Recycling Before It Was Cool

By Ed Begley Jr.
Sunday, April 20, 2008

I have been a quote-unquote environmentalist for 38 years, and I couldn't be happier about the green bandwagon that's rolling through Hollywood and the rest of the country these days. It hasn't always been so easy being green. Back in the 1990s, when environmentalism was looked upon as a holdover from the days of hippies and the Whole Earth Catalog, my lifestyle was considered so strange and extreme that I suspect it may even have cost me acting work. But now, like miniskirts and skinny neckties, "green" is back in style -- and I'm convinced that it's not just a fad, but a fundamental shift in our culture.

My environmentally friendly life began not in Hollywood, but in the more conservative San Fernando Valley. My father, a staunch Republican of Irish descent, didn't allow anything in our home to go to waste. He was a child of the Great Depression and taught me to be frugal -- to reduce, reuse and make do.

He also urged me to join the Cub Scouts, and later the Boy Scouts, which taught me to love the outdoors in spite of the terrible air quality in Los Angeles. I couldn't run down the block without wheezing, and people used to ask us why the San Fernando Valley was called a "valley"; the smog made the surrounding hills and mountains practically invisible.

Then, in 1970, Earth Day was celebrated for the first time. My father had always told me, "Eddie, don't tell people what you're going to do. Show them by doing it." So that year, I bought my first electric car. Essentially a golf cart with a windshield wiper and a horn, it went 15 mph at top speed and conked out after 15 miles.

I also started composting that year, burying food scraps next to the railroad tracks near my house. And what do you know, green things sprouted there! (This isn't a practice I condone today -- you'd probably get arrested for illegal dumping.)

Little by little, I discovered that good environmental practices were also good for my bottom line. The more money I saved, the more I invested in new technology. In the 1980s, I bought a better electric car and a solar water heater. I invested in a wind turbine in the California desert in 1985 and installed solar electricity in 1990.

Back in the 1990s, I was known for these "stunts." My wife Rachelle likes to tell people that I drove around looking for natural gas to fill up my flex-fuel car while she was in labor with our daughter Hayden. Rachelle was fine, of course, but she makes it sound as if I were more interested in avoiding the purchase of gasoline than the birth of our child.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that people, including Hollywood types, thought I was weird. Some producers and directors may have been afraid to hire me. "We can't have that guy on the set," they seemed to think. "What if he won't get in the car for the driving scene because it uses gas? What if he won't sit down at the dinner scene because he's a vegetarian?"

But as I've said many times about my wife, I think I'm winning them over . . . over time.

You always seem a little weird when you're a pioneer, or an "early adopter," to use the current term. And maybe I am a little weird -- I have a stationary bicycle that I use to generate power for my toaster. (Fifteen minutes of riding gives me enough juice to brown two pieces of bread.) But people don't look at me quite so strangely anymore. Many of my Hollywood friends now have solar electricity in their homes. There are so many Toyota Priuses in the parking lots of Southern California that my wife and I sometimes have trouble finding our car. Bill Nye the Science Guy recently moved into our neighborhood and has started a friendly contest: He wants to make his home greener than mine.

So I've gone from being the "weirdo" to the competition. My wife still loves me, my friends still come around, and the Studio City recycling program now accepts all seven types of plastic in their blue bins. Life is complete.

Ed Begley Jr., an actor, is the author of "Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company