Another Earth Day rolls around, and I still have major qualms about the typical American approach to it (which seems to boil down to “Consumer choices will save the world!”). Possibly, viewing ourselves and each other primarily as consumers explains how we have had such a dramatic effect on the environment in the first place.
Still, while we try to muster the political will and get ourselves together to respond collectively to the challenges to the Earth we all share, it’s undeniable that our individual choices do have impacts. Here in the U.S., some of those impacts can be pretty big. So, I’m marking this Earth Day by taking stock of some of the habits I’ve tried to cultivate to lighten my impact.
1. Driving the speed limit.
Sadly, I live too far from my workplace to walk or bike, and using the available mass transit would double my transit time, so I drive to work. But, I drive a hybrid, and despite the fact that some of our California freeways seem engineered to feel their best at 80 miles per hour, I’ve been keeping pretty close to the speed limit. (Yes, this means I’m sticking to the right hand lanes — I try not to be a jerk.)
In theory, I could be driving my hybrid in the carpool lane — that was one of the incentives to get people into hybrids — but people in the carpool lanes want to drive fast, and very high speeds bring a hybrid’s miles per gallon down to about what you’d be getting in a regular (non-Hummer) car.
This habit has also made me better at leaving on time — if I’m driving fast to make up time because I got a late start, there goes my mileage.
2. Keeping the heat down (and putting a sweater on).
Our thermostat, on cold evenings, is set to a sweltering 68 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, it’s set for 60. If you’re cold, you put another layer on, or a hat. With the programmed thermostat, we don’t even need to think about this one. (Come summer, given our temperate location, we’ll maybe have a day or two when we wish we had air conditioning, but we’ll get by with the box fan.)
3. Lights out when no one’s in a room, curtains open when natural light is available.
Natural light is free, after all. We’re still training the sprogs on this one.
4. Laundry in cold water.
I love our front-loading washer (which will turn 9 this summer). Not only does it use less water than a top-loader, but it gets the close cleaner while simultaneously being gentler on them. (A friend of mine who’s a mom and a rocket scientist explained the physics behind this to me a long time ago.) Among other things, this means that cold water does a fine job getting our clothes clean, so we’re not putting resources into making hot water.
5. No more sandwiches in plastic sandwich bags.
We’ve switched to wrapping the sandwiches in the sprogs’ lunches with waxed paper. It’s still not resourceless, but we think it’s slightly lower impact.
6. No more paper napkins.
Paper napkins are extremely convenient, but I didn’t feel good about how much they contributed to our waste stream, so since December we’ve gone with cloth. It’s been a much easier habit to maintain than I expected.
7. No paper or plastic, thanks.
I’ve been using canvas and string grocery bags for something like 15 years now. Just keep them in a regular spot, grab them on your way to the store, and you’re good to go. (Also, I avoid those plastic bags spooled in the produce section whenever possible.)
8. Fill your own water bottle.
We don’t buy bottled water (which not only comes in individual plastic containers, but takes fuel to ship to the store). Rather, we fill our own bottles, over and over and over, with filtered tap water. (Yes, I’m watching the research on health effects of BPA that leeches out of these bottles. I’m not convinced the bottled water from the store is necessarily any safer.)
9. Avoid disposable coffee cups.
My morning coffee rides in a travel mug, and I bring a ceramic mug with me to meetings where coffee will be served. I’m keeping this habit to a caffeine habit, not a paper cup habit.
10. Eat as locally as possible.
Sadly, coffee doesn’t grow locally here, but where produce is concerned, we’re doing what we can. We’re not buying fruits or vegetables that have to ride on a plane to get to us. As attractive as those Chilean or Kiwi blueberries and raspberries have been, we’re waiting until we can get them from a source closer to home.
I know not everyone can cultivate this habit, but for me it’s been pretty easy (especially given the abundance of local produce in California). Eating lower on the food chain means fewer resources have gone into producing your food, so we do.
12. I haz a bukit
During our hot summer months, I plunk a utility bucket in the shower to catch the warming-up and getting-wet water, then use that to water the yard. When the sprogs were bath-takers, I’d actually make multiple trips to the yard with buckets of bathwater.
Now they take showers.
13. Kitchen scrap composting.
For a long time, we’ve been putting our fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, and coffee grounds into our backyard compost pile. Then, our city instituted curb-side kitchen waste composting (mixed in with the yard waste). Because the city has a seriously “hot” composting set up, they can accommodate pretty much any kitchen scrap — moldy pasta, pizza crusts, ancient yogurt — stuff you’d never put in a backyard compost pile for fear or attracting vermin.
You’d be amazed at how much it can reduce your household waste stream to divert all the kitchen scraps to municipal composting.
14. If it’s yellow, let it mellow …
Our house is old enough that it still has 6 gallon per flush toilets. At some point, we’re going to install low-flow toilets. Until this upgrade happens, we flush … somewhat less frequently.
None of these measures is going to save the environment for future generations, but none of them is especially hard on us, either. If I can find more ways for us to tread lightly that can become habits for us, I’m going to cultivate them.
What habits have you fallen into to cut back on your use of resources?