Being “green” is cool these days. Whether it’s marketers touting the benefits of green to consumers or friends telling other friends about how it’s the right thing to do, environmental awareness, and efforts of undo many decades of damage, has become a cultural phenomenon. You can hug trees and nobody will make fun of you anymore.
The other day, I contemplated ways to make my small business more eco-friendly. We have one computer that we have on 24/7 that does nothing more than play music all day. I thought perhaps a less power-hungry machine could take its place. We’re still exploring options. I also did some surfing to see if we could maybe buy a stationary bike that could generate power for a printer or even a computer. From what I’ve seen so far, though, there’s not a easy out-of-the-box solution for such a product just yet. For now, we turn off monitors, the air conditioner, and lights when we leave the office.
I then thought about growing up with my parents and my grandmother back in New Jersey. One thing that I always noticed at home was a used piece of paper towel near the sink. It would either be wet from drying something or partially stained from wiping sauce dripping. I knew that the presence of this piece of paper towel meant that it still had a ways to go before it would find itself in the garbage. I knew this from the multiple instances that my mom caught me haphazardly using a paper towel to wipe away spilled water and reaching to throw it out. “Are you crazy? You barely used that,” she would tell me. Then she would take the piece and put it next to the sink for later use. My mom made sure she got the most out of each Bounty roll. I was certain that the same roll could last more than a couple of months in our home. In fact, I learned over time that paper towels could only be used to wipe away sauces or to absorb grease from bacon. Otherwise, it was the ragged cloth towel that had the faded name of a Korean church on it. I sometimes feel pangs of guilt when I see how fast my roommates and I go through a roll of paper towel at our apartment.
My mom was also strict about using the A/C and heater. In the summer, she would give me and my sister rough tweed-like Korean blankets to use as cooling agents (“lie on this and you’ll feel better”) before finally turning on central air (and making sure to wake up around 3 or 4am to turn it off). I remember a few times I had to sneak downstairs and stand in front of an open fridge for temporary relief. In the winters, it was just the opposite. We all wore thick sweaters and walked around in fluffy big slippers. Going to bed was sometimes like an outdoor camping trip – at least three thick layers of blankets were piled on top of my fleece sweater covered body. I found relief in college when the unlimited access to air conditioning and heating allowed me to behave recklessly; I sometimes blasted the A/C and crawled under my thick comforter not because it was unbearable outside, but because I could.
My grandmother also behaved in ways similar to my mom although she never tried to impress her ways on me. She was a constant recycler. She would take an old comforter cover or curtain and turn them into dresses or hats. She wore my old sneakers when doing work around the garden. She used very little store-bought fertilizer and found ways to take waste from our house and use them to grow her many plants. She even collected rainwater in big pots to save on water use from the hose. She hand-washed laundry whenever she could and air-dried as many pieces in the backyard. There was something very charming and old school about the way she rarely needed energy from outside sources. Since she stayed home most of the time, she was free of any carbon gas emissions from driving or even being a passenger. Together, my mom and grandmother made a formidable low-energy team.
My mom once complained about how wasteful baby diapers were and proudly told me that I had been raised in “luxurious wool diapers.” “You mean I would poop in them and wear them again?” “Yes. You know, not everyone got to wear such diapers,” she said. My grandmother told me she was the one who had to wash the diaper by hand each time. “Your poop was so small and cute,” she recalled.
Over the years I grew up at home, I was often irritated by the way my mom and my grandmother seemed to be so frugal with everything. I would sometimes see my mom cutting napkins along their folded lines so that the stack of 200 would become 400. “This is America! Everything is abundant,” I recall thinking from time to time. My dad thought and behaved more along these lines, and I remember the few instances I came out to our photo store with him while my mom rested at home. “Since your mom isn’t here, I guess we can turn on the A/C,” he would say with a sly smile. Even at the store, my mom struggled to make sure every bit of material was used down to its smallest possible state while my dad was quick to overstock on supplies. It was a battle that was waged until the day the store went out of business. Looking back, I wish my mom had a bigger say in the way the store was run.
The things that I observed with rolling eyes and even a bit of embarrassment back then now seem smart and even heroic. My mom and grandmother may not have had the grand visions of saving the world through their habits or of embracing a environment-loving lifestyle. In fact, they were probably more concerned with saving an extra dollar or getting one more wipe out of a paper towel. Whatever their reasons, they left a lasting memory in my mind of what it means to live green. I may not be ready to take my lifestyle to such a disciplined level, but it’s good to know that there’s a model to which I can aspire.