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Cloth Napkins, My Frightening Carbon Output Number and Why I Think Change Is Hard--UPDATED

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:12am

I'v been humbled. Sincerely humbled. I spent the past week scrutinizing every aspect of my daily life in order to see where I can make eco-improvements, with a particular emphasis on the "reducing" component of reduce, reuse and recycle (since waste is a sign of failure to plan--there is no waste in nature).

My "textbook" for the week was Go Green, Live Rich, which gives 50 tips for saving the earth--and saving or even generating money at the same time. The book includes links with every tip that empower you to take action right away. First stop for me was to check my carbon footprint. According to the book, the best carbon calculator is at It is about a three-miute survey, and voila, there's your number.

My family's number is 483. I checked to see what this means and here it is, folks--it means my family is responsible for 24.5 tons of carbon a year. Please keep in mind that we eat local (both in our kitchen garden and through participation in a CSA and farmers market), walk and bike when possible, use a rainbarrel, have had an energy audit that revealed we were doing most of the things we could to save energy in the home, eat vegetarian (almost my whole family now), recycle, hardly ever travel by plane (maybe one flight for my husband, none for the rest of us each year) and many more things, most of which you know from reading this blog. And guess what? The average score for a U.S. family is 325, with an output of 20 tons of carbon. The average Canadian family's score is 305, with an output of 17 tons of carbon. That makes us worse than average.

I was shocked. Granted, the survey, which prides itself on being quick to do, does not ask about vegetarian (which cuts carbon output due to food production in HALF), kitchen gardens or anything about lawn care at all, all points where we would have scored in our favor. But, my goodness, what am I doing wrong?

It appears to be the cars. My car (minivan) is eight years old and I was hoping to run it into the ground, that by using what I have rather than buying (especially since I think the next 5-10 years will reveal much better eco-options) would be the most environmentally sound decision. But it turns out I get 16 miles to the gallon city-driving (check your car here ), which is mostly what I do. I'm thinking this is what killed me on the survey. But I don't see how we're any worse than most American families on this issue.

Anyway, I researched MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority (our mass transit service). Three buses run through my town. But to take one to the farmers market, for instance, which is about 4 or 5 miles away, would take me literally an hour and two transfers, not including the long walk to the bus stop and waiting for the two buses. As it is, I get there by car in less than 10 minutes and run five errands or so every time I go in order to increase efficiency for the trip. Which is better?

I went through the entire book like this, looking up websites, evaluating my life. I ended up with a list of 31 bullets about things I could reduce, 2 bullets about things to reuse, and 5 bullets about recycling.

And you know what? It's hard. I work at home so it's not a stretch for me to put on a pot of whole grains bought in the bulk food section while I'm writing or to air-dry towels or to weed the garden during my lunch break, but it's constant thought and planning every single day--and I'm still failing on my carbon ouput!

Could I even imagine coming home from eight hours at an office job (and two hours of commuting) and carrying grey water from my upstairs shower to load my washing machine downstairs, trying to find something to eat from an overgrown garden while making homemade waffles for tomorrow's breakfast and plugging and unplugging appliances all over the house before and after using them?

Every single thing takes time, time that most people simply do not have. It's easy to be all high and mighty and say, "Well, if they made it a priority, they would have time," but I know how those folks feel. I know the level of exhaustion and how brain-fried a day of running around like crazy at work can make you feel by the time you get home. Add kids to the mix and the constant school recitals (as opposed to afterschool activities, which, granted, you can limit), homework assignments and need for more clothes because they keep doing that pesky thing called growing, and you might as well just call it a day.

And for those who don't know the United States, especially Atlanta, an infrastructure of environmental support simply does NOT exist yet, at least not out here in the suburbs. Change is coming, but folks making eco-choices are very much the odd ones out still. For instance:

The other day at a clothing store, I told the cashier I had my own bags and he said, "I have to put your purchases in a plastic bag, for security purposes."

I said, "I don't use plastic bags."

He said, "You have to. For security purposes."

Needless to say, after a bit of a back-and-forth struggle, I used my cloth bags, but I have these kinds of weird conversations every single day almost everywhere I go here.

So, I'm a bit frustrated. I know the little things matter, and this past week we made a bunch of small lifestyle switches:

* We're using cloth napkins only (we used to use them for just lunch and dinner)

* We're breaking the paper towel habit

* We're making homemade herbal tea every day and eliminating store-bought tea packaging

* The whole lawn thing with the push reel mower, of course (we've never wanted the grasss to grow so much! There's nothing to cut just yet!)

* My older daughter went veg

But until we can figure out the car thing (and you know we've been trying), I don't see how we're going to make a noticable change in that carbon output number.

So we're working on it. And we're sympathizing with everyone out there who doesn't know where to start, and doesn't know how to make a measurable difference. I clearly don't have the answers.

Time. I think that's an important part of the answer. Every change takes time, and an extraordinary amount of thought. Perhaps some of these changes become second-nature after awhile, but walking to school will always take an extra half hour, and that takes planning, especially when it's getting dark later and we're lingering in the garden instead of going to bed earlier in order to get up earlier to walk.

And so I'm trying to find a way to free up some time. One answer is to blog Monday through Friday and use a few extra hours on the weekends for some of these eco-changes. So that's one small change I'm making, starting this upcoming week.

In the meantime, cloth napkins. At least it's a step in the right direction.

This week on FoodShed Planet:

* Property values, or "Keeping Up with the Greens"

* The exciting arrival of Mr. Stripey

* What on earth are therms, and why can't the utility companies just SAY that?

* Every Monday Matters!

I'm happy to be back, where (most) folks don't think I'm crazy. It was lonely out there.

UPDATE--April 14, 2008

Okay, I went back to the carbon test and re-took it. The only changes I made were to indicate that 4 people live in my home instead of "2 adults", and I added a few bus trips (the afternoon school bus is used numerous times). Those two changes reduce my score to 342, with a carbon output of 14.8. Whatever. I just think that if you're going to ask about the size of the house, how much you drive your car, and the cost of water, electric, etc. and not include the children, then the results are no doubt going to be skewed higher. Okay, I'll let go now (I think).

Ut oh, I'm back. Last time, last time. Here's another interesting one--the Earthday Network's Ecological Footprint Quiz. This one does give credit for vegetarianism and for living and driving with others (i.e. kids). My total footprint was 15 acres in this quiz which, granted, would require 3.3 planets if everyone lived like me, but which fell way below the 24 acre footprint that is the average per person in the United States.
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