Recently my 7-year-old encouraged me to buy the reusable shopping bags at our grocery store. "Mom, those plastic bags really aren’t that good for our world." Of course he’s correct, so now our family is one of the many carrying our own bags back and forth to stores.
My son’s awareness of environmental issues (even in an abstract sense) comes as no surprise. Green consciousness has permeated every level of society. Hollywood stars drive a Prius to awards shows. Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Oscar. The Berenstein Bears cubs enlisted the community to clean up the park during a recent episode.
So the awareness is there, but what can a typical family do? Without investing tons of money or even time, we can fall back on the basics—reduce, reuse, recycle. Canvas shopping bags might not seem a great environmental achievement, but when it comes to sustaining life on our planet, every little bit helps.
Reducing the amount of energy (oil, natural gas, electricity) we consume as well as the amount of trash we produce positively impacts the environment.
Turn off lights and unplug electric appliances when they’re not in use. Shutting down your computer each evening helps, but as long as it’s on, it still uses energy. Turn it off and unplug it to truly stop consumption. The same goes for TVs and radios.
Walk or bike instead of getting in the car. The Lee family of LaGrange Park walks to the grocery store. "It’s so close that it seems silly to get in the car. I carry a big backpack for my groceries so I don’t use plastic," says Christina Lee. According to the Web site for "An Inconvenient Truth" (www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction), travel is the biggest contributing factor to the size of our carbon footprint. Gina Lee Robbins, of Oak Park, tries to limit her families’ carbon footprint by reducing fuel emissions as well. "We have a double trail-a-bike attachment for my bike, so I can pull both my 5- and 7-year-old behind me. We used this most of the summer, traveling five-mile and under distances."
The Robbins family also tries to eliminate many disposable products from their daily routine. "We stopped buying paper napkins. Instead of baggies, my kids take reusable containers and regular flatware for school lunches. We don’t order out often for the same reason, but when we do, we ask them not to send chopsticks, napkins or plastic flatware."
Cut back on plastic (bags, containers, packaging). Getting the materials, processing and manufacturing petroleum-based plastic, plus shipping them to markets worldwide uses tons of energy and emits harmful chemicals. Plus, the containers end up in landfills.
They’re more expensive than incandescent light bulbs, but switching out your incandescent bulb for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) in your house could save up to 30 percent on your energy bill. "According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program, CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than incandescents and last 10 times longer," says Matt Malten, assistant vice chancellor for campus sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis. "This, on average, results in $30 savings for the life of the bulb."
Christina Lee admits she still buys disposable plastic bags for convenience, "but more and more we wash them out to reuse them." The same goes for Bethanny Alexander of Westchester. "It drives my husband crazy to see all these little baggies inside out drying on the counter top, but it really cuts down on the number I use each week."
Find non-plastic alternatives to the lunch totes and water bottles your family needs every day. Healthy Green Goods in Evanston carries a variety of reusables, even juice pouches, which eliminate the need for the disposable variety.
Buying second-hand goods is another great way to reuse. Consignment shops and rummage sales fundraisers are not only places to find a good bargain, they’re eco-friendly.
How hard is it to separate cans and paper from the rest of your garbage? Simple recycling cuts down on tons of garbage. Just do it.
Buying only recycled paper also helps, but consider recycling that even further. St. Odilo School in Berwyn uses "scrap paper" for almost all of its in-school copies. You can do the same at home by turning your used paper into printer paper or giving that paper to your kids for their art projects.
Part of recycling is finding another use for products. Consider using the kids’ art projects as wrapping paper and gift tags. It’s a lot less expensive and certainly more personal.
Make your own household cleaners
Try a green recipe for one of the Green Guide Web site’s do-it-yourself household cleaners. The site offers many more using common household cleaners that include:
• Baking soda: Good for scrubbing; reacts with water, vinegar or lemon to speed up cleaning time
• Borax: Good for laundry—disinfects, bleaches and deodorizes
• Distilled white vinegar: Disinfects and breaks up dirt
• Hydrogen peroxide: disinfects, bleaches
• Lemon: cuts through grease
• Olive oil: catches dirt, good for polishing wood
Mix 1/2 cup borax and 1 gallon hot water in pail (or use smaller amounts in a spray bottle: 1/8 cup borax to 1 quart of hot water) dissolving the borax completely. Use the mixture with a rag or mop.
Do not keep for more than three days. Recipe makes enough to clean a bath tub.
Recipes for other kinds of cleaners can be found at www.thegreenguide.com
Source: National Geographic’s Green Guide, www.thegreenguide.com
Alena Murguia is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part-time for Chicago Parent.