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Penny pinchers also conserve

Top three winners discover ways to reduce waste while saving money

September 18, 2007

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In an address to the nation in 1977, President Jimmy Carter called our nation's energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war." Several years later, Carter wrote in a magazine article that the attitude of the American people concerning conservation had changed.

"Maybe our efforts have engendered a spirit of common purpose and sacrifice that will be adequate to meet new crises - if we remember that the war is not over," he wrote.

There are lots of folks who know the war isn't over and are doing their part to consume less. They get it that each individual effort is important to the cause. And it was those people I wanted to hear from in soliciting entries for my Penny Pincher of the Year contest.

Efforts to waste less were common to many of the entries. One of these landed Amy Haden, of Scottsville, Va., the $25 cash prize for third place in this year's contest.

Chicken feed

Haden, who works in a large office building in Charlottesville, Va., places buckets next to the coffee makers in her building so that she can collect coffee grounds and other food waste. She takes it to her small cottage for her compost and chickens.

"I bring home about 50 pounds of trash every week," Haden said.

Her chickens get to eat any leftovers she finds in the coffee grounds. Haden says that for the extra effort, she saves a few hundred dollars or more a year by not having to buy compost, mulch or as much chicken feed.

Healthy conservation

It was also an effort to conserve at the office that earned Shirley Orth, a registered nurse from Del Mar, Calif., the second-place prize of $50.

As part of a workplace "go green" effort at the Mission Valley Outpatient Surgery Center, she and some other nurses were trying to find a less wasteful alternative to the kidney-shaped plastic basins they use when preparing patients for surgery.

The intravenous supplies were brought to each patient in a separate basin. "Afterward, we would routinely dispose of each of these because of possible blood contamination," Orth said. "These are non-biodegradable and we were disposing over 500 a month into our landfills."

One day, Orth said, she was removing intravenous tubing from its container and realized that at the bottom of the IV set was a small tray that could be used to hold the supplies. She proposed that the center substitute these trays for the kidney-shaped basins.

"This has saved the outpatient center over $1,700 a year," she said. "Imagine if all hospitals and outpatient centers did this. I can only hope that perhaps through this contest and publicizing this idea that it would catch on and save our health care system millions of dollars while saving our environment at the same time."

I hope so, too.

Flush with savings

This brings me to the first-place winner of the 2007 Penny Pincher of the Year Contest, who will receive $100 - Tom Sponheim of Seattle.

Let's just say Sponheim literally got tired of seeing savings being flushed down the toilet. Sponheim won not because of penny pinching that saved him money but for thinking about a way to cut waste in his community.

Several years ago when Seattle was going through a severe drought, Sponheim took it upon himself to visit restrooms in some of the older coffee shops in the area - those likely to be equipped with outdated five-gallon toilets, as opposed to new water-saving models. Then he'd flush them to see if they really needed all the water they were using. If not, he adjusted the level of water in the tank so that each flush was a little less drain on the system.

"I tried to go to places with a lot of traffic," he said. "I created a spreadsheet with the estimated water savings for each restaurant estimating the number of times a day the toilet would be flushed and number of ounces saved on each flush. My calculations showed that my three or four hours of work would result in a savings of about 500,000 liters a year of water."

Sponheim, who works on the Web sitewww.solarcooking.org, says his flushing inspections continue today.

While I wouldn't recommend this to the average coffee shop customer, it does show, as Sponheim said, "One person can make a difference."

Carter would be proud.

Thanks to all who entered this year. And in the spirit of this contest, the best of the nonwinning entries will not go to waste. Subscribe to my e-letter at www.washingtonpost.com where I will post conservation tips from the leftover submissions.

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