Back in the U.S.A.

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!

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