Monday, November 12, 2007

Eco-Footprint Dieting: Ten Simple & Sustainable Actions

Where Simplicity and Sustainability Meet

I wrote this a few years ago, but it's held up well.

Voluntary simplicity and ecological sustainability, two important guides to modifying our high-consumption lifestyles, do not always overlap. The simplicity approach invites us to evaluate our life's triangle of time, money, and stuff, asking if all the things we spend our time working for and expend additional time maintaining are indeed worth it. Answering this question allows us to evaluate what adds value to our lives and what doesn’t, with an emphasis on not wasting either our time or our financial resources on the superfluous. Sustainability asks a different question: how can we decrease our resource consumption and minimize our gigantic western ecological foot prints? Sustainability refers to the rate at which resources consumed can be replaced, with the ideal that we do not take more from the earth than can be replenished in our lifetime.

Sometimes these noble ideals overlap, like the union of a Venn diagram, in an action like downsizing to a smaller home. With less house to maintain and pay for, one expends less time and money, while using fewer resources to heat, cool, and clean it. This simplifies life and it is more sustainable as well. However, sometimes simplicity and sustainability conflict. It would be simpler to use all disposables. Why wash anything when plastics are so cheap, you might ask? But single-use plastics (manufactured from petroleum, a non-renewable resource) obviously waste resources, so simple, yes; sustainable, no. Highly motivated environmentalists go carless; others, me included, would find local life without a car tortuous. Sustainable, yes. Simple? No! So sometimes simple and sustainable part ways.

What follows is a list of ten simple AND sustainable habits to cultivate, some nearly effortless. A few require a bit of up front effort and/or expenditure, but yield quick payback. Others are easy but cost a little more than their less sustainable alternative; spending more on something of value is not in conflict with simplicity, especially if sustainability is a value you are willing to underwrite. Some actions are tiny, some are more consequential. Every change makes a difference, especially if multiplied by many households making the same change.

1. Turn out lights when not in use! Funny how much effort it seems to take to just flick a switch. If you find this habit difficult to cultivate (kids seem especially resistant), investigate installing occupancy sensors which turn out lights if no motion is detected within a specified amount of time, usually a few minutes.

2. Do not keep your car engine idling if you will be stopped for more than one minute. In fact, ten seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting your engine. You’ll be surprised how often this is relevant. You can listen to the radio without the engine one, by the way. This is virtually effortless, requiring only thinking and then turning the key in the ignition. Not only will your fuel consumption decrease, but your car’s polluting emissions will be minimized, benefiting the rest of us as well.

3. Buy the largest possible container available, providing you will be able to consume the contents. Putting this principle into action is rather fun, because it challenges you to think strategically about reducing packaging material. Two sixteen ounce yogurt containers have two tops; one 32-oz yogurt container has one top of more or less the same size. Voila, one less top is consumed. I now buy detergent in a container that I can barely carry, yielding one top for the whole year, instead of my previous five or six. Because supermarket profit margin is higher on smaller packages, the largest size of a product is rarely at eye-level; you will need to look carefully. This requires a tiny bit of effort, but once you understand the principle, it’s very little work, saves you money, time, and minimizes resource consumption.

4. When cooking spaghetti, use angel hair pasta - it cooks in two minutes. Angel hair comes with egg added, a protein bonus if your kids are “pastatarians”. And you can make lasagna with no-cook noodles or just using regular lasagna noodles and adding more sauce. These choices save time, fuel, and even yield one less pot to wash.

5. Use powdered drinks or make your own home-brewed iced tea. Lugging soft drinks is arduous, and while they seem inexpensive (especially with one brand always on sale), they are far more expensive than powdered drinks. Most of what you pay for with bottled sodas is packaging and water. Diet drinks offer no food value whatsoever yet consume energy and raw materials in their manufacture and transport, mostly for the container. You can make iced tea by the pitcher for just the cost of a few tea bags and a little sweetener. There are teas available which can be brewed with cold water, consuming even less energy. With minimal effort you can save yourself the soda schlep, cut back on cost, and minimize manufacturing inputs (energy, packaging, and transportation). I now think of a can of diet soda as a treat, not an everyday thing. This is a form of precycling, eliminating the package up front. [And of course you can just drink tap water!]

6. Only lather once when you shampoo your hair. The standard two sudsings followed by a conditioner rinse is a recent development, undoubtedly created by the shampoo industry. Use half the shampoo, less of your time, and save both the hot water showering down on you and the energy required to heat it. You can also further save time by using a shampoo-conditioner combination, though I have noticed it’s becoming harder to find. One of my friends buys shampoo in a dry block at the Weavers Way’s 2nd floor store, eliminating even the bottle!

7. Use rechargeable batteries. Investing in a battery charger and batteries is an initially a $30-50 investment, depending on how many batteries you buy. It pays for itself many times over of course, since one battery can be recharged dozens of times, eliminating the manufacture, purchase, and disposal of all those un-needed batteries. It requires very little effort, though if you don’t have a set of charged batteries on hand, it takes a few hours to charge them. The technology has changed quickly, so it’s worth doing some on-line investigating and comparison shopping to decide which types and systems to buy.

8. Buy recycled paper. In response to eco-consumer activism, mainstream chain stores now carry recycled paper. It costs a few cents more per ream, but purchasing it increases the demand for recycling. It takes less energy to create a new product out of recycled materials than virgin components, so this is a very simple, effective way to support environmental responsibility in the marketplace. Recycled-paper content varies from 10% to 100% and is clearly marked on the package. "Post-consumer" refers to paper that was used once and recycled, as opposed to recycling scraps left over in the manufacturing process It looks the same as virgin pulp paper now, by the way, no more flecks.

9. Walk or bike to the gym! Janet Luhrs, author of Simple Living, observes how ridiculous it is to pay to get exercise. Many of us do think it’s worth paying to be members of a gym, but it is ironic that we drive there. It takes me twenty minutes to bike to the gym and ten to drive. Doing the math, I basically get ten free minutes of exercise, don’t have to waste time driving or hassle with parking, and am warmed-up when I arrive at the gym. A bonus benefit: on the way home, I can easily park my bike at my local food coop, even if school is letting out and the school busses are there!

10. Explore xeriscaping, landscaping with native species. Native species need less watering and chemical inputs, so they take less time and fewer resources to maintain. Think about transforming that old-fashioned lawn, which requires weed-killer, watering and mowing, into a native meadow which can become a mini-preserve for butterflies and hummingbirds. This is a large, long-term project, but ultimately it is easier to maintain and lighter on the earth, fulfilling the simple and sustainable criteria perfectly.

Most of these suggestions were gleaned from literature on simplicity and sustainability and through conversations with like-minded people. A few were things I figured out for myself, once I started paying attention. What creative sustainable simplifiers have you figured out? Please share!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for reposting this. Excellent ideas. I don't have anything really to add, except to just go a step further in the room lighting arena. I posted a blog not too long ago about using lanterns to light our homes. The light goes with you wherever you go, and lantern oil lasts forever. Not for everyone (specifically families or community homes), but a great sustainable and simple way of lighting a room, nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Another step in paper recycling: I use paper that has already been printed on one side all the time. I even keep the letters and envelopes of junkmail to write notes, drafts, to-do lists etc on their back. I have a drawer by my desk where it all goes after the mail comes in. Also: the backs of old receipts are the perfect size for shopping lists.

Betsy Teutsch said...

Good suggestion. Personally I love "dead" business cards for messages and reminders. The stiff card stock makes it easier to keep track of.