It all started with the peepers. Soon after the Elton family moved from urban Wilmington, DE, to a more rural home in Landenberg, PA, they heard an unusual chirping sound. Neighbors explained that it came from peepers, frogs that spent the warm months in a pond below the Eltons’ house. Robin Elton remembers wondering if runoff from their car washing and lawn insecticides might affect the peepers and other wildlife in the area. “Sure enough,” she says, “the next summer, we didn’t hear as many peepers.”
Robin and her husband Jeff decided to make some changes. They cancelled the insecticide service and switched to homemade, eco-friendly cleansers — not just for washing the car, but for all household cleaning jobs. They figured ditching the chemicals would benefit not just the environment, but also their kids, Jacob, Maverick, and Cassidy.
That turned out to be just the beginning of the Eltons’ eco-makeover. Robin, who had always been concerned about the environment, began to feel even more strongly about it now that she and her family were spending more time in nature. As Robin saw her kids’ love for their environment grow, she was inspired to do more to help protect it.
Go green to save green
Like many Americans, Robin was familiar with a few basic ways to “go green,” like replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents and using cloth shopping bags instead of plastic, but she wanted to do more, so she began reading everything she could find about how to further reduce energy use, water waste, and trash.
Over the next few months, the Eltons stopped using air conditioners and began hanging their laundry outside to dry. In the winter, they turned the thermostat down to a chilly 62 degrees during the day (even lower at night). They plugged all the family electronics into power strips and switched them off when not in use. They started running errands together to reduce car trips, packing lunches in reusable containers, reaching for solar-powered flashlights, and using rechargeable batteries for Wii games and portable CD players.
Kids do their part
That may sound obsessive, but a funny thing happened on the way to protecting the environment. Not only did the Eltons significantly reduce their carbon footprint, that first year, they cut their electric bills in half. As the family continued to make greener choices, lower costs were often the delightful result. “We’re always budgeting really closely,” explains Robin, who has been a stay-at-home mom since Jacob was born. “My husband is not as much of an environmentalist as I am. In order for me to talk him into it, it has to be frugal.”
Of course, going green is not always inexpensive. To offset the higher cost of organic dairy products and meat, the Eltons eat vegetarian dinners twice a week. They also buy ingredients in bulk and grow some of their own produce.
All of the Eltons get involved in the environmental effort — even 4-year-old Cassidy loves to dump table scraps into a worm composting bin on the back porch. To conserve water, everyone takes short showers. “The kids don’t mind that at all,” says Robin with a laugh. Going green is now second nature for the Elton kids. Last year, Jacob noticed how much paper was being wasted in his classroom and asked his teacher if he could bring in a box to gather it up. Now all the paper gets used on both sides before it is recycled.
While Robin reports that the changes have gone surprisingly smoothly, there were a few hurdles to overcome. “I was a little bit of a germophobe,” she says. “I was used to using disposable disinfecting wipes, so it was an adjustment to use rags, wash them, and use them again.”
Robin also tries to ease some of the more extreme measures. On winter mornings, she heats up the dining room with a space heater during breakfast time. She gets dinner started early in the evening so the oven’s warmth can drive the chill out of the air. And after line-drying clothes, she throws them into the electric dryer for five minutes to make sure they’re completely dry — and free of stowaways. “In the summer, bugs sometimes get into the pockets,” she says.
The Eltons would love to buy solar panels for their house and switch their mini-van for a hybrid, but those big-ticket items will have to wait for now. Meanwhile, they are working on setting up a larger outdoor composting bin. By composting all their organic waste, paper, and cardboard, they hope to cut trash pickups down to once a month.
Robin advises other families who are thinking about going green to “start with something, and don’t worry about the rest of it before you start.” She recommends these three beginner ideas:
- Make your own cleansers. To disinfect, she sprays vinegar followed by hydrogen peroxide. “It’s as effective as bleach,” she explains.
- Cloth at the table. Instead of paper napkins and paper towels, use reusable cloth equivalents.
- Cook two dinners at once. It saves energy and time — you don’t have to cook the next night!
“Every little bit helps,” says Robin. “If other people see the little bit that you do, they might think about doing it, too. It just snowballs from there.”