Most Portlanders are proud of their city’s reputation for environmental leadership, and with good reason. Portland regularly garners accolades for its green policies, and the state government is trying hard to establish Oregon as a leader in green business and renewable energy. Of course, not everyone in the area is on board with the whole sustainability thing—we’re looking at you, guy in the Hummer with the “I Am the Scourge of Bicycles” bumper sticker—and the very word “sustainability” has been overused (and misused) to the point where it risks losing any specific meaning, or worse, is used as cover for products, projects, and services that upon analysis are not really “sustainable” at all. If you’re reading this chapter, however, you’re probably interested in reducing your environmental impact. There are plenty of local resources and lots of like-minded people to help you out.
Greening Your Home
The quickest and easiest way to have a green home is to buy one that is no bigger than you need—smaller homes consume fewer resources—and that is already well-insulated and energy-efficient, that incorporates nontoxic and sustainably produced materials, or that has features like solar-assisted water heating. Since 2007, the local real estate Multiple Listing Service, RMLS (rmls.com), has allowed prospective home buyers to include green home features in their searches. (This search option is currently only available to licensed real estate agents and other RMLS members.) Assuming you’re not lucky enough to move into an existing eco-dwelling, there’s plenty you can do to make your home more environmentally friendly.
Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (1900 SW 4th Avenue, Suite 7100, 503-823-7700, portlandoregon.gov/bps/) publishes a Green Home Remodeling Guide, available for download at its website. Other green building materials are also available from the office.
In many cases, the greenest building materials are those that someone else has already used. The ReBuilding Center (3625 N. Mississippi Avenue, 503-331-1877, rebuildingcenter.org) stocks used building materials that have been donated or salvaged from “deconstructed” buildings. Habitat ReStore (10445 SE Cherry Blossom Drive, 503-283-6247; 13475 SW Millikan Way, Beaverton, 503-906-3823; 10811 SE Mill Plain Boulevard, Vancouver, 360-213-1313; pdxrestore.org) also sells donated used and new construction materials, and proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity. You might consider poking around the region’s architectural salvage stores (see Shopping for the Home for listings).
If it’s new materials you’re after, Green Depot (819 SE Taylor Street, 503-222-3881, greendepot.com) carries everything from cork and marmoleum flooring to recycled glass tiles, recycled cotton batt insulation, and low-flow plumbing fixtures. If you’re doing structural work, consider using green-certified wood products; the Forest Stewardship Council (fscus.org) is a widely known certification program. Use nontoxic or least-toxic glues and finishes whenever possible; local paint companies YOLO Colorhouse (877-493-8276, yolocolorhouse.com), Devine Color (888-693-3846, devinecolor.com), Miller Paint (multiple area stores, millerpaint.com), and Rodda Paint (multiple area stores, roddapaint.com) produce quality zero-VOC (volatile organic compounds) and low-VOC paint.
Reducing your home’s energy consumption, particularly its consumption of energy produced by fossil fuels or other non-renewables, is probably the single most effective way to create a greener home. In most homes, furnaces and air conditioners, appliances, and lighting are the biggest energy hogs, and you’ll get the most bang for your buck by weatherizing your home and making these systems work more efficiently. The following steps are typically recommended for boosting your home’s energy efficiency:
- Insulate and weatherize your home. Poorly insulated walls, ceilings, and floors allow heated or cooled air to escape from your house, needlessly raising your energy use (and energy bill). Also seal ductwork, insulate hot water pipes in non-conditioned spaces, and seal or caulk leaks around doors, windows, pipes, vents, attics, and crawlspaces. Replace or repair leaky old windows. These steps will also reduce drafts and increase comfort levels in your home.
- Upgrade your heating and cooling systems. Old furnaces and air conditioning units are usually much less efficient than new models. Once you’ve insulated and weatherized your home, consider replacing old units with new, efficient units, and make sure that they are properly sized for your home. A programmable thermostat can also help reduce energy consumption by adjusting the inside temperature automatically when you’re at work or asleep.
- Upgrade inefficient appliances. Replacing old, inefficient washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters, and especially refrigerators with more efficient models can have a major effect on your energy consumption (and, in the case of washing machines and dishwashers, on your water consumption, too).
- Install efficient lighting. Compact fluorescent light bulbs use 75% less energy and last up to ten times longer than standard incandescent bulbs. They also generate less heat. For an assurance of quality, choose ENERGY STAR® bulbs.
Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out how to accomplish these things on your own. Energy Trust of Oregon (866-368-7878, energytrust.org) can help make your home more energy-efficient. They offer cash incentives to help you pay for energy-saving improvements, and their website includes a free online home energy use analyzer tool. You can also schedule a free on-site home energy review (complete with installation of complimentary compact fluorescent light bulbs and low-flow showerheads). For a comprehensive whole-house energy assessment and energy recommendations, consider hiring an Energy Trust–certified contractor to do a Home Performance with ENERGY STAR analysis.
Energy Trust provides energy efficiency services and cash incentives for Oregon customers of Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, NW Natural, and Cascade Natural Gas. Many other utilities offer similar services and incentives. When you’re ready to start investing in energy efficiency, low-cost loans and utility or manufacturer rebates are available for some projects, and in many cases the Oregon Department of Energy (503-378-4040, 800-221-8035, oregon.gov/energy) offers state tax credits as well. Federal tax credits are also available; visit the federal government’s Energy Star website (energystar.gov) or talk to your accountant for details.
Energy Trust offers energy efficiency services and cash incentives for certain types of improvements to customers of NW Natural in southwest Washington. If you live in Washington and are not a NW Natural customer, contact your local utility for help with energy audits and information about financial incentives for making your home more efficient. (Because Washington has no state income tax, it does not offer tax credits to homeowners.)
Consider buying green power from your local utility; look in the “Utilities” section of the Getting Settled chapter for details. If you are interested in going further in your support of renewables, not only can you make your home more energy-efficient, but you can make energy in your home. Despite the cloudy climate, solar energy, including solar water heating and photovoltaic electricity, is actually quite viable in Portland; depending on your home’s location, wind power or geothermal heating systems may also be potential options. Solar Oregon (solaroregon.org), a local nonprofit, offers a monthly workshop on how to go solar, and its website provides useful information about solar power. Significant federal and state tax credits and other incentives are available for purchasing renewable energy systems; contact Energy Trust for specific information.
Although you’ve moved to a supposedly rainy city, water conservation is still important: July and August can be virtually rainless, and even in years with abundant precipitation a reduction in water use means that we can get by with fewer storage facilities, pipes, sewer treatment facilities, and new water sources. Plus, because water rates are high, and Portland’s household sewer charge (which is even higher than the water charge) is tied to your water consumption, you’ll save money, too. For water conservation tips, visit the website of the Regional Water Providers Consortium (conserveh2o.org) or click on the “conserve water” tab on the Portland Water Bureau’s website (portlandoregon.gov/water). The Portland Water Bureau will also send its customers free water conservation devices; use their online order form or call 503-823-4527.
Don’t forget to make your home green on the outside, too (and we’re not talking about paint color). Reduce or eliminate pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and use as little supplemental water as possible. (The resources listed in “Water Conservation” above also have handy tips for water-smart irrigation.) The regional government entity Metro, which is responsible for, among other things, managing waste in the metropolitan area, provides useful information about natural gardening techniques, including composting. Visit Metro’s “Yard and Garden” page at oregonmetro.gov/tools-living/yard-and-garden, or call 503-234-3000 to request brochures.
Landscaping with native plants is a great way to reduce your yard’s environmental impact. Because native plants are adapted to the local climate and soils, they often practically take care of themselves; at the very least, they don’t require constant watering and fertilization. PlantNative (503-248-0104, plantnative.com) and the Portland chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon (npsoregon.org/chapters/po.html) are good resources for learning how to use native plants in your yard. For more ambitious gardeners, the Three Rivers Land Conservancy has a comprehensive Backyard Habitat Certification Program (503-699-9825, trlc.org/backyard-habitat-certification-program/); watch for the yard signs proclaiming certification. And for goodness’ sake, don’t plant English ivy or other highly invasive species in your yard; contact the No Ivy League (503-823-3681, noivyleague.com) for details on why doing so is very naughty.
Environmentally Friendly Products and Services
Your pocketbook is one of your most powerful weapons in the environmental fight. Your decision to support environmentally friendly businesses not only helps those businesses, but indirectly creates additional consumer demand for environmentally benign choices (a demand that could ultimately change the behavior of less environmentally focused businesses). Here are a few resources for finding green products and services.
- The Chinook Book (chinookbok.net) is full of coupons for sustainable products and services from businesses in the Portland metro area. The publisher claims to use several screening criteria to weed out inappropriate businesses. The book is available at many stores and restaurants (especially businesses whose coupons are included in the book), and local schools and nonprofits also sell Chinook Books during fundraisers. The coupons are also available in a smartphone app.
- The ReDirect Guide (redirectguide.com), available for free at many libraries and businesses, is a directory of local businesses that are (or purport to be) sustainable or otherwise environmentally friendly.
A Word on Greenwashing
Greenwashing is the unsavory but common practice of selling a product (or service, or building project, or corporate image) on the basis of purported “green” or “sustainable” characteristics when in fact those characteristics don’t exist, have been misrepresented, or are outweighed by the product’s negative environmental impacts. For example, while “certified organic” has a precise meaning, the words “green” and “natural” are extremely ambiguous in the product labeling context. A product made from the internal organs of polar bear cubs and baby manatees could be labeled “natural,” although it probably wouldn’t be a terrific choice from a conservation standpoint. It can be difficult for a consumer with good intentions to tell a truly sustainable product from a misleadingly labeled fraud—and that’s just the way greenwashers like it.
While not everyone can become hyperinformed on the nuances of choosing products with their environmental impact in mind, a few helpful resources exist. The University of Oregon’s greenwashingindex.com website has a goal of helping “consumers become more savvy about evaluating environmental marketing claims of advertisers.” Consumer Reports maintains a website that assesses the environmental soundness of various products; visit greenerchoices.org. And of course, with a few exceptions (such as replacing inefficient, energy-hogging appliances), usually the greenest choice of all is to minimize your consumption and reuse what you already have.
Most environmentally aware consumers know about the benefits of organic farming, but it is also a good idea to buy locally produced food when possible. Not only does supporting local farmers keep money circulating in the region, but it reduces the amount of greenhouse gases and other pollution associated with transporting the food from faraway fields. (Some foods that are grown in greenhouses, however, like out-of-season hothouse tomatoes, may have a bigger carbon footprint than tomatoes from California or Mexico.) Most local co-ops and natural food stores, and some supermarkets, identify the geographic origin of their produce. Farmers’ markets generally sell locally grown produce; check the Shopping for the Home chapter for more information. Edible Portland (503-467-0806, edibleportland.com) is a quarterly publication covering local food issues.
When buying food in the store, in addition to organic labels look for certifications from Salmon Safe (salmonsafe.org), certifying that the source farm or vineyard uses watershed-friendly practices; the Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org), which certifies seafood as being from sustainable fisheries; and Food Alliance (foodalliance.org), which certifies farms and ranches for sustainable and humane practices.
Finally, consider reducing the amount of meat in your diet. (Livestock production is an extremely resource-intensive activity.) For information and moral support, contact Northwest VEG (503-746-8344, nwveg.org).
You can use environmental criteria to decide not only where to spend your money but where to keep it. Some banks, including large national banks, are making efforts to become “greener” in their operations and lending practices. One bank that has gone further than most is Beneficial State Bank (888-326-2265, onepacificcoastbank.com), which focuses on environmentally sustainable community development and “triple bottom line” (i.e., including environmental sustainability) lending practices; although the bank is based in Oakland, California, it maintains an office in Portland (1101 SW Washington St, 503-916-1552). Be on the lookout for banks that offer incentives for specific eco-friendly transactions. For example, a few banks and credit unions, including Unitus Community Credit Union (unitusccu.com), offer reduced loan rates for the purchase of hybrid vehicles. Other banks and mortgage lenders may let you qualify for a larger home loan if you are buying a home with energy-efficient features that reduce your monthly outlay for utility costs. And GreenStreet Lending, a service of Umpqua Bank, offers loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy home and small business improvements (866-790-2121, umpquabank.com/personal-banking/greenstreet/).
Green investing is now well established, and many mutual funds claim to invest only in environmentally and/or socially responsible companies. Some of these funds, such as Portland-based Portfolio 21 (877-351-4115, portfolio21.com), use environmental sustainability as one of its primary investing criteria. (Of course, you should still check out any fund to see if its fees, investment mix, and average returns are appropriate and acceptable for your situation.) For more information about green investing, visit GreenMoneyJournal (greenmoneyjournal.com) or The Progressive Investor (sustainablebusiness.com/progressiveinvestor/).
Probably the single best transportation choice you can make is to live close to your place of work, or in a place where you have a public transit option to get to work. The Transportation chapter lists alternatives to travel by automobile; when using a car is necessary or desirable, combine errands, carpool when possible, and ask your employer about telecommuting options. The Drive Less/Save More website (drivelesssavemore.com) offers more ideas for reducing the amount you drive, explains why driving less is good for your pocketbook, and offers a handy driving cost calculator to hammer the point home.
If you need or want to drive, consider driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle. In addition to hybrids, which can at this point be considered mainstream, a new generation of fully electric cars is becoming available; the selection ranges from specialty fleet vehicles to mass-production models like the new Nissan LEAF. If you have the money and/or skill, you can even convert an existing gasoline-powered vehicle to a fully electric car. (Of course, proving again that there is no environmental free lunch, electric car batteries raise a host of issues about production energy requirements, lifecycle impacts, toxicity, and mining.)
Currently, the most efficient mass production cars are gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight. You’ll have company, too: the Portland metropolitan area boasts the country’s highest hybrid ownership rate. In Washington, certain alternative-fuel vehicles and hybrid cars are exempt from emissions testing, and most small hybrids and some alternative-fuel vehicles are exempt from state sales and use taxes. Most electric cars and plug-in hybrids are eligible for federal and Oregon tax credits.
Whatever kind of car you drive, make sure the car gets routine maintenance to ensure that the engine runs as efficiently as possible. The Eco-Logical Business Program, sponsored by several local governments, certifies automobile repair shops that take steps to minimize pollution; visit ecobiz.org for details or call 503-823-7807.
Finally, if you want to join an automobile club for roadside assistance and travel advice, consider Better World Club (866-238-1137, betterworldclub.com). Better World Club bills itself as the nation’s only environmentally friendly auto club; they offer the usual menu of auto club services, along with discounts on hybrid rentals, bicycle roadside assistance, and a frequently hilarious electronic newsletter, Kicking Asphalt.
You can buy or modify cars to run on alternative fuels like pure ethanol or even natural gas, but by far the most popular alternative fuel in Portland is biodiesel. Biodiesel is essentially diesel fuel made from vegetable oil, and is usually sold blended with petroleum diesel fuel. The blend name designates the percentage of biodiesel: B100 is pure biodiesel, while B20 is 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel. You’ll see “Powered by Biodiesel” stickers on everything from city trucks to TriMet buses to old Volvo station wagons. All diesel fuel sold within Portland city limits must contain a minimum blend of 5% biodiesel.
You can find current lists of stations that sell biodiesel or other alternative fuels at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center website (afdc.energy.gov/fuels/biodiesel-locations.html). Bear in mind that the use of biodiesel—particularly biodiesel blended with petro-diesel—is not without potential particulate pollution problems. If you already own a diesel-powered vehicle, biodiesel is a great choice that reduces dependence on oil. However, unless you plan to run your car on B100 exclusively, you might think twice about buying a car just so you can fuel it with biodiesel. (New passenger car models with cleaner-burning diesel engines are now available, which could change the calculus.)
Also remember that, although biodiesel is made from vegetable oil, it is not the same as straight vegetable oil (SVO) fuel (a.k.a. “French fry car fuel”); most diesel engines can run on pure biodiesel or biodiesel blends—at most, you’ll have to replace a hose or two—but SVO fuel requires substantial modifications to your car (including in most cases a second fuel tank).
If your home has oil heat, note that B20 biodiesel also works in most oil-fired home furnaces.
The following are just a fraction of the resources on sustainability and environmental protection that are available in the region:
- Ecotrust, 721 NW 9th Ave, Suite 200, 503-227-6225, ecotrust.org; headquartered in the spiffy, eco-friendly Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center in the Pearl District, Ecotrust describes its mission as building “Salmon Nation.” Its website offers lots of helpful information about the coastal eco-region from Alaska to California, along with links to pages about regional conservation issues.
- Almost everyone uses fossil fuels, whether indirectly or directly. Consider offsetting the resulting greenhouse gas emissions with carbon offsets. Carbon offsets fund projects that store carbon or reduce carbon emissions from other sources, such as tree planting projects, energy efficiency projects, and alternative energy investments. Although the practice is controversial and some observers have equated the practice with medieval indulgences, in theory, you can thus offset the carbon dioxide you generate. Offsets are available from sources like My Climate (myclimate.org), and Terra Pass (terrapass.com).
- The city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 1900 SW 4th Ave, Suite 7100, 503-823-7700, portlandoregon.gov/bps/, provides information and assistance on topics ranging from green building and recycling to solar energy development. BPS’s resources are useful for people who live outside the city of Portland, too.
- Metro’s website (oregonmetro.gov) has a surprisingly helpful “Tools for Living” page with links to many good sources of information.
- The Oregon Environmental Council, 503-222-1963, oeconline.org, conducts outreach on a wide range of environmental topics that affect Oregonians.
- The Regional Environmental Information Network (REIN), rein.conservationregistry.org, an online clearinghouse of environmental information, is part of the Metro regional government’s Nature in Neighborhoods program.
- The website of the United States Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (eere.energy.gov) has some useful links and detailed (if not especially cutting-edge) information about renewable energy.
- The Center for Earth Leadership, 503-227-2807, earthleaders.org, offers classes and workshops on such topics as “How to Be an Agent of Change” for citizens who seek to play an effective role in creating a sustainable future.
- The Northwest Earth Institute, 503-227-2807, nwei.org, offers discussion courses, home eco-parties, and other programs dealing with environmental issues.
- 1000 Friends of Oregon, 503-497-1000, friends.org, works on forest and land conservation and urban planning issues.