Aptly nicknamed, the “Emerald City” has a lot riding on its reputation as one of the greenest cities in the nation. With the support of mayors Greg Nickels (2002–2010) and Mike McGinn (2010–present), Seattle has worked hard to distinguish itself as an environmental leader, and in some important respects it has succeeded. Two notable achievements include the city’s implementation of green building policies and its recycling program. In 2000, Seattle adopted a sustainable building policy and became the first city in the nation to adopt LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s green building rating system, as the municipal design standard and performance measurement tool. In 2011, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city as fourth greenest city in the United States, and first in terms of building. Seattleites’ commitment to the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) was demonstrated in 2011, when single-family homes recycled 70% of their waste (the national average is 34%), helping divert 50% of municipal waste away from landfills into recycling facilities or compost.
Reducing the environmental impact of single-car commutes has been more of a challenge. Seattle has significant traffic woes, and has struggled for years to implement working transit solutions. Unlike its neighbor to the south, Portland, Oregon, which boasts an efficient and extensive light rail system, Seattle’s principal form of mass transit is still its bus system, though a series of light rail projects are currently under way. Large-scale transportation initiatives tend to get stalled, and funding squandered, in expensive and protracted squabbles over transit projects, such as the Monorail expansion (R.I.P. 2005) and the deep-bore tunnel project scheduled to replace the crumbling Alaska Way Viaduct. Nevertheless, more people in Seattle bike to work than in any other U.S. city, including Mayor McGinn, who has taxed motorists to raise money to make the city safer and more convenient for bicyclists and pedestrians by creating bike lanes and reducing on-street parking.
All in all, if environmental issues are close to your heart, Seattle is a great place to live, with plenty of green resources (the Seattle Times features a regular “ecoconsumer” column) and the political will and community support to back up environmentally beneficial policies. When you run into each other dragging your recycling bins to curb, you’ll find that most of your neighbors are equally committed to reducing their own carbon footprints.
Greening Your Home
If you’re a prospective home buyer, consider reducing your consumption of energy and resources by purchasing the smallest, most energy-efficient property that you need. If you purchase an older home, you can have it retrofitted to be more energy efficient (see below), or you can look for a newer property built to rigorous environmental standards. GreenWorks Realty (2850 SW Yancy St, 206-283-8181, greenworksrealty.com) is the first real estate broker in the nation to specialize in green properties, and a growing number of eco-brokers (www.ecobroker.com) can show you similarly eco-friendly homes in Seattle and its surrounding communities. If you’re planning to have a new home built, you’ll find that the city gives the green light (so to speak) to eco-friendly construction projects by expediting the permit process for green buildings (search for “Green Permitting” at seattle.gov/dpd).
You can also choose to live in a neighborhood where a majority of services are situated within walking distance, or one that is close to bus lines or other forms of public transit, thus reducing your reliance on a car. A handy online resource called Walk Score (www.walkscore.com) calculates the walking distance from any address to local businesses and amenities and assigns it a number between 0 and 100 that reflects the walkability of that address. The site also shows you nearby amenities and the distance to those services, and calculates the length of your commute by car, bike, and on foot. Many realtors advertise the Walk Scores of the properties they list; a score of 90 to 100 means a walker’s paradise, whereas a very low Walk Score, between 0 and 24 for instance, means you will be car-dependent.
If you intend to remodel an existing structure, consider choosing a contractor who is committed to using salvaged building materials, or source them yourself. A list of local contractors and suppliers can be found on the Green Pages at Northwest Eco-building Guild’s website (206-575-2222, ecobuilding.org). The SoDo district is home to a number of secondhand building material suppliers, including Second Use (7953 2nd Ave S, 206-763-6929, seconduse.com) and EarthWise (3447 4th Ave S, 206-624-4510, earthwise-salvage.com). Visit RE Store, in Ballard, for a constantly evolving selections of used bathroom sinks, doors, and vintage lighting fixtures (1440 NW 52nd St, 206-297-9119, re-store.org). Or check out Bedrock, tucked under the end of the Magnolia Bridge, with its kaleidoscopic collection of tiles crafted from recycled glass (1401 W Garfield St, 206-283-7625, bedrockindustries.com). If you need new materials, the flagship store of Ecohaus (4121 1st Ave S, 206-315-1974, ecohaus.com) carries a huge selection of eco-friendly building supplies, including bamboo flooring, composting toilets, and “stone” countertops made from recycled paper. Make sure that the paint you buy contains little or no volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These solvents become gases at room temperature and aren’t healthy for you or for the environment. Sources for “green” paint include Best Paint Co. (206-783-9938, bestpaintco.com) and Miller Paints (multiple locations, millerpaint.com), which carries its own low-VOC brand Acro Pure. Notable environmentally friendly brands include Devine Color (888-MY-DEVINE, devinecolor.com) and Yolo Colorhouse (www.yolocolorhouse.com). Most larger national paint manufacturers also carry their own lines of low-VOC paint.
Consider installing a green roof on your property. Green roofs are covered with plants and grass that absorb rainwater and reduce runoff. They also keep a building cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and help cool and clean the air. Green roofs cost more than traditional roofs, but they last two to three times longer than traditional roofing materials.
Energy conservation has become a priority for many communities in the Puget Sound area. Official websites maintained by each city government are usually a good place to begin searching for information and resources to help you save energy and lower your utility bills. Seattle residents have access to cash rebates for sprinkler systems and toilets and other incentives for energy-efficient appliances, lighting, and weatherizing, including low-cost loans for energy-efficient upgrades and deeply discounted home energy audits.
Here are a few of the programs and services listed at the City of Seattle site (www.seattle.gov):
- The HomeWise program (206-684-0244) seattle.gov/housing/HomeWise), sponsored by the Seattle Office of Housing, provides free weatherization services for low-income tenants or home owners as well as low-interest home improvement loans for those who qualify.
- The WashWise Rebate Program, initiated in 2007, offers incentives to Washington state residents who purchase an Energy Star–rated clothes washer (866-632-4636, washwiserebate.com). Visit www.energystar.gov to read about the Energy Star program and learn how you can earn federal tax credits when you upgrade to energy-efficient appliances.
- Community Power Works (CPW) (206-449-1170, communitypowerworks.org) is a federally funded building upgrade program available to homeowners and businesses in central and southeast Seattle that will ultimately eliminate 70,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and create thousands of green jobs. Qualified homeowners have access to inexpensive energy assessments, certified contractors, and rebates, incentives, and loans to help pay for upgrades.
- Seattle City Light’s Energy Conservation (206-684-3800, seattle.gov/light/Conserve) page lists rebate programs for homes and businesses and tools for saving energy. City Light also sponsors a program called Powerful Neighborhoods, which distributes free compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), low-flow showerheads, and faucet aerators to designated neighborhoods.
The city of Seattle has invested a wealth of time and money into encouraging its residents to conserve energy not just because it’s good for the planet but because it makes sound economic sense. Simply switching to LED (light-emitting diode) streetlights is expected to save the city $2.4 million in operating costs by 2014.
While the majority of electricity used in the United States still comes from burning fossil fuels, many utility suppliers in the Puget Sound region now have programs that enable customers to purchase a portion or all of their electricity from renewable sources. Green power is electricity generated from wind, solar, geothermal, landfill gases, waves and tides, gas from wastewater treatment, hydropower, and other alternative fuel sources. Seattle City Light’s Green Up program (206-684-8822, seattle.gov/light/Green) allows residential and business customers to buy electricity derived from solar, wind, and biomass (from animal waste) power generators based in the Northwest. You can choose the extent to which you participate in the program, whether 25%, 50%, or 100%, and pay a slightly higher electricity bill. Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to Seattle and its suburbs, has its own Green Power program (800-562-1482, pse.com), consistently ranked as one of the most successful in the nation. Tacoma Power’s Evergreen Options (253-502-8377, mytpu.org) allows its customers to purchase green power, and the Snohomish County Public Utility District sponsors the Plant Power program (425-783-1000, snopud.com).
Some homeowners take it a step farther and build their own power sources. If you install solar panels on your roof or erect a wind turbine to generate your own electricity, you can earn a federal tax credit for up to 30% of the cost of renewable energy improvements to your home. The Natural Resources Defense Council publishes an online guide to clean energy (www.nrdc.org, search Consumer’s Guide to Buying Clean Energy) that’s worth a visit. Another site with information about tax credits for renewable energy is DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (www.dsireusa.org/incentives).
It’s easy to take water for granted when you’re surrounded by it. A large part of the beauty of the Seattle area is due to the omnipresence of water, whether it falls from the sky or shimmers in lakes and on the surfaces of rivers that empty into Puget Sound. According to the Partnership for Water Conservation (877-411-2120, bewatersmart.net), the region’s burgeoning population has diminished clean water supplies and led to reductions in stream flows, endangering fish populations. Did you know that a leaking toilet can waste 200 gallons of water a day? For years, public information campaigns have been counseling us to conserve water, so hopefully you’ve got the basics down: Take short showers, don’t brush your teeth with the faucet running, put a brick in the toilet tank or install low-flow toilets, use aerating faucets, and showerheads and front-loading washing machines that use water more efficiently. And don’t let all that “liquid sunshine” go to waste! Buy a rain barrel, install it under your downspout, and use the water you harvest in your garden (but never for drinking). The Seattle Conservation Corps sells rain barrels for $75 each, plus tax and shipping. They can deliver rain barrels for a fee, or you can pick one up at their office at Magnuson Park (206-684-0910). The Saving Water Partnership (206-684-7283, savingwater.org), sponsored by Seattle-area utility companies, lists ways to conserve water inside, outside, and at work. See “Landscaping,” below, for additional ways to conserve water.
A lush green lawn is an ecological disaster area. It may be heaven for your bare feet, but it’s hell on the environment, requiring destructive amounts or water, fertilizer, and pesticides to keep it that way. As anti-lawn sentiment grows, many Seattle homes sport brown lawns during the (usually dry) summer months. Practice natural lawn care (www.savingwater.org/docs/natlawncare.pdf) or consider replacing an existing lawn with another garden feature. If you are landscaping your property, choose drought-resistant native plants, which tend to be more pest and disease resistant than non-native varieties. Natives need less water and control soil erosion better than non-native plants. The Washington Native Plant Society (206-527-3210, wnps.org) provides information about and sources for native plants. You might be surprised to learn that the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry was actually introduced to the region by settlers. Clear out invasive plants such as English ivy and holly, Japanese knotweed, blackberry vines, and even attractive ornamentals like bamboo and the butterfly bush. The “Northwest Yard and Garden” section on the King County website (www.kingcounty.gov) has useful information about natural landscaping or you can call (or e-mail) their Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline at 206-633-0224.
You’ll likely notice signs around the neighborhood declaring that a garden is a Pesticide-Free Zone. Do the planet—and everyone on it—a favor and reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides and weed killers. Opt for earth-friendly forms of pest control and organic fertilizers. Local sources for organic and non-toxic garden products include Swansons Nursery (9701 15th Ave NW, 206-782-2583, swansonsnursery.com), Goods for the Planet (425 Dexter Ave N, 206-652-2327, goodsfortheplanet.com), and Molbak’s in Woodinville (425-483-2000, molbaks.com), or you can order supplies online. Seattle Tilth (4649 Sunnyside Ave N, 206-633-0451, seattletilth.org) is an excellent resource for information about organic gardening.
The earth’s changing climate is expected to dump even more rainfall on the Puget Sound region in years to come. Unmanaged runoff from storm water can lead to erosion, mudslides, and increased pollutants flowing into the Sound. Seattle Public Utilities sponsors the Rain Wise program to help residents manage the flow of storm water. The program encourages residents to plant trees and rain gardens, reduce paved areas on their property, and build cisterns to slow the runoff, offering rebates for construction costs (https://rainwise.seattle.gov/city/seattle/overview). See resources in “Water Conservation” above for information about efficient irrigation.
Environmentally Friendly Products and Services
Growing consumer demand has created a mushrooming market for eco-friendly goods and services. Businesses that are not actually “green” may claim to be (see “A Word on Greenwashing” below) in order to profit from this trend. Here are a few resources for finding businesses and suppliers with bonafide green credentials:
- The Chinook Book (http://sea.chinookbook.net) contains more than 400 coupons for groceries, dining, travel, entertainment, garden supplies, and more that can be redeemed at sustainable businesses around the Puget Sound/Seattle region. Many stores and restaurants carry the book, which is published annually. If you have a smart phone, the Chinook Book has a free app that you can download at the Apple store.
- Online directories for environmentally friendly suppliers are all over the Internet. The Greenopia.com website (www.greenopia.com) lets you search for green products and services in your area. The site also posts sustainability ratings for products and corporations as well as relevant news and articles about green living.
- Natural Choice Directory (www.naturalchoice.net) helps you find businesses committed to sustainability. Here you’ll find everything from green dentistry (replace your old fillings with biocompatible materials) and non-toxic pest control, to green (phthalate-free) sex toys and vegan pet food.
- For free or a fee you can download green apps onto your smart phone or PDA that, among other things, help you make informed choices as a consumer. The free GoodGuide app gives you detailed information about the health, social, and environmental impacts of a given product when you type in its name or photograph its barcode.
A Word on Greenwashing
When offered a choice, consumers are turning increasingly to “green” products and services. Some businesses attempt to profit by masquerading as earth friendly when they are, in fact, anything but. Greenwashing is “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing practices that minimize environmental impact,” according to the Greenwashing Index sponsored by the University of Oregon. You can visit this site (www.greenwashingindex.com) and others, such as the one maintained by Consumer Reports (www.greenerchoices.com), to determine if a given product or service is as eco-friendly as it claims.
A number of useful guides have been published, such as Clean & Green by Annie Berthold-Bond, that can help you find less toxic household products for cleaning your home. If you prefer to hire someone else to do your dirty work, many local cleaning services specialize in green cleaning. The website www.ecovian.com rates local green services and posts customer reviews. If you’re in the market for a new washing machine, dryer, or dishwasher, be sure to purchase one with an energy-efficient model with a high Energy Star rating of 75 or above, if possible (www.energystar.gov).
Seattle has embraced the locavore movement, a commitment to eating locally grown, seasonal foods that has transformed the city’s restaurant scene in recent years. Load up on locally grown produce at one of the region’s weekly farmers’ markets (see list in “Shopping for the Home”). An increasing number of area residents purchase a share in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture programs), such as New Roots Organics (206-261-2500, newrootsorganics.com) or Helsing Junction Farm (360-273-2033, helsingfarmcsa.com), which deliver locally grown organic produce to your doorstep. With veggies this delicious, you might consider adopting a vegetarian diet, one of the most powerful things you can do for the environment. Livestock production contributes tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. If you can’t resist the temptations of the flesh, you can buy your meat from a local rancher, such as the folks at Cascade Range Beef Company (206-355-2468), who raise grass-fed animals without using antibiotics or hormones. Of course, the freshest produce is the kind you grow yourself: More Seattleites are cultivating their own vegetable gardens, raising chickens for eggs and even keeping bees in their backyards. If you don’t have the space, you can get on the (very long) waiting list for your local P-Patch or community garden (www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch). Urban Garden Share pairs would-be gardeners with available gardening space (www.urbangardenshare.org).
When shopping for food at the grocery store, buy fruits and vegetables that are certified organic. Another label to watch for is the Salmon Safe certification, which promises that a farm or vineyard isn’t polluting the local watershed. When buying seafood, choose varieties from sustainable fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide lists best choices for seafood and which ones to avoid (www.montereybayaquarium.org). You can download a wallet card or an app for your phone so you’ll have it while you’re shopping.
And in a city that literally worships the coffee bean, you’ll want to make sure that your daily cup of joe is environmentally friendly, too. Seattle-based Zoka (multiple locations, zokacoffee.com) gets high marks for greenness.
Green banking means promoting environmentally friendly practices and reducing your carbon footprint through your banking activities. Some financial institutions have adopted greener methods of operation and lending practices, in large part because there’s a market for it: an increasing number of customers want to entrust their money to financial institutions committed to doing business in an environmentally conscientious manner. As a rule, smaller community banks and credit unions and online banks have a better environmental track record. One local bank committed to supporting green initiatives is One PacificCoast Bank (2720 3rd Ave, Ste #1, 206-340-2700, onepacificcoastbank.com), which focuses on economic and environmental sustainability. A national Internet bank that gets high marks for green banking is ING Direct (https://home.ingdirect.com). Certain banks or mortgage lenders will let you qualify for a larger home loan if you are purchasing a “green” property, or one with more energy efficient features. 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). Many financial institutions encourage their customers to go paperless and arrange to conduct their banking and pay their bills entirely on line. If you’re not quite ready to give up your checkbook, you can opt for eco-friendly checks made with recycled paper. Green Bank Report (http://greenbankreport.com) is an excellent Internet resource for information about green banking practices.
Opportunities for green investing are growing as well, as more people opt to invest their money in environmentally responsible companies. Light Green Advisors (1420 5th Ave, 206-547-8645, lightgreen.com), an asset management firm specializing in environmentally beneficial investing, and GoodFunds Wealth Management (6009 34th Ave NW, 206-782-1205, goodfunds.com), both based in Seattle, specialize in sustainable responsible investment (SRI) services.
On average, people drive more in the Seattle metropolitan area than they do in Los Angeles. Finding alternative forms of transportation is a critical issue in Seattle, where so many residents still rely on their cars to get to work or to run daily errands. Currently, transportation represents the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases (GHG), as well as water and air pollution, in Washington State, and the Puget Sound region’s burgeoning population will only exacerbate this problem in years to come. Urban planners believe one key to the region’s transit woes lies in the concept of transit-oriented communities (TOC): compact and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods designed to accommodate housing as well as shops, businesses, and services, in close proximity to a transit hub or station. Recent developments in outlying suburban communities such as Burien, Redmond, and Bellevue have been planned according to this model.
Of course, the most environmentally friendly thing you can do is give up your car and rely on your own legs (whether to walk, bicycle, or climb aboard public transit) to take you where you need to go. In 2010 the city of Seattle launched its Walk Bike Ride Challenge, a program of incentives to encourage residents to reduce single-occupant car trips and walk, bike, or take public transit whenever possible. Some families choose to share a single car; some people become members of a car sharing service such as Zipcar (206-682-0107, zipcar.com), which affords you access to a vehicle when you need it minus the expense of owning, insuring, and maintaining one.
However, such measures may not be practical for you. Another way to limit the amount of time you spend behind the wheel is to live in a neighborhood that’s close to your workplace, or you can choose housing in proximity to a mass transit hub, so you can ride public transportation to work. (See also the Transportation chapter, which lists all local sources of public transit, along with many municipal resources geared to help commuters stay out of their vehicles.) If you must drive, you can purchase a fuel-efficient vehicle, such as a hybrid, which are now made by most car manufacturers. In Washington, individuals who purchase or lease high-mileage hybrid vehicles or cars powered by clean alternative fuels are exempt from certain sales and use taxes (visit dor.wa.gov; 800-647-7706 for more information) through 2016. In addition, Washington is one of six states participating in the EV Project, a federally (public-private) funded program to promote the use of electric vehicles. ECOtality, Inc., the company in charge of the project, is busy installing 14,000 of its Blink charging stations nationwide, thanks to a cooperative effort between the City of Seattle, Washington State, and the Obama administration. In 2011, the city’s first public charging stations for electric vehicles were installed at CenturyLink Field. Drivers who own a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt can use an app on their smart phone or PDA to locate the nearest Blink recharging station. No matter what type of car you drive, regular maintenance will help it burn fuel more efficiently and pollute less. If you’re in the market for an auto club, you might consider joining the Better World Club (866-238-1137; betterworldclub.com). Based in Portland, this alternative to AAA is the nation’s only eco-friendly roadside assistance service for cars and bikes.
As part of its larger pro-environmental agenda, Seattle has purchased hybrids and converted to using alternative fuels in many city-owned vehicles such as trucks and fire engines. In 2010, the city’s Green Fleet won first place in a nationwide competition. Originally, the city of Seattle used biodiesel to power many of its vehicles. Biodiesel is produced from a variety of renewable resources including waste vegetable oils, animal fats, cooking oil, and soybean oil. The most commonly used form is B20, which is a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum fuel, and most diesel engines can handle this with little or no adaptations. In 2009, in response to emerging evidence that its production may actually be worse for the environment than gasoline, the city put a hold on its biodiesel purchases. The city has also invested in a program that uses electricity to power its Green Fleet, and plans to add 35 Nissan Leafs to its motor pool by 2012. Seattle Children’s Hospital, which runs the largest vanpool program in the United States, recently added the nation’s first electric vehicle vanpools to its fleet. Electrically charged Segways are used for tasks such as parking enforcement and meter reading. Seattle also maintains an aging fleet of 159 electric trolley buses, a legacy of the old Seattle Transit system, which run on fourteen routes, connected to a rather unsightly grid of overhead wires. Replacement of these vehicles, either with new trolley buses or by diesel-hybrids, will begin in 2014. Two useful sources for information about alternative fuels include Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition (206-689-4055; wwcleancities.org) and the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association (www.seattleeva.org).
The following organizations represent just a select few of the multitude of resources on sustainability and environmental protection available in Seattle and its surrounding communities:
- Cascadia Green Building Council, 206-223-2028, cascadiabc.org; this chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council promotes green building by forging alliances with other environmentally progressive organizations.
- The Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, 206-720-0285, ccej.com, works to ensure that low-income people and people of color have equal access to environmental quality and services.
- Earthshare Washington, 206-622-9840, esw.org, promotes environmental education, volunteerism, and charitable giving by partnering with businesses across the state.
- Environment New Service, ens-newswire.com, an independently owned and operated international wire service that presents late-breaking environmental news in a fair and balanced manner.
- Futurewise, 206-343-0681, futurewise.org, a statewide public interest group working to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting farmland, forests, and shorelines today and for future generations.
- The Green Seattle Partnership, greenseattle.org, a public-private partnership formed in 2004 between the City of Seattle and the Cascade Land Conservancy, to create a sustainable network of forest parkland throughout the city.
- Greendrinks, greendrinks.org, is an informal social networking group for environmentalists and people interested in environmental issues.
- Founded in 1906, The Mountaineers , 206-521-6000, www.mountaineers.org, is the largest membership group in the Puget Sound Region for people interested in preserving, enjoying, and exploring the outdoors and wilderness areas. The club sponsors a wide range of social, and education outdoor activities.
- The Nature Consortium, 206-923-0853, naturec.org, is a grassroots organization committed to connecting people, the arts, and nature.
- The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, 206-575-222, ecobuilding.org, a community of homeowners, builders, suppliers, and designers that encourages green building practices by providing open-source building materials to the construction industry and the public.
- The city of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment , 700 5th Ave, #2748, 206-615-0817, seattle.gov/environment, information about sustainable urban planning and waste and toxics reduction, and how to reduce your environmental impact.
- The Seattle Chefs Collaborative, seattlechefs.org, works with chefs and the great food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply.
- The Sierra Club, maintains a Green Home Provider list of businesses with green credentials (www.sierraclubgreenhome.com). A service or retailer must pass an application review to be listed as a SCGH GreenCheck Provider. Be advised that the program ultimately depends upon consumer verifications and is not an official accreditation process.
- TreeHugger.com, treehugger.com, is a source of green news and product information dedicated to making sustainability mainstream.
- The Washington Environmental Council, 206-631-2600, wecprotects.org, is an excellent resource for environmental news and information about current legislation.