Monday, February 25, 2008

Top Green Newbie Mistakes - AKA Longest Post Ever

Adorable little green turtle photo by Lazy_Lightning on Flickr using Creative Commons

So you're a just a baby in this business of environmental love, you say? Before you get overzealous, here are a few tips on how to avoid the Top Green Newbie Mistakes (boy, that sounds rather redundant, but I trust you'll get it).

Green Newbie Mistake #1: Purging the Non-Green
Solution: Step Away From the Trash Can

Congratulations on waking up to smell the organic roses, but before you go tossing out everything you own that doesn't qualify as energy-conserving or organic, let's think about this for a minute.

A common mistake of recent green converts is to do exactly the above - to dispose of anything that doesn't jibe with their new, ethical and earth-friendly lifestyle. I understand the reasons for wanting to purge all that is non-green, but the problem with doing so is that it counteracts the most basic tenet of green living: reduce, reuse, recycle. (Come on, I know you've heard that one before!)

The stuff you throw away will end up in landfills or waterways way before their time (even worse than if you'd waited until they were no longer of use). Instead, use your current possessions and products to their fullest capacity and through their (probably already stunted) lifespan, or find them a new home (try Freecycle or craigslist if you're at a loss).

Green Newbie Mistake #2: Purchasing All New Green
Solution: Put Down the Credit Card

This mistake usually goes hand-in-hand with Green Newbie Mistake #1. Newbies are often overwhelmed by all the possibilities and supposed requirements for "going green", and the ones that often seem the simplest include purchases. What could be easier than going to your local big-box store and buying a few green items? It's like instant-green! Well, not exactly. This leads to a temporary green-buy high: you instantly feel as if you've saved the world with your purchase of one "green" hand soap, but I can assure you that you have not.

The truth of the matter is that the greenest choices are lifestyle changes and not products, and that consuming less does more for the state of the environment than consuming the same amount, but of different types of products. Look into FREE and fairly easy ways you can green your life before investing any of the other kind of $green$.

Having said that, our buying power does affect the market, but if you must own a green product to believe you've kick-started your new life, don't run out and buy the first new product just because you heard it was green, because it says it's "green" or because it's packaged in a pretty green-colored carton. (Are you getting sick of green yet?) A better way to introduce more eco-friendly products into your life is to do so one product at a time, and only as you run out of its predecessor.

First, take the time to research better products before you need them. Learn everything you can about the company and its practices, and be sure they fit your requirements for being "green". [Note: "green" these days often includes items that fall into one or more of the following categories - fair trade, energy-efficient, biodegradable, containing no ingredients known to be harmful to the environment, containing no ingredients known to be harmful to humans, not tested on animals, vegan (containing no animal products or by-products), sustainable (from resources that can be ecologically sustained), sustainable and renewable raw materials and energy sources, etc.] In other words, be a conscious consumer. Then, after you have determined that there are no better alternatives for a product, purchase the new one when it's time to replace the old one. (I've had a bottle of non-green shampoo for over a year now, and I plan to use it until it's gone.)

Green Newbie Mistake #2b: The Start-Up Cost Clause

As with any new endeavor, going green can have a few initial start-up costs. None of these is essential, and as I explained in #2, the greenest choices are free. But if you don't already have them, and can't borrow, barter, or purchase them used, there are a few products which may be helpful in your transition. If you must, you can get your shopping fix by investing in these green items (where applicable, and only if you will get good use out of them, of course):
  • Drying rack or clothesline and clothespins - Choose items made of wood, not plastic (which is a petroleum byproduct). Hopefully it's organic, sustainable wood without any chemical fillers or sealers, but most likely it's not. It's still an eco-friendlier option than its electrical cousin, the clothes dryer.
  • Cloth dish rags and napkins - When you've used up the last of your disposable paper towels and paper napkins, these will come in handy. (pun intended ;) )
  • Cloth handkerchiefs and washcloths - What's old is new again! Believe it or not, but there was life before disposable beauty products. Handkerchiefs can double as impromptu coin purses (with all ends tied up), head wraps, scarves, napkins, and towels. Washcloths eliminate the need for plastic shower poufs, q-tips, facial cotton rounds or cotton balls, and exfoliator creams (use a gentle circular motion with the washcloth to achieve the same results).
  • Alternative menstrual products - Ok, so this is only a tip for about one-half of the population. Once you (or your female sweetie) buy a menstrual cup and reusable pads, it'll be a long time (if ever!) before you have to purchase replacements. Now that's an investment!
  • An energy monitor - Even if you haven't figured out where you can (or want to) cut back on your energy consumption, this handy little gadget will help. There are many options, so be sure to shop around before buying to avoid buyer's remorse.
  • A hand-crank radio and flashlight (available at the NPR shop) - These items are a great investment especially in cases of power failures/outages , but any hand-crank or totally off-the-grid appliance is a good buy if a) you will use it frequently, and b) you don't already own its electrical cousin. (If you do, consider "hacking" the cousin or trading/freecycling/donating it.)
  • One good vegetarian cookbook - Before you roll your eyes and close your browser, hear me out. I'm not asking you to go vegetarian - in fact, there appear to be conflicting opinions on whether or not a vegetarian (or more strict vegan) diet is better or worse for the global environment. However, it seems to be universally accepted that Westerners tend to eat more meat than we need, not only for the environment's sake, but also for our own health. A nice, thick vegetarian cookbook will offer you options you may not have known existed, and even if you don't decide to go vegetarian 100% of the time (or even one day a week, like Vegetarian Wednesday), you'll learn tricks for incorporating more vegetables into your daily menus.
  • Solar charger for your peripherals (as in cameras, cell phones, etc.) - Just as with hand-crank items, solar chargers use free and sustainable energy and are great in an electrical pinch as well.
  • One or two reusable shopping bags - You probably own one already - a summer tote you've stored away for the winter months or an old book-bag the kids have outgrown. Newbies often run out and purchase a "green" shopping bag, complete with the obligatory "Look, I'm GREEN!" propaganda printed in a conspicuous place. Pssst! I'll tell you a secret: You've been greenwashed! Any, I repeat, ANY old bag will do, including an old plastic grocery bag. Make your own out of an old t-shirt or weave one out of plastic bags you accumulated before you saw the light. If you really don't own anything you could fashion into a shopping bag (and I highly doubt that you don't), then you can claim the Start-Up Cost Clause.
  • Durable foodware - At minimum, invest in a reusable water bottle (see below for recommendations). At most, you'll need:
  • A reusable bottle - try Sigg, Kleen Kanteen, or EnviroProducts (the two latter have no plastic liners)
  • One reusable glass/ceramic bottle or mug for work
  • One reusable coffee sleeve (if you need it - you might not, if your reusable mug is insulated well) - either reuse one of the cardboard ones or make your own
  • One travel lunch bag/box
  • A few glass food storage containers (try Anchor Hocking or Pyrex)
  • Reusable utensils (flatware from home or for a compact version try the Coleman - available at Target for $7.99)
  • Cloth napkins - 5-8, depending on your lifestyle, number of household inhabitants, and messiness level
  • Ceramic or reusable (and sustainable) wood chopsticks, if you use them
  • A bike or bus pass - A bike is not a purchase to take lightly. Do your research and find a bike that you know you will use, then outfit it to suit your needs. If you don't think you're a bike person, car-pooling or using your public transit system (Clevelander's click here) is a better option. Google also offers a service, Google Transit, which will assist you in planning your commute, but only if you live in one of the very few participating cities. (boo!)
  • Compost bin - This can be as big or small a project or purchase as you'd like to make it. Build a large compost pile in your back yard, a smaller one on your balcony (like Green As a Thistle), or set a small jug on your counter top (I think this is called a compost "pig").

Green Newbie Mistake #3: Giving in to Greenwashing
Solution: Do Your Homework

Piggy-backing on #2, don't be fooled by green imposters. It's a challenging and conscious effort for large, established, (especially chain) businesses to make green changes on a grand scale, and those changes simply cannot happen overnight. Smaller, newer, more local companies have a somewhat easier time - it's easier to start something from the ground-up than to try to change old habits. But bigger businesses want to get in on the eco-action, too, so they start in whatever ways they can. Sometimes these efforts are genuine in that they create significant directional change for the company (i.e. car manufacturers working toward establishing entire lines of hybrid, fuel cell, and alternative fuel cars). On the other hand, sometimes the changes are only superficial and intended to tap into the ever-growing market for green products and services (e.g. labeling layers of plastic packaging with "Please recycle me" reminders, while making no effort to actually change the amount or types of packaging). Doing your homework can help you to weed out the sincere from the superficial, or at least put you in contact with others who are looking for the same answers. When in doubt - contact the company directly, and ask direct questions.

Green Newbie Mistake #4: Greenwashing Yourself
Solution: Keep it Real

Reinventing yourself is exciting, as is the prospect of having an impact on the current and future states of your planet, but don't let it go to your head. A healthy amount of enthusiasm is necessary in order to make some of the bigger green changes, but walking the walk is a better advertisement for the things you believe in.

Check that you're not only taking on the most superficial, convenient, and easy of green changes, either to alleviate your own green guilt, to impress your friends, or because it's the trendy thing to do. Recycling because everyone else is doing it wouldn't be the worst form of peer-pressure or copy-catting, but recognize that you have the power to make an even greater difference/impact.

Green Newbie Mistake #5: All or Nothing Attitude
Solution: Keep Perspective

It's easy to become overwhelmed by the green lifestyle options, recommendations, and warnings (usually about not following a certain recommendation). Going green isn't an all-or-nothing event - it's a conscious choice and a work in progress. If you take on a change that you don't fully understand or accept, you're less likely to stick to it in the long run. You're not an awful person if you don't keep vermiculture composting worms under your sink. ;) Make conscious choices - be aware of the impact of your choices - but don't beat yourself up about them afterward. I realize that some greenies believe that the world as we know it will soon come to an end (and I neither affirm nor refute their statements), but I believe that all life on this planet, and the planet itself, is resilient. Where there has been famine, humans (and animal and plant-life) have survived. The same is true of droughts, wars, and plagues. Yes, some people (and plants and animals) will die as our planet shifts in its nature, but guess what? We are all - plant, animal, and human - going to die someday. That's just part of life and nature, and it's nothing to live in fear of.

Death is a fact of life, as change is the only constant. I say this neither to scare, nor to offer an excuse for those who do not choose to make any changes at all. Instead, I offer this obvious fact as a reminder that we can only do the best we can at creating the life and universe that we would like to live in while offering up/out/around/through/into/under/below/about our hopes and dreams. There are larger forces at work here - it's okay if you accidentally throw away that recyclable glass jar. Just do your best to be conscious about it the next time, and accept that every action has a reaction.


Dana Miller said...

Wonderful! A very thoughtful and thorough list!
And, as was said, one thing leads to another....and it turns out that not all reusable bags are created equal....lots of them are made out of petroleum-based materials, are made in sweatshop-like conditions and then shipped into the US. Check out BaggyShirts Reusable Bags...made out of recycled men's shirts, made in the US, made by folks who work from their homes and are paid a decent wage....very

Kozy-D said...

Great post!! So many awesome tips :)

As for buying a reusable coffee cup sleeve, there's a place where you can get some that roll up and attach to your keychain for those times when the disposable cup is inevitable.

Because we've all forgotten our reusable mug at some point ;)

amelia said...


Sigg is lined with epoxy.

One of the ingredients in epoxy is BPA.

Sigg tests for leaching BPA, but in their testing they don't account for the fact that BPA can cause harm in levels undetectable by scientific tools. They must test on something with an endocrine system, over a long period of time. Sort of like Polycarbonate was tested on humans over a long period of time, and now we are beginning to see the results.

Sigg should not be considered safe, no matter how sexy and swiss they are, until they undergo the proper testing and reveal the ingredients of their liner.

For more reading on BPA and how it works:

For a on-going debate between green business owners and Steve Wasik:



Amelia Royko Maurer
Free Market Organics LLC
342 S. Madison St.
Evansville, WI

ph: 608-332-5042
fax: 608-882-0397

GreenYogini said...

Thanks for your thoughts, all! And thanks to Amelia for the information on Sigg bottles and BPA. Good to know.