Want to green your life in honor of Earth Day on Tuesday? Good luck. There's seemingly no limit to the potential catch-22s of trying to do the right thing by the environment.
For example, could so-called green fuel destroy rainforests and drive up food prices? Are organic vegetables shipped from South America really better than those grown conventionally yet closer to home? What if the making of solar panels would pollute a city in China?
Consumers are far removed from the design, mining, manufacture, packaging, and transportation involved in making goods available for daily life, while a complex global supply chain and lack of labeling (see our guide to green labels) can make it impossible to size up the true ecological costs of things. Still, a growing number of choices enable baby steps at the very least, which can add up to collective change.
What's your footprint?
Even though I don't own a car, the world's population would still need the resources of more than three planets if everyone followed my lifestyle, according to the environmental footprint calculator from the Earth Day Network. The group also offers a version for kids.
A number of similar quizzes come from services selling offset programs, which invite you to donate money meant to make up for your carbon emissions, such as by funding clean energy or planting trees. Popular offsetting services include Terrapass, Carbonfund, Native Energy, and Live Neutral. However, offsets are controversial and often mocked.
The new Ecocho search engine, powered by Yahoo, is supposed to invest 70 percent of revenue into carbon-offset credits (However, Google has withdrawn its partnership.). Green Maven is supposed to search the "green Web". GoodSearch and other search tools let you pick a charity to receive a share of online ad earnings. And although Google changed its background from white to black for Earth Hour in March, following the purportedly energy-saving Blackle search page, the gesture was symbolic.
Web hosting services that use renewable energy or offsets include AISO and Green Web Host.
Online resources that help shoppers find greener gizmos include quarterly scores from the Greenpeace guide to electronics and the EPEAT rankings of the eco-friendliness and efficiency of PCs and printers. Greenguard certifies electronics with low air-polluting emissions. On product packages, the Energy Star standard indicates power-sipping equipment, and the 80-Plus logo is a sign of efficient power supplies. In many cases, however, green product claims coming from a vendor rather than an independent source should be regarded with a grain of salt.
Batteries contain a nasty mix of toxic chemicals, although they are improving. Lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride (NIMH) are preferable to alkaline batteries. Rechargeables are a greener option than disposables, which should be recycled. Solar rechargers are available too. USBCell batteries plug into a computer's USB port to recharge.
Most computers ship without energy-conservation settings turned on. Windows Vista's Power Options under the Control Panel's System and Maintenance link can be set to shut down a system after precise periods of disuse. Microsoft's tips for Windows XP still also apply. Apple offers a calculator for estimating the savings on electrical bills from tweaking the Mac OS X Energy Saver, listed under System Preferences. Screen savers, by the way, may keep a monitor looking healthy, but they waste more energy than sending a system to hibernate, sleep, or shutdown.
More than 3 million tons of e-waste wind up in landfills each year, according to the EPA. With the dawn of digital television, Americans will toss more than 80 million old TVs within the next two years, according Electronic Recyclers. If electronics aren't properly disposed of, the Thousands of toxic chemicals used to make them can pollute natural resources and hurt people's health.
When you're done with a product that still works, a budget-strapped nonprofit or school might want it. Electronics takeback events are increasingly common at big box stores. This Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition map pinpoints recyclers that don't ship dead goods overseas. Consumer Reports has a good guide.
In addition, vendors with strong takeback programs include Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Working with Dell, Goodwill stores in seven states provide free drop-off recycling. In 10 regions including Los Angeles and Chicago, the U.S. Post Office provides free recycling envelopes for spent electronics and inkjet cartridges. Some companies will actually pay you for mailing in old gear. Buyback programs include EcoNEW at Best Buy and Wal-Mart Stores, as well as TechForward.
Moore's law and planned obsolescence may make it seem like only the latest gadget is the greatest, but with a little creativity the life of old equipment can be extended. For example, an old desktop could serve as a music center to pipe MP3s throughout the house.
More than two-thirds of U.S. energy is derived from fossil fuels, according to the Department of Energy. However, some energy providers offer renewable options and green pricing; Green-e, from the Center for Resource Solutions, certifies and lists them. The Voluntary Carbon Standard database of carbon programs is being built.
Solar and wind power start-ups abound, but their products haven't swept the nation. Only a handful of homes in progressive San Francisco use wind turbines, for instance. Still, one place to start the research is with Choose Renewables' state-by-state calculator showing the quality of sun and wind resources along with state-by-state incentives.
Green Building Studio software for architects and builders sizes up a building's energy efficiency. The Google Sketchup design app includes a green angle, with building models that can drop into Google Earth, which has become a powerful tool for environmental groups and educators. The Clean Power Estimator for California tells how much renewable energy might save on utilities bills. Also in California, Sungevity's calculator gives a ballpark for the costs and savings solar panels might bring.
The government's tax credits for energy efficiency and renewables can help to cut costs. Companies such as Akeena are aiming to make solar easier to install. Solar hot water heaters are an often overlooked way of saving money and natural resources.
Although unglamorous, improving energy efficiency is the most effective way for the majority of people to go "green" at home. This CNET guide to cutting energy bills describes more.
Swapping out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents and LEDs can drastically reduce electrical costs. However, CFLs, which contain mercury, shouldn't mix with the rest of the trash. Sylvania sells CFLs with reduced mercury.
Digital toys have increased demands on the grid, and equipment left on standby can make up 10 percent of an electrical bill. CNET reviewers estimated that high-end gaming PCs could add $100 per year to an electrical bill. The Isole power strip cuts power when its motion sensor detects that nobody is near. The Kill-a-Watt strip displays energy usage and shuts to no-load mode when power isn't drawn. The Wattson measures electricity around the house.
For much of human history, homes were built to make the most of the sun, air, and water. For much of the last century, however, home builders assumed that cheap fossil fuels could provide artificial light, heat, and breezes.
That's changing, as everything from high-rise condos to bungalows are being renovated or built from scratch to make smarter use of natural resources. Off-grid and zero net energy homes are no longer solely the domain of hippies.
Green Homes for Sale lists off-grid and other dwellings scattered throughout North America. This scorecard describes pollution levels in U.S. neighborhoods. EcoBroker-certified realtors help clients understand greener options. Modern Green Living lists green communities, architects, builders, and remodelers.
"Green" construction products, such as lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and paints low in volatile organic compounds, are common in the aisles of Home Depot. Green Label Plus describes carpeting low in toxic chemicals. Consumers Union's toxic search tool connects to descriptions of hazardous chemicals in the built environment. The Building Materials Reuse Association directory finds companies that repurpose architectural artifacts and waste from construction sites.
Indoor air can be more toxic than air outdoors. Using cleaning products with fewer fumes, such as from "green" companies like Seventh Generation, can help to clear the air. Clorox Greenworks and SC Johnson's Greenlist products are available in more stores. Or, you can make your own eco-cleaners. Vinegar, for instance, can polish windows. A lemon cut in half with salt poured on top can scrub a sink.
The Pesticide Action Network North America database describes toxins in bug-killers, as well as less harmful alternatives. Some companies are concocting pest-fighters that use solar power or that interfere with the critters' hormones. However, one theory argues that colony collapse disorder among honeybees could be caused by "greener" pest control products that interfere with insects' neurology.
Half of Americans enjoy curbside pickup. The National Recycling Coalition's map links to regional details. Earth911 suggests starting a recycling program if there is none in your region. In six eastern states, Recycle Bank pays customers in coupons for picking up their recyclables.
Glass bottles, aluminum cans, and newspapers are obvious recycling-ready items. As for questionable items, you'll need to read the local rules to find out what's landfill-bound or not. For example, narrow-necked plastic bottles labeled #1 or #2 are usually safe to toss in a recycling bin, while yogurt tubs are not accepted. And #7 labels both plant-based plastics that you could bury in the garden as well as less green, petroleum-based polycarbonate. Our guide to plastics by the numbers explains more.
Food scraps can also be recycled. Composting fruit, vegetable, and yard waste makes powerful garden fertilizer. Tidy composting kits--including some with worms--can fit beneath a kitchen table without causing a stink.
In addition to nearby thrift stores such as Salvation Army, Internet operations like Craigslist, Freecycle, eBay, and SwapThing facilitate offloading other old stuff. Yahoo maps more reuse groups. What to do with dubious junk, like packing peanuts? Lookups at Lime and Earth 911 should help to recycle almost anything.
Hoofing it, bicycling, and taking public transportation are some of the greenest ways to get around. Walkscore calculates how friendly a neighborhood is to get around on foot. Here's a list of regional bicycle associations, which provide maps and tips for cycling safely. Google Transit provides direction for public transportation in 18 states and some cities abroad. Car-sharing services such as Zipcar may be the next best thing, while major rental agencies and taxi fleets are providing more hybrid vehicles. Carpool Connect and Divide the Ride offer ride-sharing tools. Electric bike rental services will be tested in college towns later this year.
Those who can't part with a car and have a cool six figures to spare can line up behind Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger to buy a Tesla electric sportscar.
For those on a slimmer budget, some tiny, fuel-efficient cars, driven conservatively, can get more bang for the buck than a hybrid. Keeping the pedal off the metal can boost fuel economy by more than 20 percent. GPS units and traffic data on maps from Google, Yahoo, and Ask can help to avoid fuel-wasting traffic jams. Some gearheads go to extremes by "hypermiling" or tricking out their cars to improve aerodynamics. Regular maintenance and oil changes also help, and "green" motor oil is a new product.
The Department of Energy's fuel economy guide describes the efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions of most new models. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a guide to green cars. Environmental Defense and Yahoo offer green car ratings.
This guide walks through converting a diesel car to run on biofuel. Although corn- and soy-based biofuels aren't the most eco-friendly option, cars with the right conversion can accept waste cooking oil, and companies are experimenting with making biofuel using everything from algae to termites.
Petroleum hunger isn't the only un-green quality of cars. That "new car smell" is a sign of toxic chemicals leaching from the freshly-minted plastic and other parts. Toyota and others are experimenting with bioplastics and other less toxic alternatives. The nonprofit Ecology Center offers a lookup of the toxic chemicals and allergens in 2006 and 2007 autos and car seats.
As for traveling far from home, these tips cover eco-vacations and flight offsetting options.
This interactive Eat Low Carbon guide gives a sense of how much your meal could be warming the planet. As vegetarians will gladly point out, the livestock industry is among the worst major causes of environmental problems, according to the United Nations.
Omnivores, however, can look for meat from cattle and poultry raised in more sustainable ways than on massive factory farms, usually indicated by organic seals of approval. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide to sustainable seafood has added an SMS tool you can use on a mobile phone while at a restaurant or grocer. So has the Blue Ocean Institute.
The USDA Organic label, run by a marketing arm of the Department of Agriculture, has come under fire for reluctance to share details about labeling decisions. Numerous other regional labels, some of which are more stringent, include California Certified Organic. The Consumers Union directory of eco-labels is helpful for in-depth lookups. Good Magazine's map illustrates the big corporate names behind organic food brands. Here are guidelines for avoiding pesticides in produce. Fair trade-certified eats come to the table from providers meeting strict social and environmental criteria.
"Locavores" insist only on buying food harvested near their home, largely because shipping food around the world uses so much petroleum. Local Harvest has a handy directory of farmers markets around the country. The Eat Well Guide lists North American stores, markets, restaurants offering organic food.
Paper or plastic? The greenest answer is to bring a bag to the store. The ChicoBag is among reusable sacks that fold up into a pouch for a pocket or purse. Here's where to look up where to recycle plastic bags you've already stashed.
Buying water in petroleum-based, plastic bottles is about as un-green as it gets. The government regulates municipal water more than bottled water, which is likely no safer or tastier. The Environmental Working Group and the EPA map what's on tap in local water supplies. To take agua on the go, stainless steel bottles from Klean Kanteen, Sigg, and Timolino are preferable to those made of polycarbonate plastic, which are known to leach hormone disruptor bisphenol-A.
Green your body
Body care products are loaded with mysterious-sounding ingredients and aren't regulated as closely as food and drugs. The Skin Deep cosmetics safety database from the Environmental Working Group explains what's potentially unhealthy and polluting in shampoos, lotions, and other potions. A directory of toxicity in personal care and other common household products is posted by the National Institutes of Health.
High-end "green" designers such as Linda Loudermilk play with fabrics made from bamboo, soy, and hemp. With organic t-shirts being sold by Wal-Mart and Banana Republic, and "green" jeans sold by Levi's, options for dressing more sustainably are coming to the masses. Even greener, thrift shopping recycles clothes. Rehash Clothes invites people to trade their threads, as do Swap-O-Rama-Rama events across the country.
Clothes dryers are among the biggest household energy hogs. Project Laundry List is pushing to bring clotheslines into vogue and prevent cities from banning them. Wet cleaning is a less toxic alternative to dry cleaning; the EPA has this list of greener cleaners.
Green your money
Before you open an account, a little legwork on a bank will reveal its sustainability policies. Bank of America and Citicorp, to name a couple, are each spending tens of billions of dollars on projects to fight global warming.
Paper-saving habits can include using a debit card or electronic payment services, such as PayPal, instead of checks, as well as rejecting receipts at the automated teller. A campaign from Coinstar encourages people to "recycle" loose change to spare the power and materials of making new coins.
Options for socially responsible investing, or SRI, have increased among mainstream mutual funds. Some trailblazing "green" mutual funds come from Portfolio 21, Winslow Green Growth, and Green Century Capital Management. Tailoring a portfolio to your tastes requires research. Social Funds and Green Money Journal track this niche.
Peer-to-peer lending services Prosper and Zopa take banks out of the picture. Kiva.org enables anyone to be a microfinancier by lending money to small businesses in developing nations. Modest Needs can help people closer to home.
Green your work
The Green Office footprint calculator aims to help companies estimate carbon emissions. Telecommuting and teleconferencing prevent carbon pollution from planes, trains, and automobiles. To that end, online meeting services such as Cisco's WebEx and word processors such as Google Docs enable people to collaborate remotely. Tools to reduce paper usage include GreenPrint software, which shaves off extra pages from printing. Guides from WebEx and Office Depot have more tips. The OpenEco community encourages businesses to share strategies around sustainability.
If green jobs, such as installing solar panels, are to replace legions of positions lost in America's blue-collar, rust-belt sector, there's still a long way to go. However, some of the sites listing related jobs include Sustainable Business, Co-op America, Green Biz, and Treehugger. For those willing to work for free, VolunteerMatch lists opportunities related to the environment.
Green your mail
If only two percent of households switched to electronic from snail mail billing, more than 180,000 trees would be saved and more than 10 million gallons of gasoline wouldn't need to be used, according to the PayItGreen Aliance of banks.
The free Catalog Choice site enables users to opt out of catalogs. For up to $36, Green Dimes pledges to stop junk mail for five years. At $41 for five years, 41 Pounds promises to block at least 80 percent of junk mail. The Direct Marketing Association gives consumers more opt-out options.
Earth Class Mail offers a remote mail-opening service enabling customers to read letters online. The company says its 90 percent recycling rate is higher than that of households.
Green your reading
Services built to make newspapers or magazines easier to read online, saving trees in the process, include Zinio, Zimbio, NewspaperDirect, and qMags--not to mention the Amazon Kindle. Bookworms can trade books with each other via BookMooch, Novel Action, Bookswap, and Swaptree. Sales of used books through Better World Books help to fund literacy programs.
To keep up with the eco-zeitgeist, add these sites to your RSS feeds (alongside CNET News.com's Green Tech blog and CNET UK's SmartPlanet, we hope): Treehugger, Worldchanging, Grist, EcoGeek, Greentech Media, Earth2Tech, and GreenBiz.
This post has been updated since it was first published to mention new Web sites.