5% Better: A Painless Approach to the Better Planet

Image result for eco villains captain planet

This post actually began when I started listening to podcasts about exercising while exercising (Try it--it's remarkably motivating and self-congratulatory) and I came across this one from NPR's LifeKit series. It made me think: we tend to think in such extremes, especially in terms of activities that reflect an identity. Either you are a health nut or a coach potato. An obsessive workaholic or a work-to-live slacker. A rabidly alarmist environmentalist or a climate-change denying eco-villain.

Image result for captain planet villains

But what if I approached my environmental habits the same way I did exercise and eating healthy--not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a series of habits that get me incrementally closer to a better life?

Much like living a healthier lifestyle, being incrementally more environmentally friendly starts with recognizing your current strengths and weaknesses and building on that.

My household is not the worst. Since living in Austin four years ago, I've become extremely confident about bringing my own bags to the grocery store (partially, I admit, I am motivated by not have approximately 40,000,000 bags smooshed under my kitchen sink) and even when I go shopping for clothes, I usually just get a bag at the first store and stick all my subsequent purchases in that bag.
 My husband, who did his dissertation articles on household energy practices, has gotten us in the habit of a winter 68* and a summer 78* indoor temperature. He informs me, lackadaisically, that this is the standard, but I have been known to fiddle with the Nest when we have company over. We even drive a Tesla, which is not that expensive when you buy used, and we get the added smugness of living in a state where renewable electric options are plentiful, and most of our competitive electric companies offer a "renewable premium" plan. We live in a house that's not ridiculously too big for us and both of us telecommute at least a couple of days a week.

But that's not good enough.

We could go full "No Impact Man" and try to give up electronic entertainment and toilet paper. We could make some of the choices my awesome and thoughtful friends have done, like choosing cloth diapers over disposable, getting down to one car, and buying extremely local. But frankly all of that seems daunting and a little painful. Instead, I'm just shooting for 5% more environmentally friendly this month and then seeing if we can go another 5% next month. This won't stop climate change in its tracks, but, statistically, our household never had that power. We will, however, be able to be a little more gentle to the earth while developing habits that last.

Here's what we tried out this month:

1. Buying Bulk for Less Plastic Waste

This one's a little like a geometry problem: What uses more plastic--four one-liter container or one four-liter container? In addition to reducing the number of olive oil/ liquid soap /yogurt cup containers that are produced and then possibly/possibly not get recycled, buying in bulk means less running to the supermarket to get supplies that are running low.

One particular item that seemed like low-hanging fruit (literally) were the little applesauce packets that Baby Girl inhales. If you haven't had a toddler in a few years, let me testify that it is magic that my daughter can eat healthy fruits and vegetables in a form that seldom gets plastered all over. I mean, I can even give her a pouch in the car! But none of those packets are recyclable and the sweetheart darling can eat two at a sitting. I always feel a little sketchy when my plans to use less plastic involve me buying more plastic, but these cute little reusable pouches seemed like a great way to nix the single-use pouches. I just bought a large container of applesauce and spooned some in myself.  In practice, there were some downfalls--the banana smoothie I made did not keep in the fridge well, and some applesauce fell out, and it was depressing to see just how quickly Lucia slurped out what I just spooned in, but over all, I think this was a win. I just fill up three or four at a time and keep them in the fridge until she needs them.

2. Saving Energy-Consumptive Activities for "Off-peak" Hours

This one's a little technical, but pretty much think about what would happen if every person on your power grid came home and flipped on their light switch at the exact same time. What kind of capacity would your power provider need to have? Now, imagine instead that some people turned on the light an hour earlier, some 45 minutes earlier, some 30 minutes earlier, some 30 minutes later... you get the idea. Peak hours in most places are typically 10 am -7 pm Monday-Friday.

So when you reserve high energy activities like running your dryer (the second-largest energy expense in your home, after air conditioning) or taking a hot bath for Saturday morning or in the late evening, you smooth out the demand for energy. Some energy companies even offer off-peak perks like "free nights and weekends" to financially push you towards off-peak hours.

3. Taking Better Care of Our Clothes

One thing I've long noticed about my mom is that her clothes last forever, and last time I visited, I noticed how careful she was with caring for her clothes.

Speaking of dryers, not only do they eat a ton of energy, but they also eat clothes, especially Target t-shirts and H&M sweaters. My mom flat-dries a lot: sweaters, jeans, shirts with embroidery, etc. This means that she does fewer loads in the drier and her clothes last longer.

Another thing my mom does is she doesn't feel the need to wash clothes that don't get dirty. Look, think about it: if you wear a little back dress for two hours while sitting in a cool, dark theater, then come home and take it off, does it really need to be washed? How about the cardigan that just sat layered on top of your shirt for the 3 cooler hours of the morning? Unless you sweat profusely or get spaghetti stains on everything, there's probably a lot you don't need to wash. Jeans, famously, can go weeks between washes.

This month, some clothes went back on their hanger instead of automatically in the wash after I took them off and more things went on the flat drying rack. It will probably not a big change in our carbon footprint today but it might decrease the clothes we need to buy in the future.

4. Buying Books Second-hand and Patronizing the Local Library

I'm putting these together because we didn't do all that much shopping this month, but I did go hog wild in the book section of Goodwill--and came out only $14 poorer. Which is to say that this focus not only was good for the environment, but also the budget.

Now there are library options--we live equidistant between two libraries, and, yes, we drove to get there, but my neighborhood has a Little Free Library where we can swap our reading material. It's been a nice way to get to know my neighbors--except someone who keeps putting psychological thrillers in. I'm pretty sure that person is a murderer.

I'm not suggesting that if we hadn't gone to the library so much this week we would have been buying paperbacks and then tossing them into the rubbish heap, but sometimes you just want new things and going to the library allows you to experience that thrill of something new and different without actually buying it.

And buying something from a thrift shop or resale retailer can be extra exciting. You never know what you'll get--I went to Goodwill looking for some of the it-books of the 2000s, and I did find a complete Hunger Games trilogy (several of them, in fact), but also Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I had vague memories of being a book-club book. I bought it ($1, baby!), and it was the subject of almost every conversation I had for a week.

And, as a byproduct of these expeditions, we've been reading a lot more. That means less streaming and scrolling. Okay, that's a minuscule environmental impact, but, still!

5. Keeping 5% In Mind.

We still did plenty of non-environmental things this month. We drove hours to Austin for a weekend visit. I drank a couple plastic water bottles. Krystian completely played two video games. Lucia got a new wardrobe of 18-month clothes. But keeping this 5% goal in mind also led to some victories, like when I got my mug from my office instead of using a Styrofoam cup, or when we removed the plastic hangers from Lucia's clothes and gave them back at the store. It's just nice to remember to be a little bit kinder to the earth. Remembering that we don't have to be perfect, just better.

Edit: Oy, I thought of another we do. Decreasing our home delivery days. That means the Imperfect Produce box is bigger and comes once every two weeks instead of every week. Amazon stops by our house on Mondays, regardless of when we bought stuff, and we put non-essentials in our cart until we get an actual cart-full of stuff to get delivered.


Beth Hedengren said…
Love this! Absolutely doable stuff to help the earth. Thanks for writing it!
Salvador said…
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Salvador said…
Smartphones and laptops, but they cannot independently acquire the computer science education necessary skills and master complex programs that, given the development of computer technology, will certainly be useful to them in their future adult life. On the contrary, it is necessary to increase the number of hours on this subject now.

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