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Lifestyle

Taking green to the altar

LIVING GREEN

This occasional series features the people, institutions and businesses making changes to create a more sustainable American lifestyle.

Gordon T. Geballe drives a gas-sipping hybrid Prius to reduce his carbon emissions and minimize his impact on global warming.

Big deal. Lots of people drive a Prius, right?

But Geballe, associate dean for student and alumni affairs at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, also paid $800 to have 2 acres of forest planted in Costa Rica, trees that for decades will take up far more carbon than his two vehicles will emit. And still, he and his wife often carpool, trying to keep their two cars off the road as much as possible.

"I've tried to take seriously that when you drive a car, you are putting carbon in the atmosphere," he said.

When Kate Harrison, a student at the forestry school, married last year, she and her fiancé, Barry Muchnick, held the wedding in the Hudson River Valley, between the two families, one in Philadelphia, the other in New Haven, to minimize carbon emissions.

Harrison bought a damaged gown that otherwise would have been thrown out and had it repaired by a tailor who took some of the fabric and also made a shawl. After the wedding, dress and shawl were donated to Brides Against Breast Cancer, to be used again. To go with her gown, Harrison bought Vera Wang shoes on eBay, wore them to the wedding, then resold them to another woman after the wedding. Head to toe, everything was recycled. And that was just the beginning of their green, carbon-neutral wedding.

Even in the drab days of early spring, when the landscape is dominated by colors no brighter than brown or gray, there is a community of eco-soul mates in the New Haven area that is greening the Earth one household at a time.

Its epicenter is the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. That community may well be a glimpse of life in the future, when the reality of global warming, taken seriously at Yale, truly forces lifestyle changes among people worldwide.

The forestry school itself will in less than a year be housed in a new building that will be among the greenest buildings on the planet, employing the latest in green technology throughout. In the meantime, faculty and students already are a deep shade of green.

In this eco-community, thermostats are kept low, of course. Cleaning supplies are natural and organic. Lights are compact fluorescents, for sure. Broken things around the house are repaired instead of replaced, whenever possible. Hole in a sock? Darn it. Electronics are unplugged when leaving the house for a weekend or more, because many devices require energy even when they are not in use. For this crowd, though, those are not new practices; they are routine. These people take green to the treetops.

Dumpster-DivingC.J. and Becky May might as well be chloroplasts, they are so green.

Fittingly enough, C.J., then a graduate student in the forestry and environmental studies school, and Becky, a Yale undergraduate, first met at the university's compost co-op. It will surprise no one, then, that their household is vanguard green.

He is now Yale's recycling coordinator. She is a homemaker and a consultant who advises people and small groups on how to buy local foods and products as a way to reduce environmental impacts from the long transport of goods.

Almost all of the food they buy is locally produced. They lived for an entire year only on Connecticut foods — in 1994 — long before the local-food movement reached the public consciousness. They have a Prius, too, but he rides his bike to work, and Becky and the children often take the bus when they go out. The clothes they and their children wear are recycled, bought at places like Salvation Army and vintage clothing shops.

"I can get stuff out of the Salvation Army that is actually good quality. It certainly is being reused. I'm saving huge amounts of money over buying something new," C.J. May said.

"And beyond that, as a recycling coordinator, I frequently get my clothes dirty. I sit at the desk most of the day working on e-mails and projects. But there are times when I have to go and check a dumpster out. Climbing into a dumpster doesn't do much for a white-collar wardrobe."

What is important, Becky May said, is for others to understand that their lifestyle does not involve great sacrifice, just adjustments. "The adjustments really aren't a big deal. But thinking about adjustments feels like a big deal," she said.

Her small consulting business is focused on urban people "who don't want in any way, shape or form to be self-reliant. They don't want to have a garden or go back to the land," Becky May said.

Indeed, with public transportation, smaller lots and amenities like the growing number of farmers' markets, urban areas offer many opportunities to live a greener lifestyle, she said.

To keep their green lifestyle enjoyable for years to come, the couple has even relaxed some of their self-imposed eco-friendly restrictions.

"I found myself yearning for foods that weren't necessarily available locally" in winter, C.J. May said. "One of the simple things we changed — for my snacks at work, I buy organic lettuce, organic celery and organic carrots. Now, for many people, that might be a step in the right direction. For us, it was actually a release from a restriction of buying just locally. Why did we do this? It is because we realized that, emotionally speaking and just appetite-wise, we needed to make sure everybody playing the game, everybody in the household, can be in it for the long haul."

And when they can happily make those adjustments, they figure their lifestyle has a far greater likelihood of being adopted by others.

The issue, indeed, is what the average American will be doing in 10 years, C.J. May said. The trick, he said, "is to do things that are going to help the entire society make a shift, so that everyone is doing what needs to be done in terms of reducing waste, saving energy and cutting down on greenhouse gases. That has to be done. All of this fits into that puzzle."

Secondhand OptionsSara Bushey, completing work on a master's degree at Yale, loves the leather winter coat she bought this season. It's lined with faux-fur and is among the warmest jackets she's ever owned. She bought it for $40 at a vintage clothing store in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

"I've been using that a lot this winter," she said.

In high school, she bought a dress for her prom at a used clothing store for $2. "I still have it. I still wear it," she said.

As a student, she totes a daypack, of course. In her daypack is a mug. If coffee or water or juice is being served in paper or plastic somewhere during the day, she pulls out her mug to avoid throwaway waste. Wine at an evening social gathering? If it is served in plastic, out comes the mug.

Of course, carrying a coffee mug today is hardly cutting-edge green. But not everybody carries a Tupperware plate, too, as Bushey does. If food is served on paper, she pulls out her plate.

And she goes beyond mugs and plates. Dining out, she brings a plastic container with lid to take home any leftovers — avoiding throw-away plastic, paper or foil doggie bags from the restaurant.

Before coming to Yale, she worked in Washington for the National Wildlife Federation. She and her then-boyfriend, now fiancé, ate often at Spicy Delight, a Jamaican restaurant that offered take-out service only.

One day she asked one of the owners if, instead of taking out their food in plastic and paper containers, she might bring her own reusable containers and have the food plopped right in, to eliminate paper and plastic waste. It became a routine.

She drives a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit, but rarely. She walks a mile to and from school and walks 25 minutes each way to downtown New Haven. "I only drive sometimes at night and on big grocery runs," she said. Her gas consumption? She fills the tank about once every three months.

Growing Awareness Geballe finds going green addictive.

"I was thinking this morning. Could I use less soap? Do I really need this much soap in the shower? When you get into this game, you start looking at every single little thing you do."

At home, he is miserly with oil. On his roof is a passive solar water collector. That collector heats water well enough that in the warmer months, he needn't ever turn on his boiler.

"For six or seven months a year, I am totally independent of oil in my house," he said. Addictive? Each year he explores how long he can go without turning the boiler on to heat the house. "We're trying to use blankets and afghans and sweaters."

Of course, he turns off lights when not in a room. And he pays extra on his utility bill to specify that all of the energy supplied to his home comes from renewable sources such as hydropower or wind.

But still, GeBalle said, he has a way to go.

"I am nowhere near there on the consumer stuff," he said. He agrees that buying locally produced foods is a good idea, but this time of year is difficult. "I am still coming to terms with that," he said. "It is still so tempting to buy those cherry tomatoes."

Will others get the hint? "I think it is good for the public to know people are taking this seriously. And people need to know you can get started." No, not everyone will plant a rain forest to offset their carbon emissions, but, GeBalle said, everybody needs to start somewhere.

A Green Wedding"Every aspect, from the small to the large, we really tried to make as sustainable as possible," Harrison said of her wedding last year. For the bridesmaids, for instance, no matching dresses that would never be worn again. "Everybody wore something they already owned and could wear again," she said.

"All the decorations were not only local and sustainable but harvested by hand," Muchnick said. Invitations were hand-made out of found or "repurposed" materials, recycled papers and environment friendly inks. The Internet was used wherever possible to reduce paper waste, including RSVPs, and in organizing carpools to the wedding.

Direction signs to the wedding? They took the pointed pickets from a dilapidated fence and posted them along the route. Food was organic, and local wherever possible.

Instead of buying a disposable aisle runner, the couple used Muchnik's pickup truck to haul a rug from her mother's house. After the wedding, the rug was cleaned and returned. "It was beautiful," Harrison said. "And really sturdy."

Place cards at the reception informed guests that an investment in alternative energy had been made in their honor.

"Any time you do something, you also want to let people know that you are doing it," Harrison said, "not in a soapbox way, but just to make them aware of the choices."

Their green wedding, in fact, will soon be replicable. Harrison has written the manuscript for "The Green Bride Guide," due out in December from Sourcebooks.

Contact Steve Grant at sgrant@courant.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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