More than 40 years ago, soul singer Sam Cooke recorded “A Change is Gonna Come.” An anthem for the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, it has gained popularity among a new generation. Today, the first African-American president in U.S. history is bringing that song into the present tense. Change is here, including the way we all look at our responsibilities to our shared environment when its resources are threatened. In the words of President Obama, “…this moment of peril must be turned into one of progress.”
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates the largest contribution to climate change the average person makes comes from the amount of fuel we burn in our cars, electricity we use at home and work, and the amount of waste we generate.
I can relate to this assessment. In my career, I lead a team that has helped FedEx Express make environmental choices, such as installing solar power on a major hub facility in California and buying hybrid delivery vans. In my day-to-day life, I make similar choices on a personal scale; choices we can all make. Together, we can lessen the global environmental impact of our lifestyle choices and leave a greener planet to our grandchildren.
Let’s look at air quality and waste at home. Indoor air quality can be improved with small changes. For example, I remember my grandmother using baking soda, vinegar and hot water to remove grease from her kitchen appliances. This “green” mixture still cleans and deodorizes well today and is one option to reduce the amount of chemicals released in your home. Controlling the level of chemical exposure for your family and properly disposing of leftover hazardous products like paints, motor oil and pesticides is essential. Check the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for more information on options – http://www.epa.gov/epa/epawaste/conserve/materials/hhw.htm.
Also, by eliminating or recycling more food and household waste, we lower emissions of greenhouse gases (gases that trap the sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere) from landfills. Methane, produced in high levels at landfills, is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide in car and truck exhaust that receives so much media attention.
To reduce wastes destined for landfills, consider changing habits at home, like actually eating those leftovers from holiday and Sunday family meals, sticking to your grocery list instead of adding impulse purchases, and even using cloth napkins in your child’s lunchbox instead of paper. And if that school lunch is in a reusable lunch box instead of a disposable one, you also save the energy needed to produce new paper bags.
Saving energy is key to reducing our families’ impact on the environment, especially in areas where most electricity is generated from fossil fuels. Take simple steps, such as changing traditional light bulbs in our home, business or church to energy-efficient models. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), if every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR compact fluorescent light, we would save enough energy to light more than three million homes for a year. Of course, we can save even more energy and money by simply opening the blinds and using sunlight instead of turning on lights at all during the day.
Note that new clean-burning technologies are on the way for power plants, but in the interim, consider an extra layer of clothes at home when it’s cold instead of turning up the heat. Even better, keep out more of the winter cold (and summer heat as well) by taking advantage of the energy efficiency plan President Obama has championed, offering tax credits to keep that expensive energy you buy from leaking out of your home. You can save from 10 to 25 percent of your home energy bill and help the environment. Check the IRS website for details on the tax credit.
We should also unplug electrical appliances like toasters, cell phone chargers and the TV in the guest bedroom when not in use. They still draw electricity when plugged in. Additionally, if you’re thinking about a digital TV as we approach the June 2009 broadcast changeover from analog, make sure you check the energy efficiency ratings of models you’re shopping for. As with other appliances, more efficiency means significant savings for you over its lifetime.
As with your TV selection, fuel economy should be among the top criteria for your next vehicle purchase. Check out fueleconomy.gov to see which cars get the best mileage ratings before deciding. At FedEx, we’re continuing to invest in more fuel-efficient planes and trucks, even though the price of fuel has dropped a lot from last year’s highs. We know it won’t take much to shoot that price back up again. Besides, we take our environmental responsibility very seriously, and we know that the most efficient single way to reduce our “environmental footprint” is to burn less fuel, because fuel consumption has a direct relationship to greenhouse gas emissions. And whatever vehicle you drive, you can reduce pollution and save fuel by following the tips of the pros behind the wheels of our trucks: avoid hard stops, quick acceleration and extensive idling. Even extra weight burns more gas so unload unnecessary items in the trunk and backseat. Also, regular vehicle maintenance helps improve fuel efficiency and reduces emissions.
Our choices are even more important in urban communities that are often disproportionately affected by air pollution. For example, there is more car and bus traffic in cities and near our schools. That’s one of the reasons why FedEx founder Fred Smith is a leading proponent of electrifying urban transportation as quickly as possible, removing those emissions from the air we breathe. Also, many residents live in proximity to power plants and local landfills. It is therefore important that we take personal action on environmental issues that adversely affect the quality of health in our neighborhoods.
Over the years, I have found great excitement and satisfaction in my career in environmental engineering. It is clear from President Obama’s agenda that this career field will grow substantially in years to come. In the African-American tradition of inventors and entrepreneurs, there’s plenty of room for technology innovation and green job creation. Moreover, we need more experts like Lewis Howard Latimer or Granville T. Woods to create technologies that improve our quality of life. These “green” career paths aren’t just for scientists and engineers, either. People of color looking to make a difference can also engage themselves in local, state or national public decision-making processes to affect sensible change on environmental matters affecting our communities.
There are many options from which to choose in participating in this climate of change. A friend of mine once remarked, “Our ancestors helped build this country. So we must also build it up, not tear it down, in order to pay homage to our ancestors and provide for our children and future generations.” I agree. What about you?
Editor’s Note: Karen Y. Ellis, Director of Corporate and International Environmental Programs at FedEx Express, has served the company for 11 years and has been appointed to regional environmental boards by the Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee and selected for the Alaska Climate Change Mitigation Advisory Board. Her background includes a degree in chemical engineering from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN.