Becoming more sustainable doesn’t have to be burdensome or expensive. Start with small changes. Once you change some habits, you’ll find it’s much easier to continue to reduce waste. Many of the habits on this list can be implemented with items you already own or for very little cost. Try some of these simple swaps to make your daily routine more sustainable.
*Note: An unfortunate side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in single-use plastic or paper items. Some of these swaps may not be possible due to restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. Those items have been indicated below.
Plastic shopping bags: This is one of the easiest ways to reduce your plastic consumption. Whenever you go shopping, bring reusable bags for checkout. But don’t just limit yourself to the grocery store. Reusable bags are great multi-purpose alternatives that you can at any store or for any errand. And if your purchase is small, tell the cashier you don’t need a bag.
*Note for COVID-19: Many stores are limiting the use of reusable bags due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stores where employees bag items for customers, such as grocery stores, are not allowing the use of reusable bags. However, if you bag your own items, like at ALDI, a reusable bag may be allowed. Check with the store to learn their policy.
To-go food containers: Purchasing food to-go seems like a wonderfully simple option, but don’t discount how much waste it produces. When possible, eat inside restaurants where dishes are reused, and bring your own washable take-away containers for leftovers.
*Note for COVID-19: Eating inside a restaurant could be risky for viral transmission. Choose restaurants with outdoor seating or decrease the amount of to-go meals you order. Eating at home is always a more sustainable option.
Drinks in disposable cups: There are few instances in which a reusable cup is not an option for whatever beverage you are purchasing. But coffee shops, for example, readily fill reusable mugs and cups. I have on more than one occasion purchased a fountain drink from a gas station using a reusable tumbler. (And the price was cheaper!) Consider investing in a few high-quality mugs and cups. Bonus: Your drink will stay hot or cool for longer.
*Note for COVID-19: Some coffee shops are not allowing the use of reusable mugs brought in by customers. Check the store policy ahead of time.
Bottled water: I am lucky enough to live in an area with delicious and safe drinking water right out of the tap. Most Americans also have access to safe drinking water at home. Buying plastic bottled water is costly and wasteful. Don’t get caught out of the house without water, either, by starting the habit of always filling up a reusable bottle before heading out.
Plastic straws: A simple way to reduce our plastic consumption is to stop using plastic straws. You can use a reusable straw or eschew the straw all together and just drink directly from your cup.
Plastic utensils: Plastic utensils have no place in your life. Especially at home where you should be using reusable silverware. When eating out, plan ahead by carrying a small multi-use utensil. It’s an unobtrusive way to ensure you’ll never need to grab a plastic fork.
Produce bags: These are another simple swap. Reusable produce bags fit easily inside your reusable grocery bags. Bags with finer mesh prevent produce items from falling out. If you buy large produce items like heads of lettuce, make sure to invest in one or two larger bags to accommodate them.
Plastic baggies: It feels so easy to grab a plastic bag for whatever you need to store. But these bags can only be used a few times before they are thrown away. Try using lightweight reusable containers for food items or reusable baggies instead. Another tip: Stop buying plastic baggies altogether. Keeping them around makes it too easy to grab one instead of reaching for a reusable alternative.
Wrapping paper: Most wrapping paper is infused with plastic, which means you can’t recycle it. If you love wrapping gifts, try brown craft paper that is recyclable. It has a neat, vintage look and can be decorated with string, ribbon, or even paint or doodles. You can also reuse gift bags to give gifts.
Buying lunch at work: Purchasing lunch at restaurants or an office cafeteria regularly results in a lot of waste. Unless you’re going to sit-down restaurants with real dishes and silverware, your lunch is probably coming in a lot of packaging. You’ll need utensils to eat, which are often plastic. Wash it all down with a drink in a plastic cup or bottle, and you’ve checked off several of the plastic waste categories. Reduce your waste by packing your lunch at home using a reusable lunch box and food storage containers.
Paper towels: Most of the messes in your home can be cleaned up with a simple dish towel. Have plenty on hand so you can swap out the dirty ones each day. Then just wash them every week or two. Couldn’t be simpler! You can buy dish towels almost anywhere without breaking the bank. A dollar store or nearby thrift shop will have tons. Or make your own by cutting up old T-shirts.
Paper napkins: This category counts for any type of disposable paper product you currently use as a napkin. Whether they’re actual napkins or paper towels, disposable napkins create a lot of waste. Invest in a few cloth napkins instead. These can be found easily at thrift shops for only a few dollars. In my house, we use our cloth napkins for an entire week before throwing them in the wash.
Single-serve coffee pods: The amount of waste produced by these coffee pods is staggering. While they are extremely convenient, there are many more sustainable ways to enjoy coffee. If you love your single-serve brewer, try a reusable coffee pod. You simply fill it with grounds and empty it after each use. There are plenty of options for brewing small amounts of coffee, from a French press to a single-serve brewing system that doesn’t require plastic coffee pods.
Aluminum foil or parchment paper: Here’s another item you can stop buying. Instead of using aluminum foil or parchment paper to line your baking pans, use silicone mats. They can be washed and reused over and over again.
Disposable dishes: If you’re an adult man, it’s time to look in the mirror and stop using disposable dishes for every meal. It’s incredibly wasteful to throw away plates, bowls, and utensils three times a day. You don’t need many dishes; just enough to get you through a day or two of meals for every person in your household. They’re worth the investment, especially if you entertain every now and then. But if you prefer to save money by purchasing dishes second-hand, just be sure to check for any chips or cracks as they can harbor bacteria.
Food waste: Between 30 to 40 percent of food in the American food supply ends up in the garbage. While food is discarded at every stage of production, from the fields to the grocery store, you can do your part by reducing food waste in your own home. One easy way to do this is by meal planning. Only buy fresh foods you know you will eat. For items that last longer, keep your pantry and refrigerator decluttered so you don’t forget what you have.
Disposable wet mop pads: While these wet mops seem simple, they’re just producing more waste. Replace your pre-moistened mop pads with reusable ones. You can invest in a steam mop with cloth pads or a traditional wring mop with washable cloth heads.
Buying excess clothing: Most people own too many clothes. By purchasing so many clothing items, we’re contributing to an industry of fast fashion that encourages waste and produces most of its products out of synthetic fabrics (i.e. plastic and non-biodegradable). Instead of always trying to keep up with the latest trends, take a step back, and assess what you already have. Choose the items you think will get the most use during the upcoming season. Get rid of anything you don’t wear. You can keep items you’re not sure about and assess later. Then, see if you can go the entire season without purchasing any new clothing. At the end of the season, you can fill in any gaps by buying only what you truly need. Use this guide to build a capsule wardrobe.
Purchasing low-quality items: Just like purchasing excess clothing, buying low-quality clothing and other items encourages waste. While these things seem like a great deal, they deteriorate more quickly and are often irreparable. A few simple shopping habits can help you invest your money in high-quality things: when buying something, take the time to research and select the best-quality items; buy less; avoid stores that stock low-quality items in the name of a “deal.”
Buying new instead of used: Consider the lifecycle of an item of clothing or something for the home. The item is produced, shipped to a store, purchased by a consumer, used for a bit, and then either thrown away or donated. Meanwhile, the next consumer decides they need the same item. They indicate their demand by purchasing the item brand new. Now the manufacturer has incentive to continue producing more items, despite the fact that a perfectly good one is sitting in a landfill or at a thrift shop.
Now consider how many of the items in your home could be found used. There are so many avenues for buying the things we need second-hand. Start online, on websites like Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace. Visit your local thrift stores regularly — you never know what you will find!
Not borrowing or renting items: Stop buying things you only need once! Turn to your friends and family when you need a specialty kitchen item or clothes for a special occasion. There’s no need to invest in something you won’t use on a regular basis. Here’s an example: Once or twice per year, I decide to make a soup that requires blending. I could use my blender for this, but since that can be tedious, I ask my dad to borrow his immersion blender. I could spend over $50 on an immersion blender for myself, but I know that his will be sitting in a drawer unused most of the year. Don’t forget to return the favor when your friends and family need to borrow something!
Buying physical media: In 2020, there’s really no reason for anyone to be purchasing music, movies, or TV seasons on discs. Everything is available digitally and likely for a reduced price. You don’t need to add more plastic to the world. Keep your movies and music on the Cloud.
Disposable razors: Disposable razors result in a lot of plastic waste. Whether you’re tossing just the blade head or the entire razor body, you’re regularly throwing parts of your razor away. Try using a safety razor instead. While these single-blade razors seem intimidating, they’re actually really easy to use and give you a superior shave. Many safety razor companies offer recycling services for the metal blades.
Soap in plastic containers: I’m certainly guilty of this one myself. Instead of buying soap in plastic containers, switch to using bars of soap for washing your hands and in the shower. Today there are high-end brands with great scents that won’t remind you of hotel soap. Try soap from brands like Lush or Dr. Squatch, which both come in plastic-free packaging.
Cotton swabs: If you like to clean out your ears on a regular basis, you’re probably using cotton swabs. But did you know there are reusable versions of these? Some are made of silicone and shaped like traditional cotton swabs while others may prefer metal ear picks. Both options are washable, allowing you to reuse them again and again.
Shampoo and conditioner: Just like soap, shampoo and conditioner often come in plastic bottles. Branch out and try buying shampoo bars instead, like these from Lush. Another great alternative is Plaine Products. This company ships shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion to you in reusable stainless steel bottles. When your bottles are empty, simply order replacements. You’ll be sent a return label to stick on the box to easily return your empties. I’ve used these products for a few years and I love them!
Toothbrushes: Toothbrushes are another item that creates a lot of plastic waste. Try switching to bamboo toothbrushes instead. They’re recyclable, biodegradable, and look better on your bathroom counter!
Taking excessively long showers: A shower can be relaxing, but unfortunately, they waste an awful lot of water. Try to limit your showers and find other ways to relax. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either. Start by shortening your showers by 5 minutes until you get them as efficient as possible.
Washing dishes by hand: If you have a dishwasher, it’s likely more efficient than hand-washing your dishes, especially if you hand wash with the water running. Some quick tips for making dishwashing the most efficient: Don’t pre-rinse your dishes before putting them into the dishwasher, and if you must wash by hand, try this sink-filling method to save water.
Letting your heating or cooling run all day: If you work outside the home, you could be saving energy and money by changing the way your heating and cooling run. Investing in a smart thermostat is the easiest way to do this. Many of them have settings that allow you to set the hours you’re out of the house. The thermostat will stop running the heating or cooling for most of that time, and then kick back on a few hours before you arrive home, ensuring you’ll be comfortable when you step inside. If you don’t want to shell out the big bucks for a smart thermostat, a simple programmable thermostat can also do the trick.
Which of these sustainable habits do you already do? Which wasteful habit will you try to break first?