Reading about the effects of climate change, man-made pollution, and other environmental issues can give you sensory overload. We hear about a lot of problems and rarely see any easy solutions, but it’s important to remember that we can all take steps to help save our planet. The majority of all greenhouse gas emissions come from households, which means it’s up to all of us—not just powerful companies—to take steps toward green living.
Moving toward more sustainable living can be simpler than you might expect. Little adjustments at home from heating to preserving food can go a long way in reducing waste and reducing our carbon footprints. We can also replace inefficient items with eco-friendly versions, and paying attention to our buying habits is crucial for sustainability as well. Some lifestyle changes will make a bigger impact than others, so we’ve compiled a list of easy and effective steps you can start taking today.
Be Energy and Water Wise
Water and electricity are necessary in homes today, but they are also two resources we tend to take for granted. The average American family uses over 300 gallons of water every day, and 70 percent of that water is used for indoor use like showers, sinks, and toilets. You can track your own water usage by looking at your water bill, which tells you how much water you used during the billing cycle.
Energy use in homes is necessary for a wide array of items. The majority of residential energy in the US is for heat, the amount of which varies based on location and type of home. The second-highest percentage—21 percent of all energy used—is to power devices like televisions, appliances, and consumer electronics like phones. Water heating, which is needed regardless of where you live, makes up 19 percent of yearly energy usage.
Overall, energy use has declined per capita in the past few decades thanks to improved building materials and more efficient products. However, we’re using air conditioning, appliances, and electronics more than ever before. All this means that residential power usage in the US has stayed basically the same since the mid-90s. This is why it’s crucial that we continually reduce our energy consumption. Below are some tips.
- Schedule an Energy Audit: An energy audit can help you identify the best ways to make your home more sustainable. Local experts can come to your house to run safety and efficiency tests and review your energy bills to find potential savings. They will point out the biggest offenders when it comes to wasted energy—which will allow you to prioritize improvements—and they can even give you tips on how to be more efficient.
- Buy Efficient Appliances: Replacing appliances that still work fine can be wasteful; however, replacing outdated appliances with newer energy-efficient models can offset your new purchase. Look for products with Energy Star and other sustainability labels to ensure you’re buying a product that uses less energy. Low-energy appliances and water-efficient toilets will cut down on your consumption and save you money.
- Switch Them Out: When it’s time to replace something in your home, make sure you opt for sustainable products. That includes switching to LED lights, smart thermostats, and solar-powered devices. Replacing old, inefficient items also means replacing leaking faucets, drafty windows, and wall insulation.
- Shift Behaviors: Adjust your bad energy habits and start thinking about conservation with some of the following behaviors
- Take shorter showers
- Don’t leave electronics on “stand-by” power
- Unplug electronics that aren’t being used
- Only run the dishwasher and clothes washer when full
- Turn your thermostat down at night and when not at home
- Reduce water usage for your yard (or look into xeriscaping)
- Consider Renewables: Investing in renewable energy can reduce your consumption of unsustainable energy. Some energy companies will even purchase excess energy produced from your renewable sources, which means your energy bill will turn into an energy check. Solar and wind energy is more affordable today than it ever has been, and solar panels can even increase the value of your home.
Ditch the Disposables
You’ve probably heard about movements like banning plastic bags and straws in the news, but these all stem from the same goal of reducing the use of plastic and disposable items. While people have varying opinions on how to reduce waste, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your environmental footprint. One of the most effective ways to transition into eco-friendly living is to cut down on wasteful products and opt for reusable substitutes. The methods below help explain the best ways to avoid harmful products and the best alternative options.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The phrase is so synonymous with recycling that we often forget what it actually means. All three words are crucial for implementing sustainable living habits—and the order of the words in the phrase matters. Reducing your overall consumption makes a huge impact on your environmental footprint. That means reducing impulse purchases that aren’t really needed but also looking for items that use minimal packing and shipping needs.
We’re so used to buying the newest and best things that we often forget how important it is to reuse old items to help reduce waste. Replace disposable products like paper towels and plastic utensils with reusable counterparts; this includes food containers, water bottles, dishes, cups, towels, and other products. Garage sales, donations, and buying used items are also great ways of avoiding the waste that comes with new purchases. And finally, recycle waste and invest in products made from recycled materials.
Go Plastic Free
The problem with plastic is that it never biodegrades. The EPA has reported that “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Single-use plastic makes up the majority of packaging in our stores, all of which is discarded and ends up hurting the environment. Studies estimate that there are up to 51-trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans today, and plastic waste is the cause of thousands of wildlife deaths a year.
While the problem seems too big for one person to make a difference, it’s important to remember that every little bit helps. We can cut down on our individual plastic waste by avoiding or replacing some of the biggest offenders. Opting for reusable shopping bags, using refillable water bottles instead of single-use, and avoiding products that use plastic in their packaging. Plastic packaging is often used for convenience, but if consumers only buy plastic-free products, then companies will be forced to adopt green manufacturing practices to sell their items.
Buy in Bulk
Items that are prepackaged for single or individual use increase the amount of waste we produce. Although buying in bulk isn’t always an option for people, choosing to buy items in bulk when you can helps reduce the amount of plastic packaging that is thrown away. Non-perishables can be stored for later use when bought in large quantities. Opting for the largest available container for your favorite food or snack, and then storing them in reusable containers at home is an eco-friendly alternative to pre-portioned food.
Learn Recycling Guidelines
Environmental rules and regulations vary state by state, and every town or city has its own guidelines. Beyond knowing what day recycling is picked up and what types of bins to use, your specific city’s rules will tell what items can and cannot be recycled. There may also be special drop-off locations of pick-up dates for less common recyclables like electronics and appliances. Also, make sure you clean out any recyclable items that are dirty. It is estimated that around 25% of items picked up for recycling are too contaminated, and are instead sent to a landfill.
Be a Responsible Consumer
The products we purchase have a direct impact on the number of emissions we produce—household consumption makes up 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The following methods can help you cut down on your consumption and help you live more sustainably.
You might think this is obvious, but buying less means you actually have to think about your purchases and whether or not an item is necessary. Easy steps like waiting 30 days before you commit to a purchase can help you figure out whether or not you need that item. It’s also a good idea to consider borrowing an item instead of purchasing new, or looking for used products whenever possible. Living a less materialistic and more minimal life has shown to be better for mental health while also benefiting our environment.
Look for Eco Labels
Thinking about product waste and harmful practices of big companies can seem like an issue that you have no control over. However, the consumer has a great deal of power, and you can leverage your purchasing power by buying from more eco-friendly companies. The labels below are used to help you identify green, safe, and environmentally sustainable products.
- USDA Organic: The United States Department of Agriculture gives the USDA Organic seal to products that are made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
- Green Seal: One of the first environmental certifications, this seal ensures that products, services, and companies are protecting the environment and human health.
- Fair Trade: This label guarantees that people who helped produce the product are treated fairly. This includes fair wages, protecting local ecosystems, and promotes sustainable agriculture.
- Energy Star: Energy Star is an internationally recognized standard for energy-efficient products like appliances, electronics, and construction materials.
- Marine Stewardship Council: This organization develops standards for sustainable fishing. MSC certified products come from sustainable fisheries that ensure ecosystems and fish populations remain healthy.
- Forest Stewardship Council: The FSC promotes sustainable logging that ensures products help to maintain a forest’s biodiversity and respects the rights of indigenous people.
- Rainforest Alliance: As one of the founders of the FSC, the Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity. They focus on transforming land-use practices, business practices, and consumer behavior and certify farms with sustainable practices.
Green your Wardrobe
The apparel industry is responsible for a vast amount of pollution and product waste each year. Clothing is produced more rapidly to meet the needs of “fast fashion” with consumers buying 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000. Using cotton to make more articles of clothing results in water stress (it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton shirt). Pesticides and fabric dye are huge polluters in the industry and switching to synthetic materials produces more greenhouse gas.
You can reduce your role in the clothing industry’s inefficiency in a few different ways. Buying less new clothing—especially things that are only going to be worn once—will help cut back on product and packaging waste. Spend some time to look through the clothes you already have and may have forgotten about. Consider clothing swaps with friends or buying clothes from thrift shops, and when you do buy new, opt for more responsible clothing companies.
Make Do and Mend
You can cut down on your waste footprint by keeping up with the products you already own. Regular maintenance and lighter use of appliances will help them last longer. Reusing old clothing or hemming clothes that no longer fit will keep them from being discarded. When you do buy new, think about finding a use for the packaging to cut down on waste.
Eat More Sustainably
The food we eat and the way it is produced has a big impact on the planet. A few simple changes in your diet can reduce your role in climate change; it can also lead to healthier eating habits and introduce you to fun and exciting new meals.
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels often dominate green-living conversations, but animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle in particular— which produce the most emissions in animal agriculture—require an enormous amount of resources including clean water, grain, and land.
Replacing beef with plant-based alternatives in the US would reduce the amount of CO2 produced by our food by 96 percent. Switching to an animal-free diet would not only make a significant impact on carbon emissions, but it is also healthier for you. Plant-based diets are low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and rich in fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. It can also help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.
Buying your food from local companies is a great way to make sure your kitchen is full of sustainable items. The transportation, packaging, and preservation of grocery items account for a majority of the emissions and waste associated with food shopping. Instead, support your local farmer’s market and even growing your own fruits and vegetables. Local Harvest is a helpful resource for finding restaurants that use local foods and food cooperatives.
Reduce Food Waste
Cut down on the amount of waste produced by your groceries by planning ahead of time and storing bulk items. Keeping a list throughout the week of items you need to replace and ingredients for upcoming meals will help prevent over shopping. Plan your meals ahead of time—including plans to eat out or have leftovers—to make sure you only buy what you actually need.
Learning how to store perishable items like fruits and vegetables can help you maximize freshness and reduce wasted food. Some fruits give off natural gasses as they ripen, which can cause others to spoil if kept in the same area. Keeping bananas, apples, and tomatoes by themselves and storing fruits and vegetables in different bins can prevent them from going bad too fast. You should also use your freezer to help preserve food items. Freezing food items you know you won’t be able to eat in time will save them from being thrown out, and you can freeze prepared meals or ingredients to save time.
Find Organic Options
Buying certified organic items is crucial in making sure you’re using sustainably-sourced products. Organic produce is grown without using any pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms. The USDA allows different organic classifications, including 100 percent Organic (which is made entirely from organic ingredients), Organic (which has at least 95 percent organic ingredients), and Made with Organic Ingredients (which has a minimum of 70% organic ingredients). Switching to organic foods reduces your role in purchasing food made with harmful farming practices.
For more information about green living and some of our top picks for sustainable products, check out the links below.