For Earth Day: 17 things we do to live a little greener

In honor of Earth Day 2011, we’re “recycling” this 2009 post that inventories the ways we’ve tried to lower our environmental footprint over the years.  I never feel sufficiently green compared to a number of my friends, but we do our part and try to be conscious about our choices.

I thought you might enjoy seeing the list and being inspired by changes that aren’t hard to make. It’s organized by the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.

We’d love you to share ideas not on this list.

Reduce/ Conserve:

1. Walking. We live in a fabulous neighborhood, Summit,  in a great city, Providence. Our urban neighborhood feels like a small village. With a half mile walk, we can be at an artisan bread bakery/coffee shop, myriad delicious restaurants, a couple of pharmacies, a deli, an Indian grocery, our work and personal ATMs, cute cute gift stores, a  flower shop, a Saturday farmers market and two city parks.

We’re also really close to this incredible tree-lined boulevard that has just under a 4 mile round trip walking path and is bordered by one of the loveliest cemeteries on earth near a river that the public is allowed to stroll through. Did I mention our wonderful neighbors? And the bus runs through it. I rarely drive to bank or run small errands.

2. Bicycling. Jon and I love to bicycle for pleasure and exercise. We are blessed with a number of lovely rail trail bike paths in cycling distance from our home.  I try hard to bike to meetings that I can get to in a 20-30 minute ride. I’m still figuring out what “dress up” clothes work on the bike –  so far, knee length skirts, capri pants, and some knee length dresses. (I’m a casual kind of gal and so are many of my clients so I don’t find myself in business suits a whole lot.)

Jon’s better about biking than I am, taking his out for most errands and other short hops. I’m a wimp about the weather, so I don’t bike when it’s raining. And as its icy and snowy here a good part of the year (especially this past winter), I skip those months as well. But I’m trying, and every ride is a time I’m not using fossil fuels.

3. Books. I can’t say enough about public libraries. In our case, the Providence Community Library is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Someone in our house always has a book out of the library. It was particularly a godsend when my daughter lived with us as she devoured a book a day. While I love a good bookstore and try to shop in an independent one when I must buy a book (as I’ll often do as a present), I have to admit that I do a lot of “shelf shopping ” (kind of like window shopping) for new book titles and then order them up from the library. With our statewide lending system, I rarely wait more than a few days for even the very latest books. Plus, our closest branch is just a half mile away so it’s a lovely walk. (Here’s a library fundraising tip: when I hand you the bill to once again pay my overdue fine, how about asking “would you like to donate the change?” I always donate the change, but no one ever asks.)

4. Tap water. We’ve got some pretty good tap water here in Providence and with a water filter, the taste and safety can’t be beat. We keep a pitcher that we’ve filtered in our fridge for drinking. We fill our water bottles (which we’ve got for the bikes anyway) and try to take them with us, even on long trips, to limit our purchase of bottled water to really infrequent occasions. Our country needs to wean itself from its obsession with bottled water.

5. Cloth napkins. We’ve used cloth napkins for all of our regular meals and for small dinner parties since we started housekeeping. I find them so much more pleasing than paper.  If we are having a really big party, then I’ll use paper dinner or cocktail napkins. I save leftover plastic plates, forks, knives and spoons and wash and reuse them. ( Though now I’m nervous about doing that with all the concerns about plastics exposed to heat. Luckily, we really don’t use them very often… maybe once or twice a year).

6. Buy local. I’ve been trying to revamp my buying habits to buy from local stores as much as possible with the hope that we can reduce the need for more big box stores and their miles of pavement. Unfortunately, the big boxes have been winning. Though I think the recession has slowed them a bit for now. We also have a fabulous farmers market in the summer at the park across the street which is a social and culinary delight. I’ve been paying attention to food items at the grocery store that are locally produced like Narragansett Creamery cheeses (their ricotta amazing),  Little Rhody Eggs and Rhody Fresh Milk (though the farmers market eggs are just wonderful. And it’s a delight to get a few blue ones mixed in.)

7. Washing & Drying: We’ve always waited until we have a full load of laundry to run the washing machine. And a full load of dishes to run the dishwasher, with air dry.  It’s taken me many years to get over my childhood hatred of hanging clothes as a kid — cold fingers in the winter and leaning over the third floor porch railing to pull in the clothes line was just frightening to miss afraid of heights me. But last summer I asked Jon to string up a clothesline and used it throughout the summer and fall as the weather is warm. I confess that with all the snow and mucky yard that I went back to the clothes dryer this winter. But as the weather turns warm again, that clothesline is beckoning.

8. Energy. We switched all of the incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents very soon after CLFs came onto the market, with the exception of the few lights that are on dimmers. We also upgraded our ancient refrigerator to an energy star version a few years ago. I now walk around the house with an eye to shutting lights off though we haven’t purchased one of those super shut off gizmos that you plug appliances into to stop them from consuming electricity even when they are off.  And while we do own two cars, one of which is a minivan which was essential for a family of five, we also worry about gas mileage. I balance the minivan by owning a compact car that gets good mileage. Right now I’m driving a 2000 Honda Civic which does pretty well.

9. Toxins: We try our best to buy non-toxic cleaning products and use a lot of white vinegar. We are organic gardeners which means I spend a lot of time picking evil bugs off my flowers (has anyone figured out how to scare away lily leaf beetles?) and tolerating a fair amount of diversity in the small amount of lawn we have left remaining. With all the rain this spring, we haven’t had much watering to do.


Our backyard compost bin

10. Recycled paper: I look for recycled paper with as much post-consumer content as possible. That includes our office paper as well as toilet paper, tissues and the paper towels that feel very indulgent to me (though a standard roll of paper towels lasts about two weeks around here). I buy the paper towels that you can tear off in small sizes so we don’t have overuse them.

11. Composting: We’ve been composting yard and kitchen scraps almost as long as we’ve lived in our house – and that’s 26 years.  We keep a bin in the kitchen where we toss the inedible vegetables and other non-meat scraps (though I do recycle shellfish shells) for the composter. This last year, Jon set up a worm composting box so we’ve been sharing scraps with them.  They live outside when the weather is good and on our kitchen counter when its cold. Fall leaves, non-weedy plant matter and kitchen veggies go into the composter, and with a fair amount of turning, some peat moss and lime now and then, we get enough compost to add to my flower garden and containers where I grown vegetables.

We do miss the buckets for other scraps that we remember from our childhood – when the farmers came to get food scraps for the pigs. Or at least that’s what we remember (though our friend Greg Gerritt is working on getting this restarted in RI).

12. Reusable grocery bags. I can’t remember when I started bringing my own bags to the grocery store. My sister bought me one of the cotton string bags many years ago that weren’t the best grocery bags but were all we thought of then. I’ve added to my collection over the years. It now includes about a dozen canvas bags, including some from the many years defunct Almacs Grocery Store (which closed in 1995),  Bread & Circus (which became Whole Foods) and just about any conference that I’ve been to where they were handing out tote bags. (Note to conferences: I’m saturated. Can’t use another tote bag) I’ve been getting better about keeping a few in the trunk of my car so that I have them ready to use beyond the grocery store and can take them on clothes or other shopping sprees.

13.  Second-hand clothes: Thank goodness for friends and family with older children. With a few exceptions, we didn’t need to buy very much for our kids when they were babies and toddlers. We were very grateful to accept any offers of clothes, equipment, toys and furniture. We even rented car seats from the local chapter of the Red Cross. And while I do like new clothes, I also enjoy second hand stores where I’ve found some of my favorite wearables.  My daughter and her friends started a twice a year clothing swap that they’ve been holding, it must be 10 years now. Even post college, when they all get together in the same place, it’s time for the swap.

14. Diapers. When my children were born (my oldest is 25, sons are 20), we signed up for a diaper service first thing. (I remember the stacks and stacks of newborn diapers that arrived each week when the twins were born — 140 total! Scary) The diaper service was heaven.  I don’t even think there are diaper services anymore in our whole state. We were just at my niece’s baby shower and she informed us that there was one service in all of Massachusetts! Sad.  As the kids got older and the diapering got a bit more under control, we laundered our own diapers. We also used washcloths rather than those icky baby wipes. I know that cloth vs plastic is still controversial as to which is more ecofriendly , but I just can’t imagine that producing and disposing of those plastics is better. We weren’t total purists and did use disposables when traveling and away from laundry. And, hats off to all the Diaper Banks, that are getting diapers into the hands of low-income families. Disposables are the only good choice when you rely on laundromats for your cleaning.


My affliction for paper recycling started back in the 70s when I worked for the Social Security Administration from 1976 through 1983. With my friend Sarah, we became the first workplace in downtown Providence to recycle office paper. We recycled boxes of outdated forms and computer paper, which the office burned through each week. We had to separate all of the paper (computer vs color vs white) and load them on the truck from Ecology Action for Rhode Island once a week. Unfortunately, the truck was always breaking down so Sarah and I frequently had to load the boxes into her VW Rabbit and my VW station wagon and haul them over to Liz’s  garage where Ecology Action stored the collected paper.

15. Plastic bags. When I do end up with a plastic bag, I save them during the week and drop them into the recycling bin at the grocery store.

16. Curbside recycling. Providence has curbside recycling for paper, newspapers, cardboard, #1 and 2 plastics and even textiles. (I wish they would take more plastics). Of course we recycle all of our paper… newspapers, magazines, office paper, mail. I haven’t made the transition to downloading all magazines, but we’ve been trying to strike the right balance between online reading and having that hard copy in our hands.They also take organic yard matter so we send them the stuff that doesn’t fit in our small compostor like branches and the leaves we simply don’t have room for. We rarely fill our regular trash bin, even half way.

17. Clothing. Cotton socks with holes beyond repair are great for dusting. Torn cotton shirts make good rags. What can’t go into the yard sale or to Big Sisters will end up in the recycling bin.

Wait… there is one thing more. Because we know we aren’t perfect and can’t do it all, we contribute to environmental causes. We believe in supporting organizations that are working hard to protect our land, water, air and diversity of life. We hope you will as well.

We’d love to hear from you on the small things that you’ve done to live a little greener.

5 responses to For Earth Day: 17 things we do to live a little greener

  1. Sandy Rees

    Lots of great ideas here! It helps me realize all the things my family does out of habit that help the environment (like recycling, using cloth napkins, composting, etc.). We’ve been doing these things for so long, they’ve become our “normal” way of doing things.


  2. Lori L. Jacobwith

    This is a great list, Gayle. One thing that I’ve committed to is to talk with my nieces and nephew’s about this topic. It used to be that recycling and Earth Day got lots of meaningful discussion in school. I’m finding it less so now. Maybe teachers think the problem is going away? Not sure. I make sure to talk with my favorite little people about WHY I make certain choices and how they can make choices that serve the environment too. I’ll share this list with them. Thanks!

  3. Kirsten Bullock

    Thanks for these great tips. It helps to live in an area that’s walkable. Your neighborhood sounds so much like the Highlands (in Louisville, KY) where my husband and I live. I love being able to walk to my chiropractor, bank and accountant – as well as all of the amazing local restaurants and fun shops. We also have a great park where we can walk the dog. I keep thinking about getting a bike, but haven’t done that yet. Perhaps I can find a good one at a local second hand shop :-).

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