going green(er): five small changes that won't cost you a penny
"Going Green" is a HUGE industry - with the ultimate goal of having YOU spend money in the name of sustainability. And while there is a long list of beautiful eco-friendly products I'd love to add to our family's green arsenal, there are so many things we can do that don't cost a thing. Here are five ways we're trying to go greener this year:
"no straw, please"
We all know that single-use plastic is not a sustainable choice, but it permeates our lives to an incredible degree. In the United State alone, it is estimated that 500,000,000 single-use plastic straws are utilized daily. The vast majority of these end up in landfills instead of recycling streams, providing a major source of plastic pollution that could have been diverted if handled correctly. Simply opting for no straw with your drink not only removes a small amount of plastic from this cup-to-landfill pipeline, it sends a small message to businesses that you're committed to reducing your consumption of single-use plastics. If you want to take this further, you can buy a reusable straw, take the last plastic straw pledge, or encourage local businesses to make the shift to paper, compostable, or reusable products.
Recycling has been in the news a lot lately because Americans tend to be enthusiastic about recycling in theory, but pretty bad at it in practice. A substantial amount of our perfectly good recyclables get contaminated with garbage, resulting in recyclables that range from unusable to downright dangerous. In fact, China decided at the end of last year to stop accepting 24 different types of recyclables from the United States, completely crashing the market for recyclables- it now costs recycling centers money to get rid of their raw materials. While there are some political motivations making our relationship with China less amicable than it has been, a large part of this decision has been based on the quality of materials we're sending out - AKA, how good you and I are at recycling. So, before you toss something in your recycling bin, think:
- Is this recyclable? Some of the biggest recycling contaminants are things that are flat-out trash: dirty paper napkins, styrofoam, and soiled diapers DO NOT belong in our recycling bins, and some of these items (we're looking at you, diapers) contaminate all of the other items in the bin, making all of those recyclables unusable.
- Does my recycling center accept this? Just because an item is technically recyclable does not mean that your local recycling center accepts it! It's increasingly common to see some items accepted in some communities, but not in others. This includes paper coffee cups, plastic take-out containers, and glass bottles. Glass bottles, once the golden child of the recycling family, are increasingly being turned away from facilities for a couple big reasons: a) they're inert, so they don't really pollute our landfills b) silica sand, the raw material that makes glass, is plentiful and renewable, and c) broken glass is dangerous for recycling crews and ruins the paper in single-stream facilities. (Many local recycling centers will still accept glass when dropped off at the facility, just not in the curbside bins). Unsure about what your community recycling center accepts? Just give them a call!
- Is this contaminated? So you've determined that your pizza box recyclable, and your recycling center accepts cardboard in the curbside bins. Great! That means you can just drop the box in the bin, right? Maybe! Food-contaminated cardboard is typically a recycling no-no: once grease and food have permeated the cardboard, it's pretty much impossible to get it clean enough to use again. Food-contaminated plastics and steel cans are often a different story, though - many modern facilities are equipped to clean these well before they move on, so you can save some precious water by sticking them in the bin with a little residue. This varies from community to community, of course, so check with your local recycling center to make sure!
- Can it be reused instead? Recycling is awesome, but it's only part of the sustainability equation - it's just as important to reuse whenever possible as well. Our food co-op collects egg cartons so that local farmers can reuse them when they sell eggs at the farmer's market. Sometimes, those same farmers will offer you a discount if you bring them cartons! Glass jars and bottles are also useful for a variety of tasks, including craft projects, food storage, and more.
remember your reusables
It's nice to have a pile of reusable bags, a coffee mug that keeps your americano hot for hours, and a cute cutlery set that's supposed to live in your purse, but too many of use buy these "green" products and forget them at home (I know I'm not the only one guilty of this). Even the super-relatable healthy living queen Melissa Hartwig has taken to Instagram to talk about being shamed by an employee at Sprouts when she forgot her bag. So how do we put these things to use and not let them languish in our cupboards? The simple answer is to put them where they're useful: in the car (for those reusable bags) or in your bag (for the utensils, mugs, straws, and maybe even one compact shopping bag) or wherever else works for you. After I bring in my groceries, I like to walk the bags straight back out to the car, or, when I'm feeling lazy (AKA, usually) I put them on the front door's knob so that I have to touch them before I leave the house, which makes them much harder to forget. I similarly try to put my reusable mug, straw, and utensils in the diaper bag right after I finish washing them.
"for here" instead of "to go"
Take-out is wasteful! Those plastic bags are often filled with styrofoam containers, plastic forks, and paper napkins that almost always translates to landfill waste. Opting to eat out at restaurants rather than bringing that food home not only saves those one-use materials from the landfill, but also encourages us to sit down with our families and enjoy our meal rather than rush through it at home. It also makes that treat at your local coffee spot feel just a little bit more indulgent!
An estimated 28% of car trips are 1 mile or less. These add up to over 10 billion miles per year in the United States! If we chose to walk or bike for even half of these trips, Americans could save over $450 million a year, and prevent more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. We also get in valuable physical activity, interact more with our communities, and protect our local air quality. We recently invested in a bike trailer and I am absolutely loving the ability to take Logan to the park, pool, and library with it instead of the car.
I'm working to implement these changes in our family as small steps within our larger goal of living a greener life. What about you? How are you going green without spending any green?