How You Help the Environment
Real Simple readers share the little ways they've gone green.
I installed a rain barrel. In one brief summer storm, the whole barrel can fill up to the top. This is a plant-saver as the severe drought continues in the Southeast and water restrictions are at an all-time high. We get a storm now and then, and that’s all I need to have lots of water for my plants. Just remember to add a mosquito dunk so the bloodthirsty little guys don’t think you’ve opened a spa for them.
Charlotte, North Carolina
I’ve started composting my family’s organic waste: banana peels, eggshells, bread crusts, apple cores, and so on. I have a small waste bucket next to the kitchen sink that gets emptied into a large composter in the backyard every other day or so. It’s a great lesson in science for my two older kids, ages six and three, as well as my husband and me. We’re hoping that the result of our composting will yield a good base for the small vegetable garden we are planning for the spring.
Pedal Off the Metal
My best friend from work just moved five minutes down the road. (We’re both teachers at the same middle school.) Now we carpool to work every day. Not only are we saving money and gas but we also get our girl gossiping out of the way during the 25-minute ride. Plus, we stay on each other about getting out the door at a decent time. We’re saving the environment and our sanity.
On weekends, my husband and I leave our car in the garage. We enjoy our long walks because they allow us to spend some quality time together. It’s eco-conscious and good for our pocketbook, too. But best of all we have some great conversations and get to know each other again.
Victoria, British Columbia
When the navy moved us overseas to a city with good public transit, we left our cars behind and bought bicycles. I am in better shape, have lost weight, get outdoors more, and think about what I buy at the store because I don’t have a car to rely on to haul impulse purchases. When we have an especially heavy grocery load or the weather is particularly awful, we use a taxi or arrange for deliveries. It’s greener and much cheaper than car insurance and gas.
The changes I have made are simple yet effective. Needing to replace two appliances, I chose an Energy Star washing machine and dishwasher. In addition, I purchased and installed a programmable thermostat, which decreased my total energy cost by $650 last year. I was sent a letter from my electric company about this and was given a 10 percent credit on my electric bill. None of these changes have affected my everyday life, and each makes a little bit of a difference.
I bought a red lined bag that says boss lady and sports a cowgirl design. I carry it to the grocery store and into the mall. It’s reusable, sturdy, and much more fun than white plastic. Yee-haw!
Whenever we purchase paper towels, toilet paper, and paper napkins, we always buy 100 percent recycled-paper products.
I bring less paper into the house so there is less to recycle and reuse. I read the newspapers and magazines from the “in stock” selection at the library or the coffee shop. I even stopped buying most novels and nonfiction books and instead use the different libraries in my community.
Shauna de Silva
San Ramon, California
No more paper napkins at the dinner table. I heard that if everyone reduced their napkin usage by just one a day, we could save 1 billion pounds of paper waste in landfills. So we’re using cloth napkins now. With any luck, the kids won’t be terribly messy, and the napkins can last a few days before needing a wash. The bonus: The family feels as if dinner is a little more special.
No more paper gift wrap. I’m changing over to reusable all-fabric gift bags and tins. Companies like Patagonia sell beautiful fabric bags with ties at cost during the holidays. (They use their scraps.) My family loved them this year and promised to reuse next year.
The biggest eco-change I’ve made in my life involves the lives of all my students, our school, and our community. Working at a school involves a lot of paper, and that paper generally goes to waste. My coworker, Linda, and I took it upon ourselves to put a plan into action. Armed with a few boxes, an eco-friendly e-mail, and a group of kids willing to help, Linda and I started recycling our school’s waste. In three years, we have saved three tons of paper from going to the landfill. This equates to saving 51 trees, 1,140 gallons of oil, 12,000 kilowatts of energy, and 21,000 gallons of water and stopping 4,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. The biggest benefit is how the school and the community have become involved in an effort to reduce our carbon footprints.
Council Bluffs, Iowa
We are a family of four with two fast-growing boys. Everyone said we were crazy when we downsized from an eight-cylinder gas-hogging SUV to a four-cylinder diesel compact. We still have a car pool, and we still go on family vacations. The only thing that has changed is the fuel. We now use biodiesel and get 40 miles to the gallon. Great for the checkbook and the environment!
Burlington, North Carolina
I have installed water barrels at downspouts, changed my lightbulbs, and purchased better windows. But my biggest change? I sold my BMW 325XI and bought a Toyota Prius. My husband thought I was crazy, but I can’t tell you how good it feels. The BMW took medium- or high-grade gas once a week, and the Prius takes plain old regular every three weeks. Love it! Besides, Prius people wave to each other, and BMW people don’t.
Instead of buying my kids new bath toys, I wash out plastic containers and bottles of all shapes and sizes, like mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, and maple syrup, for them to play with. This way, my boys constantly have new things to pour and splash with in the tub, and my family is also learning the life lesson of reusing materials before they go into the recycle bin.
Water is the only beverage I drink on a regular basis, so I’m picky about it. I like bottled water better and used to buy an industrial pack of bottled water from Costco. But seeing how many plastic bottles I used was a wake-up call. Instead, I bought a Brita pitcher and now filter tap water, which I pour into bottles. This is not a huge change, but if everyone makes one small change, think of the results.
Greenville, South Carolina
Save Your Energy
The back of my house is all windows. I have finally put up curtains and my heating bill has gone down about 20 percent. I am fortunate to have a southern exposure, so I close them only at night and enjoy the sun all day.
We switched to washing all our clothes in cold water instead of warm or hot. They wash just the same, and I save about $15 a month on the gas bill.
The easiest change I’ve made lately is not washing my dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Most dishwashers and detergents these days work so well that if there are little bits of food left on, they come right off in the wash cycle. After I eat, I take my napkin and wipe off whatever is left on the dish (my dogs might get to lick a plate or two) and then plop it in the dishwasher. This is easy, and it saves time and, most important, water. I always cringe when I go over to people’s houses and they wash dishes under tap water, then put them in the dishwasher. What a waste of energy and water!
When my eight-year-old started campaigning to save the polar bears from global warming, he was designated the chief light-turner-outer for the house. He now feels responsible for doing his part and knows he can have an impact on helping his favorite animal.
Walking the Walk
Thinking about the environmental crisis that’s happening can be overwhelming, but to stay on track, I take care of my own two footprints. If I come across a bag on the sidewalk, I pick it up. I’m not going to chase down a car to school a person on how to save the environment because she just threw a cigarette out the window, but I feel good knowing I recycle bottles, rinse out plastic sandwich bags to use again, shut off the water when I brush my teeth, and take shorter showers. If everyone would worry only about himself, then we could slow down the effect we’re having on the earth we all have to live on.
Los Angeles, California
I teach preschool and am instilling eco-friendly changes in our kids from an early age. We talk about going green and combine it with a lesson about the letter R, as in recycle and reuse. We discuss Earth Day, and we ask parents to send in paper-towel rolls and brown bags for art projects. Personally, I feel as if this is an investment for the future of our planet if our future adults start thinking about these concepts now.
Cloister, New Jersey
My husband and I have become infinitely more dedicated to “being green,” but it’s not as difficult as Kermit makes it sound. We make all our efforts count for double duty. A few examples: We make a game out of separating recyclables from garbage―and end up having fun and spending time together while doing something good for the environment. We also decided to stop using disposable Styrofoam cups for coffee, and instead we chose reusable travel mugs for each other as Christmas gifts.
Cranston, Rhode Island
I’ve decided that the phraseology isn’t “eco-friendly”; it’s “eco-responsible.” I buy phosphate-free and bleach-free cleaning and personal-care products (to reduce environmental impact), recycle everything (I have only a small bag of trash each week), decreased the margins in my word-processing program to save on printed paper, switched to a laptop from a desktop (to save energy), bought a hybrid, reuse water bottles, switched to bamboo linen products, eat primarily organic food, and give eco-friendly gifts meant to inspire the recipients.
The biggest change? Before I buy anything, I ask myself, “How does using this product affect the environment?” It works for cleaning products, food items, and even big things, like furniture and cars. It works for just about everything.
In the past, I couldn’t have cared less about the environment. It’s embarrassing to say, but I would leave my car running, wasting gas; throw small pieces of trash out the window; and be wasteful with my belongings. But after seeing the world a bit in my travels, I realized how much I love this planet, so I made some changes. I traded in my gas-chugging SUV for a station wagon, I bring my own bags to the grocery store, I shop at farmers’ markets, I changed every light in my house to energy-efficient bulbs, I recycle everything I can, and I bring my own cup to coffee shops. If I don’t have it with me, then I guess I don’t need coffee.
The small things: Choosing the “Send all books in one shipment” option when ordering from Amazon; replacing bottled sparkling water with homemade seltzer; air-drying the laundry outside, then fluffing in the dryer for 10 minutes; marinating foods in reusable plastic containers instead of throwaway bags; assigning each family member one uniquely colored glass to use for a whole day; showering just every other day, which is better for your skin (mine gets rave reviews from my husband); and always telling green merchants, “Thank you―I patronize you because you’re green.” The big things: Having only one car and choosing to live one mile from my husband’s office, and buying a tankless water heater and a front-loading washing machine.
Last summer, on our honeymoon, my husband and I learned to sail on a beautiful sailboat near Catalina Island. As we learned, our captain gave us a crash course on how landlubbers affect the water and it’s ecosystem. Two things that stand out from that weeklong adventure: performing multiple “man overboard” drills to fish out deflated silvery helium balloons and plastic bags, because they are terrible for the fish who eat them, and seeing the effects of trash on a sea lion, with trash literally wrapped around its neck. From this awareness of human actions, my husband and I made vows never to litter or use plastic bags and always to buy eco-friendly cleaning supplies.
Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey
Aside from the regular things, like recycling and changing incandescent bulbs for more energy-efficient ones, I have begun explaining to my four-year-old and two-year-old what it means to be aware of the environment. Every day I talk about what I am recycling and why. The most eco-friendly thing you can do is teach future generations how to take care of our planet for the good of everyone.
Mt. Royal, New Jersey
For us, three changes have turned us into a greener family. First, we became eco-conscious. Moving the environment to the front of our minds means we think twice before tossing trash, starting the car, and making purchases. Second, we try to make it fun (and sometimes it even works). We use a magnet to find out which cans are steel and which are aluminum. We say, “Let’s find three fun ways we can use this empty hot-chocolate container.” Third, we took baby steps. Long before we started composting and recycling water with a rain barrel, we made simple changes, like switching to recycled-content paper, buying a staple-free stapler, and using egg cartons as paint palettes and Mylar balloons as gift wrap. Little changes make a big difference, and as the momentum builds, we’ve found it easy to make bigger changes.
We recycle or repurpose everything. Items we no longer use go to charities; get posted on Freecycle.org, a swapping website; or get placed by our mailbox with a sign that says free. I feel great knowing that someone will reuse what we won’t.