How To

Shrink Your Ecological Footprint

By Bridget Bentz Sizer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Everybody knows how big his actual footprint is, but until a friend sent me the link to , I was blissfully ignorant of the size of my ecological footprint. The Web site, created by the Earth Day Network, surveys users' eating, transportation and housing choices and spits out an estimate of how many planets would be needed to sustain the world if everyone on Earth lived the same lifestyle. The bad news? If everyone in the world lived like me, we would need three planets to sustain us. Even worse, the average American lifestyle would require 5.3 planets.

But it's not all doom and gloom. While downsizing an actual footprint requires amputation, an ecological footprint is much easier to modify. "We all have the power to make changes happen . . . when each of us do it, collectively we have a significant impact on the environment," says Monique Tilford, acting executive director of the Center for the New American Dream, a Takoma Park-based environmental advocacy group. Here are eight ways to start acting locally for a global impact.


Heidi Ridgley, a senior editor for the environmental nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, wasn't sure what to do with her eco-friendly bug killer after she moved from a roach-infested apartment in Adams Morgan to a pest-free rowhouse in Columbia Heights. So she offered it up on the Freecycle Network. "People crawled out of the woodwork to [claim] it," she jokes.

Started in Tucson in 2003, the Freecycle Network is an international collection of free listservs aimed at reducing landfill waste by making one person's trash another person's treasure.

"I discovered Freecycle while redoing my front porch last summer," Ridgley says. "I had perfectly reusable deck wood that I didn't need anymore, and a neighbor told me Freecycle would ensure it wouldn't get sent to a landfill." With more than 9,300 local members, FreecycleDC ( ) is a bustle of activity, with members posting regularly to offer unwanted goods. The only hard and fast rule is that all items must be offered for free. In addition to the deck wood and the bug killer, Ridgley has found homes for an unwanted child's scooter, a salad spinner, aquarium dechlorination drops and a thermostat.


The average American receives 41 pounds of junk mail a year, according to the Center for the Development of Recycling. And 44 percent of that winds up in a landfill unopened (for me, the rest clutters up the kitchen table). Though the tide of junk mail may seem overwhelming, Tilford says that it's possible to shut it off. "Companies are required by law to take you off a mailing list if you request that," she says. A good place to start is by contacting the Direct Marketing Association to request your name be placed on a "do-not-mail" file. (This request can be made for free via postcard, or for $5 on DMA's Web site, .) To curb the flow of pre-approved credit card applications, call TransUnion at 888-567-8688.


Labels on typical household cleaners can be a bit troubling -- with warnings of "irreversible eye damage" and "skin burns." Being clean can sound, well, a little dirty. But fear not. Mindy Pennybacker, the editor of the Green Guide, an environmental and health newsletter, says most of her readers report finding "alternative cleaning products that work just as well as conventional cleaners." In other words, being green and being clean can go hand in hand. To find eco-friendly cleaners, the Green Guide ( ) recommends reading labels carefully with an eye for specific claims. "Biodegradable in three to five days" is preferable to simply "biodegradable," since most substances will eventually break down, given the right conditions. Also, cleaners that promise "no solvents," "no phosphates" or are "plant-based" offer a better green guarantee than those with a vague "ecologically friendly" stamp on the label.


Question: How many years does it take an environmentalist to change a light bulb? Answer: Seven, but only if he's using energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Though slightly more expensive, low-mercury CFL bulbs use less energy and last longer than standard light bulbs. Replace four standard bulbs with the CFL ones, and you'll prevent the emission of 5,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the life of the bulbs, according to the Center for the New American Dream. The center, which has a "Turn the Tide" campaign ( ), also estimates that you'll save $100 on your energy bill over the same time period. Though consumers complained of the harsh quality of early CFL bulbs, more recent models have softened the light. A 25-watt CFL bulb emits the same amount of light as a standard 100-watt bulb. And these days, CFL bulbs are sold almost everywhere standard light bulbs are sold.

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