Saving the planet is a pretty tall order, and it can get overwhelming quicker than you can say, “Save the whales.” But every big deed can be broken down into more manageable moves, and when it comes to championing the environment, every little bit helps. As St. Francis of Assisi observed (a little divine intervention never hurt), “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
OK, but you’re constantly bombarded by a tidal wave of fast-food wrappers, paper cups, grocery sacks (kill a tree or choke a fish?), and cool new gadgets made of molded plastic. Faced with everything that screams “consumer impulse,” what can one little you do?
Here’s something to nibble on: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, packaging now accounts for one-third of our garbage. In the Asheville area, 600 tons of trash (both residential and commercial) is hauled to the landfill each day. That works out to more than 200,000 tons annually. National figures say the average American tosses more than four pounds of trash per day. Now for the good news: If every Ashevillean cut his or her waste by a measly pound per week, we’d decrease our collective contributions to the landfill by about 1,800 tons per year.
That said, I’ll go out on a limb here and encourage you to recycle less, too. That’s right, I said less. Curbside recycling is a fine thing, no doubt about it, but merely filling up that big green box each week is not enough. See, the idea is to incorporate that worthy effort into a threefold process: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. And recycling is supposed to be the final step — after you’ve worn out the first two options.
Here are a few simple ways to reduce and reuse:
• Use rags and sponges instead of paper towels;
• Buy concentrated products (such as fruit juice and laundry detergent) that give you more content per unit of packaging;
• Carry a canvas or net bag when you shop;
• Donate unwanted items such as clothing, furniture and toys to organizations like the Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity;
• Eliminate junk mail by contacting the Mail Preference Service;
• Carry a travel mug for “to go” beverages;
• Bring reusable plastic containers with lids to your favorite takeout restaurants.
Becoming conservation-savvy doesn’t have to mean doing without; it’s really just a matter of tapping into what’s already available. One way to conserve natural resources is by sharing. Borrow books from the library instead of always buying new ones, for example. Share magazine subscriptions with like-minded friends. Rent the tools you need infrequently (especially for yard work) instead of making unnecessary purchases. And when you do go shopping, buy products made from post-consumer recycled materials.
Ready for some fun facts? The average American consumes as much energy as three Japanese people. On the flip side, in 2001 many Californians, faced with a power crisis, voluntarily cut back on their energy usage. When polled, more than 80 percent reported that those cutbacks had no negative impact on their lives.
These and other interesting tidbits can be found at www.newdream.org, a Web site dedicated to encouraging Americans to consume less. The Center for a New American Dream offers monthly projects along with a series of ongoing steps to reduce and reuse. You can set up a profile at no charge and chart your progress as you work your way toward conservation. Here are a few suggestions:
• Skip one beef meal per week: For every 1,000 people who give this a try, we’ll save 70,000 pounds of grain, an equal amount of topsoil, and 40 million gallons of water.
• Replace your light bulbs: Compact fluorescent bulbs can have a big impact on home-energy usage. By replacing four standard light bulbs with CFLs, you’ll prevent 5,000 pounds of air emissions and save about $100 over the lifetime of the bulbs. CFLs are available in most places where you buy standard light bulbs.
• Adjust your thermostat: Turn your thermostat down 3 degrees in winter, and either switch off the AC or turn the thermostat up 3 degrees in summer. If 1,000 of us made the shift, we could reduce air emissions by more than 1 million pounds per year.
• Strive not to drive: I know it’s a touchy subject, but the truth is that most of us use our cars more than we really need to. New technology is in the works, like cars that run on used vegetable oil (can you imagine driving through McDonald’s to fill your tank with french-fry grease?). But until that becomes a viable option, try to cut your driving by one 20-minute trip per week. Even that modest reduction could add up to a substantial cut in CO2 emissions — especially if enough of us did it.
Home energy use and automobile dependency both have major impacts on air quality — a serious health issue here in the mountains. “We know that the main emissions are coming from automobiles and the CP&L plant in Arden,” reports Melanie Pitrolo of the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency’s Pollution Prevention Office. “More than half of the NOX [nitrogen-oxide] emissions in Buncombe County are coming from automobiles — both light- and heavy-duty and passenger [vehicles].” In 1999, 9,400 tons of NOX came from mobile sources, while 7,200 tons came from point sources (such as smokestacks).
“Carbon dioxide,” notes Pitrolo, “is not a regulated pollutant at this point, but certainly the less people drive and the less electricity people use, the less emissions we’ll produce.” Since 1970, she adds, “we’ve focused heavily on point sources, because it’s easier to regulate emissions from stacks than from everyone’s tailpipe.” Although that strategy makes sense, it also means that, year by year, the pollution stemming from point sources decreases while total automobile emissions continue to soar.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to adopt as many fun-filled ways to conserve as you can think of. To that end, here are a few more hints:
• Avoid PVC (a.k.a. No. 3 plastic) — it’s toxic;
• Don’t buy products that come in nonrecyclable containers. When you shop, get in the habit of checking the packaging material the same way you check product ingredients.
• Buy in bulk at places like food co-ops to reduce packaging.
• Buy local — you’ll support the local economy and conserve the energy it takes to transport products long distances.
But you get the picture. Now grab your reusable net bag and your travel mug, hop on your bike, and get your conservation groove on.
Here’s where to go for more info:
• Goodwill drop-off sites: 1616 Patton Ave. and 86 S. Tunnel Road. For more information on what they’ll take, call 771-2192 or 299-3595.
• Habitat for Humanity: 9 Biltmore Ave.; 254-6706.
• Mail Preference Service: Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, N.Y. 10512; (212) 768-7277, ext. 1888.
• The Center for a New American Dream: www.newdream.org.
• Asheville Rental Company: 278 Merrimon Ave.; 252-5443.
• French Broad Food Co-op: 90 Biltmore Ave.; 255-7650.
• Haywood Road Market: 771 Haywood Road; 225-4445.
• WNC Regional Air Quality Agency: www.wncair.org or contact the Pollution Prevention Office at 255-5710.