You don’t have to live in a strawbale house and drink rainwater to live sustainably. There are lots of ways to do it, from the food you eat to the businesses you support to the kind of lightbulbs by which you read. We’ve spoken to some eco-experts and put together a list of simple things you can do to make the world a greener place.
1. Shed New Light
Try replacing a minimum of five high-use lightbulbs with compact flourescent (CF) bulbs, which use two-thirds less energy, generate 70 percent less heat and last 10 times longer than other bulbs. According to ENERGY STAR, if every American home did this, we could prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from more than 8 million cars.
If you’re worried about the kind of light that compact flourescent lightbulbs cast, take heart that technology is catching up with aesthetics. Mike O’Brien, a green building specialist at the Office of Sustainable Development in Portland, who recently built a carbon-neutral home with his wife, says, “I went to Home Depot and got some samples of their warm white compact flourescents, and my wife and I did a side-by-side test. The CFs were indistinguishable from incandescents in terms of the color of the light they gave off.”
2. The Power of Goals
In order to know how much energy you’re saving, it’s important to first find out how much energy you’re consuming. “Everyone can tell you how much mileage is on their car, but most people don’t know how much energy they use or how much greenhouse gas that represents,” says O’Brien.
Take five minutes and fill out a Personal Emissions Calculator online and then set some goals for yourself. In six months, fill out the calculator again to see your progress. “The feedback loop is really important for you to change your behavior,” says O’Brien.
3. Commune With Nature, Commute By Bus
Consider taking the bus to work even once or twice a week. According to TriMet, automobiles, not industry, are the largest sources of air pollution. Public transportation eliminates approximately 187,000 car trips, some 4.2 tons of smog-forming pollutants, more than 375 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and conserves 60,000 gallons of fuel.
Schedule a Home Energy Review from Energy Trust, which will help you determine what aspect of your living space is wasting the most energy (you must get your gas or electric from PGE, NW Natural, or Pacific Power to be eligible). In addition, they will install free CFs and provide free water-saving measures like aerators. What does it cost? “We don’t charge a fee,” says Tony Laska, the home energy review program manager for the Energy Trust. “Homeowners have paid for it already via the public benefits fund, which you contribute to when you pay your energy bill.”
5. Worship The Sun
There’s never been a better time to consider having a solar system installed. In Oregon, cash incentives combined with state and federal tax credits will bring down costs of a residential installation by 50 percent. For more information contact Energy Trust (866-368-7878).
6. Sustainable Energy’s A Breeze
PGE and Pacific Power both offer clean, renewable energy programs. PGE offers a choice of different sources including wind generated at a wind farm in Oregon, biomass, geothermal and solar. It also provides an option whereby you can lock in your rate for five years so if it increases between now and then you’ll have a little financial . . . windfall. Pacific Power’s Blue Sky Program offers a choice of wind, biomass and solar.
7. Think Locally. Act Locally.
“By purchasing locally grown foods, you are supporting small family farmers who are more likely to use sustainable farming methods and you’re also helping to preserve local farmland,” says Lisa Sedlar, the [edit: now former] president of New Seasons Market in Portland. “Locally grown foods don’t have to travel as far, so you reduce your dependence on fossil fuels when you eat local.”
If you’re unsure about the source of your food, Sedlar encourages you to speak with your grocery manager or the chef at your favorite restaurant. “Ask about it!” she says. “Ask where your food was grown and how it was grown.”
8. Skip The Grocery Store
During the warmer months, try shopping at the farmer’s market instead of the grocery store. “When you shop at the farmer’s market you pay the farmer directly and as a result you’re more connected to where and how your food was grown,” says Sedlar. “I love handing over my money to the person who grew my food.
“Another advantage of shopping at the farmers market is there’s often more varieties of seasonal produce and the vegetables are usually picked at their flavor peak,” she says.
9. Not All Meat Is Created Equal
“There’s no question that vegetarianism leaves a lighter footprint on the earth,” says Sedlar, who doesn’t believe, though, that the solution is for everyone to stop eating meat. “It takes a lot more energy to raise cattle than it does to raise grain, so we need to seek out sustainable ranching methods.” For instance, grass-fed cattle not only tastes richer and more “beefy,” it is raised in a way that minimizes negative impact on the environment. Look for meat that has been raised this way.
And if you’re so inclined, you can support organizations like The Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Portland that promotes sustainable agriculture by recognizing and rewarding farmers who produce food in environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways.
10. The Organic Choice
“Organic foods are not treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides, so that means you aren’t consuming those toxins and you’re helping the environment by keeping those chemicals from going into our water system,” says Sedlar.
If you’re hesitant to make the leap to organic foods because they can be more expensive, Sedlar warns that there’s a hidden cost to paying low prices for conventionally grown food. “If we continue to practice conventional farming methods and sell food based solely on the lowest possible price, we will continue to erode our topsoil, to pollute our water supply and our farmland will not be able to produce high-quality, nutritious food,” she says.
11. Before You Set Off, Offset
According to Treehugger.com, one transatlantic flight for a family of four creates more CO2 than that family generates domestically in an entire year. The best thing to do is to travel by air as little as possible.
If you’re not able to do that, you can purchase carbon offsets for your trips. Websites like The Carbon Neutral Company offer carbon offsets for your flight. In addition, online travel agents such as Expedia now give you the option of offsetting your trip after you’ve booked your tickets.
12. From Parking Lot To Paradise
According to depave.org, a project of the Portland-based nonprofit City Repair, as much as half of urban environments are paved. This can raise summertime temperatures by 10 degrees, further increasing the need for air-conditioning and the expenditure of energy.
Don’t use your driveway much? Or maybe you wouldn’t mind parking on grass instead of cement? By depaving your driveway or parts of your parking area, you cut down on the greenhouse effect, beautify your neighborhood and provide a place for storm water run off. The reclaimed concrete, called “urbanite,” can be used in the foundations of strawbale buildings.
13. Stay Home From Work
“The most fuel efficient vehicle is the one parked in your garage,” says Diana Enright, the assistant director of the Oregon Department of Energy and of its renewable energy division. If you arrange to telecommute to work one day a week, you save 20 percent in fuel costs.
“The reason the state supports telework is because it also eases traffic congestion and reduces carbon emissions,” says Enright. “And it makes good business sense. A lot of businesses who use it say it’s really good for employee morale.”
So, speak to your boss about telecommuting once or twice a week. Or if you’re the boss, think about setting up a telework program (for which your company may be able to receive business energy tax credits). For more info go to oregon.gov/energy.
14. Plug In
According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, nonwork trips (for shopping, recreation, and errands) are estimated to account for 67 percent of all trips in the region. Since these trips tend to be shorter distances than work commutes, consider getting a small, battery-electric vehicle for around-town jaunts.
The electric vehicles now available have a 25- to 35-mile battery range, are a dream to park in the city and only cost pennies a day to charge in comparison with an average fuel cost of $4 a day for a conventional car. Global Electric Motorcars (gemcar.com) has two-seaters, four-seaters, six-seaters and the option of a flat bed. Zap! (zapworld.com) has everthing from electric scooters to an electric pick-up truck.
15. Efficient Errands
In the next three to five years, many long-range electric car models will come to market that perform just like any other car. Until then concentrate on fuel conservation. “Combine trips,” says Enright. “If you’re going to go out, plan so that you don’t have to go out more than once. If you’ve got a ski rack still on your car in the summer, take it off: it creates wind resistance and uses more fuel. Also make sure your tires are properly inflated. It’s all physics.”
In addition, Enright recommends turning off your car if it will be idling for more than a minute. “If you have to drive thru a fast-food place to get coffee or food, it’s okay with the new vehicles to turn them off and then turn them back on,” she says. “Or if you think you’re going to sit in the drive-thru for longer than a minute, park and go in.”
16. Paint Outside The Lines
Look for nontoxic alternatives for household items such as zero-VOC paint the next time you’re redecorating. “A rule of thumb would be: How much surface area are you about to cover?” says O’Brien. “If you’re painting a wall or putting down carpet, you’re about to install a potentially huge generator of toxins. But everything you can think of—primer, caulk, paint, sealer, flooring—there is a safe option for all these things.”
17. Save your footprint
If you want a change of pace, consider remodeling with sustainable materials instead of building a new home. “Remodeling is greener than building a new house because you’re using the existing footprint and not displacing any nature,” says O’Brien. And, for the same reasons, if you’re thinking about putting an addition onto your home, building up is usually better than building out.
18. Clean The Streams
“The average home has 36,000 gallons of storm water run off from the roof per year,” says Anne Peterson, the community involvement coordinator for the Portland’s Downspout Disconnection Program. “Anytime it rains more than a tenth of an inch in two hours—which is pretty common when we get a good rain—that water goes into the sewer system and causes sewage overflow to go into the rivers.” Residents of North, Northeast or Southeast Portland may be eligible to have their downspouts disconnected for free. If you live elsewhere, consider a DIY downspout disconnection project. Either way, you can find more information at portlandonline.com/downspoutdisconnect.
19. Reduce, Reuse, Relax
You may not realize it, but when you recycle you’re not only saving resources like glass, paper and plastic, you’re also saving energy. It takes 95 percent less energy to create a new aluminum can from recycled aluminum than from raw ore, and it takes 40 percent less energy to create a new bottle from recycled glass than from raw materials, according to Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
20. Fan Fare
Check the filters in your heating and cooling systems every 2 to 3 months. According to the EPA, as much as half the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling.
A dirty filter slows down air flow and wastes energy by making the system work harder to keep you warm or cool.