Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Country Mouse Goes Green

The Conscious Shopper ponders the challenges of going green in a small town.

I spent the last week at my parent's house in Small Town, KY, population 8000. From a green perspective, my parents have the dual disadvantage of living in a small town and living in the South. (Southerners are near and dear to my heart, but let's face it, they are not the fastest bunch to jump on the green bandwagon.)

In my parent's town, there is nary a Whole Foods in sight. In fact, you'd have to drive 45 miles to find a wider organic selection than is stocked at the local Walmart. You'd think there would be some character-filled local shops to peruse, but their town, like so many small towns, has sold out to the big box store and the fast food franchise.

And then there's the driving...Most people around there live out in the country, so it's a drive to get anywhere - not to mention the couple times a week you have to head up to the big city to get anything you need. Or just to find some entertainment. And you can forget about public transportation. Plus, many people (including my parents) drive big pickup trucks. In a farming community, a truck is pretty essential in case, in my mom's words, "ya need to haul somethin'."

In the back of my mind, I knew that my parents had a tougher time going green in their town than I did in Raleigh, NC (population 300,000 and a fairly progressive Southern city). But I didn't realize how tough they had it until my mom commented while changing lightbulbs one day, "I'm still not sold on those funny lightbulbs, filling our landfills with toxic substances." (She meant CFLs and was referring to the mercury they contain.)

"Well, they shouldn't be going into the landfill," I replied. "You should be taking them to your hazardous waste drop-off spot."

My mom burst out laughing. "We don't have a place to drop-off hazardous waste."

My mouth dropped. "Then where do you take your hazardous waste?"

She didn't answer, just shrugged.

I paused for a minute, thinking this over. "Well, the bulbs should last for seven years, so maybe by then, you'll have a place to take hazardous waste."

Another laugh from my mom. "Erin, we just got recycling this year!"

I figured my mom had to be wrong. It's illegal to put hazardous waste in the regular trash. Right?...So I visited their city's website and learned that although they don't accept hazardous waste, they also don't tell you what to do with it. I tried a dozen different ways to google my question and came up with nothing. Of course, at this point I could have called the sanitation department, but that seemed like too much effort (I don't live there afterall).

My mom and I came to a similar dead end while trying to figure out the best way to go about adding more insulation to their home. Energy auditors? Not in their town.

So what' s a country mouse to do? I'm sure the answers to both of our searches are out there, but if it takes so much work to find the answer, how many people are going to put forth the effort? I've found that when it comes to going green, most people want to take the lazy route. They want easy answers, they don't want it to cost more, and they don't want to be activists.

I don't say all that just to lament my parents plight. Instead, I am looking for solutions. I am sure some of you readers live in a small town. Some of you might even live in small towns in the South. What easy suggestions do you have for going green in a small town?

Here are some ideas I've thought of:
  • Plant a garden. Land is a category where country mice have a big advantage over their city cousins. My parents have a gorgeous acre of land out in the country. They already have a small vegetable garden and an herb bed, but there's still plenty of room to grow more. I've almost talked my mom into getting some bees. :)
  • Bring your own bag, water bottle, thermos, waste-free lunchbox, etc. Especially if you live in a place where you can't recycle, you should try to cut back on your waste wherever you can.
  • Compost - another way to lighten your load on the landfill if you can't recycle.
  • Make your own cleaners. One of my mom's complaints in the past has been, "They don't sell Seventh Generation around here." Why do you need Seventh Generation when you can make your own? (Besides, I think they've started selling Clorox GreenWorks at Walmart, and even though I'm skeptical of anything Clorox puts out, that line was made in cooperation with the Sierra Club.)
  • Watch your energy use. Use a programmable thermostat, slay your vampires, and switch to CFLs. (But first find your hazardous waste drop-off.)
What other suggestions do you have?

Top photo by David Paul Ohmer of a Lexington horse farm. There's a similar farm to this one just over the hill from my parent's house. :)

Bottom photo by teliko82.


organicneedle said...

As far as the green products go, there is always and Amazon, both of which you can request reduced plastic packaging. Even here in the big city trying to find everything you want conveniently or at a reasonable price is almost impossible. We order our 7th TP through Amazon on subscription and it doesn't come out to be but a few cents more than conventional TP, and it is just a cardboard plastic. Almost all our personal cleaners, mostly Burt's and Tom's, and household cleaners...Bronner's...come from I just try to order in big batches to reduce the number of shipments. It isn't a perfect system, but at least it gives people choices.

Heather@TheGreenestDollar said...

This was a great post!

I too am originally from Small Town, Louisiana, with a population of less than 3,000.

My family still lives there, and they don't even HAVE recycling. Everything, glass, plastic, goes into the trash. It's incredibly difficult to go back home every few months, because there's literally no option for recycling waste or dealing with hazards.

And because awareness is so low, I haven't been able to convince my family why it's so important. After all, why should they save their glass and plastic to drive it an hour away (which is the nearest facility I could find) when they can just throw it in the trash?

Try as I might, I still haven't converted them to the green side yet!

Farmer's Daughter said...

In our town, which is a little bit of rural in the midst of suburbia and close to a city, we've got it better than most. It's easy to get green products, but because people in CT tend to have a lot of $, they're much more likely to buy a green product than to try to reduce their consumption, in my opinion. We do have a hazwaste center right in town, but I've been trying to reduce hazwaste in the first place. What do they do with waste like motor oil in your parents' town? My family got a waste oil burner to heat their big workshop in the winter, which I'm sure is very polluting but it's a solution to their problem of paying for hazardous waste disposal and then buying heating oil.

I have one more thing to add to your list, which I really enjoyed reading because it applies to my town, too. Conservation! Clothes lines, thermostat adjustment, carpooling. My town has no public transportation and my car is not the cleanest (in fact it's a clunker!) and I do my best to conserve where I drive and try to carpool when I can.

Thanks for writing a post from this perspective, since I've seen a lot of going green posts for people in more urbanized areas, which doesn't apply to everyone.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Okay, duh, just re-read and saw you had the thermostat thing on there, haha!

Green Bean said...

Love this post because, while I am a total city mouse, I definitely spend a great deal of time wishing I lived in the country. The land (all that room!!), the views, the ease for active boys to climb trees, explore creeks, run and run and run. This post reminds me why we still live in this overly crowded peninsula in this bankrupt state.

As to ideas for country mice, the biggest one, in my mind, was the one you suggested: gardening and bees and chickens and maybe a goat or even a milking cow. Why not get back to more of a subsistence farm type of thing. The food is SO much better.

And also cooking more from scratch. Perishables can be produced from the land, maybe there's a CSA nearby?, or ordered online. As Needle pointed out, Amazon does carry a lot of green cleaning supplies but also a fair amount of organic products and, while it may not be local to your parents, that might be better than WalMart. Also, might there be a local mill or local farms nearby that they can support. My parents live in the county (wine country outside of San Francisco) but there is an old mill there that grinds wheat and some farms the offer eggs and locally grown produce.

A lot of what we - city or country - need to do is change attitudes. Earlier this week I caught a snippet on NPR about how, hopefully this "recovery" will be a "reinvention." How we might rebuild an economy with more leisure time and less work time. If we focused more on new hobbies than buying things, we'd need less money and we'd all be a lot happier. For people who have to do their main shopping at a WalMart, I suspect that there are a lot of impulse buys. It must be so tempting because there's that really cute lamp while you are picking up some lettuce or a darling skirt while you need to grab some potatoes. Changing focus is something we can all do - regardless of where we live.

Audrey said...

Finally someone has posted about this. I live in a small town in Kentucky too; actually, my current town is a small college town, so we do have a few more options than I did in the town in which I grew up. Having the university here does make a difference; we have several recycling services available, and our sanitation department takes paper, cardboard, aluminum and metal. Plus, there's a monthly "Make a Difference" day, and you can take hazardous materials, plastics, and anything else not accepted by the sanitation department to the football field for disposal with a special company the city brings in. With groceries, you are sadly limited to the big box stores, although we do have two Farmer's Markets, so that helps as well.

This is my biggest complaint when it comes to the number of books on the market about green living. No one seems to acknowledge how hard it is to "go green" when you live in rural areas. And what about if you are poor? That's one thing that isn't mentioned at all. Living in the rural South, the poverty level is high. In fact, most of our teachers's salaries fall below poverty level, and these are people who are required to have a master's degree in order to keep teaching. Ordering online from Amazon or are options, yes -- but only if you can afford the extra expense. And to be honest, most people can't.

I'm hoping that as the green movement continues to expand, that people will start seriously thinking about this aspect of our community and how to help them make these changes. I know I'm always looking for any tips I can find.

Green Resolutions said...

About those CFLs — Is there a Home Depot relatively close? They accept CFLs for recycling now. I can only find pdfs when I do a google search, so I don't have a link, sorry!

organicneedle said...

Audrey...I totally agree that ordering all green products is a luxury not affordable by all...but for many a little green know-how and a change in WHAT you spend your grocery budget on can help. Instead of buying paper towels, paper napkins, and conventional TP, buy a set of 2nd hand cloth napkins or make them from old fabric, ditch the paper towels for old rags, and the extra cents saved can go towards the slight added expense of the recycled TP. Things like buying a reusable water container verses buying bottled water, if your water is potable, saves a ton of money overtime. Bringing lunch from home in reusable containers verses buying lunch at fast food joints saves major money and resources. The money saved can be shifted towards buying a few otherwise unaffordable healthy organics. Making your own green cleaners verses buying the cheap toxic kind also pays for itself. So many of the "green" things my grandparents did were done to save money...getting as much use out of everything you possibly could. Green and budgets don't have to be enemies. :)

Kristin said...

We do most of those things, but we're still working on slaying the vampires.

I moved from a city of 125,000 to a town the middle of nowhere with a population of 10,000. We have been debating purchasing a truck because the nearest diy store is 30 miles away - otherwise our family drives 1.5 hours to help us out. There is a tiny health food store about the size of a living room (seriously) that I have started to go to, but prices are higher there than in the bigger cities.

A new recycling company is in the area, 15 miles away! As far as hazardous waste - nobody around here knows what to do with it. The previous owners of our home left us an entire closet in our garage with nothing but paint :-( We've left it there too, because we don't know what to do with it.

With some things, it's easier to go green in a smaller town because the temptation isn't there. When I'm back home, I get the run-run-run feeling - have to go here, have to purchase this, etc. Our families think we're weird for planting herbs, composting, making our own soap and cleaning supplies, and baking/cooking from scratch. We've learned to just smile and say, "Well thanks for the compliment!" :-)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@organicneedle - Thanks for the tip! I already buy our TP and dishwasher detergent from Amazon, but I'll have to check out for Burt's and Tom's.

@Heather - That's how it was at my parent's house until a year ago. I remember when we were kids, there was one place that would take aluminum cans (and they'd pay you for them, so that was a bonus!) After I moved away and got into the habit of recycling, it was so frustrating to go home and throw everything away.

@Farmer's Daughter - Great suggestions! Conservation is so important. As for your question about what they're doing with waste like motor oil, I've been wondering the same thing, but I'm not sure I want to know the answer. :) A waste oil burner is an interesting idea.

@Green Bean - Thanks for your ideas - especially about finding local mills and supporting local farms. I think if they organized a bit, supporting local agriculture is something that could be so strong in a place like rural Kentucky, where there are so many farmers. They just have to break their addiction to Walmart!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Audrey - A fellow Kentuckian! As far as going green being expensive - you've hit on my favorite soapbox topic. You might want to check out my personal blog, The Conscious Shopper. Other great blogs for the green and frugal are It's Frugal Being Green and The Greenest Dollar. (Hope I did those links right!) And of course keep reading the Green Phone Booth.

@Green Resolutions - Awesome! I will let my mom know!

@Kristin - Love your comments. I think my parents have a paint closet too. :)

Audrey said...

@organicneedle -- Thanks for the comments. We've made those changes as well; the only disposable paper product in our house is TP, and we're looking into versions that are environmentally friendly.

I guess what bothers me the most is that it feels like there's only so much I can do before we run up against a wall. I constantly encourage everyone I know to make those same little changes, and we're working to educate the schools in the area and get them on board (kids jump into this so eagerly).

But what about larger issues like transportation and housing and business and so on...It's just frustrating when all of the literature seems to focus on large urban areas.

Thanks for the links, everyone -- I've been enjoying participating in this discussion and learning more. Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking and reflecting to come to terms with these decisions and how they impact our regular lifestyle and habits. Like I tell my husband and girls, these changes are important; sometimes we backslide but we are making progress. And that makes us feel good.

Thanks to all of you for being a great resource.

Eco Yogini said...

Thanks for this post! I come from a village of 500 people... yes 500, well 499 now that I've moved to the city and have been away.
We don't have a landfill- we have a DUMP. Now, Nova Scotia made it the law to compost and recycle and actually gave fines for the first little bit.
My parents have a compost bin that gets picked up every two weeks and recycling that also gets picked up (or rejected and fined if it's not sorted right). At the same time, my brother still burns his garbage. Cuz it's easier. and he doesn't care.
When I mentioned growing their own food, they found that difficult- mostly because they aren't gardeners (it's a small fishing community) and it's a lot of work to produce enough for their own consumption. Just because people live in rural areas doesn't necessarily mean they like or want chickens.
Since all the big trips to the 'city' for your parents (or 'town' for mine- the closest having a population of 7000) have things like walmart and the superstore (canada) my mom has been able to buy products like Attitude or ecover.
Also, your parents may be able to save up on CFL lights (cuz I guess there are many reasons why they might actually not last 7 years, quality of bulb, how often they turn it on and off, outlet it's screwed into, age of the house and wiring) and mail a whole bunch, OR bring them with them when they make a big 'city' trip.

My biggest challenge- education and importance of change. I think a big one for my parents was me talking about the amount of chemicals in our environment and suggesting, slowly but surely, that perhaps the high levels of cancer in our tiny community may be a result of pollution and chemical exposure...

In my village change needed to happen from a legislative perspective before anyone would ever initiate this sort of thing.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@EcoYogini - You make a number of very good points. First, "Just because people live in rural areas doesn't necessarily mean they like or want chickens." That is so true and can be hard for some of us to hear - especially some of us city mice that are lusting after land in the country. I also liked your point, "In my village change needed to happen from a legislative perspective before anyone would ever initiate this sort of thing." I think down here in the Southeastern US that's what's going to have to happen. There are just too many people who don't care and won't make the changes until they're forced.

Alison said...

Great discussion!

First, regarding paint -- if it is latex or water based (not oil) it is not considered hazardous when dried. And, empty clean paint cans can be recycled. Oil based paints are hazardous/flammable even when dry, so no suggestions if that is what you have on hand. For more details can read our local guidelines here:

In regards to CFLs if you are organized there is at least one program where you can send then in for recycling. Considering that CFLs contain mercury, this might be worth your while if they cannot be properly disposed of locally. Here is a link to this service:

The suggestions about working on in home conservation are right on, but I would add that the living simply concept also really applies. For example, applying green party ideas for everyday living -- having Preserve plates and flatware on hand, so you don't have to buy/toss paper ware. Buying in bulk when you can (most Country mice probably already do that!) and maybe trading services with neighbors -- maybe you don't want to raise chickens, but the neighbors do. Maybe they don't have a truck, but you do. What do your neighbors -- even a few miles away have and what services/goods can you swap? You'll likely build community too!


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