ve had more people come up to me in the store and verbally admire the fact that I’m doing the right thing than I can remember, and I have never once heard anyone say anything negative.  Most of the time, people say “Oh, yeah.  I need to remember to do that…”

And one final plug.  A lot of developed countries and even some states are starting to ban plastic bags.  I’m convinced that the banning of plastic bags, by and large, will take place in almost all the states in the next few years.  You’re going to have to get used to the idea of responsibly transporting your purchases one way or the other, so nut up and stop bitching.

Get a To-Go Cup

This is all dandy and fine.  If you can do any one of the above things, it means you are capable of planning to some extent.  But what about when you’re out?  My father always complains about how “big business” does little to curb consumption.  He doesn’t see offices recycling paper or reducing plastic use, even though it happens.  What he does see is fast food places giving all their food out in disposable containers.  To some extent, he’s right – this particular sector needs to grow up and stop throwing everything out.  But instead of sitting on your hands and complaining (or worse, using it to justify your own inaction), take a proactive approach.  One of the things I’ve done is bought a to-go cup that you can wash and reuse indefinitely.  You can get tumblers or cups that close at the top for when you’re on the go driving or in a hurry and don’t want to spill.  These are a fantastic choice if you frequent coffee shops or go in to order at restaurants.  When you order a drink, instead of taking their disposable (or at best recyclable) cups, you can use your own.  It’s a great way to do your part while the corporations get their shit together.

Green Products

Waste reduction is a fantastic first step in making environmentally responsible decisions.  But you can also alter your behavior in a more meaningful and more influential way by changing what you buy at the store a little bit.  Think about it: each time you buy a product, you’re using your money to say “I support this product.”  If you think about each dollar you spend as a vote, you can begin to see why restaurants haven’t changed their environmentally destructive habits yet.  Or why green technology is still so hard to afford.  Here are some items you can buy at the store to put your dollars to vote for greener practices in business and at home.

Recycled Paper Products

Another no-brainer.  Even I have to use paper towels from time to time (like to clean up that massive tomato soup spill on the stove).  Even if you’re as awesome as me at reducing your dependency on paper products, you’ll still need to use them some.  And while there certainly are alternatives to toilet paper, it’s best not to go there.  Instead, when you buy a paper product, make sure it says it’s made from recycled paper on the label.  You avoid putting your dollars to vote saying “I want to destroy forest to clean up my kitchen,” or “I want to wipe my ass with trees instead of paper.”  Most major brand paper towels and toilet paper are made from what is termed “virgin wood.”  Yes, laugh, get it out of your system.  It means that the paper is coming directly from milled, processed logs out of the forest.  Recycled paper products obviously don’t share that immediate source.  Not only does buying recycled paper products vote for a reduction in deforestation, it also votes for increasing recycling.  Think about it: if you’re actually using recycled material, your dollars are saying you want to see more recycling opportunities available for everyone.  Help bring recycling to primitive areas of the country like the one I live in!  Ok, just kidding.  Sort of.

Recycled Plastic Products

This is the same idea as before, just with plastic.  Plastic is a difficult thing to manage.  For the most part, it doesn’t ever biodegrade.  Until recently, plastic was made from a huge number of different manufacturing processes, making it difficult to recycle or keep track of.  Nowadays, almost all plastic is one of six kinds, and the type is stamped somewhere on the plastic.  This allows conscientious people to recycle their plastic.  Where does all that recycled plastic even go?  Well, most of the time, it goes to making new water bottles.  Types 1 and 2 plastic, used for making water and pop bottles and milk jugs, respectively, are the most frequently recycled types.  But some other kinds get used in places you wouldn’t expect.  A lot of toothbrushes or handbrushes are made from recycled plastic.  You can see by reading the package.  I bought a broom recently with its bristles made from recycled plastic.  Usually, you can read the package a bit to see if what you’re buying makes use of recycled plastic.  If not, try another brand.  See what you can come up with.

Wood Fiber Sponges

This is one of the most fascinating products I’ve found recently.  The sponge works and looks just like any other sponge, but it claims to be made from wood fibers and is, as such, completely biodegradable.  There are all kinds of interesting products like these available, especially in places you wouldn’t expect to see them.  Just check things out.

Natural Soaps, Shampoos, Detergents, Cleaning Products, Etc.

I’ve talked about all this before, but one of the easiest and best changes you can make is buying soap that is made from natural sources (usually plant-based cleaners).  Nearly every cleaning product you can think of now has a natural alternative: dish soap, dishwasher liquid, laundry detergent, body wash, shampoo, Windex, Mr. Clean, you name it.  And, no, these products are not inferior in cleaning power.  The “green” Windex cleans without leaving streaks.  The Green Works all-purpose cleaner is just as powerful as 409, which is one of the worst chemicals you can buy (both from a health standpoint and an environmental one).  A lot of these natural soaps offer advantages over others.  For example, nearly all plant-based soaps are hypoallergenic.  This means that if you have an allergy to soap, this is safe for you.  Well, really, when you think about it, should that be surprising at all?  Of course not.  Should it surprise you that harmful chemicals and synthetic bases give you an allergic reaction?  No.  Should it surprise you that these same soaps exacerbate already existing skin conditions?  No.  Should it surprise you that skin cancer wasn’t around until we started using these kinds of products?  No.  Ok, you get the idea.

Buying natural soaps is better for your health and better for the water that receives treated sewage flows from cities.  This is because it doesn’t load YOU up with toxins from artificially made bases and manufacturing processes, and it doesn’t load natural waterways up with toxins that sewage treatment plants aren’t capable of handling.  You can read more about this whole natural soaps business here.

Conclusion

I hope this has given you a few new ideas for easy, simple changes you can make to make your life a little greener.  It’s a lot easier than most people think.  As a long-time environmentalist and activist, I’m used to dealing with peoples’ intrinsic resistance to change and the kind of incredible laziness to which convenience has accustomed our society’s fat ass.  The bottom line is that no matter how easy making green changes is, you’ll need a little bit of initiative to get started.  Any one of the things I mentioned above is a fantastic way to see fast results with minimum effort, and maybe get you started along a more meaningful path to environmental responsibility.

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