I still buy lunch in Styrofoam containers. I drive to the grocery store some weekends, when I could walk. And no matter how much I whine and cajole, I can't get my husband to turn off the computer modem at night.
Even as someone paid to research and write about the environment, I still ain't no green purist.
I get overwhelmed too. Many choices befuddle me. My one-year-old daughter wears cloth diapers but the studies I've read say they aren't necessarily gentler on the environment than disposables -- especially chlorine-free ones.
And there are times I feel defeated. As in, what's the point of me riding my bike to work instead of driving, if our government won't even commit to meeting its own feeble watered-down green house emission cut plan?
But then, someone like my neighbour Mary-Margaret comes to the rescue. She's the community eco-witch (her term, not mine, but I like it.) She scouts the streets for plantable spots and then calls the city and orders a tree. She saves fliers errantly left in her mailbox to write notes on. She rides the subway with her two kids to environmental protests. And at a crazy party at her house, I noticed she has a bin in her bathroom for tissue to be composted instead of flushed.
I'm not her only devotee. Another neighbour told me she now collects her compost while on vacation and schleps it home to Toronto to be put into the green bin, inspired by Mary-Margaret.
She's proof, in my mind, that one person can make a difference.
And not to get all Kum Bay Yah on you, but I buy the argument that many people making small changes can add up to big impacts. All it would take is one new compact fluorescent bulb in each Ontario home to cut 66,000-cars worth of emissions.
It's the whole getting started part that can be tough.
So, in the lead up to Earth Hour, my colleague Peter Gorrie (much more knowledgeable, experienced and green than me -- think plaid shirt and bicycle helmet during negative 20 weather) will issue a weekly challenge -- for both ourselves and you.
In some cases, you might be leagues ahead of us. In others, we'll have done more legwork (his electricity bill is half the Ontario average, for one.) But, in the end, we should all have made some changes that lighten our load on the earth.
And we want to hear from you -- how you are doing, what you are doing, suggestions and challenges of your own. So hit the comment button. Or send us e-mails.
Think of it as a little green support group. Or the nudge you've been waiting for.
We'll start easy this week, with a positively painless challenge. It's also the first rite of passage for eco-converts.
So here it is.
Challenge: Replace all incandescent light bulbs in your homes with compact fluorescents and slay all indoor power vampires.
Motivation: While most people blame industry for the bulk of our country's green house gases, own personal lifestyles and choices contribute to one-third to half of them. About 16 per cent of that comes from the electricity and heat we pump into our homes -- a lot of it totally wasted.
Old-fashioned light bulbs, for instance, use 95 per cent electricity towards heat instead of light. And since lighting can take up 15 per cent of your home's electricity bill, that's a lot of wasted dollars and green house gases. Especially when there's an easy fix. Compact fluorescent bulbs use a quarter of the electricity their incandescent brothers suck up, and each bulb lasts ten times as long.
Never heard of power vampires? They are electronic gadgets that suck energy to stay on even when you turn them off (Shocking, no?). Things like your television, DVD player, cell phone charger, stereo. The average home has 30, according to Godo Stoyke, author of The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook. (He's a full-time energy-efficiency consultant, but in his spare time, a complete conservation nut. He lives in a solar home in Alberta, which makes that doubly impressive.) To add insult to injury, they can suck up 20 per cent of a home's electricity bill, surpassing even the mighty fridge.
They're like eating chocolate while you're asleep -- super high calories you don't even get to enjoy.
There are fancy tools that will tell you definitively if a gadget is a vampire, and how much power it sucks while in stand-by mode, like the Watts Up and Kill A Watt meters. But, the easier low-tech test is to turn it off and see ten minutes later if it's still warm. (Also, if it has a black brick on its cord, it's a given vampire.)
Process: Don't wait for old ones to run out. Unscrew them now, and replace them with new ones -- opting for cheap bulbs in places like the basement, where you don't care if it glows, and for more expensive ones that cast softer light for your living and bed rooms. Remember, you need to buy special outdoor CFLs for your porch, and special dimmable ones if your outlet comes with a dimmer switch. (Regular CFLs don't work with dimmers.)
As for the vampires, simply unplug the old television you rarely use, and buy power bars for the things like your computer, that you use regularly. Then, it's just remembering to turn the power bars off -- something I fight with my husband about regularly.
Cost: $120 - $100 for 16 light bulbs, and $20 for three power bars.
Savings: Replacing 16 bulbs with CFLs will save you about 1050 kilowatt hours over the year (assuming you keep them on for four hours a day) -- about a month's worth of electricity in my house. Slaying 90 per cent of your homes' power vampires will save you around 1060 kilowatt hours, according to Stoyke. Taken together, that's about $210 in electricity bills, and 600 kilograms of green house gases you've just saved from the atmosphere -- as much as driving from Toronto all the way to Winnipeg (about 2000 kilometres), according to Toronto Hydro's green calculator.
Reader Philip Ridge offers a variety of helpful energy-reducing hints in the comments section to this post, and has graciously provided an image of his hydro bill as proof that they can add up to impressive savings. Click the thumbnail to your right for a closer look, or click on the "comments" button to see how he did it.