So maybe you don’t live in a home the size of a closet or drive a car that runs on vegetable oil. You can still make environmental choices that matter. This month, readers share their smartest strategies and innovations for going green.
I replaced my daughters’ electric night-lights with solar-powered lanterns to keep by their beds. Every morning, the girls put them out in the sun to charge; after dinner they collect them. We made the change to conserve energy but wound up teaching our kids about responsibility, too.
Instead of relying on tap water to hydrate my outdoor plants, I use rainwater that I collect in a plastic barrel. (I transport the water around my yard with a watering can.) One night of rain fills the container with enough water to sustain my garden for an entire month.
My two chocolate Labs track mud into my house on a daily basis. I used to combat the mess with paper towels, but six months ago I got tired of all that wastefulness, so I crafted a roll of washable cloths. To make this handy invention, I sewed snaps onto 12 fabric squares, then attached the squares together so they wouldn’t get lost. When I have a mess to pick up, I just pull a towel off the roll, use it, then toss it in the laundry bin.
Bettina Kidd Quinn
St. Peters, Missouri
For as long as I can remember, my family kept a 13-gallon garbage can in our kitchen. Its vast size dwarfed the pieces of trash we tossed into it, making each one seem inconsequential. So about a year ago, we swapped this old trash holder for a receptacle that fits a standard grocery bag. The smaller size gives us new perspective on our waste and motivates us to recycle more. As a result, we’re throwing away about 15 gallons less each week.
When my husband and I refurbished an old farmhouse two years ago, we removed the natural-gas furnace and central air conditioner and installed a geothermal system that minimizes the amount of energy used for controlling the air temperature. Our system doesn’t burn fossil fuel. Instead, it transfers heat from the ground to the house to keep us warm in winter, and from the house to the ground to cool us down in summer. This move was expensive up front, but it’s very energy-efficient and cost-saving in the long term.
In an average week of traveling to and from work, I clock 420 miles in my SUV. To offset my emissions, I found a carpool partner using eRideShare.com, a website that connects neighbors who have similar commutes. An unexpected bonus? I gained a great new friend. Chatting with my driving buddy makes time fly.
Buffalo, New York
The amount of trash that piles up at parties has always bothered me. So for my kids’ birthday bashes, I decided to stop using disposable plates, cups, and cutlery. Instead, I borrow the extra dishes I need from a neighbor. I also got our school to make its annual picnic garbage-free. Amazingly, this 100-plus–person event resulted in less than half a bag of trash.
Emily George Nicholson
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When I heard about the Freecycle Network, an online forum where people post items they would like to donate and look for items they need, I knew I wanted to get involved. So in 2004 I founded a Freecycle chapter for my county; today it boasts 24,500 members. Three other volunteers and I run this eco-oriented message board. Rather than sending viable items to a landfill, our group finds them new homes.
North Haledon, New Jersey
A few years ago, I bought several bolts of festive fabric that I found on sale. Now, instead of using paper and tape, I cover my kids’ gifts in these fabric scraps and tie them up with a pretty ribbon. The result is beautiful and the material is durable, so I can use the pieces again and again.
San Antonio, Texas
To reduce wasted food, I make everyone in my family plate his or her own dinner. When my son or his friends eat at my house, I tell them to take only what they’re sure they can handle and remind them that seconds are always available. I end up with tons of leftovers every week—which also means fewer gas-guzzling trips to the grocery store.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
I use old junk, like game pieces or worn-out jewelry, as art supplies in the classes I teach at elementary schools, day-care centers, and the local library. The kids have fun making sculptures and collages, and I get satisfaction from seeing them turn trash into treasure.
In an effort to use fewer paper cups and cardboard sleeves, I started bringing a travel mug on my twice-daily coffee runs. I’ve also said good-bye to plastic cups by filling the same mug with water during my breaks from caffeine.
New York, New York
When we bought our first house two years ago, my husband and I gradually replaced all our lightbulbs with LED bulbs. Today we have more than 35 of them in our house, and we’ve cut down our total wattage by more than two-thirds.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Instead of relying on supermarket produce, which travels hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to reach us, my husband and I started growing as much of our own food as possible. We put backyard greens and tomatoes in our salads all summer long and use homegrown squash in winter stews. Last Halloween, our seven-year-old carved a pumpkin that he had grown himself.
Virgil, New York
It has taken some serious legwork, but I’ve managed to source almost all my home furnishings from thrift stores and yard sales. Even downright ugly pieces can look spectacular with a little paint and creativity. I have purchased and refurbished second-hand dining-room sets, dressers, chairs, shelves, tables, hutches, benches, lamps, and frames. It feels great to extend the lives of such significant items.
East Peoria, Illinois
After buying our new home, my husband and I installed a digital thermostat that allows us to change the temperature using an iPhone app. The result: When we’re out at a restaurant or a movie and realize that we accidentally left the heat on, we can do something about it. Slowly but surely, we’re saving energy.
When buying groceries for my family’s lunches, I used to choose single-serve items (yogurt, fruit cups) without thinking twice about all the extra packaging. But when my husband pointed out the waste, I began purchasing family-size portions and putting snack-size amounts in reusable jars. This system is better for the environment—and for our wallet.
Instead of buying seltzer, as I did for years and years, I make my own fizzy water with a home carbonation system. The swap has made a drastic difference in the number of plastic bottles that I toss.
New York, New York
To my own surprise, I switched from disposable diapers to cloth ones. Before my son was born, I considered reusing a diaper to be a pretty gross idea. But within a few weeks of his arrival, I became completely appalled by the amount of trash his diaper changes produced, and I knew I had to do something about it. Fortunately, washing cloth diapers has turned out to be easy, and the patterns they come in are just adorable.
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