It’s Not Easy Being Green

I tackled being eco-friendly in Charlotte for thirty days and learned a few things along the way

It wasn't until I found myself yelling at my mother that her use of paper plates instead of reusable ceramic ones was going to kill baby seals that I realized my Going Green for Thirty Days experiment may have gotten out of control. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind, and slowly pulled the ceramic plates out of the cabinet.

"OK," she said slowly, her eyebrows raised in surprise at my outburst. "We'll use these."

"Thank you," I sighed, happy for another environmental victory and mentally patting myself on the back for being a savior to the world's endangered.

The idea for my project stemmed mostly from friends, family, and random people on the street telling me that my shameful, wasteful ways were destroying the environment. I drove a gas-guzzling SUV, used excessive amounts of Styrofoam, always asked for plastic bags at the grocery store, and didn't even own a recycling bin. In other words, my carbon footprint looked like Big Foot's.

I hadn't always been this way. My family always recycled when I was growing up. I have clear recollections of lugging bags of cans to elementary school to earn extra credit.

My younger brother grew up to be about as far on the opposite end of the environmentally friendly spectrum from me as possible. He drives a Prius, and his trunk is full of reusable grocery bags. He would sooner eat an aluminum can than throw it into the garbage. My brother calls me an eco-terrorist.

It isn't that I didn't want to be eco friendly; it was more that it seemed like it would be difficult, expensive, and not particularly fun. Going green seemed like going on a diet. Sure, you can do it, but unless you have to why bother?

Eventually though, I began to have a nagging thought that my actions were actually harmful to the environment. Last year at a cocktail party for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., I listened intently as he spoke about the importance of taking care of our planet. (As much as I'd like to say I hang out with Kennedys all the time, I was actually at the event on an assignment for a magazine.) The party was at Eco Manor, the totally environmentally friendly Atlanta home of Laura Turner Sydell, daughter of media mogul Ted Turner. After Kennedy spoke, Sydell took a few minutes to talk about little ways every person there could help the environment. She mentioned stuff like purchasing chemical-free household cleansers and turning off lights when leaving a room. It occurred to me that I might be able to do that.

The idea of permanently changing was overwhelming, but thirty days seemed like a good start. Charlotte, of course, does present some immediate obstacles to going green. While driving is a luxury in cities like New York or Washington, D.C., in Charlotte it is often a necessity. And while Charlotte does offer plenty of locally grown and organic options when it comes to food, we're not like Los Angeles, where every café menu includes organic veggie wraps. But that wouldn't stop me from trying to navigate our city with a green perspective and trying for thirty days everything I could think of to lessen my own carbon footprint.

There'd be the obvious: no plastic bags, no aluminum cans in the trash, and no chemical-packed household cleaners. But there'd also be no air conditioning, no nonorganically grown fruit and vegetables, and a whole lot less driving. I was going all the way.

day 1

Determined not to start small, I am turning off my air conditioning, riding the light rail, and going to pick up my first recycling bin today. The high is 82 degrees, but it seems breezy enough, so I should be able to make it.

It's Saturday and there is a festival going on in uptown. This is the perfect chance to ride the LYNX light rail, which is only a short drive from my house.

Before we head for the Scaleybark station, my friend Emily takes me to get a recycling bin. Ever since Emily realized that my excessive number of Diet Coke cans were going in the trash, she's been insisting that I get a recycling bin and had volunteered several times to accompany me to the nearby Tom Sykes Rec Center (one of several pickup locations). In preparation for my recycling days, I'd checked out Charlotte Mecklenburg's city Web site (, where it's easy to learn how to recycle just about anything.

When I'm on the site, I notice something called the Wipe Out Waste Challenge. It's a pledge that you can sign up for to reduce, reuse, recycle, and rebuy. At first I'm enthusiastic. After all, the first thing on the list is to "opt out of junk mail." I happily click yes for that. Then I get a little further down to "recycle cooking oils and grease at a full-service drop-off center." I try to imagine driving my grease to a drop-off center. Maybe I'll sign up for the challenge later.

When we arrive at the rec center, Emily notes that she has done this for several other friends. Apparently she makes a habit out of encouraging other people to recycle by picking up their bins for them. I suggest that she sign up for the Wipe Out Waste Challenge — after all, another one of the items on the list is teaching someone to recycle. We pick up our bins — Emily grabs an extra for another friend she's been trying to get to start recycling — and drive to the light-rail stop. While driving to the stop feels counterintuitive, I figure that every little bit helps.

Riding the light rail is easy. I have lived in several cities — Boston, D.C., London — where riding public transportation was my only option, as I did not have a car. One of the many reasons I chose to live in Charlotte was that I liked the idea of being in a city where driving is prevalent. One ride on the light rail and I am trying to decide if I can just sell my car and restrict myself to only going places near the rail.

At the festival, next to seemingly every trash can is a recycling bin, which is good because everyone seems to be carrying a can or a bottle. I explain to my friends that I have become an eco-friendly person as of this morning.

Then the floodgates open. Everyone has advice about how to save the environment. I listen intently as one woman explains that if you leave the top on the water bottle when you put it in the recycling bin, then the recycling plant will have to chop off the lid and bottle neck because it cannot be recycled and that chopped part will eventually kill baby seals.

I can't figure out exactly how this would work, but obviously I don't want the death of any baby seals on my hands, so I toss the top and make a mental note to check these facts later.

day 2

It's Sunday morning, and at church I'm explaining to my friends that I have an important trip to make to the grocery store for eco-friendly cleaning products and food. Again, everyone is full of suggestions. By the time I get in my car I've been told I should leave an empty bucket in my shower to collect water to use in my yard and that I should always use cloth napkins—no matter what. I throw in my new knowledge about the deaths of baby seals, feeling very eco-smart.

I tend to be overwhelmed in the grocery store even when I know exactly what I'm looking for. I'm definitely not one of those people who can start on one side and end up on the other having neatly put everything they need in their cart.

This fact, in addition to my new style of eco-friendly grocery shopping, might explain why my trip takes almost two hours. Green shopping is not easy. Granted, I probably should have gone to Earth Fare or Home Economist, but I wanted to see if it were possible to navigate one of the Queen City's signature Harris Teeters in an eco-friendly way.

It turns out it is, but don't expect your first time to be easy. Or cheap. On the other hand, my cart looks cool. Usually I'm anxious to check out before people notice the stacks of frozen pizzas and bags of potato chips. This time I proudly stroll around the store, my cart packed with organic veggies and free-range chicken. I hadn't anticipated feeling cool as a side effect of going green.

In the dog food aisle, where I usually pick up a few rawhide bones for my miniature dachshund, Rosie, I decide she should be participating in this project as well. I scope out the organic dog food, finally choosing Newman's Own. I check the price. I hope that Rosie appreciates the lack of fertilizer that went into creating this food. Considering I saw her eat a bug off the back porch yesterday, I think she may not be impressed.

At home I Google "baby seals." Basically everything on the Internet is about saving them. I try to find official information on how my recycled bottle caps are killing them, but I can't. However, I do start crying as I watch a YouTube video about them dying and decide that if going green means saving those little sad-eyed guys, then I'm willing to make a few sacrifices.

day 5

Before I leave for work I notice that Rosie's regular Purina Lamb & Chicken-flavored dog food has run out. I try to get her excited about the organic food as I pour it into her bowl. She sniffs it and takes a bite, then steps back, clearly confused about the lack of artificial chicken flavor. I apologize and promise a good old-fashioned fake-bacon-flavored treat for her after work.

At work I research how to be green. While everyone seems more than willing to give me advice, I assume there is information from more official sources than my friends. I spend almost three hours looking at Web sites and books. They range from the ridiculous (don't let your domesticated pet outside because it has an unfair advantage over natural wildlife and can damage your neighborhood's ecosystem) to the interesting (U.S. households dispose of nearly 100 billion plastic bags annually, millions of which end up littering the environment and harming endangered marine animals, according to The Green Book, by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen).
Considering Rosie's legs are too short for her to catch any sort of wildlife in our backyard (except for bugs), I don't feel too badly about letting her have at it. I do decide that I will never again use a plastic bag if I can avoid it.

For the baby seals, you know?

day 6

The weather is in that odd between-summer-and-fall stage, and it's back up to 85 degrees. I'm holding strong on my no-air-conditioning rule though. Rosie, who has found a permanent place stretched out across the cool tiles of the bathroom, does not seem happy about this. Searching for a bag of M&M's for an after-dinner treat, I discover that they have melted in the heat. After watching footage of a polar bear swimming in search of icebergs online the day before, it strikes me that if melted M&M's are all I suffer from global warming, I'm in a pretty good place.

It occurs to me that being eco friendly has caused me to develop an odd guilt complex.

day 7

I've been going green for a week now. My bank account has dipped from organic purchases, but my pants are feeling looser from excessive vegetable eating—and lack of M&M's. My next step will be cutting back on my driving.

Truthfully, I don't drive much. My office is 1.6 miles away from my house, and most of my friends live close by. I consider taking the light rail to work, but after some calculations I realize that while it cost me about 50 cents to drive to and from work, it would cost me $2.60 on the light rail. If I had to pay for parking, this would be different, but I don't.

Instead, I try biking. It has been some time since I have ridden my bike. In fact, I don't even have it at my house in Charlotte, and so riding it involves taking a trip to my parents' home forty miles west of Charlotte to pick it up. It strikes me that it will take me twenty-five days of bike riding to make up for the car ride to retrieve it. I decide that maybe going green is like the old adage "You have to spend money to make money." Do you have to spend gas to save gas?

I arrive home in time for lunch, and my parents' dishwasher is broken. After arguing over the use of paper plates versus real ones and winning with my now go-to baby-seal-murderer argument, I call my brother, who is studying environmental law in Baltimore.

"Guess what? I just talked our parents into using reusable plates rather than paper ones because those are better for the environment," I say excitedly as my mom glares at me from the sink, where she is washing our reusable plates.

"Congratulations, Sarah," he responds. "Welcome to the right side of the argument."

I've never been so proud. As it turns out, pride is a serious side effect of being eco-friendly. You see people throwing away a plastic bottle and all you can think is, "Oh, they're so ignorant, I remember back in the day when I was like them." Another slightly more unfortunate side effect is making people uncomfortable with your frequent mention of dead baby seals.


I have now been loaned six books, sent links to eleven Web sites, given three magazine articles, and received untold amounts of advice on how to go green. Everyone has ideas. Unfortunately, reading these things can be discouraging because even if you think you're doing a good job, there's no way you're doing everything.

It's impossible to remember it all. Is my sliced bread double bagged? That's just wasteful. Is my wine not organic? I'm overusing fertilizer and hurting the soil. Is my phone cordless? I'm using more energy than I would with a phone with a cord. Is my soap liquid? That involves much more nonrecyclable packaging than bars of soap.

A trip to the store has suddenly become a minefield for destroying the environment for my future great-grandchildren.

day 12

My guilty conscience is the most noticeable product of the last twelve days. Again it reminds me of going on a diet. It's that same kind of feeling you get when suddenly all of the food you never thought twice about has become your biggest enemy. Things like disposable coffee cups or the Styrofoam drink cups from Chick-fil-A suddenly seem like horribly selfish indulgences. I've started using a reusable coffee mug at work, but I'm not sure how much Chick-fil-A would appreciate it if I asked for them to fill that up with my next combo.
It had never occurred to me how frequently I used paper towels until I began to think twice every time I took one off the roll. Suddenly, my need to wipe my hands with one towel and wipe the counter with another feels like I might as well go out and cut down the rain forest myself. I put my paper towels in a cabinet. For a few weeks, I can use a reusable cloth towel.

I stock up on reusable grocery bags. I switch all the bulbs in my home to florescent. I cut back on my showering time and never let the water run while I'm brushing my teeth. I dump my trash directly into the can without using bags. I unplug my cellphone charger and my laptop when I'm not using them. I've even switched to organic lip gloss.

I can't decide if I am sleeping better because my conscience is at ease or because the weather has finally cooled so that my house isn't 80 degrees every night.

day 15

Rosie looks noticeably thinner. She has lost one pound. For a twelve-pound dog this is huge. Apparently she's not eating much of the organic dog food.

day 16

My bike needed some serious work. When I finally pick it up from the bike shop to the tune of $90, it strikes me that going green is cutting into the green stuff in my wallet.

"I haven't ridden my bike in years," I tell the man at the shop as I hand him my credit card.

"Yeah, that was pretty obvious," he says, gesturing toward the rusty chain he has just replaced. "Taking it back up for fun?"

"Nope," I say. "I'm trying to help the environment."

He looks out the window, where I'd just waited in traffic created by a line of cars trying to get into the gas station across the street.

"Seems like this is a good time to be going without gas," he says. Prices are edging close to $5 a gallon, and Charlotte is facing a shortage.

My $90 doesn't seem so bad.

day 17

The day has arrived for me to ride to work, and so I load my work clothes, purse, and lunch into my backpack and hit the road, allowing forty-five minutes to make it to my office. South Boulevard, my usual route, seems like a hazard zone for a cyclist, so I have chosen a route that takes me on small neighborhood roads and through a park.

As it turns out, my ride is quite pleasant. Until I arrive at work sweating. I like the experience though. And I feel like some kind of Lance Armstrong cyclist badass carrying my bike up the stairs and setting it behind
my desk.

It feels strange to get into my car later in the evening and realize that I haven't been in it all day. I suddenly feel compelled to ride my bike everywhere.

day 19

As I'm checking out at the grocery store, I realize I left my eco-friendly reusable bags in my car. When the clerk asks "paper or plastic?" I stare blankly at her for a full thirty seconds, trying to weigh what is going to be best for the environment. I imagine trees being cut down and marine life suffering. I finally ask if it's possible not to use bags at all.

The cashier looks at me like I've lost my mind, but nods. "Did you forget your bags in the car?"

"Yeah," I say, relieved that she understands. "Do other people do this?"

"Not that I've ever seen," she says. "Most people just get bags."

I roll my cart full of groceries to my car and stuff them into the bags in the back, trying to ignore the odd looks I'm getting and cheer myself up with thoughts of frolicking baby seals.

day 22

On the way to work my bike gets a flat tire. A co-worker gives me a ride home in the evening. I feel like I'm retreating with my tail between my legs from the biking world. To cheer myself up I go shopping and buy a vintage dress from the 1950s. I'm now recycling clothing. That counts for something, right?

day 24

I'm making a last push for going green. I finally put a bucket in my shower. This turns out to be a complete mess that involves me almost tripping on the bucket and watering my plants with soap that probably shouldn't go into the soil. (I later learn that the "bucket in the shower" trick is only supposed to be used while you're waiting for the water to heat up. Not while you're actually
 showering. Oops.)

I set up all my bills to be paid online so I don't get paper statements. (Welcome to the twenty-first century.)

In a final effort, I rent An Inconvenient Truth. I don't know what I expected, but it was not to watch Al Gore give a PowerPoint presentation for two and a half hours. I eventually get bored and switch over to Desperate Housewives.

day 26

I have fallen hard for the light rail. I want to find a way to ride it every day. It's easy. It's clean. And if you catch it on a Saturday night, you're bound to meet someone interesting.

day 29

I finally make it to the Gateway Farmers Market. I wanted to go to this for weeks, but it was never open when I could make it. I purchase a few items and am amazed at how much lower the prices are than in the grocery store. Plus, it's nice to know I'm purchasing from local farmers. I wish the light rail ran to the market.

day 30

Rosie has gained back her pound. Apparently she has grown used to the organic dog food. I take the bucket out of my shower and the paper towels out of my cabinet. There are some things I just can't sacrifice.

post thirty days

Going green really is like going on a diet. You can't just do it for a few days and then go back and expect the effects to remain. And, like a diet, eventually it's tempting to slip back into old routines. I'm still using cloth towels, but sometimes it just feels good to use a nice disposable paper towel on my hands. My bike's tire is fixed, but I still drive to work—especially now that daylight savings time means it's dark when I go home. I returned An Inconvenient Truth, switched back to nonorganic lip gloss, and Rosie has happily returned to her less expensive dog food.

However, some things have stuck. I actually found myself taking someone else's Coke can out of a trash can and putting it in a recycling bin. I have become the light rail's biggest proponent among anyone willing to listen. I want to buy all my produce at the farmers market. And I have no intention of ever using a plastic bag again. I'm considering going back online to sign up for the Wipe Out
Waste Challenge.

The thirty days did offer a few pleasant surprises. I had been concerned that people would label me as a tree hugger or hippie, but actually the response I received in Charlotte was overwhelmingly positive—even when I was talking way too much about baby seals. Hollywood and Al Gore have done an excellent job in recent years of making green living the cool thing to do.

I also expected going green in Charlotte to be difficult. However, the city offers the potential of a place where it isn't too hard. Because we're located close to many farms, eating locally grown, organic food is a real possibility, even on a budget. And while our public transportation system still leaves something to be desired, there are easy alternatives to driving — something that many cities don't offer.

I'm still not an expert by any means, but I have enough reading material on how to be eco-friendly that I'm well on my way. And, as I have discovered, there's always more to learn. I don't know that I'll ever own a Prius or become a vegetarian, but then again, I never thought I'd be the type to give up plastic bags or endorse fluorescent lighting. So maybe there's hope for those baby seals after all.

Categories: Feature, The Buzz