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Green before green was cool

By Staff | Aug 21, 2009

Going green is all the rage right now.

For those of you wondering what it means to “Go Green,” it’s finding ways to be more environmentally responsible. Basically, it’s about saving energy, recycling certain products and materials, and working to establish a way of life that’s less harsh on the environment. So many people think going green means completely changing their lifestyle and becoming a tree hugger. But that simply isn’t the case. It can be something as simple as using the reusable canvas sacks at the grocery store instead of plastic bags, turning off the water when you brush your teeth or changing to energy-efficient light bulbs. If we all did the little things we could collectively make a big difference.

There are tips and tricks out there for going green, offering suggestions to anyone who will listen. But hanging out with my Aunt Mary this week reminded me that my family was green way before it was cool to be green.

As I watched my aunt haul milk cartons full of ice out of the cooler I realized that she inherited this from my grandmother (her mother). My grandmother recycled just about everything she possibly could. Like my aunt, she would take discarded milk cartons, fill them with water and stick them in the freezer. This made for some handy ice packs for the cooler on the next trip out to the field with lunch.

Grandma’s favorite item to recycle was bread sacks. Need a doggy bag for those leftovers from the dinner table? Stick them in a bread sack. Have cut flowers you need to keep fresh? Put them in a bread sack with a little water in the bottom. Need stuffing for a pillow? Fill it with bread sacks. Bread sacks were the solution for everything.

I remember a storage closet she had where she would nail the tops of baby food jars to the bottom of a shelf and then twist the jar back on. These handy little jars hung there holding everything from buttons and sewing needles to paper clips and nails.

She had a hobby of making rugs out of old rags or discarded clothing. She made quilts out of leftover pieces of material and afghans from scraps of yarn. Let me tell you, those were some of the most colorful blankets you’ve ever seen.

My grandma was the queen of reusing things. As long as they were in good shape, items that most people would throw in the trash without giving it another thought, like paper plates and plastic silverware, she’d give a good washing and use again. She would have made Al Gore and all the other environmentalists out there so proud.

I must admit I don’t think my grandma was doing all this with the environment in mind. She was likely going through all the effort to salvage used items instead of simply throwing them in the trash because she, like so many other folks, grew up during the depression when economic hardship required people to be thrifty. Before the disposable society we live in today really took hold, Grandma was helping the environment without even realizing it.

My grandmother has been gone for over 20 years, but clearly her legacy of reusing and recycling was passed along to my aunt. And in this day and age when our trash heaps are busting at the seams and our carbon footprint is becoming that of Bigfoot, we could all learn a thing or two from people like my grandma.

Whether you call it just plain being frugal or a fancy term like environmentally responsible, Grandma had it down to a science.

I wonder if she had any idea that she was way ahead of her time.

Mullally is a Tribune writer.

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