Going Green is Not That Frickin' Hard

Friday, January 13, 2012

Saving the world doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong, I want the world to be a better place. But, in my day-to-day life, I seldom make a decision based on its impact on the universe. I think I’m a reasonably good person, but I care far more about my world than the world. I don’t think I’m alone.

I’ve pondered going green before, albeit in the same way I’ve “pondered” running the Boston Marathon. I’ve tried, though. Towards the end of my time in China, I prayed for a genie with a giant bottle of 409 and a green scrubbie to appear over Yantai. When I needed a four-wheel drive, I bought a sedan with reasonable mileage instead of an SUV. I returned my Diet Pepsi bottles to the store for 5 cents apiece.

But still, I couldn’t come to grips with being one of those green people – an earthy-crunchy hippie, a Prius driver, a person who only orders pizzas topped with spinach and feta. That level of green seemed not only unattainable, but undesirable (I’m not going to tie myself to a whaling boat, and my family appreciates that I shower each day). Do I have to trade in my Dunkin’ Donuts for organic tree bark and make sure the cows I eat were snuggled and patted on the head each day?

Plus, I’m pretty sure that the burning gasoline is contributing to climate change, but I still have to get to work, and I can’t afford to just buy a new car.

So, when caught in this inner conflict: “Save the world vs. Live normally”, I bravely turtled. For years and years.

Then, I heard about BPA. Lucy had just been born, and we were using the same bottles we’d used for Sadie. The normal bottles. Bottles that millions of parents used. Perfectly fine.

Until they weren’t. They had BPA. BPA is capital-B Bad. Crap.

Ten minutes and $50 later (hooray for All-American price gouging), I had a set of Dr. Brown’s bottles, and the children seem to have turned out ok.

More importantly, I had my first trigger. Turns out, I will get out of bed to avoid poisoning my children.

Fast-forward a year or so, and I’m starting as technical co-founder at Practically Green, a site dedicated to helping folks get a little bit greener.

And, wow, am I surrounded by some of the greenest people I’ve ever met. And I’m reading suggestions from our customers with really smart ideas. (And a couple of really disgusting ones. Not all family moments need to be shared in the interest of saving a little bit of paper.)

In building the site, I ended up reading all the information we’d gathered. It turns out the word I was looking for around BPA was “toxins.” And man, I had more toxins in my house and in my food than I thought.

So, we started doing more to eliminate those toxins. It wasn’t that hard. The organic milk was right next to the regular. Seriously, like 18 inches to the left.

I started looking at “green” as a continuum as opposed to a destination. That made all the difference. You don’t have get all the way to perfect (level 10 in the PG parlance) to be better than you are now. I started as a level 4, and now I’m a level 9 – wicked green.

Here’s where I ended up: by making some behavior changes and some shopping choices, I can save some money and stop poisoning my children. And, as a happy consequence, I might even help save the world a little. Good enough to start.

Though I’m never going to be the greenest person on the block, it’s easy to get a little bit greener. Even for a lazy bum like me, going green is not that frickin’ hard. Here’s how I’m doing it.

Get ‘er done.

Ok, you’re in. Let’s go. You can get started in five minutes without hurting your lifestyle, wallet or pride.

Here’s my data. This is is a graph of my scores on Practically Green over the past eighteen months or so.

Jason Butler

Starting at zero, I took the quiz so that I could get credit for stuff that I’m already doing. Turns out I wasn’t really doing a lot. I got credit for buying an old house, making sure there’s no lead or radon, and recycling my cans and bottles.

The next step was to gather some quick wins. These were easy behavior changes and some small purchasing decision changes – switching from regular milk to organic, buying CFL/LED lightbulbs instead of incandescent, taking off shoes at the door, that sort of thing.

Finally, I had the long climb of thoughtful and considered changes. These are the bigger ones, like insulating the attic and upgrading the washing machine. I was lucky (actually unlucky, considering the housing market in 2010) that I moved in the middle of the process, so I had to buy new appliances anyway.

So, here’s the lightly-annotated graph. I’ll guess your trajectory will mirror mine.

Jason Butler

Ok, so you know what to expect. Where can you get started? Here’s what I did…

Behavior Changes

First step: Stop doing stupid stuff.

Reduce obvious toxins and poisons

Here’s the first thing you can absolutely do today: Take off your shoes at the door! Seriously, this is as simple as washing your hands. When I was a kid, we walked around the house in our shoes all the time. No one asked you to take off your shoes when you came in–that was something you’d only see in stories set in Japanese houses. Very exotic.

The logistics are pretty straightforward, if your family uses one main entrance. I have a Waterhog Door Mat to hold my slippers in place when I’m out and about. When we get home at night, the girls and I stop in the breezeway to take off our coats and our shoes and put on our slippers.

Floor Mat

There are smaller ones, but we love this one, because it’s big enough to hold all the various shoes, sneakers, sandals and boots we all require to get through the day.

Next braindead step in reducing toxins: Don’t put plastic in the microwave. Quoting Practically Green:

When you heat plastic in a microwave, it releases its chemical components into your food. Depending on what kind of plastic it is, this could mean the hormone disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), or the nefarious chemicals that make thin PVC (vinyl) film flexible.

This was one of the very first things I did! With two children under three, I didn’t like the sound of “hormone disrupting.” I picked up a set of Pyrex containers, and I haven’t microwaved plastic ever since.

Now that we’ve taken five minutes to lower the level of toxins in our house, let’s see if we can send a little less money to the electric and the oil companies.

Stop wasting heat and electricity

Step one: Turn the thermostat down. Here in Concord, MA, it gets pretty cold in the winter, but that doesn’t mean that you need to heat the house up to 72 degrees – the standard when I was growing up. We keep it at 64 degrees and wear our Patriots sweatshirts and sweatpants (or our fuzzy pajamas) around the house. This saves a ton of energy over the course of a New England winter.

Thermostat at 64 degrees

At some point, I’m planning on getting a smart thermostat (I really really want one of the Nest thermostats), but I haven’t pulled the trigger on that yet.

Next step: Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Really. It’s not that hard. Turn off the damn lights when you leave the room. (If I were really good, I’d turn off all the damn computers as well, but I’m not there yet. Cron jobs run poorly when the machine is powered off.)

Composting

I had never composted anything before 2010, but now we compost everything.

In the kitchen we have a stainless-steel countertop compost keeper that we use to stash the stuff during the day. I typically empty it every night, dropping out the coffee grounds, apple cores, eggshells and such.

What to do with the garbage when it left the kitchen was a harder problem, though.

I had horrible luck with outside composters. I tried the Envirocycle circular one, but I didn’t end up with garden gold, I ended up with dirty garbage. Worse, because it hadn’t decomposed, I had to go in with the shovel and muck out the stables. It made me feel all Herculean, but it was pretty gross. Then, I tried one of the wire compost keepers that you stake into the ground. That lasted a day or two before the curious animals beat it into submission.

So, I ended up going the old-fashioned route. I created a horseshoe-shaped pathway in my woods, covered it with leaves and grass clippings, and christened it “Compost Alley.” Now, I just take the kitchen and lawn waste out there, spread it around, and we’re all done. The girls love it. The rabbits and foxes love it, too. It’s the circle of life, and it works surprisingly well.

Last year, when we had all the snow, we had to put the kitchen scraps into the regular trash, and I was shocked when the amount of trash I had to bring to the curb each week more than doubled. Egads. Compost Alley is far better, and now I have the boots set up so that I can use it even in the dead of winter.

Stop wasting water and energy

Nature is not just for decomposition. Relying on nature can save water, too. We don’t use sprinklers or hoses to water the lawn and the bushes. We’re lucky that we live in New England, so we tend to get enough water that our plants thrive without supplementing. We’ve also let a couple of the more exotic plants die, replacing them with ones that will grow naturally around these parts.

Some of the other water- and energy-saving behaviors are a little trickier to start, but are easy once you’ve made them into habits. Turn off the faucets when shaving and brushing your teeth. Wash laundry in cold water. Wash only full loads of laundry. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full.

Turning off heat dry on the dishwasher is an easy change, and saves a good amount of energy. The only downside to this is that I often have to towel dry the dishes after they’ve been washed. Not the end of the world, but (to my mind) kinda defeats the purpose of the labor-saving device. Alas. It still get the dishes cleaner and uses less water than washing the dishes by hand.

Line dry your laundry. This one is really easy for me, because my wife does the family’s laundry. But speaking for her, it’s surprisingly easy. We have a couple of drying racks in the basement, and most of the clothes go from the washing machine to the drying racks. A few hours later, they’re ready to fold and put away.

Drying Rack

Beyond energy and water, reducing the amount of stuff that you’re dealing with is pretty easy, too.

Get rid of your excess stuff

The first thing you should do is watch The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard (embedded below). It’s about a 20-minute video, well worth your time.

Recycling is widespread enough that there are few reasons not to, though here in Concord we have to split up the different types of recycling. Holliston used single-stream recycling, which is far easier for most homeowners to get on board with.

One of our biggest “stuff” wins came when we replaced all our paper towels with reusable towels and dishcloths. We still have paper towels hanging in the kitchen, but we seldom use them. We have about sixteen kitchen towels in various states of use and readiness today. We supplement those with Skoy Cloths, which we use to clean up the messes around the kitchen, replacing the sponges that get so nasty around the sink.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve managed to donate and otherwise get rid of a good amount of our stuff. Some of this was prompted by a short-notice sale of our house. More was prompted by an burning desire to get all the baby crap out of my sight.

We had good luck with Freecycle, which we used to get rid of our nice crib. Freecycle is a local email list where people post items they want to give away and other folks claim them. I took a couple of pictures of the crib, sent out the email; in a couple of hours, I had a appointment for pickup. I felt good knowing that we helped some other Holliston family out, saving them a couple hundred bucks.

Since we got up here, we’ve donated a ton of books to the Concord Public Library. At last count I believe I got rid of about 43 boxes of books. Thank you, Kindle.

Clothes are pretty easy to donate, too. All around Holliston and Concord are Planet Aid boxes where you can just bag up the clothes and donate them directly. (If you’re looking for some more good news, you can see where your Planet Aid donations end up). We’ve also had clothes drives at the kids’ daycares, where we’ve been able to give outgrown clothes to younger schoolmates.

Baby stuff was easier to get rid of than we thought. We gave away the stroller to an excited Mom-to-be. We gave away the bouncy seat. We gave away the boppy. We even gave away the bumbo. We miss the bumbo; Sadie enjoyed it when I would sing “Baby in a bumbo. I know, I know, it’s serious.”

Regular Buying Choices

The next step in going green is really just making smarter buying choices when you’re in the supermarket.

For us, unfortunately, that also meant changing supermarkets. When we moved from Holliston to Concord, I also end up switching from shopping at Shaws to shopping at Whole Foods.

The good news is, if you shop at a store that doesn’t carry crap, it’s a lot easier to buy the good stuff. You have to watch out, though, because not everything Whole Foods carries is actually good for you. You still have to check the labels. I really wish they would just carry the good stuff so that I could get rid of the cognitive overhead of having to think about everything if I’m shopping. Maybe someday.

Smarter Supermarket Choices

The first stop is the meat department. Meat is an ugly business, and I try not to think too much about where it comes from, but some things make a difference. I tend not to get too hung up on the free range versus non-free-range, but I really like the ability to choose meat that is not infested with hormones. I usually end up buying directly from the butcher counter.

For the packaged meat, we usually go with the Applegate Farms ham and turkey for our sandwiches. They also make really good bacon, which I enjoy. You have to be careful with the prepared meats: because they’re not infested with the typical preservatives, they don’t last as long you think in the refrigerator. Plan accordingly, and check your dates carefully.

For fruits and vegetables, you really need to pay attention to what they call the dirty dozen. The dirty dozen are all foods where there’s really no way to get the pesticides out. Always buy organic for these: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale/collard greens.

If there’s only one thing you get out of this essay, make sure it’s that you always buy organic for the dirty dozen.

The good thing is that organic matters far less for some other fruits and vegetables, known as the clean 15: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, mushrooms. These are all foods you peel before eating, so they are less susceptible to trouble with the poisons.

If you drink milk, it’s important to buy organic if you can. Our house goes through four gallons of milk a week, so this is a big one for us.

Just as a function of shopping at Whole Foods, we end up buying a lot of other stuff that’s organic: yogurt, macaroni and cheese, potato chips. Some of these are important (yogurt), and some of them are just me kidding myself (I’m pretty sure that a big bag of the Kettle Chips isn’t actually good for me, just because they’re organic.)

Local Produce and CSAs

Beyond the supermarket, it’s good to try to eat more local produce. When we moved to Concord, I signed up for the CSA at Kenney Farm. We give them some money in January and we get a crate of freshly-picked produce every week throughout the summer. In the fall we get a pumpkin and a whole mess of potatoes. I really enjoy getting the crate, a Friday treat that helps me feel at least somewhat connected to the local community.

The food from the CSA is (as you’d imagine for food that goes from ground to table in 24 hours) incredibly fresh. We especially noticed it with the onions. We had to figure out how to cook some of the more exotic plants, like kale or kohlrabi, but we knew how to make the most of the fresh onions, the fresh potatoes and the fresh peppers. The CSA made our summer table much more colorful and a bit more festive.

You can use Local Harvest to find a CSA in your area.

Replace bottled water and soda

We’ve also entirely replaced bottled water with filtered water. We keep this Brita water pitcher in the refrigerator at all times. Every time we pour any water out – to fill the water bottles or to make coffee – we just put it under the tap for a few seconds to refill it. This is much more efficient than buying bottles and bottles and bottles of water and then having to get rid of or recycle all those bottles. It’s also a lot easier on the back when carrying in the groceries.

For seltzer water and soda, we’ve had really good luck with our fun and geeky SodaStream. The SodaStream uses a carbonation engine to turn regular water into seltzer. You can then add in syrup to make it into flavored soda if you like. We’ve replaced all of our plain seltzer drinking, and I go through phases where I replace some of the Fresca or Diet Pepsi with the SodaStream syrups. The soda variations aren’t as good as the real stuff, but they’re a lot cheaper and you know that they’re somewhat better for the environment. I go back and forth depending on how much I want to keep tasting the real stuff.

SodaStream

Small-Ticket Purchases

So, those are the regular purchasing decisions. Beyond that, I ended up making a lot of one-time purchases to upgrade items that I will use everyday.

Small purchases with big effects

The list could be endless, but start with the simple ones: buy LEDs or CFL’s for your lightbulbs. They are ridiculously more efficient. Make sure that you dispose of them properly, though. If they burn out or break, you can’t just throw them in the trash.

You can save a good amount of money in the bathrooms, too, by fixing leaky faucets and upgrading older faucets and shower heads to low-flow. These installations are simple enough that even a non-plumber like me was able to handle putting on a new shower head.

We ended up making a lot of changes in the kitchen, swapping out single-use bags and bottles for reusable coffee mugs, water bottles, and lunch boxes. I carry my Klean Kanteen water bottle with me everywhere. I have a Contigo coffee thermos which holds two cups coffee and keeps it warm for a couple of hours. The children got reusable lunch boxes, Laptop Lunches, and I have my Tiffin. It takes a tough man to carry a tiny Tiffin, I’ll tell you.

Coffee Thermos and Water Bottle

Also in the kitchen, it’s a really good idea to avoid nonstick cookware. This was news to me when I heard about it, and was one of the first things we ended up doing. We ended up switching over to all stainless steel pots and pans. They’re pretty expensive, so we only got a couple of pans, but we tried to make them good ones that will last forever.

Detergents are easy. Go through whatever you have, and then switch over to ones that are more natural. We switched over our dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent and general-purpose cleaner to Seventh Generation. You get used to the lack of chemicals pretty quick. Now, if I walk in somewhere where they’ve been using harsh cleaning chemicals, I notice immediately.

For shopping, reusable shopping bags are pretty easy, once you get in the habit. I have five bags that I bring into Whole Foods each week for the shopping trip. It’s not that hard, and it saves me accumulating a ton of the the plastic or paper grocery bags.

In the bathroom, you can use recycled toilet paper (it’s not that bad!). We also use all-natural toothpaste (from Tom’s of Maine) and all natural soap. The girls use California Baby shampoo and conditioner. (I’ll stick with my Pert Plus, despite the wails of despair coming from Dogpatch Labs). We’ve even switched to recycled toothbrushes from Preserve, a company down the road here in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Preserve also makes the cutting board we switched to. We still use our wooden one, but the recycled plastic one comes in handy for keeping the meats separated from the vegetables and everything else.

Cloth Napkins are another easy choice. Throw them in with the wash every week and you’re good to go.

It was more expensive than I’d like, but we switched to a HEPA-filtered vacuum. HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters are built to remove >99% of the dust and other allergens, and products can’t be labeled HEPA unless they do. I can’t recommend the Dyson vacuum highly enough (especially if, like me, you’re allergic to the cats that live in your house).

For the kids (and probably for me too, I suppose, but I don’t get out much), it’s important to use all-natural sunscreen and DEET-free bug spray, for the simple reason that applying fewer poisons to their skin is probably in your kids’ best interests. We use the Repel Lemon Eucalyptus spray for the bugs and California Baby Sunblock for the sun.

And, in the “try not to spend money at all” category: one of the things we’ve been trying to do over the past couple of years with our holiday gifts is to give fewer physical gifts and more “experiential” ones. Instead of giving something that takes up space, maybe I give my wife a weekend skiing. That’s the general idea. The children have mentioned that they are not quite on board with this line of gifting.

Big-Ticket Purchases.

Alas, some of these changes take more money up front. The good thing is that most of them have been paying for themselves in energy savings over a couple of years.

We ended up doing a lot of these when we moved, and we’re trying to save up money to do a little bit more each year.

Kitchen Investments

We upgraded our refrigerator to a high-efficiency model and unplugged our second refrigerator in the basement.

We upgraded our dishwasher to a high-efficiency model and turn the heat off when we’re using it. In addition to using less energy and less water, our dishwasher is practically silent, a huge quality-of-life benefit.

We replaced our stove with a high-efficiency induction stove. I love induction heating. Seriously, if you can swing it, it’s a huge upgrade over electric or gas. It heats via a magnetic field instead of heat transfer. It kicks all sorts of bleep, keeping the stovetop cool, providing instant-on and instant-off heat, boiling water far faster than gas or electric, etc. Downside: you can only use pots that are magnetic, so our old aluminum ones didn’t work. At least we got some benefit out of upgrading to stainless-steel pots and pans.

Bathroom investments

One thing we haven’t done yet, but are planning to do is to upgrade to dual-flush toilets. These use a lot less water than the standard toilets, but work just as well. I’ve seen these in a couple of homes, and we’ll likely swap out our toilets in the next year or two.

Insulation investments

The biggest changes we made in the first year of owning our house were around keeping heat in. We found out in our first winter how leaky this house is. So, we got to work in the spring with a bunch of insulation projects.

Step One: Insulated curtains. This is actually really simple; we installed insulated curtains on all the windows in the house. The thickness of the drapes prevents the heat from going through the window, keeping the rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In the winter, we’ve been opening them up, following the sun, trying to capture a little of the solar heat and preventing us from going stir-crazy through the long New England winter.

Insulated Curtains

The next step was to insulate the hot water heater. This was far less hassle than we thought it was going to be. The insulation jacket was only about $40, and it didn’t take too long to cut it roughly to size and wrap the tank. This is one of those projects that’s far easier than you think it’s going to be.

While we’re in the basement, if you can afford it, upgrading your washer and dryer to modern energy-efficient models will pay for itself quickly (especially if you have children who go through a lot of clothes!). We’re really happy with our Kenmore versions, but I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the modern appliances.

Earlier this year, our garage doors broke, so we had to fix them. I did some research and we ended up getting insulated garage doors. We have a room above the garage, and having these doors insulated is making a big difference this winter in what it costs to heat that room.

Next was the big area, the attic. This, I had to have professionally done. If you have a climb-up attic, make sure you get the attic cover as well; it makes a big difference. Last winter, our entire roof was a giant ice dam, so I’m hoping that having the attic properly insulated will prevent all that damage from happening again.

The good news is that there are a ton of tax and rebate incentives for insulating your house. You should check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency to see what’s available in your area.

Outside investments

Next year: Rain Barrels. Our basement floods, and it’s a disaster every time. Our neighbor across the street installed rain barrels a couple of years ago, and hasn’t had any flooding ever since. I’m looking forward to getting this project done, and I might even treat myself to watering the garden with the rain water during the summer.

Lastly, I switched to electric outdoor tools. I use an electric lawnmower and an electric leaf blower. I hated working with gas-powered tools, and the electric ones work surprisingly well, even with a good-sized yard like I have.

Companies doing interesting things

As I’ve been making these green changes, I’ve come across a bunch of companies who are doing interesting things. Here are a few that you should check out:

Preserve is a local Massachusetts company that’s doing incredible work with recycled plastic. We use their toothbrushes, cutting boards and plates.

Seventh Generation makes toxin-free detergents and paper products. We use their dish soap, laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaner, paper towels and toilet paper.

Applegate Farms makes good meat. I buy their ham, turkey and bacon all the time.

Weleda makes fancy lotions. I don’t use them myself, but they are big hits with the female members of my family.

California Baby makes the shampoo and conditioner we use for the children. We’ve had nothing but good experiences with their products.

Reading Lists and sites to follow

Books

If you’re thinking about going green, here are some good places to start:

The Conscious Kitchen is a great collection of advice about all the decisions you need to make as you’re choosing, preparing and eating food. I think this applies to all of us! (If you really really really love meat, you should check out The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, as well).

Planet Home is a great book that takes you room by room through your house and helps you think through the decisions you’re making. Highly recommended!

Green, Greener, Greenest gives tips for handling everyday situations.

Green from the Ground Up focused on the home-construction side instead of the lifestyle side. It’s a good reference for green, sustainable and energy-efficient home construction. It’ll help you out when you’re talking to your contractor, that’s for sure.

What books am I missing? Let me know in the comments or @jpbutler on Twitter and I’ll add them to the list!

Sites

Practically Green is your roadmap for a healthy green life. Take the quiz to see where you are now, and get a personalized list of suggestions for what to do next.

Serendeputy: Green Living. Serendeputy is the personal news engine I wrote, and the green-living section keeps me up with what’s going on around this particular world.

Healthy Child Healthy World is an amazing organization that’s focused on empowering parents to protect children from harmful chemicals.

The Good Guide has comprehensive analyses of all the ingredients in common household products. Compare Pert Plus to Weleda’s Shampoo.

Urban Sherp is your daily guide to the eco-modern lifestyle.

Treehugger is the best-known blog covering green living.

Danny Seo gives useful tips for eco-friendly everyday living.

Re-Nest gives design tips for green homes.

Inhabitat also focuses on the future of design for smarter and more sustainable homes.

EcoFabulous focuses on “stylish, sustainable living.”

Inhabitots focuses on modern green design for kids and babies.

Kiwi Magazine focuses on growing families the natural and organic way.

What sites am I missing? Let me know in the comments or @jpbutler on Twitter, and I’ll add them to the list!

Conclusions

That’s where I am. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying to do better. It’s actually not that frickin’ hard.

P.S., Random bonus data point: No one in my family has been sick in the past eighteen months, despite two children in full-time daycare/school. Correlation != causation, but this is a huge change from our lives before, when it seemed like someone was always sick. Removing toxins from your life is a good thing…

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