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Chasing Zero

In New York City, Ben Jervey spends a month reducing his ecological footprint, by any means necessary.

By Ben Jervey If you were considering towns in which to live the good life-which is to say, the least harmful life-you could be forgiven for leaving New York off your list. Paved in every direction, overrun by traffic, brightly lit even in the darkest hours, it seems an unlikely candidate for environmental distinction. And yet the city is a remarkably low-impact place-due largely to its energy efficiency, per capita the best in the country.New Yorkers don't drive much, and we live and work in cramped conditions that are powered, heated, and cooled with relatively little energy. New York, it turns out, has one of the smallest per capita "ecological footprints" in the country. Raising the question: if we're already among the most energy efficient of Americans, just how much might our footprints shrink?In pursuit of an answer, last spring I began a month-long experiment in extreme urban environmentalism. This was not an act of overzealous deprivation: I ate no wheat grass, I wore no hemp. As much as possible, I wanted to live my normal, happily indulgent New York life, but to do so with as minimal an impact as I could manage. Relying on locally grown foods, renewable energies, basic conservation practices, and auto-free transit, I discovered that in New York, as in a growing number of other cities in the United States, the good life is closer than you might think.


Local or organic? The question, beaten to death in environmental circles, has an obvious answer: Why not both? Even in New York City, far from the fertile soils of California or the Midwest, one can find food grown both nearby and without all those much-maligned pesticides. Take apples, for instance, a fruit typically awash in chemicals (it has one of the highest pesticide concentrations of any produce). The orchards of the Empire State produce over a hundred varieties of apples-many of them are organic, and all are brought to market free from the oil-dependent international food chain.Farmers' markets abound here, and the best stocked and most frequent is the Union Square Greenmarket. With nearly a full city block of vegetables, fruit, dairy, poultry, fish, honey, jam, and even wine, it is the crown jewel of New York's 51 farmers' markets, and its ultra-local fare makes neighboring Whole Foods look like a shipping center. Over the course of my month-long experiment, this is where I do the bulk of my food shopping, treating myself regularly to such artisanal delights as organic foccacia, made with whole grains grown and ground in nearby Ulster County.Pursuant to the "local" food ideal, I set a limit of 150 miles for my food's journey from farm to table. The biggest hurdle in keeping such a diet isn't actually finding the food, but rather planning on when to get it. Food shopping and dining are impulsive acts in New York, but my farmers' market-for all its impressive offerings-isn't an everyday affair. Fortunately, there's no shortage of restaurants serving the green plate special-Applewood, Habana Outpost, and Candle Café are personal favorites. Several times I do succumb to the cheap convenience of a bagel of unknown origins, but for the most part I keep within my radius and, so far as I know, I don't ingest any food touched by pesticide.


With the most convenient and expansive (if not quite the tidiest) mass transit system in the country, New York's an easy place to travel lightly. The subway should be the solution to my every need, but as I suffer from slight agoraphobia and an aversion to cramped spaces, I loathe the trains and have to default to biking everywhere. Occasionally, I rise above my disabilities to take the subway when the weather is extreme. (Only twice during the month am I forced to use a taxi, once for work and once on the tail end of a long and torrentially wet evening.)Just a small fraction of New Yorkers have reason to own cars, and despite my biking proclivities, I happen to be one-work requires it. My Subaru usually spends its days parked on the side streets of Brooklyn and even though I buy a TerraPass decal-proclaiming that all carbon emissions from its occasional use have been offset-for the integrity of my experiment (and to assuage my nagging combustion-engine guilt) I think it best to put the car into hibernation in my parents' garage.


In New York, it's easy to take waste for granted. The garbagemen gather our trash at dawn and cart it off to some distant, unknown land. Fully zero percent of New York's waste resides in landfills within city limits; instead, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio have been kind enough to pile it in their back yards-at a healthy premium.For a month, I pay close attention to my life's refuse. Each day-in an embarrassing display of commitment to this project-I carry around all the waste I generate, every night adding napkins and spent pens and stubborn packing filler to a cumulative bundle. And I manically hoard all recyclables and compostables, ushering the organics down to my landlady's garden. With some deliberate effort-like carrying a reusable mug and forgoing all the excess packaging when buying, say, an apple tart from a farmer's stand-it's pretty simple to limit my waste, and I never wind up schlepping around more trash than my backpack can handle. At month's end, the amassed piles are surprisingly small. For the average American, four weeks of waste might fill an oil drum; mine could pack snugly into a toolbox.


When it comes to electricity, I have the advantage of working in an office building capped by solar panels, which, ten months of the year, provide all necessary power. Unfortunately, my apartment isn't equipped with such smart technology, so when my roommates and I plug in, we're pulling power from the grid. Conservation is key, and in a rented living space like mine, the lowest hanging fruit is lighting. In ten years, we're going to think it ludicrous that we once used light bulbs that burn 90 percent of their energy as heat.I outfit our apartment with compact fluorescents-an economical, viable alternative to conventional bulbs, albeit one that results in a glow about as charming as a dentist's waiting room. Other energy-saving measures are just as easy to adopt: unplugging chargers when not in use saves a few watt hours; turning off computers saves a bundle more; and it's almost too obvious to mention that empty rooms require no illumination. Small steps, medium-sized results.Like many renters, though, I've no control over the temperature in my home; I live at the mercy of my landlord's thermostat. It does feel contradictory to the ambitions of my experiment to have the window open on a brisk 40-degree night, but as my bed lies uncomfortably close to a heater (it's a small room), I've very little choice. And yet, I still managed to lower our daily electrical use by almost a third, from about 15 kilowatt-hours to 10. The precious few kilowatts we did consume, however, weren't bought from the standard New York City grid, but were purchased from a wind farm upstate, using ConEd Solutions, a program that fills the electric demands of any New Yorker with clean, renewable wind energy.


Living a strict low-impact existence could imply, to sticklers at least, forgoing some of life's more frivolous pleasures-notably carousing. Lucky for me-and, indeed, any conscientious New Yorker with a soft spot for the sauce-right here in town there's a brewery powered by wind energy that even shuttles around its bottles and kegs with a fleet of biodiesel trucks. If there's one fault to be found with the Brooklyn Brewery, it's that they don't use organic hops-a compromise I'm willing to accept. More than once.This is what I learned after a month of good living: it's not that hard. In four weeks I drastically cut my resource consumption, I shrank my ecological "footprint" to a far more reasonable size, and still I managed to lead a pretty typical, immodestly fun New York life. The truth is that it's easy, and in cities across the country-with their dense settlement patterns, mass-transit systems, and commonly shared resources-the good life is just around the corner.

The Results

FoodWeekly grocery total (average) for the month: $62.50Typical weekly grocery total (average): $59.00Food expenditure, costs above monthly average: %6EnergyCon Ed bill for the month: $58.49Average Con Ed bill: $87.75Electricity use (household) for the month: 300 KWhsAverage New York state household, per month: 498 KWhsAverage American household, per month: 635 KWhsTransportationBicycle (approximate): 320 miles, 0lbs CO2 emissionsCar: 34 miles, 30.9 lbs CO2 emissionSubway (approximate): 130 miles, negligible emissionTotal carbon emission due totransportation: 30.9 lbsAmerican monthly average: 619 lbsWasteTotal non-recyclable waste produced in the month: 28 lbsTotal recycled in the month: 64 lbsTotal composted in the month: 14 lbsTotal waste generated per day, during the month: 3.5 lbs/dayNational average: 4.5 lbs/dayMiles Manhattan's garbage is carted by diesel trucks annually: 7.8 million

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