Living responsibly is no small task! Just trying to exist in our developed world usually incurs a fair amount of ecological trauma, ranging from the simple, like plastic cups after a party, to the intricate, like the mercury runoff from gold mining.
Really, no one of us should feel responsible for the impacts of the lifestyle in which we were raised. None of us chose the plastic packaging for chips, cookies and an increasing amount of produce. None of us chose to design cities and suburbs that are near impossible to traverse without a car. None of us chose to live in a world where corporate and government big wigs put their own enrichment above... well, anything else, and shamelessly pollute our planet.
At the same time, we DO get to choose how we live now. Now, choosing not to shop at grocery stores or have a car or support any company that pollutes isn't really a choice. You'd have to be completely separate from the rest of society and, frankly, if we asked everybody to live zero-impact-hippie-Sasquatch style, we wouldn't get a lot of takers.
So the question is, what has a greater impact: a few devoted individuals living off the grid and completely sustainably, OR millions of people making small, gradual changes? I don't claim to know, and while the dedication of some vegans and environmentalists is worthy of praise, they're not the only ones who can help. Something is better than nothing, and you can do your part to protect the beautiful planet we live on.
Here are 10 EASY WAYS you can reduce your impact on the environment.
1 - Use cloth towels and napkins
I'm guessing you already have cloth kitchen towels in your house, right? So this is the easiest one on the list! Even if you don't, (and many families don't have cloth napkins,) that stuff is cheap, and will literally last decades. I'm still using kitchen towels I've "inherited" that have been around for over 20 years.
If you're worried about how you're going to take care of the grosser messes in your house, then let me assure you, your washing machine can probably handle it. Things like spills on the floor, or gooey, sticky substances and even cooking oil will wash out with no problem. Just keep a hamper in your laundry room for towels you've soiled, hang them over the edge so they don't sit around damp, then throw them in with your wash when you get around to it. Literally, zero waste.
The same applies to cloth napkins. They're larger and sturdier than paper ones, which helps get you cleaner. You can even reuse them for a few meals in a row. For a long time my family kept personalized napkin holders near the dinner table so that each person could reserve their lightly used napkin. If reusing a napkin sounds gross to you, I get it. I draw the line at snot-filled handkerchiefs in my back pocket. No thank you, give me a tissue. Still, you could always grab a fresh cloth napkin at every meal if that suits you. So consider what eco-friendly changes would work for you.
2 - Buy bamboo toothbrushes
According to National Geographic, over a billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away in the U.S. each year. That makes sense, because a toothbrush is definitely supposed to be a disposable item! Dentists recommend switching them out every two or three months, and at that rate, with over 300 million people in the U.S. you can easily hit that figure.
Bamboo grows very quickly, so it's easily renewable, unlike the fossil products plastic is often made from. It's also biodegradable, so it completely breaks down in the ground in less than a year, rather than the whopping 400 years it takes for a plastic one to decompose.
A lot of times the best place to get these is online. They're not hard to find. Unfortunately plastic packaging is an even bigger contributor to plastic pollution than toothbrushes, so make sure you order from a company that offers plastic-free shipping. There's been huge demand for this kind of product recently, so if you search for it, you can often find them with plastic-free packaging, and FREE plastic-free, zero waste shipping.
3 - Go thrifting
Yes, you can shop and help the planet at the same time! Really, you're helping the planet by reducing the amount of NEW product we demand from the planet, and by keeping perfectly good clothes out of landfills, or wherever else people put their old clothes.
Unfortunately, you're kind of just making up for people who consume recklessly, buy things just because they're on sale and then only wear them once or twice if ever. You'd be surprised how many things you can find that still have the tags.
Anyway, the idea that every person needs to get a brand new item every time they need something is environmentally absurd. I mean, for Pete's sake, when was the last time you even heard of somebody putting a patch on a pair of pants instead of immediately tossing them?
Cultural consumerism aside, I've found 100% silk, 100% cashmere, designer brands, real leather jackets (I don't consider it unethical if I'm getting it second-hand) and more at thrift stores for just stupid low prices. Places like Goodwill don't really pay much attention to what an item is worth, so it's the same $6 for a silk shirt as it is for a polyester one.
I want to point out that this applies to a lot more than clothes too! Anything that you can get perfectly good second-hand rather than buying new reduces your carbon footprint. A lot of thrift stores have furniture, books, curtains, decor, dishes, organizational products and the list goes on. Go get the goods!
4 - Use jars and containers instead of plastic zipper bags
I can't tell you how many times I've seen people reach for a disposable zipper bag when a hard plastic container or jar would work just as well. I keep several classic mason jars in my house and they're ideal for storing leftover sauces and liquids or even snack foods like pretzels or peanuts. They'll last forever as long as you don't break them, they won't leach chemicals into your food and they actually work better than plastic containers for many applications.
As far as leftovers, it's difficult to find plastic-free storage containers, but even plastic ones are at least reusable rather than single-use. If you ever get Chinese takeout or buy lunch meat at the grocery store, they come in containers you can save and reuse for a long time. Probably half the containers I have now came from such sources. They tend to be cheap and will break after a while and need to be recycled, but at that point you've achieved the trifecta! You've avoided buying something new, reused it, and recycled it! That's progress!
Every now and then (and trust me, it's rare) I come across a situation where I really do need a zipper bag. Even so, if it's not greasy I can rinse it out after, hang it above the sink and use it again. If that seems excessive, cheap or trashy to you, my question would be: "How does throwing away something that's still usable make you a better person? Seriously, explain that to me. I have time."
5 - Recycle your electronics
This one's actually really important. Your phone, tablet, laptop and everything in between have small amounts of rare metals in them, such elements as neodymium, cerium and lanthanum. (Yeah, I'd never heard of them either.) Increasingly, clean energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, which we hope to see more of in the future, depend on these rare earths as well.
The mining process for many of these elements creates toxic pollutants that are very harmful to local ecosystems. So if we can just reuse the elements we've already mined instead of constantly having to dig up more, we'll be much better friends to our planet.
The same logic can be extended to our tin and aluminum cans. Since metals are just elements, they can be melted down and reshaped endlessly. Metals are some of the most important sources of income for the recycling industry, so it's especially important to recycle these!
You CAN'T just stick your electronics in the recycling bin though. They have to be processed carefully at a special facility, but many common retailers, like Walmart, Best Buy and Staples will collect your old electronics and send them to recycling facilities for you. For a full guide on how and where to recycle your electronics, click here.
6 - Bring your own to-go containers to restaurants
Okay, yeah, this is a bit of a weird thing to do, but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Let's be real, most restaurant meal portions are enough to feed three people, and unless you're some kind of amped-up body builder, you probably shouldn't be downing 1800 calories in one sitting. If you know before you even leave your house that you're probably going to be bringing tomorrow's lunch home, go ahead and bring your plastic containers!
Question 1: Is that even allowed?
Yes, (except at buffets... duh) The restaurant is there to serve you. Any reputable establishment will let you have your way with most things as long as you're not disruptive or asking for the actual moon. If you let the server know you've brought your own containers they'll be chill.
Question 2: Will the waiters judge me? Yeah, they might think it's a little odd, but you'd be surprised how many of them will totally get and appreciate that you're trying to reduce waste. Plus, you're saving them time and effort, so they don't really give a crap.
Question 3: Will other patrons judge me? Doubtful. Honestly, they're not paying attention to you, they're paying attention to their dinner. As a former server, I can tell you confidently that most patrons are completely oblivious to anything happening outside their booth. As long as there wasn't a breeze, they probably wouldn't even notice if the ceiling got lifted off by aliens.
Your food will keep better in an airtight container, it's less likely to spill in your car, and you'll cut back on waste. This is a win-win-win.
7 - LADIES... Razors, and tampons and pads, OH MY!
Oh, my lovely ladies, there are so so many things I could bring up here. Our society has taught us to buy, buy, buy any and all products that promise beauty and affirmation, and more than half are just snake oil. If I could say anything to you it would be that no beauty product in the world is going to do as much as just taking care of yourself. Don't eat trash, get some sleep, and don't be afraid to tell people no. Stress is not a good look. You're valuable and you're worth it. Anyway, there are a few things almost all of us use, and they're great places to start taking care of yourself and the planet.
Razors: Using disposable razors causes a lot of preventable plastic waste. Buying a good handle and then replacing the blades is a lot less wasteful. Even better, getting blades through a prescription service allows you to get high-quality razor heads at a fraction of the cost, and you'll never have to remember to add them to your shopping list. The only downside? Your razor might not be pink and cute.
Tampons: Plastic applicators? Give me a break! When I was 13 I was scared of trying tampons. Then I tried it, and it was no big deal. Later, I was hesitant to try no-applicator tampons, but I did, and guess what? That turned out to be no big deal either. You could get cardboard instead, which may be an environmental improvement, but if you can go the distance on your own, go for it! For the sake of the planet and your own personal health, I also recommend 100% cotton tampons. If you can't find a good option at your grocery store, they're available and affordable on Amazon.
Pads: You can buy more eco-friendly disposable versions of these too, but I'm actually a fan of reusable pads! Let's start with the downsides: they're bulkier and they're more work. If you're going to be wearing leggings somewhere, these may not be the best option, but if you're sporting a maxi dress, harem pants or even thick denim jeans, no problem! They are more effort than simply tossing it in the bin, but not a lot more. I usually rinse them out, then hang them over the side of my hamper until laundry day. Also, if you need to change it while out and about, many will come with a waterproof bag that you can store an old one in until you get home. However, in my experience, this is rarely necessary, which brings me to the pros. Obviously, they're way better for the planet than all that packaging and plastic pad nonsense you're throwing away every month. And obviously you're looking to save A TON of money with this one time purchase. But on top of that, they're way more absorbent. You could almost pee into it (but don't try that). I've found that I don't often have to change them while out, because it'll easily handle 8+ hours of flow. Honestly though, they're best used for days at home in your sweats, for overnight use, or for any occasion where you may not have a chance to change your product for an extended period.
I like to use both reusable pads and non-applicator tampons at my time of the month.
8 - Walk to the store
This is, of course, assuming you have a grocery store within walking distance of your house. Still, in the famous words of comedian Steven Wright, "Everywhere's walking distance if you have the time."
Honestly we don't always have time to turn a quick shopping stop into a leisurely afternoon adventure, but when you do have the time, you can reduce your carbon emissions and get some exercise at the same time.
Unless you live in a rural area, there's probably more than you think within walking distance of your house. I have a dollar store, two grocery stores, a donut shop, a Chick-fil-a, a Starbucks, a Waffle House and much more within a two mile radius of my home. Why not grab a friend or spouse on a lazy Sunday afternoon and see what's within reach?
9 - Moderate your lawn care
A lot of people are really compelled by the dream of lush green grass, patio chairs; the kids playing with the dog while dad grills up some brats. It's a vision of suburban utopia. If you're the kind of person that loves taking care of your lawn, I'd encourage you not to over-water, and to go easy on the chemicals!
This is an item that should hit close to home, literally! The run off from fertilizers, pesticides and more can enter streams near your home, and end up in lakes down the line. These chemicals can be extremely harmful to local ecosystems. Ever heard of the giant algal blooms in the gulf of Mexico that create miles-wide "dead zones"? Well those are the result of farms in the heart of the U.S. doing the same damn thing: overusing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In some parts of the country, the chemicals get into the groundwater and local governments have to issue what they call "blue baby" alerts, warning the public not to drink the tap water. Your lawn care really can impact local bodies of water in similar ways.
Here is a great guide on how to prevent run off from your yard, and protect your neighborhood's ecosystem.
Over-watering can be an issue too. I'm not suggesting you stop watering your lawn, just try to find the lowest amount or, shortest time needed to keep your plants happy. Giving them extra really won't make them healthier, and it can contribute to problems with erosion and run off. Plus you'll waste money on utilities and the extra fertilizer you're going to have to put down. To learn more about that, check out this helpful resource.
10 - Skip the meat once in a while
Let's play a hypothetical game. Imagine with me.
Okay, you have an acre of corn. That acre of corn has 15 million calories and about 480,000 grams of protein. You could have your whole town eat the corn, or you could feed that corn to a bunch of chickens. You can raise about 930 broiler chickens with that much corn, which gives you about 3.3 million calories and about 415,000 grams of protein. (I will say, I did this math myself based on many factors. Message me for more info, but my result came out to 20% calorie conversion, which is a pretty widely accepted number)
Apparently, you can feed more people by just eating the corn.
Now you may think, "But the corn doesn't have high-quality protein like the chicken," and you'd be right. I've simplified, but the chicken wouldn't grow to six pounds in six weeks on JUST corn either. The question remains, do you grow the corn (and soy and vegetables and create synthetic vitamins) and feed it to the chicken, or do you cut out the middleman and eat them yourself? You'll get a similar result. It uses fewer resources, less land, less water and less fertilizer and pesticide to just eat the plants yourself, and that's before we even talk about the other costs of maintaining the chickens.
You have to have land to build your chicken farms. You need electricity, and water. You need gas to move the chickens from the hatchery to the broiler farm, then again to take them to the slaughter and then again to take them to warehouses. You wouldn't have to use any of these resources at all, if you just ate the corn! If we didn't use the land it could be converted back to a natural environment that would provide important habitats for all kinds of creatures, or you could even use it to grow MORE food for the next town over. If we didn't use the gas, there'd be less CO2 in the atmosphere.
So, in the end, you get more food for the town, more available land and resources, and less pollution just because you ate corn and soybeans instead of chicken. I'd like to point out that other meats like pork and beef use even more resources to convert a lot fewer calories.
Long story short, simply replacing a few meat-centered meals a week with plant-based alternatives will lighten the load we place on our planet. To help you on your way, you can try out any of my delicious vegan recipes right here on my site! If everyone on earth ate like a vegan just one day out of the week, it would have the same impact as 1 BILLION full vegans!
So don't think the small changes don't help! Share this post on social media and encourage your friends and family to try some of these easy eco-friendly habits today!