Feeling virtuous for recycling that Mountain Dew can? For screwing a compact fluorescent into the family room lamp? You probably don't hold a solar-generated kilowatt to Dan and Maya Sharp, a Pasadena, Calif., couple who have turned their yellow-and-white wooden bungalow into a bastion of green. There are solar panels to juice the house fan—the Sharps don't have A.C.—and homemade biodiesel (made out of used cooking oil from a Japanese restaurant) brewing in the garage. They use it to fuel their car for those trips to the grocery store when they don't use their bikes, with Aaron, 3, and 1-year-old Celeste in tow. "There's lots of choices that take almost no effort," says Dan, 31. "How much time does it take to turn off an extra light?"
Not all the changes have been a walk in the park. Maya, 30, a stay-at-home mom, was a reluctant environmentalist who used to keep lights blazing and served meals on paper plates. Last year Dan, a civil engineer who caught the eco bug from a friend who lives on an organic farm, suggested giving up paper towels, which chew up an estimated 8 million trees a year. "My first thought was, 'Do you know how much more work this will be for me?'" recalls Maya. She agreed to an experiment, however—using cloth towels and rags alongside paper—and reckons she bought her last roll of Bounty three months ago. "Once I got in the habit, it was easy to make it part of our lives," she says.
The same went for dozens of other changes, both inside and outside the house. "I was getting tired of shopping the way I shopped and cooking the way I cooked. I wanted something healthier for our family," Maya says. Her shopping cart now contains organic peanut butter, biodegradable detergent and bedsheets made from surprisingly soft bamboo fibers. Next on the family's horizon is harvesting rainwater from the roof and channeling it into the garden to irrigate their vegetable patch. "We stopped living in a bubble," says Maya, "and started thinking about how our family impacts the earth."
THEY USE SOLAR PANELS
On sunny days the panels on the Sharps' garage generate energy for all the family's needs and enough to send back to the city's grid. "Dan [dusting the panels to up their power] loves to watch the electric meter spin backwards," says Maya.
THEY GROW THEIR OWN FOOD
"The kids take a tomato and just eat it right here," Maya says of the pesticide-free produce. Depending on the season, they harvest carrots, peas, broccoli, celery and artichokes. Other organic vegetables come from the grocer.
THEY MAKE THEIR OWN FUEL
Dan converts old vegetable oil from restaurants ("sometimes I have to filter out pieces of fried chicken," he says) into environmentally friendly fuel for their two vehicles, at a cost of less than $1 a gallon.
COMPOSTING STARTS IN THE KITCHEN
Scraps from the Sharps' dinner table—where meals are meat-free and nearly all vegetables, fruit, cheese and tofu are organic—collect in this sink-side bowl. Maya empties it daily into the compost pile in the garden, where it's ready for use as fertilizer within six months.
BOTTOM LINE: Composting can reduce the average family's garbage by 25 percent.
GOING NATIVE IN THE GARDEN
Dan has no trouble trimming his lawn—which is intentionally small to save water—with an ergonomically designed hand mower. Drought-tolerant plants that are native to the region (sage, deer grass and yarrow) cut down on water use, and a fast-growing western sycamore tree will help keep their home cool.
BOTTOM LINE: A single gas-powered push-mower emits as much pollution in an hour as 11 cars running on your lawn.
A GUILT-FREE LAUNDRY ROOM
With two kids and rags instead of paper towels, there's plenty to wash. Celeste's cloth diapers get hot water; otherwise, cold water uses less energy. Next step: Dan wants to ditch the dryer and set up a clothesline, but Maya's unmoved.
BOTTOM LINE: Front-loaders use 40 percent less water than standard top-loaders.
WANT TO GO GREEN?
"With just a little research, homeowners can find many things to do that are free and can have a major environmental impact," says Jason Pelletier of LowImpactLiving.com, a consumer web site. Check out the following: National Geographic's TheGreenGuide.com; the EPA's EnergyStar.gov; and ClimateCrisis.net.