Shades of Green thru The Oregonian

Green survey reveals Oregonians practice sustainability, but in different shades of green
By Scott Learn, The Oregonian
March 26, 2010, 3:55AM
Illustration by Steve Cowden, The Oregonian
Our first green survey introduced us to a Portland woman who fills about a garbage can a year, a Milwaukie man with a 2,000-square-foot garden and a slew of dedicated recyclers, including a retired nurse who met her husband at a recycling center and used to recycle glass IV bottles after her shift was over.

The survey, which drew 540 responses from online and print readers, also identified some backlash at bicyclists, admissions of green fatigue and a sizable gap between people who think activities such as biking, bus riding, composting and buying local food are important and those who actually do them. Our survey wasn't scientific -- judging by written responses and interviews it slanted toward the green-minded. But there were some revealing results:

More than nine in 10 people turn off their lights when not in use. That was high, but not a lot more than the 89 percent nationally who said they flipped the switches in a random green survey conducted three months ago by Yale and George Mason universities. That strong response makes sense: turning off lights saves money, too.

Where Oregon really stood out: 93 percent recycle everything possible at home, versus 53 percent nationally. Eight in 10 regularly use reusable shopping bags, versus about a third nationally. And eight in 10 actively reduce trash, nearly double the national rate.

Those surveys aren't directly comparable. The national survey was random and scientific. Ours wasn't. But the results are consistent with Oregon's relatively high recycling rates and, readers pointed out, the state's environmental ethic.

Gloria Miniszewski, the retired nurse, said she and her husband keep their heat down in their Portland home, try to minimize driving, often buy used clothes and set their water heater at a low temperature.

"There's always room for improvement, and sometimes I think we (Oregonians) blow our horns a little bit too hard," she said. "But we feel very fortunate living in Oregon overall."

A lot more people ranked mass transit, walking, biking, composting and buying locally grown food as important than actually did those things.

Part of it is access. Readers from Seaside to Woodburn said they don't have great alternatives to their car.

"I would like to walk to the store and my salon, but we live up from where Scholls Ferry and Beaverton-Hillsdale collide!" reader Marta Alto wrote. There are "no sidewalks or place to walk but the ditch -- even scarier for bikes."

Part of it is cost. Diana Koppen of Portland said she frequents farmers markets, and likes the idea of buying local produce. "But I'm not going to pay a premium just because it's locally grown," she said. "If the cost is reasonable, then I buy."

And part of it is the hassle factor.

Terry Perrone of Happy Valley ranked himself high on most green measures -- he reuses bags for supermarket vegetables and loves the smell of line-dried sheets. "Where I would like to improve is composting, or using wet garbage," he said. "If I wasn't so lazy I guess I'd get some kind of composter."

Steve Cowden, The Oregonian
Then there are those who aren't sold on all the conventional green recommendations.

Nearly a third of the respondents didn't take mass transit, bike or walk and didn't think doing so was important, higher than the national averages in those categories.

Some are retired or disabled and don't drive much anyway. Others, including Cheryl Mellnik, a manufacturer's representative from Portland, need cars for their jobs.

Mellnik, an "old hippie from the '60s" who ranked high in most green behaviors, said she supports biking but gets frustrated at bikers, a fairly common gripe.

"It's scary because they'll just go when you've got a green light -- I just had that happen yesterday when I was driving downtown on 6th Avenue," she said. "It can be annoying."

About a quarter of respondents also cited composting, buying locally grown food and washing laundry in cold water as unimportant.

That result was lower than the national average for composting; for laundry and local food, it was about the same.

"I am from the old school," wrote Xan Graf of Portland. "My whites, linens and towels go into hot water. No one will ever convince me that cold water will do the job on those items."

Readers thought our survey missed some important green behaviors. Among them: buying organic, eating less meat, forgoing pesticides, improving home insulation, using clotheslines, planting for low water use and reducing population growth.

"When we do things like recycle and scrimp on water usage, it just enables the politicians to cram more people into smaller spaces," said David Petersen, a father of one who has seen small lots spread like wildfire near his Tigard home. "The real problem is population. Everything else is just a Band-Aid."

Arthur Moore and his wife have ridden bikes for decades, bring items they can't recycle at curbside to a Far West Fibers depot and maintain a 2,000-square-foot garden in their Milwaukie yard that supplies them and many of their neighbors for much of the year.

"We're maniacs," Moore said.

Betty Shelley and her husband are down to one garbage pickup a year from their Portland home. But Shelley, who works part-time in the Metro regional government's recycling information center, said they started small about 15 years ago. "It's about taking one step at a time," she said.

Those steps included switching to cloth napkins, buying in bulk, heading to the library instead of buying books, reusing plastic bags and turning down the thermostat in 2 degree increments.

Like many other respondents, Shelley noted that today's "green" behaviors are really nothing new. Waste not, want not, was a common refrain.

"My mother-in-law used to do all that stuff and I thought it was really strange," Shelley said. "But now we do it, too."

- Scott Learn
Steve Cowden, The Oregonian

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