Friday, December 21, 2007

Green in '08

JANUARY—Raid the refrigerator
I've been in the same apartment for about 10 years. And the apartment
came with a refrigerator that had been there a lot longer than that.
My first clue that something might be up with the door seal was the
layer of rust that pitted the length of the door. My second clue
should have been that my electric bill was about $80 to $100 a month,
which is pretty steep for a one-bedroom apartment, even in L.A.
Finally, last year my fridge gave up the ghost and my landlord sprung
for a new Energy Star-rated fridge. Not top of the line, but a decent
$400 model. My electric bill dropped $60 the first month. If I had
bought that fridge when I moved in, I would have paid it off in
electricity savings in just over six months, and I would have
pocketed around $6,800 that instead I parceled out to Southern
California Edison over the years. Try placing a dollar bill in your
refrigerator door—if it comes out too easily once the door is closed,
you might have a bad seal. By having your refrigerator resealed or by
upgrading your refrigerator, you can save a LOT of money, not to
mention what you're doing for the planet. Refrigerators are the worst
power consumers, but it's worth checking all of your appliances,
including air conditioners, televisions, microwaves, etc., to see if
they are Energy Star-rated and if it might be worth your while to
upgrade. Some electric companies will offer incentives to replace
power-abusing appliances.

FEBRUARY—Don't be a dim bulb
You've probably seen more and more of these spiral-shaped fluorescent
bulbs around. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) cost a bit more
than regular incandescent bulbs but only use about a quarter of the
electricity—one bulb can save you up to $30 over the course of its
lifetime (which is long, up to 15,000 hours compared to the paltry
750 to 1,000 hours of the incandescent bulb). Count up the light
bulbs in your house—that's a lot of money saved. With numbers like
that, you can see why countries like Australia have begun phasing in
these super-green bulbs by law, and have started banning
incandescents. But even on a voluntary basis, the green you save by
going green should be a pretty good incentive. For those who believe
fluorescent lighting is too cold and don't want their living area lit
like an airport restroom, take a look at the newer CFLs—as they've
grown in popularity, manufacturers have developed new ways to adjust
their color temperature. People who visit my CFL-lit abode can't even
tell I've replaced my incandescents—and my electric bill dropped
another $5 a month. Again, check with your electric company to verify
whether any incentive programs exist for replacing your bulbs with

MARCH—Sack the plastic bag
Once better recycling techniques were developed for plastic bags,
supermarkets were off to the races using the cheaply produced plastic
bags. They even put the paper bags in plastic bags. The problem: the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that only about 1
percent of the bags get recycled. The rest end up in landfills or as
litter, where they begin their 1,000-year decomposition process,
leaching their petrochemicals into the soil and groundwater. Other
bags go on to become toxic threats to wildlife and sea animals. Many
stores have begun refusing to carry these eco-terrors, and almost all
now offer some reusable alternative at a reasonable price. Some
supermarkets offer discounts or prize drawings for customers who
bring their own bags. Plus, the cloth bags are a lot nicer—they don't
dig into your hands. And since I keep about 20 in the back of my car
(because about another 10 are usually forgotten in my apartment), I
always have padding for fragile items.

APRIL—Ban the bottle
We've featured a number of articles in this newsletter about the
putative health benefits of bottled water, and largely, we don't
believe the hype. The bottled-water industry is largely unregulated,
so you can never be 100-percent sure what you're going to get. Tap
water, on the other hand, is heavily regulated by the EPA, in
addition to state and local agencies, so you can be pretty sure what
you're going to get. And there are plenty of affordable filters
available to make the tap water taste as good as your favorite
bottled brand. You'll save tons of money by switching to tap, paying
pennies instead of dollars for a liter or two of the wet stuff, but
more importantly, you'll be helping the environment in two ways.
First, much like the plastic bags, the petroleum-based plastic
bottles are largely eco-unfriendly. They can be recycled, but the
ones that aren't end up on the millennium-decomposition plan with
their plastic bag brethren. Secondly, there's the enormous
transportation costs—especially if you're getting your fancy water
shipped in from Fiji or Norway. Does American water really taste that
much worse that it's worth polluting the oceans, the air, and the
land to transport a bottle of H20 halfway across the globe?

MAY—Better bathroom habits
And we're not just talking about leaving the seat up or down. Our
morning hygiene routines can be the most wasteful part of the day.
Starting with brushing your teeth—if you leave the sink running while
you brush your teeth for two minutes, about three gallons of water
are going down the drain. Then when you hop in the shower, you're
using 2.5 gallons of water per minute. And if your toilet's a bit on
the older side, add another 5 gallons per flush. So a 2-minute tooth
brushing, 10-minute shower, and toilet flush send a grand total of 33
gallons down the pipes. You can knock down the total by cutting your
shower time in half. You can also install a low-flow shower head or
faucet aerator, which can cut your water use in half and save you up
to $250 a year. Also, if you still have one those water bottles that
you stopped using in April lying around, you can fill it with water
and put it in your toilet tank. By displacing the tank water, you'll
have less wasteful flushes. Replacing your toilet with a newer low-
flow model can reduce your flush from 5 gallons to as low as 1.5
gallons. And honestly, if your toilet is old enough to be a 5-gallon
model, it's probably a little crusty anyway.

JUNE—Shop local
Summer is the perfect time to start getting to know your local
farmers' market. If you don't know where yours is, do a little
Internet surfing—most communities have farmers' markets or at least
cooperatives that allow you the opportunity to shop locally. The
advantages are many. You help support your community. You get food so
fresh that it may have been in the ground the day before. You can get
food with fewer chemicals and preservatives or at least be able to
look the producer in the eye and ask, "What's on your apple?" You can
save money since you aren't paying for the food to be shipped from
some faraway land, which wastes petroleum resources and causes air,
sea, and land pollution as with the bottled water. If you have to
shop at the supermarket, check what you buy to see where it's
produced and try buying products produced locally. Also, don't be
afraid to let your supermarket managers know that you'd like them to
stock locally grown stuff. If they know you're interested, they'll
also be interested. Even better, shop at independently owned grocery
stores where the person making the buying decisions is on site.

JULY—Walk, don't drive
As a resident of Los Angeles, this is almost heresy to say, but by
getting out of your car, you'll be saving fuel and helping your
health. You inhale way more pollutants when you're inside your car
than when you're outside walking past the traffic. Plus, you're
giving yourself huge cardiovascular benefits by getting out and
stretching your legs. Think about all your daily errands and consider
if any of them could have your car taken out of the equation. Even
small changes in your routine can lead to big overall savings in gas
and make you and the planet healthier. Think about carpooling or
taking public transportation if it's available. You save gas and you
can read the paper in the morning instead of cursing the slowpoke
driving five miles per hour in front of you. If you have to drive,
there are still some ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Try not to
be a stop-and-go driver. People who habitually ride the brake and
accelerator use up to 30 percent more gas than the people who drive
more evenly. Keeping the pressure in your tires up is another way to
make your drive more efficient. By losing the junk in the trunk, you
can make your ride lighter and you use less gas. By keeping your
windows rolled up, you reduce the drag on your car—your car becomes
more aerodynamic and requires less fuel. And by going 50 miles per
hour instead of 70, you can save 25 percent in fuel efficiency.

AUGUST—Less paper, more room
If there's one thing that single-handedly contributes the most to the
messy rooms piled with junk that I call home, it's paper. By the end
of every week I have a waist-high stack of newspapers poised to
collapse in my living room. My bedroom floor is littered with
subscription cards which have fallen out of magazines that I already
have subscriptions to. The top of my desk is a distant memory, buried
under stacks of mail mostly unopened. My bookshelves have been
crammed to bursting, because apparently on my next day off, I plan to
plow through the hundred or so books I impulse-bought to read in my
spare time. All of this is at odds with the minimalist aesthetic I
claim to pursue. I recycle as much paper as I can, but do I really
need all this in the first place? Where to begin? First off, take a
magic marker with you when you check the mail. Three magic
words, "Return to Sender," or three others, "Remove from List," can
begin to make your life a lot less cluttered and ultimately save a
lot of paper. Hopefully, people will stop sending you junk, or at the
very least, the junk never makes it into your home. There are also
services available online that for a small fee will get your name and
address scrubbed from most lists. Check with your various credit card
and utility companies to see if you can go paperless and receive your
bills via email. Also, email the companies who send you catalogs to
tell them you'd prefer to receive their information electronically.
See if electronic versions of your favorite newspapers and magazines
are available. Most have the extra advantage of having an online
archive, so, unlike me, you won't have that milk crate full of old
New Yorkers that you never had time to finish reading but couldn't
bear to throw away. Get to know your library. You can save a fortune
on books, and instead of taking up residence in your home, those
books that turned out to be not-so-hot only visit you for two or
three weeks.

SEPTEMBER—One man's trash, another's treasure
As a consumer society, we literally have tons of stuff that we
discard every year. Sure, a lot of it we should never have bought in
the first place, but once we have it, we're stuck with it; and if we
don't get rid of it, we can't get new stuff! We try to recycle the
stuff we can, and can sometimes even talk the city into coming and
picking up our toxic stuff like old fridges and TVs. But some stuff
just seems destined to go to the junkyard or landfill. Before we let
our misguided purchases shuffle off to begin their centuries of
decomposition, however, try finding a new home for your soon-to-be-
orphaned junk. Have a yard sale. It's a great way to make a little
cash and meet your neighbors. You can get your neighbors involved
with the sale too. Everyone's got some junk to get rid of. Or see if
any of your local thrift stores or charities would be interested. Or
try posting on a trading site like eBay or Craigslist—you might even
make a buck or two. If you don't even think it's worth a buck or
you're just feeling charitable, give the stuff away on
The important thing is to keep it out of the landfill.

OCTOBER—Go green when you clean
If you're like me, the most toxic place in the house is under the
kitchen sink. I have enough chemical solutions to start my own meth
lab, which is probably a bit of overkill when all I really need is a
little something to wipe off my stovetop once in a while. And the
scary part—I'm spraying all my surfaces with these toxins and then
making food on them. I'm paying top dollar to coat my kitchen in
poison and then send toxins down the drain to pollute the groundwater
or the ocean or wherever my drain ultimately goes. So I'm getting rid
of my most hazardous cleaners and going old school with the cleaning.
Almost all of your kitchen-cleaning needs can be handled with baking
soda or distilled vinegar (although not together—remember those make-
your-own-volcano science projects?). If there's something that these
two cleaning titans can't handle, try Googling around for a green
solution. There are message boards all over the place and someone
must have found a way to solve the problem without having to resort
to chemical warfare.

NOVEMBER—Veg out once in a while
Beef, chicken, pork, lamb. They're all delicious, and in low-fat,
preferably organic varieties, they're also nutritious. But the
environmental cost of bringing meat to our dinner tables is huge.
Rainforests are cut down to make way for grazing land. All of the
cows bred for beef create an enormous methane problem, the old-
fashioned way. Plus it takes thousands of gallons of water to produce
meat, aside from the fact that it burns tons of fuel and creates tons
of pollution to transport it. If we all went vegetarian, or even
better, vegan, just one day a week, it would make an enormous impact
on the environment. A veg-out day could have cleansing properties for
your body and make it a bit easier on your pocketbook.

DECEMBER—Have a green Christmas
The lights, the sounds, the presents—the holidays are here. And even
the Grinch wouldn't ask us not to indulge in our annual festival of
excess, but there a few things we can do to help the environment
without spoiling the fun. Like try hanging LED Christmas lights
instead of incandescents. You'll save a lot of energy for the planet
and a lot of money on your electric bill. Buy recycled gift wrap. Or
find creative ways to wrap presents that don't require gift wrap—like
using reusable gift bags or making the gift wrap part of the present.
I wrap my tabloid-loving friend's presents in the latest supermarket
rag. Think about exchanging e-cards this holiday season. It's less of
a hassle, saves a lot on postage, and helps the environment by saving
paper and the fuel required to deliver the cards via snail mail. If
you can't imagine the holidays without a mantel full of cards, at
least buy recycled cards. And when the holidays are over, you can
take the fronts of the cards and donate them to various charities
that recycle them and sell them to raise money the following year.

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