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Driving through a stark industrial park with three of her four kids strapped in the backseat of the family minivan, Melanie Smith had no idea she was about to have a great green epiphany. She passed a huge cement plant – and thought nothing of it. But little five-year-old Lauren was spellbound. A giant smokestack was puffing out big, fluffy swirls of white, pushing them up into the perfectly blue Alberta sky.
"Mommy," Lauren said, "is that a cloud machine?"
For Melanie, the words were a lightning bolt. She had a sinking feeling in her stomach. "I had to explain that this was not a cloud machine, but tons of chemicals, toxins or something more sinister taking the form of a pretty little cloud," she says. "How do you explain that to a five-year-old?"
Time for a green change
The moment stayed with Melanie and on that spring day last year, she realized it was time to make a change. She vowed that her family, with their big house, big cars and big trips to the grocery store, would start showing Mother Nature more respect. "Our [eco] footprint is huge," she said. "And we need to change it."
A few months later, Melanie picked up an issue of Canadian Living and read about the Green Up Your Family contest. One Canadian family was going to win an eco-makeover, complete with a home visit from Lindsay Coulter, the David Suzuki Foundation's Queen of Green.
"A lightbulb went on in my head," says Melanie, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother with a degree in environmental studies. "I thought: This is what we need."
Melanie wrote to Canadian Living, describing the smokestack episode and her growing gusto for green.
"We try to do the best we can at home with recycling and conserving water," she said in her letter. "But I'm lost as to what else my husband, Steve, and I can do.... With four children, a busy house and a hectic life, I don't know where to start. We need to do this for our family."
Meeting the Queen of Green
The Canadian Living editors loved Melanie's heartfelt contest entry – and so did the Queen of Green.
"They had me at cloud machine," says Coulter, an impassioned eco-ambassador who has been working for the David Suzuki Foundation for five years. "It was amazing. It made my day to read that letter. It just seemed so real."
A few weeks later, Coulter headed to St. Albert, Alta., just outside of Edmonton, to visit the Smiths at their pristine 33-year-old two-storey home on a street lined with tall evergreens. At first, the family didn't know what to expect from the Queen of Green's eco-inventory. But after reading labels, pulling back shower curtains, examining thermostats, mulling over meatless meals and talking trash, Melanie and her family were on their way to a happier, greener lifestyle.
As the Smith family learned, greening up doesn't have to mean converting to veganism, wearing hemp flip-flops and installing wind turbines on your pesticide-free lawn. There are plenty of small, common-sense things that anyone can do to create an earth-friendly home.
A good way to start is by greening your cleaning. You don't need an armload of products that have the skull-and-crossbones symbol on the labels to make your digs sparkle. "We've been sold on having to buy floor cleaner, microwave cleaner, stainless steel cleaner and all these things," Coulter says. "Really, you just need a good all-purpose cleaner."
Like most Canadians, the Smiths had a collection of chemical-heavy cleaners. Many products have dreamy names and springtime scents, but that kind of "fresh" often comes with warnings about dangerous fumes, eye irritation or poisoning. "I wasn't sure whether I should hide those away when Lindsay came or not," Melanie says. "But I had them out, and so we talked about them."
Stores carry plenty of eco-friendly cleaning products these days. Lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda work wonders, too. Melanie mixed up a batch of eco-friendly cleaner in just five minutes and used it all around the house. "It was the first time I've cleaned the showers and not worried about the chemicals I was breathing in." Another bonus? When you use all-natural products, your kids can help with the scrubbing.
Uncovering the ugly side of pretty
When Coulter visited the Smiths, Melanie had pulled out not only her household cleaners, but also all of her makeup, soaps, bubble bath and other personal-care products. The Queen of Green promptly delivered the ugly truth: Almost all of them contained toxic chemicals. "Melanie was absolutely mortified," Coulter says. "I had to be the bearer of bad news."
The David Suzuki Foundation has a list of the "Dirty Dozen" ingredients to avoid in personal-care products and a shopper's guide to keep in your wallet. (Visit davidsuzuki.org and search for "Dirty Dozen.") One of the dozen chemicals to avoid, triclosan, is used in "antibacterial" hand sanitizers, deodorants and even some toothpastes. (The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on the sale of these products.)
The Smiths had antibacterial liquid soaps in every bathroom, so Melanie replaced them with a soap she made from a Queen of Green recipe. "I got the ingredients at a grocery store and a health food store," she says. "It's fabulous."
Inspired by her success with the hand soap, she even started whipping up earth-friendly body scrubs and washes. She raves about them to friends. "I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be making my own soaps and scrubs," Melanie gushes, "let alone being so excited about it that I'm making them for friends as well!"
Of course, few Canucks, including Melanie Smith, want to give all bath bubbles, balms and body creams the boot. And because it can be hard to figure out whether the contents of your bathroom cupboards are ecologically sinister, the Queen of Green has a tip. "If Canadians do one thing, [they should] avoid 'fragrance,' because it's in almost everything," Coulter says. "Fragrance is a chemical cocktail in and of itself."
Eating it up
The Smith family's eco-evaluation included a stop in the kitchen. The food on your plate, after all, has a big impact on your environmental footprint. And even if tofu curry, soba noodles and organic leek soup aren't your cup of tea, there are easy ways to green up your diet.
Because it takes a lot of land, water and other resources to produce meat, the Queen of Green advocates part-time vegetarianism. "You can decrease the size of your footprint by embracing Meatless Mondays, for example," she says. "Four to five per cent of Canadians are vegetarians, and if the other 96 per cent ate a few more vegetarian meals a week, that would make a huge difference."
Your kids don't even need to know you're cutting back on meat. If you serve spaghetti with a marvelous meatless sauce, for example, chances are Junior won't be bawling for the beef. After Coulter's visit, Melanie resolved to serve her family at least one meatless meal each week.
"I haven't made a big deal about it, and nobody has even seemed to notice," she says, laughing. "So I take that as a good thing."
Naturally, the Queen of Green recommends buying organic and locally sourced fruits and veggies. But if you can't afford to go all-organic, even one or two items can make a big difference. "If the kids love apples, for instance, then maybe you want to buy organic apples," Coulter suggests. "To pick one thing that the family tends to eat a lot of would be a good start."
What a waste
The Queen of Green came face-to-sink with the Smiths' garburator. Her advice: Break up with the motorized, mulching monster. "It's perfectly good drinking water going down the drain every time you're chopping something up," Coulter says. "And you're using energy...when you could just be composting food waste."
Their passion for green growing by the day, the six Smiths set out on a mission to buy a backyard composter. "After a little perseverance, six sales associates, four children wanting to also buy a large inflatable snow globe for the lawn, one phone call and two stores," Melanie says, "we arrived home with our new composter."
As for recycling, the Smiths were already blue-bagging things like cardboard, plastic containers and bottles. But the other two Rs need attention too. You can reduce the packaging coming into your home by buying in bulk and forgoing plastic produce bags. And there are lots of creative ways to reuse. Just look at the humble spaghetti sauce jar, great for storing leftovers. "I'm not letting jars get away so easily anymore," Melanie says. "I can't believe that I never thought to reuse some of these things before. What was I thinking?"
Energy and transportation
The Smiths' biggest sources of green guilt are parked in their driveway. But with their breathlessly busy lives, the family can't part with the minivan and SUV yet. The good news is they live in a "walkable" neighbourhood. "They're in the heart of a gorgeous natural corridor," Coulter says. "They live within walking distance of some strip malls and stores. Their sheer location has a lot to do with environmental impact."
The family is walking more often and they're also scoring green points with their heating and electricity. They have two relatively new natural gas furnaces, and programmable thermostats help save lots of money on their heating bill.
The Smiths do more than a dozen loads of laundry each week, but they have a high-efficiency washing machine and dryer, and they use cold water. They've also hauled out a low-tech power saver. "I dusted off my old drying rack," Melanie says. "It's working great."
Other simple ways to conserve electricity? Using power bars (remember to turn them off) and energy-efficient lightbulbs is a good idea. Electronics such as cellphone chargers, TVs and microwave ovens draw electricity even when they're not on, so if you're not using a gizmo, pull the plug.
Making a difference
Melanie drove past that smokestack again recently. But this time, the "cloud machine" didn't give her a sinking feeling. After hunting down composters, making vegetarian meals and mixing up cleaning potions, she saw the stack as a symbol of the greening of her family.
"I can't do anything about the smokestack, but I can show my kids how they can be more environmentally responsible," she says. "We can't tackle all of the big issues of the world, but we can do our own little part."
Ready, set, green!
Trying to come up with a few good ways of gaining green momentum in your household? You can find loads of tips at davidsuzuki.org. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Tap into your family's passions. "If you have a gardener in the family," says Lindsay Coulter, the David Suzuki Foundation's Queen of Green, "you want to look at reducing pesticide use or composting so that you can make your own soil. If one of the kids or your husband is the recycler, maybe you want to start looking at how to do that more efficiently."
2. Listen to your kids. Children are often the greenest, most inspiring members of the family. Melanie Smith's eight-year-old son, Matthew, asked his parents to start composting and buy a rain barrel. "I look at birds with my binoculars," says the young eco-enthusiast, "and recycle, compost, make soap, plant some plants and walk when it's warm."
3. Detoxify your cleaning. Eco-friendly, plant-based cleaning products are easily available. And lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar are great natural cleaners. "It just might take a little extra elbow grease," says Coulter. "But your nose isn't going to be burning and your hands aren't going to be red by the end of it."
4. Eat green. Buy as much organic produce as you can afford. Limit processed foods. And introduce more meatless meals into your diet. Think grilled cheese sandwiches, vegetable pizzas and soups made with vegetable broth. Or if you're a gourmet, get creative!
5. Try to live in a "walkable" neighbourhood. That means living close to stores, schools, doctor's offices and some of the other services you need. If you want to find out how walkable your neighbourhood is, visit walkscore.com.
6. Let it all hang out. Treating your duds to a day in the sun saves loads of electricity, reduces wrinkling and makes your sheets and shirts smell like a dream.