Apps make it easier to be green

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune
September 5, 2014


We’re constantly bombarded with warnings about how we’re endangering the environment. The task of taking better care of the planet and keeping ourselves safe from exposure to harmful toxins and chemicals can seem overwhelming. One solution is to bite off tiny pieces by making better choices through small changes in our own lives.

Making your lifestyle just a little more green is as easy as pulling out your smartphone or tablet. There are apps that can show you how to get around efficiently on a bike instead of using your car, shop for foods produced with Earth-friendly methods, and find shampoos and deodorants that aren’t loaded with potentially harmful chemicals.

Shrinking your carbon footprint is a few clicks away, starting with some of the apps below.

MapMyRide. Unless you’re driving an electric car, leave your carbon-emitting vehicle at home and use this free app to help you map the most bike-friendly route to your destination. The built-in “route genius” suggests cycling routes for locations all over the world, and you’re invited to post your own map if you find a better way of getting somewhere. You can track your location in real time with GPS and bookmark your favorite rides. If you’re cycling for a workout, you can upgrade to the premium app and pay a fee for a virtual coach to encourage you or track your heart rate while you pedal.

Farmstand. The Farmstand app locates farmers markets near you selling foods that are produced locally. Many feature farmers who grow fruits and vegetables or raise animals without harmful pesticides or chemicals. Those foods are healthier for us and don’t damage the soil or water supply where they’re grown or raised. Nearby producers also are better for cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions, because they’re not hauling goods over long distances. If you can’t make it to a market, the free Farmstand app also tells you where you can subscribe to a CSA, or community supported agriculture, and get weekly deliveries of locally produced foods. You’ll find listings of restaurants in your area that get food from nearby farms, and you’ll learn about community gardens in your neighborhood where you can get your hands dirty and grow your own food too.

Seafood Watch. This one’s for seafood and sushi lovers. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has a respected rating system, which tells you whether the fish you’re about to buy at the supermarket or order in a restaurant was caught in an eco-friendly way. The free app will indicate if it’s overfished or caught or farmed in ways that damage other marine life or the environment. If you want to buy salmon, for example, type it into the search box, and you’ll get a list of choices, using a traffic light system of green, yellow and red. Green denotes which kind of salmon is the best choice because it’s abundantly available and caught sustainably; yellow gives you good alternatives; and red tells you which ones to avoid. There’s also a feature on the app called Project Fishmap that invites users to add locations for ocean-friendly seafood items and check out what others have reported.

Think Dirty. Are the personal care products in your medicine cabinet loaded with toxins that are potentially harmful? That’s hard to know unless you can see a full list of ingredients. This clever app lets consumers swipe the bar code on a body wash or moisturizer and learn more about how it’s made. If an item is rated dangerous, you can see what chemicals within may be worrisome. The app suggests healthier alternatives and lists their ingredients, too. You can keep a personal list of “dirty” and “clean” products you’ve found. The free app has more than 146,000 items in its database, and whenever possible, manufacturers’ ingredients are verified with independent databases.

Ally Bank. What could be greener than managing your greenbacks with an online-only bank that has no branches to give off carbon emissions? Ally Bank, a subsidiary of Ally Financial Inc., has a mobile banking app ( that lets you snap photos of your checks and deposit into your account. It also finds the closest ATM.

– Judith Nemes

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