Start small: 10 steps you can take today for sustainability

There are life choices that can make a big dent in your environmental footprint, like flying less, going vegan, and living in dense urban areas – but let’s be honest, changing the fundamental ways we live is hard, and asking people to do so in the name of sustainability is…well, probably a non-starter for many.

One of my motivations for starting this blog is to help bridge the gap between the die-hard environmentalists and the uninitiated. (I use those terms in the most genuine and non-judgemental way possible, I promise.) On social media, I follow a long list of sustainability-minded organizations and advocates, and find their enthusiasm and conviction absolutely inspiring. Yet, I also find plenty of tips and hacks floating in this space impractical, unscientific, alienating, and sometimes plain preposterous.

For instance, yesterday I came across an article that suggested “by putting a sticker on your mailbox that states ‘No Junk Mail’ you can avoid paper waste.” I mean, c’monnnnn. First of all, your trusty mailmen work hard enough; let’s not hand them the impossible job of sorting through what is and is not “junk.” But more importantly, you are not doing the environment a favor by kickin’ the can (or paper) down the road to your local post office.

Here I present you, 10 small and realistic actions that you can take right now to shrink your environmental footprint. Naturally, many of these are waste/recycling related – it’s an area that most people are already aware of, thus easiest to start with as an individual. If you have other helpful tips, please comment below!

Mugshot.

1. BYOB & BYOM

The average American uses 500 paper cups a year. And contrary to common belief, most disposable coffee cups are not recyclable because they are lined with a thin plastic film to prevent leaking. Investing in a good quality water bottle and/or travel mug (and remembering to always bring it with you!) is one of the most accessible way to reduce your waste. Plus, many coffee shops offer a small discount for bringing your own mug.

(Side rant: I kid you not – it took me an hour to track down this disposable cup statistic from a reputable source; cite your sources, people!)

2. Stop unwanted mail

Go paperless on your bills, opt out of prescreened credit card offers, and stop unsolicited mail and catalogs through the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) consumer website (note: it costs $2). The Federal Trade Commission has an excellent webpage with all the links. Do not post ‘No Junk Mail’ on your mailbox, I beg you!

3. Read your local recycling guide just once

If you are already recycling, you might as well do it right. Recycling the wrong items can contaminate a whole batch of recyclable materials, and today, it is more important than ever to recycle better (read about why in my post here). Understanding what you should and should not recycle in your area is the best way to start.

4. Add a recycling bin to your bathroom

Have you tossed a recyclable shampoo bottle or toilet paper roll because you are too lazy to bring it to your recycling bin? I definitely have. Add a bin in your bathroom – make the right thing the easy thing to do.

5. Swap paper towels with cloths/rags

Yes, there are tasks that only paper towels will do (aka bacon-draining ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), but for most cleaning tasks, cloths are your friend! After use, I let them dry (so they don’t get moldy) and toss them in the laundry hamper. You don’t even have to spend money buying new; cutting an old towel or t-shirt works just fine.

If you cut an old towel, like I did, try to pull as much loose threads as you can before use.

6. Going veg every once in a while

A plant-based diet has a much lower environmental footprint, yet if you grew up on meat and potatoes, I can sympathize that the idea of going vegetarian probably feels unimaginable. That’s ok – start small with an occasional swap, or try a more consistent Meatless Monday routine.

7. Attempt a fix before a replace

Our kitchen faucet was leaking earlier this year, and I was thiiiiiis close to ordering a new one before I took the faucet apart and reinstalled the rubber ring inside- viola, fixed! Five minutes saved me a new faucet and a whole lot of $$. The NYTimes Climate Fwd newsletter wrote about this recently as well. (Told you guys, the newsletters are so good.)

8. Run your dishwashers/washing machines only when full

According to the EPA, by running the dishwasher only when it’s full, an average family can “prevent 100 pounds of carbon pollution and save $40 on energy bills annually.”

9. Opt for LED light bulbs

This is also a no brainer. LEDs use less energy than fluorescent and incandescent lighting, and have a lower lifecycle environmental impact even when counting manufacturing and disposal (read this Department of Energy study if you want to learn more.) If you live in Massachusetts, you can get a free energy assessment of your house – even if you rent! – and they’ll even switch you to LEDs for free!

10. Do the smell test

Do you know that “sell by”, “use by” and ”best by”dates on food packaging are basically useless? There are no congruent policy in the US that regulates the labeling of expiration dates, so these terms carry no meaning regarding the safety of these products. Until there are clearer federal regulations, opt for the smell test.

Bonus step: Pay attention

How2Recycle label on my cereal box.

Is a list article even a list article without an inspiring yet ambiguous idea at the end? I add this step at the end because it’s a lesson I’m learning over and over again. Case in point, I recently discovered the How2Recycle label on my cereal box with instructions on how to take the package apart for proper recycling. Had I paid just a little more attention, I would have learned about soft plastic recycling years ago!