Diapers and Showers and Sodas, Oh My!

The big impact each American has on the planet, and what you can do about it.


April 10, 2008— -- It's hard to imagine what a human being consumes in a lifetime. All the food you eat, the potatoes, the fruits, the bread, the chickens.

And everything you drink, and all the clothes you buy and toss. All the furniture and appliances and toothbrushes and bath products and newspapers. The list goes on and on. If the rest of the world consumed at the rate Americans do, we would need five planets worth of resources to cover it.

And it is indeed possible to add it all up. For a special called "Human Footprint," the National Geographic Channel calculated all the energy, resources and products used by each American over an average lifetime.

Watch "Human Footprint" on the National Geographic Channel.

Over the two-hour broadcast, the consumption of a lifetime is piled up and put on display. Got milk? It does a body good, and Americans consume 13,056 pints of it in a lifetime. A sea of 28,433 rubber duckies represents the number of showers taken in a lifetime. A visual demonstration of the 4,376 loaves of bread (or 87,520 slices) and 12,129 hamburger buns consumed in a lifetime is laid out in the shape of the American flag.

The cumulative result of it all is shocking, and it starts with the youngest citizens. Over the first years of life, an American baby will wear 3,796 diapers. Since it probably takes hundreds of years for the diaper's plastic to biodegrade, you'd think cloth diapers would be a viable solution. But have you considered what it takes to launder 3,796 diapers? How about 22,455 gallons of water. And the problem is not just what Americans consume — it's also where they live.

Everything that goes into an American home contributes to the enormous human footprint. With the American population expanding faster than ever, the demand for housing is soaring. About 1.5 million houses are being built every year, and the average 2,000 square foot home is a glutton for materials: 14,000 board feet of lumber — that's about 64 trees — 17 tons of concrete, and 11,500 feet of siding.

But there may be a better way to build our homes, and 20/20 found one in Santa Monica, Calif. Steve Glenn owns what is called the green home of the future.

"There is a great reason why both consumers and municipalities should be more concerned about building in a more sustainable way," Glenn said. "Thirty percent of greenhouse emissions in this country is because we heat, cool, and light buildings."

The counters in Glenn's home are made of recycled newspaper, recycled glass, and even mashed-up industrial waste. Shower doors are made of recycled plastic. The home also features cork flooring. Cork can be harvested without falling the actual Cork Oak tree, thus making it a renewable resource. Glenn is also the founder of a company, Living Homes, dedicated to building more homes just like his.

"In 10 to 15 years this whole green building category, it goes away," he said. " It's just the way buildings are built."

"It's not a zero carbon home," Glenn said. "We definitely expended carbon in creating this home. But we expended far less carbon."

That was due to the way the home was constructed. The home's 11 modules were built first in a factory and then fitted together on-site, like Legos, in one 8-hour day. A pre-fabricated home produces less construction waste.

"Thirty to 40 percent of the materials you use in an average home end up in landfill. It's staggering," said Glenn. Compare that to the five percent of a pre-fabricated home's materials that end up in a landfill.

Inside, every appliance and every detail is designed to conserve. The dishwasher adjusts the wash cycle to the number of dishes, the indoor plants clean the air, and the fireplace doesn't burn wood. It burns denatured alcohol -- ethanol, basically. No smoke for this green home.

And there's more: all the water that goes down the shower or sink drains is re-used to irrigate the home's landscaping and roof garden, the latter of which helps insulate the home. Also on the roof are the home's solar panels and solar water heater which, together, provide most of the home's electricity and hot water. Of course, what's practical in sunny southern California is not necessary practical for the rest of the country. It can take a decade before Californians break even on their investment in earth-friendly, but still costly, solar panels.

The costs of building green are coming down, but are still on the expensive side. If you can't afford to re-model in an eco-friendly way, there are small steps nonetheless that you can take to reduce your personal ecological footprint.

Small steps can have a huge impact. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent one, in one year enough energy would be saved to light more than three million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars.

The founder of a grassroots movement called the EcoMom Alliance, Kimberly Danek Pinkson says, "The things that we do in our daily lives can add up to make a really positive change."

Pinkson says that mothers have the power to change the world for the better because "they're natural role models." EcoMoms also wield a significant power of the purse.

"[Moms] represent over 85 percent of household spending," Pinkson said. "2.1 trillion dollars. Want to talk about propelling a green economy and heading toward a sustainable future? Moms have a significant ability to affect that positive change, quickly."

The group holds EcoMom Parties where women gather to trade tips and discuss and debate environmental issues such as the merits of buying organic food grown locally.

As for those thousands of diapers, Pinkson says there are alternatives.

"The diaper issue comes up at every single EcoMom party," she said. "Fortunately right now there's actually a wonderful new product called gDiapers, which are kind of like a hybrid. It's a cloth outer cover, and it comes in cute colors, and then the inside is actually flushable. … There's also chlorine-free [diapers], and some that are made with a little bit more recycled content than others. So there's steps in the right direction."

Small steps for man and moms, and a potentially giant impact for the planet.