Confessions of a guilty greenie

During the last week or so, I’ve begun to notice that I am suffering from a curious phenomenon: Green guilt.

M. Patricia TituaM. Patricia Titua

The Coastal Point started off the new year in January with our very own monthly “Go Green” section, with several stories dedicated to green, eco-friendly and Earth-loving information, tips and features on local businesses and people.

For me, that’s meant a steady diet of green — over and above the usual even for a person who considers herself a little more “green”-focused than the average American.

Add to that the arrival of Planet Green on television (as featured in last week’s edition of the Coastal Point), and a substantial portion of my work and private life has been spent dealing with green topics in the last few months.

Now, don’t get me wrong — this is a good thing. It’s the kind of kick in the pants most of us need to start changing our everyday habits if we’re really going to start living in a way that won’t leave long-lingering negative consequences of our daily lives to haunt our great-grandchildren.

Every time you learn that there are new ways of doing things and get clued in to how damaging some of your habits really are, it’s a chance to make a choice to do better from that point forward.

So, after covering the spread of curbside recycling in Delaware for more than a year, this spring I renewed my previously aborted attempt to recycle on a household level.

And a belated spate of spring cleaning at my house has resulted not only in a more organized everyday life there but a more organized recycling habit that better ensures that items that might otherwise have been headed for the landfill are now heading off for a new life via the recycling bin.

That has, in turn, led me to where I am today: Green, but guilty about not being even more so.

That empty bottle of dishwasher soap? It went into the trash because I couldn’t remember whether it was the kind that could be recycled. I hesitated before I dropped it into the trash can, but drop it I did.

The old phone book? I totally forgot it could be recycled, and into the trash it went.

When I remembered both of these things the day after they went into the trash, I realized they could have been recycled — should have been recycled. And I felt guilty. I wanted desperately to turn back the clock and pull them out of the trash, to put them where I knew they should have gone. Just two more things into the landfill that didn’t need to go there.

And this week’s bin full of recyclables was just too light.

That pair of disposable training pants? It’s going to linger in the landfill until grandchildren more times “great” than I could count are in diapers — about 500 years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Can’t recycle those…

All the more reason to finish up the potty training, but also leaving me guilty that I never managed to get into the cloth diaper habit, even though I bought some early on in my son’s life. How many dozens — hundreds — of those things have we thrown away in the last three years, to sit in the landfill for centuries? How much petroleum was used to make them? How many chemicals sitting against his skin?

Oh, and would that I had had some idea about Bisphenol A (BPA) when he was a baby. We would have used glass bottles and spared me from not only the concern about the impact of discarded bottles on the environment but the potential long-term damage that stuff might do to a kid.

That reminds me about that annoying odor my new shower curtain liner retained for the longest time. It’s gone now, some three or four years later. Little did I know that I was inhaling volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the phthalates in the PVC. And that sitting right alongside the tub in which my son took his first bath and hundreds more.

With central water and a lot less iron in my tap water these days, it would seem like a good time to replace that slightly orange shower curtain. But I’m not picking up another shower curtain until I know it’s safe. Maybe I’ll opt for one made out of eco-friendly hemp fabric.

Of course, then I’m going to have to worry about how to get rid of the current one. It’s waterproof. How long will it take to go away in the landfill? What chemicals will leach out into the soil while it does?

See — this is the problem with earnestly going green. You deal with one problem only to discover 14 more, or 1,400 more.

Recycling PVC is so dangerous and labor-intensive that it’s nearly impossible to find a place to take your old shower curtain for recycling. So, do you keep the old one to use as a tarp? Live with it because it’s probably outgassed most of its VOCs by now? Replace it with the hemp one and move it to the guest bathroom?

And while we’re washing things — all that phosphate-filled laundry detergent we went through during spring cleaning? Right back into the water system. Granted, it was the tail end of a supply I didn’t buy myself, and I had some eco-friendly Seventh Generation detergent waiting in the wings. But now feel guilty that it got used at all.

And I can’t seem to find any eco-friendly fabric softener around here, so it’s fabrics that feel like steel wool, or fragrances, tallow, dyes and phosphates all over our clothes and back into the water supply and soil. I read that a half-cup of baking soda into the rinse cycle will soften clothes, but I haven’t tried it yet. And I’ll feel guilty until I do. But if it doesn’t work well, will I go right back to the non-eco-friendly stuff?

I completed replacing nearly all incandescent lightbulbs in the house with compact fluorescents earlier this year. They’re supposed to last at least three years and maybe as long as 10 years. So, when I inquired as to what had happened to the extras I purchased when one recently burned out, I was astonished to find it was the fourth such incident in the last six months.

Resolution: stop buying cheap compact fluorescents.

Second resolution: warn everyone again not to just throw the burned out ones in the trash. (A): They’re dangerous if they break. And, (B): They’re dangerous to the planet if they break in the landfill, which they will, if they even get there intact. Ah, yes, more green guilt.

We use food-safe cleansers in the kitchen — that sounds Earth-friendly, right? But are they? If I don’t look it up, I can’t be sure and thus guilt-free. OK — refined bleach, pH balanced, with water. Sounds green. Oh, but wait a minute — if it’s just bleach and water, I’m now buying a small, plastic trigger-spray bottle that will have to be recycled and replaced when I could be buying a big bottle of bleach and mixing it up myself, right? More guilt!

And is it more eco-friendly to put food down the garbage disposal or in the trash? I haven’t tried composting yet, though vermiculture sounds very intriguing. I guess I should be doing that, too, eh?

We recently ran out of paper towels (again, not a purchase I made!), and I found myself wondering why I should have to explain that we should be using cloth towels rather than buying more paper ones. If I don’t explain this, will we end up with more paper towels or will people finally break down and use the cloth ones? Am I doing my green duty if I don’t enforce this unsaid rule?

At work — yes, even this greener-than-usual workplace — I spy a hefty mound of used paper towels in the bathroom. I’m tempted to get one of those stickers I saw recently offered for towel dispensers that advises to use just one at a time — with the cost of paper-towel-spendthriftness being noted on a per-tree basis.

Hand dryers are more eco-friendly, and the truly green take it out on their clothes. If I don’t bring this up, is it my fault that someone is still using eight paper towels per trip? I already got laughed at over the recommendation to switch to a non-anti-bacterial soap. I’m not sure taking a green stand on this is going to stand up against germophobic co-workers.

I didn’t spend part of my economic stimulus payment on a dual-flush replacement valve for my toilet. Hypocrite.

My use of batteries is excessive, and I still use non-rechargeable batteries in a pinch. And I don’t always keep the discharged non-rechargeable ones for proper disposal. What is wrong with me?!?

Thinking about this, I start to tally all of the plastics in my home. They’re all going to have to be recycled at some point, and a lot of them could conceal toxins. Some of the electronic components inside some of those plastic pieces are toxic, too, and some of those are even mined in ways that are unhealthy for mine workers and nearby residents.

And that’s not counting all of the Chinese-made toys that fill my living room. Can I be sure the paints on the metals and the dyes and softeners in the plastics are safe? Surely, the energy that powers the factory that made them came from a coal-fired power plant — and coastal Sussex County residents, of all people, know how polluting those can be.

And it’s not like the pollution sits in a big cloud over China and doesn’t drift around the planet. China’s building new coal-fired plants at a rate of about two a week, according to some recent reports, and they’re not even using semi-modern technology to control the resulting pollution.

Trying to live without goods made in China has already been done. Pick up a copy of “A Year Without ‘Made in China’: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy” by Sara Bongiorni if you think it’s even realistic to try, especially on a budget.

OK — at least I can feel good about shopping this week. There were organic salad greens and baby fingerling potatoes from Greenbranch Organic Farm near Salisbury, via the local farmers’ market. That’s not only organic but local — and extremely yummy, too. Of course, the corn wasn’t organic, even if it was local. Time to start planning next year’s backyard garden, I guess.

While I’m out in the yard, I think I’ll assemble a yurt. Because at this point, it seems easier to start over again, with a house made only of fabric and wood.

Modern technology has brought us a long way in the last 150 years or so, and I wouldn’t want to give a lot of that up. But in a lot of ways we’re only just beginning to reap the full harvest of the changes we’ve made to our everyday lives. Some very positive, of course, but others very much not so.

In the midst of my green guilt, I start to look back at times in which food and goods were purchased locally or handmade on-site or nearby, and I realize this is a way of life we are really returning to now: simpler, cleaner and greener.

There’s no question that it’s a lot of work. It’s probably extra work for us today, thanks to the way of life we’ve gotten used to and the things we’ve added to our lives. On the other hand, it makes me wonder what life will be like for those many-times-great-grandchildren at a time when those billions of diapers have finally gone away.

Will they wake up in the morning and drink local, organic milk from a glass bottle, like our many-times-great-grandparents? Will they put on organic hemp clothing made by the local tailor (and maybe designed by someone half a world away)? Will they bicycle to work, or telecommute? Will they grow their own heirloom tomatoes in winter, in a greenhouse heated by solar power?

Will we really be that much smarter and forward-thinking a few hundred years from now? Will my 25-times-great-grandchildren be better at being green than I am? I can only hope.

The post-industrial nightmare world of some science fiction futures is a scary alternative for those long-off generations, but one that feeds my desire to keep up my personal green initiative, as well as feeding my green guilt.

In the meantime, it’s up to me to make sure that I recycle everything that can be recycled and avoid the nasty chemicals and do what I can to lower my own footprint on the planet. No wonder I feel guilty. That’s a big goal for one person. And a bigger one for nearly 7 billion of us… Looks like there will be plenty of green guilt to go around.

However, I think I can shake off the burden of that guilt long enough to check the prices for an all-organic, VOC-free yurt.