What is sustainable living? Is it necessary to install solar panels or become a vegan? While some people go to great lengths to green their lifestyle, hardly anyone starts there. You can be greener than most people by starting small (if you haven’t already). And when one new practice becomes a habit, look for something else.
Sustainable living means fulfilling the needs of the present without keeping future generations from fulfilling theirs. Or to put it another way, sustainable living means whatever we can continue to do without causing any harm.
And remember: nothing is perfect in this world. The best-known green practices all have downsides. Our immediate goal is to be less bad. And after that, still less bad.
Let’s start with the familiar slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” You might have seen something about the 5 Rs of sustainability or even the 7 Rs. But the more terms, the harder they are to remember. The familiar 3 Rs have plenty of nuances. Much of what you’ll read under later headings could possibly be made to fit one of them.
Chances are you’re already following some of these suggestions. Whether you’re just starting out with sustainable living or want to continue further along that path, don’t try to do too many new things at once. You’ll find that overwhelm is not sustainable!
- Avoid single-use, disposable products whenever possible, especially if they’re made of plastic. For example, you can get and fill a reusable water bottle, use handkerchiefs instead of tissue, or get reusable shopping bags.
- Buy only what you really need. Impulse buying is the enemy both of the environment and your budget.
- When all else is equal, choose whatever has the least packaging. Packaging, after all, is nothing but junk you buy and then have to get rid of.
- Before you throw something out (to our overburdened landfills), see if you can do something with it. If you’re into crafts, you have lots of ideas. What about the rest of ut? Put that plastic shopping bag to work lining your wastebasket or use it to pick up pet waste. That glass jar can hold leftovers in your fridge. That tin can makes a good pencil and pen holder.
- If something breaks or stops working, see if you can get it repaired before you decide to throw it out.
- If you no longer want something that someone else can use, donate it to a thrift store. And buy stuff from thrift stores.
- Participate fully in your local recycling program. That means understanding what it accepts and what it doesn’t accept. There’s no sense in doing recycling wrong.
- You shouldn’t put plastic bags or other plastic film in your regular recycling, but you can take them to a store that has special recycling containers for them.
- Never put electronics in the trash or for recycling collection. Some manufacturers and retailers have programs for their proper disposal. Some municipalities have drop-off centers for electronics. If all else fails, take them to a hazardous waste recycling center.
- See if your area has facilities for recycling unusual items. Styrofoam, for example, doesn’t belong with regular recycling, but there might be a drop-off center where you can take it. For what you can’t recycle locally, look for ideas at Earth911 or Terracycle.
- Compost food waste, yard waste, and more. That’s a kind of recycling that takes pressure off our landfills. Just make sure you know what to compost—and what not to compost.
Make sustainable food choices
- Stores offer produce in Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic film. Leave it there. (See number 3 above!)
- Buy no more perishable food than you’ll eat before it goes bad.
- I disagree with those who declare all meat consumption unsustainable, but our industrial farming is unsustainable. Plus, Americans eat more meat than is really good for us. So have smaller portions of meat than you may be used to, and have occasional meals with no meat at all.
- Question packaged “convenience” foods. They’re not all that convenient, nutritious, or even tasty. If you don’t know how to cook, it’s really not difficult to learn. And you can fix from scratch all the stuff that comes in boxes with little more time and effort.
- Food sustainability includes how it’s grown, how far it travels, and how much it’s processed. Read up on it to know how to make the most sustainable choices.
Conserve energy in your home
- Whenever you need to replace appliances, get models with Energy Star certification.
- Whenever you need to replace a lightbulb, get an LED. And even though LEDs use much less energy than the old incandescent bulbs, remember to turn them off when you’ll be out of the room for a while.
- Unplug energy vampires when you’re not using them. You can recognize them from their big blocky plugs. They draw electricity even after you turn them off.
- Get a programmable thermostat—and remember to use the vacation setting when you’re away from home. Keep your home as warm as you can stand it in the summer and as cool as you can stand it in the winter.
- Run the washing machine and dishwasher only when they’re full.
Conserve energy in your car
- Reduce idling as much as possible. It’s better for the car and gas mileage to turn it off if you have to idle for more than about 30 seconds.
- You can’t turn off the car in traffic, so if you don’t have to commute to work, avoid driving during rush hour.
- Stay out of drive-thru lanes. Park the car and go inside not only to save gas but keep from breathing everyone else’s fumes.
- Try to avoid going to one place and then back home. Combine errands and pick the shortest and most fuel-efficient route.
- Choose standard shipping over two-day shipping. It won’t conserve energy with your car, but it will save a bundle considering your overall energy footprint.
- Consider alternative transportation. Carpooling, public transportation, bicycling, or walking won’t work for everyone, but if any alternative works for you, you’ll use less energy.
- Be careful with running water. For example, rinse produce or dishes in a bowl of water rather than let so much run down the drain. Turn off the water while you brush your teeth.
- If you can use a trickle of water, such as for washing your hands, don’t turn it on full blast.
- Get leaks and drips repaired as soon as possible.
- Get low-flow fixtures such as toilets and showerheads.
- Use a commercial carwash instead of washing your car at home.
- Use a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.
Buy sustainable products
- Buy good quality products that will last a long time.
- Prefer products that are recyclable.
- Prefer products with at least 30% recycled content.
- Look for products that don’t have toxic or hazardous chemicals. For example, cleaning products with bleach or ammonia.
- Look for energy-efficient, water-efficient products.
Consider economic sustainability
So far, these sustainable living tips have concerned environmental sustainability. But sustainability has three pillars. The other two are economic and social sustainability.
- Shop in local stores that sell local products—including local produce. Why should the things you buy travel more than you do? Well-traveled goods have a huge environmental footprint. Plus, buying local keeps money in your area and helps out your neighbors.
- Know which companies (both manufacturers and retailers) use good sustainable practices, such as zero waste to landfill. Shop with those companies and not environmental villains.
- If you have money to invest, look for eco-friendly startups, B-corporations, and other sustainable companies.
Consider social sustainability
Social sustainability can be a minefield. It includes social justice, for example. And one person’s idea of social justice might be another person’s idea of class warfare.
- Treat other people with respect, even if you have trouble respecting their viewpoints. Do your part to reduce the polarization in our society.
- Consider a company’s commitment to human rights, workforce development, ethical trade, etc.
Pick up litter
That’s 43 tips. Here’s a bonus: littering. Stopping litter an important part of sustainable living but doesn’t fit comfortably under any other heading.
People—not just Americans or people living today, but throughout all space and time—toss stuff on the ground when they no longer want it. It’s unsightly. It’s potentially unhealthy. And today, a lot of it is plastic.
Littering is a crime, by the way, but the laws are rarely enforced. And when people see litter, they seem to take it as permission to drop some more stuff.
You’re interested in sustainable living. Surely you don’t litter. But you can’t walk across any parking lot or any park without seeing bottles, cans, plastic bags, and other debris. And since the pandemic started, masks have joined the throng. People even leave washable cloth masks on the ground.
So when you go for a walk, here’s a good way to reuse some of the plastic bags you accumulate—or find on the ground: fill them with litter and dispose of it properly. Some belongs in recycling and the rest in trash. You might inspire someone else to pick up litter, too.
The benefits of sustainable living
Conscious green living takes more energy and effort than living oblivious to our environmental impact. So why should we do it? Here are some of the benefits to the planet, to society, and to us as individuals:
Sustainable living reduces pollution of the air, water, and soil. Pollution makes humans and all other living things sick. So reducing pollution enhances everyone’s health.
Reducing consumption of stuff, energy, and water conserves natural resources. For one thing, the less we extract from the ground now, the more will be available for future generations. And remember: sustainability fulfills today’s needs without hampering the ability of future generations to fulfill theirs.
The less the “haves” consume, the less tension they’ll have with “have nots.” A more equitable distribution of resources reduces class tensions by reducing stark social inequalities.
All these sustainable living tips encourage physical activity, healthier eating, and other personal benefits. And it’s not just physical health. They can also reduce stress and anxiety. Plus, following them will save a bundle of money.