We can’t solve our environmental problems without the large-scale involvement of government and industry. But we can’t solve them unless more people live more sustainably at home, either.
Perhaps you’ve seen complaints by people who think asking individuals to help out is an unreasonable imposition. But how can we demand government and industry do more while we try to hang on to cherished but wasteful habits?
Fortunately, cutting waste will also cut your expenses. Here are some easy suggestions.
1. Conduct a waste audit
The first step in cutting waste is to identify it. How much do you throw out of particular kinds of things? That is, how much of what you throw out is food or plastic or paper?
So every time you throw something in the trash for about a week, make a note of what it is. Heavy items such as glass will account for more of the weight of your trash. Light items such as Styrofoam will account for more of the volume.
Once you understand what you throw out, you can take steps to reduce it and live more sustainably..
2. Refuse single-use items
Single-use items probably count for a large portion of what you throw out. Substituting reusable items will cut down on your trash. For example:
- Get reusable shopping bags to take into stores and refuse their plastic bags.
- When you buy takeout food or have food delivered, ask not to receive straws, paper napkins, or plastic table service. Use and wash what you have at home.
- Take sandwiches and other lunch items to work in reusable containers instead of throw-away plastic bags.
- Don’t buy bottled water.
- Keep in mind that the bottles, jars, and cans goods come in are also single use. If possible, find ways to get shampoo, vegetable oil, etc. in refillable containers.
You might have read that reusable products have a bigger carbon footprint than disposables. It’s true that it takes less materials and energy to make one plastic bag than one reusable one, but those studies neglect to consider their environmental impact in the waste stream.
If you see, say, three tomatoes in a plastic tray encased in plastic film, leave them there. If you want three tomatoes, get them from the loose tomatoes and refuse the unnecessary packaging.
3. Practice the 3 Rs of sustainability
You have probably heard the standard 3 Rs of sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle. Some people talk about 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. And that’s essentially what I’m suggesting here.
Once you refuse single-use items and anything that, on reflection, you don’t really need, then reduce what you buy. If, for example, your waste audit shows that you usually have to throw out the last few pieces of produce that you bought in three-pound bags, you know that you can’t eat three pounds before it starts to go bad. Buy that product in bulk so you can get less of it.
Wash some of your glass jars and reuse them to store leftovers. If you’re into crafts, you might find all kinds of ways to reuse other things you throw out.
Only after you have refused, reduced, and reused as much as you can should you think of recycling. Living sustainably means that you will not only put less out to the curb in your trash can, you’ll also put less out in your recycling container.
But keep in mind that you can recycle more than you can haul out to the curb. Take plastic bags and films back to the grocery store to put in their recycling. You might need to go to a special drop-off center to recycle glass. Or, if you’re lucky, Styrofoam. Earth 911 or TerraCycle will give you other ideas.
4. Compost your food scraps—and more
It’s best to reduce food waste by eating everything you buy before it goes bad, but there will always be inedible leftovers.
Nothing ever really decomposes in a modern landfill. It takes air for anything to rot, and landfill management practices seals waste away from air. It means, among other things, that organic matter in a landfill will occupy the same volume of space much longer than in nature.
5. Donate to and buy from thrift stores
This tip emphasizes “reuse.” If you have clothing, furniture, housewares, etc. that you no longer want, donate it to a thrift store. But only if it’s in good, usable condition. It’s amazing how many people donate unusable junk. The thrift store has to pay to have it hauled to the landfill.
In the same way, if you need to buy something, see if you can find it in a thrift store before you go out and buy it new.
6. Drink tap water
This tip goes along with refusing single-use plastic, but there’s more to it.
You can find out what’s in your tap water. The EPA requires municipal water agencies to report contaminants both to them and to the public. It doesn’t regulate bottled water. That task falls to the FDA, which has much less rigorous reporting requirements.
Many people believe that bottled water is somehow safer than tap water. It’s nothing but advertising hype unless some catastrophe makes national news. If you’re not convinced, you can get a drinking water filtration system. It can be as simple as a water-filtering pitcher or as elaborate as a whole-house filter system.
7. Eat locally
Chances are some of your food travels farther than you do. Strawberries in a grocery store may come from Mexico one month, California the next, and somewhere farther north the next.
Grocery stores often highlight which produce items are locally grown. Less likely, they’ll tell you which meat items are locally raised.
When you buy food from a farmer’s market or an independent local butcher, you can be sure it hasn’t traveled more than about a hundred miles from the farm that produced it. You might even wind up taking less packaging home.
8. Limit water usage
The water that comes from your tap is treated water. You have had to pay for the treatment. When you drink it, cook with it, bathe in it, etc., you’re making it work for you. Water that runs from the tap directly down the drain is wasted water and wasted money.
So practice water conservation to live more sustainably at home. See how many ways you can rinse things in a bowl of water instead of running water, for example, and then use that water for something else, such as watering plants.
9. Get energy-saving light bulbs and turn them off
Old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs haven’t been available in stores for a long time now. People who stocked up on them before they went off the market have probably used up their stash.
The best bulbs available now are LEDs. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready for prime time when incandescent bulbs were discontinued. None were bright enough to read by and they were absurdly expensive. Most of us, then, bought CFLs, which must be on for a while before they reach full brightness, and which become a hazardous waste when it’s necessary to discard one.
Now that you can get LED equivalents of 100-watt incandescents, do. And keep turning them off when you leave a room. You can’t save nearly as much electricity as you could by turning off incandescent bulbs. But you save some. And any savings is a good thing.
10. Drive less
Take public transportation or ride a bike instead of driving your car whenever possible.
Unfortunately, not everyone finds it possible. There are plenty of other ways to use less gas though. Combine as many errands as possible into a single trip. Plan the most efficient routes to do them.
When you’re out driving, reduce idling as much as possible. And that includes parking your car and going into a store instead of spending time in the drive-thru lane.
11. Buy Energy Star appliances
If you need to buy new appliances, some of them will have Energy Star certification. They will be more expensive to buy than other models that might look the same. But they will also be less expensive to use than the others. You’ll make up the cost difference through lower energy bills.
12. Have occasional meatless meals
Some environmentalists will claim that only vegetarians, or even only vegans, eat an ethical diet. You won’t hear that from me.
Until recent decades, hardly anyone was prosperous enough to be able to shun all animal foods. But then, until recent decades, hardly anyone was prosperous enough to build meals around meat and eat large quantities of it every day.
Meat has a larger carbon footprint than plant foods. After all, it takes land and energy to grow animal feed.
Meat and dairy foods have the most nearly complete protein we need in our diets. All plant proteins have more of some essential amino acids than our bodies can use and less of others. But combining different plant foods in the same meal evens everything out. Eating beans and grains together, for example, provides as complete protein as animal foods.
You may have encountered a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”
In other words, he ate meat, but only as a flavoring for his vegetables. He provides thereby an excellent illustration of living sustainably.
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