It’s a new year, and a new start once again. One of the best resolutions you can make for yourself and the planet is to live greener. By reducing your carbon footprint you are not only taking stress off the environment but you also are making your own surroundings healthier and, often, saving money in the process.
I embarked on a month of learning about sustainability and implementing better practices to that end, as part of my 30 Days at a Time project in 2011, where I took on a new lifestyle challenge each month during the year. Although I’ve always tried to be as eco-friendly as possible, I knew there was a lot more I could be doing — and probably pretty easily, too. Here are the top practices I found during my journey to better sustainability.
The Myth of Recycling
Don’t get me wrong, recycling isn’t a bad thing. I recycle everything I can — we all should. But it can create a trap that we fall into, where we think that just because something can be recycled, it’s okay to buy it. We use more plastics, more cardboard, more glass, more aluminum — and feel guilt-free when we toss them all into the recycling bin. Remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Don’t let the ease of recycling lull you into a false sense of complacency so that, instead of first reducing your consumption and then reusing everything you can, you just buy more stuff as long as you can recycle it.
Eating Less Meat is Better for the Planet
There are a lot of reasons why people choose a vegetarian diet. Many people feel that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is simply healthier, and there is a lot of information to back this up. In fact, eating too much meat is far less healthy that no meat at all, and The Guardian reports that meat-eaters are at higher risk for cancer. Others object philosophically to eating animals at all, and/or the conditions and treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms.
In simple economic terms, it requires far more resources to raise and produce meat than it does grains and vegetables. About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption; it’s as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States. Meats that take the largest toll on the environment are lamb, beef, pork and farmed salmon. The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound; if each American cuts meat and cheese from their diet for one day a week it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. Try starting with Meatless Monday.
Cars and E-Waste are Major Anti-Green Culprits
Our gasoline consumption in the U.S. is nearly six times higher per capita than Europe, and almost 30 times higher than developing countries! While switching to a more fuel-efficient car is clearly a big step in the right direction, driving habits can improve your efficiency and maintain your car longer. Keep your tire pressure high, don’t speed and don’t let your car idle for long periods. You can also get eco-friendly oil changes (Friendly’s Auto Repair has them), plan your errands and car use to reduce trips and use public transportation or a bicycle a little more often.
It’s great having all the new and ever-changing technology in a lot of ways, but the downside to that is that even with electronics we have become a disposable society. E-waste is a huge problem in this country. Most people don’t keep a mobile phone for more than a year, and it’s often cheaper to get a new one than have a broken one repaired. Televisions, computers and other electronics also go in the landfills by massive amounts each year. Not only are we increasingly filling our own landfills with discarded electronics, more and more this e-waste is being exported to developing countries in Africa and Asia. To combat e-waste, remember that the device you already own is the most eco-friendly choice. When you do buy a new device, research the most energy efficient one you can find. Don’t leave all your devices constantly plugged in (this sucks a lot of energy even when they aren’t turned on) and dispose of your devices responsibly through a site such as E-stewards.org.
Make your own Products
The air inside the average American home is five to ten times more toxic than the air outside. Indoor air is typically contaminated by between 20 and 150 different pollutants — most of which come from petroleum based cleaners. You can buy natural, organic products, but it’s also incredibly simple and cheap to make them yourself. A good all-purpose cleaner is simply water, white vinegar and baking soda. You can also make your own beauty products, instead of giving your money to the $20 billion beauty and skincare industry that often has outrageous markups. A large percentage of such products are also made with unsafe chemicals or tested on animals.
Shift Your Habit
The biggest resource I used on my 30 Days of Sustainability challenge was Shift Your Habit, by Elizabeth Rogers. The book is filled with tips and recipes for things like cleaning and beauty products, and focuses heavily on the tie between living more sustainably and less expensively. In the book, Rogers identifies what she calls the Super Shifts — the 15 top changes that have the most impact and save the most money. It’s the easiest way I know of to create a greener lifestyle for yourself.