Friends of the Earth: Three Eco-Conscious Families

Carpooling, composting, recycling. One step at a time, these families are doing their part every day to keep the planet green and clean. Follow their advice, and you can too.
Ellen Barnes

Friends of the Earth

Of course we all care about the environment. But with so many demands at both work and home, many of us feel it takes too much time and money to help protect the planet. To celebrate Earth Day, we found three families who are committed to fighting global warming, reducing their carbon footprint, and living in harmony with nature. With parents and children working together, they're conserving energy, cutting costs and, best of all, growing closer.

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Lynne Prouty and Eduardo Quintana: Tucson, Arizona

How do you keep kids from being massive consumers? It helps if your family of five lives in just 1,650 square feet. "There's no place to put extra stuff in this house," says Lynne.

The Quintana residence is not your average home. Lynne, 59, a high school administrator, and Eduardo, 59, an electronics manufacturing technician, were among the first to live in Milagro Cohousing, a 6-year-old "ecovillage" in the foothills of the Tucson mountains. It's a close-knit community of 28 small energy-efficient dwellings, ranging in price from $300,000 to $400,000. Thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in winter, and double-pane windows provide extra insulation. Waste water is treated without chemicals and then used on the land. All residents have front-loading washing machines, which consume less electricity than top-loaders. The homes and community facility, which includes a library room, laundry room, and pool, are clustered in a small portion of the village's 43 acres, so the rest of the area can be dedicated to preserving native vegetation like saguaro cacti and mesquite trees.

The couple's three children—Carolina, 16, Morgan, 14, and Savannah, 13—have all become junior ambassadors for the green movement. "The rest of Tucson isn't like this, so people ask questions, which means the kids are constantly explaining their lifestyle," says Eduardo. "And when they go to their friends' houses, they're shocked by how much stuff they have." Not that the teens don't have their own iPods. But Morgan, for instance, sets a good example by sharing video games with his pals in the neighborhood. The children also recycle glass, plastic, and newspapers, return hangers to the dry cleaners for reuse and write on both sides of their paper before recycling it. Yes, these are small things, given the enormity of global warming and other environmental problems. But as Eduardo says, "Our kids are growing up with a concern for the planet that they'll pass on to future generations through their children. It's a legacy to be proud of."

The Quintanas' Eco-Tips

  • Conserve water. Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth, and limit showers to five minutes. Install low-flow shower heads and water-saving toilets. "When Carolina's environmental science class learned to read meters and monitor their families' water usage, they discovered that our family was using one-tenth the amount of water that the other families were," says Lynne. "That really drove the lesson home."
  • Compost. Lynne and Eduardo use a method called bokashi, which involves throwing kitchen scraps in a plastic bucket along with a blend of wheat bran and aerobic and anaerobic microorganisms. It produces fertilizer in as little as 10 to 30 days—traditional composting takes much more time. And because microbes ferment the waste rather than decompose it, there's no smell. Carolina, Morgan, and Savannah help tend the mix and bury it in the soil near plants and trees. (Bokashi kits are available at
  • Buy clothes secondhand. Since they're sold twice, used clothes benefit the economy twice—without requiring additional resources. And you don't have to sacrifice style: Carolina, for example, loves to shop at Buffalo Exchange in Tucson, which sells recycled fashions geared to teens and college students.

Wendy and Jim Abrams: Highland Park, Illinois

In 2001, long before the environment was featured in the news on a daily basis, Wendy read an article about global warming that changed her life. "It was about the possibility of temperatures going up by more than 10 degrees within the next 100 years," recalls Wendy, now 43, who had put her advertising career on hold to be at home full time with her four kids. "Maybe it was my maternal instinct, but it really struck a nerve. I felt angry, sad, and helpless to protect the world for my kids. Then I realized I had no one to blame but myself because I was doing nothing. I needed to be part of the solution."

That same week Wendy volunteered as a lobbyist for the local chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). By the end of the month she flew to New York for a meeting of the group's scientists and publicists. "As I was leaving one woman thanked me and said, 'We need more environmentalists like you,'" Wendy recalls. "I turned around and looked over my shoulder, thinking she was talking to somebody else. I said, 'Me? I'm just someone who cares. I thought you had to be protesting on a raft in the Pacific to be a real environmentalist!'"

But Wendy was a pro. She was soon organizing EDF events in Chicago and going to Washington every month to meet with congressional staffers. Still, she yearned to do more. In 2006 Wendy came up with Cool Globes, a local public art project to raise awareness about climate change. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who's pledged to make his city the greenest in America, endorsed the idea. Wendy headed a committee that solicited proposals from 1,200 artists and selected the finalists. She also helped raise $2 million in corporate sponsorships to pay for art materials and installation.

Last summer 125 colorful and whimsical 5-foot spheres went on display along the Chicago lakefront, each illustrating a single eco-message. One was covered with a giant blue turtleneck sweater, urging people to turn down the thermostat and put on an extra layer of clothing. Another had dozens of tiny automobiles spelling out the word "carpool."

Wendy's children got in on the action too. David, now 15, and Emily, 13, e-mailed family and friends asking kids to send in drawings with their solutions; recipients then forwarded the request around the globe. Emily received pictures from countries as far-flung as France, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan. She and David, along with twin siblings Katie and Jake, now 8, pasted the drawings on their own globe to form continents and covered the oceans with banana paper made by school kids in Costa Rica. "It was really cool to get so many letters from so many places," says Emily. "For kids, it's obvious that we really can fight global warming. But everyone has to help."

Since then, the whole family has become more eco-conscious. They no longer use paper towels or drink bottled water. David takes the bus to school and sometimes carpools to basketball games with his dad, Jim, 46, a medical-supply-firm executive. "Whenever a Hummer drives by, Katie and Jake give it a thumbs-down," Jim says. "They know a gas guzzler when they see one."

These days Wendy is feeling a lot more optimistic than she did seven years ago. "My hope is that my kids will stay passionate about fighting global warming," she says. "And the outpouring of support for Cool Globes gives me faith that if we offer solutions, people everywhere will embrace them."

The Abrams' Eco-Tips

  • Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. They cost more than standard ones, but last 10 times as long and use one-quarter of the energy. If every household installed one, the combined reduction in carbon emissions would be equal to taking 800,000 cars off the road.
  • Curb your clothes dryer. It consumes more energy than any other household appliance, except for your refrigerator. Take advantage of the moisture-sensor setting, which shuts the machine off as soon as the job is done.
  • Write to your representative in Congress. When a bill on fuel standards or clean air and water comes up, show your support in a handwritten note instead of a form letter or an e-mail. "It carries a lot more weight," says Wendy. "And politicians do respond to constituents, especially soccer moms, if they hear from enough of them."

Margie and Rick Flood: Cedarburg, Wisconsin

You could say that the Floods made a clean start when they came to Cedarburg nine years ago. Rick had worked at an educational environmental center in Ohio, where he helped teach elementary school kids all about living in harmony with the Earth. But it wasn't until the family moved to Wisconsin for his new job as director of the state's largest ecology institute that he realized it was time to practice what he was preaching. "Margie and I didn't want to do anything extreme," he explains. "A greener life is like a New Year's resolution—take on too much, and you won't be able to maintain it. So we decided to start small and let things grow like a snowball rolling down a hill."

One of their first changes was to urge Sam and Ariana to turn out the lights when they left the room. It wasn't easy—until Rick and Margie announced they would deduct 50 cents from the kids' allowances each time they forgot. The habit has since become second nature for Sam, now 19, Ariana, 17, and Clara, 12. "I automatically switch off the lights when I leave a room," says Clara, "even when somebody else is still there!"

Not since those days have Rick, 46, who started his own eco-consulting firm last year, and Margie, 45, a violin teacher and freelance musician, had to resort to penalties. When the Floods insulated the attic seven years ago with recycled newspapers, Sam was eager to pitch in. "It was fun and messy," he says. "But it also dawned on me that this is important. I thought, 'Here's something I can do.'"

Other family activities include using a push lawn mower and shoveling snow off the driveway to cut down on gasoline fuel use. Rick, Margie, and the kids have landscaped the front and back yards with native wildflowers, including prairie sage, purple cone, and black-eyed Susans. "Generally speaking, native plants need less water to grow because they have adapted to the habitat," explains Rick. "Because of that, they also require no herbicides or pesticides." Sam, Ariana, and Clara each tend a plot of melons, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, and squash. And no fuel is needed to transport their harvest (store-bought produce travels an average of 1,500 miles).

Now every household decision, big or small, is made with a green conscience. The couple installed a dual-flush toilet, which alternates between the standard 1.6 gallons of water per flush and just half that at the push of a button. They've put in nondyed, toxin-free carpet and painted most of their house with Safecoat, which contains no volatile organic compounds. "We're not big consumers," says Margie. "We rent movies from the library and go to Goodwill for our clothes and furniture. Any family, no matter how busy, can do all these things and more. It just takes awareness."

The Floods' Eco-Tips

  • Reduce junk mail. Americans receive 4 million tons of unsolicited mail each year. Write the Direct Marketing Association and ask to be removed from mass-market lists, or go to
  • Carry reusable bags. Shunning both paper and plastic, the Floods never leave home without a couple of lightweight, nylon bags. Their favorites are ChicoBags (see, which can be crushed to fit into a pocket-size pouch.
  • Use green energy. Through their local utility, Rick and Margie buy electricity from small providers who generate wind, solar, or hydroelectric power. "It's only $12 extra a month," says Rick. "less than the cost of a large pizza—and a small price to pay to save the planet."

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 17, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.