Green Design

View of Downtown Richmond and the James River. Viewing station at Earth Day Richmond 2010.

I am a big fan of taking care of the environment. I don’t always do everything right with regard to the earth but I try to take a few steps in the right direction and do what I can to ensure that my children will have clean air and water and nature to enjoy.

Environmentalism is relatively new to most Americans and we are still learning ways to become more environmentally conscious. Environmental problems are difficult to solve because they involve a lot of non-economic factors. For example, while it may be environmentally sound to recycle bottles and cans, it may actually be cheaper for the manufacturer to just produce new. It also requires a little sacrifice from all of us to change our habits or do a little more work.

Yesterday, I visited the Earth Day 2010 Festival in Richmond, Virginia. There were many wonderful events including art projects for kids using recycled materials, gardening and food information and exhibitions from solar power companies.

Inspired by my experience yesterday, I wanted to share some green ideas and some organizing hints to pull them off.

Reduce. Cutting down the amount of things you consume and/or throw away is a great way to help the earth and to stay organized as well. The less stuff you have to manage, the easier it is to keep things tidy. Below are some steps you can take to reduce:

  1. Switch to e-delivery for as many of your mailings as you can. Almost all banks, investment firms, utilities, telephone companies, and even some medical providers, can email you your billing statement rather than sending a hard copy to you in the mail. If you scrutinize each bill as it comes in, you may prefer to have the paper copy for your records, but if you just give it a quick glance or don’t even look at it, then save a tree and switch to e-billing. One caution with e-billing, however, most companies store only a limited number of statements online and then delete them. If the statements are important to you, you need to download and save them to your own computer each month. Many social and civic organizations will also email you their newsletters and updates rather than hard copy mail them.
  2. Look for energy savings opportunities in your home. This could be switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, upgrading to newer, more energy-efficient appliances and systems or adding insulation.
  3. Be careful with bulk buying. In our house, the two companies that seem to contribute the most to our stuff problem are Costco and The Oriental Trading Company. I love both of these companies but I have to work hard to use all the things that I purchase from them. I am now more careful about what I am willing to buy in bulk.

Re-use. Switching from disposable to re-usable materials is another great way to save the earth. While disposable materials are convenient and have a cleaner appearance since you are getting a new one each time, you can often save money by re-using. Some re-usable ideas:

  1. Re-usable thermos or drink containers. It is really convenient to purchase bottled water, soda cans or juice boxes for kids but these generate a lot of waste that has to be recycled or tossed. Consider buying your beverages in larger containers and switching to re-usable thermos or Tupperware portable drink containers. We have just started doing this and there is a little bit of extra work to wash out the containers but you quickly get used to it.
  2. Diapers. Cloth diapers are making a comeback. We started using them almost five years ago and people thought we were nuts. With the latest developments in cloth diaper options, there are a variety of easy and convenient systems. They are really not that smelly or messy and you can save a fortune by laundering them at home and re-using them for additional children.
  3. Rags. We have almost completely weaned ourselves from paper towels by cutting up my husband’s old undershirts and using them as rags. We wash the rags out and re-use them. Once you get used to cleaning with cloth, you start to prefer it. It doesn’t lint like paper towels and it is easier to use to scrub out tough stains.
  4. Re-usable shopping bags. This is one I am still working on. I now have a few bags to use but I keep forgetting to bring them into the store! I am trying to store the bags in my car so that I won’t forget.

Recycle. Recycling is probably the biggest thing that each of us can do on an individual level to help the earth. I try to be conscious of how much we throw away in our household and cut it down as much as possible.

Recycling is easier in some communities than others. Some communities provide a recycling trash can where you just toss all your recyclables in and the community will pick it up at your curb and sort it out for you. In our community, there is no such service. If you want to recycle, you have to store and sort your own materials and haul them to the recycling center yourself. Many people consider this too much effort but we have been happy to see the number of people who are making the effort and how full the recycling collection bins usually are.

Recycling is a difficult organizational challenge, particularly for commercial establishments like restaurants and open places like parks and city sidewalks. Typically, most cities have a single trash can placed in various convenient locations. Recycling requires not just a single can but a minimum of two or more slots to put your materials. If you don’t put all the recycling options near each trash can, there is a good chance people will just toss everything in the trash. One of the sad moments of Earth Day 2010 in Richmond was when I asked the beverage vendor where I could recycle my plastic bottle and she replied that there was supposed to be recycling somewhere but she had no idea where it was!

If you use the simplest recycling solution (two containers, one for trash and one for mixed recylables) you have to have a company willing to sort all the recyclables for you (or sort them yourself if you are doing it at home). In many communities, it is easier to just focus on one or two recyclable materials that fetch a good price or that are clogging up the landfills and throw the rest of the recycling in the trash. In our community, you can recycle #1 and #2 plastics (clear only), aluminum, newspaper, white office paper, magazines, corrugated cardboard, phone books, clear, green and brown glass, motor oil and tires. Once or twice a year there is a hazardous waste disposal for computers, paint, etc. Everything else gets thrown away. If you want to know what you can recycle in your community, check

Creating a recycling collection and storage system is not that difficult but it does require a little trial and error to see what works for you. We first started out collecting our recyclables in baskets or boxes near our kitchen. I got tired of looking at the used bottles and moved the boxes to the garage. At first it was hard to get up the motivation to walk the recycling out to the garage as it accumulated and we tended to just leave it on the counter, but over time, we got in the habit to walk those few extra steps. It also took some trial and error to find a recycling storage system we liked and that took up the least amount of space. We finally found the IKEA Sortera recycling bins that stack vertically. We have about 5 of them stacked in a small previously unusable space next to the door leading to the garage. It is easy to just open the door and pitch the recycling in the right bin. I am still working on a cardboard recycling solution. We need to get in the habit of breaking down each box as it goes into the garage. Currently we just pitch the empty boxes in a stack. When the stack tumbles over, we know it is time to visit the recycling center.

Recycling at the office is a great idea but hard to implement. Often employees or customers need to request that the business start a recycling program because if there isn’t a law that requires it, the business views recycling as just another expense. In most offices, you need to contact your landlord or waste collection contractor to set up recycling for an additional charge. In a small business, you can just do it yourself. I loved this photo from the Flickr Creative Commons showing a recycling set up at Microsoft. Despite the dig at Google, what I like about this setup is that they just used plain trash cans and printed signs to organize their recycling. Nothing fancy. Also, it is interesting to see that they are using one bin to collect food scraps for composting.

"Trash, Compost, Recycling, Google Apps. Microsoft, Redmond Campus, Washington USA." Photo by wonderlane. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

I also liked this photo from the U.S. Army showing the recycling bins used at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania. The Army requires that the recycling bin itself be comprised of recycled plastics. Wouldn’t it be great if all waste and recycling containers were made of recycled materials?

"Recycling Container." Photo by U.S. Army Environmental Command. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

There are many other ways to design a green operation. At Earth Day Richmond, I spoke with Christaphora Robeers who has a green art studio! She is a self-described fifth generation artist and a native of Holland. Drawing from the environmentalism she learned as a child, she now requires that her students clean their oil painting brushes with baby oil rather than harsh solvents. Once a month they use citrus based cleaners or special vegetable oils as necessary. Her green art studio saves not only the earth but is also better for the health of her art students as well.

Christaphora Robeers demonstrating collage techniques at Earth Day Richmond 2010.

Hoping you take a moment today to implement one new earth-saving routine in your home or business.

What lessons have you learned about green design? What are the eco-friendly challenges you are wrestling with? Please share in the comments.

Local fishermen on the James River bridge.