The Year of Living Practically Green

How to save the environment without being extreme

Drinking goat milk is good for the environment. Cows are huge, wasteful animals that spew greenhouse gases from both ends, require rainforests to be mowed down so they can graze, and pee antibiotics into our drinking water while we're drinking their milk. Goats, on the other hand, are efficient little buggers that eat just about anything (including your old pair of jeans), live in your backyard, and lactate like there's no tomorrow.

Here's the problem: Most people think goat milk tastes gross. And that's the problem with just about every environmental initiative. The Prius is ugly, those energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs make you look undead, and it's difficult to remember to bring a bag to the grocery store unless you write yourself a dozen Post-Its, thus defeating the save-the-trees purpose.

Trying to live green comes with a lot of guilt and confusion. According to a 2007 poll by marketing researchers GfK Roper Consulting, 87 percent of Americans are “seriously concerned about the environment,” and 49 percent would “do more for the environment if they only knew how.”

When it comes to making resolutions, there's the rub. Is it really helpful to carry your own grocery bag? To append “Please do not print this out unless you absolutely have to” to your e-mail signature? To buy organic bananas? Or is environmentalism becoming mere brand-image sop — a way for companies to push their surprisingly pricey “sustainable” vodka, clothing made of bamboo and coconut husks, and SUVs that get a whopping 31 miles per gallon?

Either way, opting not to do anything to reduce one's eco-footprint feels about as good as slapping a cute little bunny on the nose.

There's no need to green yourself into the extreme in 2008. Instead, start with some simple changes to your lifestyle. Here are some real, practical things you can do to lighten your load on the planet.

1. Buy used. No matter how well marketed that pair of $295 organic cotton jeans was, it will have taken more resources to make than the $12 secondhand pair at Buffalo Exchange. Buying used clothing and furniture also means less stuff headed to the landfill. Even better: Trade the used stuff you don't want for something you do want — Craigslist is a good place for this kind of bartering. And if you own a business, you can register at to find nonprofits that might be able to use your outdated equipment.

2. Stop buying bottled water. Restaurateurs like Incanto's Chris Cosentino stopped serving it years ago; now, the anti-bottled-water movement has trickled down. It's wasteful, unnecessary, and expensive, and all that plastic ends up in landfills or floating in the ocean. Turn on the tap instead.

3. Unplug your peripherals. Computers, appliances, and charging cords use energy even when they're in sleep mode. One example: Over the long run, it takes more energy to power your microwave's clock than it does to zap your food in it. Plug it in when you need it, pull it when you don't.

4. Eat one meatless meal a week. Livestock animals pollute, require more water to raise than vegetables, and eat more than they produce in terms of food energy. Go for the carrot instead.

5. When you do eat beef, eat hormone-free grass-fed beef. Cattle aren't meant to subsist solely on grain; when they do, they tend to get sick and require antibiotics — which then make their way into our water supply, spurring antibiotic-resistant staph infections — and hormones, which also get in the water supply and do weird stuff to fish. Grass-fed cattle produce meat that's lower in saturated fats and higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — which may help prevent breast cancer and diabetes.

6. Get off junk mail lists. Opt out of direct marketing by registering at Get off catalogue mailing lists at Less direct marketing means less paper — and the mail carrier will thank you.

7. Use biodegradable cleaning supplies. All sorts of companies that make environmentally friendly household supplies have sprouted up in the past few years. Unfortunately, there's no regulation of the use of terms like “nontoxic” and “biodegradable” on labels. Look for products that don't contain chlorine, phosphates, or volatile organic compounds.

8. Drive 55. In five-speed cars, 55 miles per hour is the optimal highway speed for fuel efficiency. For every mile per hour you drive over 55, that efficiency drops by approximately 1 percent. Once you get over 65 mph, it drops even faster. Get in the right-hand lane and think of all the change you're saving.

9. Donate your hair. This may sound weird, but your clippings can help save the environment — and not by feeding goats. It turns out that human hair, and, to a lesser extent, animal hair, effectively absorbs oil. During the recent spill in San Francisco Bay, local nonprofit Matter of Trust collected tresses to weave into mats, which then sopped up the crude. The mats then become mulch for mushrooms, which break the oil down into nontoxic compost. Learn more at

10. Dump the guilt. Hyperventilating over how your every action affects the environment may not produce measurably more carbon dioxide, but it certainly doesn't help. If you find yourself wallowing in remorse over how big your carbon footprint is, wipe your feet and get on with it. Guilt is endlessly recyclable.

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