Two weeks ago, the city I live in stopped collecting recycling. There aren’t enough truck drivers, so until 32 people with CDLs get on the payroll, I now have to take all my recycling to the nearest center and sort it out myself. While the city will collect plastics #1 through #7, the center only accepts plastics #1 and #2. Until I can recycle my #5s again, I may have to stop eating yogurt, buying mushrooms in a carton, etc. Because while I’m no Greta Thunberg, I am trying to reduce my and my family’s negative impact on the earth. Recycling is the last option before something goes in the trash, and a lot of what we try to recycle ends up getting carted to a landfill or burned, anyway.
I’m pretty sure everyone knows about energy-efficient appliances, reusable water bottles, low-flow toilets and faucets, LED lightbulbs, low/partial/zero emissions cars, and other items like that. But what are some everyday things you can do or buy (or not buy) to reduce your carbon footprint? Below is a list of the things I do to reduce, reuse, and make better choices. Hopefully you can find a few below that you haven’t already thought of and that are easy enough to incorporate into your own daily life:
In the Bathroom
- Etsy is pretty much my go-to site for reusable bathroom items. From various shops, I have purchased:
- Small squares of flannel or terrycloth to replace cotton balls for my skincare routine, and larger squares to replace disposable tissues. I do have a few handkerchiefs, as well, but those are more expensive. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can save money by taking some fabric scraps and stitching up the edges so they don’t fray. I store used squares in a small mesh bag (the kind used to launder bras or hose), and then wash everything on the sanitize cycle when it’s full.
- Shampoo and conditioner bars
- Crotchet shower poofs that I can throw in with the towels every week
- Bamboo toothbrushes
- Instead of cotton ear swabs, I use Last Swab, which can be found with a few other reusable toiletry items on lastobject.com.
- I use tablets from bitetoothpastebits.com instead of toothpaste.
- I use bar face soap instead of products that come in non-recyclable tubes.
- To clean my bathroom, I use junk towels instead of sponges, and instead of harsh chemicals I use vinegar and baking soda.
- I use OB tampons which are just the cotton insert and do not have a plunger. I have tried the Diva Cup and other washable and reusable products, but they didn’t work for me.
- We purchased a hand-held bidet attachment for the toilet years ago to assist with cleaning my daughter’s cloth diapers, and we’ve kept it around ever since. I won’t get into details over why I prefer it, but I’ll just say if you’ve never used one, the first time is startling, but you get used to it. Also, make your purchase in the summer. If your first experience with one is with winter’s temperatures, you probably won’t keep using it.
- At a Christmas gift exchange one year, I received a box of soap nuts. Did you know that there’s a tree that makes soap? All you have to do is put a handful of nuts into a little sack, tie it up really tight, and throw it in with your clothes. Soap nuts will melt and suds up a bit during the wash and they clean your clothes just as well as any other laundry cleaner. I currently am using these which I got on Amazon. I bought them about 3 years ago and I’ve only gone through half the box. They last forever!
- Instead of dryer sheets, we purchased sheep wool balls from a farmer’s market. They don’t absorb static electricity as well as dryer sheets, but they do a great job of making sure nothing sticks to the sides of the dryer barrel and everything tumbles up properly.
- A lot of my daughter’s clothes are second-hand, usually from consignment events. I did the same for my son when he was little, but now that he’s almost a teenager, it’s hard to find clothes he likes that aren’t new.
- When my husband and I shop, we almost always stick with natural materials like cotton or linen.
- We donate as much clothing as we can to thrift stores, and sometimes we’re able to save old items and use them as junk towels or for stuffing a pillow or something. Very, very few clothing and shoe items go in our trash.
- We limit our consumption of paper products by using:
- Cloth napkins at the dining table
- Cloth kitchen towels instead of paper. I do keep paper rolls in the house, but they are 75% used for cleaning up cat barf and 25% used for cleaning up grease. We use cloth towels to press tofu, cover items in the microwave, wipe down the counters after cooking, and everything else.
- What we don’t want to use our good kitchen towels for, we use junk towels. These are old shirts that have been cut up, ratty old towels from the bathroom, stained bed sheets, and stuff like that.
- Also on Etsy, I found washable dish sponges. I can use one for about 3-4 days before it has to be washed. I’ll throw it in on the sanitize cycle with all my other towels and gym clothes and stuff, and it comes out good as new! We have about a dozen we rotate through and I’d say I have to buy one or two new ones a year.
- We don’t use foil or wax paper or parchment paper unless we really have to, and we almost never use plastic wrap. When we need to wrap something up, we use beeswax wraps, which can also be found on Etsy. They’re just sheets of fabric of various sizes coated with beeswax. You can buy kits to do it yourself at home. We also don’t use Ziploc bags. It’s super easy to simply use glass or Tupperware containers to store food. When I want to send a friend home with some cookies or leftovers, I use old (clean) Chinese takeout or deli meat containers. That way I don’t have to worry about getting them back.
- We don’t use Swiffer products. To dust we use old junk towels, and to mop we use washable mop cloths that attach to the mop with velcro. It’s not any harder than using a disposable Swiffer cloth and once you buy that mop head once, you never have to buy it again.
Food & Groceries
- For the last few years, we’ve made an active effort to reduce our consumption of beef and pork. Now we are limiting our consumption of chicken, turkey, and fish, as well. We eat vegetarian or vegan for several meals a week, sometimes having completely meat-free days 4 or 5 days out of the week. If you’re a meat eater who can’t imagine a satisfying, healthy diet without meat, there’s a great cookbook called The Accidental Vegetarian that’s got tons of delicious recipes that just…don’t have meat.
- Instead of using a sheet of paper to keep track of what groceries to buy, my husband has an electronic list on his phone he can reference. I’m not that fancy, so I have a spreadsheet where I have each column organized like the aisle of my grocery store. It’s laminated so I can use a dry erase marker to mark what items we’re out of each week. At the store, I simply erase an item once I’ve placed it in my cart.
- The kids use lunch boxes, not paper bags .
- We bring our reusable bags not only to the grocery store, but also to farmer’s markets, Target, anywhere!
- We don’t use plastic produce bags. I’m always so surprised to see people bagging bananas – why?? I get you don’t want your 18 apples rolling every which way in your cart, or you don’t want your wet parsley dripping all over everything, but that’s what cloth bags are for. Or just don’t use one! It’s fine to just take a cucumber and put it in your cart, sans plastic bag. Cloth produce bags are commonly sold in the produce section or – you guessed it – on Etsy.
- Before the pandemic, I would use mason jars in the bulk section for coffee, dried fruit, nuts, grains, etc. Just make note of the tare before you start filling. Sometimes they can weigh your jars for you at customer service, if you don’t have a scale at home.
- I reduce my consumption of items with excess packaging – individually wrapped prunes, for example, or apples in a bag. I no longer buy grapes or berries because they come in plastic. Instead, I choose fruits with no packaging, such as watermelon.
- I try to purchase items in more eco-friendly containers e.g. eggs in cardboard containers, as opposed to plastic or styrofoam, glass condiment bottles instead of plastic, raisins in waxed paper cartons instead of plastic sacks.
Gifts, Toys, and Other Purchases
- I always reuse gift bags and tissue paper. My kids’ Festivus gifts get wrapped in the same bags year after year after year.
- For parties, I never decorate with balloons, foil confetti, or use those cheap plastic trinkets for gift bags. Instead, for my daughter’s last birthday, I used colorful, reusable tablecloths, coordinating paper plates, and crepe paper, and for the gift bags, kids got to raid a candy buffet. No one really cares about the decorations, anyway.
- I’m growing pickier about the toys I buy my children. I’m probably turning into a grouch, but I refuse to spend money on a useless hunk of plastic just because it’s sparkly and the graphic design department knocked it out of the park with the box design. I’ve started to insist that a toy be educational, long-lasting, able to be enjoyed by multiple family members, or useful before I’ll purchase it. I also enjoy the “thrill of the hunt” by shopping thrift stores and used book stores.
- Reduce where you can, but also reuse! When we purchase new bedsheets, I always find a way to reuse the bag they came in. When our fake Christmas tree’s top broke off (a hand-me-down from a friend), my husband screwed on a new base to the little part – voila! A mini tree. Then I attached a mannequin head and arms to the rest of the tree and now we have Mr. Festivus.
That’s all I can think of for now. I know a lot of these are only available to me because of my socioeconomic status and where I live. It’s cheaper in the short run to buy single-use or mass-produced products. Not everyone has the time, money, or energy to follow any of the suggestions above. I get it. My goal here is simply to give some people some ideas that maybe they hadn’t thought of or heard about yet, that might be easily incorporated into their own lives. We can all do something. If there’s anything you do to reduce your negative impact on the earth, please leave it in the comments!