Going green when you're not rich

A Chinese store assistant explains a product to a customer at the first environmentally friendly electrical products shop in Beijing.

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Tess Vigeland: And as for the rest of us? Those who don't have the coin to buy their way out of green guilt? For a lot of folks, there's just no room in the budget for the high-end landscape designer or carbon offsets. But even if you're not rolling in dough, you have options to curb your environmental impact.

Adrienne Hill reports.


Adrienne Hill: For some people, living sustainably isn't a choice. It's become a necessity.

Just ask Kara Severson, an out-of-work writer, hanging out at a local Chicago community center. Reducing her consumption is a side effect of being unemployed.

Kara Severson: I guess it's just reusing things more often, not being so disposable.

Things like glass salsa jars get new life as storage containers. Severson says she's always been conscious about the environment, but without a regular paycheck, her green cred has grown, even without trying. She hasn't had a car in years. Now?

Severson: I walk more often, because I'm trying to save money on public transportation.

She says when she gets a job again, she'll retain some of the changes she's made, like thrift store shopping. She likes the off beat clothes she finds. But she's ready to get a job and to spend money on lunches again that come in disposable plastic containers.

Severson's greeness comes partly from personal choice. But a lot of Americans aren't really thinking about it. According to new Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans believe the risks of global warming are exaggerated.

But lots of people are making small changes. Gallup finds a majority of Americans claim to recycle and buy compact florescent bulbs.

For people like Tom Diez, energy efficient bulbs save money and that's the incentive to buy them.

Tom Diez: I'm not very politically correct. I don't believe in global warming, let's put it that way.

He's a handyman at a church, and he's shopping for light bulbs at Home Depot. Diez ends up picking $70 LED flood lights for his sister's house that use far less energy than regular bulbs.

Diez: It makes sense if a light fixture claims that it's going to save you a lot of money. That makes sense, I have no problem with that. But I just don't like stuff rammed down your throats, like all these florescent swirly bulbs. No one really likes the color.

For him, the greener LED bulb makes life cheaper and easier, which is why he buys it.

Of course, there are people on the other end of the green extreme, people like Steve Thorngate and his wife Nadia Stefko.

Steve Thorngate: Making pinto bean soup, using dried beans and onions and some tomato sauce that we put up.

They're vegetarians. Not eating meat is one of the most important decisions people can make to cut their carbon footprint. Some 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from raising livestock, according to the UN. But that's not the only reason they're veggies.

Thorngate: People come over and see the kind of food we're serving them, it makes them think about their own habits, and there's sort of an evangelistic kind of effect, and it all spreads.

They rarely use paper towels. They reuse not-too-grimy plastic baggies. And their eco-friendly lifestyle extends well beyond the kitchen -- no car, they rarely use a clothes dryer and they make other, more, shall we say, advanced eco-friendly choices.

Nadia Stefko: We let it mellow, yes.

And they shower only about twice a week, give or take.

Thorngate: Often I plan to shower twice a week, and I keep pushing it off a day... and another day. Ends up being once a week.

Hill: But you don't smell bad, I can attest on the radio, you both smell just fine.

But what do all these changes really add up to?

Alex Steffen: The small things alone aren't going to save us.

Alex Steffen is with WorldChanging.com. He says for a new light bulb to really make a difference, people need to grapple with why they're changing out that bulb, about energy and how they use it.

Steffen: If there are steps towards bigger changes that we're willing to get engaged with, then they matter a lot. If they're just something we're doing in order to have done something, well, they probably don't add up to all that much.

Real change, says Steffen, requires governments to push innovation and businesses to respond.

In Chicago, I'm Adrienne Hill, for Marketplace Money.

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