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A student-sized carbon footprint

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Emma Gilchrist did the unthinkable: she turned down an environmental journalist's dream job to work on the BBC's new Green website and stayed in the heart of oil country.

As a new Calgarian and recently graduated student, she was having trouble finding information on how to make earth-friendly choices. And, she says, there's a lot more eco-conscience people here than some may think. So the young journalist turned down an offer from one of the world's most respected news sources, pitched her idea to the Calgary Herald and started slogging away at her Green Guide, a source for people to find information about how to make informed decisions about reducing their footprint without spending a ton of money or time on it.

"I see this as tying to a whole bunch of areas of your life, the hardest part of it is being organized and motivated and it has to do with just having your life in order to do things like pack a lunch every day," she says. "It does take a little bit of time each day, but overall you're going to save money, you're probably going to eat healthier, if you walk instead of drive everywhere, you're going to be healthier. So I think it's about taking a step back and really planning out what you want to happen in your life instead of just letting life happen to you."

A year into her guide, Gilchrist was right about Calgarians thirst for information on how to be more eco-friendly-- from carsharing to community gardening, environmental community organizers are finding more and more people are trying to make a change.

Curbin' energy use at your pad

Gilchrist cut her home energy use by nearly half this year, not by buying a new fridge, but by unplugging appliances, turning off her computer at night and when at work and changing her light bulbs to compact fluorescents-- which use 75 per cent less energy than regular bulbs.

"Phantom draws is a big one, that's what I'm talking about when I talk about unplugging your TV, cell phone charger or basically any appliance that has a light on when you turn it off, some of those appliances will be drawing as much energy when they're off as when they're on," she says.

On campus, you can get involved with the University of Calgary's EcoClub which is pushing to inform their peers through workshops teaching people how to compost, helping students figure out where to recycle and bringing in speakers and educational films.

"There's a reason it's in the order of reduce, reuse, recycle," says co-president Sierra Love. "It's great to recycle, but it's way better to reduce the amount that you're buying and the amount of packaging that you have."

Love even suggested reducing the amount of meat you eat. But don't worry beef lovers, she's not saying you have to become a vegetarian.

"There's a lot of reasons to reduce your meat intake. Number one, farming cattle takes up a lot of land, cows produce a lot of methane, they use a lot of hormones, and [farmers] use a lot of pesticides on the land."

Love also points to our use of household chemicals, from the pesticides we use in our yards to using Windex, when a solution of vinegar and water could do the trick.

Getin' your green transport on

Calgary has a carsharing co-op, with a car right on campus, at the parking lot nearest to the campus C-Train station. Due to their insurance policy members must be 23 years old and have three years of driving experience-- but if you've got that, you're golden. The initiative started in 1999 out of the Arusha Centre and has since grown to be a community collective.

To use the service you apply through their website, pay a membership fee and get charged on a per-use basis. Their site offers an easy to use online reservation system and they have vehicles across the city.

Calgary's Carsharing Co-op member Trevor Ott says he joined to reduce his carbon footprint and, as a positive side affect, has saved a lot of money that would have been going to car insurance or his monthly lease payments. He estimates his car use has gone down 50 to 75 per cent.

"You're paying for usage rather than paying up front for the convenience of having a vehicle. So each time you use it you're recognizing that there's a cost associated with it."

Carsharing is a convenient option, but there's always the even cheaper and environmentally friendly transit route. With tuition, every full-time student pays for a U-Pass, so it's best to take advantage of it. And, of course, when the snows not on the ground, bikes make for fun, and responsible, transportation. Look for a bike shop in the bottom of the Taylor Family Digital Library when it opens.

Eatin' friendly

Calgary's Garden Resource Network works with communities and interested individuals to start up community gardens. CGRN co-ordinator Gail Blackhall says over the last few years there's been a renewal of interest from people looking to get their food closer to home.

"People see the possibilities, they want to grow pesticide-free food, they want to grow things locally, they see the community building aspects where they can meet people who are interested in gardening and people they might not meet in other parts of their life," she says. "There's the environmental aspect and the social aspect, and people want to reconnect with nature while they're in the city."

The CGRN has helped start up 12 gardens across the city, but Blackhall estimates there are 26 community gardens in total. Time commitment varies, with most of the work being done planting in June and harvesting in September. For those looking to eat homegrown food, but are short on time, you're able to share a plot-- and the work. The season will start again in May and veggies that can be grown include tomatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, beets, potatoes and carrots.

Blackhall says Cornucopia, a garden in Inglewood, started a project this year where you could pay a fee for a share of the harvest and then collect vegetables as they became ripe. If you help with the harvest, your volunteer hours are taken off your fee.

The U of C has its own garden on campus and is looking for students to get involved. The garden is behind the Varsity Courts family housing units on the north side of campus, across from the soccer fields. The garden has about 30 or so members including students, faculty and staff.

Bert Einsiedel helps to co-ordinate the garden and says experience and a large time commitment are not needed, as students are able to work on a communal plot with other students and are often teamed up with more experienced gardeners.

But, you don't have to grow your food or only shop at the farmer's market, says Gilchrist, just being conscious about how far your food has traveled (buying apples from B.C. and not New Zealand) and how it's packaged goes a long way.

"Things like buying yogurts in all the little packages-- you're paying 20, 25 per cent more for the yogurt and it's in this packaging that you're going to use for 30 seconds and throw away," she says. "So now I buy it in the big things and you can pay $2 and get re-usable containers that are the same size and just split it up at home."

Gilchrist stresses buying bottled water in a city like Calgary doesn't make sense, noting that often the water is just filtered Calgary tap water. But on top of the cost, she pointed to the energy used to make the plastic.

"If you look at the bottle itself and imagine it filled a third of the way up with water, change that to oil and that's how much oil it takes to make every bottle so it doesn't really matter if you're recycling it or not."

Beyond making changes to your home energy use, transportation and the food you eat ­­­-- the top three areas you can reduce your impact, respectively-- Gilchrist points to other ways to curb consumption, including printing notes double sided and trading in used clothes at consignment stores.

But above all, she suggests staying informed and thinking about the decisions you make will be the most helpful tools in your quest to go green.

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