Helping the Earth

I wish I could say that I drive a hybrid car. But until my gas-guzzler draws its final breath, I don't want to face the expense of replacing it. I wish I could say that I hang my clothes to dry after I wash them. Instead, I use a clothes dryer because it's faster and easier.

Few of us are saints when it comes to conservation, recycling, and making a dedicated effort toward sustainable living. Yet all of us can make small changes that will help the earth. Below is a list of 20 easy lifestyle choices designed to give the planet a helping hand.

Remember, any effort you make toward the health of the earth will be repaid to you many times over. If you hike, bike, camp, or enjoy nature, you know that our home is a breathtakingly beautiful place. Let's do what we can to take care of it.

OUTDOORS & IN THE GARDEN

1) Hikers and outdoor explorers, follow the golden rules: Leave no trace of your visit. Do your best not to disturb animal or plant life. Don't collect specimens of plants, wildlife, or even pine cones. Never, ever carve anything into the trunks of trees. If you're following a trail, don't cut the switchbacks. Leave everything in nature exactly as you found it. Each tiny piece has its place in the great scheme of things.

2) When you visit a park or go hiking, pick up any litter you see. Pack along a small bag, or keep an empty pocket ready, to hold picked-up litter until you get to a trash receptacle. If you hike with children, teach them to pick up litter, too. They'll have fun and learn about helping the planet in the process.

3) Plant native plants and trees in your garden instead of non-natives. Every kind of wildlife, from butterflies to Roosevelt elk, depends on native plants for food and shelter. To save water, plant drought-resistant native plants.

4) If you use pesticides or fertilizers in your garden or lawn, ask your local garden supply or hardware store for less toxic products. Toxic pesticides do not discriminate--they kill good bugs with the bad, and they can kill birds, too. Less toxic products are available everywhere and are much less harmful to the earth. Buy them and use them sparingly.

INSIDE YOUR HOME

5) Everybody loves a fireplace or a wood-burning stove on chilly winter nights. But for better energy efficiency, and much less (or zero) pollution from smoke emissions, switch over to a gas stove or fireplace, or a pellet stove.

6) Buy household cleaning products that are labeled "non-toxic." Use them sparingly. Or do like your grandma did and go back to basics: a half-cup of white vinegar mixed into a gallon of water makes a powerful cleaning solution for windows, floors, tubs, and other household surfaces.

7) Doing the laundry? Wash only full loads in your washing machine. And use only phosphate-free detergents. (Liquid detergents are always phosphate-free. For powder detergents, check the box label.)

8) Take a quick inventory of all the items in your house that are plugged into an outlet. Chances are good that many of them--like the TV in the spare bedroom or the extra electric toothbrush--are rarely used. If so, unplug them. Many appliances use electricity even when they are idle.

9) Don't use screen savers--they waste energy. Instead, set your computer so that the screen "goes to sleep" or blacks out when it is not actively used.

10) Buy compact fluorescent lamps. Today's models aren't anything like those awful overhead fluorescent lights we suffered with in school. If you are replacing fixtures to switch over to fluorescents, start with lights that are turned on for long periods, like an outside porch light. The energy savings, and the pleasant, high-quality lighting, will convince you to convert your whole house.

11) When purchasing new appliances, always look for the Energy Star label, which tells you the product uses less energy than other new products.

12) Install a ceiling fan in your house to cool it in summer and heat it in winter. For heating, switch the fan to the reverse mode, which pulls warm air from below and pushes it out against the ceiling and down the walls.

PERSONAL CHOICES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE

13) Buy your gasoline at stations that carry gas without the additive MTBE, a known toxic. As of 2004, all gas stations in California may sell only MTBE-free gasoline. But it's not so in other states. Choose your gas station wisely when you travel out-of-state. 

14) Buy and use a digital camera instead of a film camera. Developing film requires the use of toxic chemicals. It also creates waste. Go digital and you don't pollute.

15) Make sure that your carwash recycles their water. If they don't, find another carwash.

16) Recycle glass, plastics, paper, and anything else you can. Equally important: Buy recycled products whenever possible. This contributes to the demand for more recycled products, and builds a solid, self-sustaining circle.

17) Give the oceans a break--don't eat endangered fish. Stay away from Chilean seabass, sea scallops, shrimp, swordfish, orange roughy, and Atlantic cod. Instead, try eating seafood that isn't in danger of extinction: albacore or tombo tuna, catfish, Dungeness crab, halibut, California or Alaska wild salmon, calamari or squid, Australian rock lobster, tilapia, and sand dabs. Mussels, oysters, and clams that are grown on "farms" are also okay to eat. Can't keep it all straight? Go to www.mbayaq.org and print out a wallet-sized card you can carry with you.

18) Love to eat salmon? Buy wild salmon, not farmed salmon. Not only does wild salmon taste better, it is also free of harmful antibiotics. Farmed salmon are raised in floating net-pens; the process creates an intense amount of pollution in a small area of the ocean. Ask your butcher, or your waiter, if the salmon is wild or farmed.

19) Invest in a socially responsible manner. Think you can't earn interest on your ethical values? Check out the following websites: www.greenmoney.com or www.socialfunds.com.

20) Join an environmental organization. My personal favorites are the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, but many other good ones exist. Also, do some good in your own neighborhood--like volunteer at your local park to maintain trails or pick up trash.