CITYWIDE — Sometimes, acting with the best of intentions can be extremely inconvenient.
I fully grasped this in a stairwell of a nine-story office building on the 200 block of Wilshire Boulevard, praying to the high heavens that there were no video cameras, or particularly industrious members of the workforce that eschew elevators in favor of good, old-fashioned legwork.
For anyone who’s ever performed a pool-side deck change, I promise, my maneuver was about half as salacious.
I went to the building to interview a subject for a business profile, and I was running short on both time and excuses.
It was the usual tale. My Big Blue Bus, which I pick up at the Green Line Station by LAX after a 5.5-mile bike ride from my house in Gardena, Calif., already had two bikes on its front rack, which meant a 15-minute wait for the next Rapid 3 to trundle into the lot.
That put me in Santa Monica at 8:35 a.m., neatly excising the time I’d planned to use to change from sweaty biking clothes into generic work clothes, and try to approximate a trained professional.
That ship had sailed. I disembarked the bus and went straight to my final destination, locked up my bike and sprinted inside, stopping just long enough to ask the desk attendant where I might find a restroom that, as fate would have it, turned out to be locked.
Panicked, I searched the halls for a second facility, and found only the door to the stairwell, hanging slightly ajar. Sometimes, you “gotta do what you gotta do.”
I must preface this by saying that I usually manage to shower, groom and appear at interviews and other functions fully dressed. I also usually have the luxury of a fossil-fuel vehicle.
That week, beginning Sunday, July 31 and ending Saturday, Aug. 6, I’d decided to challenge myself to what I was calling a “low-impact” experiment, wherein I tried to cut out unessential waste and carbon emissions, including car rides to work.
The idea emerged half-baked during a conversation with a friend about the nature of our trash and waste in the context of the Beavan family, who hit the national spotlight in 2006 with their well-publicized “no impact year,” where they avoided many creature comforts of modern life and worked out a way to bring their environmental impact to zero.
It was fleshed out with the same friend and a group of others over endless mimosas at the Overland Café that first Sunday.
“So what else should I cut out?” became the question of the hour.
We narrowed the parameters of the experiment down to a series of changes that we felt fully surrounded the overall goal: reducing my carbon footprint and minimizing the amount of waste that I produce through a philosophy of enforced mindfulness.
That meant avoiding single-use packaging of any kind, single-occupant car trips, curtailing my water and electricity consumption and doing my best to make my food habits equally sustainable.
For days when reality impinged on my idealism, I had a tough-love approach. Each piece of trash produced, whether or not it could be recycled, found its way into one of two black plastic bags, which I had stationed at home and in a backpack I carried around to assignments in Santa Monica.
In so doing, I would get a full and complete picture of my impact on the planet.
Floating on a heady mixture of champagne and moral rectitude, I set out to accomplish my task … and promptly had a small disposable sippy cup from a coffee dispenser to add to my budding trash collection.
The cold, hard facts
General principles and the outline of my experiment were all well and good, but I needed a plan.
Santa Monica College’s Center for Sustainable Works, a living laboratory for eco-friendly policies, products and practices, puts on a six-week workshop that highlights simple changes people can make in their lives to be a better global consumer (Santa Monica residents can attend for free, compliments of City Hall).
The workshop attacks sustainability from six fronts: transportation, water, energy, waste, food and chemicals.
The message: simple changes make a big difference.
“We go after the low-hanging fruit first,” said Lisa Harrison, director of development and marketing for SMC’s Sustainable Works department.
That means making sure you install compact fluorescent light bulbs (each one produces almost 1,500 pounds less carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime than a traditional bulb), unplugging appliances when they’re not in use and turning off lights when you exit a room.
A next, more ambitious step, might be replacing the nasty chemical cleansers with homemade alternatives based on white vinegar and baking soda, which require a bit more elbow grease than their toxic counterparts.
Food makes a huge impact on the environment.
According to Harrison’s statistics, meat production in the United States accounts for more than half of the water used in the country. Cutting back on meat, even removing it from a handful of meals a week, creates a huge boon to the environment in terms of resources put into producing it.
“You don’t have to go vegetarian or vegan,” Harrison said. “Just try it one day a week, like ‘meatless Monday.’ We encourage people to do even more, but eating protein-rich vegetables saves 200 times more water than meat.”
Add to the costs of production the impacts of our modern American delivery system that encourages us to demand out-of-season fruits and vegetables that come from thousands of miles away and ready-to-eat meals wrapped in tons of non-recyclable plastic and cardboard, and you have a whopper of a problem in which many of us are unwitting accomplices.
The benefits of taking on these minor inconveniences? A major reduction in pollutants that science suggests is slowly killing our planet through a death of a thousand cuts.
Let the games begin
It was all quite daunting, and some life edits — like removing chemical-filled cleansers from the house I share with three other people who were not conducting the experiment — needed more than a week’s worth of transition.
Appliances were taken care of — we already have energy star appliances, and there are three CFL bulbs that have followed me in each of my three moves over the past two years because they simply will not die.
My consumption habits, and particularly transportation, were topics I could sink my teeth into.
That Monday morning, I woke up feeling somewhat accomplished that I’d managed to make it through the first day of the experiment with relatively little trash to show for it outside of the small paper cup.
I realized just how important that would become to me over the next six days when I tried to pack my day sack with the essentials — enough food to get me through a 12-hour work day and commute, reading glasses, pens, paper, wallet, alternate clothes and, for the betterment of my coworkers, deodorant — and realized that there simply wasn’t enough room for that and any kind of growing trash collection.
The bag was heavy, mostly with the weight of my bike lock, but not uncomfortably so. I set out on the 30-minute ride up Manhattan Beach Boulevard and down Aviation Way to the Green Line Station with a sense of confidence and sheen of sweat.
The exercise lost its inherent charm by day four.
By Thursday, the twice-a-day rides sent me looking for any way possible to skip the bicycle, even if it meant a two-bus solution that took half as long to accomplish and dropped me off in an unsavory section of Crenshaw Boulevard.
Toughing it through cramping leg muscles aside, I knew walking into this experiment that food would be my most difficult obstacle.
Bringing enough of it to work to cover my day without sending me searching for a quick option at the grocery store was challenging enough — trying to make my selections sustainable (read: mostly vegetarian and vaguely local) proved more so.
Even the Wednesday Farmers’ Market presented challenges, since I hoped to get food from no more than 150 miles away, but was faced with wares that traveled from Petaluma, Calif. north of San Francisco.
Cutting back on my routine trips to Vons and my near-criminal Diet Coke habit proved easier than expected, since the trash bag acted as my conscience, a literal weight on my back for every “convenient” purchase I made.
Takeaways: buying and cooking in bulk may produce monotony, but it can mean a great weight off your shoulders.
The bottom line
Over the course of the week, I managed to cut out at least 160 miles of single-passenger car trips, slashed into the one-and-done meals I’ve gotten so fond of, cut out several showers — sorry, co-workers — and tried to be a more responsible consumer of electricity.
However, I am no Colin Beavan.
I did not begin composting, install solar cells onto my roof or dig up our inefficient grass lawn to start a home garden, which would all be extremely helpful to the planet, but not in the best interest of landlord-tenant relations without additional preparation.
I wish I could say that I’m a changed person, who will sacrifice life and limb to stay out of my car and will never again enjoy a spicy tuna avocado roll from Whole Foods. It’s simply not true.
The week did drive home one lesson — taking responsibility for the impact that your life has on the planet and its resources requires thoughtfulness and planning, and even easy changes make a big difference.
According to the carbon calculator on Nature.org, my “sustainable” lifestyle would add approximately 14 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the course of a year. For context, that’s almost 4 tons less than if I led my life unchanged, and 13 tons less than the average American.
The average global citizen produces less than a fifth of that.
Back at SMC, Harrison summed it up succinctly.
“It’s not about deprivation,” Harrison said. “We just can’t afford to continue ‘business as usual’ because it’s completely unsustainable.”