Share link


Deep Thoughts and Confessions from a Sustainability Director

Kari Mackenbach, CFM, BCES, ENV SP

April 18, 2017

Do you consider yourself sustainable? Ever since I was little and fell in love with Jacques Cousteau, I knew I wanted to focus my life on water. When I was in college, I jumped on the global warming bandwagon, learning all I could about the science, so I could have elevator talks with folks, whether they liked it or not. I was once called “the most convoluted undergraduate” my professor had ever known, but I took it as a compliment. I wanted to know and understand all aspects of the so-called movement that was sustainability. What can I say? I’ve just always been an environmentally conscious and curious person.



A lesson on sustainability shaming

As a Sustainability Director for an engineering company, I sometimes have a chip on my shoulder about what I do for the greater good in comparison to the lady who brings her own bags to the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying her efforts aren’t worthwhile. But it’s the dirty look I get from her when I opt to use plastic bags that I’m not okay with.


By the way, I call this “sustainable shaming.” It’s when someone gives you that, “How could you?!” look. You know exactly what I’m talking about. And yes, I will admit it, I use plastic bags on occasion, but I do recycle them in the form of dog waste bags. I can deal with the dirty looks I get from her for not using reusable bags if this makes the sustainable shamer feel good. After all, she is doing her part.  I am old enough to remember when people threw everything out, when recycling wasn’t a thing. There were no sustainable people. Well, aside from the hippies.


Being Sustainable - The Big Scary Stuff

Sometimes I think we focus too much on the big scary stuff and if you are like me, you don’t want to hear that the ozone layer is disintegrating and we are all going to die.


Yes, several countries are burning fossil fuels like it’s the 1950s, all of the ice caps are melting, and the ozone has holes in it to the point of resembling Swiss cheese. And quite honestly, we all need a reality check.


Lonnie Thompson, a professor I highly respect from The Ohio State University, is world renowned for his research on the world’s polar ice caps. One of the realities Lonnie brings to life in his talks is that mankind will not make meaningful changes until utter devastation occurs. He says it’s just part of our make-up, it’s human nature. I hate to admit it, but I know he is right.


This reality check always gets me thinking about the small steps that we can take to lead to impactful change. These steps are not personally life altering, like eating vegan or sewing your own hemp clothes, rather these are simple things to get you started on a more sustainable lifestyle today!  


So, now that I’ve scared you, what changes can you and I do in our daily life that would be easy and painless? 

Ten painless ways to live more sustainably

  1. Go paperless. Ah, this sounds trivial, I know. And I will admit, even I sometimes have a hard time relying on my phone for a plane ticket or grocery list. Paper is paper, and for some reason, it’s more comforting to know I have my ticket in hand. But I have committed to the paperless movement, and you can too. Skip that printed plane ticket, jotting down the grocery list, or printing directions to your next destination. Technology is more accessible and reliable than ever, so take advantage. But if you absolutely must use paper, please use 100% post-consumer recycled paper.


  1. Close the loop. Sure, you probably recycle, but are you buying recycled products? Closing the product lifecycle loop has so many benefits: saves trees, reduces the use of oil, water, and energy for production, decreases air pollution, saves landfill space, and gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. The products with the largest environmental impact are paper products. Give it a try. I promise recycled toilet paper is a lot better than it used to be!


  1. Get away from the wheel. How much do you drive in a week? Cars emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides and according to the EPA, they account for 75 percent of the carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. Yikes! Fortunately, with the advancements in technology, this number is on the decline, but you can help by driving less. Walk, bike, carpool, or use public transportation. If those aren’t feasible options, combine your trips. Rather than making a trip to grab groceries and a trip later to pick up the kids from basketball practice, plan ahead and make one trip.


  1. Shut down and unplug. Back in the day, we were told to avoid turning our computers off and on in fear of harming them. Well, times have changed and the speed of technological advancements makes this practice irrelevant. Computers aren’t the only electronics that you should be thinking about. There are already many “energy vampires” in your home. These little monsters suck up your energy, even when they’re turned off and out of use. Some of the common culprits are cellphone chargers, televisions, cable boxes, DVR’s, and video game consoles. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, energy vampires add 10 percent to your electric bill. Next time you unplug your iPhone, consider unplugging the charger from the outlet as well.


  1. Pack your lunch. I pack my lunch three out of five days during the week. Not only does packing your lunch save your money and waistline, but it helps save the environment too. By using reusable containers and silverware, you’re eliminating food packaging that would otherwise end up in landfills. And by controlling your portions of food, you’re reducing food waste as well. This is probably my favorite tip because not only am I being sustainable, but I’m also saving money. This allows me to buy those new shoes I have been eyeing, much to my husband’s chagrin.


  1. Turn down or turn off. You can save money and help save the earth by simply adjusting your thermostat. Before you turn on that air conditioner for the season, have you ever just slept with the windows open? I highly recommend an open window policy between seasons! If you have the luxury of open windows, do yourself a favor and try it. Another option is to adjust the thermostat for when you aren’t at home. By changing the temperature just 10 degrees for 8 hours a day, you save 5 to 15 percent in energy costs. Look at that! Another environmentally and cost friendly tip!


  1. Rain, rain, don’t go away. I know you are asking yourself, what does this have to do with sustainability? Stormwater is the most misunderstood opportunity of our day. We discard stormwater like its trash and cover over our land with impervious materials such as asphalt, yet we wonder why we have increased flooding and problems with our rivers. Building a rain garden is a complete no brainer. If you want more information, drop me a line.


  1. Buy local foods. If food comes from shorter distance, it will be cheaper and more sustainable. Sure, I love a refreshing mango every now and then. Who doesn’t? But for those basic items, stick to local. Not only will your produce be fresher and better tasting, it will also promote local farmers and your local environment. Well-managed farms conserve the fertile soil and clean water in our communities and their surrounding areas provide habitats for wildlife.


  1. Use your own bags for groceries. Yes, I know sound like a hypocrite from my previous “sustainable shaming” story, but we can’t be expected to do every single sustainable measure all the time. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose and only 1 percent of them are recycled. Not to mention the 12 million barrels of oil used to produce the estimated 100 billion plastic bags Americans use each year. So if you are not reusing them, take the burden off a bit and switch to reusable bags. Believe it or not, I have recently started transitioning to biodegradable doggie bags for our puppy. See, even a Director of Sustainability can learn new tricks.


  1. Don’t drink bottled water. It cracks me up when I see people drinking bottled water. You know you can get that at home, right? To put it into perspective, the average water pitcher filters 240 gallons of water a year for about 19 cents a day. If you translate this to bottled water, you’re looking at a $4.98 cost per day. That’s more than $1,700 in savings per year! Not only does bottle water hurt your bank account, but it also hurts the environment in more ways than one. If the cost savings doesn’t convince you, the amount of oil used to produce the bottles—enough to fill 1.3 million cars for an entire year—should. Buy a reusable water bottle to save some money and be more sustainable.

Cost-Effective, Easy, & Impactful

In closing, I am not asking you to be more sustainable because it’s the latest trend or because you may feel sustainable shamed like I did in the grocery store, I am asking you to consider some of these small changes in your daily life because it just makes sense. It’s cost-effective, easy, and is setting an example for our future generations.


I may be a Director of Sustainability, but I am not sustainably perfect every single day. It’s all about the small efforts leading to impactful change. Hopefully, I’ve encouraged you to make some small changes in your daily life.