Chris Oakley pours water from a pitcher into a metal bottle at her home in Huntington Beach. Oakley is joining a 12-month pilot program with Community Sustainability USA, in which participants make one environmental life change a month. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / June 8, 2011)

David Oakley's cooler has grown heavier, his spirit lighter.

The Huntington Beach resident works as an independent contractor laying concrete, and he used to start most days on the job by packing a drink in his cooler. At the end of the day, he would toss the mashed bottle into the recycling bin — and twice a month or so, his wife was back at the grocery store for another 24-pack.

Then, last week, Oakley and his wife and son joined a pilot program with the nonprofit Community Sustainability USA, in which participants make one lifestyle change each month for a year to benefit the environment. The goal for June is the one Oakley's group deemed easiest: replacing plastic bottles with reusable ones.

"It's just like anything," said Oakley, who has refilled a metal bottle daily since June 1. "You start doing it for a while, I think it sticks."

Community Sustainability USA, which launched last year, began assembling neighborhood groups at the end of May and urging them to create lists of 12 sustainable goals for the coming year. So far, two groups, comprising 46 people total, have joined the fold, President Chris Ann Lunghino said.

Lunghino, a mother of three who recently earned a master's degree in urban and regional planning from UC Irvine, hopes to expand her operation nationally.

For her first few dozen participants, she took a grass-roots approach, contacting friends in Huntington Beach and letting word spread.

The program, she said, is cumulative, meaning that if a group adopts a lifestyle change in June, they'll still be doing it by the end of the year and hopefully beyond.

"I think what we're going to find is that after 12 months, the people in the groups have really matured to the point where they're operating sustainably every day on their own," Lunghino said.

She already has some political support for her group. Councilwoman Connie Boardman serves on her board of directors, while Councilman Joe Shaw and former Mayor Debbie Cook are on her advisory board.

Cook, who met Lunghino as a guest speaker at UCI, said she was inspired to back Community Sustainability USA in part because of its strong communal spirit.

"What I particularly like is the opportunity where you have a shared experience, and I think she's tapping into that need," Cook said. "We're social beings, and it's more compelling to do things with people rather than do them on your own."

The two existing groups began at the end of May by meeting with Lunghino and signing pledges to honor their commitment over the course of the year. Members will receive a one-page document for each month on which they mark their progress by the week.

Ahead on the docket for Oakley's group are converting to toilet paper and school supplies made from recycled material, reducing meat consumption, doing laundry in cold water and taking shorter showers, among other tasks.

Oakley's wife, Chris, had already taken steps to cut plastic before the program began, buying reusable bottles and purifying tap water with a filter. Her husband and son, who swims and plays water polo at Huntington Beach High School, had a harder time going plastic-free but were getting used to it.

"Nobody's been whining," she said. "It's pretty easy."