In general, living in the Third World sucks. Contrary to what that awful movie Slumdog Millionaire would have you believe, living in the Third World is neither beautiful nor romantic.
However, when I least expected it, I started to realize that life in Colombia was teaching me to live green. Actually, it was forcing me to live green, but that’s nitpicking. Poverty can destroy a country, but it also makes people live more mindfully than people in the U.S. ever do—and all without ever dropping the hot phrases “green living” or “eco-conscious lifestyle” at the dinner table. People live greener here because they have to, because running the faucet while you brush your teeth is just not an option when potable water is a rare and precious commodity.
I thought I’d share the five most valuable tips I’ve learned from my husband, my friends, and their families about green living. They may be Third World tips, but I think they could translate perfectly into First World lifestyles, especially because “green living” is so trendy these days.
1. Don’t own a dryer! Or if you own one, stop using it. In Colombia, I’ve never actually seen a clothes dryer outside a store. I’m sure some people own them, but I guess no one I know is wealthy enough to have one. Augusto and I dry all our clothes the old-fashioned way, by hanging them up. And although it can seem terribly time consuming to anyone who has ever lived with a dryer at home, as I have, I can honestly say it doesn’t take that much more time. We spend about ten minutes after every load hanging up our wet clothes, and we often wash only one load a week.
Dryers eat up energy like crazy, and they leave a huge carbon footprint. According to an article by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic’s Green Guide, “Dryer use accounts for six to seven percent of U.S. residential CO₂ emissions. In most homes, dryers eat up more energy than any other appliance, except the fridge.” That huge. So cutting out this First World luxury can save a lot of energy. (I did live for a year in Bogota without a fridge, but I won’t put that recommendation on the list.)
Yes, there are a lot more freezing winters in the First World than in the Third that certainly slow drying time, but people lived in Europe and America for centuries without this now taken-for-granted appliance. And they didn’t have central heating. I’ve hung clothes up to dry during a Maine winter at my mother’s house, and even if you’re the kind of person who waits to wash his underwear until there are absolutely no pairs left, you can usually get a dry pair overnight if you hang them near the radiator or the heat vent. What I’m saying is, living without a dryer can be done. And imagine cutting down on a whopping six to seven percent of your household’s CO2 emissions just by taking ten or twenty minutes a week to hang up your clothes.
2. Recycle water in the shower! This is probably going to sound a little strange at first, but almost everyone I know in Colombia does this. When you’re taking a shower or bath, you know the water that you let run down the drain before it heats up to a suitable temperature? Well, instead of wasting it, you can recycle it. Place a five or seven gallon plastic bucket in your shower and just keep it there. It’s not the most esthetically pleasing thing for your bathroom, but you’ll start saving water immediately. Each time you turn on the water, place the bucket under the stream. When the water heats up—and pay attention; don’t think you should fill the bucket every time you take a shower just because it’s there—push the bucket aside, step under the now gloriously hot stream (or moderately warm to save even more energy), and scrub yourself clean. Of course, I’m sure all of you turn the water off when you’re not using it, so the bucket can be moved back and forth if the water is cold, especially during winter, when you first turn it on again.
Now, what do you do with all that water? When the bucket is full, you can use it to flush your toilet. This sounds super ignorant, but I didn’t even know this could be done until I lived in places where the running water gets shut off all the time. You simple take the water you’ve saved, push the toilet lid and seat up, and dump the water down the toilet. You want to pour it so the water comes out in a pretty fast gush. Your number ones and number twos will be swiftly sent away by the force of the water, never to be seen again.
My recommendations: a bucket with a strong handle definitely works better for this and is easier to pick up. Go slow the first few times you do it. You want to get your legs and back used to lifting a bucket full of water, which is pretty heavy, and you might have to practice your aim. I’ve spilled quite a bit of water that was meant to go inside the toilet outside of it, although after doing it for so long, I now barely spill a drop.
This may sound like a weird way to save water, but I promise it will soon become second nature. And saving water is a big deal. According to Globalfootprints.org, water it is one of the most unevenly shared resources on the planet; people in the First World flush more water down the toilet in one flush than most Africans have access to in an entire day. So don’t just let that cold water slip away, unused and wasted, down the drain. Save water in the loo, and save money on your water bill too.
3. Unplug everything! And I mean everything. In the First World, we get so used to leaving our cell phones to charge overnight, the microwave and clothes washer plugged in at all hours, our computers plugged in even when we’re not at home. Electric appliances continue to consume energy even when they’re not turned on, and even more when they are left on. Do you really need another clock in the house, especially that teeny-tiny one on the microwave? Unplug it when you’re not using it!
The only device in our house that is left plugged in at all times is the fridge. As I said before, people here aren’t doing it, usually, to be green or eco-conscious. They do it because they don’t have a lot of money and want to save on their light bill. But in the First World, you can do it for both reasons. Here’s how: Plug in your microwave when you want to heat something up, and unplug it when you’re done. The same goes for the washer; plug it in to do a load, then unplug it. Always charge your cell phones during the day, and be a little more attentive. Listen for the beep or watch for the message that lets you know it’s fully charged, and then disconnect it. And never leave your computer plugged in if you’re not at home and using it. You don’t have to turn it completely off every time; I hibernate my laptop, make sure the battery is in, and unplug it. As with my cell phone, I never leave it connected overnight—although I’ve been told by a number of people that leaving a rechargeable battery charging much longer that it needs to is actually bad for it and can shorten the life of each charge.
It might seem like a pain at first, connecting and disconnecting all the appliances you are used to leaving plugged in all the time. But as with most things, practice and repetition turn easily into habit. And this is one habit worth having; you’ll waste less energy and are sure to save money on your light bill.
4. Reuse anything that can be reused! Things that are disposable items in the First World last weeks or even months longer in the Third World. Plastic bags? Store all the clean ones in one place and reuse the bigger ones as garbage bags and the smaller ones as lunch bags or produce bags in the supermarket. Ziploc bags? Wash them out with a drop of liquid soap and water after you use them, and hang them upside down to dry. As long as you don’t find a hole, they can reused over and over again—just make sure you wash them pretty well. I’ve turned vitamin bottles into storage bottles for spices, and old towels into cloths we use to wash the windows or scrub the bathrooms.
Augusto had a really creative idea the other day. We had had some wine with some friends, and the next day he washed out one of the wine bottles with a little soap and water. Now we use the bottle to refill our water glasses when we’re eating at the table—or, let’s be honest, at my desk watching a movie—and it actually brings a lot of class to our meals. It’s like those bottles of water they bring you at fancy restaurants.
However, I did have to put my foot down and tell Augusto to stop buying paper towels for the love of the baby Jesus because they turn into this endlessly reusable commodity, which in theory is great, but in practice is really disgusting when you walk into your kitchen and find five thousand nasty-ass paper towels all over your countertops. Now paper towels are off limits, and we buy cloth washcloths and get weeks or months of use out of each one. And because the ones we buy are so big, in a true Third World fashion, we cut them in half and get twice as many washcloths out of every package.
5. Pretend like everything costs a whole lot! This is my final recommendation, and it may seem like a strange one. But the truth is, people in the First World consume a lot because they buy a lot. And why not? When you’re living comfortably enough to have spending money, why shouldn’t you spend it? But dropping money left and right like you’re trying to make it rain is actually terrible for the environment in so many ways. You use more packaging, you ending up throwing more products away, and the whole extracting and manufacturing process required to produce whatever you’ve purchased—be it a pair of jeans, a bottle of soda, or a new mp3 player—burdens the environment in countless ways.
Here, I just don’t see my friends buying as much as people do in the U.S., again, simply because they can’t. People here don’t tend to have five credit cards each that allow them to go into debt to buy whatever they desire whenever they desire it, and frankly they earn a whole lot less. And now that I’m earning pesos—which are pretty worthless even in Colombia, and especially in Bogota, a city that is, in spite of the extremely high percentage of people living in poverty, one of the most expensive in Latin America—I too have become a lot more conscious of the line between what I need and what I merely want.
Having less money forces you to stop and think before you buy. So although pretending like you have less money than you actually have may sound like a ridiculous recommendation, what I’m really saying is that you should just be more conscious before you open your wallet. Before you buy, take a moment to ask yourself: Do I really need this? Could I live without it? Do I already have something like this at home? Even though spending less goes against all capitalist creeds regarding economic growth, I truly believe it is one way to be kinder to the environment.
So there they are, my five Third World tips for going greener in the First World. Of course, there are many things the First World already does that the Third World has yet to begin to contemplate. People are more aware of the importance of buying organic and local, two concepts that don’t quite exist here yet. Some people in the First World are rejecting fast food and packaged food, just as these “luxuries” are arriving in the Third World and catching on because of their convenience and promise of progress. In the States and in Europe, two places I can speak of from experience, people have access to biodegradable body soaps, fair trade sweatshirts, and aluminum-free deodorants, things I would kill to be able to buy here in Colombia. However, I think practices that people in the Third World take for granted or do out of necessity can teach us even more ways to care for the environment. And the best thing is, unlike biodegradable body soaps and fair trade sweatshirts, all of these green tips are completely free.