Get green: 7 ways to eat, clean, and live more sustainably
Seeking ways to create a healthier environment, family and wallet? Here's how to get greener.
Eat locally and in season
"One of the greenest things you can do for your body, your wallet and your community is to source your food locally and cook seasonally," says Sheryl Wiser, communications manager for Cascade Harvest Coalition. "When we are eating local and in season, it is a win-win for everybody. We are keeping farmland in production. We are keeping our green infrastructure in place. This is a benefit for all of us and better for the environment."
According to a 2012 study, there were 1.6 million acres of farmland across the greater Puget Sound in 1950, but today, there are a little less than 600,000 acres. If farmland continues to disappear at the same rate, we will not have any farmland in our region by 2053.
"Eating seasonally really is more cost-effective," says Wiser. "It's also when that food has the most nutritional punch. And, when you buy local, your food requires less transportation and has a smaller carbon footprint."
Wiser recommends buying from local farmers through Community Supported Agriculture. CSA programs can provide you with access to local meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit and herbs. Often, you can find farms where you can bring your children to pick up produce or take a tour. Find a local CSA near you at localharvest.org.
To learn what is in season, visit Seasonal Cornucopia or check out Edible Seattle, which features recipes that focus on what is in season locally. Visit pugetsoundfresh.org, the companion website for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, for an annual farm guide and list of events at local farms.
Reduce toxins in your home
Many of the items we use daily in our homes – including couches, changing pads and car seats – are contaminated with cancer-causing toxic flame retardants, which are unhealthy for our families and the environment.
A report by the Washington Toxics Coalition found that over the last few years, toxic Tris flame retardants have become more prevalent in foam products after many states banned another group of toxic flame retardants known as PBDEs.
"These toxins escape the products and end up in the air we breathe and in build-up in our house dust," says Erika Schreder, science director at Washington Toxics Coalition. Schreder recommends that when possible, parents choose items that do not contain vinyl, polyurethane foam or stain-resistant coatings; instead, use products made from wool, cotton or polyester pads. Wool pads have the additional benefit of being naturally water resistant. Safer waterproofing materials include polyethylene or polyurethane laminate.
Schreder also emphasizes the importance of regular hand washing to keep the toxins that can be found in house dust away from our faces and mouths. She says, "Wet dusting is best, and regular vacuuming and mopping help protect little ones that are playing on floors."
Reuse to reduce waste
According to the EPA, the average school-age child using a disposable lunch container generates 67 pounds of lunch waste per school year. You can do great things for the environment – and your wallet – by sending your kids to school with a reusable water bottle and reusable lunch boxes and food storage containers.
However, you should choose your reusable lunch containers carefully, says Schreder. The Washington Toxics Coalition urges parents to avoid products made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl), which has been linked to health problems. Your best bets are cloth bags or metal lunch boxes and water bottles made of unlined stainless steel or plastic bottles that are labeled "BPA-free."
"Make your own household cleaners," says Schreder. "They typically work just as well and they save you money. And, when you refill the same containers and bottles, you save on waste."
You can tackle almost any cleaning dilemma with combinations of three key ingredients: baking soda, white vinegar, and liquid soap, such as dish soap or castile soap. A great all-purpose cleaner is a simple 50/50 ratio of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. For a bathroom cleaner, use baking soda for scouring powder. Sprinkle it on porcelain fixtures and rub with a wet sponge. Add a little liquid soap to the sponge for more cleaning power. Use the same two ingredients for cleaning toilet bowls, too.
"If your family is generally healthy, the need for routine disinfection is rare. Regular cleaning with plain soap and water along with good rinsing is effective in lifting dirt and germs away," says Schreder. If you must disinfect, she recommends chlorine bleach with water rather than antimicrobial cleaners.
Reduce your home's carbon footprint
In Seattle, the primary energy cost in our homes is what we consume to heat them. Programming your thermostat smartly can be a big no-cost energy saver. "The bigger the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors, the more heat is lost," says Lars Henrikson, who works in Seattle City Light's Conservation Resources Division. "Each degree you lower your thermostat at night and while you're away during the day will reduce your heating cost by 2 to 5 percent."
Heating water is the second largest energy cost in the home. Installing efficient showerheads and faucet aerators is an easy way to make a difference. Faucet aerators can be purchased at your local hardware store and simply screwed onto the faucet head, creating a non-splashing stream, delivering a mixture of water and air, saving water and reducing energy costs. "A faucet aerator significantly reduces the use of water from two to three gallons a minute to one gallon a minute," says Henrikson. Seattle City Light offers rebates for efficient "WaterSense" showerheads at participating retailers.
Lighting your home typically makes up about 10 percent of your energy use. Replacing standard light bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescents can cut that usage by 75 percent, or 7.5 percent of your overall energy bill.
Keep your kitchen green
It's not just what you cook; it's how you cook it. Your microwave is more energy efficient than a conventional oven and even more efficient than your stovetop, so use your microwave when possible for reheating food and for cooking itself. This past year, Seattle City Light encouraged Seattle residents to submit cooking ideas for the microwave, which resulted in the online cookbook, Cookin' with Kilowatts Cookbook. Free recipes are available online at seattle.gov/light/recipe.
Surprisingly, what you keep in your fridge may be inadvertently wasting energy. Overfilling a fridge can decrease that efficiency by inhibiting air circulation. Under filling it can also waste energy. A refrigerator works best when it is at least two-thirds full, and a freezer is most efficient when it is at least three-quarters full. The more empty space you have, the more energy you need to cool the air, which spills out the door when it is opened. If you have a half-empty fridge, fill it up with airtight containers of water and distribute contents evenly for maximum cooling efficiency. With a freezer, fill the empty space with crumpled-up newspaper or empty jugs, says Henrikson, to fill the empty space without requiring the energy needed to freeze containers full of water. You can also buy in-season foods in bulk and feel good about storing them in the freezer for future use.
Shop green and give green
One of the best ways to save the environment – and your wallet – is to simply buy less. Everything takes water and energy to make, so the less we buy, the more we shrink our footprint. Try Plato's Closet, with 10 Seattle-area locations for like-new tween and teen name-brand fashion. For the family athlete, visit Play It Again Sports for everything from ski boots to skateboards to hockey gear, all gently used and at a great price. And you can give new life to some great finds and benefit Seattle Children's hospital at the same time when you shop at Seattle Children's Bargain Boutiques throughout the Puget Sound.
When your children are done with something, donate it or pass it along to another local family, to help keep it out of the landfill. There are several great ways to share items you no longer need with your Seattle neighbors, including SwopBoard, The Buy Nothing Project and Freecycle. You can also donate new or gently used children's items to Treehouse, which provides local foster children with much needed clothes, toys, school supplies and electronics.
Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in January of 2014.