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25 Ways to Go Green Without Going Insane

Green may be the new black, but let's hope not. Reducing pollution and conserving natural resources has to be more than a trend, because the challenges facing the planet aren't going to resolve themselves. The beauty of trying to help the environment is that making even small adjustments to your life can have far-reaching benefits. Consider the compact fluorescent light bulb. No doubt you've heard that they last longer and use less electricity than incandescent bulbs. But they also reduce strain on pollution-spewing power plants. In that spirit we offer this list of tips for sparing the environment. Most are easy. Some are not. But all are packed with hands-on information that elevates them from the preachy to the pragmatic.

1. Tune Out, Turn Off
Many electronic devices remain on, in standby mode, even after you've hit the off button. In fact, when your TV appears to be dormant, it's sucking down as many as 20 watts per hour. The same goes for most computer-related, entertainment, and kitchen devices. Switch them to "power save" mode if they have one; if not, unplug them or flick the power off on the surge protector when you're not using them.

2. Clean More Kindly
You paid a mint for those Gucci slacks, but that doesn't mean you have to leave a trail of toxins to keep them clean. Traditional dry cleaning uses perchloroethylene, the potentially toxic and carcinogenic chemical that the state will phase out by 2023. Perc-free cleaners are popping up all over town, including Brentwood Royal Cleaners (256 26th St., Ste. 100, Santa Monica, 310-451-3663), which uses a nontoxic liquid carbon dioxide to permeate the fabric (in a Consumer Reports test, the process was found to provide the best cleaning results). The GreenEarth chain of cleaners uses a silicone-based solvent that's considered environmentally safe. "Wet" cleaners, such as the Wilshire District's New Image Cleaners (682 S. Cloverdale Ave., L.A., 323-939-8557), use water and detergent and special cleaning, drying, and stretching machines. You can find other perc-free cleaners on the South Coast Air Quality Management District Web site.

3. Plant a Tree
Trees can increase your property value (they look good), act as a sound barrier, and help cool your home, reducing the need for air-conditioning and thus demand on pollution-causing power plants. They also eat carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas. According to the American Forestry Association, if every American family planted a single new tree, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would be reduced by a billion pounds a year. You can even get a free tree from the city, thanks to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's push to plant a million new trees. E-mail your name, address, and phone number with the subject line "Request for a tree" to One not enough? You can receive up to seven free trees if you attend a Department of Water & Power workshop, in person or online.

4. Bypass The Trash
Those aren't mere yard clippings, orange peels, and papers in your trash can. They're filthy lucre. Or something like it if you turn them into compost. Composting saves water and electricity (by reducing use of the garbage disposal). It conserves space in landfills while reducing the methane (a greenhouse gas) they produce. It saves on fossil fuels and tax dollars (less garbage being hauled to the dump). It cuts down on the use of plastic bags as well (less trash and store-bought compost). And the end result, nutrient-rich compost, makes your garden greener. To learn how to compost and to pick up a discounted compost bin, head to one of the free workshops sponsored by both the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works.

5. Save Water
Last we checked, L.A. was still located in a semiarid desert. There's only so much water to go around. You already know that simple measures such as turning off the faucet when brushing your teeth can save hundreds of gallons a month. You can conserve far more by replacing your old toilets, which use three and a half to seven gallons per flush. Low-flow models, which use 1.6 gallons a flush, are widely available, and ones with "gravity-power" or "pressure-assist" technology get a lot of force out of that small amount of water. Better still is the dual-flush Aquia from Toto, sold at George's Pipe & Supply (99 Palmetto Dr., Pasadena, 626-792-5547), with which you use a 0.9- or a 1.6-gallon flush, depending on the job. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provides rebates of $30 to $165 on all low-flow models. If you've got the coin, opting for a high-efficiency clothes washer can conserve buckets more: A standard top-loader uses up to nine gallons per cubic foot of laundry; the Bosch Nexxt 500 Series WFMC3301UC uses a fourth of that. Did we mention there are MWD rebates for these, too?

6. Trade In Your Mower
Older gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and smog-forming volatile organic compounds, causing more pollution over the course of a year than you would driving a new car. Electric models are quieter, far cleaner, and often easier to use. The South Coast Air Quality Management District holds events every summer, at which residents can pay $100 to exchange any working gas mower for a high-quality cordless electric model that lists for $400. If you don't cut your own lawn, keep a mower handy and request that your gardener use it on your property.

7. Find a Haz Bin
Landfills aren't equipped to handle the toxic trash we're generating in increasing amounts. Electronic equipment often contains lead and mercury, among other nasty substances, which can leach from landfills into groundwater. The Computer TakeBack campaign offers a list of manufacturers that allow you to return obsolete equipment, and the Wireless Alliance might mail you a postage-paid envelope for that old cell phone, depending on the model. You can also dump electronics at the various S.A.F.E. Collection Centers in the city (800-98-TOXIC), or head to one of the county's roving hazardous material collection events. They'll unburden you of everything from old fertilizer to drained batteries to moldering paint cans. Wait a minute—you haven't been throwing that stuff in the trash, have you?

8. Restock Your Fridge
It's no secret that eating organic is good for you and the environment. So is eating locally. Since much of the agricultural world is in California, there's no reason to buy lots of food shipped from thousands of miles away. Shop at the weekly farmers' market, where produce has been transported from within the state on the same day. (Keep in mind that some vendors follow organic gardening practices even though they lack certification.) For a more intimate relationship with your food, join a community-supported agriculture group, such as the nonprofit Tierra Miguel Farm near Oceanside (760-742-4213), where a quarterly fee entitles you to a weekly or biweekly assortment of farm-grown organic produce delivered to various pickup spots throughout L.A. and the valleys. More convenient still, services such as Organic Express (310-674-2642) will bring a weekly or biweekly box of fruits and vegetables to your door from farms around the state.

9. Stop Fuming
Anyone who has endured time in a home recently coated with standard paint knows about the often stomach-churning, headache-causing noxious odors. They are usually a sign of other unsavory stuff: scores of chemicals, including a group known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are still emitted well after the paint has dried. There are alternatives: natural paints such as milk paints and low- or no-VOC paints. Even such large manufacturers as Dunn-Edwards have added the latter two to their mix, but making environmentally sensitive paints (with none of the formaldehyde, ammonia, or acetone that show up in some brands) is all that San Diego-based AFM Safecoat does. You can find Safecoat at Par Paint (1801 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A., 213-413-4950) and Livingreen (10000 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310-838-8442).

10. Waste Not
Recycling may seem old hat here, but we're still tossing tons of reusable materials into landfills. As the state's Department of Conservation notes, the water bottles alone discarded in California over a ten-year period could pave a two-lane highway the length of the coast. So put your rubbish to work. Along with its blue bin program, the city maintains a list of recycling centers on its Web site. You can drop home-related items at one of Habitat for Humanity's ReStores, and the ReUse People will reclaim scrap building materials from remodeling jobs. You already recycle? Then try making less trash to begin with. Buying reusable grocery bags (Trader Joe's sells them for 99 cents and $2.99) is one way. Here's another: File a request with the Direct Marketers Association to force companies to stop sending you junk mail.11. Sprinkle Smarter
Lawns are sponges. In a dry month they can absorb three or four gallons of water per square foot. To keep yours from using more than is necessary, adjust the sprinkler heads so that they hit nothing but lawn, and water only in the early morning or at night, when evaporation is slower. The Family of Southern California Water Agencies' Web site can help calculate how long to run them. Then buy a sprinkler controller that automatically adjusts to changes in the weather—which ensures that your grass will get water only when it needs it—from HydroScape Products (8103 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park, 818-712-0050) or Ewing Irrigation (2327 Federal Ave., West L.A., 310-479-9533).

12. Power Down
Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the country. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power gets 48 percent of its electricity from dirty-burning coal, and demand for electricity here is growing by an estimated 1 percent per year, thanks to population increases, more homes using air-conditioning, and all those electronic gadgets (that plasma TV you've been eyeing can consume more than twice the energy of a standard model). The biggest power drain of all? Your fridge. When you're in the market for new appliances, look for the Energy Star rating, which means they're extra efficient. The water and power departments of Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Burbank offer rebates for many, and you can claim a federal income tax credit of up to $300 if you buy an air conditioner with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of at least 13.5.

13. Return to The Natives
A lot of the plants homeowners choose have no business being in this desert clime. They require huge amounts of water (and time). If you're sprucing up your garden, put in drought-tolerant plants or, better yet, drought-tolerant native plants. Select the right ones, and you won't need to amend the soil. You'll also receive a bonus. "You will see native birds you have never seen before," says Carmen Wolf, program director at our favorite local source for natives, the Theodore Payne Native Plant Nursery (10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, 818-768-1802). The staff can provide the names of landscape architects and designers who specialize in Xeriscape, the term for gardens with minimal water needs.

14. Rethink Your Floor
When it's time to refloor, think twice about using oak. It takes a long time for those trees to grow. Bamboo is a sustainable alternative, since the plant regrows in about three years after being harvested. Brenden McEneaney, manager of Livingreen (10000 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310-838-8442), an eco-conscious home and design store, is particularly keen on cork. "It's resilient, durable, and warm, and there are lots of different looks and styles," he says. Harvesting it doesn't kill trees, either, since it comes from the bark of the cork oak and regrows. Other nonwood options include tiles made from recycled rubber and flooring made from a combination of aggregate from quarrying and fly ash, a waste product of power plants. If only traditional wood will do, make sure it bears the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label, which indicates that it is grown and harvested responsibly.

15. Change Your Commute
Hear us out. Skipping your auto commute merely one day a week will reduce your CO2 emissions by an average of 800 pounds a year. Californians recently voted to issue $20 billion in bonds to get you around the city without your car. If you're dead set against taking mass transit, try L.A.'s Rideshare program, which helps employees of participating companies locate car pool partners. You might qualify for gift cards from Target and other stores. If you're an occasional driver, you could give up your car altogether: The Flexcar auto-sharing program has more than 25 low-emission vehicles ready for members to pick up from locations throughout the city. Unlimited mileage, gas, and insurance are included in the rate of $10 per hour.

16. Reduce Runoff
Each day in Los Angeles 100 million gallons of polluted urban runoff enter the ocean, according to the city's sanitation department. To reduce your contribution, start by adjusting your sprinklers (see step 11). Don't wash your car on the street or your concrete driveway, where the water (and soap and grime that was on your car) ends up in the sewer. Wash it on the lawn, or let the pros do it at the car wash, where the water must be treated before entering the sewer. If your rain gutter downspouts drain onto concrete, redirect them to your garden. If you're ready to redo your driveway, earn your wings by installing something permeable, such as interlocking pavers or pervious concrete, which has a more textured look than the traditional kind. About 15 to 20 percent of it is air, so water flows right through. To find a contractor certified to work with pervious concrete, contact the California Nevada Cement Promotion Council (714-694-0800).

17. Clean Your Wheels
A typical car spews 19 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere with every gallon of gas it uses. Then there's the smog that car exhaust creates, which is linked to asthma, heart disease, and as many as 9,000 deaths per year in California. Can't swing a hybrid? Simply taking care of your car (keeping the tires properly inflated, making sure the air filter is clean, getting regular tune-ups) will improve mileage and reduce emissions. Or buy a used diesel and take it to Lovecraft Biofuels (4000 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, 323-644-9072), where the engine can be tweaked to run on both biodiesel—which is made from modified plant oil, a renewable resource, and produces far fewer pollutants than regular diesel—and on plain old vegetable oil, which burns even cleaner.

18. Till the Lawn
Upgrading your sprinklers is a start. Here's a more radical suggestion: Do away with your lawn altogether. "You can replace turf with just about any plant or shrub and cut water use by two-thirds," says Lynn Lipinski of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Lawns also tend to be doused with herbicides that can be harmful to your health end dusted with fertilizer that winds up nourishing deadly algae blooms once it reaches the sea. A better option: native ornamental grasses and sedges, which are low maintenance and provide beautiful texture. Some even deliver a similar look and feel of conventional lawns. The best selection is at Greenlee Nursery (257 E. Franklin Ave., Pomona, 909-629-9045). After all, owner John Greenlee did write The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses.

19. Buy Renewable Energy
The business of green energy is just emerging. To spur growth in that segment of the power grid and to shrink your carbon profile, you can pay a small premium—about $3—on your LADWP bill to purchase energy from wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal sources. The energy you buy doesn't go directly to your home; rather the agency will derive that much less juice from traditional sources. Pasadena Water & Power, which gets its renewable energy from wind turbines, has an option to offset your total electricity consumption for about $12.50 extra a month.

20. Heat Less Water
Water heaters gobble up energy to make your shower toasty. They also have a habit of wasting energy by letting heat escape. (A telltale sign: Your heater is warm to the touch.) Insulating the thing with a water heater jacket—most hardware stores carry them—can reduce such heat loss by 25 to 45 percent and shrink your water heating bill as much as 9 percent. However, if your model is more than ten years old, you're better off replacing it and grabbing a rebate from Southern California Gas Company. For ultimate efficiency, get a tankless system. El Segundo-based plumber Ken Ballentine, who specializes in tankless water heaters, says that hardware and installation will cost between $1,800 and $3,800. But the comparatively tiny units heat water on demand, so you're not keeping a huge tank of water hot at 3 a.m. for naught, and you can expect to trim your gas bill by as much as half.

21. Harness The Sun
Now is the time to install a solar photovoltaic system to power your house. The LADWP restarted its solar program this past July, after a three-year moratorium. The average job runs about $30,000, says Graham Owen of Go Solar (818-566-6870), who has been in the business for more than 20 years. However, with rebates from the DWP and the tax credit offered by the federal government, you can cut the cost by 50 percent. It may take more than a decade to break even, but you'll sharply reduce your utility bill. On sunny days you can even see your electric meter spinning backward, which means you're making more electricity than you're using. The excess goes back into the grid.

22. Cool Your Roof
Dark roofs absorb and radiate a lot of heat, making it difficult to cool your home in summer. They also contribute to what is known as the urban heat island effect: raised temperatures in city neighborhoods. When it's time to reroof, select a lighter, heat-reflecting color, preferably white. Or if your roof isn't too steeply pitched, you can throw on a waterproof membrane and cover it with succulents, grasses, and flowers. In addition to keeping the roof cool, the vegetation helps clean the air and reduce storm drain runoff into the ocean. But you'll need professional help. Brentwood's Flower to the People (310-312-5076) has designed a number of green roofs. Their suggestion? Start with a garage, guest house, or other small building to keep the cost down.

23. Fix the Pool
Swimming pools can lose thousands of gallons of water a month through evaporation. A plastic pool cover can cut your losses by 90 percent. Pool pumps use gobs of energy; replacing yours with an efficient new model will save electricity. At the least try running your equipment for less time; six hours a day is often all a pool needs. The initial cost of rigging a pool with a solar heater is steep—a system from Escondido's Performance Solar (800-274-5836) is roughly $5,000—but doing so eliminates the waste and expense of warming the water with natural gas. As the coup de grace, consider converting your pool to saline—no more monthly chemicals, red eyes, or medicinal-smelling skin.

24. Build It Right
If you have the resources, the best way to create an eco-friendly home is to build one from the ground up. "When you have an existing building that is not efficiently built, it's much more difficult to go in and insert green technology than if you were starting from scratch," says Emily Jagoda of Jagoda Architecture in West L.A., who loves integrating into her designs such things as passive cooling, zoned heating, and gray water recovery systems that irrigate the landscape with "used" bath and sink water. The L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects (213639-0777) can help you find architects specializing in sustainable design, including those with an accreditation through LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the U.5. Green Building Council's formal training program.

25. Go to Greener Pastures
You've done your best to do right by the planet. Why muck up your efforts when it is time to move on? Yes, we're talking the D word. According to Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, about 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde, 109,000 tons of steel, 30 million board feet of timber, and 1.6 million tons of concrete are buried each year. If you don't want to be cremated, you can go casketless and vault free. The county has no 100 percent green cemeteries, but wherever you're going to be laid to rest, you can request that your body be wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground. Salespeople may be loath to give up their casket commissions, but the practice is legal in California.

>> Additional writing and reporting by Justina Ly, Cortney Rock, and Matthew Segal