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Book Review: Living Green: The Missing Manual by Nancy Conner

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As a child, I recall grandma collecting every newspaper available. She fastidiously tied them into neat bundles and left them for the Boy Scouts to recycle. I was impressed she bothered. It seemed like too much trouble. 

When my own kids were little we, as a family, took our milk jugs to the store parking lot for deposit into the recycling dumpster. They enjoyed using our crusher for aluminum cans and kept a keen eye open for abandoned cans and other recyclable street trash metals. We had a recycling plant within walking distance that paid them cash for their collection efforts. 

Prior to single stream recycling, I was not enthused with sorting nor did I care to pay extra to have recycles collected. In my community today, we comingle recycles and the cost is bundled in with trash collection fees. We also donate to a  nearby charity thrift store when we thin our clothing and other possessions. We take the extra step to recycle hazardous household chemicals properly and recently rounded up our junk for a local electronic recycling event. We make a number of other efforts. My personal green activism has come a long way, baby.

If you have the tiniest yearning or inkling (and guilt will also do nicely) to become more actively green, check out  Living Green: The Missing Manual. And if you are a whiz, doubter, slacker, or disbeliever, this book will speak to you, too. 

Nancy Conner's book is an amazing resource and packed with about 100 websites (maybe more) that focus on various solutions and opportunities for green living. Included is one all-purpose website listing all the web addresses organized by chapter. Readers do not have to continually comb through the book. Pretty handy. Another neat feature is that purchasers get a free online edition for 45 days.  

The author avoids preaching or a fear mongering approach and offers a range from mild suggestions to extreme solutions for becoming greener. For example, at the 'extreme' end about lunch habits, she suggests that readers consider taking a healthy lunch to work in reusable containers and bringing cloth napkins. For the minimalist, she recommends joining in a group at lunch to carpool or order carry-out for delivery together with coworkers. Both are certainly doable. With this maximum effort-minimum solution approach, the book does not read like some extremist manifesto, but rather a practical guide to pick your own level of green living.

My favorite chapter (three) was on the 3Rs. That used to mean reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Now it means reduce, reuse, and recycle. Interesting pie charts break down what types of items Americans throw out and where the trash goes. It talks about the different kinds of landfills. I always believed that at least newspapers and grass clippings would break down very quickly. Wrong. In containment landfills, archaeologists have found grass clippings and still legible newspapers that were 30 years old! 

This chapter offers tips for pragmatic choices like cleaning up clutter, decreasing consumption, rejecting wasteful packaging, ditching junk mail, and repurposing items. Can you name 13 common items you probably already have in your home for earth friendly, all-purpose home cleaning?  Living Green provides recipes for safe non-toxic cleaning products using these items. Want to know more about lawn growth and watering tips? And did you think it was silly to water your lawn after it had rained? Guess again. Did you realize that the most energy waste comes from our inefficient homes and habits? Free energy audits are available in many communities and this book offers ideas on how to do a self home energy audit.

I do not know where I have been, but here is a riddle the author offers: Question: How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?

  • Answer: Both houses of Congress and a president to sign the bill into law. 

By 2014, the United States will phase out incandescent bulbs through the 2007 federal law. Compact fluorescent lamp's (CFL's) will be the 'new' light bulb. I was amazed at what I read about CFL's including the potential hazards of CFL's and the specific safety directions for cleanup if you break one. (Page 73) 

Another favorite chapter was Five, Raising a Green Family. All parents, especially those of babies, need to read at least 15 pages of this book. The section on family explains about avoiding fire retardant chemicals in clothing, problems with used baby mattresses, cautions about new mattresses, risks with plastic baby bottles, miscellaneous chemical hazards, and, of course, the downside of disposable diapers. 

Did you realize that every year Americans throw out 18 billion disposable diapers that, only if exposed to air and sunlight, will take at least a couple of centuries to decompose? The estimated cost of using disposable diapers is $1,200. And did you realize that your child will spend 20,000 to 25,000 hours in diapers — exposed to the chemicals inside?  Remember the toxic shock syndrome (TSS) scare in the 1980s? The culprit chemical, sodium polyacrylate powder, that was banned from tampons because of its hazard — is the same chemical in diapers to make them absorbent. (Page 148)

I also increased my vocabulary with terms like composting toilets, smart power strips, power meters, and factory farms, where animals can be legally given feed that contains manure, plastic, and other ground-up animal parts including bones, blood, intestines, feather, hair, skin, hooves, dead horses, road kill, and euthanized cats and dogs. Yuck!  

Check out the author's green living blog for additional ideas and facts. Here are key tips and passages I found to be both simple and unbelievable. 

 **Markers labeled "low VOC" or "low odor" don't release as many fumes… put their caps back on when you're finished. Better still, use colored pencils or crayons to avoid fumes altogether. (Page 11)

  • **In a recent study of more than 9000 people across the country, the US Centers For Disease Control And Prevention found pesticides in every one who had both blood and urine tested. (Page 30)
  • **Just after World War II, as GIs returned home and began to raise families, the average American house was 900 square feet. By 1970… (it) was 1,300. In 2004… 2,300. And … 2008… 2,629 square feet. (Page 50)
  • **Each year (according to the EPA), (water) leaks waste more than one trillion gallons of water— that's just in the U.S.! (Page 65)

**New York City began collecting trash in 1905. In the 100 years that followed, the amount of trash people throw away increased by 13 times, from 92 pounds per person each year to a whopping 1,242 pounds. (Page 94)

  • **Materials produced from recycled steel, copper, glass, and paper have net carbon emissions 4 to 5 times lower than when those things are produced from virgin materials. For paper, we're talking 73% less and for aluminum, 95% less. (Page 102)
  • **… large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations or factory farms) (are) cramming far too many animals together… For example, a cattle feed lot, where young cows are severely confined and fattened up before slaughter, may have tens of thousands of animals, while a large-scale egg farm may have 1 million chickens. The sheer size of such farms presents difficulties in caring adequately for the animals and managing their waste. (Page 175)
  • **On many farms, that waste goes into huge, open air, artificial lagoons… On a big factory farm, a lagoon may span 5 to 7 acres containing 20 to 40 million gallons of waste… (that) pollute the air. (Page 182)


While not all chapters were of interest to me, Living Green: The Missing Manual provides incredible information and resources. Regardless of your views on global warming, if you want to save money and improve your health and that of your family, Living Green has ideas for everyone — even those of us stuck in non-green habits.

As for me, I pledge to finally schedule (before the end of the year) that free home energy audit the local utility offers. What will you do?

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