Every so often, I seem to hear about someone who’s accomplished a fantastic feat of “green” living – like producing only a cupful of trash in a whole year, or not letting a single wrinkled veggie go to waste.
While I applaud these efforts (who hasn’t had to throw away a sad bunch of celery unearthed from the depths of the refrigerator?), reading these types of stories can make living a greener lifestyle seem out of reach.
One thing to remember, though, is it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Making even tiny changes can add up over time to create a difference, whether your goal is to keep waste out of landfills, save money, or live a healthier life.
Here are four simple ways your family can reduce waste, make more earth-friendly choices, and save resources this year.
Green Tip #1: Swap Disposables for Reusables
This is one of the easiest changes you can make to reduce the number of items you throw away each day. Paper towels and napkins, a plastic fork or sandwich baggie at lunch, and produce bags from the grocery store are all usually thrown away after one use. And the cost of disposable items can quickly add up.
Instead, try these ideas that are more environmentally-friendly and easier on your wallet.
- Instead of paper towels and napkins, switch to cloth. The Kitchn notes that cloth napkins are beneficial in a variety of ways – they’re inexpensive, last a long time, and can spice up your tablescape. And that’s not to say you can never use a paper towel again, but with cloth options, you’ll be able to reduce your usage.
- Instead of plastic cutlery, use real silverware. It’s an easy swap, and if you’re worried about forgetting your utensils at home, bring a set to work and keep them in your desk. Use inexpensive utensils for kids’ lunchboxes so they’re easy to replace if lost. Check your local thrift store for super cheap stainless steel flatware you won’t mind replacing.
- Instead of plastic produce bags, use cloth ones. Bring your own bag to the store to pack up fruits, veggies, and bulk goods, and you’ll save yourself from trying to peel that plastic bag off the roll in front of everyone in the produce section.
- Instead of plastic sandwich baggies, switch to other options. Beeswax-coated wraps have sprung up everywhere lately and might be worth a try depending on your needs. There are also sandwich boxes, silicone bags… the options are endless. You might also consider investing in some glass or stainless steel containers in a variety of sizes for lunchtime packing.
Green Tip #2: Work to Reduce Food Waste
There’s nothing quite like optimistically loading your shopping cart with fresh food at the beginning of the week and having to pitch half of it the next.
The USDA estimates that about 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. goes to waste. And that’s especially a shame when you consider more than 40 million people in the country are food-insecure, meaning they have difficulty in providing enough food for themselves or their families.
According to the USDA, one of the best ways to prevent waste from a consumer perspective is to plan ahead. Before going to the grocery, map out a plan for what you’ll cook so you’ll buy exactly what you need. This helps prevent overbuying or buying items you won’t use.
Once you’re home, make sure to store food properly to keep it at peak freshness for as long as possible. Then, use it up in the order it would go bad. For example, delicate fruits and vegetables like berries and lettuce should be the first to get eaten. If you want to save food for another time, freezing is a great option.
As you prepare your planned meals, think about leftovers. Can someone bring them to lunch the next day? Can they be repurposed into something else? There’s no need to eat the same thing day in and day out. A little creativity and variety can help you stretch a “base” meal into something delicious every time.
Finally, if you have canned goods or other nonperishables that have been sitting on your shelves for over a year, but have not yet reached their expiration date, consider donating them. High-protein items like peanut butter and canned tuna, as well as healthy options like low-sodium canned vegetables and fruit canned in juice, are always welcome at food pantries.
Related: 4 ideas to help your family set giving goals this year >>
Green Tip #3: Slow Down Your Consumption
We can buy just about anything online today and have it on our doorstep in a matter of hours–or less. Today’s fast-fashion culture and expectations of instant gratification mean we often buy new clothes, home goods, furniture, and more in large volumes and throw it away just as quickly.
Not only does this mean you’re shelling out a steady stream of cash, it means more stuff has to end up in a landfill, or worse (by the way, have you ever thought about where your trash ends up?).
Think long-term and embrace quality over quantity when it comes to things like clothes and home goods. Let’s take the example of a winter coat. You could pay $30 for a trendy jacket from your favorite mall store, but it’s likely to be out of style in a year and possibly in poor shape. Or, you could spend more money on a staple piece that will last for years and never go out of style – and that was likely made in a more sustainable way. Which one sounds better?
Sometimes, you just need something for your home, and fast. But if you’re considering a larger purchase or something you’ll use frequently, consider spending a little more for a higher-quality piece that will stand the test of time.
Something that helps me think about slowing down my consumption habits is considering how and where each item I purchase was made. If I had to make this piece myself, how much time and labor would really go into it? That helps me appreciate the work that someone else did and the raw materials used to create it.
Green Tip #4: Reuse or Re-Home Your Stuff
When it comes to the end of an item’s intended use, what do you do with it? If you’re anything like me, you hang onto it, because you’ll need it eventually, right? (Sorry, half-empty lotion bottles and mismatched socks…) It turns out that hanging onto things isn’t the worst crime. While some items are only useful for so long, you can give others new life by turning them into organization options, crafts, gifts, and more. Here’s a short list of fun ideas:
- Old t-shirts. They may or may not still fit. And they definitely take up too much space in your closet. If old t-shirts have sentimental value, try turning them into a quilt or pillowcase – there are scores of shops online that can do it for you if you’re not a sewing genius. You can also use them for fun craft projects, like making braided toys for shelter dogs.
- Glass jars. Jars from spaghetti sauce and jam work wonderfully for storing dry goods like flour, holding flowers as a rustic vase, or meal-prepping foods like overnight oats.
- Wine corks. From creating an actual corkboard to protecting your floor, get 25 creative ideas for reusing corks here.
If you simply don’t need an item anymore and can’t think of what to do with it – but it’s still in good shape – donating it is likely a good choice. You’ll give it to someone who really needs it and prevent it from going into a landfill.
Furniture, vehicles, clothing, home goods, books, and more can all be donated if you know where to look. Some organizations even offer free pick-up of your items. Check your area’s local library, food banks, charity thrift stores, religious organizations, or schools to see if they’re in need of your items.
Environmental Service Activities
By trying one or two (or all four!) of these steps, you’ll be well on your way to a greener 2020.
Interested in more ways you and your family can do something good for the planet? Check out a list of PGK’s environment-focused service activities here and select Save the Planet.