Magazines and other media often paint environmentalism as a more expensive lifestyle choice. Often they use the “green” mantra to promote companies who pay for advertising. Every product that is manufactured (even if it is “green”) requires energy to produce and fuel to distribute. Each of these products also creates its own waste stream. Instead of buying more products, consumers need to look at ways to use current resources more wisely. Happily, such choices are easier on the pocketbook as well as the planet.
Take bottled water, for instance. Bottled water is increasingly popular because it seems somehow “safer” than tap water. However, as much as 40 percent of commercial bottled water is filled straight from the tap. Bottled water generally contains the same level of pharmaceuticals and contaminants as the water flowing from the tap. In fact, federal government standards and safety testing requirements are actually higher for municipalities than for bottlers. The plastic bottles themselves are also unhealthy, containing chemicals that have been linked to increases in cancer. So skip the bottled water and drink from the tap.
If you live in an area without drinkable water, opt for large containers rather than single-servings. This reduces waste and plastic exposure. Another tip: Do not refill and reuse water bottles. Containers that have been deemed safe (so far) for one-time use leach out more chemicals with repeated use, particularly if you wash them with hot water or in the dishwasher. The safest water bottles are made from metal.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is the chemical in plastic receiving the most scrutiny at this time. BPA has been shown to mimic estrogen in mammals. BPA exposure causes cancers and other dysfunctions in the sex organs of laboratory animals. In 2003-2004, the CDC found BPA in the urine of 93 percent of adults and children tested.
Bottle-fed babies are at greatest risk, since most baby bottles contain BPA. Heating the bottles in the microwave, boiling them or washing them in the dishwasher increases leaching.
Canada has already banned baby bottles made with BPA. Here in America, Wal-Mart plans to phase out the bottles slowly by not restocking them. Until 2009, Wal-Mart will continue selling the contaminated bottles in spite of known health risks to babies.
As with bottled water, there is a way to feed babies that costs less and is healthier, too. Mothers who nurse their babies provide excellent nutrition from a clean, safe package. By contrast, formula offers only substandard nutrition in a chemically-tainted container. Formula costs $1,500 to $2,800 per year (depending on brand), and in many cases that cost is on the shoulders of taxpayers. In addition to the cost of the formula and the tainted bottles, increased healthcare costs make formula-feeding a far more expensive option.
Formula feeding is also an ecological disaster. Dairy production for formula destroys land and pollutes air and water. Artificial feeding also crowds our landfills with 550 million formula cans (that’s enough cans to circle the earth one and a half times, if stacked end to end). The plastic bottles and nipples take 200-450 years to disintegrate.
So ditch the bottled water, and the baby bottles, too. Here are a few other tricks to reduce environmental impact and save money:
Cut down on plastic shopping bags. Think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of plastic debris twice as big as Texas. The debris is particularly dangerous for birds and sea turtles. Turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish. Birds swallow tiny bits of broken-down plastic, which they cannot pass or break down. As plastic fills the stomach, no room remains for digesting real food. The animals literally starve to death. According to Greenpeace, at least 267 marine species have suffered from ingestion or entanglement of such debris.
Ireland, Uganda and most recently China have all banned free plastic shopping bags, recognizing the enormous environmental impact the bags create. The Chinese ban is particularly significant in light of China’s reputation as a producer of lead toys and unprecedented carbon emissions. The Chinese ban alone saves approximately 37 million barrels of oil.
Small families may be able to get by with reusable shopping bags. I have not found this to be practical for our large family, but I request that items like milk, juice and laundry detergent be placed in my cart without a bag. Like many families, we reuse plastic shopping bags for small trashcans, stinky messes or wet bathing suits. Some grocery stores collect and recycle plastic bags and many still offer paper bags, which are easier to recycle.
Another way to help save the planet is to use non-toxic household cleaners. Clean the mirrors with vinegar-and-water and old newspapers. Try Borax or baking soda for scrubbing. These products are cheaper, more environmentally-friendly, and also safer for any pets or toddlers who may find them in your cupboard.
Use half the recommended laundry detergent and skip the fabric softener altogether. For stubborn stains, break out the Borax for a bit of scrubbing. An outdoor clothesline saves energy and results in whiter whites. Even if line-drying is not practical all the time, use it when it is. Every kilowatt we forgo prolongs the life of the world we live in.
Buy locally grown produce. In the summer time, fruit stands abound in town squares and on rural back roads. Produce from stands is likely to be fresher and have fewer chemicals, whereas grocery store produce often comes from other countries, is heavily sprayed and/or waxed and is picked before it ripens. Eating locally grown produce reduces America’s dependence on foreign oil, saves fossil fuels and reduces greenhouse gasses associated with trucking food to chain stores. Patronizing local businesses is also a win-win for the community.
Buy second-hand. When you purchased used goods, you not only save money, you also prevent that item for ending up in the landfill and you prevent a similar item from being produced. Second-hand items also lack the packaging that creates so much unnecessary waste. Clothing and furniture are our favorite second-hand items.
To look at some of the magazine articles and websites on environmentalism, one would think that “going green” must involve an enormous shopping trip. In practice, families often find that the most sensible environmental solutions actually save money.
Jeannie Babb Taylor is a wife, a mother, entrepreneur and writer in Ringgold, Ga. Her columns appear in newspapers and her blog, “On the Other Hand.”