Green living

Three families share their tips for taking eco-friendly living to the next level

For many of us, the motivation to live a greener life is born at the same time as our babies. Suddenly, having brought new life into the world, our desire for a safer home, a healthier planet and a secure future seems more important, the need more pressing.

So we recycle. We compost. We carry our water in stainless steel containers and our coffee in reusable mugs. We wish we could do more, but maybe aren’t sure how to take the next step, or feel too overwhelmed by the physical and financial demands of parenting to shoulder yet another task.

Well, here’s proof that it can be done. These three families have taken their green habits to a higher level and they say their lives are better, and often simpler and less expensive, as a result. Read on to discover their blueprints (greenprints?) for earth-friendly living, and take away some inspiration to create your own.

Caroline and David Craig
parents to triplets Marcus, Zoë and Maya, age two, Toronto

Greener food, greener family

Wanting to give their children the best start in life, Caroline and David try to feed their toddler trio organic foods as much as possible. But organic can come with a high price tag and an even higher toll on our environment, as produce shipped from California and South America leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. By opting into community-supported agriculture (CSA), though, they get fresh, local produce, grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, at reasonable prices. For $520, they’re entitled to a half-share of a nearby farmer’s crops from May through December — which works out to about $20 a week.

Caroline receives email updates on what’s available and, for a few extra dollars, can add to her order when the family’s favourites are in season, including “watermelons with more flavour than I could have ever imagined!” Every Thursday, she picks up their order at Culinarium, a store near their home in Toronto. That convenience is an added bonus, Caroline says, because “the most precious commodity in this family is time.” Since they don’t eat at restaurants, they don’t hesitate to pay a premium for locally raised organic meats; in fact, they don’t ever skimp on their food purchases, which total about $1,200 a month.

It isn’t just the family’s dinner plates that have been greened. The Craigs have cut back on unnecessary stuff and practise the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle. “We live pretty sparsely,” Caroline says. Through an informal network of friends, she has been able to source much of her baby gear from other parents, which not only saves money but also makes some big-ticket green items, such as organic crib mattresses and bedding for the babies, easier to fit into their budget. They’re also able to pay a bit more for non-toxic cleaning supplies. Rather than drive to a mall or big-box store, they choose to support shops in their neighbourhood, even if that means paying a bit more. Caroline is guided by a simple principle: “If our grandparents could do without it, chances are we don’t need it either.”

Tarah Wright and Daniel Rainham
parents to Lilly, four, and Wyatt, 20 months, Halifax

C’mon, get car-free

It’s been nine years since Tarah and Daniel owned a vehicle, their decision unshaken by the arrival of two young children and all the extra gear and grocery shopping that entails. The couple is more aware than most about climate change — Tarah teaches environmental science and Daniel environmental health at Dalhousie University — yet they still feel they have the power to do something about it. “We’re optimists,” Tarah says.

Forgoing the convenience of a car in their driveway is one of many steps they’ve taken to reduce their impact on the planet. “We chose to live in a location that allows us to get by without a car. Everything we need is a five- to 10-minute walk,” Tarah explains. Groceries are picked up on the way home from work; the kids’ music lessons, gymnastics, soccer and swimming classes are all within walking distance.

“We have to plan,” Tarah admits, but is quick to add there are plenty of benefits to not owning a vehicle. Saving the cost of insurance, gas and repairs, the family has freed up money for other pleasures, such as their sailboat. Moreover, Tarah says, “The kids think it’s normal to walk. Lilly at the age of three was walking three kilometres to gymnastics class, doing the class for one hour, then walking three kilometres home with no complaints.”

They avoid the constant running around that plagues many families by keeping a list of errands. When the list reaches critical mass, they borrow a vehicle from their car-share membership to get all the to-do’s done in one trip. They might also use a car to drive to the beach with their kids. The cost is minimal:?$200 a year for the membership fee, plus $9 an hour to use a car, which they do only once or twice a month.

Even if they ramp up their usage as the kids get older and involved in more far-flung activities, car sharing will still be far cheaper than the Canadian Automobile Association’s estimated $11,000 annual cost of owning and operating a minivan in Canada.

Tarah and Daniel also take the environment into account with their finances, working with an adviser who helps find investments that are socially responsible.

They think of their lifestyle choices as ways to teach their children values. “See it as an opportunity,” Tarah suggests. “Make it a family activity. We don’t stop biking or walking because it is raining. We just put on the right gear and have fun jumping in the puddles.”

Libby and Glenn Little
Parents to Jordan, 14, and Evan, 11, Eden Mills, Ont.

Recruiting an eco-community

An offhand comment by their son Evan prompted Libby and Glenn to take their environmentalist efforts beyond their immediate family and out into their community. A playground discussion about the documentary An Inconvenient Truth left Evan and his classmates pessimistic about their future. “We talked about the environment, about how we’re all going to die at 19,” he told his mother.

“I couldn’t reassure him that easily,” Libby recalls. That’s when she and Glenn pledged to “do everything we could” to reverse our planet’s environmental plight. To create the biggest impact, they wanted to initiate change with long-reaching benefits.

Through her research, Libby learned there are roughly 15,000 portable classrooms in Ontario, each sucking three times more electricity than the average home. What if there was a way to make these buildings more energy efficient? She and Glenn approached their local school board with a proposal to create green classrooms — and today, 2½ years later, there are two green classrooms under construction in Orangeville, Ont., and seven others to be built in other locations. Once the couple lobbied to get things moving, they found it wasn’t difficult to recruit help — they now have 15 project managers working with them.

Like the Littles’ own home (built in 2000), the classrooms’ walls are made with dense straw bales, which double as a natural insulation. Each classroom will also be equipped with solar panels to supply most of its energy needs, and cisterns to provide water for the school’s washrooms. To get students involved, a curriculum leader developed an Internet-based tool so the kids will be able to monitor the new classrooms’ energy use and compare it to the amount of energy used in a conventional classroom.

Just as important as the energy savings, Libby says, is the impression these green classrooms are making on students. The eco-friendly features that may seem novel or even odd to adults will become the norm for kids, who’ll grow up to become the home builders and homebuyers of tomorrow.

Looking to cast their green net even wider, in 2007 the Littles’ next step was working with another couple to convince their entire town to go carbon neutral. That meant offering workshops to show the town’s 300 residents how to reduce the amount of energy they used at home and at work, and how to replace energy sources with eco-friendly alternatives, such as solar panels and wind turbines. To show homeowners just how much carbon dioxide they were personally putting into our atmosphere, the Littles and their partners asked University of Guelph students to help measure each household’s carbon footprint.

They also started a planting program that takes advantage of trees’ natural ability to absorb carbon dioxide and invited their children’s entire school to join in in age-appropriate ways. So kids from kindergarten through grade three nurture seeds into seedlings; grades four through six transplant the seedlings; and grades seven and eight plant larger trees from a local nursery. The program’s popularity has swelled beyond Eden Mills to the school district encompassing the city of Guelph plus Dufferin and Wellington counties; this year 6,000 kids have signed up. Libby dreams of the day when all two million students in the province get involved.

She hopes the work she and her community have done will help dispel the myth that living greener means sacrificing an enjoyable life. “We still have TV, a computer, a shower with hot water. But our electricity use is 12 kilowatts a day.” That’s just 40 percent of what most Ontario homes burn through. “Please,” Libby says, “don’t let the fact that you don’t have a hybrid car hold you back.”