With reporting by Manon Verchot
You've probably noticed that green is everywhere these days--in the news, politics, fashion, and even technology. You can hardly escape it on the Internet, and now with the Planet Green TV network, you can even enjoy eco-friendly entertainment 24 hours a day. That's all great as far as we're concerned, but with a million messages and ideas coming at us from all sides, it can be easy to get caught up in the quotidian stuff--switching to organic foods, turning down the thermostat, recycling, say -- without thinking about the big picture of how your actions stack up. Worse, you could even be suffering from a little green "fatigue" -- that is, tuning out the green messages due to their ubiquity.
While it's easy to get overwhelmed, it's also simple to begin making a positive impact. Since it's helpful to understand the big picture when it comes to setting to smaller goals, we've adjusted our focus for this guide--a departure from out typical "how to go green" content, which typically tackles very specific topics such as kitchens, cars, or pets -- to take a broader look at the reasons behind why we should go green.
As globalization makes the world become smaller, it becomes increasingly easy to see how the lives of people (and plants and animals and ecosystems) everywhere are closely synced up with one another. So toys made in China can affect the quality of life in Europe, pesticides used in Argentina can affect the health of people in the U.S., and greenhouse gas emissions from Australia can affect a diminishing rainforest in Brazil.
The truth is that everything single thing we do every day has an impact on the planet -- good or bad. The good news is that as an individual you have the power to control most of your choices and, therefore, the impact you create: from where you live to what you buy, eat, and use to light your home to where and how you vacation, to how you shop or vote, you can have global impact. For example, did you know that 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from flora that come from the Amazon rainforest? And that less that one percent of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists? These numbers suggest that we all have a large (and growing) personal stake in the health and vitality of places far and near. In addition to protecting biodiversity (and inspiring medicine), rainforests are also excellent carbon sinks. Bottom line: It benefits everyone on the planet to help keep our wild spaces alive and growing.
But embracing a greener lifestyle isn't just about helping to preserve equatorial rain forests, it can also mean improving your health, padding your bank account, and, ultimately, improving your overall quality of life. All that and you can save furry animals, too? Why wouldn't anyone want to green? Keep reading for all the important, big-picture details.
Why Go Green? Top Ten Tips
By following the green eaters' mantra -- eat seasonal, local, organic foods -- you can enjoy fresher, tastier foods and improve your personal health. According to one study, organic milk has 68 percent more beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. Making green food choices also has global consequences. Buying local means supporting the local economy and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions required to get food from its origin to your plate. Buying fresh food means reducing packaging and energy used for processing. Choosing organic foods means helping promote organic agriculture and responsible land use. To learn more check out How to Go Green: Eating.
Your skin -- the body's largest organ -- absorbs up to 60 percent of the products you put on it every day, from soaps to shampoos to sunscreens. Considering that most of us use about 10 different products daily, that can really add up. Choosing green personal care products often means using plant-based ingredients in place of petrochemicals, preventing these chemicals from being absorbed into your skin. Learn how to keep your grooming regimen on the level with our How to Go Green: Women's Personal Care guide and 20 toxic ingredients to avoid when buying body care products and cosmetics.
Every object you own -- your furniture, your clothing, your beer cans, your stuff -- comes from somewhere; every object has an environmental impact. Nothing simply comes from "the store." To help mitigate the footprint of your material life, choose goods made from green (or greener) materials, such as sustainably harvested wood, organic cotton, or repurposed and recycled materials. Your choices will help protect forests, habitat, clean water and biodiversity; ensure sustainable land-use practices; and reduce the amount of waste clogging up our landfills. Buying less stuff and second-hand stuff helps achieve this goal, too. See our How to Go Green: Furniture, and BuyGreen Guides for more info on sourcing these products.
We use electricity to power our lights, computers, and televisions, but what happens before you flip the switch? Your electricity has to come from somewhere; more than half America's comes from coal-burning power plants, which also happen to be the country's largest source of air pollution. By generating your own power, or purchasing renewable energy credits (also known as "green tags"), you contribute to our collective capacity for generating more clean power from wind, solar, and other sources and you help reduce demand for energy from more polluting sources. Learn more about how to make your electrical footprint lighter in our How to Go Green: Electricity guide.
Anytime you choose to walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation, you reduce (or totally eliminate) the carbon dioxide and particulate emissions created by driving a gas- or diesel-powered car. You'll help slow global warming and help stave off our date with peak oil. Choosing greener options such as a train over air travel for long-distance trips can immensely reduce your carbon footprint. Get to the nitty-gritty in our How to Go Green: Cars and How To Go Green: Public Transportation guides.
Making proper use of the blue recycling bin has become an iconic action. Reducing the amount of stuff we consume is the first step (and the first word in the mantra reduce-reuse-recycle), finding constructive uses for "waste" materials is the second. Why? Nothing is ever really thrown "away" -- it all has to go somewhere. By recycling and reusing, we reduce the amount of waste that sits in landfills (where even biodegradable products often can't break due to lack or oxygen and sunlight). Recycling materials also saves energy compared to using virgin materials to create new products. Some materials, like aluminum and glass, can even be recycled without being "downcycled," or turned into a product of lesser quality. See our How to Go Green: Recycling guide for more details.
Making clothing involves a large amount of materials, energy, and labor including the pesticides used to grow crops for textiles, the dyes and water used to color them, and conditions under which laborers work. By choosing eco-friendly clothing - say, purchasing organic over conventional cotton, one of the world's most chemically dependent crops, you also choose a better product that is easier on the soil and groundwater. How you care for your clothes - using cold water in the washing machine, eco-friendly detergents, and line-drying (at least part of the time) - can all reduce the impact of your wardrobe. Wearing second-hand styles helps diverts traffic to landfills, and in some cases - perhaps undurprisingly -- can be 95 percent more efficient that buying new. Learn more about greener choices in our How to Go Green: Wardrobe and Laundry guides.
Clean water is perhaps the planet's most precious resource, and, with the increasing effects of global climate change, for many regions across the globe, our ability to have enough high-quality H20 on hand could likely to change in the near future. Being water conscious helps reduce strain on municipal treatment systems and ensures there's enough to go around. By shifting away from bottled water, we can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (from shipping), the energy required to produce (petroleum-derived) plastic, and the volume of waste trucked to our landfills (from empty bottles). Have a peek at our How to Go Green: Water Guide for more details.
Just as its required materials and energy, all "stuff" requires another common resource: the human kind. If you opt for green and ethical goods, you are often supporting local and global craftsmen and communities. Supporting "Fair Trade" products and fair labor practices ensures that goods-- from coffee to clothing were not born in a sweatshop. Buying goods made in the U.S.A. (and preferably purchased nearby where they were made, which cuts down on transportation costs) means production practices are governed by strict labor laws. Read the How to Go Green: Wardrobe and Coffee & Tea guides for more.
When Dr. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the awarding committee recognized her accomplishments by saying, "Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment." Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, helped the world connect the dots between women's rights, sustainable development, democracy, and world peace -- get the details in the TreeHugger Radio interview with Maathai. The connection between peace and the environment has been cemented by Nobel Prize Laureate Al Gore and the IPCC, who have driven home the points that global climate change is an issue of science, technology, human behavior, ethics and peace, and that one person's actions can truly make a difference. Equating the two -- peace and the environment -- allows us to understand the big picture and the manner in which we're all connected.
Why to Go Green: By the Numbers
- 1 pound per hour: the amount of carbon dioxide that is saved from entering the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour of renewable energy produced.
- 60 percent: the reduction in developmental problems in children in China who were born after a coal-burning power plant closed in 2006.
- 35 percent: the amount of coal's energy that is actually converted to electricity in a coal-burning power plant. The other two-thirds is lost to heat.
- 5 percent: the percentage of the world's carbon dioxide emissions produced by air travel.
- 1.5 acres: the amount of rainforest lost every second to land development and deforestation, with tremendous losses to habitat and biodiversity.
- 137: the number of plant, animal and insect species lost every day to rainforest deforestation, equating to roughly 50,000 species per year.
- 4 pounds, 6 ounces: the amount of cosmetics that can be absorbed through the skin of a woman who wears makeup every day, over the period of one year.
- 61 percent: the percentage of women's lipstick, out of the 33 popular brands tested, found to contain lead in a test by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2007.
- 1 out of 100: the number of U.S. households that would need to be retrofitted with water-efficient appliances to realize annual savings of 100 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 80,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
- 3 trillion: the number of gallons of water, along with $18 billion, the U.S. would save each year if every household invested in water-saving appliances.
- 86.6 million tons: the amount of material prevented from going to landfill or incineration thanks to recycling and composting in 2012.
- 95 percent: the amount of energy saved by recycling an aluminum can versus creating the can from virgin aluminum. That means you can make 20 cans out of recycled material with the same amount of energy it takes to make one can out of new material. Energy savings in one year alone are enough to light a city the size of Pittsburgh for six years.
- 113,204: the number, on average, of aluminum cans recycled each minute of each day.
- 3: the number of hours a computer can run on the energy saved from recycling just one aluminum can.
- 40 percent: the percentage of energy saved by recycling newsprint over producing it from virgin materials.
Sources: Consumer Reports, Environmental Health Perspectives, Raintree Nutrition, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and EPA Water and EPA Recycling, Worldwatch Institute, Energy Information Administration, Ready, Set, Green, Earth911.org, The Telegraph, Yahoo! News
Why to Go Green: Getting Techie
A biodiversity hotspot is a bio-geographic region with a significant concentration of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics -- species not naturally found elsewhere -- and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat. Around the world, at least 25 areas qualify under this definition, with nine others possible candidates. These sites alone support nearly 60 percent of the world's plant, bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species, with a very high share of our planet's endemic species.
Shifted cultivators is the term used for people who have moved into rainforest areas and established small-scale farming operations, following roads built by loggers or other resource-extractors into already damaged rainforest areas. The additional damage they are causing is extensive. Shifted cultivators are currently being blamed for 60 percent of tropical forest loss. The reason these people are referred to as "shifted" cultivators is that most of them people have been forced off their own land. For example, in Guatemala, rainforest land was cleared for coffee and sugar plantations. The indigenous people had their land stolen by government and corporations. They became 'shifted cultivators', moving into rainforest areas of which they had no previous knowledge in order to sustain themselves and their families.
Upcycling is the use of waste materials to provide useful products. Ideally, it is a reinvestment in the environment and embodiment of the notion that while using resources one is also contributing to them and their value. Some of our favorite examples include a collection of rulers turned into a chair, and plastic gift cards tastefully upcycled into some chic coasters.
Downcycling is the recycling of one material into a material of lesser quality. The example used most often is the recycling of plastics, which, because the recycling process breaks the polymer chains, turns them into lower grade plastics. Why? When different kinds of plastics -- like #1 PET and #4 LDPE -- are mixed together and melted, the mixture undergoes something called phase separation, roughly akin to the separation of oil and water, and it sets in those layers. The resulting plastic is structurally weaker than its original form, and can only be used in a limited number of ways. See Get to Know Your Recyclable Plastics by Number to learn more about plastic recycling.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been made famous by their occurrence in lots of different fish, and they have a variety of handy health benefits, including everything from improved cardiovascular health and reduced symptoms of arthritis to help treating depression and anxiety. One study even found that regular doses of Omega 3's reduced the occurrence of death, cardiovascular death and sudden cardiac death by 20 percent, 30 percent and 45 percent respectively.
Negative peace is the absence of physical violence such as war or environmental destruction. Expressed as a presence rather than absence, negative peace can be defined as the presence of norms, policies, structures and practices to prevent or end physical violence that undermines human life and Earth's functioning integrity.
Positive peace is the absence of structural violence or systemic injustice. Positive peace can be defined as the presence of norms, policies, systems, and practices that respect human dignity, meet human needs, and uphold social and environmental justice and the sustainability of human and nature communities. Both negative and positive peace imply a commitment to nonviolence in human interactions within the human community and within the larger community of life.
Ready, Set, Green by Graham Hill and Meaghan O'Neill
An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore
Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Unbowed: A Memior by Wangari Maathai
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus