Stay Simple: Green Acts Add Up

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When Henry David Thoreau moved out to Walden Pond in 1845, he helped to start the environmental movement that we all know today. But has something been lost? With all our modern technology and post-industrial revolution issues, we have way more complicated problems than those Thoreau left civilization to ponder. Or do we?

Will a return to “Walden Pond” get us back on track for what the individual can really do to create change? Is keeping it simple a good mantra for a lot of things, including environmental awareness? To be honest, we’re not sure. But we do plan to find out.

We’ve explored the outcome of making big changes, as it relates to air, land, water and energy, but what if we took it in the other direction? How much of a difference does the simplest of acts make? In order to tackle this question correctly, let’s, well, start out simple.

A retunr to a simpier way of things, like Thoreau's trip to Walden Pond may be the answer to getting green acts on track. Image:

A return to a simpler way of things, like Thoreau’s trip to Walden Pond, may be the answer to getting green acts on track. Image:

Simple Acts and Their Impacts

Buy one piece of organic fruit each time you shop

The organic craze has taken off. From the earthy staple of Whole Foods to the family-friendly aisles of Walmart, organic is everywhere. With accessibility removed as a barrier, the issue of price still stands in the way for many consumers.

According to the American Agricultural Economics Association, “American households spent more on organic produce between 2001 and 2004 for all produce except oranges and lettuce. Overall, average per capita spending on these organic fruits and vegetables increased from $1.64 in 2001 to $1.91 in 2004, an increase of 8.5 percent in real terms.”

With money being short and prices going up, what is a reasonable cost versus RTO for food items? Well, in the spirit of simplicity, what if we start with one? Purchase one organic vegetable each time you shop. To see what this would do, let’s crunch some numbers.

According to, sales of fresh produce accounted for $53.6 billion in 2005, with the U.S. consuming about 346 pounds per person in 2004. This breaks down to 127 pounds of fresh fruit and 219 pounds of fresh vegetables.

Using the above estimates, let’s get a bit creative. First things first: What veggies are good organic investments or does it matter? According to studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group, thin-skinned veggies absorb a lot more pesticides than their thick-skinned counterparts. In one case, 97.3 percent of nectarines sampled were found to contain pesticides. So, if we’re going to make a switch, we should try to pick one piece of produce along the following lines:

Photo: Flickr/flydime

While switching to all organic may not be in your budget, replacing just one item in your grocery cart can make a difference. Photo: Flickr/flydime

  • Celery
  • Bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Raspberries
  • Pears

For our experiment, let’s pick a beefsteak tomato. Their average weight is about 240 grams. Let’s say you buy three tomatoes each shopping trip, and they last you two weeks. Every month you buy about 6 tomatoes, weighing about 1,440 grams or about 3 pounds.

So, of your 219 pounds of veggies per year, 36 pounds, or 16 percent, would be organic by just switching from conventional tomatoes to organic ones. If everyone did this, the nation would up its organic produce consumption by 10,946,150,064 pounds. That’s a huge amount from switching to just one organic veggie purchase per shopping trip!

Return your plastic bags to the grocery store for recycling

About 89 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the U.S. Though the recycling rate has been increasing, we still have a long way to go before we get recycling and plastic bag into our daily vocabulary.

Some reports state that the average family can accumulate as many as 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store. That is a significant amount of waste if you aren’t taking them to a recycling location. But how is finding a location, making a special trip and hauling around waste simple? Glad you asked…

Though visiting a recycling location for other household items, such as paint, is often a special trip that involves planning and forethought, a trip the local grocery store is as normal as going to work or stopping for gas. We all need to do it, if not every week, at a minimum, once a month.

So, how simple is it to take a light-weight item with you to a place you are already going? Easy, super easy. Start by checking out our plastic bag recycling search to find the grocery store in your area that accepts them, or check with your favorite grocery store next time you’re out buying supplies.

The next step is where most people struggle…remembering. Here’s some simple tips to make it that much easier:

  • Return the used bags to your trunk immediately after you’ve unloaded the groceries.
  • Keep them in a larger bag and hang them on the front door as a constant reminder.
  • Write a reminder to yourself on your grocery list.

Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth

According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), “Daily indoor per capita water use in the typical single family home is 69.3 gallons.” With 15.7 percent of this going to faucets, it is easy to see how this simple act can really do something.

Don't make us have to start drawing graphs! Turn the water off while brushing and save 2111 gallons a year.

Don’t make us have to start drawing graphs! Turn the water off while brushing and save 2,160 gallons a year. Image:

If you have an electric toothbrush or keep your eye on the clock, the normal brushing session should last about two minutes.  With this ritual usually taking place two or more times a day (depending on how much garlic you had for lunch), it’s easy to see the potential impact.

If you have a faucet blasting away, you can lose an estimated 1.5 gallons per minute (depending on age and model of your faucet, could be more or less). That means that your tooth brushing routine can use six gallons or more of water per day. That’s about 180 gallons per month and 2,160 gallons per year!

So what’s the hold up? Why would anyone not turn the facet off?

Our theory (clear throat): lack of faucet usage education.

Don’t worry, we are here to help. Our step-by-step guide should clarify any faucet control issues you may have.

  1. Wet toothbrush.
  2. Simply extend your arm forwards, in the direction of the lever which controls water flow.
  3. Apply minimal pressure and shift the lever into the ‘off’ position, suspending the flow of water from the faucet.
  4. Once brushing is completed, repeat steps 2-3 (in the opposite direction).
  5. Rinse and then repeat.

Ok, ok, you get the point. Though super fun to write, the above explanation is about 10 times more complicated than this simple green act could ever be. This one is a must do. After all, we can’t think of a more simple way to save 2,160 gallons of water per person a year.

Use one less plastic bottle a month

Americans buy an estimated 28 billion plastic water bottles every year. As of July 2008, The U.S. population was estimated at 304,059,724. That means every person buys about 92 or so water bottles per year.

That’s an average of about 1.7 bottles a week, in turn averaging out to about seven bottles a month. If every person gave up purchasing just one of these bottles each month, over a year, the U.S. could save 6,107,699,872 water bottles, an overall decrease of around 22 percent.

With a 23 percent recycling rate in the U.S. for plastic bottles, a 22 percent decrease in the material’s introduction to the waste stream would have a significant impact.

Using this example for just that, an example, it is easy to start to believe that a little change, such as one less bottle a month, could have the power to be huge.

The Verdict?

Though these simple acts won’t single-handedly stop global warming or save the whales, getting into a more simplistic mindset might help people feel more empowered, and in turn, more apt to get active. After all, Thoreau said it best, “Things do not change; we change.” Even in the smallest and simplest of ways.

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  1. You know, this is ok, but some places don’t want to recycle glass but recycle plastic bottles…. To buy frozen is cheaper, but there is waste….. Unless you are going to make juice yourself, a bottle is helpful….. I think in saying lower plastic bottles, you have to consider, which is more recyclable. Some may have poor water quality…. they may need bottled water…. Though it is nice to reuse, what if their only source is they need bottles… Filters eventually are tossed…. It costs at times to pay someone to take something…. For now it is cheap to toss… Will it always…..Who would have thought one needed to pay to toss a light bulb $1 each? I think people should weigh it up and consider because just becuase one wants to save the world….. another may not have the money, wisdom, oppressed in their own life and at times saving the earth is more important than the person themself….. I don’t know…. I personally don’t believe in global warning…. but I do think reusing is a good thing….. Eating natural food is a good thing…. But being in debt….. I think decisions should be weighed carefully, because everyones balance sheet is different….. I try to buy bulk at times… Then I see a kid spit in the bulk bin…… Waste (food, petroleum to ship it, etc.)…… There is no easy answer… Difficult times we are all in…..In the end.. someone will capitalize….

  2. You started off with a good idea–simplification–and then lost your way, relapsing into the mantra of materialism: Buy Buy Buy.
    You seem to think we can spend our way out of the problem, a common conceit. You’re working off a bogus assumption –that if you’d made better choices at Target, you can save the planet. The Inconvenient Truth is that we’re neither going to conserve nor build our way out of this but you can feel better on the road to doom by reducing your consumption. Stay home. Stay out of Target. Plant a garden; read a book. Turn off your computer.

  3. This article is excellent. While I also appreciate one’s “balance sheet” I also know that the smallest of efforts is meaningful. We have lived in a world of convenience and been sold on it unabashedly for at least two decades. If you ever find yourself in a dilemma, should I recycle that plastic bottle or just toss it, should I bu that organic tomato or save that extra 13 cents, remember this quote: “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.” Wise words from an Ensligh writer and scholar Sydney Smith, spoken at the turn of the 19th century, universally applicable and inspiring. Stop making excuses and start being responsible.

  4. Boy some harsh comments so far, while I agree with the second comment, if we all just purchased and consumed less this would be a much better planet. Education and making informed decisions is crutial to our sustainability, from the food we consume, do the way we travel, and communicate. Our conspicous consumption has created a number of issues we have to deal with and we only have to look back a couple of generations to find some simple solutions. Victory gardens during WWII, along with recycling and rationing to keep society free, we have come a long way with iPods, iPhones, and tons of electronic gadgets to make life easier. This has lead to an overweight out of shape, pill popping society…not really a “better” quality of life. Maybe the next article should be “Less is More in Greening the Planet”.

  5. Cheryl,
    I hear you say you want to do the right thing, but it is not that easy. I would encourage you not to let the “road-blocks” get in your way. Find a way around the difficulties. I think it is that important, and it sounds like you do, too. Keep trying to do all that you can, and be the example for other people to follow.

    I also wanted to try to connect with you about the global warming idea. It really is not something to believe in or not to believe in. Global warming is a description of the scientific evidence. There is overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing and that the average temperature is increasing, both at a rate not seen before. It is just scientific evidence. Some people refuse to accept the evidence, but overwhelmingly, scientists do. And science is not built on opinions or beliefs, but on testable, repeatable, natural, consistant bits of data. So you can accept the evidence – the idea of global warming – based on real research. It is what it is. Not to accept it would really take blind faith!

  6. i agree 100% doing a little by one person is only a little (but a very important little) but multiply that little by many and that little makes a lot. Just start! do something! it does matter! what it cost is a little time and effort . will it save the planet? i quess it depends on how many of us do a little. im doing my little and learning everyday how to do more.

  7. Terry T.,

    While your post is amusing, cutesy, and Thoreaunian (remember, Thoreau exhorted us to “Simplify…”. Excellent advice, but difficult to follow in our society), it is definitely, unfortunately, NOT practical, unless, perhaps, you’re one of those survivalists. In Thoreau’s time, perhaps, but not today. Besides, if we’d turned off our computers, we couldn’t have read your post in this thread. HA! HA!

    Good post, Karen S. I especially like the quote from Sydney Smith you used. We each need to exercise as much responsibility as we individually are able. As the old song says, “Little things mean a lot.” They DO add up.

    Everyone concerned about the planet should watch the wonderful animated movie, “WALL-E,” if you haven’t already, and, if you have, watch it again. The movie may be set 700 years in the future, but if we’re not careful and start taking the stewardship of earth seriously NOW, it’ll take a lot fewer than 700 years for the earth to reach the point it reached in that movie. Every once in a while, I’ll get to thinking that, if we had taken environmentalism seriously back at the time of the first Earth Day — 39 years ago! — how much further ahead of the game we’d be today. We might very well not be in the predicament we’re in.

  8. I liked your article because I think the target reader is an environmenetal newbie–and there are millions of them. I call them light-green as they begin to be aware and to start re-thinking every action, purchase, trip and concept of how they live and the impacts up and down stream (the neighbor effect in economics). It all starts small.

    There are always people who criticize articles and suggestions like these as not big enough, but I say to those folks, you go work on the Senate now, get that Climate Bill passed, because you get it. And, that is great.

    But, I know too many people who just aren’t green at all–they don’t read and watch shows that hit on the subject and the subject doesn’t connect with them (I’ve really no idea how it doesn’t water, air, life??). Or, they listen to Rush Limbaugh and buy his talk that global warming is a total joke, the earth has been this warm, how could we humans possibly impact the huge globe and my favorite is we’ve really done a lot to clean thigns up (now it’s what you can’t see…).

    And I agree with you every small action changes a person’s way of interacting and re-thinking the environment; no bottles and 100% recyling moves to composting, then CFLs, then new appliances, add in some attic insulation, then the electricty bills drop big time and all of a sudden–they’re green. And, then they buy a hybrid, drive less and even write their representative and tell them “stop this madness and pass the damn legislation–I acn’t do this on my own!!!!”
    So, don’t skewer the messenger–go skewer your congressperson or senators!!! 🙂 GO GREEN

  9. Sandy, you are so right. It is refreshing to hear from someone who can accept scientific evidence. I was born in the Depression and was a child during World War II. I really doubt that the real sum of human happiness has been greatly increased by much of the increased consumerism since 1945. Every small, simple step we take to reduce our carbon footprint (lowering the thermostat by two degrees in the winter, raising it 2 degrees in the summer, recycling aluminum, reusing rather than buying new, buying a fuel-efficient appliance/car, limiting our offspring to two, composting household waste for our own vegetable garden–whatever is appropriate for your own conditions) is a positive step. It is far better to be part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem.

  10. I agree completely with the second comment. Consuming is not going to get us off the environmental hook. Recycling is a way for everyone to feel good, but, guess what? It takes a great deal of energy to recycle and materials can’t be endlessly reused (paper breaks down, plastic bottles wind up as lawn furniture, etc.) The answer, if there is one at this point, is to change our consumer driven throw away culture. Who decided single use was a good thing anyway?

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