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Going green, going cheap

A friend and I were talking about how all this emphasis on “going green” was getting her down. Her family is presently in reduced economic circumstances, and she said, “I feel like we can’t afford to be green!”

So we started to talk about all the ways in which her family is actually living a “green” lifestyle. There are plenty of ways to live a lifestyle that has less impact on our Earth and also save money. Here are a few we came up with:

1. Reduce the number of vehicles you use, and/or use public transportation or good old-fashioned muscle power

My friend’s family made a conscious decision years ago to only have one car. For a family, this is a big decision. I know a few families who have done this, and it has had a great impact on their lives. On one hand, they lose convenience and the ability to make spur-of-the-moment decisions like “Hey, let’s go to Monterey today!” On the green side, they are forced to make conscious decisions about how they use their vehicle and whether it’s worth the trouble. One spouse usually rides his bike, which saves us from that much more pollution. (Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you can agree that this is a net benefit. Not to mention the fact that he’s probably a lot healthier and will thus take up fewer health care dollars as he ages.) And if they both need to get somewhere in a vehicle, one takes public transportation or finds a carpool. These days, most families with kids don’t even bother to carpool. If you’re forced to consider it, you end up getting used to doing it and saving gas even when you don’t need to. And on the upside, you get to chat with your friends all the way to Monterey!

2. Fix rather than buy new

My friend’s family has fixed their dishwasher twice when in the past they would probably have bought a new one. That’s saving the landfill from another fixable dishwasher. My husband is great at trying to get new parts when something breaks. I have to admit I’m not so great at it. But amazingly, he has nursed along the Cuisinart I bought in the late 1980’s by buying a new insert for it (even more amazing: they keep manufacturing that same bowl), he updated our mini-Cuisinart (which we use more often) three times before they stopped making the parts, he’s fixed our bread machine (which we use heavily to make dough) more times than I can count, and he got our rice maker at least ten more years of life by buying new parts. Each time he does this, it doesn’t necessarily save us a lot of money. But it does save us enough to make it worth it, and it saves the earth lots in terms of things not thrown away.

3. Reuse rather than recycle

Recycling is great. We recycle everything we can. However, not everything can be recycled. And things that can be recycled often can be reused a number of times before you give up on them. My friend is a teacher and goes to the wonderful RAFT in San Jose, where they take in all manner of refuse from Silicon Valley companies (stickers, backpacks with event names stamped on them, CD-ROMs of obsolete software, coasters with event names stamped on them, resources such as glue that are a little past their prime, carpet samples from the revamping of the headquarters of some high-flying start-up, the spools that all those CD-ROMs came on…). RAFT then takes this… garbage… and turns it into teaching materials, teacher supplies, and enormous bins of what-have-you that teachers might be able to use. Teachers go in there and shop away. They come out with a year’s worth of supplies — plus that new computer backpack they needed — for $50. Not only is this a great deal for one of our more beleaguered groups of professionals, but it saves all this stuff from going to the landfill. For my part, I got sick of trying to find new uses for more and more plastic yogurt containers, and I started to make my own yogurt. Yes, there are trade-offs (gas to go to the store vs. energy to run the yogurt maker), but the net benefit is that I reuse my yogurt containers over and over, and seldom put one into the recycling bin.

4.Grow and process your own food

My friend spent a few weeks this last autumn offering her friends an apple count. “So far,” she’d announce on a Monday, “I have made 6 gallons of apple cider.” And then, “this weekend I dried ten pounds of apple slices.” I see her kids still munching on those apple slices months later, so I know that they are not going to waste. If you think my friend is a farmer and making some special effort, well, you couldn’t be further off. They live in the city. Their apple trees need little care. They sit on the edge of their small property and give the fruits of their labor yearly and freely. It takes little thought to plant a fruit tree in a spot where you want some shade, or to fill your flower beds with cabbage or snow peas. If you’re going to use the water anyway, why not bear fruit with it? When I was a child, we grew huge amounts of stuff on our 5 acres. I have such fond memories of canning days. I’m sure my mother doesn’t, but these days, even she is relenting. She mentioned to me just the other day that she was so astounded by how much she’d just paid for a jar of something, “I’d better get back into canning.” My parents have a farm, and we try to be good, but we end up throwing away embarrassing amounts of rotten food. We do get some of it to Second Harvest, and much of it appears on our friends’ doorsteps, but the rest really should get itself into cans and the freezer so that we can store away the little bits of energy and water that went into the harvest.

5. Be conscious of your choices, but not draconian

I can name one very conscious choice I have made in our food habits: I no longer buy something that’s wildly out of season here that has been shipped in from the other side of the world. In my case, this boils down to one particular thing: I love asparagus. But frankly, the asparagus I wait for in California is so much sweeter because of its absence the rest of the year. I see the asparagus from Chile available in September, and I remember that if I bide my time, local asparagus will be all that much sweeter. But on the other hand, I have to admit that I don’t deny my family an occasional mango. The ability to get a mango far from the tropics is one of the benefits of our modern life. I don’t go overboard, but since I can’t wait for mango season to come to Northern California, I’m happy to bend the rules a bit to bring that sweetness into our lives.

Let’s be serious here: few of us are going to go back to Little House on the Prairie for our lifestyle. You, dear readers, may be vegan locavores or back to simple self-sustainers, but the rest of us are here in this modern life. We’re not going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that our little choices are meaningless.

So today, my message is that you can make a small difference, and it’s not worthless. Go ahead: buy the cabbage instead of the asparagus. Go ahead and feel good about it. I’m giving you permission. Save a little money, and save a little bit of our future.

Posted in Culture, Health.

2 Responses

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  1. pandahoneybee says

    Thanks for the post;) We are done to one car now for a year, since for the moment we live within 4 miles of hubby’s job. So he does ride his bike when the weather is good! We recycle and I am redoing our kitchen cabinets instead of ripping them out! Hard work but paying off for the environment and our pocket book.

  2. pandahoneybee says

    stupid spell check it should say down to one car not done to one car;)

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