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Denise Selvig and Zack Metzler of Valley City Environmental Services dismantle old computers and home electronics recycled by Kent County residents.

Green thoughts

Eight quick things you can do to be more environment-friendly.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

On the campaign trail this past winter, Republican presidential candidate John McCain de-politicized the environmental movement in the U.S. with a powerfully pragmatic statement on global warming.

“Suppose that climate change is not real, and all we do is adopt green technologies which our economy and our technology is perfectly capable of. Then all we’ve done is given our kids a cleaner world,” he said.

“But suppose … climate change is real and we’ve done nothing. What kind of a planet are we going to pass on to the next generation of Americans?”

Regardless of your political ideology, conspicuous consumption is a gamble that’s quickly falling out of favor. Maybe you’ve switched from power-sucking incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents. Perhaps your recycling bucket sees as much action as your trash can. And if you live in West Michigan, it’s quite possible that your windows are covered in plastic half the year — every year.

But if you think that’s all it takes to live la vida verde, you’ve still got a way to go.

There are many shades of green — from pale seafoam (returning bottles and cans for the deposit) to deep forest (living off the grid on solar or wind power, eating only organic food you grow yourself, etc.).

Deepen your green with the following suggestions.

1) Clean green. Some household cleansers emit toxic pollutants when used indoors under certain conditions, according to a recent study by the University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


Lindsay DeLong, cleaning product specialist at Harvest Health, stocks a variety of cleansers that don’t have that problem. DeLong recommends Bon Ami, an earth-friendly soft cleanser that only costs $1.69.
When cleaning her house, DeLong uses a product called Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, a plant-based all-purpose cleaner. She dilutes a capful in a spray bottle filled half with distilled vinegar and half with water.

“You can make your own cleaning products really cheaply with stuff that’s not going to damage brain cells when you use it,” she said.

Harvest Health has three West Michigan locations: 6807 Cascade Road SE and 1944 Eastern Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, and 4150 32nd Ave. in Hudsonville.

2) Support local agriculture. Area farmers markets make buying local a social event in the summer and fall, but what’s a localvore to do the rest of the year?

Join the West Michigan Cooperative ( Try it for free for the first two months. After that, a one-year membership costs $35. And membership has its perks! Members order locally produced foodstuffs online — meats, eggs, dairy, produce, dry goods, etc. — then pick up their order once a month at Media Rare, 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW.

“People are busy,” said co-op volunteer coordinator Tara Simmons. “You can’t always make the farmers market during the summer, so this is another option.”

3) Calculate your carbon footprint. There are several online tools available for households and businesses to calculate their carbon footprint — the amount of greenhouse gases produced as a byproduct of one’s lifestyle choices or business practices. One such site has a local connection.

The Web site was established by Michael Ford, a renewable energy executive at Grand Rapids’ Cascade Engineering. In addition to the carbon footprint calculator, Ford’s site is also an education tool and an online store for products designed to help consumers conserve energy and water.?

“(Carbon footprint calculators) are good tools to make people aware that they’re not separate from the natural environment,” said Rachel Hackett, West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s groundwater stewardship program coordinator.

Besides, without identifying a baseline, it’s tougher to mark improvement.

4) When you can’t reboot, recycle. Kent County’s computer and small electronics recycling program helps keep lead and other heavy metals out of landfills. That’s doubly good: Not only does it keep those metals from ending up in ground water, but it also re-circulates copper, cadmium and other precious metals for other uses.

During normal business hours, individuals can drop off these items at the North Kent Recycle & Transfer Station, 2908 10-Mile Road in Rockford; the South Kent Landfill, 300 100th St. in Byron Center; and the recycle facility in downtown Grand Rapids at 322 Bartlett St. SW.

The county works with Valley City Environmental, which dismantles, refurbishes or strips the devices down to the screws and recycles them.

“Five years ago, they were charging us to get rid of this stuff,” recalled Dennis Kmiecik, director of solid waste operations for the county’s Department of Public Works. “But they’re taking it for free.”

5) Lug your mug around. Coffee is one of the largest international trade industries in the world. Understanding and shopping for coffee with an earth-friendly pedigree can make an impact.

Certified organic coffee beans are grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Shade grown/bird-friendly coffee trees are planted within a natural environment — no clear-cutting. And Fair Trade-certified coffee farms use sustainable practices in exchange for a guaranteed minimum price for the yield. It amounts to a few pennies more per pound of coffee beans than other farmers not working toward the Fair Trade certification. But in the coffee-producing nations of the world — mainly Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Central or South America — a few pennies go a long way.

However, in terms of sustainability, probably the most important thing coffee drinkers can do is to remember to use a travel mug.

“People are pushing for more compostable or biodegradable paper cups,” observed Christine Horton, sales associate for Water Street Coffee Joint in Kalamazoo. “But really, even if the paper cups are recyleable or compostable, a lot of times they don’t wind up being recycled or composted. They still end up in landfills.”

6) Bring your own grocery bags. This summer, China plans to ban plastic shopping bags in an effort to fight pollution. Local retailers aren’t going that far, but the region’s biggest grocers do have plans to encourage their shoppers to use reusable bags.

Meijer stores began selling non-woven polypropylene shopping bags late in 2007. At 99 cents each, the company has sold more than 40,000 bags per week since launch — topping half a million by early February.

“They’ve been very successful,” said Frank Gugliemi, director of public relations for Meijer.
In February, Spartan launched bag programs at D&W Fresh Markets, Family Fare, Glenn’s and Felpausch.

“We’ve all been learning more about the cost of paper bags and the cost of plastic bags, and also the environmental issues associated with them,” said Jeanne Norcross, vice president for corporate affairs. “And this is certainly an opportunity for us to offer our customers a grocery bag that is 100 percent recyclable and reusable — because it’s the right thing to do.”

7) Personal care products that care for the earth, too. “Some people have sensitivities to sodium laureth sulfate, which is the foaming agent in soaps and shampoos that you get at the grocery store,” said Susie DeBoer, bath and body care buyer for Harvest Health ( “It can be irritating to the skin. But they’re cheap and (it) makes their products lather up.”

Harvest Health stocks several soaps, shampoos and shower gels that are free of foaming agents, as well as artificial scents and dyes, including Aubrey Organics, Dr. Bronner’s, Desert Essence, Hugo and Jason. The store even stocks a formaldehyde-free nail polish called Earthly Delights, and an ammonia-free herbal hair coloring product called Naturcolor.

8) Click and save. Next time you plan an event, skip the paper invitations. For most social events, an e-mailed invitation ( will work fine without tripping any etiquette snags.

Of course, there are exceptions, according to Jodi Bos, president of In Any Event, a Grand Rapids event planning service.

“I personally would not recommend an Evite for a wedding,” Bos said. “I have heard of it being done, but then when I do hear that, I also hear, ‘Can you believe that? I got a wedding invitation via e-mail!’ People don’t respond really positively to it.”

That said, Bos does have recommendations for couples looking to lessen the waste generated by their big day, including cutting down on the number of pieces within the invitation (which could be as many as seven), and shopping for environmentally friendly papers. GR

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