- We're big believers in the idea that small shifts can add up to big change—whether it's taking your vitamins every day, running that extra half-mile or composting your food scraps. With that in mind, Senior Editor Victoria Hoff shares simple steps we can all take to live more sustainably. (You might be surprised by how easy they are.)
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While I’d firmly categorize my own journey to a more sustainable lifestyle as “a work in progress,” isn’t that kind of true for even the crunchiest of kombucha-brewing, compost-shoveling individuals among us? The truth is that there are so many layers to eco-consciousness and our daily environmental footprint, even near-perfection is kind of out of the realm of possibility. Once we start questioning the impact of every component of our lifestyles, it can be difficult to stop. Where is my t-shirt made? Is the fabric sustainably-sourced? How much water is used to produce it? What are the labor conditions like? How do I recycle the fabric? These are all questions worth asking, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming.
That alone, I think, is the biggest obstacle for people who might be curious about living more eco-consciously in theory but don’t know where to begin: It’s a lot. So much, that it’s easy to assume that in the grand scheme of our vast, beautiful (and suffering) planet, our impact is pretty negligible. But to do so is to underestimate our own influence. I have, for example, made some recent shifts to my own routine thanks to facts and tips shared by friends on Instagram. These changes have since trickled down to my own household and inner circle—an organic tampon recommendation to a friend; a new composter for my apartment, since I’m sick of throwing our food scraps in the trash. I think leading by example is actually a lot easier than we realize.
And that’s perhaps the biggest point of all: that it doesn’t have to be difficult. Dwindling resources and climate change are daunting, outsized problems. But eliminating your use of plastic straws, for example, is almost laughably easy in comparison. And it’s these little habits—plus a healthy dose of education—that add up to a more Earth-conscious lifestyle and ultimately, a healthier planet.
So what does that actually look like? Peruse some easy, sustainable shifts to make below and consider swapping them into your routine.
Get a composting bin.
A very important truth: Even natural waste like eggshells, vegetable peels, and other food scraps isn’t biodegradable when it’s thrown into a landfill with other trash. A head of lettuce, for example, can take up to 25 years to break down in a landfill thanks to a lack of oxygen, versus the six months it might take if composted properly into soil. That’s a huge problem, since it releases methane while it rots there. (Methane is a key player in climate change.)
But it’s a common misconception that you need a yard to get into composting. (Psst: I make it happen in my one-bedroom apartment.) Most cities offer different composting programs for those of us who don’t have gardens of our own, and a cursory Google search should shed some light on the best option for you. Many farmers markets, for example, offer community compost bins where you can drop off your scraps once a week. Some cities, including Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, have designated organic waste bins that are included with regular trash and recycling pickup. (In many cases, that compost is then used to help replenish the soil of the city’s public parks, which means everyone gets to reap the benefits of your old banana peels. Isn’t nature cool?)
There are a few different approaches to composting, but the simplest way to get started is to keep a small bin for your food scraps on your countertop or under the sink. This wallet-friendly option from Amazon features a charcoal filter to eliminate any pesky odors (a feature I can personally vouch for). Toss in fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and even used paper napkins, and when the bin gets full, pass the contents along to your city. (You can learn more about composting basics here.)
Opt into digital bills and receipts.
Let’s face it: Those crumpled pieces of paper ultimately just go to the bottom of your purse to die, and at a huge cost to the planet. Over 3 million trees and 9 billion gallons of water are used each year to produce receipts in the United States alone, and that ultimately piles up as 302 million pounds of waste. Just say no at the ATM, gas station and grocery store—and while you’re at it, opt into paperless billing for all your utilities.
Stop with the plastic straws already.
If you’ve already heard it a thousand times from your sustainably-minded friends on Instagram, it’s probably because it’s one of the easiest swaps you can make. I ordered this pack of stainless steel beauties on Amazon two years ago, and I keep a couple in my purse for iced coffee-related emergencies. It might be the best six bucks I’ve ever spent, especially since it’s been estimated that in the US, we use up to 390 million straws per day—enough to circle the globe nearly twice over.
Rethink how you grocery shop.
Chances are you’re already skipping out on single-use plastic bags, especially since some states have introduced legislation to ban them altogether. But while opting for reusable bags is a solid move, you should also consider their footprint as well: Cotton totes, for example, are pretty environmentally costly to produce, and you’d need to use them a few hundred times to nullify that footprint. A better solution are reusable bags made from recycled plastic, which you can find at many major grocery stores. If you’re already doing this and want to take your sustainable food shopping habits to the next level, make it your goal to reduce (or even eliminate) food packaging altogether. You’ll be washing your fruits and veggies anyway, so skip produce bags and just toss them into your cart (or a reusable bag). Opt for bulk bins instead of prepackaged nuts and grains, and bring jars, recycled paper lunch sacks, or reusable containers to house it all in. Better yet, get the bulk of your groceries at the farmer’s market to ensure that they’re sustainably and locally grown.
Start using public transportation or rideshares, even if it’s just once a week.
Transportation currently accounts for 30% of all US greenhouse emissions—and the amount of cars on the road is projected to double by 2040. Even if it’s just once or twice a week, opting to carpool, rideshare through Uber and Lyft, or commute via public transportation is the first step towards putting a dent in those (vaguely terrifying) predictions.
Your feminine products deserve some scrutiny, too.
I had a bit of a lightbulb moment a few years ago when I realized that I truly had no idea what was in my tampons—a terrifying thought for a highly intimate product that many of us rely on for decades at a time. A conversation with the founders behind sustainably-minded reproductive care brand LOLA confirmed my suspicions: There are all kinds of mystery fillers and shady additives in many tampons and pads, because brands in this category aren’t required by law to disclose their ingredients. And that’s not even to mention the environmental footprint of these items. We only get a few hours of use out of tampons and pads that then take up to 500 years to decompose. It’s estimated that close to 20 billion feminine hygiene products are dumped into landfills every year. Flushing tampon applicators is a huge no-no, and not just for the sake of your plumbing—they tend to end up in our oceans when we dispose of them this way. Even trickier is the fact that most tampon applicators can’t be recycled because they’ve been exposed to body fluids. LOLA recommends contacting your local recycling facilities to learn about their specific policies, but sticking with a biodegradable cardboard applicator (or skipping an applicator altogether) is probably a safer bet. Do your research, and lend your dollar to brands that are transparent about their environmental practices. Better yet, opt for a reusable menstrual cup to eliminate your reproductive waste altogether.
Swap in eco-friendly cleaning products.
Many generic cleaning products utilize ingredients that are harmful to the planet (and aren’t great for us, either). Chemicals like nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorous—which are commonly found in products like glass, floor, and bathroom cleaners—often end up in waterways after we rinse them down the drain, and are typically unable to be filtered out by waste treatment processes. This ultimately disrupts the ecosystems of aquatic life—and all because we were just trying to clean the bathroom sink. The workaround is to choose brands and products that use ingredients that aren’t quite so harsh on the planet but still get the job done—better yet, they use sustainable and/or recyclable packaging. I recently became a fan of Supernatural, which uses essential oil-based formulas that effectively disinfect my home and make it smell amazing. Plus, the brand boasts refillable glass bottles that are pretty enough to keep on your countertop.
Wash your laundry on a cold cycle (and line dry whenever possible).
Fun fact: Your washer uses 90 percent of its energy just heating up water. That has an environmental impact for sure, but it’s also worth mentioning that it’s not really great for your clothes, either. Heat breaks down fibers and fades colors faster, which means you’re only shortening the lifespan of your favorite tee. Stick to a cold cycle—and if you really feel like being an overachiever, line dry your clothes to boot. Being good to your closet and the planet is a stance we can all get behind.
On that note, be wary as you Kondo your closet.
Embracing a more minimalist lifestyle is a noble pursuit, but quick q: What are you planning on doing with all the clothes you’ve deemed joy-less? Donating them might seem like the obvious answer, but the truth is that many donation services offer no guarantee that your old garments won’t just end up in a landfill—the fate of 12.7 million tons of textile waste each year in the US alone. While there are a lot of amazing organizations that offer textile recycling services, the truth is that there is just too much unwanted clothing to process—especially if it’s wet or contaminated in any way. And a lot of it is ultimately exported overseas. Using resale services like Poshmark, Depop, and local consignment stores is a great way to ensure that your old clothing is being recycled at least once. But the real solution is to overhaul your consumption habits altogether. Marie Kondo’s MO, after all, isn’t about clearing out room in your house to just to fill it with more stuff again. Instead, the point is to find joy in quality over quantity, and only spend your money on items that really feel essential.