written by Helena Tavares Kennedy
Spring is in the air and with it comes Earth Day, a reminder that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. As former U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.”
While being “green” means different things to different people, the general consensus is that our actions affect the environment and we should minimize our negative impact on the earth. For some, this can mean recycling. Others replace burnt-out light bulbs with more energy-efficient ones, bicycle to work or call on politicians to pass legislation designed to protect the environment. No matter where you may fall on this spectrum, the key is being thoughtful about how you use our planet’s resources.
For example, before buying an item made of or packaged in plastic, consider the toxins created in manufacturing it, whether the item can be recycled and if you can find a non-plastic alternative.
Also, when purchasing a new appliance, look first for its rating by Energy Star, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect our climate through superior energy efficiency. Find out the appliance’s electricity usage and consider whether materials harmful to us or the environment may have been used to manufacture that washer, dryer or refrigerator.
In taking small steps such as these, you’re following the “Three Rs” to thinking green: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Applying these in your daily life can help you not only make a positive impact on the earth, but could also result in some extra green in your wallet.
Reducing consumption is one of the biggest ways to be greener, and to save money. It is good for the planet because it cuts down on our use of natural and synthetic materials used in production and also results in less pollution caused in manufacturing. Of course, you spend less, too, when you consume less.
A common misconception, fueled by untold marketing dollars, is that the more stuff we have, the happier we are. Research indicates otherwise, however. Examining the results of hundreds of studies on the subject, leading “positive” psychology researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman concluded in their 2004 report, “Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well- Being,” that while incomes, home sizes, number of cars and access to media have steadily increased since the 1950s, levels of happiness in the United States have not.
So here are pointers on how to reduce what you consume:
- Think before you buy. Do you really need three pounds of ground beef for that recipe, or is two enough? And before purchasing that latest, newest tech gadget, ask yourself if you could you get by with the one you have a while longer.
- Be aware of what you buy. Look at how it is packaged, how long it will last and what will happen to it when you are done with it.
- See if you can borrow what you plan to buy. Rather than heading to the store for a tool you may only use occasionally, ask your neighbor if he’ll loan you his.
Reusing Instead of Disposing
While the first “R” focuses on bringing fewer things into your home, the second looks at making them last once they are there. Sometimes these choices can still start at the store. For example, it can mean choosing reusable cloth diapers and baby wipes instead of disposable ones, which create more waste at the landfill.
Also, instead of buying a 24-pack of disposable plastic water bottles or juice boxes for lunches, purchase reusable stainless steel or glass bottles (rather than plastic) for each family member. You’ll quickly recoup your initial investment by the money you’ve saved.
For those who are tap water-adverse, a number of filtration systems are available. Or buy the gallon size of purified water to refill reusable bottles. This is still more cost-effective than purchasing individual serving sizes, and creates less waste.
Speaking of packing lunches, skip the one-use-only plastic sandwich baggies and “snack packs.” Purchase reusable and rewashable snack bags and lunch containers, such as those that Wrap-N-Mat®, U●Konserve® (www.kidsconserve.com) and Snack HappenedTM sell. Utensils and straws are also available in reusable forms. Bring them along on your next fast food outing rather than using the disposable ones restaurants offer.
Some establishments even encourage this habit. Coffee shops such as Starbucks provide discounts to customers who bring in their own coffee mug to fill. At Giant and Shoppers, customers receive five cents off their bill for each reusable bag they bring to pack their groceries.
Making what you own last longer is another step. Remember when our parents or grandparents used to mend a torn shirt rather than toss it out? Or they fixed that broken toaster rather than replace it? The saying used to be, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
It can be fun to think of new ways to use what you have. Cut up an old t-shirt and reuse it for dust rags or to replace paper towels. Turn pasta jars into flower vases and convert old toilet paper rolls into fire starters. Involve your kids and see the creativity soar.
Recycling What You’ve Used
Next comes the best-known “R:” Recycling. In Prince William, many residents and businesses have separate recycling containers. Most disposal services in this area also provide single-stream recycling, which means you can throw your newspapers, junk mail, plastic containers, cans, glass and cardboard together in the same bin, and its contents are sorted at the recycling facility. This definitely makes recycling easier, which undoubtedly has helped Prince William County achieve a high recycling rate. The community recycles 41.3 percent of its waste, according to the county Department of Public Works.
Still, we can and should aim to raise that rate, said Recycling Program Manager Scott MacDonald of the Prince William County Solid Waste Division. “Although recycling is mandatory for residents and businesses in Prince William, the county wants to encourage everyone to make recycling a habit at home, work and in the community,” said MacDonald. “Just giving it a little extra thought before you discard an item will go a long way to giving our natural resources another life and, in the process, will save landfill space, energy and helps make Prince William a better place.”
You can also drop off hard-to-recycle items, including paint, oil, batteries and appliances, at the county landfill’s recycling center on Dumfries Road in Manassas. Additionally, some stores, including Home Depot, Lowe’s and IKEA, have recycling containers for batteries and CFL light bulbs, while others have plastic-bag recycling available. Visit search.earth911.com to find the nearest places to recycle various items.
Manassas resident Dr. Larry Underwood said that in addition to practicing the “Three Rs,” his family goes further to protect the environment. “One of our main contributions to environmentalism is our ‘green’ yard. We’ve replaced nearly all our grass with wild flowers and other plants that turn our yard into habitat,” said Dr. Underwood. “Our other contribution is activism. We’re members of several organizations. We write letters and lobby Congress. As a friend of mine says, ‘It’s not enough to change light bulbs. We need to change policies.’”
While you may have more control at home, there are ways to be greener at work, too. Speak to managers about creating a “green team” that meets during lunch breaks to discuss ways the office can become more green. Ideas could include how to encourage more employees to recycle in the office or, if you’re more ambitious, how to create a rooftop garden.
Wetland Studies & Solutions, Inc., (WSSI) in Gainesville walks the walk of green living. Its team of wetland scientists, engineers, specialists and archeologists assist developers and public works agencies in creating solutions to water quality issues. Its headquarters, the first Gold LEED certified building in Virginia, includes green features such as lights that shut off when the room is empty, a rooftop living green garden and pervious parking lot surfaces. The company even installed cisterns on its roof to collect rainwater which is then used to flush the office toilets. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a U.S. Green Building Council program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.
“For WSSI, it’s important, very important, to practice what we preach,” said WSSI Marketing Manager Justin Jacobs. “The entire firm realizes the importance of minimizing the ecological impacts of local land development projects by implementing sustainable design practices, and we view that as a personal responsibility. It may not often be the least expensive option, but it’s simply the right thing to do.”
Creating a Green Community
Taking personal responsibility for the local environment and working collectively to improve it also can create a sense of community. “To live somewhere that is clean, green, and safe involves a sense of camaraderie and responsibility to each other,” explained Kiliaen Anderson, executive director of Keep Prince William Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce litter in the area and protect the community’s environment.
“An environmentally friendly community must have residents and local businesses working together as a team,” she said. “Every time individuals are brought together for the mutual cause of a community cleanup, their sense of appreciation for the work we do and their pride in ownership of their community increase. Often long-term relationships are formed, and it’s these community relationships that allow for our community to remain a clean, beautiful, sustainable environment for future generations.”
Nonprofit marketing director and communications consultant Helena Tavares Kennedy enjoys freelance writing and living green with her husband and two children in Manassas, where she has resided for 13 years. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit her blog, LivingGreenDayByDay.com.