And we actually have been doing things differently since coming home. Things like...
- not using the clothes dryer. We bought a drying rack, put up some clothesline on our screened porch, and we let the summer breeze work its magic. The girls LOVE to help hang up and take down clothes, they smell fresher (the clothes, not necessarily the girls!), the upstairs laundry room doesn't heat up so much, and we have noticed a MAJOR difference in our electric bill. Usually the bill in the summertime is over $120, but last month it was $85.
- recycling more kinds of things. The city doesn't take paperboard (cereal boxes) but I found a place locally that does. We are also looking into getting a composter to get the kitchen waste out of the landfill.
- using fewer lights. We replaced many of our bulbs with the compact fluorescent kind, and have been careful to turn off lights in rooms we're not using. In many buildings in Europe, lights in common areas of buildings have automatic shutoff timers that turn lights off after, say, 10 minutes. The stairwell in our apartment building had those, and it really makes so much sense. In order for those to be used everywhere though, there has to be trust in a certain level of safety, so people aren't worried about what happens in the few seconds between the light shutting off and someone finding the turn-it-back-on switch. Would Americans feel safe enough?
- Saving more water. We had a toilet that was leaking / running anyway, so when we replaced it, we found a dual-mode flush model from http://www.faucetdepot.com/ that looks a lot like the ones we saw all over Europe. The button on the top has two sections, one smaller than the other. If you push the smaller button, you get a .9 gallon flush, which is enough for most...er...jobs. If you need a little extra oomph in the flush, you push the larger button and you get a 1.6 gallon flush. The way it's designed (ours is by a company called Toto) the flush works just fine and isn't "wimpy" at all like some low-flow models. And compared to the old 3-gallon water guzzling commode we had, we are saving some serious water!!! We noticed that in a household of four people, we had the same water usage after installing that toilet that we had when our solitary renter was here!!!! And again, lower bill: was $47, now $39.
And now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you don't even need to go to Europe to lower your utility bills and save resources. Just jump straight from reading this article to taking your own conservation measures.