Here are 10 simple changes that you can make that will add up a huge impact. If you already follow some of these practices, then kudos to you! However, don't stress about incorporating all of them into your life today, this week, or even this month! Just start where you feel comfortable and gradually build up to bigger changes.
1. Recycle. If there's one thing that you can do that will make a huge impact, it's recycling. Most towns already have programs in place, so it's easy to get started, just make sure to check your town's recycling guidelines. For example, my town does not require me to sort my paper, plastic, and metal separately, so I have a large bin that catches it all. They accept all plastics (some won't take #5) and cardboard boxes have to be flattened, but the staples do not need to be removed. Glass is something you should always recycle because it is a material that can be recycled over and over without any loss of quality.
2. Ditch your plastic bag habit and carry reusable bags instead. While it's true that some places will recycle plastic bags, it is still a lot more wasteful than reusable bags when you take into account the amount of energy and resources it takes to create plastic bags and then break them down to be recycled into something new. *Note: A recent study funded by the American Chemistry Council found that unwashed reusable bags could have coliform and/or e.coli bacteria on them. Most of us don't think to wash these bags, and we just dutifully tote them with us on grocery runs. Luckily, the study also showed that if you wash your bags by hand or with running water, the bacterial levels are reduced to almost nothing.
3. Save water in the loo. For those of you that do not have a low-flow toilet, one no brainer change that you can make to save water in the bathroom is to put a half gallon jug of water in the tank. The tank won't need as much water to fill up and the average family could save up to 4,000 gallons of water a year! Now that's good for the environment and your wallet! If you'd like to take it a step further, you can also install low-flow toilets and showerheads as well.
4. Ban BPA. Many studies have shown that BPA (Bisphenol A) may lead to negative health effects, such as cancer, obesity, and neurological effects such as impaired fetal and infant brain development. While more studies are still being done to prove these links, why take a chance?! Many retailers have already removed products with BPA from their shelves and consumers have many BPA-free options now, so it's easy to remove this hazardous material from your life. Look for plastics that are labeled #2, #4, or #5 or that carry a "BPA-free" label.
5. Throw your trash in the trash. It's all too easy to scrape food off dirty plates into the garbage disposal or flush icky things down the toilet, but it's actually better to throw them in the trash because then it will go straight to the landfill. Trash that goes down the drain will ultimately find it's way to the landfill as well, but first it goes through the sewage treatment plant, thereby wasting precious energy and up to 2000 gallons of water each year. And you need to hold up your right hand and promise that you will never flush medications and other chemicals (toxic cleaners, automotive products, and pesticides) down the toilet or in the sink because these could contaminate our water and the wildlife that lives in it. *If you want to earn extra credit, make sure you recycle everything that you can (see tip #1) and compost your food scraps. While composting is not difficult to do, it's a topic that deserves it's own section. Google it and you'll find more than you ever wanted to know about garbage!
6. Swear off bottle water. This is another no brainer change that is not only a green practice, but will also save you green too! Bottled water has no redeeming qualities. It's expensive (typically $3.79 per gallon!), it's not necessarily safer than tap water, it wastes energy to produce the bottles, and many bottle end up in the landfill. Do yourself a favor and go pick up two things: a reusable, BPA-free bottle in your favorite color and a good water filter (carbon or reverse osmosis). But don't take my word for it, the Environmental Working Group has some eye-opening studies that will convince you to skip the bottles and start carrying your own: http://www.ewg.org/ourwater/bottled-water
7. Meatless Mondays. You don't need to become a vegetarian or vegan to make an impact. Although I am married to a self-proclaimed carnivore, I have instituted Meatless Mondays in my home (okay, sometimes it's Thursday) to lower the amount of meat that we consume. There are so many fantastic sources of protein that we now eat, that my husband almost doesn't mind going meatless a day or two a week.
8. Concentrate On Less Waste Many green products come in a concentrated form so that less packaging is used and discarded. By concentrating products, not only does it take less energy to manufacture these products, also less fuel is used to ship these products around. And while you're out looking for concentrated products, make sure they are green as well to rid your home of noxious fumes and chemicals. *Did you know that if all households in North America used laundry detergent that is 6 times concentrated instead of the regular unconcentrated leading grocery store brand, the plastic saved from the packaging would be enough to make 600,000 plastic laundry baskets!
9. Green Power! In many areas, switching to renewable energy sources (such as solar power, wind power, landfill gas, and hydroelectric turbines) is as simple as picking up the phone to contact your local utility company. If you live in a sunny area, you can take it a step further by installing your own solar panels (and there may be tax benefits that can help offset the cost). Support companies that use renewable energy sources and green practices, and when possible, buy your products locally -- this is especially important for fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Not only do these taste better, less energy is used to ship them as well.
10. Use Power Strips to Ward off Energy Vampires. If you're like most people, your cell phone charger is plugged into the wall and you plug and unplug your phone each day, but the charger stays. Have you ever touched your charger to find that it's warm or even hot? That's because all these "vampire" electronics are sucking electricity out even when they're not in use. By plugging electronics into a power strip, you're only one switch away for stopping the energy drain. If you want to be even lazier, you can now buy Smart Strips, which automatically turn off when it senses that appliances are idle.