Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Half-Life: A Pale Green Wrapper

When I bought my home several years ago, I wanted to be economically sensible and, if possible, environmentally "green."  I had the decision-making power in my hands and I was going to use it wisely whenever I could.

My quest has been a series of small steps that have slowly added up.  I've shared quite a few of them on my blog over the past couple of years, but I thought I'd offer a little wrap-up of some of the highlights. 

My general advice is: Do Things By Halves.  I call it my Half-Life Strategy.

If you're trying to make changes, small-scale adjustments always "take" better than sweeping reforms.  The reason the status quo is the status quo is because it's unthinkingly comfortable.

Change makes us think.  And while I enjoy that (obviously), there are times when I find myself thinking, "Life isn't meant to be lived this way."

Like when I tried to switch to soy milk.  And when I tried to give up coffee.  And when I tried to do both, simultaneously.  I ended up greeting a glorious spring morning with the following announcement: "Goddammit, I'm having a friggin' cup of COFFEE and it's going to have goddamn MILK in it."

It was 6:30 a.m.  No one should start the day like this.  That's why I say, "halves."

Once I gave myself permission to just have coffee and to hell with it, I started to think, "Well, but would I like to have tea instead?"  And some days I did.  It has less than half the caffeine of coffee.  And, in time, I found that instead of having 3-4 cups of coffee a day, I now have about 1-2.

After I bought my house, I applied my Half-Life Philosophy to my Green Quest.  I am therefore Pale Green (as my page indicates).

The first thing I discovered: most advertising claims of "eco-friendly" and "green" are more or less total bullshit.  Anyone can claim to be "eco-friendly" or "green," and these days, almost everyone does.  These terms, like the terms "sustainable" and "natural," are not endorsed or regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In effect, they're red flags that can signal products, websites, and individuals that may be more flash than substance, more interested in "trends" than "truth."  If they're genuinely "green," they'll tell you exactly what they do and produce and they'll reference specific, scientific, verifiable information--from reliable sources (not dot-com sites)--that you can consult independently.

Last Fall, the FTC issued revised "Green Guides" that cover what marketing words and phrases like "free of," "non-toxic," "recyclable" and "renewable" must mean.

Since trying to read the whole document is a great non-toxic sleep-aid, I advise simply looking up a term once in a while, just out of curiosity, or if you have a specific purchase to make.  Here are the Green Guides.

I've found The Sierra Club's Green Home webpage quite helpful.  When it comes time to replace something, I look at it before I shop.

I really like this August 28, 2012 blog post by Kristina Anderson entitled, "To Buy Green or to Be Green?"  The comparison chart at the end of the post is particularly useful.

Over time, I've found that the marketing of "eco-friendly" and "green" and "cruelty-free" consumer products is very misleading.  At the end of the day, they want you to buy their product and they'll play with phrasing and semantics to get you to do so.

Sure, they "care" about the environment and the animals and your health.  But they'd LOVE for you to buy their product.  And lots of it.

So I switched to looking at details and used common sense.  Show me the actual ingredients and give me links to the science about your products and contents, or I'll go find a product that does. 

And bear in mind, if they strip out all of the toxins and chemicals, they're now selling you a product you can probably make all by yourself, for far, far less money.  No, it won't have a designer label.  But think about it: if I handed you a page full of labels and said, "I'd like $10. for each one of these, please," you'd tell me where to put it.

This is what you're doing when you shop for "the brand."

If I told you, "Don't worry: for every $10 you give me, I'm going to donate $1. to an awesome charity," you'll think I'm awesome too.

Until you realize that I have just charged you $10. for something it costs me $1. to make.  That $1. donation is an awesome tax write-off that totally offsets my production costs.   

In my (Pale) Green Quest, I started small and did things by halves.
  • I began making my own laundry detergent.  One cup of borax, one cup of washing soda, one bar of Fels Naptha: grate the bar of soap, mix it with the borax and washing soda, and you have a 6-month supply of laundry detergent powder.  (You only need to use about a tablespoon per wash, and yes, you can use it in High Efficiency washers, because it produces no suds at all.)  Add a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle to help whiten whites. 
    • Half-Life Strategy: Since you can't wash wool and silk with homemade detergent, keep a small bottle of regular detergent (or Woolite).  If you really feel nervous about whether the clothes are getting clean with the homemade, you can fall back on the commercial brand from time to time.  
  • I stopped using shampoo and conditioner.  One tablespoon of baking soda in a cup of water will clean your hair.  One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water will condition it.  
    • Half-Life Strategy:  If you can't make the switch, start by cutting back on the number of times you shower.  Really, unless you're working a serious manual labor job or working out and sweating a lot, you can probably shower every other day.  Once you do that, you've already cut the amount of shampoo you use in half.  Try the baking soda and cider alternative once: if you don't like it, no worries. You're still using half as much shampoo and conditioner as you were, just by showering less often.
  • I started making my own lotion and deodorant.  The recipes are out there.  The deodorant was a tricky one, because I reacted to recipes that used a lot of baking soda.  But it works and actually, it works far, far better than any of the commercial deodorants or anti-perspirants I used to use.   
    • Half-Life Strategy:  You can always buy or use commercial products again, if you need to.  So "switching" doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing move.  Last winter, I got disturbingly dry skin: I bought a bottle of non-toxic, phthalate-free lotion.  Likewise, I need to wear sunblock: I buy the non-toxic kind.  Because I'm saving money on a lot of other little things, I can spend the extra $$ on the non-toxic stuff and still come out ahead.
  • I installed rain barrels.  These are a godsend.  Yes, it looks like I'm having one helluva kegger in my backyard, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.   I no longer even turn on the water to the outdoor spigot.  Last week, it was 95 degrees for 5 days.  I used the water in my rain barrels to water my garden for the entire week, and I still didn't run out.
    • Half-Life Strategy:  I wasn't sure if the rain barrels would work, so I bought 2.  I could have installed just 1.  When I saw that they worked, I got another.  And another.  If they run dry, there's always the hose.
  • I planted a garden.  Everyone has a favorite something.  So plant it and see what happens.  Worst-case scenario, it doesn't grow.  Best-case scenario, it does.
    • Half-Life Strategy: I started small with just two raised beds.  I now have six.  When you plant it yourself, you become conscious of a whole lot of things.  First, bugs are annoying, but not terrible.  They're bugs.  Second, pesticides are like... holy crap... why would you sprinkle that on anything?  Especially if you're going to eat it sometime in the future?  No thanks. Third, home-grown has this thing called "flavor" that you can't get from store-bought herbs and vegetables.
  • I bought a composter.  It's hard to believe that garbage might not smell, but actually, vegetable-based, organic garbage doesn't.  It decomposes, and goes back to what it once was--basically, dirt.
    • Half-Life Strategy: I started with an in-home electric composter.  Although some would argue that using electricity makes it less green, as with all things green (or pale green), you have to think about the big picture.  The ends justify the means: I'm using a few extra pennies' worth of electricity, but I'm cutting back on what goes into the landfill.  And boy, do I mean cutting back: I now generate less than half a bag of trash PER WEEK.  I also have a compost bin outside, but for only one person, that takes a bit longer to fill.
Over time, little things add up.  So if you start trying to make little changes and you see someone who seems to be "greener" than you are or more "eco-aware" or whatever, don't worry or feel embarrassed or inadequate.  Ask questions and seek information.

Most people who are environmentally aware are really eager to share tips with others and to talk about their own struggles and slip-ups.  Being "green" isn't about who you are or what you buy: it's about what you do and how you help.

So if someone hassles you or tries to lord their (alleged) eco-superiority over you, chances are they're simply green with envy.

So, how "green" are you?  If you have advice or suggestions, please share them here--and everywhere!

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."