Simple steps reduce carbon footprints
Seattle Times environment reporter
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
From the street, the house looks like any other in this quiet North Seattle neighborhood.
But something different is going on here.
The trash container at the curb is not much bigger than a shoebox. And inside the house, at 7:15 on a weekday morning, all the lights are off. It's not because no one's home.
"I'm just raising the blinds to let in the natural light," Gina Diamond said as she walked from window to window.
It's morning in a low-carbon household, where reuse and recycle is more than just a slogan, buying used is encouraged and the electric lights go on only when it's dark out.
As some people worry about their contribution to global warming, Diamond's family of three — herself, husband Richard Farnham and 3-year-old daughter Lily Farnham — are already trying to tread more lightly on the Earth.
Their lives offer a look at some of the steps people can take to reduce their individual carbon footprints — the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each household produces.
The Diamond-Farnham house feels like a typical, if slightly dimmer, family home in the Puget Sound area. But the family produces less than half the carbon of a typical two-person American household.
On this recent morning, Farnham had already left for his job managing a West Seattle group home for the disabled. In the kitchen, Diamond, who is completing a master's degree in education focusing on environmental sustainability, poured two bowls of cereal while Lily sat on the counter in her pajamas.
They haven't abandoned modern conveniences. The refrigerator hums near an electric stove and a dishwasher. When Diamond needs to get ready in the morning, she pops a movie into the DVD player for Lily to watch.
But looking closely, subtle differences emerge.
Laundry hangs on a drying rack in a nearby hall. To save electricity, they rarely put their clothes in the dryer. The curly glass of a compact fluorescent light bulb pokes from the lamp over the dinner table.
Diamond got out a milk carton labeled organic. The raisins Lily plopped onto her cereal were bought in bulk and stored in a reusable container. That helps explain why a week's worth of family garbage fills one small trash bag.
"I try to reuse things as much as I can before I recycle them," Diamond explained.
Then she cut up an empty cereal box so that Lily could draw on it.
A few simple rules
The household rules are pretty simple.
Walk or ride a bike when you can. Take the bus if that doesn't work. As a last resort, drive the family car, a Subaru station wagon. Buy organic, locally grown food if possible. Buy less stuff, and get secondhand things. Only use electricity when needed.
In practice, it gets more complicated. Take eating.
Diamond is an "aspiring vegan," meaning no meat, milk or eggs. Farnham, who grew up in London eating his mom's roast beef, still relishes a good burger. Lily doesn't eat meat but drinks milk and eats eggs.
"She's our compromise," Diamond said.
Still, Diamond wrestles with how far to go.
She wants to buy food grown nearby, to cut down on fuel used to transport, say, bananas from Central America to Seattle. But she can't give up fresh fruit in the winter. So they get a lot of their produce from a local farm that delivers a box to a nearby neighborhood center, and then add fruit and vegetables from elsewhere in the winter.
To avoid getting overwhelmed by all the ways they could change their lives, they have adopted a strategy of tackling one thing at a time.
"Come up with a realistic goal that you feel like you can do in a month's span of time. And when you reach that goal and it becomes habit, then you set a new goal," Diamond said.
She is clearly the one in charge. She traces her start down this path to 1987, when she became a vegetarian while at the University of Oregon. But when the couple moved to North Seattle in 1999, she still drove four blocks to the grocery store.
In 2001, she got immersed in environmental issues as an academic counselor at the University of Washington's Program on the Environment. Today, she almost never drives.
"If you had told me I was going to do that five years ago, I would have said you were crazy," she said.
Farnham goes along with the program most of the time. But occasionally he pokes fun at Diamond's rules. Asked whether he misses having meat with meals at home, he said, "I'd pretty much eat whatever you put in front of me." With the exception of tofu.
But there are some small friction points. This winter it was the thermostat. They agreed to keep it at 69 degrees. But Farnham kept bumping it up to 70. Diamond responded by turning it down to 67 or 68.
And Diamond doesn't care for the way her husband does the dishes.
"I have to leave because he uses a lot of water," she said, as he prepared to wash up after dinner.
"This is a bone of contention," he said with a smile.
Not too radical
The Diamond-Farnham family is much closer to the mainstream than some people trying to reduce their carbon footprints.
Consider the 100-mile movement, where people eat only food that's produced within 100 miles of their home. For a year, one New York City couple is giving up, among other things, toilet paper, eating imported food and transportation that burns fossil fuels.
"I don't think we're really radical by any means," Farnham said. "If everyone did a couple of these things, it would really help."
The couple have never measured how much they've cut their greenhouse-gas emissions.
But a quick check with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's carbon calculator shows they produce less than half the emissions of a typical two-person American household: roughly 18,220 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, compared with an average 41,500 pounds.
How do they do it?
First, they live in a smaller house. It's 1,200 square feet, compared with the national average of 1,928 square feet. Last year they used about 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month — about two-thirds of what an average Seattle City Light customer uses if they, like the Diamond-Farnhams, have electric heat and an electric water heater.
They recycle religiously.
In April they sold their second car, a Lexus passed down from Diamond's parents, because they almost never used it. Gina is taking correspondence courses, so she doesn't have to commute.
Farnham hasn't figured out how to get to his job in West Seattle without their car. The three-hour round trip on a bus isn't palatable, and he uses the car at work to take people on errands. So he drives about 12,000 miles a year, a pretty typical distance.
But he's making changes. When he took Lily to Green Lake the other week, they hopped the bus.
They also shop differently.
Those decisions are largely invisible to carbon calculators, because it's complicated to get so detailed. But greenhouse gases are released somewhere in the world to make and deliver a car, a pair of shoes or an apple.
After breakfast, Lily changed out of her pajamas (used, passed down from a bigger friend) and into a shirt (thrift store) and pants (her friend). Diamond wore a blue sweater (thrift store) and blue jeans (used-clothing store).
No more long showers
Gina retrieved a stroller (consignment shop) from the garage, got Lily into it, and started walking the mile and a half to her daughter's preschool. Along the way it began to drizzle.
As she walked, she reflected on the hardest things to give up. She used to love long showers. Now she keeps them to five minutes. With her new vow to fly only twice a year, she wonders how she will satisfy her desire to travel the world.
Life without a car has meant more exercise, less stress and more time chatting with Lily.
But "there certainly are times when I feel 'augh.' When it's freezing cold and the bus is late and I forgot my rain gear," she said. "But I do think about, 'OK, what is the good that I'm doing?' "
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com
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