Friday, April 18, 2008

You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

It was a school day and I was killing time before I had to pick up the big guy. We swung into the Target parking lot and I unbuckled my littlest. I needed toilet paper and some toothpaste and Target was only a fifteen minute drive from my son's school. Loading the little guy into the red cart's seat, we slipped through the automatic doors and gawked at the Dollar Section. Spot the Target dog winked in our direction. Whoa, they had the cutest spring decor and garden tools for only a buck! I picked up a couple of pastel handled trowels and weeders (that would bend back entirely the first time I sunk them into the dirt) and some cute Hawaiian themed plastic plates and cups. We streamed past the purse section but sunglasses caught my eye. The boys were always squinting and now that spring was here . . . I picked out a Diego pair for the little guy. He was really into Diego right now, and, of course, Thomas. I debated over the Star Wars ones but finally chose the Batman pair for my oldest. An hour later, we wheeled back to the minivan where I tucked nine white and red plastic bags and a twelve pack of Charmin into the back and the little guy into his car seat.

After retrieving my big boy, we drove by the library to pick out a few books. I hate clutter so it was nice to check kids books out from the library, knowing they'd migrate out of my house in three short weeks. The children's librarian had a nice display of Earth Day books up and we chose a few: Earth Day Birthday and Recycle Every Day. I had cared passionately about the environment as a young adult. We shopped at Whole Foods, buying mostly organic produce, and we recycled religiously (mostly). Heck, every now and then, we even donated money to The Nature Conservancy.

That night, after clearing the boys' AlphaTots remains from the dinner table, we sat down to read their library selections. I explained the importance of recycling, glossed over the bring your own bag part, skipped the compost section and ended by talking about how important it was to care for our planet. After putting the boys to bed, I thought about those books, about my own impact on the environment, wondered at the climate change headline I'd seen on Yahoo's home page and the world I would leave behind to my boys. In Matrix-speak, I took the red pill. I chose truth. I woke up.

The next morning, at Whole Foods, I tentatively informed the cashier that I'd like to buy "one green bag, no, I . . . I . . . I'll take two". I also tossed a magazine boasting Leonardo Di Caprio and "100 Things to Do For Earth Day" onto the conveyor belt.

Over the ensuing months, I went from occasionally forgetting my bags to using them for every shopping trip, to finding reusable produce bags, to using the library for my own books instead of just the kids. I planted a garden, hung a clothesline (and used it), walked my son to school.

I ventured to the farmers' market where everyone knew each other and what to buy. As time went on, I too became friends with the vendors, chatting about grandmothers and preschool. I compared notes with other shoppers - "Oh, the guy under the blue umbrella has peas today? They are organic? Where are they grown?"

I stopped shopping. I haven't been to Target since December and I can't say I miss it. I rediscovered hikes and natural spaces. I learned to fix things instead of throw them out. I can pack a waste free lunch with one hand tied behind my back (or carrying a three year old).

I read articles, blogs and books. I powered through environmental checklists and left Leonardo's 100 things list in the dust. I joined the Riot 4 Austerity yahoo group to find more ways to cut back. I would never get to the targeted 90% reduction from the current American's use, though. That was just crazy. Some of these so-called Rioters were pretty out there. How can you possibly have a family of four produce less than three pounds of garbage a week? Still, they had good ideas so I read and incorporated. One year into this venture, my family is the one producing virtually no garbage. We could go weeks without the garbage collector and not stink.

I do have a ways to go. I need to get on my bike more. I have to decide what to do with the front lawn - let it die, leave it its current brownish-green color due to lack of water or replace it with an edible garden? I need to whittle away at our plastic consumption - even recyclable plastic is too much. I need to speak up more.

But I've come a long way, baby.

The thousand mile journey begins with a single step - or a single canvas shopping bag. Each step feels as meaningful as the last. There are many steps in this journey, however, so I must keep moving.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost

Happy Earth Month and best wishes on your own journey.


katecontinued said...

What a great post, Green Bean.

This is why I feel there is such magic and power in taking on a year long challenge. Yes, it is arbitrary and it may be ineffectual for solving climate crisis, but it is the experience that counts.

Nobody can simply read about cloth wipes and no television and cooking with solar energy and know what this feels like to live it. I wouldn't want to deny someone the empowerment of self-limitation as a positive tool.

Good on you.

Carla said...

Oh, Bean - what a wonderfully inspiring post!! I got a lump in my throat reading it. I'm going to forward it to my daughters as soon as I finish this reply.
Hooray for you!
Carla in North Idaho

arduous said...

What a fantastic post. This brought such a smile to my face. Reading it is like reading about my own journey. It's also why I love blogs because by reading the archives of any of our blogs you can see, we did not come out of the womb eco-nuts. We have slowly but surely added more and more environmental practices one day at a time. It's something anyone can do. If they want to.

Joyce said...

Oh, I just love this post! The Matrix analogy was just perfect. Your life is going to be so much richer for having made these daily choices.

Allison said...

I am lost for rock!

organicneedle said...

Green Bean...I feel like I am on the same exact trail... a few miles behind you...but really enjoying the journey.

Going Crunchy said...

Whoa sister, so on the same page. Kinda scary! I think I must have had that outta body experience at the same time you did. GREAT POST.

Donna said...

Yours has become my favorite blog, and it's posts like this that are the reason why! I'm not as far along as you, but your story sounds familiar. I actually bought a canvas shopping bag long before it was fashionable -- from Albertsons! By the time I started actually USING it, I was shopping at more environmentally friendly stores and for a while all the clerks were shocked that Albertsons even sold bags like that! It was really funny! Now, I'm trying to get away from those thin plastic bags for bulk foods. Anyway, great post.

eco 'burban mom said...

Now, there's a post to keep me going! I am just starting out on my own green adventure and feel like I keep adding to the "To Do List" and don't quite seem to add so much to the "I've Done It List"! Thanks for reminding me that it can take awhile to change old habits and that you CAN do it! I needed this post to fuel me for my weekend clean-up event at the Little League. Every "trash lady" joke won't sting so much now that I know there is light at the end of the tunnel! Congrats Green Bean and thanks for the inspiration!

Raw Food Diva said...

Great post as usual.
In regard to your desire to have them pick up green waste...are you talkin about food scraps?
I have an easy way to compost if you dont like the bins. I call it Hole Composting. Just collect your kitchen scraps, and these can even be meat and cheese. Then dig a whole and put in the scraps. In a month or two the worms will have gone through it and made it nice earth.
A post hole digger works good. Just be sure do dig down far enough to discourage varmits. It is an easy way to nourish the earth without the maintance of a compost situation.

Green Bean said...

You guys are right - this is just not the sort of thing you can believe until you live it.

And what a journey it is. I live every day more thoughtfully, my life really is so much richer. Oddly, even though I bombard myself with the horrible news about the environment, I know feel more at peace than I did when I was aware. (this took a year to materialize, mind you)

Donna: thank you so much! I don't think I've ever been anyone's favorite before. I feel like homecoming queen!

RFD: Great tip. I actually have a bin and don't mind it. We use it daily. The program we spoke up for is curbside collection of food scraps for all residents in the city. While I compost, I'm guessing less than 5% of the folks in my city do. If they could toss their food scraps in a separate trash bin and have it picked weekly, I think we would divert far more waste from the landfill.

Going Crunchy: we may have been separated at birth! ;-)

Carla, Kate, Arduous, Allison, Orgie and Joyce: Thank you all for traveling on the same path and sharing your thoughts, support and experience.

Eco Burban Mom and others starting out their "green journey": I remember the days when my list was so long I thought I'd never even get through the electricity portion or the food thing. Every step counts. EVERY one! The fact that you get out of bed every Saturday and pick up recyclables counts. It's amazing to look back and remember where I started, when it all seemed so hard but I wanted to do the right thing. Now, mostly, it feels like life as normal. Of course, I still have a ways to go. I now actually think I can get to 10% in Riot numbers, or close to it.

One final thought for those newer to lighter living: please post whether it be a comment here or on your own blog. Share your own experiences. I love to hear from people starting out. It gives me hope (plus, as Arduous says, you'll be able to look back one day and realize you weren't always an eco-nut).

Keep on traveling!

Woman with a Hatchet said...

Awesome! I'd love to see a summary (if you're up to it) of how you got your family of 4 on the Riot path. I've read about it, but cannot figure out how one can reduce by 90% while having children. Seems like a rich, single person's game.

Tell me otherwise, though, with details and I'll work on it on my end. I'm on the right path, but I'm quite a bit behind.

Also, as for your front lawn, if it's nice and sunny I'd go for edibles and flowers for bees, birds and butterflies. You could even go for a habitat garden and get it certified via WWF. The hummingbirds alone are worth the effort!

Woman with a Hatchet

Green Bean said...

Thanks for the advice, Hatchet. The lawn is south facing, nice and sunny and we ripped up half (it is separated by a path) and replaced it with a butterfly garden. I must say that it is so nice to see bees buzzing, ladybugs crawling and grasshoppers, well, hopping instead of a lifeless swath of lawn. I'm not sure I can get my husband on board to get rid of ALL the grass though. He and the boys do play t-ball on it quite often.

As to the Riot, I have a 3 and 5 year old. I never took it seriously that we would get to 90%, just kept plugging away and suddenly, we are there for some of the categories. See my sidebar for last months' numbers. I think it is a misconception that it is a rich person's game in that Rioters affirmatively believe in making do and not spending a bunch of money installing solar panels, buying a hybrid or the greenest new gadget.

I started with stuff I enjoy: food! What else.

Food: Riot has a recommended division of food which is 75% local, 20% bulk and 5% wet/other. Shopping at the farmers market alone put us at 60-65% local. Doing the Dark Days Challenge pushed me to find and make more of my own products - breads with locally milled flours, yogurt and butter from local butter. I shop Whole Foods bulk section for rice, oats, and fair trade sugar. It's hard to give up some things though, like chips or the occasional meal out. That is why we don't exactly meet the Riot numbers but pretty darn close. If both spouses work, it is tougher but you can still get most of your produce from the weekend farmers' markets or through CSAs. Cooking can become a fun activity with family. My boys help me make yogurt, butter (they love that one), bread (I use a breadmaker) and Friday night pizza, to name a few. Weekends could include one or two of these activities - maybe mixing granola which is fun and gooey.

Garbage: This was the easiest one for us - that's probably why it is our lowest (and consistently is so). We compost and gave up stuff like soda and processed foods. That crap isn't good for you anyway. I make a lot of the other stuff we eat so it is less packaging. Fixing and making things last longer reduces garbage. We borrow (library, friends) or rent or make do without in many cases. Cessation of shopping is a big reducer because you don't have all the packaging (see discussion of that below). I've also looked for ways to reuse what we have. Giving up store and produce bags, ziplock bags and using reusable containers (in lunch, storing food) is another thing we've done. I use a shampoo bar, bar soap and vinegar rinse for my hair. That's it. I thought we'd be standing on our heads to get to 4% of the average American's garbage output but it's just a new normal. It feels fabulous, by the way, to carry out a single bag out to the curb.

Electricity: We still have a ways to go on this one but we switched all lights that we use most to CFLs, turn off appliances when not in use, have fridge and freezer on lowest setting. We still watch TV occasionally and use the computer. I almost solely line dry. I throw a load in first thing in the morning or before bed and hang it on the line after breakfast. I can only hang one load at a time but, even with two dirty boys, this works and I usually do about 5 loads a week. Of course, I should mention that we wash clothes less. Heck, I can get a weeks' worth of wear out of a pair of jeans. I do tend to use a rice cooker or slow cooker (and people like Burbanmom uses a toaster over) in lieu of the regular oven because it uses less electricity. Reducing this category further will probably be a bit more difficult than the others but I'm going to tackle it in the months to come.

Heating and Cooking Oil: Use cold water to wash clothes, limit showers (heated water), turned our furnace down in the winter. We just switched to a gas stove so this will likely go up and electricity down. I'll have to figure that out. Heating the oven uses 96% of the energy so I'll try to cook more in batches - if the oven is on, I'll cook the pizza and then roast vegetables or bake cookies. Some people do all their cooking in a single day but that hasn't worked out for me. Ironically, this was our highest number in this category in months and I can't figure out why (it was pre-stove change).

Water: March was low because we weren't watering anything yet but the numbers WILL go up. It's unavoidable. I shower every 2-3 days (4-5 minutes at a time), bathe the kids once a week, husband showers daily but limits it to about 5 minutes. We catch the water while it's warming up and use it to flush our toilet (skip plenty of flushes). The only thing that we really spent money on in "going green" was a dual flush toilet for the boys/guest bath as the previous toilet was a water guzzler and gets flushed quite a bit more. I save the bath water to flush toilets and water plants. I don't pre-rinse (ahem, Burbanmom) and just stick dishes in the dishwasher. Wash dishes and clothes only when full. Washing clothes less often comes in here too. We left the sprinklers off as long as possible too - which partially explains my half dead lawn but I'm just not willing to spend the water to resuscitate it. We also installed aerators on the faucets.

Gasoline: I drive a minivan and my husband a sedan so fuel efficiency is not our forte. My husband's commute is relatively short - 15-20 minutes. One son's preschool is an 8 minute drive 3 days a week. We've debated this but love the school, haven't found one we like closer to home and are looking for a carpool opportunity here. The other son I walk to and from school 3-4 days a week. Gradually, I've looked for opportunities to support local businesses (I can walk to our down town) and that (coupled with no shopping) has eliminated a lot of my errand trips. We've cut back on the kids' after school activities - honestly, they were overscheduled anyway. My oldest still does gymnastics and swim lessons. We no longer take routine trips to the zoo or beach on weekends. We go to local parks for hiking, local museums or take the train up to the city (SF). We do still drive somewhat on the weekends but far less so. If I have to do an errand that I'd need to drive to, I try to group it with other errands, picking the oldest up from school or going to one of our few activities. I'm trying to bike a bit more if I need to run out and get something and my husband is home with the kids. Biking is hard, though, because I'm just not capable of pulling one of them in a trailer or doing the trailer bike yet. I'm pretty lame on the bike and it's tough to practice as I have about a two hr window with no kids a couple times a week. Believe it or not, I have other things to do those days but practice biking - like gardening! Oh, and the reason I started hosting my buying club was because I didn't want to drive one city over to get my dairy products and I couldn't get there by car or group it with an errand in the vicinity.

Consumer Goods: Check out my stop shopping list for most of what I've done. Our numbers were high last month because we bought a new car seat and some CFL light bulbs. The littlest grew out of his and I'm just not up to buying a used car seat though I will buy used most anything else. This coming month will be high too because we bought a new stove. Our old one kept dying - same $250 repair every time and every time the technician saying "wow, I've never seen this break before!"

I'm not sure if this was helpful but I absolutely believe that the Riot can be done with a family - AND it doesn't have to be a family out on a farm somewhere. There are a number of the latter on the Riot list. It works great for them but is just not an option for me here.

Debbie said...

This post certainly makes one stop and reflect. I am a 50ish woman who was very active in Earth Day activities in the 70's. When my husband and I were newlyweds we had long conversations about solar panels. windmills and the huge gardens we hoped to grow. At first I made my own yogurt, breads and baby foods. I used only cloth diapers, and worked hard to keep the woodchucks out of our garden. Time passed quickly and with it came a fast paced schedule. I gave up being a stay-at-home mom to join the working world - one of the only regrets I have in my life so far. I wish I hadn't listened to the outside world so much. I lost my focus and we were soon caught up in disposable, plastic and fast - but certainly not better. It is now time for me to get back to the basics. By reading blogs such as yours and my daughter's,
I get the support I need to be back on track. I have stopped buying my H2O in plastic bottles, I bring my own bags to the grocery store, and I stop and think before buying anything - do I really need that item? As soon as the snow melts here in the Northeast I will plant my garden. I have also bought a half-share in the new CSA which has just begun in our community. It feels good to be back on track. Keep on educating us - and thanks.

N. & J. said...

Congrats on how far you have come! My fiance and started making more conscious green decisions a couple months ago and it's odd looking back and seeing how far we have come. We recently had our engagement party and people were various generous monetarily so we set out this weekend to buy some stuff. We hit up Macy's first because we had a gift certificate and they were having a one day sale but we breezed in and out after purchasing the food processor that we have been sorely lacking for the past couple months. We weren't tempted by the plethora of brightly colored products around us. I was much happier going downtown to the small hole in the wall stores that are owned by a person not a corporation. We are still having trouble spending the rest of the money because we just don't need anything else and we don't want a bunch of stuff. But if you had given that to us a couple months ago we would have blown it on so much useless crap it wouldn't have even been funny.

Green Bean said...

Debbie: what a beautiful comment and insightful story. It is easy to lose your way and I hope not to lose my way again. Life seems to happen and to pull us off of our chosen path. How wonderful that you have rediscovered it, are taking action and have a daughter who is not only supportive but proactive. Thank you for sharing your experience.

N&J: Isn't it funny how quickly you can change your paradigm? How quickly you can pull out of this addictive society we live in and care less about all of its material crap. Good for you guys!

Woman with a Hatchet said...

Thanks GB! We're working our way down the green-paved road. Reading what you've been up to has been helping me throw more ideas at my husband.

He's very excited about the food challenge part of things and as I mention small changes he steps up. We put out the smallest amount of trash in our neighborhood (I think) since we cook at home and compost a LOT (our bin is usually only half full). I've even got him agreeing to cloth diapers once we get then wholesale from his mom.

We do lots of other things as well (or don't do - like shop! I'm not a shopper), don't get me wrong. I'm very interested in seeing how another family with children does the Riot. I guess I'll be tap dancing through your archives!

Green Bean said...


It sounds like you are well on your way already. Save your utility bills and go to the Riot site to plug your numbers into the calculator. Doing Riot doesn't have to mean being at 10% - I'm still a ways away from that in most categories but it is fun to compare how I do month after month and whether I'm moving in the right direction.

Donna said...

Green Bean aka homecoming queen, Thanks so much for the details on your Riot changes. You make it sound so... easy! I think we're halfway there already!

I linked to your post on my blog today when I wrote about my own revelation this week about how far I've come. It feels great.

Green Bean said...


I humbly accept this homecoming queen tiara and would like to thank all the little things - line drying my clothes, making my own jam, composting our eggshells and apple cores. Thank you, thank you!

Seriously, though, it isn't difficult. Initially, maybe it takes some getting used to but I think living lighter is just changing habits. Does is really take longer to see a hole in a pair of pants than it does to drive to the store and buy a new pair? Somethings do take longer: baking my own bread, mariginally longer since I bought a used breadmaker; making my own jam - well I only did it a couple of times last summer and it's lasted us all year. Plus nothing can replace the peace of stirring a molten mass of strawberries in a quiet house.

So glad to hear you that you've come so far. That is so wonderful. I'm going to go peek at your post now.

Beany said...

I agree...this is a wonderful post.

I too joined the riot mailing list when it was first formed and so was intimidated by the goals set. I thought I could never do some of things being suggested! I just hung around to figure out if I could try one or two (small) new ideas.

Today, I am amazed at how close I am to meeting (or beating) the goals set.

I read an article recently about turning lawns into sources of food (and income) and thought you might like to read it if you haven't already.

Green Bean said...

Beany, isn't it amazing how minute the changes feel after you've been doing them for a while? Thanks for the link to the article. I love it!


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