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Have a Green Day

Twenty-four ways you can help the planet, from how you wake yourself up in the morning to how you get drunk at night.



These days the news about the environment always seems to be bad. In just the last few weeks we've heard that carbon dioxide emissions need to decrease by a radical 80 percent to avoid the worst predicted effects of climate change; President Bush has unilaterally weakened new federal rules on ozone, another greenhouse gas; and his administration has been sued for failing to protect polar bears, whose vulnerability is seen as a harbinger of global warming. It's enough to mystify or overwhelm an ordinary citizen, even one who wants to help. And for many of us it raises questions about whether individual action really can make a difference.

Here's the bad news: Experts agree that saving the planet will require major technological, political, and cultural shifts that mandate widespread, if not universal, participation. The little things that make us feel better about ourselves—any one of us turning off a light or recycling a newspaper or ponying up for organic produce—aren't going to cut it. "We can't solve this problem by buying a new green gadget at Target," says Rebecca Stanfield, state director of Environment Illinois, a research and advocacy organization.

But Brian Urbaszewski, an air pollution specialist at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, says that doesn't mean individual action can't have an effect—if enough individuals act. Last summer, he notes, the Chicago area had eight days when ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, was dense enough to be dangerous, especially for seniors, children, and people with respiratory illnesses. In March the EPA toughened ozone standards based on new data; if those rules had been in place last summer, it would've been 18 days. Among the region's biggest sources of the ingredients that form smog are coal-burning power plants, which provide about half of Illinois' electricity.

"It seems trite, but in an area where you've got nine million people, if everyone turns out the lights, it has an impact," Urbaszewski says. "The coal plants are still putting out thousands of tons of air pollution every year. If you can just shave that a little bit, it could help." That's because about 9 percent of all U.S. residential electricity is used for lighting, and that adds up to roughly 73 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That's more than all the trees in American urban areas absorb in a year.

Still, perhaps the most important single thing individuals can do is to press their elected officials to confront climate change aggressively by setting new standards and priorities—and especially to mandate ways to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel, which is responsible for about 83 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

Kimberly Gray, director of the environmental sciences program at Northwestern University points out that as painful as it may be, people are simply going to have to find ways to live with less. That, she says, could be what's most productive about taking small steps to live greener on a day by day, household by household basis: they might get people thinking about, and even prepared for, the kind of massive cultural change they should be pushing their legislators to force.

"These little things will not add up to what is needed on national level," Gray emphasizes. "But it is a start."

In that spirit, here are a few suggestions collected from environmental policy makers, scientists, and activists on how to reduce consumption, conserve resources, and get ready for the revolution.


a Wake up to the alarm on your unplugged cell phone. If you use a standard plug-in alarm clock, it's drawing power all the time. Many cell phone chargers also use power whenever they're plugged in—even if the phone's not actually charging. To conserve, disconnect your phone from its charger and unplug the charger from the outlet. Or keep it—and other appliances—plugged into a power strip that you switch off whenever it's not in use.

This probably seems like a small contribution, and in many ways it is. But the federal Department of Energy reports that most appliances and electrical devices consume standby power—electricity sucked up when they're plugged in but not actually turned on. Altogether standby power could account for as much as 5 percent of the country's residential electricity use, which translates into about 2 percent of our total electricity use, or more than 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year—the amount produced by about eight million cars in the same time.

a If it's yellow, let it mellow. An oldie but a goodie. In most homes toilets are the biggest source of water usage, says the EPA. Older toilets can use between 5 and 7 gallons of water per flush; newer, more efficient models use 1.3 to 1.6 gallons. All that water ends up in one of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's treatment centers. Wastewater treatment consumes tremendous energy—in 2007, the district's electric bill was $30 million—and is one of the nation's leading sources of methane, which eventually turns into bad old carbon dioxide. If you can't replace your old pot with a more efficient one, try putting a watertight container full of rocks and water in the tank—this will keep the water level down and minimize how much goes down with each flush.

Incidentally, about one of every five toilets leaks—that is, the flapper in the tank doesn't close properly, so water runs constantly into the bowl, wasting as much as 200 gallons a day.

a Take a quick shower. Filling the tub for a bath uses around 70 gallons of water, while showering generally takes 10 to 25 for every five minutes. Keep it at the temperature that comes out of the tap if you can stand it. That'll save the energy needed to warm it—water heating accounts for about 9 percent of the energy we consume in our homes. If you can't, put a bucket in the tub while the water's warming up, then use what you collect for cleaning or to water plants. Shave after you shower, not while the water's running, and choose a reusable razor—no one's sure if plastic materials ever decompose in a landfill.

a Most soaps and shampoos (not to mention other cosmetics) include petroleum products. Look for brands that use seed oils or other alternative ingredients. To find out what's in the products you use, check out cosmeticdatabase.com and hpd.nlm.nih.gov/index.htm.

a Shut off the tap when you're brushing your teeth or lathering your hair. Energy is consumed cleaning up the water after it's drawn from the lake, and everything that goes down the drain ends up the same place your toilet water does.

a Eat local. Find foods that require a minimum of processing and shipping to get to your plate—most of the time, that means local. Transportation generates about 30 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, and at least a quarter of that comes from semis and freight trains. It's also helpful, and probably healthier, to eat organic foods, which help cut pesticide and fertilizer use.

"Everyone needs to think local," says longtime environmentalist Ken Dunn. "In some ways, money spent is petroleum consumed; the significant portion of what we pay for things is the energy we put into making them or transporting them to us. Developing the local economy at least eliminates the transportation costs."

a Compost your food waste. Instead of having it trucked to a landfill, you might as well help turn it back into rich soil. And everyone can do it, even apartment dwellers: you can compost under your sink or in flower pots, and if it's done right it won't smell or attract critters. The city's Department of Environment and the Chicago Recycling Coalition have excellent resources on how to get started.

a Recycle everything else you can. Mining and deforestation do far-reaching environmental damage, and millions of tons of greenhouse gases are released through extracting metals and manufacturing paper, glass, and plastic. While the recycling process uses energy as well, it's nowhere near the levels produced by gathering and processing virgin materials. Plus recycled materials are kept out of landfills, which eat up open space and produce methane. If you don't have curbside recycling—and most of Chicago doesn't—save it and take it to one of the city's drop-off centers when you have a full load, by bike if you can. Or try carpooling to the recycling center with a neighbor. For a list of centers, go to cityofchicago.org/recycling.

a Take a reusable coffee cup with you. There's no sense in buying a new cup with every cuppa—they'll all end up buried in a landfill, to the tune of an estimated 16 billion paper and 25 billion Styrofoam cups a year. Recycling isn't viable, since paper cups are usually coated in a plastic film that can't be separated easily and the market for Styrofoam (a petroleum-based plastic) isn't strong enough to support it.

a Don't drive to work. Environmentalists say this is the simplest and most immediate way individuals can make an impact. The average car produces five to six metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, and automobiles are responsible for more than 10 percent of the country's annual greenhouse gas emissions. So work from home if you can, and if you have to show up at the office, walk, bike, or take public transportation. If you must drive, carpool. Hybrid cars are better than standard models, but most environmentalists don't see them as a radical enough solution to our overconsumption of gas and oil. Producing ethanol uses so much fossil fuel and so much water and involves so many of the other environmental hazards of industrial agriculture that it's at best a negligible improvement, and the demand for corn to make it is said to be accelerating deforestation in the Amazon.

a Read the paper online, not on the Red Line. Your computer uses energy, of course, but deforestation is one of the leading contributors to global warming. We need more trees to help clean carbon dioxide out of the air. And by moving your eyes online, you'll help move advertising dollars there too, encouraging the likes of us to reduce print circulation.


a Bring as many of your green habits to work as you can. Try to get your workplace to use energy-saving lighting, cut paper consumption, recycle, and shut off computers when they're not needed. Use the revolving door if you've got one—it lets out far less heat and AC than a hinged one. If you've got natural light, turn off the overheads. As in your home, unplug what you're not using or connect it to power strips you can easily switch off. Encourage the boss to sign the company up for the EPA's WasteWise program, which works with organizations to conserve resources and cut costs: see epa.gov/wastewise for more info.

a Bring lunch while you're at it. It's the best way to make sure what you're eating is local and organic. If you must go out, have a sit-down meal with real plates and utensils. Try to find a place that serves food that took a minimum of processing and shipping to get there. When you've only got time for takeout, bring your own bag and ask the restaurant to hold the plastic utensils and extra napkins. Biodegradable containers and utensils still have to be shipped in from somewhere—China, for instance.

a Hold the meat too, and maybe the cheese. Livestock, especially cattle, are the country's leading source of methane and yield more greenhouse gases each year than iron and steel production, cement manufacturing, and coal mining combined. Plus, producing a ton of grain uses a fraction of the energy that a ton of meat does. Worse, people around the world are clearing grasslands and forests to raise livestock, which has accelerated global warming.

a Drink tap water. Chicago's new five-cent tax on bottles of water was motivated more by budget problems than by environmental concerns, but it's the kind of disincentive many experts support as a way of pushing people to make greener choices. There are few compelling reasons to drink bottled water in these parts: Our tap water is ranked among the cleanest and best-tasting in the country. Many bottled waters come from the tap anyway, while others place stress on natural water systems. Fossil fuels are burned to transport bottled water to the point of sale. The bottles are made from plastic that requires millions of barrels of oil to produce (in a manufacturing process that creates greenhouse gases), and they typically end in landfills—which of course they must be transported to.

In 2005 Americans disposed of more than 1.5 million tons of plastic bottles; only about a third of that was recycled. And even though it's preferable to landfilling, recycling still requires trucking and processing—none of which would be necessary if you would just go get yourself a glass of tap water.

Water filtration systems like Brita are less environmentally taxing than bottles, but in the United States their carbon filters aren't recyclable.

a After lunch, take a second to call or e-mail one of your elected officials and demand that he or she pay more attention to fossil fuel consumption, climate change, and other environmental issues. Most environmental organizations, including Environment Illinois and the state chapter of the Sierra Club, have sections of their Web sites devoted to important pending legislation.


a Work out at home, go for a run, or bike or take public transit to the gym. Do you really need to drive to get your exercise?

a Shop like a European. On the way home from work, stop at a neighborhood store to pick up the things you need for a simple dinner. "Shop for that day's dinner," suggests Doug Farr, a Chicago architect, urban planner, and author who specializes in sustainable projects. "Find a shop with a little bread, a little cheese, a little meat, and do it on foot. It would force you to know what's within walking distance—not everyone has to make a car trip to Costco—and if they don't have what you want, you can introduce yourself and say, 'Hi, I live nearby, and I really wish you'd carry some buffalo mozzarella, or a decent loaf of bread. And if you did, I'd tell all my friends to come here.'"

a Choose items with a minimum of packaging. Choose products made from recycled materials. When you're out of lightbulbs switch to compact fluorescents; according to the Illinois EPA, if every home in America did, we'd cut a million cars' worth of greenhouse gas emissions. And of course bring your own bags to tote your groceries home in.

a Buy environmentally friendly cleaning supplies—or better yet, make your own. The IEPA suggests lemon or olive oil as furniture polish; baking soda, salt, and vinegar as drain cleaner; and baking soda and water as a scouring agent. There are recipes for these home brews all over the Internet.

a If you've got a dishwasher, use it. Don't rinse the dishes first—just put them in the rack and wait to run the dishwasher until the whole thing's full. The average machine uses 9 to 12 gallons of water per load, while washing by hand typically takes up to twice as much. When you need a new dishwasher (or fridge, or washing machine, or any other appliance), choose an energy-efficient model, which should carry the federal government's Energy Star label. In addition to conserving energy, it'll likely save you money on your electric bill. See energystar.gov. for more info.

a Green your yard. If you have grass, get a push mower. The city lot that warrants a gas or even electric-powered mower is rare. Raise the blade to at least three inches—longer grass promotes deeper roots and holds soil moisture better—and leave the clippings on the ground to serve as fertilizer. Water only when necessary, not on a regular schedule. And think about putting in native trees and plants. (For advice, consult epa.gov/greenscapes and www.il.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/plants/npg.)

If you don't have room for a garden or live in an apartment, think about getting involved in a community gardening project. "To get a community and family back to a more green lifestyle they should have contact with the soil, with nature—you have to be aware of the weather, start appreciating all the seasons," says the Resource Center's Ken Dunn. "Traditionally people used to have these experiences of planting a seed and working with nature to produce a product they're proud of. We need to reconnect with the values that have sustained civilizations throughout history." For help getting started, check out www.openlands.org/urbangreening.asp.

a Drink local. Thirsty after all that gardening? Walk to your corner tavern and order a cold, locally brewed draft beer—it has a smaller transportation footprint than something shipped in, and draft beers require less packaging. Vino aficionados can think local too, but if that's not an option, stick with domestic labels: a study last year by the American Association of Wine Economists found that east of Columbus, Ohio, French wines have a lower carbon footprint than those trucked from California, but for those of us to the west it's more responsble to drink American.

a Read a book before you rack out—it'll use a lot less energy than your TV. A 2005 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that about 4 percent of all residential electricity went to power TVs, and the bigger the set, the more juice it requires. Cutting TV power consumption by 25 percent a year would save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars and keep about seven million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the study estimated. And if you're looking for a good read, may I recommend City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald Miller? It'll help explain how we ended up here.

No one can get it all right, but everyone can do something—and everyone needs to. The proverbial hour is getting late, and even when we're not paying attention, the clock is still ticking, probably on power generated by fossil fuels.v

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