The Ballad of No-Straw Ernie

A new book, Do One Green Thing, shows that thinking small can make a world of difference to your health and to the environment.

March 25, 2010

Put a lid on it: Giving up straws could eliminate a major form of ocean pollution.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—I met Ernie by chance while covering Natural Products Expo West in California earlier this month. I was in Anaheim as a green nerd, analyzing the newest, coolest eco-friendly and organic products on the market. Ernie was in town for a completely different reason, decked out in University of California Santa Barbara athletic attire to cheer on his beloved men's basketball team, which he's been following for decades. We wound up side-by-side on barstools during a midafternoon lull, sharing basketball small talk, drinks, and a bite to eat. Picking at my quesadilla, I told him about my project to turn my family farm in Pennsylvania organic and raise dozens of happy, free-range chickens. Ernie (probably in his 70s) commended my efforts but went out of his way to assure me that he wasn't "a tree-hugger or an environmentalist or anything like that."


Then, in one of those "never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover" moments, Ernie ordered another drink with "no straw." The bartender slammed down a drink in a Collins glass, with a red straw sticking blatantly out of the top. Ernie just shook his head and mumbled something about "571" under his breath.

THE DETAILS: Ernie explained that after reading a few articles about the gigantic blob of plastic trash forming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—and the sea animals and birds that mistakenly eat it and wind up starving to death—he's been cutting back on using plastic. In just a few months, he explained, he'd turned down 571 straws. He convinced several other regulars at his favorite northern California watering holes to adopt strawless drink ordering as standard of bar-time protocol. "One night, a guy couldn't understand why I wasn't using straws," Ernie explained. "So I took him down to the harbor and showed him." He let the straws and other plastic debris lapping along the shoreline do the talking.

"So I'm known as No-Straw Ernie back home," he continued with a laugh. I wanted to hug him, but instead I shook his hand and headed back to the Expo, trying not to forget a word of our conversation before I could write it all down.

Read on to find out how to be green by making similar decisions in your everyday life.

WHAT IT MEANS: "The problem is, people just don't know how to think small anymore," No-Straw Ernie told me. "Little things matter." Simple choices like Ernie's are the basis for environmental journalist Mindy Pennybacker's new book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).

Here's one reason why little decisions matter. "Each American creates their own weight in garbage each month. If we recycle everything we can, we each would personally keep 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere," Pennybacker explains.

Touring the country for book signings and talks, Pennybacker says she, too, is meeting hard-working, everyday people trying to make the best decisions to protect their families' health. These decisions benefit the environment, too. She recently met a plumber who was ecstatic to find out that instead of using Drano, people can use a combination of baking soda, white vinegar, and boiling water to clear clogged drains. (Doing that protects homeowners, their pipes, and plumbers, he told her.)

Here are some of Pennybacker's favorite suggestions on how to go green without much effort.

• Wash cold. "I'm not trying to say people need to change everything," says Pennybacker. But if Americans washed most of their laundry in cold versus hot water (four out of five loads), they could keep 50 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. "That's like taking 10 million cars off the road," she says. Aside from that, it saves people money because washing in cold water uses 90 percent less energy than washing in hot. So reserve hot water for washing bedding to kill dust mites, or extra-gross stuff like dirty cloth diapers.

• Forget fragrance. Skip products with the word fragrance or parfum on the label. "'Fragrance' is protected by a trade-secret loophole," Pennybacker explains, meaning that one word could represent chemical companies' supersecret mixtures, including ones containing phthalates. These chemicals are linked to genital deformities in kids and diabetes and obesity in adults, and they're negatively affecting wildlife. "They're just terrible things," Pennybacker says. Also be wary of "fragrance-free" or "unscented" products, which sometimes contain harmful masking chemicals to neutralize a fragrance—check the ingredients list. If your product contains a scent, make sure it's a plant-based essential oil or it's made from shea or cocoa butter.

While you're scouring labels, also remember to leave any soaps or other products containing the antibacterial chemical triclosan, a substance linked to hormone abnormalities and the increase in dangerous antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Already banned in Europe, parabens, commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics, have been found in breast cancer tumors and have been shown to provoke the growth of breast cancer cells in lab tests, so steer clear of anything with the word paraben in it, too.

• Take a meat vacation. "If all Americans skipped meat one day a week, it would reduce the equivalent in carbon emissions as much as taking 20 million midsize cars off the road for one year," Pennybacker explains. That's because concentrated animal-feeding operations feed animals unhealthy diets that create more methane, and fossil fuels are used in abundance to grow crops to feed animals we wind up eating. "Plus, it's better for you. People who eat less meat live longer and are healthier."

• Use a filter. Stop buying throwaway plastic water bottles, and instead, drink tap water. Bottled water is incredibly wasteful. Besides the bottles' being made using petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, it takes three bottles-worth of water to create one bottle of bottled water! If you're on public water, check your water bill or ask your water company to check for any water problems, and if you have them, filter accordingly. Brita filters are now recyclable and are made of a stable No. 5 plastic that doesn't leach into your water, Pennybacker explains in her new book, which lists easy-to-follow choose it or lose it scenarios.

And of course, follow Ernie's lead and say no to straws. How long will it take you to get up to 571?