MIDORI | Attempting to “Go Green”
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© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Attempting to “Go Green”

One of the United Nations’ Millennium Goals is to ensure environmental sustainability. In the midst of autumn, we are still recovering from the high electricity bills of summertime air-conditioning while the winter heat bill looms large. How can we be more conservative and responsible with our thermostats? This season seems extra-full of news about fast-spreading wildfires, earthquakes and tsunamis. These ecological calamities seem to happen more frequently as humanity’s habits of production and consumption take their toll on the natural world.

According to a study by the EPA in 2007, the average American generates 4.6 pounds of trash each day, and as a nation, America produces 254 million tons of waste each year. Compare that to other industrialized countries such as France (3.2 pounds per person per day) and Japan (2.5 pounds)1. In the United States, we recycle or compost about 1/3 of our waste, which is a huge improvement from 1980 when the recycling rate was less than 10%. Indeed, for many of us, recycling paper, glass, and cans is a regular routine, and those of us in Southern California pay close attention to our water usage. The heat and droughts have taught us not to waste a drop! As time goes on, however, human industries and life create more waste, and our natural resources continue to be depleted. The high gas prices of last summer forced many to reevaluate their mode of transportation: trading in SUVs for hybrid automobiles, carpooling, taking public transportation, biking or walking. Hopefully many have maintained their new routines.

When I was preparing to move to Los Angeles in 2005, the top priority was get my driver’s license and a car. After living in New York City for so many years, it felt like a treat to drive myself around, exploring my new community in Southern California. Soon, though, I realized that the car was exactly that: a treat, and not a necessity, especially since I was out of town so often for concerts. I returned my car to the dealership, and have since been taking the bus and carpooling to campus. The tradeoff of a little more time and planning is well worth knowing that taking my car off the road for one year removes 11,000+ pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I recently spoke about the importance of reducing air pollution – while standing over the congested 101 Freeway in LA during rush hour – for a Public Service Announcement for the United Nations.

Of course, there are less dramatic changes that can make a difference. Repair water leaks at home immediately, and report those in your school or office building. Grocery stores have recycling programs for their plastic bags, or you can bring your own cloth bag. In Europe, market goers have always toted their own shopping bags; I remember being stuck a few times with no means of carrying my purchases since I was so used to American stores offering plastic bags.

One method for reducing waste is use permanent/reusable items instead of disposables. For instance, I bring my own chopsticks and silverware with me, so I don’t have to pick up the plastic utensils for take-out. I try to bring my own containers for the salad bar or deli to avoid using the plastic-clamshells, which are flimsy and easily leak. Bringing my own flatware and napkins makes the meal more pleasurable as they are sturdier and more functional. As for beverages, how about refilling your cute aluminum water bottle at the drinking fountain and bringing a travel mug to your favorite coffee shop? I often see signs offering discounts of a dime or quarter if you bring your own cup, which is a nice reward.

With just a quick Internet search, I’ve found a plethora of articles and organizations dedicated to helping musicians “go green” – particularly as related to touring (e.g. using biodiesel for busses). Venues are installing energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs, installing panels for solar power, recycling plastics or using biodegradable corn-based products for concessions.

However, I have noticed numerous energy transgressions in concert venues large and small: lights left on overnight or illuminating unused rooms during performances. Putting lights on a timer is an easy fix to save energy and money. Cooling systems set to produce meat-locker temperatures aren’t necessary at all, considering the detrimental effects extreme temperatures have on the human body. Although it is nice to have technology to allow musicians to practice more comfortably in hot climates, Mozart and Beethoven banged away at the keyboard long before the invention of air conditioning. Installing a programmable thermostat is an easy way to use air conditioning responsibly. An example of how to set your timers from www.energystar.gov:

Programmable Thermostat Setpoint Times & Temperatures
Setting Time Setpoint Temperature (Heat) Setpoint Temperature (Cool)
Wake 6:00 a.m. ≤ 70º F ≥ 78º F
Day 8:00 a.m. Setback at least 8º F Setup at least 7º F
Evening 6:00 p.m. ≤ 70º F ≥ 78º F
Sleep 10:00 p.m. Setback at least 8º F Setup at least 4º F

Orchestras are increasingly sponsoring community projects such as litter clean-ups, planting trees, and donating leftover catering to food banks. When I visit New Orleans for a residency in January, we will be taking music students on a service project in the Upper Ninth Ward, an area still reeling from the damage and debris caused by Hurricane Katrina. Such hands-on activities not only help kids learn about environmental issues and causes, but they feel that they are an active part of it. Youth orchestras could (and should, in my opinion) create a formal clothing-exchange program, as children grow out of their clothes so quickly and dressy concert attire might only be worn once or twice. Little League baseball and high school sports teams have done this for years; each season, athletes borrow & return durable poly-blend uniform jerseys from the school or organization.

There is so much more public focus on recycling rather than on decreasing waste. Old T-shirts find a second life as household rags, or as aprons or paint smocks. Recently, a couple of holes wore through on my light jacket, so my mother made the patches in the shape of a Scottie and a dog bone to cover up the multiple holes. A little creativity gives me another several years with the coat, not to mention unique personal touches!

I use the backs of old letters or forms as scrap paper to take phone messages and notes in meetings or lessons. Violin strings are packaged in handy envelopes that can be reused for organizing slips of paper or mailing; unfortunately I have discovered that the envelopes in which the strings are sold in are not always made from recycled paper. Carrying a pencil case can not only save you the trouble of borrowing a pencil to mark scores, but we don’t throw out or waste pencils that we have purchased ourselves. As a child, my mother wouldn’t give me a new pencil until the old one really ran out. I also keep a small bar eraser in my case since the erasers topping pencils are gone so quickly.

My violin is very sensitive to weather and dryness in the air, so I’ve found that hanging just-washed wet towels is a handy trick to add moisture to the air instead of running the humidifier, plus it avoids the energy use of a clothes-dryer. To save energy, I power down my computer every night, as even keeping it in ‘sleep’ or ‘idle’ mode wastes electricity. I have a pact with myself to turn off the lights every time I exit the dressing room in the concert halls. I hope that soon we will see a serviceable solar-powered metronome, much like the solar-powered calculator which has now become the standard.

Most of the things we can do don’t cost much time or money up front, and small changes can help save us massive irreversible costs in the future of our planet. I hope this has given you an idea or two about how just one person can contribute to environmental sustainability over the long term. But every little step does help and make a difference.

1 Source: Museum of Solid Energy Waste and Energy/National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project, 2008. (www.need.org)

Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders