Do you Know the 5 Rs?

The green call to action–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle–makes more sense than ever. But it may be time to amp up those efforts by also Redirecting our dollars and Redesigning our lives.

carbon footprint

In the face of a barrage of troubling news about the climate, energy, and other global crises, more people are searching for solutions. Some find ways to make immediate about-faces, like the pack-a-day smoker who goes cold turkey. Others make changes in small steps, trying out new approaches, gaining confidence, and then gradually letting go of old ways. Small steps are vital–their impact really does add up. If every U.S. home replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an energy-saving compact fluorescent, the reduction in greenhouse gases would be equal to taking 800,000 cars off the road. But will small steps be enough? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Some credible economic studies have concluded that the planet’s ability to provide for humanity has been exceeded by our “ecological footprint.” That’s the amount of land and sea required to provide the resources for our food, shelter, and other goods–as well as the amount of land and sea needed to absorb the pollution and waste we produce in the process of creating those goods. Redefining Progress, an economic think tank that helped popularize the concept of ecological footprints, estimates that humanity’s ecological footprint is currently 39% bigger than the Earth can sustain. If we’ve exceeded the planet’s ability to provide for us, does that mean we’ve run out of raw materials? No. It means we are using more of the planet’s natural resources than can be regenerated each year, and we are creating more waste and pollution than can be safely absorbed. That’s what global climate change is all about–we’ve overtaxed Earth’s ability to absorb CO2 and other greenhouse gases and protect us from their effects. Unless we figure out how to correct our course, our current path may be catastrophic for us, our descendants, and millions of other species. We’re already seeing signs of trouble in vital ecological systems around the world, from dying fisheries and coral reefs to disappearing and degraded agricultural soils. Estimated rates of species extinction are now 1,000 times what they would be without human impact.

carbon footprint

Small steps are important, but given the magnitude of the problems, they are only part of the solution. We need to be looking ahead to major transformations of how we design and use everything from laundry soap to cars to houses. Zero-energy homes, for example, generate more energy than they use. Such sweeping solutions could reduce humanity’s ecological footprint by a factor of several hundred or more, says environmental scientist Dennis Meadows and his coauthors of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Global Update. In the vanguard of helping businesses, governments, and individuals find the best solutions are energy guru Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute and eco-designer William McDonough, coauthor of the influential book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The goal: much smarter use of energy and resources to eliminate inefficiency and waste while improving quality of life for humans and all other species. Getting to zero waste, zero pollution, and zero-energy homes isn’t going to be easy. Success hinges in large part on shifts in public policies and businesses practices. But there are also tremendous opportunities for individuals to make a difference, from small steps like changing a light bulb to giant leaps like trading in your car for a bike. Below are five principles that suggest large and small ideas for shrinking your individual ecological footprint.

1. Reduce the bad stuff.

Let’s start with “reduce.” If overconsumption is at the heart of most environmental crises, then the answer is to use less stuff, right? Not so fast. Not all consumption is bad. The trick is to make smarter choices about what we buy–and what we do with stuff after we buy it. You shouldn’t avoid putting more insulation in your house just because it takes energy and natural resources to make it. The environmental impacts of the initial manufacturing will be dwarfed by your home’s reduced energy consumption year after year. When reducing consumption:

  • Focus on changes that make the biggest difference. Drive less. Drive a fuel-efficient car. Take fewer airplane trips. Eat less meat, if any at all. Upgrade your home’s insulation, and choose energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, lighting, and appliances. If you can afford it, reduce your dependence on fossil fuels with a solar water heater or solar electric system. Bringing your own bags to the grocery store is a fine small step, but pales in comparison to the bigger stuff, like whether you walked, biked, or drove a gas-guzzler to the store.
  • Look for the most effective leverage points. The best opportunities for reducing your ecological footprint arise when you make a major change or purchase: a new job, a new home, a car, a heating system, a refrigerator. If you’re changing jobs or moving to a new home, can you reduce the distance between where you live and work, or choose a location with good public transit access? If you’re buying a new car, consider that it will likely be on the road for 100,000 miles or more; choosing a high-efficiency vehicle (or opting to go carless) will have a major impact on your carbon footprint–and on the footprint of whoever owns the car after you.
  • Watch your weight. In general, heavier items have a larger environmental impact so you need to be smarter when buying the bigger stuff. A refrigerator has a vastly larger impact on energy use and CO2 emissions than a toaster, so when buying a fridge make energy efficiency the top priority. Compared with an MP3 player, a plasma screen TV requires more resources to make, uses more energy to run (as much energy as a refrigerator!), and will create a greater disposal burden.

2. Reuse what you’ve got.

Some people say you have to spend more to be green. The truth is, being frugal and living green have a lot in common. Using stuff that’s been around the block a few times is generally much easier on the planet–and on your wallet–than buying new products. One exception: when it comes to vehicles, equipment, or major appliances that use a lot of energy, it’s often wiser to replace them with a super-efficient new product. There are infinite variations on the reuse theme. Here’s the basic idea:

  • Love the one you’re with. Advertisers keep up relentless pressure on us to buy the latest, greatest next-new-thing, whether it’s a dress with this season’s hem length or a laptop with a faster processor. New products are seductive–sometimes we really do need them, but sometimes we just long for them. Before falling for the shiny lure of the new, give the dresses in your closet or the computer on your desk a second chance–and remember that the happiness of owning something new is ephemeral.
  • Cultivate second-hand style. Some things are better new, like underwear and mattresses. But for most other things you need to buy, consider giving a new home to a used product. You don’t have to be a Dumpster diver to be a reuser. “Previously owned” products come in every budget range, from thrift-store bargains to breathtaking antiques. Whether it’s a kitchen table, a crib, or a book you’ve been wanting to read, you can probably find it used. Borrowing is a good green option too, especially for tools and yard equipment that you use only occasionally.
  • Support your local repairfolk. In many communities, the local cobbler has gone the way of the drive-in movie theater. These days, when the soles or heels of shoes wear out, people throw away the shoes and buy new ones. The same is true of blenders and hair dryers that fizzle out, clothes that need mending, and chairs with sagging seats. If you’re lucky enough to have people with repair skills in your community, keep them around and spare the planet by getting your stuff fixed rather than trashing it. Or repair it yourself if you’ve got the ability, and offer to teach your fix-it skills to the younger generations.
  • Pass it forward. Put unwanted items back in circulation rather than letting them gather dust in your home. There’s someone out there who needs that high chair, baseball glove, or yoga DVD. Whether you sell your unwanted stuff, donate it for a tax deduction, or just give it away, you’ll be doing the environment a good turn by making used goods available to others. Exception: If you bring an old energy-guzzling refrigerator up from the basement, turn it in for recycling so it doesn’t continue its energy-wasting ways in someone else’s home.

3. Recycle the rest.

We’ve had it drilled into us that recycling is an environmental virtue–and it is a good step to take, as a last resort. But it’s almost always better to reduce or reuse rather than recycle. Some materials, like glass, steel, and aluminum, can be endlessly recycled. But the process requires considerable industrial effort, with inputs of everything from energy to clean water to virgin materials. And often when we think we’re recycling, we’re actually “downcycling,” which occurs when a material gets recycled only one time and then becomes unrecyclable. A plastic water bottle, for example, can be recycled into a polyester fleece jacket. That’s good because it means less demand for petroleum-based virgin fleece. But if that recycled fleece jacket isn’t itself recyclable, the jacket will be tossed when it’s no longer wearable. Downcycling merely extends a material’s life, whereas true recycling keeps the material in play, potentially forever. Still, recycling and buying products with recycled content do help solve multiple environmental problems, including reducing demand for natural resources. Recycling a stack of newspapers only four feet high will save a good-sized tree. Recycling also reduces energy, water, and pollution related to manufacturing. Producing new paper, glass, and metal products from recycled materials saves 70% to 90% of the energy and pollution, including CO2, that would result if the product came from virgin materials. Recycling also keeps materials out of landfills and incinerators. Here are some tips:

  • If your community offers curbside recycling, use it. Sorting recyclables from trash isn’t hard-it’s just a matter of getting in the habit. Make it easier on your household by keeping the recycling containers accessible, preferably next to the trash container so that it’s as easy to recycle as it is to throw stuff away.
  • Go the extra mile. For items that can’t be recycled curbside, like batteries, fluorescent lights, electronics, motor oil, or foam packaging, contact your city’s recycling department or use Earth911’s widget located at the top of this page to find local drop-off sites.
  • Favor products that can be recycled. If your city’s recycling program doesn’t accept certain types of plastic, try to avoid packaging made with that material.
  • Buy recycled content. The recycling infrastructure needs markets for products made with recycled materials. In terms of appearance, performance, and cost, there’s usually little or no difference between recycled-content and virgin-content products. These days recycled products run the gamut from paper towels to carpet to outdoor furniture. By the way, if the label doesn’t mention recycled content, the item probably doesn’t have it. Many companies are still cutting down trees to make toilet paper that you use for a few seconds and then flush away.

4. Redirect your dollars.

Every dollar counts. When we buy a cup of coffee made with fair trade, organically grown beans, we’re telling the coffee shop that we support social justice and environmental protection–and we’re supporting efforts to create a healthier future. When we buy Forest Stewardhip Council-certified lumber, we’re standing up for the conservation of forests around the world–and we’re letting lumber companies know of the demand for greener forestry products. When we shop at a farmers’ market, we’re rewarding local farmers who are dedicated to growing healthy, delicious food. Think of it as voting with your dollars. You can send a powerful message to companies by redirecting your spending to organizations and products that are doing good for the Earth, and withdrawing support from organizations and products that aren’t part of the solution. It’s the old carrot-and-stick strategy, and you can use it every time you open your wallet. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to be an environmentally conscious consumer. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always make the best green purchasing decision–or if no good green options are available at the moment. Keep the 3Rs in mind and do the best you can. And feel good when you are able to buy green products. Solar electric systems, solar water heaters, cars that get more than 40 miles per gallon, water-conserving toilets, organically grown food–products like these can make a big reduction in our ecological footprints.

5. Redesign our lives and how we make things.

Plastic soft drink bottles weigh 25% less than they did in 1977. With 7 billion two-liter bottles made annually, that packaging design change amounts to 250 million pounds of plastic that’s not produced each year. “Lightweighting” is just one way to redesign a product. Often the corporate motivation is to beef up the bottom line, but companies are learning that it’s possible to do well and do good. Many businesses have retooled their manufacturing processes to use less water and energy and produce less waste. Some carpet companies have redesigned their products to be recyclable, and will take back their old carpet for recycling when you are ready to replace it. Just as many companies are redesigning how they make things to be easier on the planet, we can redesign our lives. Some people have embraced the idea of voluntary simplicity–making the choice to slow down, buy less, and refocus on the values and activities they cherish the most, whether it’s spending time with family, gardening, volunteering in the community, deepening a spiritual practice, or developing a new skill. Living more lightly on the planet doesn’t have to involve a radical upheaval. It can be as simple as organizing errands more efficiently to cut down on the number of car trips taken, carpooling a few days a week with a coworker, or starting a vegetable garden or compost pile. For others, it might mean tuning up the bike and using it to run errands around town (and getting some exercise to boot). Others might decide to vacation closer to home, both to save money on gas or air travel and to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to the ways in which we can redesign our lives to live well and do good, the sky’s the limit.

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