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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Philadelphia Inquirer Sandy Bauers column: Learning to like the eco-friendly life. USA, LLC

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Mar. 10--I was feeling so smug the other morning.

Down in the basement, I was draping wet socks over a rack, hanging T-shirts from a line and flopping jeans over a bar.

The clothes dryer -- that energy hog! -- was empty. Except for laundry emergencies, it's been that way for months.

And, really, it hasn't been so bad, stiff towels notwithstanding.

But that night, when I got home, I paused at the top of the basement steps.

Ack! I'd left the lights on all day.

Since becoming The Inquirer's environment reporter two years ago, I've been trying to take it easy on the Earth, reduce my carbon footprint, lessen my impact.

Today, I'm beginning a new column to chronicle these adventures in green-land and write about other people's attempts to do the same thing. I'll be an eco-explorer, trying new technologies and techniques to figure out how a greener lifestyle works; indeed, whether it works. How big a difference can one person make? Is it worth it? At what point does it shift from ecologically correct to patently absurd?

The condition of our environment is the sum of millions of decisions made every day by governments, corporations and, yes, individuals.

Perhaps like no other time in history, our understanding of the planet is changing. Around even the family dinner table -- not just the halls of science -- we debate scary concepts such as climate change. We know that oil is finite.

Government treaties and emerging technologies aside, many people are taking matters into their own hands. They're not just changing light bulbs and carrying canvas bags to the grocery. They're wearing bamboo and buying plug-in hybrids that get 100 miles a gallon.

A recent survey by the international polling firm GlobeScan found that 76 percent of Americans say they are willing to make "significant" changes in the way they live to help prevent climate change.

I didn't need to consult GlobeScan. I just talked to my cousin Betsy.

She never struck me as an eco-activist, but one day recently as I was popping another of her panko-encrusted artichoke hearts into my mouth, she started talking about recycling.

Turns out she's kind of fanatic, crushing cereal boxes to put out with the newspapers, wadding up dry-cleaner bags to stick in the plastics bin at the grocery store.

Within a week, I'd re-analyzed and mined our trash, too. How come I thought the lining on my cat-food cans made them unsuitable for recycling? Why didn't I know you have to take the caps off plastic bottles? (Basically, it's so the bottles will empty, and it makes them easier to crush.) These days I'm squinting at every plastic container, looking for the recycling symbol.

Betsy was an inspiration, and others seem to be cropping up everywhere. My husband, Bob, a metal artist, met a guy for business, and they wound up talking about how his family no longer runs single errands. They've set a three-errand minimum. It saves on gas and auto emissions.

So far, my own efforts have been, by turns, both easy and difficult, simple and confusing. Clearly, living green is anything but black and white.

We turned down our water heater -- although we're not sure by how much; there are no numbers on the dial. Every evening, solar lights I've planted in the yard to illuminate the path at night begin to glow. Table scraps are stewing in the compost pile.

The ecological to-do list keeps growing even as, sure enough, our electric bill has shrunk, down about 20 percent.

Some things, however, are too much to ask. Yes, burning charcoal spews particulates into the air. But crispy, smoky chicken thighs straight off the grill are among life's great pleasures.

At least I've found a local source for poultry. This helps meet my goal to eat and drink more from our local "foodshed." I decided to try this after learning that the average bite of food travels about 1,300 miles before descending the final few feet down our gullets.

Some claim they've been able to live off whatever they can get within, say, a 100-mile radius. But I think I've figured out a way to get what I want and still be a green player.

I want a version of industry's cap-and-trade so I can continue to consume things I'd otherwise have to give up. For every basket of tomatoes from our not-quite-organic garden just 50 feet away, can I get mileage credits toward Florida oranges? Colombian coffee? Kentucky bourbon?

The downside to the foodshed initiative is we recently spent an entire Saturday morning driving around to purchase local cheese, yogurt, fruit. I have a Prius, but still, I don't know which is easier on the environment -- local food or less driving.

Obviously, this lifestyle can eat up time -- from hanging my laundry to growing my green beans.

Convenience is seductive.

Last summer, for a big picnic, I bought plastic cutlery and disposable plates. It was a great party, but by the end I had a trash bag as big as a St. Bernard. The plastic will outlive everyone there.

I felt a twinge of guilt, but it sure was nice to spend the rest of the evening rocking on the porch. Instead of washing dishes, we listened to the crickets.

"GreenSpace" appears every other week

in The Inquirer. Contact staff writer

Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or

To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

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Source Citation
"The Philadelphia Inquirer Sandy Bauers column: Learning to like the eco-friendly life." Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, PA] 10 Mar. 2008. General OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. .

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