Take some of that green and get greener

Many U.S. taxpayers will start receiving their 2008 stimulus payments in increments of $300 this week through direct deposit, with $300 or more for many single taxpayers, $600 or more for many couples and $300 additional for each eligible child. While many of them may be eyeing that new big-screen TV, a tropical vacation or even paying down debt, it’s possible to reap double or even triple the rewards of that monetary bonus by using your stimulus payment to go green.

Ways to become more environmentally friendly in your lifestyle are often free, but a number of them do require some initial investment, and spending your stimulus payment in one (or more) of these ways is a way to get some guilt-free spending from this financial bonus. The following are some ideas that can give you the gratification of buying something, help stimulate the economy, help save you money in many cases and even help save the planet, all in one green package.

(1) Invest in solar power for your home. Well, $900 or $1,200, or even more, won’t pay for a full solar power installation for zero net usage on the average home. But it might be the start of socking away enough money to begin your solar project, at a cost of around $7 per kWh you eventually hope to reap. Costs of solar panels are also expected to drop in the coming years and government rebates help with the costs, so saving up now might put you right on track for saving some serious green in the decade or more to come. For a miniature-scale investment in solar, consider a do-it-yourself project for a few hundred dollars that could power your computer and other small electronics, or look for Lenovo to bring out its low-power solar-powered PC, the ThinkCentre A61e. Or, in the mid-range, look at a solar-powered room-sized air conditioner from SolCool, at $2,600 plus installation (about $500).

(2) Invest in wind power for your home. Again, you’re not going to pay for the full cost of a major wind-based power-generating system just with this year’s stimulus check, but small-scale residential-sized wind turbines are becoming increasingly affordable. One PacWind model featured recently on the series “Living with Ed” runs about $3,000, plus installation, and has a power output of up to 3.4 kW, at just 55 inches high and 30 inches in diameter. Not a big chunk of your overall home improvement and maintenance budget over the life of a home, but a substantial chunk out of your electrical bill. Free: Complaining to your county and state officials that Sussex County requires a $400 application fee for a conditional-use permit to have a turbine on a small parcel of land.

(3) Conduct a “green” home audit. This one only takes a portion of most stimulus checks, running around $200 to $400 for a basic audit by a professional company. They’ll go through your home, looking for ways for you to save energy, starting at the light bulbs and working their way up to an airflow test that will see how much heat and air conditioning you lose with a poorly sealed structure. That leaves money left over to start implementing some of their recommendations, which could save you thousands over the life of your house and add sale value for its next owner.

(4) Invest in green and energy-efficient upgrades to existing home features. This could be new energy-efficient windows in an area of your home that’s subject to extremes of heat or cold, low-flow shower heads, better insulation or an attic fan, low-flow or dual-flush toilets, or more energy-efficient appliances. Home Depot even announced this week that it plans to offer discounts through July to those who purchase compact-fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances with money from their stimulus payments. (If you only want to use as much water as you really need, dual-flush retrofit kit for an existing toilet can be had for as little as $50, or $115 with a replacement tank, from www.twoflush.com.)

(5) Kill a vampire. Those cell-phone chargers, televisions, small appliances and other gadgets you leaved plugged in all the time when you’re not using them? They’re sucking the life out of you! Well, at least your wallet… If it has a light that indicates it’s getting power, an internal clock or even just sits there, plugged in, (apparently) doing nothing, there’s a good chance that your electronics are using up tiny amounts of electricity without your knowledge, all for nothing. Kill vampire power drains by killing their supply. Buy power strips with switches (at $5 in some cases) and cut the vampires off at the switch when they’re not in use. Many switched power strips ($15 on average) even have one or two always-on sockets so you can make sure your DVR records your favorite programs without unnecessarily powering the TV or the charger for your MP3 player after you’ve left the house.

(6) Invest in small-scale renewable energy. It’s not on the same scale as solar power or wind, but buying rechargeable batteries instead of continuing to throw out those old alkaline batteries can save not only money but also the environment. Alkaline batters poison the environment when discarded in the trash instead of being properly recycled, and the materials used to make them contribute to other environmental degradation. Instead, invest in the additional cost of rechargeable batteries and the chargers designed to power them. Pre-charged rechargeables can be purchased for around $12 for a four-pack of AA or AAA batteries, saving you money within a few purchases of old-fashioned batteries and saving the environment over the long haul. Buy a solar-powered charger ($25 and up) to make this choice even greener.

(7) Make your car guzzle less gas. With rebates still to be had on hybrid vehicles, some of the larger stimulus payments can make the difference between the cost of a new vehicle with a standard gasoline engine and one that has an electric or hybrid engine — generally around $3,000. If you’re due to buy a new vehicle consider using your stimulus payment to stretch your car-buying budget and spring for the more efficient vehicle. Your wallet (and the environment) will thank you later.

If you’ve got a car you’re planning on continuing to use for a while, consider taking it in for a tune-up to make sure it’s working as efficiently as possible. Everything from filters to fuel systems and the inflation of your tires can make your car burn more gas to get the same distance. Make the most of it with a small investment.

On the larger scale, maybe you’d like to run your diesel car on used cooking oil? If you don’t mind running the risk of a $2,750 fine from the Environmental Protection Agency for violations of the Clean Air Act (this perplexes Coastal Point staff, and likely most everyone else), a conversion to run your car on cooking oil can cost around $2,000 (and requires just a few driving-habit modifications).

(8) Make your yard work greener. You work hard in your yard so that you can enjoy your time in Mother Nature even more. But are your yard-work choices all that environmentally friendly? Consider replacing your gasoline-powered lawnmower, leaf-blower, hedge trimmers and other gadgets with electric-powered devices to reduce polluting emissions (and noise). Alternatively, go solar-powered or, even better, go human-powered and get some exercise, too.

Try an electric-powered robot mower, if you’re into high-tech devices ($2,000, at the top of the line, $700 or so at the low end). Some of these even come with solar power options ($3,000 for the solar version of the top-of-the line Husqvarna), as do some human-driven electric mowers. Robot mowers can even easily trim a little bit at a time, more often, which is better for your lawn. And newer models mean that electric mowers are usually cordless and can manage most average-sized lawns on a charge.

Look at spending just $250 or so on a high-quality human-powered (and, yes, chicly old-fashioned) reel mower. Also look at the idea of a mulching mower, which eliminates yard waste from heading to the landfill and feeds your lawn.

(9) Create a backyard habitat. While you’re outside, consider spending some of your stimulus payment on creating a habitat that will please both you and those creatures that live closest to you. And, no, we don’t mean your family and human neighbors. Creating a backyard habitat that will encourage wildlife to inhabit your yard and neighborhood can be as simple as adding some shrubs, a birdbath and a rock or two. The result is not only potentially pleasing to the eye (and the wallet on resale of your home) but can keep valuable native species comfortably living alongside humans even when a property has previously been cleared for construction.

Other enhancements to consider spending on might include planting some trees. As growth in Sussex County continues, the total loss in mature trees is staggering. Planting a solid, suitable native species in your yard can pay the benefit not only of landscaping beauty but also in habitat and reduction of CO2 in the air. Shade trees, strategically planted, can also help reduce the variations in your home’s temperature on hot, sunny days and in the winter, by protecting the home from sun and wind. That means savings for you in your energy bill, and for the environment when less energy is used over time.

And before you head back inside, consider using some of your stimulus payment to purchase eco-friendly yard products instead of the traditional pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals many people use in their yards today. Not only are organic alternatives better for the environment, they’re less likely to accidentally poison children and pets, and won’t adversely affect any food you might grow in your backyard garden.

(10) Take a vacation. No, not any ordinary vacation — an eco-vacation. While you might already have your stimulus payment earmarked for some time away from home, instead of heading off to that old tried-and-true destination where the focus is on nightlife, rich foods and traveling via taxi and rental car from one spot to the next, consider destinations where nature (and your family) is the star: national parks, campgrounds with eco-friendly features and international destinations where the world’s ecological treasures are front and center. Eco-vacations not only provide an invaluable chance to get up close to nature but often help spur an economy that works to preserve threatened ecosystems instead of harming them.

Point Publisher Susan Lyons traveled recently to Belize, on the Yucatan peninsula – a major eco-tourism destination, with its reefs, rainforests and Mayan ruins – and found the experience invigorating.

“Ambergris Caye is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It has the second largest reef in the world. The snorkeling and diving there is just fabulous,” she said. “It was just beautiful. We went into the jungle, to the ruins. They had lots of different jungle excursions, from tubing through the underground caves to zip-lining through the jungle.”

Alternatively, you can be even more eco-friendly and skip long-distance travel altogether by staying home and enjoying some of the Delmarva Peninsula’s ecological wonders: the Inland Bays, beaches, state parks, crabbing, fishing, kayak tours, wildlife treks and birding expeditions. Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences (DLITE) (http://delmarvalite.org/) offers the lowdown on all the area has to offer in low-impact tourism, such as last week’s Delmarva Birding Weekend, the upcoming Great Worcester Herp Search, and biking, hiking, kayaking, camping, fishing and wildlife observation options.

(11) Buy a bicycle. Instead of defaulting to taking your car everywhere, consider buying a bike for short trips, and for recreation and exercise. Not only does a modest investment of a couple hundred dollars from your stimulus payment offer the opportunity to get out and see the wonders of nature without windows and a roof over your head, it means better fitness and the chance to get around traffic easily and quickly when summer travel starts to put stress on our main roadways. The quick trip to the grocery store — despite summer traffic woes — can continue, on two wheels.

These days, a variety of new recumbent bicycles ($400 and up) offer options for those who find traditional bikes uncomfortable, and electrically-assisted bikes ($1,500 and up) provide the ability to go longer distances than you can comfortably do under your own steam and to go faster, too — all without the headaches of parking, traffic jams, fuel costs and pollution.

(12) Do an organic pantry makeover. While you’re at the grocery store on your bicycle, pick up some replacements for your non-organic pantry staples. This is a great first step to eating healthier — for you and the planet. Introduce yourself to organic foods and ensure that the foods you eat most often are not adding a regular diet of chemicals and preservatives to your body.

Often times, health experts recommend that you target your organic food spending on items that include produce items wherein the peels are incorporated into the food rather than taken off and discarded, or ones that are eaten intact, such as greens. This means things you should replace non-organic foods such as ketchup and tomato sauces, those with berries and grapes, lemons and limes (particularly if zesting), as well as many of your grains and grain products, such as rice, oats, nuts, nut butters, and dairy products (many of which are produced with hormones) and any meats you eat.

Organic foods are still generally more expensive than traditionally-produced alternatives, but the cost of the latter has in terms of the health of the environment (and likely in the people who eat it — and live on it, too) makes going organic a valuable way to invest in your health and the environment. Locally-grown foods and those with solid environmental backgrounds (such as sustainably-caught fish) also reap benefits for the entire planet.

(13) Go paper-free. I cannot begin to tell you how much paper a newspaper goes through in a week. Between printing the paper (on partially recycled paper, of course), printing memos and advertising proofs, handing out Post-It notes to other staff members, taking in lengthy meeting agendas and press releases, and the pages and pages of notes we take each week, it’s significant. We try to do our part by recycling our office paper and any leftover newspapers, but with my tablet computer on the fritz for a few months now, I’ve noticed nothing more than how many more notebooks I go through in a month than I did when I was nearly all digital in my work process.

These are trees that didn’t have to be cut, chemicals that didn’t have to be used to whiten paper and produce ink, pens that didn’t have to be manufactured from petroleum-based plastics… Now that I’m about to get back with the digital note-taking, I’m doubly glad not to have to use those notepads in most every situation, because I see the impact clearly.

Even if digital note-taking isn’t in the cards for you, another way to reduce paper usage is go take your everyday printing and paper reminder system digital. E-mailing reminders and electronic copies of receipts to yourself is one way to start, but it’s made all the more useful when you have portable, instant access to reminders, to-do lists, contracts, receipts and more, via a PDA or smartphone ($150 and up). Synchronize your PDA with a folder of needed documents or check your e-mail on the go and save the important data so that you always have it with you — without the paper. You can also use them with an online/mobile reminder service, such as those at rememberthemilk.com and iwantsandy.com, or a mobile note-taking voice-to-text system, such as the one at jott.com.

A PDA also makes a great replacement for all those wallet-sized photos of family members that you may carry now. It’s easy for a doting grandmother to use up a forest full of trees and vats of chemicals just printing out the latest cute shot of her grandchild. For Mother’s Day, replace her memory book — except for the most memorable shots, of course — with a digital photo album or mini-album on a keychain. That means more photos in less space, the ability to see them in slideshow format and to update them at a moment’s notice (no photo corners or new pages needed). It also means less paper waste, less ink and even less time spent on getting prints made.

The eStarling digital frame (www. estarling.com) even allows family members to upload photos to it via e-mail, from anywhere in the world, so Grandma can see vacation photos before you get back, like a postcard, but quicker and without paper, stamps or polluting transit.

(14) Make a donation. Well, this is a no-brainer on many levels. If you’re feeling a little generous with the unexpected bonus of your stimulus payment, donate a dollar or a hundred to a worthy eco-friendly cause. This could be anything from a donation to groups that aim to preserve habitat and species locally to those that teach people living near threatened rainforest the skills that will allow them to provide for their families without taking rainforest for agriculture or hunting endangered species.

Fundraiser Insight (www.fundraiserinsight.org) cited 12 environmental groups for using their donations well: World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace, National Geographic Society, Friends of the Earth, National Wildlife Federation, EcologyFund.com, National Audubon Society, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (U.K.), Center for a New American Dream, Ducks Unlimited and Nature Canada. You could pick one of these, a favorite local charity with an environmental focus (such as the Marine Education and Research and Rehabilitation Institute, www.merrinstitute.org) or do some research and pick your own. Making a donation to a recognized non-profit not only pays off in the benefit to your conscience and the environment, but can help out with next year’s taxes, too, netting you even more financial benefit from your stimulus payment.