Sustainable living is something that comes naturally to me at this point in my life. I majored in environmental science, studied the sustainable built environment and sustainable food and agriculture in graduate school, worked as a park ranger for 6.5 years, and I currently work for a company that builds affordable, green buildings.
When we lived in South Carolina, I convinced my work to start recycling their cardboard for the first time, and I dropped off our household recycling at the transfer station once a month because our apartment had garbage service only.
However, I realize that sustainability isn’t something that comes as naturally to most people, so thanks to some good questions from Millennial Boss, I’ve decided to write a series on how to incorporate more environmentally friendly choices into your lifestyle – this blog is called “Tread Lightly” Retire Early, after all.
My biggest tip would be to just start simple. There are so many easy changes that you can incorporate into your life without drastically changing the way you live, and many of these save quite a bit of money in the long run as well.
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Energy And Water Use
My suggestion would be to begin with energy and water use. These are generally changes that are made one time, have no impact on your daily routine, and have a quick return on investment when it comes to cost.
1. Switch out your lightbulbs with LEDs.
LED lightbulbs have come a long way in the last few years, coming way down in price and the quality has improved even more so. Compared to the old style incandescent light bulbs, LEDs use just a fraction of the energy and last a lot longer, meaning you won’t have to replace them very often. Anything that saves a bit of time is a win in my book, regardless of the energy and money savings.
My two favorite LED light bulbs are these Cree recessed retrofit kits to replace ceiling can lights and these Philips soft white dimmable LEDs that are just your standard screw in bulbs and can go anywhere. If you’re looking for replacements that mirror your old lights most closely, look for ones that say “soft white” or are at least 2500 Kelvin for color.
Even if you rent your home, I would still recommend switching our your light bulbs. They take very little to swap out, and you can always take them with you when you move.
2. Pay attention to vampire energy.
Vampire energy is a term used to describe electricity use that occurs even when an appliance is “off.” For example, a television is always on, even when the screen is shut off, as long as there is power running to it. While these appliances use less than when fully on and running, they still use quite a bit when powered off.
The easiest way to combat this power draw is to plug your appliances into a power strip (surge protector), and then shut off the power strip whenever they are not in use. If you’re curious and want to know how much of this “vampire” energy is being used in your home every day, you can buy an electricity use monitor that measures the amount for you. This is unnecessary though, and you can take away most of this energy use just by being a little bit more mindful when you walk away from your television/laptop/phone charger/etc.
3. Low flow plumbing fixtures.
Along with electricity use, water use is an easy one to tackle in your home. One of my very first blog posts goes into this one in detail, but much like lighting fixtures, swapping out your plumbing fixtures is a quick and easy way to drastically reduce your water use without changing your lifestyle, and there is a quick return on the investment compared to most home upgrades.
4. Wash clothes in cold water.
While this is a very minor thing, my goal with this list is to outline small changes to begin to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Regularly soiled clothes do not need to be washed in warm or hot water; cold water will clean them just as well. The bigger factor in cleaning is the laundry detergent used, as even the hottest setting is generally not hot enough to sterilize clothing. Since the cleaning ability is the same regardless of temperature, save the energy required to heat the water. While you’re at it, hang dry your laundry whenever possible – it saves energy, and it is more gentle on your clothing so they last longer.
5. Lower your thermostat 2 degrees.
I won’t suggest you keep your home at 56 degrees through the winter like Tanja, but I would challenge you to lower your thermostat just a few degrees, and see if you’re just as comfortable in your home. Every degree you lower your thermostat in the winter, you should save 3% on your utility bill. If you live in a warmer climate, the same is true if you turn up the temperature of your home just a few degrees.
We personally don’t take this to extremes, but even a little bit does make a difference. We also keep our home at 75 degrees in the summer. Every little incremental change does matter. We also did upgrade to a 98% efficient furnace a number of years back, but that is a much larger – and costlier – undertaking than simply adjusting back the dial.
6. Bring a water bottle / coffee mug with you.
By 2050, scientists expect that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. While just doing away with plastic water bottles won’t fix this issue entirely, it’s a start. That, and water is basically free out of the tap versus $1 or more per 16 ounces – considerably more in certain locations. I always bring an empty water bottle with me when going to events / on an airplane, because I can fill it up at a water fountain for free. There are few things I dislike more than paying for a more or less free resource, and the waste just compounds that dislike.
Coffee mugs may not save you the same amount of money (at most a 10¢ to 25¢ discount), but the disposable cups go straight to the landfill. Is it worth paying for – and using something – for twenty minutes that will then take up to thirty years to decompose? If you’re sticking around the coffee shop, ask for your drink in a “for here” cup. Local coffee shops and Starbucks alike all have mugs behind the counter if you ask. And personally, drinks just taste better in real cups.
The other option, of course, is to drink your coffee at home and not pay for it at a shop at all, but I’m quite fond of coffee shops, though I keep the frequency to special occasions these days. Hands down my favorite coffee mug is the Contigo SnapSeal (it will keep things hot or cold for hours, and it can be dropped and roll away without spilling a drop, a clear bonus for someone as clumsy as me).
7. Use reusable grocery bags.
We’ve had a plastic bag ban here for a number of years, but I have been bringing reusable bags to the grocery store for considerably longer. While now there’s a 5¢ incentive here per bag to bring your own, it isn’t the cost savings that has me bringing reusable bags for my shopping. And nor is it only for the waste reduction factor. Reusable bags are just far superior to paper or plastic bags; they hold considerably more, they don’t rip or break, and they’re more comfortable to carry over your shoulder if you walk home like we do.
When I first made the switch to reusable bags, I forgot them a lot. I had good intentions, but they just weren’t on my radar when heading out to the store. Eventually, I made a habit to store them in my car instead of a closet, so now they’re always there when they need them. And I’ve saved us at least 25¢ a week in the process 😉
8. Cook and eat at home.
This one is a no brainer for the frugal minded, but cooking and eating at home are generally superior when considering sustainability as well. When you go out to eat or pick up take out, there is a much higher waste factor than when you cook from scratch at home. While it may be obvious that a lot more waste comes from take out packaging, restaurants are responsible for about 40% of the 1.3 billion tons of food that is wasted globally each year.
Cook at home most of the time, eat your leftovers, and you can make a serious impact on how much food and packaging waste comes from your family each year.
9. Choose zero waste alternatives.
When it comes to every day products, there are lots of zero waste alternatives that are superior to the disposable products we’re used to. Try out just a few items on this list, and you’ll figure out why going zero waste in some parts of your life aren’t a sacrifice at all, plus they will save you money in the long run.
10. Bring utensils and dishes to work.
If you’ve already made the switch from eating out to brown bagging your lunch every day, you’ve come a long way to save money and live more sustainably. To take this one small step further, make sure to bring real utensils and dishes to work for your meals. I love bringing leftovers in Pyrex containers so I don’t need a separate bowl or plate, but I also keep a backup at my desk for other meals.
If you don’t have the ability to wash dishes in your office, take them home each day and stick them in your dishwasher with the rest of your dishes. If you really want to make it easy on yourself, buy a week’s worth from your local thrift store and you won’t have to worry about washing them but once a week. It won’t take long to recoup the cost of plastic, and you’ll reduce your weekly waste yet again.
While none of this list is earth shattering new information, it’s the small incremental changes that add up to real dollars and real waste saved each year. One money saving side effect by paying attention and reducing your household waste is the ability to downsize your garbage can. Our family of three, plus roommate, two dogs, one cat, and one snake, uses the smallest garbage can size available from our utility, and even that size is rarely full. While the cost to downgrade to a smaller size isn’t astronomical, it’s just one more way you can reduce the monthly cost of your lifestyle.
If you’re looking for more quick tips on how you can live a more sustainable lifestyle, here are my tips for a more sustainable workplace, and Mrs. Kiwi compiled a great list on her blog. I’ve also realized in writing this post that I have quite a lot more to say on sustainable living, so look for more from me in the future.
What else would you like me to cover in regards to sustainable living? Let me know, so I can include it in part two in this series.