Every year people around the world make dozens of promises, often with the best of intentions in mind, only to break them less than six weeks later as the reality of crazy work schedules, children’s extracurricular activities, cranky spouses and the inedible easiness of fast food all begin to take their toll on our lives. These promises, that we all know as “New Years Resolutions” are so likely to be broken that there have even been studies commissioned to be done regarding how long they actually last!
Okay so maybe a third of us will break our promises to ourselves about finally turning the garage into a cabana, or toning our muffin top into abs of steel. But there is a resolution we should keep, one that isn’t just a promise to ourselves. This year I made a decision, along with my family to reduce our household footprint, in a promise not to us, but to Mother Nature and to future generations of our family and yours; Because we want to the planet to still be a nice place to be 25, 50, even 100 years from now.
In our family 13 is a lucky number. So we are making 2013 our year to make some real changes in the way we do things, and you can too. Hopefully these changes will inspire those around us to make some changes in their lifestyles as well. You can join us in making these changes for a healthier, happier planet in 2013 and if you have suggestions for eco-friendly changes or want to share your resolution story, I’d love to hear it in the comments section!
For my family, the decision to reduce our household’s footprint was a gradual one. We were already recycling , using reusable bags, making less trips with our car and using a water filter rather than buying bottled water. But it was my son who pointed out one day that despite these actions, we still had as much garbage on trash day as most other people on the block. That thought really bothered me. Now maybe I am a little hypersensitive…after all I am an ecologist, and a conservation-ecologist at that, but I think this went deeper than that. More than just being a good steward for the planet by being eco-conscious, I really wanted my kids to develop an understanding, a sort of compassion for the planet they were living on, that would compel them to make certain types of decisions. I wanted them to have the mindset that would assume that living this way was the norm’.
It will take adjusting too, for all of us, as even I slip up now and then! But the great thing is that we are committed as a family to making positive change for our future, the planets, and for yours too.
So here are some tips and ideas to help you create a resolution for reducing your family’s footprint of your own, broken down by type of material. Remember that there is so much more than just recycling! I have included links to helpful sites where you can find additional information. Happy New Year!
Ways to Reduce Your Footprint
Use a Clothesline
Give your dryer a rest and take advantage of some solar power. Invest in a clothesline and you will not only be reducing your footprint, you will be reducing your electric bill too and not just a little bit. I checked around and according to multiple sources you could end up saving anywhere from $100-$250, and who couldn’t use a couple hundred extra dollars in their pocket right?
When grocery shopping look for items with the least amount of packaging. For most of the foods we buy this can be difficult because it seems that everything is heavily packaged, but that it should do is make you think long and hard about what you are putting in your mouth day after day. I have found that if you stick to the outer aisles of the supermarket you get much less packaging. You can certainly skip the frozen pizzas, Hot Pockets and individually wrapped packs of snack crackers and survive. This also means buying fresh fruit and veggies rather than ones that have been prepackaged. Sure those ones in the package may look prettier, but they have also been treated with chemicals* to make them look that way. You also end up with all that packaging (mostly plastic) that usually ends up in a landfill. Some stores are beginning to embrace the idea of consumers wanting to reduce the amount of packaging and offering certain items in BYOC quantities – that’s Bring-your-own-containers for those of you new to this! In Athens where I shop, Earth Fare does a great job of this, allowing customers to purchase nuts, cereals and other dry goods in BYOC quantities. Athens Store Manager Kristi Ludlow told me they also provide boxes and paper bags to customers who do not have reusable grocery bags. Oh and those cups, plates and flatware you get at their salad bar and cafe…those are all biodegradable which makes the prices you pay for the food seem much more reasonable! I’m also a fan of Trader Joes although they readily admit they aren’t as eco-friendly yet as they’d like to be. They do provide reusable bags and paper bags but haven’t gotten into the BYOC business yet. One good thing about them that you may not know though, is that they take all kinds of recyclables. When I spoke with Josh over at the Athens location he said that the store will take cardboard, plastic bags, glass, bottles and cans and recycle them for you! That’s a convenient service for people who don’t have it offered to them by their trash service, or who can’t afford it. Of course packaging isn’t limited to just food of course. You should keep the goal of less packaging in mind for whatever you shop for. For example, at Pet Supplies Plus you can buy cat litter in BYOC quantities, paying by the pound, and often you can purchase items you use frequently in refill packs which keeps you from continuously buying the same plastic container over and over again. The best thing to do is to take an inventory of your shopping list and see where you can make changes. Most people don’t realize how easy it is until they actually look because we are creatures of habit. Chances are there will be plenty of opportunities once you take a closer look. Let me know what you find!
No Mail List
Most of the people I know have given up their home phone line, making the “No Call List” that we all wanted to be on 5-10 years ago pretty obsolete. Maybe you remember it, maybe you don’t, but essentially it was a list you had to jump through a couple of hoops in order to get registered for, and it was supposed to ensure that telemarketers couldn’t call and interrupt your dinner, Sunday football game, or any other time. It worked well most of the time. Now that everyone has cell phones this isn’t really an issue and the thing you want to be on now is the “No Mail” list which essentially is a way to opt-out of junk mail. Think it can’t be done? Think again! There was a great article written about it on MSNBC.com that tells you exactly how to reduce the amount of Val-pak coupons, catalogs and pre-approved credit card offers currently filling up your mailbox and by proxy our landfills. I am now in the process of getting my family members on this list and so far it seems simple enough. If you have experiences with this I’d love to hear about them!
If you are like most of the rest of the world then you have probably accumulated a fair amount of stuff that you really don’t have any idea what to do with. You don’t really want to throw it out, but you don’t feel like going to the trouble of organizing a yard sale. I hear you…and many times most of this “stuff” ends up in boxes in our attics, garages and closets or storage sheds for years. Well there is an answer, and it doesn’t require that much work. The Freecycle Network is made up of 5,082 groups with 9,267,398 members around the world. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Sounds pretty awesome to me, and I am now in the process of getting rid of a roomful of good stuff that my family no longer needs but that will certainly be of use to somebody else!
Did You Know You Could Recycle That?
So now we are down to recycling, which I’m sure most of you do anyway but just in case you need a little refresher, here are some tips listed by type of material.
We don’t get much large cardboard at our house but when we do I try to think first of ways I can reuse it before I try to recycle it. It seems there is always a need for shoe boxes in my house (kid’s school projects), not to mention with three kids we go through clothes and toys, so it seems I am always boxing things up for either GoodWill, a yard-sale or relatives with kids. We also use cardboard in the winter as fire fodder along with twigs from the yard. As long as there is no heavy ink or plastic tape on the box it will burn good and not put out stinky fumes. Now when it comes to smaller cardboard (think packaging like cereal boxes), we end up with a good bit seeing as there are three children in my house, two of them growing boys. So if I do need to recycle the item I have to be resourceful since my trash service doesn’t recycle cardboard at all (Booo Robertson Sanitation!!!) If you want to recycle your cardboard you can call your local department of sanitation and they can generally tell you where you can take it. You can also take it to Trader Joes (see Ways to Reduce Your Footprint section above) or simply go looking for those red and green dumpsters that are specifically for cardboard.
It seems nowadays that everything is either made out of plastic, or comes wrapped in plastic. In fact if you were to take stock of just how many household items you use every day that are made of plastic, you would be shocked to learn that we, as a species simply can’t get by in this modern world without those 75-90% of things made of plastic; Or at least we would find it rather difficult. Think I’m kidding…consider a typical day where you wake up, brush your teeth (plastic toothbrush and the toothpaste is also in a plastic container), wash your face (the exfoliating wash is also in a plastic tube), and brush your hair (again plastic comb or brush unless you have a wooden one). You head downstairs for your morning coffee which is brewing in your plastic coffeemaker, all the while contemplating which outfit you should wear to the office. You mentally peruse the contents of your closet, where your clothes are arranged by color on plastic hangers. While sipping your coffee from a plastic Go-mug you prepare your lunch to take with you since you are all about saving money, wrapping your sandwich (the bread was in a plastic bag and so was the salami) in plastic wrap before putting it into a plastic cooler-pak lunchbox. You get dressed and refill your coffee and head off to work flipping off the plastic light switches as you leave your home unaware of just how much plastic you actually use every single day.
Sound familiar? Well the good thing is, is that most plastics can be recycled and turned into new plastics. So while I try not to purchase a ton of new ones, at least I know that the ones I do purchase, will be recycled. When I do have to buy plastic, I also look for items that are already made of post-consumer materials, meaning it has already been recycled once. You can reduce your use of plastics too by cutting back on packaging (mentioned previously). Plastics are also classified by a number system that is stamped on the bottom of whatever container you are purchasing. Your trash service may only take certain numbers, the kind usually found on plastic bottles. But if you call your local department of sanitation or visit the Keep America Beautiful website you can probably find out if there are local chapters near you that take other kinds of plastics. We have a local chapter that goes by the name of Keep Athens Clarke County Beautiful that will pretty much take anything. One tip – prescription bottles – Since I have a large family we have a few of these and since they are plastic I want to recycle them but I recommend removing the labels first to protect your family’s privacy.
In my community glass seems to be experiencing a comeback and what I mean by that is that rather than use plastic many people have made the switch back to glass recognizing the ecological benefits of using something that will last longer and that doesn’t harm the environment in its creation. And many companies are catching on, putting their products in glass rather than plastic containers. In my house we stopped using plastic cups. Not that we got rid of the ones we had, we just made a decision not to purchase any new ones. We also made the decision however not to purchase any more glasses either. This is because we reuse glassware from products such as salad dressing and syrup -which are the perfect size for drinking glasses or vases for flowers. So maybe we don’t have fancy dinnerware but we are reducing our footprint by reusing glassware and recycling other glass rather than creating demand for new glass or plastic.
To me this seems like a no-brainer, or it did until I started doing the research. Then I was shocked at what I found. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, we throw away more than 25 percent—some 25.9 million tons of food EACH YEAR. And to think there are people, children even who go hungry every day. So what to do with the food we don’t eat? Well for starters I would say to anybody that has large amounts of left overs that they don’t eat, cook less…or take meals to a shelter. However if you only have a little left here and there like we do, or if you are wondering what to do with the organic waste like orange peels, egg shells, etc, then keep reading. Composting is the easiest thing in the world to do and yet people don’t do it because they assume it is messy, stinky or that it will attract bugs and vermin to their home. Wrong. All you need are the proper tools. There are several sites you can visit to get information including the Environmental Protection Agency or the Keep America Beautiful website or even the Sierra Club which has a video you can watch to find out how to get started. You essentially need a container preferably with an airtight lid where you can keep the waste temporarily (we compost most food waste except for meat) and when the container is full we empty it out in a designated area in the back of the yard where we also put our leaves and grass trimmings. This pile needs to get sunlight and moisture in order to break down or decompose properly. We “turn” this pile over a few times a year using rakes and pitchforks and as it degrades it becomes the richest mulch which we then use on our garden.
You would think that of all the things we could recycle and cut back on our use of, this would be the easiest but as my family has been attempting to make changes this has been a toughie for us. Paper is everywhere! It comes in the mailbox, in the kids folders, as flyers stuck on my car, in memos at the office, etc. I stopped printing things a long time ago and pretty much never use our printer or any other for that matter unless absolutely necessary. I try to do as much as I can electronically in order to save paper. I have even made an impact on my kids apparently as they even use much less toilet paper these days, my five-year-old telling me that to use more would be killing trees…(she’s a cute little tree-hugger). Thankfully most offices and schools will recycle paper, just make sure that they take more than just white copy paper. In order to make the most out the paper that comes home with your kids – you can first write a note to your children’s teacher requesting that they only send home what is absolutely necessary, and this works some of the time. What still comes home you can either let them use as drawing paper or cut it into squares and use it as notepad/scratch paper. We don’t use paper napkins or paper towels anymore, favoring cloth napkins and dish towels instead. And if we do have to buy paper products we buy those that have already been recycled.
I mentioned before about how to get on the No Mail list which will help to eliminate unwanted mailers and junk mail from your mailbox. But what about magazines that you subscribe too? I often donate mine to schools for art projects, and when even they won’t take them, there is a magazine recycling dumpster here in town where I can drop mine off. If you are not sure about where to take yours visit the Keep America Beautiful website to find a location near you. Other things you can do with magazines – art projects with kids – mine use them for collages, and to decorate boxes for presents. We also use them to work on reading and vocabulary skills by playing word find games, where each player is given a category and has to find words (that get progressively harder) in that category and cut them out. Then at the end they use the words they cut out to tell a story to the rest of the group. It’s usually a lot of fun but works best if you have multiple skill levels.
Most recycling plans that are offered through trash services will collect these so these really aren’t a problem for most people. In my house we have just tried to reduce the amount, hopefully eventually to zero. Especially since there is no real need to drink anything in a can these days.
These are the hard ones to recycle and are not included in most trash service plans. You can reduce the amount you use by switching to fresh veggies over canned, and making soups from scratch. But if you do end up with these cans your best bet is to either contact your local department of sanitation or visit the Keep America Beautiful Website.
Okay – so that’s all I have and I know it’s a lot. I hope it was useful and that you will contribute your own ideas so that the entire community can benefit. Thanks as always for reading and happy new year!
*Many fruits are sprayed with a lemon juice & chemical cocktail to keep them looking fresh unless they are certified organic. These chemicals have been linked to indigestion, diarrhea and stomach ulcers.