10 Low-Cost and No-Cost Ways to Help the Planet in 2022

From climate change to plastic pollution and environmental destruction, the Earth needs your help. Taking action can be free—or even save you money.

3d eco calculator sign.
Photo: Petmal/Getty Images

The planet needs our help like never before. We're at a critical turning point, not only with regard to the impacts of climate change, but also pollution from plastic waste, environmental destruction, and wildlife extinction.

Here are just a few of the most recent and startling developments:

  • Last year was the warmest on record for the heat content of the world's oceans and it was the warmest year on record in 25 countries, and in areas where 1.8 billion people live, according to CarbonBrief. The Arctic, in particular, is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the planet.
  • 11 million metric tons of plastic pollution enters the ocean every year, and by 2030, the plastic pollution in rivers, lakes, and the ocean could increase to as much as 53 million metric tons.
  • Earth's creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. We have already wiped out hundreds of species, and many more are nearing extinction due in large part to such human-driven activities as wildlife trade, pollution, habitat loss, and more.

These types of headlines can indeed be discouraging. And it's easy to give up hope and believe there's little to nothing you as an individual can do—that these issues are beyond your control or ability to impact. But that couldn't be further from the truth. As legendary primatologist Jane Goodall famously said, "The greatest danger to our planet is that we lose hope...Because, if we have no hope, we give up and stop trying to do our bit to make a difference."

In fact, borrowing words from Goodall again, the small changes we make each day can lead to the kind of world we want in the future.

As each of us goes about our routines, from the moment we wake up until day's end, we make innumerable decisions that have ripple effects. And we engage in actions and behaviors we have long since ceased thinking about, which impact the world around us. From the toothpaste and shampoos we use to how we buy food and the modes of transportation we rely upon; we all can have a positive or negative impact on the planet.

The good news is that it's far easier than you think to help the planet, and it doesn't have to cost a great deal of money to take action or make a difference. In fact, some of the most significant steps we can take this year to help the planet are also among the easiest, and least costly. (Many are even free or will save you money over the long run.)

"It's a total misconception that acting for the planet has to be expensive," says Sheila Bonini, senior vice president for private sector engagement at the World Wildlife Fund. "In fact, being environmentally responsible will often save you money."

Here are 10 low- and no-cost ways to help the planet in 2022, courtesy of three global organizations working to address the most pressing challenges of our time: Ocean Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Earth Action Network.

01 of 10

Reduce food waste

Globally, we waste close to 40 percent of all the food that's produced. Additionally, discarded food represents roughly 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, says Bonini. To put that statistic in perspective, the emissions from the food we throw away is nearly four times greater than the emissions generated by the entire global airline industry.

"So this is an area where we can all really step up, and you will actually save money," says Bonini. "Preventing food waste can be as easy as taking a few minutes to plan out your meals before going grocery shopping, making good use of your freezer for leftovers, and trusting your senses on those 'best before' dates. Depending on the kind of item, many foods are still safe to eat days, weeks, or months after the 'best by,' 'sell by,' and 'best before' labels."

02 of 10

Recycle smarter not harder

By now, most of us should be entirely familiar with concept of recycling, and are (hopefully) doing so regularly at school, home, work, and even while out and about. However, many of us remain unclear about exactly which items can be recycled through our local, or municipal recycling program. This lack of knowledge can lead to a great deal of misdirected waste that ultimately does not get recycled, says Britta Baechler, PhD, senior manager of ocean plastics research for the global non-profit Ocean Conservancy.

"Recycling systems and capabilities can be very different and will vary based on where you are," explains Baechler. "This year, make it a point to learn the local recycling rules. You can often find this information online. Taking this step to increase your knowledge is free and will help you make sure that what you're putting into your recycling bin can actually be recycled."

RELATED: You Probably Didn't Know You Could Recycle These Things—But Here's How to Do It

03 of 10

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

Recycling is good. But reducing our waste is even better. And specifically we're talking here about the amount of single-use plastics we rely upon in our everyday lives. Reducing ubiquitous plastic usage is essential to the health of the planet. Plastic has been found in every corner of the ocean, from the deepest trench to the most remote Arctic ice. Plastics have also entered the atmosphere.

More than 800 marine species are impacted by plastics, from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest whales, according to a UN report on marine debris. What's more, according to the Marine Pollution Bulletin, more than 60 percent of fish studied globally contained microplastics.

There are numerous actions individuals can take to begin meaningfully drawing down our societal reliance on plastic. What's more, many of these steps are free or will actually save you money when implemented on a daily basis.

"Carry a reusable water bottle with you instead of buying bottled water," says Bonini. "Bring your own bags to the grocery store. If you're grabbing take out, tell the restaurant you don't need plastic utensils. In general, consider which items are truly necessary, and which can be skipped."

In fact, avoiding plastic bottled water, when possible, is not only better for the environment and your bottom line, it can also be better for your health, adds Baechler.

"Drinking tap water instead of plastic bottled water can really reduce the amount of microplastics you take in," says Baechler. "Folks who consume bottled water ingest 90,000 more microplastics every year then those who drink tap water."

04 of 10

Skip the straw

While some of these steps may not seem groundbreaking on their own, when considered collectively, they can make a difference, says Baechler. Turning your back on plastic drinking straws is one such example: It may seem like a minor action, but it's one that will have global significance.

"Straws are one the items on the Ocean Conservancy's top 10 list when we do International Coastal Cleanup each year around the world," says Baechler—meaning they are one of the most prevalent and insidious types of plastic waste collected during these annual clean-up events.

The problem with plastic straws is nothing good can be done with a used straw, explains Baechler. It can only be thrown away. There is no potential for recycling or reuse. Therefore the best solution is to stop using them altogether.

"This tip applies to more than just straws too. It also applies to other single-use plastics, particularly the type you get when you're at a restaurant, such as ketchup packets and plastic cutlery," continues Baechler. "None of those things are recyclable. So reducing the use of these items altogether can help ensure they don't accidentally make their way into the environment."

And here's one more way to avoid using all those plastic items encountered at restaurants and when picking up take out. You can cook at home more. It's a step that will also save you money, says Baechler.

"The COVID pandemic brought some additional issues to life surrounding single-use plastics and food delivery," explains Baechler. "There was one study in particular that came out last year that showed food delivery in the U.S. has increased 36 percent. So this means our plastic use is increasing. Doing our part to chip away at that waste is really doing the Earth a favor."

05 of 10

Bike and walk more

It's hardly any secret that automobiles are a leading cause of the carbon emissions triggering climate change. But according to the EPA, if we all avoided using cars for just half of the short trips we regularly engage in—those under one mile—we could eliminate about two million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. That's the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road each year.

Opting to walk or take a bike, when possible, particularly for local trips around your community can have a significant difference on both the environment and your wallet. The EPA estimates that getting out of our cars for half of the short trips we take would translate into a savings of $9 million in driving-related costs each year.

"It can also just be a great way to take a break from our busy lives and get some fresh air," Bonini adds.

06 of 10

Opt for used items

The amount of waste finding its way into landfills is a growing problem, one that poses serious problems for the health of the planet as landfills emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The average American produces about 1,704 pounds of garbage per year, which is about three times the global average.

One of the most straightforward ways to address this issue is to opt for buying used items rather than new (which also saves you money). Taking this step prevents second-hand items from ending up in a landfill and reduces the need for producing more new items that will eventually make their way to the trash. This is also a good way to reduce the pressures on the Earth's finite resources.

RELATED: 6 Ways to Make Sure Your Everyday Purchases Aren't Harming the Planet

"Consider everything that goes into making a product—timber, fossil fuels, water, land, plus the emissions needed to produce, package, and transport," says Bonini. "Every time we can avoid going back to the planet for something new, when used will do just as well, is a win."

At the same time, we need to break the habit of simply tossing items into the garbage when we're done with them and begin thinking differently about how we dispose of unwanted goods. Might someone else be able to use that old sweater? Car seat? Or those shoes your child has outgrown?

There's a growing number of community websites and apps devoted to the buying and selling of used items at low or no cost. Some of the most popular names in the space include OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace, and ThredUp.

"Check these places before you buy something new," says Bonini. "And if you want to get rid of something that's in decent condition, consider listing it for free or donating it to a local charity."

07 of 10

Participate in a cleanup

Helping to remove the plastic waste in our communities, at the beaches, and in waterways, is a no-cost way to improve the environment. Ocean Conservancy even offers a mobile app, Clean Swell, where you can log the types of waste you're collecting and the data you upload provides useful insights for the organization's scientists.

"If you're able to log what you collect, you will be contributing to a really large data set that allows scientists like me to monitor waste and push for a solution," says Baechler.

What's more, by collecting plastic waste, you are protecting wildlife.

"You remove the chance of these items entangling marine life in the future, and you are removing the problem of that trash sitting there in the environment being subjected to salt, sun and waves and breaking into microplastics, which is harmful to lots of different species of wildlife," explains Baechler.

08 of 10

Spend with purpose

While consumerism, in general, can be detrimental for the planet as it leads to more waste in landfills and depletes precious or dwindling resources, when you are spending, try to be a conscious consumer. This can include taking steps to make sure your dollars have a positive benefit for the planet when possible.

There's a growing crop of credit cards on the market, for instance, that are focused on funding important causes. The Aspiration Zero card plants a tree for every single purchase you make. As an added bonus, the card provides 1 percent cash back for your purchases.

RELATED: Sustainable Banking: How to Make Earth-Friendly Choices With Your Money

The new fin-tech Purpose rewards bank account users for supporting vegan brands and businesses. It also promises customers that your deposits will never fund factory farming or fossil fuel businesses, unlike many traditional banks that make billions from funding such endeavors. Switching to a bank account like the one offered by Purpose may even save you money, as the account has no monthly fees.

Yet another financial service provider offering an eco-driven proposition is Climate First Bank.

An FDIC-insured bank, Climate First, is on a mission to fight the climate crisis and recently announced a one-of-a-kind Regeneration checking account created in partnership with world-renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken. For every qualifying Regeneration account opened, Climate First makes a direct $100 donation to Hawken's Project Regeneration, a non-profit focused on ending the climate crisis in one generation.

09 of 10

Advocate for action

One of the most important ways you as an individual can help the planet this year is through advocating for action. Year after year we're recording the hottest temperatures on record, plastic waste continues to choke waterways, and biodiversity loss has grown to be one of the top risks facing humanity in the next decade.

Demand action from the elected and appointed officials who run your local municipality, as well as national leaders, and even international organizations. Let those in power know you're not only paying attention, but that you care, and that you expect them to act responsibly and swiftly to implement meaningful policies and changes at all levels.

"This is a zero-cost way you can help the environment," says Bonini, of World Wildlife Fund. "Local engagement is good, and speaking out to federal legislators is critical. It's also so easy and takes so little time. Many organizations, including World Wildlife Fund, help you communicate with your legislators with just a few clicks of a button, or give you a script you can use for a quick phone call."

You can also reach out to the companies and brands where you frequently spend money or do shopping, letting them know you'd like them to reduce their use of plastic or operate in a more environmentally friendly manner.

"Use your voice to be an advocate for plastic reduction measures," says Baechler. "If you have a favorite grocery store or big box store, take a minute to find their website and contact them about the issues you're seeing. There is certainly a lot of room for corporate improvement and being an advocate does lead to change and move the dial."

10 of 10

Sign-up for EarthAction 2020 Action alerts

Finally, if you need still more help getting started with your effort to help the planet consider signing up for free 2020Action alerts. Established in 1986 by the Massachusetts-based EarthAction organization, the 2020Action program is specifically designed for busy people who care about the environment and peace, and want to bring about change, says EarthAction founder and executive director Lois Barber.

Those who sign up for the program receive one 2020Action e-Postcard every month focused on a critical and timely environment issue like climate change, or on a peace-related issue like reducing the risk of nuclear war. The monthly postcards provide brief background information about an issue and also recommended a tangible and effective action that will only take you 20 minutes or less.

"There is truly an Earth emergency," says Barber. "The Earth is in a critical care unit right now and each of us has a responsibility and each of us can do something meaningful—from the way you live your life to making an effort through advocacy to impact community-level decisions, or state and national decisions, or even trying to influence international decisions. There's never been a more important time."

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