- Environmental Health -

Going Green

Clear air. Clean water. Clean Earth. What’s good for the planet is good for you! Here’s how to make your life a little more eco-friendly.

Green, it seems, is the new black. It’s in. It’s now. It’s hot – even in Hollywood. But unlike bell-bottoms and Ugg boots, the emergent eco-friendly consciousness is not likely to be a passing fad. Once the perceived territory of “tree-hugging hippies” and “rabid environmentalists,” ecological concerns have spread to the mainstream for one very good reason: Their immediate relevance to our quality of life has become impossible to ignore.

Today, Americans place the health of the environment among their top concerns. And for good reason: It’s a bipartisan issue, a global issue, a human issue. In fact, if you drink water, eat food and breathe air, it’s very much a “you” issue. But whether you went green years ago or you’re just beginning to develop your eco-conscience, you should know that the world around you is changing. Consider these numbers:

  • Natural personal-care-product sales in the United States reached $4.1 billion in 2002.
  • Investment managers of socially responsible funds controlled $2.16 trillion in 2003.
  • Consumer sales of organic food reached $7.9 billion in 2003.
  • The hemp industry is expected to grow to $1 billion by 2005.

Behind the statistics are real families spending real dollars to invest in a lifestyle that matches their beliefs, or at least their personal health concerns. Perhaps you’ve already made some eco-friendly changes to your lifestyle. Perhaps you’re just getting plugged into what the green craze is all about. Either way, we thought you might want to know how the eco-trend is changing the way more and more of us are living (or at least trying to live), and about what you can do to make the world around you just a little bit greener. Of course, large-scale change will require large-scale rethinking of the way our whole culture and economy does its thing. But on the following pages, you’ll find a top-line summary of what’s already going green, what still needs to green up, and what is (or really ought to be) going out of style.

Driving Out Pollution

We’ve long been romanced by the road, but that love affair has its price. “Personal use of cars and light trucks is the single most [environmentally] damaging consumer behavior,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Driving generates air pollution that harms our lungs and produces greenhouse gasses that affect our weather patterns. Cars also pollute the water with oil runoff, as do the remains of salt used to make winter roads drivable. Whether you love your roadster or just tolerate it, driving is a fact of life for most of us. But by shifting into eco-drive, you can be much kinder to the earth, and to your wallet.

What’s Green: When you’re in the market for a new car, check out the hybrids. You’ll need a little patience (there’s a waiting list), but it’s worthwhile: Hybrids get 30 to 50 miles per gallon. Available as compacts, small sedans and SUVs, these cars also reduce typical tailpipe emissions by 80 to 90 percent. Owning a hybrid means that even if you can’t drive less, your toll on the environment is greatly reduced. You’ll save money on gas, too.

Until you get your hybrid, give your current car regular tune-ups. It will burn oil and gasoline more efficiently, which keeps tailpipe emissions down and gas mileage up. Check your tire pressure each month, too. Optimum tire pressure gives better gas mileage and a better ride.

Get out of the car altogether when you can. If public transport and walking aren’t options, give biking a try. Thanks to great accessories like waterproof messenger bags, brightly colored Gore-Tex, polypropylene layers, shoes with clips, and goggles and helmets, you can safely and comfortably make it through even cold winter commutes. Biking saves energy, eliminates emissions concerns and provides great exercise.

When you do need to drive, choose the most energy-efficient vehicle you can, then group your errands. By visiting the grocery, post office and library all in one trip, you’ll save time and fuel.

What’s Gotta Go: Living far from where you work makes no sense. Gridlock is the rule in and around most cities, and spending an hour in the car commuting each way is as much a drain on your personal time and energy as it is a polluting waste of gas. There’s a whole movement of professionals who are returning to the urban core and first-tier suburbs to take advantage of public transit, arts culture, and locally owned shopping and dining establishments they can reach on foot.

Bottom Line: Walk a bit; bike where you can; drive a cleaner, more efficient car.

Rethinking How We Eat

Eating well is the second best thing we can do for our health and our planet. An amazing 60 percent of land in the United States is used for raising food, according to The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and erosion (all side-effects of large-scale farming and food-production operations) have dangerous effects on our water quality. Farm equipment emits greenhouse-gas-producing emissions, and transporting food long distances burns enormous amounts of fossil fuels. So your weekly drive to the grocery store is just the tail end of a long line of pollution.

What’s Green: Eating locally is a sensible and sensually rewarding trend that supports responsible, sustainable food production. Farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms offer seasonal – and in many cases, organic – produce fresh from local fields and orchards. Hit the farmers’ market on Saturday morning and enjoy a fair-trade latte made with local, organic milk while you pick up your locally raised fruits, veggies, meats and honey. Or buy a share in an organic CSA farm. Seasonal delights grown without synthetic chemicals offer superb nutrition and flavor, and your weekly delivery of produce will support small farms. Look for locally produced items at your neighborhood co-op and natural market, too.

What’s Gotta Go: Mindless meat consumption isn’t good for you, or for the planet. According to Michael Brower and Warren Leon from the Union of Concerned Scientists: Compared to plant-based foods like whole-grain pasta, red meat requires 20 times the land use for cattle grazing and five times the water required for livestock, and it results in 17 times the water pollution because of animal wastes, five times the toxic water pollution from chemicals applied to animal feed grains, and three times the greenhouse gas emissions. Eating endangered seafood is a waning practice, too. Overfishing has become a problem around the globe. Get to know which fish to buy when you’re shopping or eating out. Ask where and how the fish was caught, or consult online resources. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” guide (www.montereyaquarium.com) can be downloaded as a wallet-sized card.

Bottom Line: Eat lower on the food chain; buy organic and local foods when possible.

Improving Homing Instincts

A home’s energy appetite is biggest in the kitchen: Appliances hum day and night, and kitchen lights are the most frequently used. But throughout our homes, we tend to use far more energy than we really need. Most electricity comes from nonrenewable resources like coal and oil (which produce air pollution and planet-warming greenhouse gasses) and from nuclear power (which produces extremely toxic radioactive waste). Coal-fired power plants also contribute to unhealthy mercury levels in our water, which are especially harmful to children and to women of childbearing age. So limiting the amount of home energy we use is a good thing.

What’s Green: Energy Star-rated appliances are in. You can find them in just about any brand at just about any appliance store. Appliances with this Environmental Protection Agency-backed rating can cut your energy costs up to one-third. Newer air conditioners are far more energy efficient than their predecessors, but when a ceiling or floor fan will do, those are still a better choice. Passive-solar home design, insulated windows and strategic window coverings can go a long way toward keeping the heat out in summer and the cold at bay in winter. Long-burning compact fluorescent bulbs are ideal for your most-used light fixtures; they last longer and are up to four times more efficient than conventional bulbs.

What’s Gotta Go: Your refrigerator has the highest monthly operating cost of any appliance in your home, according to the Energy Star experts. If it’s 10 years or older, replace it with a new refrigerator that exceeds federal efficiency standards. You’ll save money every month – and get to enjoy all the handy new features.

The most obvious “out,” though, is nonrenewable energy in any form. So in addition to reducing energy demand throughout your home, consider contacting your electric utility to find out how you can incorporate solar and other renewable-energy solutions into your home design, and how you can purchase clean, efficient wind, solar and geothermal energy through a “green power” purchase program. Major utility suppliers, including Xcel energy, now offer this option, by which you pay a few cents more per kilowatt hour in order to support the development and operation of renewable-energy operations. Find out more at www.awea.org/greenpower.

Bottom Line: Conserve home energy use whenever possible, and embrace renewable-energy resources any way you can.

Cleaning Up Our Act

Since World War II, industry has focused on delivering better living through chemistry. We have pesticides that obliterate annoying ants, solvents that remove caked-on grease, and hand soaps that destroy bacteria of all sorts. Any household mess now has a bottled remedy, but we’ve lost sight of the fact that some of these things can also harm our bodies and make our homes less than healthy.

The human body is designed to filter out and eliminate many toxins, but if our bodies exceed their acceptable chemical load or “body burden,” they tend to respond with illness in the form of allergies, asthma and sometimes even cancer. Unfortunately, our use of household chemicals is at an all-time high. And even though individual ingredients go through testing by the FDA, in most cases, there are no definitive studies that prove using all of these chemicals in the same airspace, or having them all in your body at the same time, is safe. Some of the chemicals in household products linger long after we’ve used them, and many ingredients in these products are dangerous enough to warrant poison, danger or caution labels. Once they go down the drain, many make their way into the water supply. So it makes sense for us to reduce our dependence on them and their potential impact on our environment.

What’s Green: Earth-friendly cleaning and laundry products have become easy to find and convenient to use. They’re biodegradable (meaning they break down safely in water) and contain none of the phosphates that can harm aquatic ecosystems. Instead of toxic petrochemicals, they employ plant-based detergents, botanicals and natural enzymes. Generally, this new generation of products smells good, looks good, and they work as well as their chemical counterparts.

For the great outdoors, try switching to organic lawn and gardening supplies and botanical pesticides, including soy-, citronella- and eucalyptus-based (non-DEET) bug sprays. Homemade, low-toxicity pesticides are a great alternative to dangerous commercial products: A mixture of vinegar and water erases ant tracks. Bay leaves on kitchen shelves keep grain moths away.

What’s Gotta Go: Toxic chemical cleaners are overkill for most everyday cleaning tasks. Faced with a really awful mess? Start with the least toxic product and if that doesn’t work, then move up the toxicity chain to something stronger.

Chemical fragrances add to your home’s chemical load and can agitate allergies and asthma, particularly in children. Dryer sheets and air fresheners are 20th-century relics. Replace them with chemical-free alternatives that employ essential oils and herbs for fragrance. The toxin-laden custom of dry cleaning is passé, too. Hand wash what you can (woolens, for example). For the rest, find a green cleaner that uses a scent-free, wet-cleaning process, carbon dioxide or a silicone solvent. The process is better for your clothes, as well as the environment, and it cuts down on the number of chemicals you bring home.

Bottom Line: Convert your household to safer cleaning, lawn care and gardening supplies.

Bettering Beauty

The pretty façade of beauty products can be deceiving. Consumer awareness is growing about the lack of regulation of U.S. cosmetics and personal-care products, and the fact that most of these products are never reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since 1937, the FDA has banned or restricted only nine ingredients from use in personal-care products. In comparison, the European Union bans 450 ingredients, according to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition.

Because virtually all our personal-care products wind up going down the drain and into the water supply, both health-conscious and environmentally conscious consumers prefer products with fewer petroleum-based, synthetic chemicals. But you have to read the back of the box. If the ingredient list includes lots of hard-to-pronounce chemicals, keep looking. And for the sake of the water supply, shop for soaps, shampoos and conditioners that are biodegradable and phosphate-free.

What’s Green: Natural, plant-based beauty products are all the rage. Look for those free of synthetic fragrances and petrochemicals. Products like these are also less likely to provoke allergies, asthma and other problems difficult to link directly to a specific chemical. Many European cosmetics have gone all natural, expanding the range of choices available to consumers. In January 2003, the European Parliament prohibited use of certain phthalates (suspected endocrine disruptors) in cosmetics. More stringent regulation – and consumer awareness generated by sites like www.nottoopretty.org – has moved both European and more U.S. manufacturers toward botanicals, vitamins and natural ingredients.

What’s Gotta Go: Synthetic fragrances and parabens can interfere with hormones and may cause infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, and reproductive-system and breast cancer, according to Kim Erickson, author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (McGraw-Hill, 2002). Phthalates appear on labels as dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP) and “fragrance.” Parabens appear with a prefix followed by “paraben.”

Bottom Line: Read the label. If chemicals top or dominate the ingredient list, keep looking.

Changing Trashy Habits

Properly recycling, composting and disposing of garbage protects the air we breathe and the water we drink. Recycling, in particular, can help conserve valuable resources. The average American throws away 7.5 pounds of garbage daily. Before the 1920s, 70 percent of U.S. cities offered programs to recycle certain materials. During World War II, when resources were more scarce, industry recycled and reused about 25 percent of the waste stream. Now, because of growing concern for the environment, recycling is again on the upswing. Our national composting and recycling rate rose from 7.7 percent of the waste stream in 1960 to 17 percent 30 years later. It’s currently about 30 percent, according to the America Recycles Day organization.

What’s Green: Worms are the new trash collectors. In the cold months, cultivate a worm bin. Put shredded newspapers, a pint of squirming red worms and a splash of water into a plastic tub with holes punched in the lid. Drop veggie and other nondairy scraps into the bin every few days, and by spring you’ll have compost for houseplants. If the thought of cultivating compost in your home or garage creeps you out, at least set up a compost pile in your yard for lawn clippings and veggie scraps.

Electronics recycling has taken awhile to catch on, but now it’s here, and not a moment too soon. Electronics are full of toxic metals like lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium, which can seep into the ground water in a dump or go up in smoke in an incinerator. Take your used computers and TVs to a large retailer that offers a recycling program, or check with your local solid-waste or pollution-control agency about available recycling options. Larger metro areas may offer a Web-based resource and information service, like the Twin Cities’ Green Guardian (www.greenguardian.com). When you upgrade your cell phone, ask about donating your old one to a program that supports victims of domestic violence. Many cell-phone retailers now have collection boxes on site. For more information on the hows and whys of recycling, visit www.americarecyclesday.org.

What’s Gotta Go: Overpackaged products are an embarrassment. Who needs 6 ounces of plastic packaging around a 2-ounce product? Choose simply packaged products, and when possible, buy in bulk. The bulk aisle is ideal for things you buy often and that have a long shelf life: dog food, pasta, cereal and household cleaners. Tossing out your old toxic cleansers? They don’t belong in the garbage, or in your local water supply. Deliver chemical cleaners, paints, batteries, pesticides and poisons to your nearest hazardous-waste collection site. Contact your city or county for local information.

Bottom Line: Look for ways to reduce and recycle your garbage. Before you toss something toxic, think it through.

Playing It Cool

When it comes to fun and leisure, environmental responsibility may not be first thing that springs to mind, but in truth, your playtime is an ideal time to create a stronger connection to nature. Human-powered “silent sports” activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, biking, snorkeling, kayaking and walking all link us to nature’s invigorating, life-affirming earth energy. Take the kids to see a nearby organic farm. Walk in a park. Spend the afternoon at a green spa. Bike outside the city limits for a view of the stars that will send your spirits soaring.

What’s Green: When you vacation, consider ecotourism. It’s focused on experiencing nature, local culture and adventure, while minimizing negative impact on the environment and supporting local economies. Ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry – good news, considering that traditional tourism adds to pollution, overcrowding and depletion of natural resources. Find out more at www.ecotourism.org.

Green golf courses are in, too. In the United States, more than 16,000 golf courses cover 1.5 million acres. Most encourage environmental evils such as pesticides; high fertilizer, water and land use; and reduced wildlife habitat. But you can do better: Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program (www.audubonintl.org/programs/acss/golf.htm) certifies golf courses that reduce their use of pesticides and fertilizers and narrow fairways to allow space for natural habitat.

What’s Gotta Go: Jet skis and four-wheelers are loads of fun, but they also overload the environment with noise and air pollution. Their two-cycle engines burn gas and oil inefficiently. Jet skis damage shoreline and aquatic plants. Four-wheelers destroy vegetation and wildlife habitat. Race the rapids instead, or trek the woods on foot. You’ll do better by the earth, your body and your senses.

Bottom Line: Enjoy natural settings while respecting their natural balance.

So how green can you get? Little choices can make a big difference over time. And adjusting your consciousness to include ecological concerns will naturally help lead you toward a greener, more sustainable life. Perhaps more important, it will also help support corporate, civic and governmental actions that can have an even bigger collective impact. So take the eco-leap, and before you know it, you’ll be hooked. You’ll find that going green feels good, does good and makes very good sense.

Kim Carlson, the EarthSmart Consumer, is founder and CEO of Cities Management and SenEarthCo.com. She is a frequent guest on talk radio, Minneapolis's NBC affiliate and ESPN. She created award-winning environmental practices for the housing industry, and she is a fellow in the Public Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

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