Paper or plastic was one of the big ecological dilemmas we faced a few years ago, but we now know the most environmentally-friendly option is bringing your own reusable bags. It's just one small piece of an incredibly complex puzzle that keeps evolving as
to what's needed to help our planet. There's so much new information that it becomes overwhelming, and can lead to a bad case of "green fatigue."
David Gershon is trying to change that. He's spent more than two decades studying our thoughts on what's happening to the Earth and what motivates us to do something about it. "This notion of the environmental ethic has been with us a long time," says Gershon.
Instead of writing up an exhaustive list of "eco" dos and don'ts, Gershon created the Green Living Program that's designed to turn our good intentions into action. "It's a state-of-the-art environmental behavior change," he says. More than 250,000 people have gone through it, with some participants cutting their garbage waste in half, reducing their water usage by a third and lowering their energy consumption by 17 percent. "We have seven different studies showing the results are being sustained over time."
What's helped make Gershon's approach so successful is borrowing similar techniques used by the dieting group Weight Watchers. In fact, he's taken it one step further in his recent bookLow Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds—but in this case it's pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) instead of fat (CO2 emissions are a key contributor to global climate change). "Our program has two fundamental parts," he says. "One is the programmatic side where we have people identify the behaviors and walk through the process of changing them. The other is creating a peer support group we call an Eco Team that gives people motivation and peer pressure; having someone you're accountable to really helps you follow through."
Your Eco Team can be family, friends, co-workers or members of your church or civic group; to get started, Gershon suggests five to eight households meet about once a week for at least a month. The group's initial tasks should be to create a support system, learn how to calculate your CO2 footprint (www.empowermentinstitute.net, select the "Low Carbon Diet Climate Change Program" tab, then "Household CO2 Calculator") and then design an action plan to reduce it by 5,000 pounds over the next 30 days. For example, the Low Carbon Diet's first worksheet is on reducing solid waste (the average trash can holds about 30 pounds of waste). If you cut back from 60 pounds of trash to 35, you'll be eliminating 2,650 pounds of CO2 out of your "carbon diet" and be halfway to your goal. A few tips include ramping up your recycling efforts, reducing packaging and paper usage by switching to online billing, eliminating junk mail and stopping delivery of phone books.
What's nice about Gershon's approach is you can pick and choose which actions make the most sense. The idea is to examine every facet of your life and see what changes you can make to "green" it up. Being vigilant in the maintenance of your car certainly helps. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that keeping tires properly inflated can boost gas mileage by 3.3 percent. Slowing down is another smart move, since driving 55 MPH uses about 30 percent less gas than going 70. Driving an especially fuel-efficient vehicle such as a hybrid also helps. (Editor's Note: Consider Toyota's Prius, and Hybrid versions of Camry and Highlander; other Toyota models that average 30+ MPG include Corolla, Camry, Matrix, Solara and Yaris.)
Don't stop at just how you drive, but look at how much. Carpooling to work not only saves you money on gas, but many cities now pay you to share a ride. Commuters in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, who switch from driving alone to ride-sharing can earn $2 a day (up to $120) under its GetGreen program run by CommuteSmart Birmingham. More than 1,500 people have participated since its launch in September 2007. (Visitwww.commutesmarter.org/birmingham/incentives.html for details.) Another option is public transportation. Anna and Matt Cherry organized their wedding to incorporate MARTA, Atlanta's rail and bus system, using it to transport them and their 200 guests to the ceremony. The Cherrys are just one of the environmentally-conscious couples featured in Mireya Navarro's Green Wedding: Planning Your Eco-Friendly Celebration. The book covers topics ranging from elegant invitations made from recycled paper, to ecotourism honeymoons.
Greening up what may be the biggest day in your life is important, but Gershon says where you'll get your biggest environmental bang for the buck is making your residence more resource-efficient. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, energy use in homes accounts for nearly 17 percent of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions and 21 percent of its energy consumption. Changing out appliances and light bulbs for more energy-efficient models (think ENERGY STAR appliances and the new compact fluorescent bulbs) should be your first move. You might also consider upgrading your heating and air-conditioning system, installing more insulation and, even more important, applying caulk or foam to stop leaks to the outside.
For a rough estimate of how much it will cost and how quickly you'll get a return on your investment, GreenandSave.com created a calculator that gives a rough estimate for 50 green home-improvement projects. For example, a programmable thermostat is projected to save you as much as $180 a year.
Gershon says that with the economic downturn, there's even more incentive to target your home's big energy hogs. "There's a lot of money to be saved," he says. "It's an ignorance tax if you don't—you're paying extra for the inefficient use of resources." The Low Carbon Diet also offers money-saving tips for conserving water and shopping smarter (hint: buy local and buy used).
While Eco Teams are an integral part of the Low Carbon Diet, coordinating an environmental meeting may not be your cup of (green) tea. An alternative is Zola Goods, which offers the benefit of a group experience, but it's more Tupperware party than Weight Watchers.
"A coordinator takes a sampling of eco-friendly products to a friend's house and gives interesting—and sometimes startling—statistics about the impacts of our daily choices," says Zola Goods founder Beth Reemes. "Zola parties bridge the gap between hearing the information and taking action. It started in Atlanta and has now grown to 15 coordinators in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and nine other states."
Reemes says coordinators continue to serve as a hub for green information by following up with attendees on news about environmental events in their communities.
Whatever approach you end up choosing, the bottom line is this: Every little bit helps. And there's no reason to go it alone. At the very least, you can tap into online social networks such as Greeniacs.com to meet environmentalists whose enthusiasm can help you fight off "green fatigue." Who knows, you may get so inspired that your life's work becomes helping save the planet.FACT
"The typical American household generates 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. By contrast, the typical German household contributes 27,000 pounds and the average Swedish household, 15,000."
—From David Gershon's book Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 PoundsSPENDING GREEN ON GREEN
A great way to be more environmentally tuned-in is to support businesses that take an eco approach to their products. Here are few in the Southeast.
Captain Compost of Alabama, Odenville
Homemade compost (the best kind!)
Puresa Organics, Boca Raton
Eco-friendly bags, from organic cotton to natural vegan dyes
Sarasota Green Marketplace, Sarasota
All-green living and building retail store
Tagua-Ivory Products, Key Largo
Ecologically oriented products from the Ecuadorian coast
100% Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown coffee
Nontoxic hair color made from natural ingredients
Enertia Building Systems, Youngsville
Designer and manufacturer of solar/geothermal house kits
Fickle Creek Farm Bed & Breakfast, Efland
A 61-one acre working farm showcasing green agricultural methods
Larry's Beans, Inc.,Raleigh
Winner of the 2006 NC Sustainability Award
Eco-Office Gals, Gray Court
Green Virtual Assistant services and eco-office supplies
Specializes in environmentally friendly technology, from solar iPods to electric cars
More information on the Low Carbon Diet
Consumer Reports' green take on products and services, with a detailed analysis of green
Commercial-free social networking site with environmental news and forums
Social networking site with listings of Eco Teams around the country
Bite-sized pieces of green information on a single topic that are e-mailed to you each day
Nonprofit group providing green building education specific to the Southeastern climate; its
resource center is a demonstration building open to the public
The green side of business, featuring one of the best job-listing services, under the heading
"Green Dream Jobs"
Sponsored by National Geographic and featuringextensive environmental tips and listings of
local green businesses
A Tupperware-type party with green products and information