We need to keep ‘green’ momentum going

Posted Nov. 11, 2010, at 5:30 p.m.

New warnings of the Earth’s demise are not resonating with enough Americans. It is widely believed that consumers cannot do much more individually to preserve the planet. As a result, according to market research just released by the Shelton Group of Knoxville, Tenn., only 14 percent of consumers feel they should change their habits to further prevent pollution. Last year, the figure was 18 percent.

An alarming number of Americans are denying that our ecosystems are threatened. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly half (46 percent) of respondents said the environment is excellent or good, up from 39 percent in 2009.

This cannot stand. We need to keep “green” momentum going. But this cannot be done by continuing to appeal to consumers purely on moral grounds. They need to be sold: convinced there are other ways to reduce waste that provide them with an immediate, personal payoff. They must be shown how such changes can save their time and money, as well as the Earth.

This type of pitch has long been successful with businesses. Entrepreneurs want their operations to consume few natural resources and not pollute. This is better for the environment, community relation, and profitability. Thus, businesses cannot get enough new ideas for saving water, energy and other supplies.

Consumers need to emulate this passion and look for new ways to be green in their personal lives, as well as in business. My industry, uniform and facility services, is exemplary in this respect. Techniques that we use in our commercial laundry operations can be applied to clothes washing in homes.

This starts with washing the smallest number of loads possible. We fill our huge, high-efficiency machines to capacity. In contrast, consumers like doing smaller loads. If they filled their home machines, though, the typical family of four would save more than 3,400 gallons of water each year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Similarly, we maximize our dryer loads and keep drying times as short as possible, so we do not waste energy. Applying the same concepts to personal laundry produces the same kind of savings. Also, you might consider “air-drying” at home to conserve even more.

As more efficient cleaning technologies and chemistry formulas are developed over time, our industry adopts and adjusts accordingly. For instance, my company, UniFirst, currently uses 43 EPA-approved wash formulas that are customized for specific clothing and soil types to eliminate the needless use of water or chemicals. For an individual consumer, this would be akin to closely following the formulation directions on a box or bottle of detergent. Ultimately, this means the toughest stains are removed and the best overall cleanliness possible is produced in the “greenest” manner possible. It also means clothes last longer and fewer replacements must be manufactured, once again leading to a conservation of resources.

In Maine, we are probably more conscious of issues such as this than residents of other states. We ought to be able to make real progress here in finding low-cost ways to be greener at home. One possibility is to make greater use of cloth substitutes (reusable) for paper (disposable) products. A lot of us can remember when real diapers and handkerchiefs did a lot more of the work now performed by Pampers and facial tissues. I’m not sure those days are coming back.

On the other hand, our home kitchens and dining rooms may be ripe for a throwback. You don’t need a paper towel for every counter or floor cleanup: a sponge or rag can be just as effective. Cloth napkins are a nice touch compared with paper. They need to be washed, but you don’t have to use them every day.

In each case, the cloth alternative costs less per use. Putting money in people’s pockets — that’s the best pitch anyone can make to prompt American consumers everywhere to start thinking “green” once again.

George Walls is general manager of UniFirst Corp. in Bangor.

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