It’s Easy Being Green

December 1st, 2013 by Nathaniel Reade

Five reasons why you don’t need to do a “trash audit” to become more eco-friendly.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

On a warm Sunday afternoon in late-fall New England, when the trees in the hills are yellow and red and the sky as blue a swimming pool, I expect to see local high school students tossing footballs or thumbing messages into cell phones. I don’t expect to witness what I saw recently at Brimmingham Academy (ed note: school name has been changed): 20 students dressed in white Tyvek suits, booties, rubber gloves and goggles, pawing through the garbage. 

These students were not collecting soda cans for the deposits, or looking for an accidentally discarded heirloom diamond. They were “auditing” a sample of the school’s trash, moving it into piles with tongs, and occasionally waving a limp onion ring or half-eaten quesadilla in another student’s face. They then weighed and tabulated the piles and analyzed the results.  They wanted to see how well the school is pre-sorting, and how much it throws into the local landfill. How many returnables, for instance, get incorrectly tossed into the trash bin? How many water bottles? How much of the trash could have been composted? Their goal is to get to “80-20,” where only 20 percent of the school’s waste actually gets thrown away. That’s lofty: The national average is virtually the opposite, about 35-65.

These audits, as their bearded instructor Jay explained, are more than academic; they provide a visceral, and sometimes smelly opportunity to teach the next generation how to care for the earth—and how relatively simple it is, from clicking a switch to tossing your paper plate in the compost bin. Besides analyzing the trash, Jay teaches his students about countless other ways to save the planet and save money. “Unlike what Kermit used to tell us,” Jay said, “it’s pretty easy to be green.”

Here are five of his simple ways to save money and the climate, without having to pick through the garbage.

If you can, compost. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 40 percent of food in the U.S. gets thrown into landfills, and about half our trash—including food, yard and even paper waste—could have been composted. Not only do landfills take up space, smell bad and encourage the growth of giant demon seagulls (I made up the part about the seagulls), but they also account for about 20 percent of the methane Americans produce. Trash in a landfill gets buried and thus breaks down anaerobically, which releases methane. Methane is 21 times more harmful a greenhouse gas than CO2.   

If you have the room and right to produce your own compost at home, you’re saving landfill space, preventing the production of methane gas, reducing strain on the climate and making free fertilizer. If you can’t compost, maybe your town can. The city where I live, like many others, collects and composts our yard and food waste, as well as paper napkins, cardboard take-out containers and compostable “plastic” cups.  We like it.

Switch from bottled to tap water.

The trash audit at Brimmingham revealed just one plastic water bottle—evidence that their ban on bottled water seems to be working. They’ve installed water-bottle-filling stations instead, and even give out powdered mix for Gatorade. That’s because they know that the 30 billion bottles of water Americans buy every year have created an environmental problem at a huge cost.

Various blind taste tests have shown that people actually prefer the taste of filtered tap water to most bottled water. The U.S. has some of the best public water supplies in the world, and it’s a huge bargain. For the cost of just one Evian, a resident of San Francisco can fill a bottle with Sierra-snow-melted water from Yosemite National Park every day for 10 years.

According to National Geographic, if everyone in the country cut their water-bottle purchases in half, we’d collectively save over $10 billion dollars—more than the federal government spends on Head Start. And whereas tap water arrives via gravity, the cost of pumping, bottling, transporting and refrigerating bottled water burns up an estimated 50 million barrels of oil per year. That’s enough energy to meet the yearly energy needs for over a million Americans.

We also spend about 17 million barrels of oil making all that plastic, enough to fuel a million cars. About three quarters of those bottles, some 22 billion, don’t get recycled, adding about 300,000 tons of plastic to our landfills—and it’s been estimated they’ll take a thousand years to decompose. One study estimates that the total energy cost of bottled water is about the same as filling it one-quarter full with crude oil.

Beware the phantom loads.

Every year at Brimmingham, dorms compete to see which one can reduce its electrical load the most. In one month, the school saves about a thousand dollars, and the students discover that they can use half as much electricity without inconvenience. Their lights and soda machines are now on motion-detectors and timers, and they’ve replaced incandescent bulbs with fluorescents and LEDs. One of the easiest solutions, however, is to eliminate something called “phantom loads.” Televisions, computers and cell-phone chargers all use a little power even when they seem to be off. A computer screen in sleep mode—which can draw 75 watts—can add $100 to your annual electric bill.  

The solution? Unplug what you’re not using, or use a power strip and turn it off when you’re done. You can also look up the phantom load of your appliances on this amazing website. Eliminating phantom loads can reduce your electric bill by 10 percent, and keep a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

If you’re not moving forward, turn it off.

Jay has encouraged Brimmingham to enforce a strict no-idling law for cars.  It’s a myth, he points out, that you save gas or benefit your engine by letting it idle; in fact you’re wasting gas after 10 seconds and possibly harming the engine. Five minutes less idling per day could save you over 22 gallons of gas each year, and save the earth from absorbing 440 pounds of C02, carbon monoxide and various other poisons. Every year in America, needlessly idling cars burn about 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline and add 13 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Tweak the menu.

Science has revealed that adding plant-based meals to your diet can reduce weight and improve health. It’s also cheaper, and good for the globe. A household that replaces beef and dairy with a plant-based alternative like beans or pasta just one day a week saves the equivalent amount of energy every year as 1,500 miles of driving. That’s because it takes about 16 pounds of grain, up to 2,500 gallons of water and a gallon of gasoline to grow one pound of typical American beef. When you’re feeling meaty, consider that a pound of chicken takes about half as much grain to grow as a pound of beef—and generally costs less.  

At Brimmingham they’re also buying more local foods. Most produce in an American grocery store travelled an average of 1,500 miles to get there. If everybody in America ate three meals of local, organic food each week, that would reduce national oil consumption by 171 million barrels per year—about as much oil as we import from Iraq.

When they were done auditing the trash back at Brimmingham, the students removed their Tyvek suits and prepared to tabulate their data. “Thank you, people,” Jay said, and everyone, including Mother Nature, applauded.

Nathaniel Reade has been an editor and writer for scores of magazines, including GQ, Spirit and SKI, on subjects ranging from West Nile Virus to snowshoeing in Labrador. The comic young-adult novel he recently wrote with his 12-year-old son, The Pencil Bandits, has been described as “Oliver Twist meets The Marx Brothers meets The Boxcar Children.”