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Living Green Without Spending It

How you can be environmentally friendly—and frugal

By Mary Ellen Flannery

It's not easy bein' green, especially when you earn a teacher's salary or struggle to make a living wage. (That recycled timber flooring from an old Adirondack barn? Not gonna happen on a beginning educator's salary.) But it's not impossible to make a few positive changes that will save you money—and the Earth, too, if you think creatively.

"It's absolutely doable!" exclaims Randi Hacker, author of How to Live Green, Cheap and Happy: Save Money! Save the Planet! And here are a few ways to get you started:

Stop buying bottled water. Americans will buy about 25 billion single-serving, plastic bottles of water this year—and nearly 80 percent will end up in a landfill, according to the Container Recycling Institute. "The less plastic you can buy, the better," Hacker says. "And the water that you're getting in that bottle isn't any different from the water in your tap." (Consider selling reusable bottles as a school fundraiser.)

How I…Save the Earth
Brenda Khayat, a Pennsylvania fifth-grade teacher whose class regularly participates in Earth Force projects (, tries to live what she teaches. She packs her lunch in a reusable bag with reusable containers and drinks from a reusable bottle. On Earth Day, her students also will go "garbage-free" at lunch. Like many, she's switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs at home—and this year, her students will be buying them for every Park Forest Elementary family. "All of us fifth-grade teachers feel teaching the students to be good stewards of the environment makes us more environmentally conscious in our own daily lives," she says.

Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. They last about 10 times longer than traditional bulbs—and use less juice. Just a single switcheroo will save about $36 in electricity bills, on average over the life of the bulb, and cut carbon dioxide emissions (a significant culprit in global warming) by more than 600 pounds, according to Energy Federation Incorporated.

Eat more pot roast! Roasting a chicken for an hour in the oven uses about three times as much energy as tossing it in a slow cooker for seven hours, according to the authors of The Home Energy Diet. Toaster ovens or microwaves also are more energy-efficient. (Meat, on the whole, however, does use a lot of energy in its production, so eating less of it also saves resources.)

Give up paper towels. Okay, maybe keep a few for greasing your cast-iron pan. But using cloth dishtowels regularly might save a few trees. Consider saying no to tissues, too. A soft cotton handkerchief will be kinder to your nose.

Sweat a little. This summer, ease off the air conditioning. Hacker never uses it herself—"Sweat is the body's air conditioner." And, in winter, she keeps her thermostat at 58 degrees when she's out, at 64 when she's home. "Keep piles of blankets near," she advises.

Walk or bicycle. Maybe you can't afford a new hybrid Highlander. (The 2008 MSRP is close to the average annual teacher salary in South Dakota!) Strap on a bike helmet and follow Kathy Dollar, a Maryland special education teacher, who has been bicycling to school since 2000. "I just felt I could be healthier that way," she says. Plus, "It's very positive, going by a gas station and seeing it say three dollars and change for a gallon of gasoline, knowing that I'm not spending that and I'm also helping the environment!"

1 Tree
The average college student buys a tree's worth of textbooks over a single school year, according to, a web site that sells digital versions of textbooks and assumes that the average student buys about 8,300 pages per year.

Wrap your water heater in an insulation blanket. This is a cinch! And it'll save 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, according to the experts at www. Also consider insulating the 10 feet of hot-water pipe nearest to the tank to further cut your bills.

Say no to shopping bags. While paper is better than plastic, reusable totes are best. If you're feeling crafty, steal a stitch from Dollar, who knits her shopping bags. "I probably paid a dollar for the skein," she says. "And it's wearing like iron."


Sites to help you tread lightly

Find Your Shoe Size
Measuring your carbon footprint—the amount of climate-changing emissions your daily activities produce—is the first step on the green path. But don't just focus on the actual number. What's key is seeing how your footprint compares to your neighbors', locally and globally, and then working to reduce it. The Nature Conservancy offers a basic calculator or try the EPA's number-cruncher, which also lets you see how a few simple changes can reduce your impact.

Green Up Your Plate
Unless you live in California, Florida, or Washington, chances are most of your fruits and veggies travel thousands of highway (or ocean) miles to your table, burning tons of fossil fuels along the way. What to do? Eat as much locally grown and raised food as possible. At, search by zip code for farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants that sell food from your region. Or, do the same at the Eat Well Guide, which also lists purveyors of meat, eggs, and dairy items produced using Earth-friendly methods.

Turn Trash into Treasure
Does the thought of throwing a perfectly good crockpot in the trash rankle you? Check out Freecycle, a nonprofit organization that provides an online meeting place for people who believe reuse is better than recycle (or landfill). Just go to to find a local Yahoo group, view the lists of freebies, and post your own, all at no cost of course


Get Greener Goods
A look at eco-friendly products, with comments from green author Randi Hacker


A gallon of vinegar

Cost - Cheap! About $3 a gallon.

Green - Great. Instead of dumping detergents with polluting phosphorus into Lake Erie and other fragile waterways, you'll be using a biodegradable substance when you clean.

Randi says, "Vinegar and water will clean anything!"

Recycled paper towels

Cost - Marcal towels cost about $2 a roll; Seventh Generation's do too if you buy in bulk.

Green - OK. Recycled paper towels are better than non-recycled, but you could go a step further and try dishtowels instead.

Randi says, "Switch to recycled toilet paper, too. It's pretty expensive, but it lasts a long time and I think it's worth it."

Compact Fluorescent Lights

Cost - About $3 each—a good value over the long run.

Green - Very good. While they save bundles of electricity, some worry about the mercury (about 4 mg) contained in them. We say take them to your local hazardous-waste facility or IKEA store when they burn out.

Randi says, "Be careful how you dispose of them."

Organic food

Cost - Expensive

Green - Significant. But, to get the most bang for your buck, go organic for foods that typically hold the most pesticides, like apples. Get the guide.

Randi says, "I do spend huge amounts of money on food, but I have a small child and I don't want to worry about the hormones in chicken and all of that."

Cloth diaper

Cost - Cheaper than disposables—if you wash them yourself.

Green - Probably good. Proponents point to the mountains of disposable diapers in landfills, but critics say the laundering uses energy, water, and harmful detergents— they prefer chlorine-free Seventh Generation disposables instead.

Randi says, "Whatever you choose, be sure to consider all the available information to make an educated decision."

Photos: Meiko Arquillos; C Squared Studios; TV photo: Ivan Stevanovic; food items: Groff Creative, inc.

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