By now, you’re probably feeling inundated by all the media buzz highlighting “sustainable this” or “green that.” People talk about how easy it is to become sustainable and how environmentally unfriendly everyone else is, while “to do” lists detail behaviors that will lessen your impact, or “carbon footprint,” on the planet. Even though I’ve written – and been profiled in – such pieces, I’m embarrassed to admit, a carbon footprint test recently calculated it would take five planets to sustain us if everyone lived as I do. (Note: the average American lifestyle would require nine planets.) I sometimes think these efforts are backfiring, overwhelming rather than inspiring us. I, for one, frequently feel guilty when confronted with such stories. These discussions also often ignore the real work it may take to evaluate and change our behaviors. Some sustainable behaviors we should adopt may be time consuming; others, expensive, at least in the short term; and still others may be merely the lesser of two evils.
Discussions of sustainable behavior – and the tests measuring “greenness” – usually divide human activity into several categories. In this article, I do the same, presenting some of my own family’s behaviors and decisions, influenced by the many Door County people and organizations working toward a more sustainable existence. Our family of four humans, two pets, three cars, and innumerable electronics lives in a very old, small farmhouse in Baileys Harbor. My husband Sam and I both work full time in Sturgeon Bay. We take our two children, Theo, who is four, and Trey, who is one, to day care in Sister Bay three to five days each week. Like most American families, we have to make choices that work for us personally, logistically, and financially – though we do try, when weighing all of those issues against each other, to keep in mind the environmental impacts of our decisions. My hope is that learning about a real family that doesn’t or can’t always follow the most sustainable path – but who is trying – will inspire you to take steps to make your lifestyles more green.
Americans’ driving habits – the fact that most of us drive a lot, even for short trips – are responsible for about a third of our collective carbon footprint. There are many small, simple behaviors, which collectively make a big difference, that we can implement immediately to decrease our fuel consumption: slower starts and stops, slower driving, proper tire inflation, and turning engines off when stopped or leaving the car for more than a few minutes. We also need to drive the most fuel efficient vehicles we can and, most importantly, figure out how to significantly minimize our driving overall.
Our family does a lot of unnecessary driving. Two years ago, I accepted a new job in Sturgeon Bay. We decided to leave Theo in day care in Sister Bay, where he’d being going part time, rather than switch to full-time care in a strange place. In addition to the negative environmental impact of adding twice daily 18-mile round trips in the wrong direction to accommodate that decision, we decided not to carpool to Sturgeon Bay, largely so Theo wouldn’t be in day care from open until close. This staggered work and commuting schedule nearly doubled our average weekly driving miles. What’s worse, we know another couple in Baileys Harbor doing the exact same double/staggered commute, but carpooling is almost impossible: not only would we have the center’s hours and four work schedules to coordinate, neither family owns a vehicle accommodating four car seats.
On the positive side, about six months after accepting the new job, I bought a car with great gas mileage. I opted against the hybrid Toyota Prius, despite getting the “hard sell” from an old friend and Prius owner who noted I’d be “making a statement” by buying a Prius. I pointed out I would need to own it for years to make up in gas savings the purchase cost difference. Happily, my four-door manual transmission Toyota Yaris gets 42 to 47 miles per gallon, close to what his Prius is getting. Hybrid engines kick in at low speeds and start-and-stop driving (or city driving) which is rare in Door County.
Buying Locally Produced Food
The average food on an American’s plate travels between 1,200 and 2,500 miles. This highlights many issues related to eating choices and sustainable behavior. Most of us are unaware of (or ignore) where our food is being produced and how, and how much energy is consumed storing, preserving, and transporting it to us. An ideal diet, per various findings, would consist of locally, organically, and sustainably-grown and produced foods. Local production means less energy storing, preserving, and transporting; organic and sustainable production methods mean better health for animals, producers, and consumers.
Estimates show that if even 10 percent of our diets came from local sources we would make significant progress toward sustainability. Our household has probably achieved this goal, at least on average, though we would like to do more. We contemplated joining the Door County 100-Mile Food Challenge, the idea being to reduce carbon footprints while supporting local food producers (check out www.100milediet.org and www.sustaindoor.org). However, when discussing with local project organizer Virge Temme the possibility of our participation, we came up with at least six mainstays in our diet not produced or grown within 100 miles. While Sam and I might be able to do without, it would be impossible to explain to our kids why they couldn’t have bananas or milk anymore. (Per Wisconsin statutes, you cannot buy milk directly from a farmer. The milk we’ve been buying from Wisconsin company Organic Valley is now over $10 a gallon, so we’ve switched to the significantly cheaper off-brand organic milk, shipped farther and probably not as sustainably produced.) We gave up on the idea for now and, instead, have continued to purchase as much local or organic food as we can reasonably – financially and logistically – acquire.
Local produce is sold seasonally at a handful of farmer’s markets in Door County and at innumerable roadside stands. (For years we’ve been buying as many vegetables as possible from Wildwood Farm, as well as free-range eggs and chickens.) You can also buy one-fourth or one-half of an animal directly from a local farmer, arranging with Marchant’s in Brussels for the butchering, carving, and packaging. (One-fourth of a cow lasted our half-vegetarian household about 18 months.) Most of the county’s grocery stores also carry organic or local food products, especially Greens ‘N’ Grains, the organic and natural foods store in Egg Harbor. Also, when doing any shopping use cloth tote bags to avoid the “paper or plastic” dilemma. Cloth tote bags are being touted and sold in many local stores, some even benefiting local non-profit organizations such as the Door County Green Fund or Sustain Door.
We all obviously buy more than food and, as with food purchases, there are many reasons to “buy local.” You can also try to support the nearly 20 Door County businesses now accepted into “Travel Green,” a state-wide program partially piloted in Door County, which allows as members only those businesses certified as obtaining a certain level of sustainability (see www.travelgreenwisconsin.com).
Home (Re)construction and Energy Use
While it’s tempting to blame “business and industry” for the majority of our nation’s collective carbon footprint, standard home construction practices and materials, as well as household energy use, are actually some of the major contributors.
One small step you can easily take to decrease energy consumption is to replace light bulbs with energy efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. CFL bulbs are expensive but are frequently on sale and, even at regular prices, still save money – on average, $12 annually per bulb. (This also means it doesn’t make sense financially or from a conservation perspective to keep old bulbs until they burn out, as we were. Whoops.) Note that when CFL bulbs burn out, they cannot go into regular garbage – their trace amounts of mercury could contaminate groundwater. (Local non-profit Door County Environmental Council offers free, safe disposal of CFL bulbs to anyone attending meetings, workshops, or educational sessions. Visit www.dcec-wi.org for more information.)
Other small behavioral changes collectively add up. For example, over the course of a year you save thousands of gallons of water, and energy used to pump and heat that water, if you don’t run the tap while you are doing dishes, brushing teeth, or washing hands. I’ve drilled this into our son, Theo, who pointed out to me recently when we were developing photographs that I was wasting a lot of water. I rationalized that I conserve water in all other activities so I can waste it on the infrequent occasions I am in the darkroom. I’m not sure either of us bought the argument. Our household has also agreed no laundry, other than cloth diapers, need ever be washed in hot water.
Hot water heaters are often the biggest consumers of household electricity. To improve efficiency, wrap the tank in inexpensive insulating blankets (which we keep neglecting to do) and have the residue cleaned out (which we have done; this is particularly important with Door County well water). If your unit is temperamental, like ours, or highly inefficient, you should replace it with the most energy efficient model you can afford. Try to take long-term costs savings into account – the more efficient the model, the more you’ll eventually save.
John Hippensteel, owner of Lake Michigan Wind & Sun, a Southern Door company specializing in installation of solar and wind energy systems, informed us that a solar-powered water heater, which we wanted, “isn’t really an option” on our property – we have no south-facing roof, other than a detached garage, which would make installation expensive. For now, the temperature is cranked up on the remaining working element, and we’re investigating the best options available for eventual replacement.
Appliances like refrigerators and dryers, particularly older models, also use significant amounts of electricity. Drying some items on clotheslines helps. We used to do that, until the tree ours was attached to fell down. We haven’t gotten around to putting up another line. We got a new (very slightly used) refrigerator three years ago, replacing an old one with a door that didn’t seal. For some reason, our electric bills didn’t decrease, and the new unit is smaller, so now we have less room to freeze fresh local produce for winter. (Wisconsin Public Service will pick up and give you $20 for any still-functioning refrigerators you want to dispose of – visit www.focusonenergy.com/General/appliance_pickup_program.aspx.)
A variety of sustainability issues arise when undertaking home remodeling or construction projects, including disposal of construction waste, how and where the materials for your project are made, how or if those materials may eventually be disposed of, what maintenance measures will be required, and energy efficiency. Our household is in the midst of an expanding home improvement venture. Financial and time constraints are making it hard to be as green as we’d like, although we did consult experts regarding the greenest window replacement options. Sturgeon Bay architect Virge Temme, who specializes in designing sustainable buildings, noted the greenest products and companies were small ones in Colorado or Canada. Mark Rittle of Peapod Homes, a company with a Sturgeon Bay outlet for its highly energy efficient passive solar homes (www.peapodhomes.com), said Marvin was the greenest of the big companies. We chose them as they could fill our order quickly. Marvin is also located in Minnesota, so less energy was used shipping our windows (though I confess we didn’t know that).
Overuse of chemicals and water, as well as gas or electrical-powered equipment, is rampant in Americans’ landscaping. Re-thinking these behaviors in terms of sustainability is particularly important in an environmentally sensitive area such as Door County. For example, even if your yard isn’t near surface waters, use of fertilizers with phosphorus can contribute significantly to algae growth, especially Cladaphora, the smelly mats recently arrived along Lake Michigan and Green Bay shorelines. Besides, Door County soil types don’t need the phosphorus. You should also be using phosphorus-free dishwashing, laundering, and other soaps; it is not eliminated by wastewater treatment systems. Further, any yard waste, which can carry chemicals and animal droppings, should be collected and composted, rather than raked or blown into the street, where it may end up in storm water systems routed to the bay or the lake.
We like to cite in defense of our practice of only mowing part of our lawn the fact that running a lawn mower for one hour is more polluting than running a car for many; in reality, we adopted our mowing practices years before learning this. If you’re not ready to turn your lawn over to The Wild Ones (a national organization – with active Door County members – dedicated to installation of meadows and other native plantings rather than lawns), at least try to plant native and non-invasive species, which require little watering and no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. We’ve hired Northern Door company Jack & Jill Landscaping to help us with this effort. We’ve also planted more trees, which helps offset carbon footprints, and worked with our friend Bob Bultman, the Door County Invasive Species Team Coordinator, to identify and rid our yard of invasive species.
Being more sustainable means examining all waste streams to which you contribute, including your current garbage and recycling disposal practice. Roughly one-third of what is in U.S. landfills could have been recycled or composted. Our family composts and fanatically recycles everything allowable per Baileys Harbor’s contracted recycling drop-off services. A friend told us recently that she had learned many plastic bottles collected for recycling are actually tossed into landfills because the caps are still on them. (Darn. We’ve been putting the caps back on for seven years.) Furthermore, many items shouldn’t go in “regular” garbage, like pharmaceuticals, batteries, and electronics, because they can easily contribute to environmental – particularly water – contamination. Pharmaceuticals and other chemicals are left untreated by private septic systems and municipal wastewater treatment systems – they are designed to treat bacteria, not chemicals, before releasing the water back into the water cycle. This also means we should all be using environmentally-friendly cleaning products, which we don’t always do.
There are periodic “clean sweeps” in Door County for safe disposal of pharmaceuticals, appliances and electronics, hazardous/toxic wastes, and many other items unsafe for regular garbage. John Kolodziej, County Highway Department Director, says the department is in the early stages of “developing a web page which will serve as a resource for people throughout the county on where they can go with all of their refuse and recyclables.” In the meantime, contact your municipal clerk, listed in the phone book, to find out when and where to take your refuse. Sister Bay company Going Garbage and Recycling (www.goinggarbage.com) hosted a series of educational and informational sessions in 2008 on recycling, composting, and how to dispose of items that shouldn’t go in regular garbage. We didn’t manage to attend any of the sessions, but they looked good, and we hope future programs will be offered.
Tackling the waste disposal problem at the front-end – actually minimizing your waste stream, not just disposing of things correctly – is the step most of us skip. We’ve been trying lately, whenever possible, to make decisions about purchases based on how the item is packaged and how or if it will be disposed. For example, drinking tap water from a re-usable container rather than bottled water decreases your contribution to the billions of water bottles disposed of annually, recycled or not. One reason I’ve insisted on cloth diapers (most of the time, anyway; two kids, not to mention two kids in cloth diapers, is just too much sometimes) is that conventional disposable diapers take decades to completely break down. Plus, the associated waste ends up untreated in landfills. We’ve also acquired most of the clothing and equipment we need for the kids second-hand, which we then pass on to others. Several local charities accept donations of many items, such as Bargains Unlimited, benefiting Scandia Retirement Village in Sister Bay, and Feed and Clothe My People in Sturgeon Bay.
We need to not let ourselves be overwhelmed, resisting the temptation to throw up our hands in despair at how hard or impossible it is to be completely sustainable, using that difficulty as an excuse to do nothing. Rather, we need to immediately begin making little changes, knowing those collectively make a big difference. Those small changes should give us both satisfaction at our progress and a mindset from which to examine and change larger, more destructive behaviors.
In general, what most of us fail to do is take into account the “external” or “true” costs of what we’re doing, eating, and buying. Maybe the first question we need to start asking ourselves, far more frequently than we do, is: do I really need to do or buy this thing at all?
What is sustainability?
The basic definition of sustainability is meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
The most respected and accepted detailed definition of sustainability appears to be that developed by scientists and then described in The Natural Step books. (Note “sustainable” and “green” have come to be used interchangeably.) The Natural Step is also the name of an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping organizations, schools, businesses, individuals, and communities move toward sustainability, many of whom also use the name to label their efforts.
Per The Natural Step books, the world is facing two trends, diminishing resources and a burgeoning human population, which in combination will lead to a disaster of planetary proportions if current behaviors are not changed. In the sustainable society:
We will have eliminated unnecessary fossil fuel dependence and wasteful use of metals and minerals taken from the earth.
We will have eliminated dependence upon persistent chemicals and unnecessary use of synthetic substances.
We will have curtailed encroachment upon nature.
We will be meeting human needs efficiently and equitably, worldwide.
For more information, do a web search on “The Natural Step” – links will appear to an array of organizations, municipalities, and businesses.
You could also join a Door County study group on The Natural Step books and principles; about a dozen have been held, with more planned. I attended the fall 2007 group led by Sustain Door founder Ann Hippensteel. (For more information, visit www.sustaindoor.org.) If you don’t have time to join a 10-session study group, keep your eye on the Sustain Door website and on local publications for future Door County Sustainability Fairs and other Sustain Door activities.
Where Should You Start?
A “carbon footprint” is a way of measuring the impact human activities have on the environment. Activities are evaluated in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. Taking a carbon footprint test gives you a basic understanding as to which of your activities are most negatively affecting the environment. Tests are found on websites such as www.carbonfootprint.com or www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed or defensive about your score or arguing about what the test did or didn’t ask – my initial reactions to my five-planet score – instead, see how to improve your behaviors immediately in each area. Meanwhile, contemplate and begin revising your biggest problem behaviors. Then, do it all again, and again, and again. This is what businesses and municipalities around the world are doing: setting incremental, achievable goals, working toward becoming more sustainable each year.