The Future is Now-Being an Eco-Consumer in the 21st Century

"So many things I never thought I'd see, happening right in front of me."

That's a line from "Welcome to the Future," a recent country song by Brad Paisley that provides a clever, thoughtful look at a few of the changes we've seen in the past 40 years, from technology to race relations.

I love that song because it reminds me how much some things - but certainly not all - have changed. And since I work in the environmental field, I like to ponder the changes we've seen in the green realm, especially those changes that affect regular citizens like you and me.

So here is my subjective list of three major green changes we've seen in the past 20 years, followed by three I predict we will see in the next 20 years. First, what we've already seen:

- Food waste reinvented

This isn't available nationwide yet, but here in the Seattle area we have the wonderful opportunity to have our food scraps turned into compost. Most single-family households here can put their food waste and food-soiled paper in with their yard waste, which is collected and turned into compost by a local company, Cedar Grove Composting. The lawn and garden compost products they make from our food and yard waste are of a high-enough quality that they are sold in bags at major home improvement stores. This is a revolutionary development that illustrates how garbage can become a valuable resource. But remember, you have to participate to make this service work. Compostable bags make it easy for you to collect food waste (even meat and dairy products are accepted in most programs) in your kitchen.

- Answers for everything

No matter what your environmental question is - from "What's the greenest way to dispose of pet waste?" to "Which household cleaning products are the least toxic?" to "What are the fuel-efficiency figures for all compact cars?" - the Internet is your best friend. Online searches (and you can always use a computer at the library if you don't have your own) have made it incredibly easy to find green info and green products.

- No longer auto-matic

Alternatives to gas-powered cars are finally widely available. Hybrids hit the road first, but plug-in electric cars are right on their tail. In fact, charging stations for plug-in electric cars are being planned and installed in the Seattle area. The opening of the first leg of Seattle's new light rail line in 2009 also gave us another great alternative to gas-guzzlers.

Now here are three green changes I expect to see happen in the next 20 years:

- Alternative energy comes home

You hear a lot about solar and wind energy these days, especially as sources of "green jobs," but those are still technologies most of us are not directly familiar with. Get ready for that to change. I believe that in just a few years, at least one house on every block will have solar panels, from water-heating units to larger systems. And I'm talking about right here in the Seattle area, which is a lot better-suited to capturing solar energy than most people realize. I also expect to see small wind turbines on people's rooftops become relatively common. Geothermal energy, where you capture the warmth in the soil below your home, is another individual form of alternative energy that should heat up in the next few years.

- Two-wheeled triumph

Cycling as a form of transportation in the Seattle region has made some serious progress the past few years, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. Look for Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn (a regular bike commuter himself), to push for a transformation in the way the city works for cyclists. Portland is already almost there, but Seattle will join Portland with a progressive, European-style approach to bicycles. And it's not about eliminating cars - the goal is simply to make cycling safer, and give cyclists equal access to our roadways. New types of bicycles, especially the cool, convenient folding bikes, will also help usher in a new Era of the Bike.

- No longer invisible

Even though we may hear a lot about going green, there are still many situations when environmental awareness is invisible. Especially when you walk into most large chain stores, it just seems like business as usual. You can also go into plenty of homes and office buildings where it's like, "Green? What green?" Expect this all to change. Reducing our environmental impact will finally move beyond being just an issue to becoming something we all do. Serious energy conservation strategies will be mandated or at least universally accepted. Toxics will greatly be reduced in products, especially children's products. Local and organic foods will make a real dent in the corporate, low-accountability, factory-farm food chain. Reuse and waste reduction will become more than just an activist's fantasy. "Product stewardship" - companies taking full responsibility for their products from cradle to grave - will truly be taken seriously.

As you can see, I have a lot of optimism. This is a golden age for environmental consciousness. Welcome to the future indeed.

Tom Watson manages the EcoConsumer project (http://www.KCecoconsumer.com) for King County Recycling and Environmental Services, and does extensive environmental public outreach through the media. You can contact Tom at tom.watson@kingcounty.gov or 206-296-4481.

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