Welcome to Green Boot Camp

Welcome to Green Boot Camp blog, a 52-week program to help you become a greener you in 2008. This is the companion blog to The Lean Green Family (formerly Suddenly Frugal).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Week 32--Start Thinking About Stocking a Gift Closet

Will back to school about to get into full swing here on the East Coast--and already back in session in many parts of the country--I'll guarantee that you'll find school supply sales galore. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the fact that retailers are forecasting a soft back-to-school shopping season. But that shouldn't bum you out. No, this is a great time for you to think about stocking a gift closet back-to-school and end-of-summer items. In fact, a gift closet is your task for this week on Green Boot Camp.

What's a gift closet? It's a place in your home, be it a closet, shelf in the garage or drawer in a dresser, where you keep onhand gifts that you might need at the last minute. These kinds of gifts would be hostess gifts, thank you gifts, children's gifts and more.

Some of my other favorite items to keep in a gift closet include bags of whole-bean coffee, savory bottles of olive oil, picture frames, bottles of wine, and serving or decorative bowls. For kids I'll get games, puzzles and anything having to do with arts and crafts.

Around the holidays I add bottles of wine and boxes of chocolate, which I keep in the refrigerator. But they serve the same purpose--should I need a last-minute gift to bring to a party or a dinner to which I've been invited, I don't need to hop in the car (wastes gas) to get to the store and make a purchase I probably can't afford. No, I stock up when things are on sale and in one trip so I'm saving gas.

OK, so at the end of the summer, what cool things might you find for your gift closet?

* Stationery store items, such as notecards, writing journals, and arts and craft supplies
* Summer/pool accessories, such as beach towels, goggles or inflatable pool toys
* Housewares or home decorations, such as candles and greenery.

Soon enough the stores will be overflowing with Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas items. And once each of these holidays has come and gone, I would recommend taking a day to stock up on those seasonal items for next year's gift closet.

Let me know what kinds of ideas you come up with for your end-of-summer gift closet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Week 31--Green Your Break Room

My friend DeeDee has determined that the break room in the real estate office where she works needed a green makeover. With an abundance of paper plates, plastic flatware and disposable drinking cups, the trash cans there overfloweth with garbage while the recycling bins remained empty. Just as bad as no one recycling, no one was making the effort to use anything reusable. That's when DeeDee decided to bring in a couple of sets of old dishes, coffee mugs, flatware and cloth napkins to stock the break room. While it's been tough converting her fellow realtors to her reusable ways, I'm convinced that soon enough she'll succeed.

Around the same time that I heard about DeeDee's efforts, my mother sent me an email suggesting that I write a post about making refreshments at meetings green. (She serves on a number of non-profit boards, and at their regular meetings, there's always food served.) Here's what my mom had to say about the greening of her meetings:
"The only paper we now throw away are napkins. By shopping @ Goodwill or Yard Sales, we have enough dishes, bowls and silverware....NO more plastic or paper. To avoid using paper towels, we also have dish cloths (which I bring home to launder) to dry the dishes."
You go, Mom!

This is all leading up to this week's task for Green Boot Camp. I want you to figure out how you can green the break room at your office. Or, if you're a teacher getting ready to go back to school (or have already gone back to school), I want you to come up with ideas to green the teacher's lounge.

Some ways you can achieve this, that tap into what DeeDee and my mom have done, include:

* Stocking the cabinets with reusable silverware, flatware, coffee mugs and drinking bottles

Are you an ardent yard sale shopper? Do you like to troll for bargains at thrift stores? Have you ever seen an "offer" on Freecycle for old place settings? If you've answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you realize that these are all great options for finding free or very low-cost dishes and other serving utensils that you can use in the teacher's lounge or break room.

Also, teachers tend to get way too many coffee mugs as gifts from their students--ask any teacher and she'll tell you this is true. So maybe if you work in a school, all you need to do to is ask your colleagues to reach into the depths of their storage cabinets in their classrooms to find all of those gifted coffee mugs that they never knew what to do with.

Finally, if you work in a school, you might want to query your physical education teachers to see if they have overstocks of refillable water bottles. I know that at my daughters' schools, mini sports bottles are often the "prize" they get for doing some sort of fitness-oriented fundraiser like Jump Rope for Heart. Might your PE teacher have an abundance of these that can go into rotation in the staff lounge?

* Bringing in cloth napkins and washable dishtowels

Again, the idea here is to reduce the amount of trash that ends up getting thrown out after a lunch break or prep period. Ideally, you can get a couple of teachers or work colleagues to agree to bring home the cloth napkins and towels at the end of the week to wash, like my mother has volunteered to do for her meetings. I'll bet that yard sales are a great place to pick up mismatched cloth napkins sets. Who cares if they don't match?

* Providing a compost bin for food scraps

I know plenty of people who aren't as lucky as I am to have a compost bin right in their backyard, but that doesn't stop them from being committed to composting their food scraps. These folks truck their scraps to a community composting pile or bring them to a local garden that collects organic matter. Perhaps the teachers among us could convince their school district to work with the cafeteria to compost their food scraps, and then the teachers could contribute their leftovers as well. At the very least if you have a compost pile at home and are willing to bring home organic matter to add to your compost pile, then you could provide an empty bucket, tucked under a sink or in a cabinet, and then let your colleagues know that they can dump their food scraps (except for meat or dairy), including coffee grounds, in that bucket.

* Making food and drinks on-site

Most people know that a great way to save money on workday nourishment is to bring in or make your own. Well, brewing your own coffee in the office or in the staff lounge is also a great way to cut down on people having to bring in disposable cups filled with coffee from the local coffee shop or Starbucks. At the same time, wouldn't it be great if you could have a freshly made, hot lunch that cost barely anything to cook up? Why not consider bringing in a Crock-Pot and having a schedule that you and your colleagues can use to Crock-Pot lunch? They could bring in the ingredients and dump them in the Crock-Pot before the first bell, and by the middle of the day, lunch is served! (For great ideas on easy Crock-Pot recipes, check out the blog A Year of CrockPotting.)

* Providing recycling bins

While most offices and schools have finally gotten around to recycling office paper on a regular basis, I'm convinced that not all of them are recycling plastic, metal and glass like they should be. So why not set up a clearly marked set of recycling bins in your break room or staff lounge so that when someone finished a can of Diet Coke or a bottle of water (gasp: bring a refillable bottle!), she has an easy way of tossing that can or bottle in a recycling bin instead of right into the trash.

I realize that all of these ideas are great in a vacuum and maybe you don't have colleagues who will buy into this notion of using reusables and then washing them afterwards. But you'll never know unless you try. Let me know if you can bring this up at your next staff meeting and what kind of reception your idea gets.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Week 30--Don't Bust Your Budget for Back to School

This week's task on Green Boot Camp may not be for everyone. Why? Because it's focusing on back to school. Now I realize that not everyone has kids that will be going back to school shortly--or may have already gone back if you live someplace where school started last week--but I promise that some of my advice and suggestions may apply.

OK, for starters, do not--I repeat, do not--head out to go back-to-school shopping before you've had the chance to do an inventory at home. The easiest way to collect more stuff, and therefore create more trash, is to buy and bring home items that you actually didn't need. And with too much stuff comes clutter. And as Flylady always says, "You can organize clutter."

So how do you get your inventory started? Well, if your kids are like my kids, they came home on the last day of school with a backpack full of half-used school supplies. That means that your first stop is to locate that backpack (I found both of my daughters' backpacks on the floor of their respective closets) and see what you've got inside. Turns out I had at least two packages of lined, three-hole-punch notebook paper that were never opened. I also discovered those stretchy Book Sox book covers, which I tossed in the laundry, and now they're good to go for the next school year. I tossed all of these into my all-purpose school supply box, which I learned about creating before the start of the last school year.

Next I want you to take a look around your house and see if there are any paper products, writing utensils or other items that you could easily reuse as back-to-school supplies. For example, last year had me attending a number of business meetings, which ended with my coming home with a pocket folder full of information. I know enough not to toss these kinds of pocket folders--once I've emptied them out and filed whatever it is from inside that I want to keep--so a few days ago we raided that stash of pocket folders to see if anything would work for back to school. Three such pocket folders did. We also discovered a few unused three-ring binders (not enough for both girls), some empty spiral notebooks, and three Rubbermaid-like container each filled with colored pencils, markers and crayons.

You can bet that I'd like to dip into each of those containers to fulfill the writing-utensil portion of my daughter's supply lists. I mean why buy new when I've got all of these perfectly good (yet not in a package) pencils, markers and crayons? Truth be told is my youngest is embarrassed to reuse colored pencils; she wants a fresh package. So I made her buy her own.

Speaking of supply lists, that should be your next step. Download them from your kids' school website (assuming your district is technologically advanced), and review the list with what you've already got in stock. Chances are you'll still need to buy some new supplies, but wait: don't head out to Staples or Wal-Mart or Target just yet. Now you've got to troll the sales, assuming you've got the time to buy a little bit of supplies each week.

For example, a few weeks ago Staples was having its penny sale, so we stocked up supplies we needed that were dirt cheap. In the end we spent only 13 cents on supplies. Last week Staples had other items on sales--like those marble-covered composition notebooks for 25 cents and filler paper for 10 cents a pack. On that trip, we stocked up on those items. For us now the only thing we've got left on our list are three-ring binders, and hopefully those will go on sale before school starts in September.

My wait-for-the-sales approach to back-to-school shopping assumes that your trip to a store selling school supplies isn't so far that you'll eat up your savings in gas by making multiple trips. I'm lucky that Staples is less than a mile away from where I live, so I can stop in on my way back on an errand day, when I'm in the car anyway, or we can walk to the store.

In the meantime, I can't stop thinking about those containers of colored pencils that we'll probably never use. So I'm thinking of culling them and putting them up as an "offer" on Freecycle. Maybe some other family will be able to put them to good use.

In fact, if you don't have kids going back to school, maybe this is how you can use this week of Green Boot Camp to your advantage. You could figure out how you can declutter your school-like supplies and give them away on Freecycle (or another kind of swap site, like I discussed recently on my other blog) so that your stuff doesn't end up in the trash, you'll have less stuff around that you're probably not using anyway, and you'll help out a family that maybe can't afford to get its children all the school supplies that you're going to give away for free.

Let me know how this week's Green Boot Camp tasks work for you.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Week 29--Dust Off Your Library Card

In our 24/7 retail world, it almost too easy to buy anything--day or night. With websites like Amazon.com, why would anyone ever go to the library? Well, that was my thinking for many years, which is how I managed to spend about $800 a year on books. Yes, that's also why my home looks like a library but I don't receive state funding or grants or anything. Nonetheless, it really is wasteful to think about reading a book once and never touching it again.

One of my resolutions when I started The Lean Green Family (formerly Suddenly Frugal) was to stop buying books and start borrowing them from the library. And since I made that resolution more than a year ago, I've purchased one book for myself. It was Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. The only reason I ended up breaking my resolution was I was going on a business trip, needed something to read, and the wait list for Three Cups of Tea through the library was just too long. (Great book, by the way. While it was a bit overwritten, I highly recommend it, and I hope it gets made into a movie.)

Now that I'm back on track with borrowing books from the library, I'd like you to make this change as well. So this week in Green Boot Camp, I'd like you to get out your library card and start using it. Don't have a library card? Then get thee to your local branch and apply for one. (You'll need to bring identification that proves that you live locally.)

Some libraries charge a nominal amount for a new card--especially if you once had one and lost it. Yeah, I learned this lesson the hard way when I had to fork over $3 to "reactivate" by library account. But that's OK. Three bucks is just a drop in the bucket when compared with the cost of a new book.

Hopefully, your library system offers an online option like mine does. It's great because I can do this: when I read about a great book in a magazine or newspaper, or hear an author speaking on TV or the radio, and want to read his/her book, I can log onto my library's website and reserve the book. Sometimes the staff just has to pull the book off the shelf at the library around the corner, and call me to come pick it up; other times they need to "order" the book from another branch, and it gets to me in a few days. In those rare instances where there is a waiting list, it could take weeks to get the book I'm dying to read (which is how I grew impatient with Three Cups of Tea).

One of the reasons that I love this online-reservation option is it allows me to "get" books the same way I used to when I was buying them off of Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I would hear about a book that piqued my interest, and I would log on to buy it. With the library system, I get to go through the same motions, except I don't have to enter my credit card number to complete the transaction. I just click on the "reserve" button, and then I can expect a call or email from the library when the book is ready for me to pick it up.

It really was a painless change to make. Think you can do it, too? Good luck and happy reading.