I do my part for the planet: I recycle, and I've been known to bring a canvas bag to the grocery store. Yet I'm starting to find all these messages on greening hard to take.
The advice is often impractical. For instance, I should walk, bike, or take the bus to work. Sounds great in a perfect world, but my job requires trips to a city 70 miles away, a compromise for my two-career family. I'd drive a hybrid car, but they're still a bit pricey for the likes of young professionals such as me. I'd ride light-rail, if they'd build it, and if cities offered reliable public transportation, I'd be there.
Article after article says to unplug everything because chargers and outlets suck power, even when they're not being used. But many appliances, like alarm clocks, need to be reset every time they are plugged back in – and if you don't keep cellphones charged, you risk the battery dying just when you need it most. When I bought those energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, I read on the box that the bulb might interfere with my cellphone reception. Sure enough, with a new bulb in my desk lamp, I couldn't take important calls. Out the bulb went, and back went an old-fashioned, regular bulb.
In Madison, there's a movement to outlaw plastic grocery bags in retail stores and bottled water at public events. I get it about the plastic bags, but let me get this straight: I am not supposed to purchase water at summer festivals? Why not outlaw all other beverages, or, for that matter, festivals? Maybe we should all just huddle around the light of a candle, using as little energy as we possibly can. OK, so maybe we won't go that far. I suppose I'll just try to remember to bring a thermos on my next outing.
I read that I should use only paper towels to wipe my kitchen counter because sponges are moist germ traps. But then "The Eco-Makeover" in Oprah's magazine announced: "Every two seconds, a forest the size of a football field is destroyed – all for things like paper towels." Yikes.
These contradictory messages have me overthinking every little decision. I was cooking at home and started wondering about the packaging my mushrooms came in and whether I was being wasteful by cooking for two. Is the only way to avoid such quandaries to subsist on a diet of gruel from a burlap sack? What's the right answer here?
Recently, TreeHugger.com asked, "Are ceramic cups greener than disposables?" The answer is far from clear ,given the energy used in producing, distributing, and cleaning ceramic cups.
All these messages add to the dozens of factors I worry about when making purchases. With the economy in recession and food prices on the rise, can I afford to pay more for organic foods?
I know the buzz about greening is about making us more conscious of our carbon footprint, and Americans certainly need to be less wasteful. But instead of inundating citizens with hard-to-follow advice, why don't we focus on making institutional changes that are green. Towns can throw their support behind light-rail and push for smarter, denser development that cuts down on sprawl. Companies can develop more energy-efficient products packaged with less waste. And the government can provide tax incentives for businesses that are going green.
For my part, I'll just try to follow common sense, make changes where I can to reduce my impact on the environment, and not stress too much as we work out the kinks.
• Julie Sensat Waldren is a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine.