Sustainability Starts in the Home

A few months ago, we ran a news story focusing on everyday sustainability issues, and it appears to have struck a chord. Reading the story, several people apparently were surprised that the little things, and almost always very innocent little things, that each and every one of us use and do every day can have a significant impact on the environment and sustainability efforts.

For instance, one of the items mentioned dealt with lunches many of us pack for ourselves or our children when we go to work or school. Almost invariably, the lunch is packed in a paper bag with a napkin or two are tossed in. What we usually do not realize is that most paper bags and napkins are made from nonrecycled materials. For every ton of paper bags and napkins that are manufactured, approximately 17 trees must be cut down. And although the statistics involve all kinds of paper products, not just napkins and paper bags, it is worth noting that each year Americans use about 700 pounds of paper per person, from packing lunches to buying books.

Another item that seemed to have caught everyone’s eye was none other than the plastic fork. On average, U.S. citizens discard about 2.5 million plastic forks and related food utensils every hour. Plastic can take decades to degrade, so much of this ends up as stored waste in landfills.

But there is a bright spot. If you pack a can of pop with your lunch, there is now a 50/50 chance the can is made from recycled materials. This is a big jump in recycling from just a decade ago when fewer than 1 in 3 aluminum cans were made from recycled materials. And the recycling of aluminum cans for beverages has managed to eliminate about 2 billion pounds of waste that would have ended up in landfills. Further, because they are recycled and not made from scratch, they save enough energy each year to power a city the size of Pittsburgh for six years.

All this is quite interesting; however, you might be wondering what use all of this environmental/sustainability trivia has for you. The point is that each and every one of us has the opportunity to do many things to help promote sustainability. Sustainability is not just a corporate or government issue; it is a personal issue as well. As a matter of fact, you might say that sustainability begins at home. And the more sustainable practices we incorporate now at home and at work and that we teach our children, the better we are protecting their future and that of generations to come.

Sustainabity, It’s Our Mission

Corporate and civic mission statements are certainly not new. They have been used in one form or another for decades. However, about 30 years ago, business gurus in the United States encouraged companies to have a focus, a vision, a reason for existing, and to put these thoughts on paper for all to see and learn. It was a very good idea – and still is – but what often happens is that these early mission statements become unfocused and flowery, presented to staff in a beautiful frame and hung on the wall, never to be looked at again.

That is unfortunate, for a mission statement, if properly executed, understood by staff, and incorporated into day-to-day business operations, can give an organization a clear sense of direction and purpose. The same is true with a sustainability mission statement, even one that is written and prepared for home use. For instance, a sustainability mission statement our family finds valuable reads:

“I will seek to reduce my use of energy and materials without inconvenience to my family and neighbors and with a return on any investment that exceeds the average return on my savings.”

This mission statement gets right to the point, presenting this family’s sustainability goals and objectives in clear and concise terms. It also brings up something we have not discussed thus far: savings. One goal of sustainability is to improve the bottom line, whether it is the corporate bottom line or the family’s. In most cases, as businesses and people become more sustainable in their practices, they find they are saving fuel and other natural resources, which results in financial savings as well.

Where Do We Go from Here?

So how can we begin to become more sustainable in our own day-to-day lives? Fortunately, there are so many ways that it can prove never ending. For instance, remember our packed lunch described earlier? To make it a more sustainable lunch, simply use a lunch carrier (lunch box) instead of a paper bag. Several manufacturers now make eco-friendly lunch boxes and boxes made from recycled materials. If a paper bag is still preferred, select recycled paper bags.

Additionally, selecting reusable, sealable containers and avoiding all use of plastic wrap, foils, and Styrofoam is good for the environment and promotes sustainability. And remember those napkins and plastic forks? Try adding a touch of class to your lunch by packing a cloth napkin and a stainless steel fork.

This is just the beginning. Below are some more sustainability steps we can all incorporate into our lives every day. Some of these may seem small, but we must always remember what the anthropologist and writer Margret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

By category, here is how you can change the world:

Your car

  • Telecommute. Working at home just one day per week can save significant amounts of fuel; some telecommuters now spend most of their time working out of their home and it appears to be working well for both employers and employees.
  • Keep your car in proper working order. Change motor oil regularly, keep tire pressure at recommended levels, avoid unnecessary trips, and try to group trips together.
  • Avoid using the air conditioner in your car as much as possible, and if you have a rear window defroster, always remember to turn it off. Those systems can use lots of energy, which is generated by your car burning fuel.

    Your Home

  • Switch to compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs. Each incandescent bulb switched to a CF bulb reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 50-125 kg annually depending on how heavily it is used. Further, incandescent bulbs typically only last up to 1,000 hours. CF bulbs last between 6,000 and 15,000 hours. Not even counting electricity usage, there is a cost savings associated with CF bulbs because of the increased life span, which more than accounts for the difference in initial cost.
  • Lower the temperature of your water heater. Most water heaters are set at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Rarely is this high of heat necessary. Adjusting to 120 degrees F saves about 225 kg CO2 and, for you, $30 per year.
  • Look for new ways to heat and cool your home. Possibilities include radiant heat systems or propane logs in the fireplace. Additionally, the cost of photoelectric solar panels is coming down significantly. Although it may not make economic sense right now, it appears in time these systems will be cost effective enough to be installed on homes.
  • Turn your appliances off and then off once again. Most electronics in our homes continue to consume electricity even after they have been turned “off.” In fact, it is estimated that up to 75 percent of the energy used by these appliances is consumed while they are turned off. Where possible, unplug these devices, or connect them to power strips and turn off the entire strip when the appliances are not in use. Televisions, VCRs, DVD players, and kitchen appliances such as microwaves and coffee makers all typically draw energy when not being used. And computers left on all the time use up quite a bit of energy. Putting them into sleep mode (automatically, from the power-saving settings) uses as low as 1 percent of the energy as when they are turned on.

Your Food

  • A 2006 study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the typical American diet adds significantly to pollution, water scarcity, land degradation, and climate change. One of the “major players” negatively affecting climate change through greenhouse gas production is ranching and the related slaughter of cows and other animals. This generates an estimated 18 percent of total human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions globally, according to the report. One way we can promote sustainability and protect the environment is to simply eat less meat.
  • Other ways to eat more sustainably include selecting products with minimal packaging; selecting locally grown fruits and vegetables when possible to reduce the amount of fuel used for transporting these items; and avoiding purchasing bottled water. One nonprofit sustainability organization said that bottled water is “possibly the most brilliant marketing scam ever. When else would you ever consider paying a lot of money for something you can get for free at home already? Consider using a filter at home instead.”

Sometimes when we think about all of the problems and difficulties in our world, it is easy to be overwhelmed and feel powerless. And without denying we have some major environmental and sustainability problems confronting us, I do believe if we begin now to incorporate more and more measures that promote sustainability and protect our planet, we can and will make a difference.


Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, as well as Sustainablity Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure, track and report on their facility’s environmental impacts, He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies