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Families Leading the Way to Sustainability

From environmentalism to waste reduction, these local families are making a difference

Author Kari Hanson

Published on: May 30, 2024

Families demonstrating environmental sustainability by picking up trash at a park
credit: istock/andreswd

Sustainable living attempts to use less of the Earth’s natural resources by altering one’s carbon footprint, method of transportation or even diet. While it is important for families to do all they can individually, some people take their dedication to sustainability to the next level by impacting their neighbors and community, even an entire city. I was lucky to speak with a few of these sustainability change-makers.

Transportation: Bike more, drive less

While many people in Greater Seattle ride their bikes — even to commute to work — the thought of using a bike as your primary means of transportation when you have kids in tow is more than a little intimidating for many parents.

But not for Madi Carlson.

Carlson’s mother was born in the Netherlands, and Carlson grew up visiting her Dutch relatives in that country, where bike commuting is the norm. As she got older, Carlson watched her cousins put their babies in adorable Dutch baby seats on their bikes and hoped to do the same one day. When Carlson became a mother, she managed to find a baby seat that fit her beach cruiser bike, and she’s never looked back.

While Carlson had been an avid biker since she was a child, having her children helped deepen her dedication to sustainable transportation. “Having kids really helps one examine every choice and think about how it will affect future generations,” says Carlson. “As I learned more and more about biking for transportation and bike advocacy, I wanted to bike more and more. I met wonderful friends who were also biking with their kids, and I started helping other people figure out how to bike with their babies and kids.”

"Madi Carlson with kids in tow demonstrating sustainability"
Madi Carlson with kids in tow. Photo courtesy Madi Carlson

Carlson says there have been many times when she has stopped momentarily on a bike ride and had a neighbor approach her to comment on how seeing her biking inspired them to give it a try, too. “Lots of times this has led to them dusting off their old bike or telling a friend or relative with little kids about the concept of family biking,” says Carlson.

Carlson has advice for families who want to increase their use of sustainable transportation: Remember, it’s not all or nothing; every effort counts. “Each time you don’t use your car, you’re being more sustainable. And it’s not only about sustainability,” says Carlson. “Biking for transportation is extremely fun, and it’s a wonderful way to get exercise and improve your mood if, like me, you’re bad about working out just for the sake of it.”

To connect with Carlson and learn more about family biking, check out her blog “Family Ride” or her book “Urban Cycling,” and follow her on Instagram or X.

Waste reduction: Reduce your family’s garbage

We all hate lugging the trash to the curb every week, feeling guilt about the waste. But is there another way? Stephanie Wall decided the answer for her family would be yes.

When she came across the “Zero Waste Home” blog by Bea Johnson, Wall was inspired by the beautiful, simple home life that was portrayed. Though Wall was single at the time, she already had her future family in mind. “I always had a vision and dream of a beautiful home that was a secure, loving and grounding place for my future family,” says Wall. “The appeal was how a zero waste lifestyle could simplify and enrich my life. Now my husband and two young children can share in that with me.”

As with Carlson, Wall’s dedication to sustainable living has had an impact beyond her family. “People notice the different ways, big and small, that we live differently, which inspires them to make changes in their own life,” Wall says. She is a cofounder of the organization Seattle Zero Waste, which has allowed her to have a greater impact and reach a wider audience. Seattle Zero Waste has more than 6,000 followers on Facebook and more than 1,700 on Instagram.

"Family that work for sustainability, Mom and daughter recycling trash"
Working as a family to reduce waste. credit: istock

The idea of zero waste can feel intimidating, especially when the family trash can seems to be overflowing every week. Wall advises folks who want to make a change to start small. “Choose one small habit or product you can swap out for a more resourceful or reusable alternative. Maybe it is buying a product in a larger quantity instead of individually wrapped items, like a block of cheese that you cut into smaller snack size pieces instead of individually wrapped small squares of cheese,” recommends Wall. She also encourages everyone to assess whether they need all of the things they buy, and to try following Bea Johnson’s “5 R’s — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot — and only in that order.”

Wall encourages those interested in reducing their waste to “Have fun with the challenge of creating less waste and consuming less resources. Don’t see failure as a bad thing, but use it to learn and grow. Don’t strive for perfection or overnight change. You’ll be able to sustain your sustainable habits and lifestyle by moving forward with a sense of joy and hope, creating a positive and compelling vision of the future.”

Environmental cleanup: Working with neighbors to keep the community clean

We’ve all been to a beach and seen trash lying around. Most people simply shake their head and keep walking to a trash-free place to enjoy the day. But some, like Erik Bell, do more. A lot more.

When Bell looked around his community and saw litter and other trash, his first reaction was understandable: anger and frustration. But after a friend challenged him to do something about the mess if it was upsetting him, Bell got to work.

“This was a huge revelation for me at the time, that I could change how I responded to a situation and take action,” says Bell. At about the same time, Bell and his brother began meeting up on Saturday mornings on Alki, and the two started walking — and cleaning up the beach. One weekend during the pandemic, Bell decided to invite neighbors to join them. “I was blown away at the response from neighbors and decided to capitalize on that inspiration and start a group to focus on community cleanups in West Seattle.” That group became known as A Cleaner Alki, and it has grown over the years, striving to make a difference throughout the West Seattle neighborhoods with weekly cleanup and “sprucing” events.

"Erik Bell and family"
Erik Bell and family. Photo courtesy of Erik Bell. 

As with Wall and Carlson, Bell’s commitment to sustainability has impacted the community. He believes that the community engagement A Cleaner Alki has seen is due, in part, to the consistency of the opportunities it provides. “When I first started A Cleaner Alki, we had an event every other week or so, or maybe just once a month,” says Bell. “Although it was better than nothing, it wasn’t nearly enough to spark the imagination of the community or show what a sustained effort could look like. Now, by having three to four cleanups a week that run as recurring projects, the community is seeing results in real time, which is much more impactful than a beach cleanup here and there.”

Bell encourages others to take the first steps and become the leader in keeping their community clean. Any step toward sustainability is important, and you never know what impact you will have. “If you walk a dog or your child to school, take a bag next time you go and pick up some trash. Maybe you will be the inspiration that gets the next neighbor to join you. The best we can do is be stewards of this land while we’re here; we’re just passing through,” says Bell.

How to start: Join an organization that shares your passion for sustainability

Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of the sustainability issues our planet is facing? Consider joining a group or organization working in an area of sustainability you feel passionate about. That’s how Jared Howe and his child became involved with Climate Action Families.

Distressed by the impacts of climate change, Howe began working with various climate-focused organizations and individuals. A decade later, he is still dedicated to climate issues, but he wanted to find an opportunity for his child to be involved as well. He found that with Climate Action Families.

Howe’s dedication and work toward climate change is greatly impacted by how this issue will affect his child — and all children — in the future. “I am involved with Climate Action Families because I want to walk this difficult path with my child, and be here for when they understand the challenges we face with their future, be able to hold their pain and anger, and encourage them in whatever way they decide to participate (or not to participate). I think that’s one of the most important roles I have as a parent in this time,” says Howe.

Connecting with an organization can be helpful because, as Howe points out, when it comes to a significant issue like climate change, “You aren’t going to be able to solve this by yourself, and a lot of times it’s unclear what has to be done or the impact of one’s involvement with the climate movement.” Being part of a group working to resolve a sustainability issue that you feel strongly about can help you see that your individual actions and dedication are part of a larger effort.

Howe — like Carlson, Wall and Bell — encourages others to get involved in whatever way works for them. “There is no right or wrong way for people to be involved,” says Howe. “Climate change is very overwhelming, and I find that most people don’t want to even talk about it. That’s okay and a necessary step for everyone to go through. On the other side of our grief and our powerlessness is meaning, community, support and love.”

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