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Shopping to (literally) help save the world

A barrage of news about rising global temperatures and other environmental changes has prompted many people to recycle a bit more or consume a bit less. Some take it to the extreme.
Duane Hoffmann / msnbci

Here’s the type of conundrum that Wendy Richardson often finds herself debating: If she is three miles from her office and realizes she has forgotten her reusable water bottle, is it more environmentally friendly to drive her Toyota Prius hybrid back to get it, or to walk 100 feet to a convenience store and buy a bottle of water?

Most people wouldn’t even think twice about buying the bottle of water, then tossing it in the trash. But Richardson is the type of person who tries, with everything she does, to literally help save the world.

A barrage of news about rising global temperatures, melting polar ice caps and other potentially disastrous environmental changes has prompted many people to recycle a bit more or consume a bit less.

“We’re seeing mushrooming interest in this, and it’s not just traditional environmentalists as you might think of them,” says Alexandra Kennaugh, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s green lifestyles initiatives. “These aren’t just people who are wearing Birkenstocks and smell like patchouli.”

Some of those people, like Richardson, are taking that commitment to the extreme, trying to incorporate environmentalism into virtually every aspect of their daily lives.

Richardson, who lives in New Jersey with her husband and two kids, drinks her coffee out of a reusable mug, abstains from meat and mostly buys secondhand clothes and toys to reduce her carbon footprint. She favors organic and local food whenever possible and even keeps a garden at the offices of Nerdy Books, where she works as an author and editor. Her family uses only environmentally friendly cleaning products.

She composts waste and is the go-to person in her community for gathering old printers, computers, batteries and other technology-related trash for recycling. When her kids have birthdays, there are no balloons, individual soda cans or goodie bags. If she gives a gift, it’ll be wrapped in newsprint, not commercial wrapping paper.

“We just basically stop before we consume and think,” she says.

With so many major environmental problems to tackle, from pollution-spewing factories in China to disappearing rainforests, it’s easy to question whether one person’s decision to abstain from plastic bags or water bottles can make a difference. But environmental advocates argue that if more people start taking personal action, corporations and governments will follow.

“I do think that individuals do make a difference,” says Jonathan Harrington, author of the how-to book “The Climate Diet: How You Can Cut Carbon, Cut Costs and Save the Planet.” “It’s a bit like voting – if no one votes, then the system collapses.”

People who are making a deep green commitment say they at least feel better about themselves and the future.

When she was in high school, Michelle MacKenzie used to donate her babysitting money to environmental groups, and her devotion to saving the planet continued in college. But then she got involved in starting her career and, later, having kids, and “I just kind of forgot about it,” she says.

About a year ago, the stay-at-home mom took her two kids to the library to get some books about Earth Day. As they were reading them, it struck her how little her family was doing to help the planet.

“Literally, the first thing I did was, I went to Whole Foods and got a reusable bag,” she recalls. “It’s so, so small and I felt so empowered.”

At first, she just brought the bags to the grocery store. Then she started using them for other purchases. Soon she was recycling, composting, buying local food, making more trips on her bicycle and shopping at thrift stores and garage sales instead of Target and the mall.

These days, MacKenzie, who lives in northern California, says gardening and line-drying her clothes have become routine parts of her life. Instead of taking a “huge carbon suck” of a vacation to Hawaii or Mexico, she and her family recently rented a cabin at a nearby national park. Because this is the 21st century, of course she blogs about the whole thing.

“I guess I just kept feeling like, the environment, it’s not in a great place. I want to have a nice place to leave my kids,” she says.

Kennaugh, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, likes to tell people to start with the small stuff, as MacKenzie did. Swap out your light bulbs for the more efficient kinds. Run your dishwasher only when it is full. Don’t open the oven while you’re cooking. If you live in Colorado and see strawberries on sale in December, think about the carbon output it took to get them to the store.

“Once you do one thing, it’s easier to do another thing and another thing and another thing,” she says.

John Tarantino didn’t even recycle much until about two years ago, when he moved from California to Eugene, Ore., and was struck by the potentially toxic impact of field burning there. Soon, he was volunteering with a local environmental group and meeting more environmentally minded people.

Now, the 24-year-old Tarantino is a hybrid driver who buys his recycled paper towels at the local grocery store and his produce at the farmer’s market and is always pestering his office colleagues to turn off the lights and printers. Lately, he’s even bought a couple of organic cotton T-shirts. (And, yes, he also has a blog.)

“I feel that that it’s almost like a misperception that being green, you have to make a sacrifice,” he says. “Me, I don’t think I’m sacrificing at all. I’m just making different choices.”

His family doesn’t necessarily see it that way, however, especially since his dad is in the meat industry, and Tarantino has given up fast food and meat in favor of locally produced tofu pate and other vegetarian fare.

“Everyone in my family thought I was crazy,” he says.

Still, Tarantino thinks he has been able to go green more easily than others because he is young, single and makes a good living as an electronic engineer.

“I get that all the time: ‘I don’t really think you can do that with kids. It’s a rich, single person’s game,’” says MacKenzie, the northern California mother of two.

But MacKenzie says she hasn’t found it hard for her kids to adjust. In fact, she thinks her kids actually enjoy going to the thrift store more than Target, because there’s so much variety. Her older son, who is 5, has a globe in his room and likes to try to understand where things come from, while her 3-year-old recently expressed mixed feelings about eating a honey stick flavored with watermelon because he knew watermelon wasn’t in season.

MacKenzie also doesn’t think her new environmental devotion costs significantly more money than her old life. While organic and local food can be more expensive, she saves money by doing things like making more food from scratch and buying secondhand items.

It may take more time to go to the farmer’s market than to drop by Safeway, she says, but it’s more interesting.

In New Jersey, Richardson says she is willing to pay a bit more to support a local business or buy organic produce if it means that in the long run the planet will be better off and there will be more choices for people who want to shop like she does. It helps that she tries not to be a big consumer.

Richardson’s kids, who are 8 and 10, are by now so accustomed to being eco-conscious that when they see their peers eating meat, Richardson says they are more likely to give a lecture on how the rainforest is hurt by raising animals for slaughter than to salivate over the carnivorous indulgence.

In that way, they are following in their mother’s footsteps. Richardson said she’s come to think that the best thing she can do for the environment is to educate others. She’s penned a book – “Just The Tips, Man For Protecting the Environment” – and has spoken at schools about making sustainable choices. A little more than a year ago, she made an enormous T-shirt to illustrate to her church the environmental and other costs of overseas clothing production.

“One thing I learned was (that) spreading the word is probably one of the best things you can do. I still do all the same things, but when I throw away a paper towel I don’t panic anymore,” she said.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to speak up. Take those water bottles Richardson frets about. Environmentalists have expressed alarm about the number of disposable bottles that end up in landfills, but Richardson is hesitant to bring it up because she knows that, for most people, they are simply too convenient to give up.

She has similar feelings about teaching people to recycle properly, which often means reading the fine print from your waste management company, checking the numbers of the bottom of packaging and painstakingly sorting things into the appropriate bins.

“It’s very time-consuming, and you don’t want to really say that to people because then if it’s not convenient you’re going to have a difficult time (getting people) to do it,” Richardson says.

And, of course, there’s that unending list of more things that could be done. Richardson and her husband still take airplane trips, despite the environmental cost, and they could cut their carbon footprint by moving closer to their downtown area instead of living in the country.

Even as a young, single guy, Tarantino makes choices out of convenience sometimes, like driving to work – albeit in a hybrid – instead of biking or taking public transportation. Also, although being environmentally friendly is partly about living a simpler lifestyle, he admits there are status symbols surrounding it. He refers to his 2006 Honda Civic hybrid as “kind of an eco-bling thing.”

MacKenzie still drives her minivan and admits that, when she first started making changes, she missed going to Target and picking up little things for the house or the kids. But it got easier.

“I have to say, I’m so much happier living this way. Every day is much more meaningful and thoughtful,” she says.

“We really underestimate the power of one person, and if you give up and get too depressed, then where are you going to end up? We’re going to have to make some changes but, hey, it’s a better life anyway,” MacKenzie adds. “I definitely think one person can make a difference, and if we think the other way we can get nowhere.”