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.

Zero Waste Switches 

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.

Start with small steps

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.

94 thoughts on “Ten Simple Changes For A More Sustainable Life

    1. $10/month isn’t too shabby! And you were getting zero benefit from leaving things on, so it’s a win all around.

  1. i did a lot of reading about composting last week as i want to get started but need to keep any vermin at bay here in the city. what i learned is that active composting with worms is a kick-ass way to do it. the worms are called red wigglers and they’ll even eat clean cardboard and paper waste and in fact require those things along with food waste.

    i’ve been dumbfounded by purchasing bottled water since it became a thing. you already pay for it quarterly with that big water bill1

    1. Vermiculture is a great way to have a contained compost in the city. We actually have municipal compost pickup along with garbage and recycling, so that’s what we do for now. The upside of that is because it’s a commercial operation we can put meat and dairy scraps in as well.

  2. On the water side don’t forget to harvest rainwater for the garden, this will save you money and tide you over if there’s a bit of a drought. Minimising electricity usage is always good and we simply pull the plug out when things are not in use – you’re so right that appliances left on standby consume energy, in fact I remember that in the UK they reckon two power stations are required just to supply items on standby! Composting kitchen waste is another good one, saves on buying shop compost and reduces household waste to a minimum.

    1. We have one rain barrel set up for now, but I want to get a few more eventually. Graywater is another great one for non edible landscaping, as long as your city codes allow it.

  3. This is good stuff. I hope the frugal police see that the title of this post is how to live a more sustainable life and not how to save money and get rich. These activities listed are about efficiency and sustainability…and yes you’ll save a little money. An economist would tell you that social benefits accrue to your immediate community which adds to the economic value of being more efficient in your own life.

    1. Haha the frugal police? And most of my motivations stem from wanting to live more sustainably – the money saving bit is just a perk 😉

  4. Great list! I just started using reusable produce bags and grocery bags. We used to always make our smoothies and iced coffees in disposable clear cups as well, but finally bought some plastic reusable cups! And we bought a ton of little hand towels to use instead of paper towels.
    It feels great to save money & the environment!

    1. Yay! I’m so glad you’re making those changes. I bet you’ll start noticing a difference in the amount of trash you produce in a week. Plus, when you use reusable towels you never run out (as long as you do laundry semi regularly).

    1. What’s scary is how much electricity they use when all they’re doing is sitting turned “off”! I think the name is very fitting 😉

  5. This is a great list! I need to be better about taking a reusable cup to Starbucks. There’s no reason not to save 10c & not use a paper cup…I’m also going to buy some reusable produce bags pretty soon. That said, I still just CANNOT with LED lightbulbs. I bought some once after a snotty Home Depot employee pressured me and assured me that I’d like them and they’d be just the same as incandescent….they were not. I think I got the Phillips soft white. I hated them so much. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind 🙂 Keep these tips coming! I love the intersection of green/money saving.

    1. There so SO many different LED lights out there! If you want, I can point you some different ones that really are the same as incandescent. You wouldn’t even know if you walked into our house that we have all LEDs. There are even some cool old style looking ones out there now too 🙂

      1. I hate LED too and would love if you pointed ME in the direction of soft (yellow) LEDs that didn’t give me headaches or feel like I’m at work under fluorescent lights! 🙂

        Love this list though. Thank you!

      2. For can lights, definitely the ones I listed. Home Depot also has a bunch of different ones on display so you could always go and “test” which ones you like best.

  6. This is a great list! We’ve had to have our heat on ALL THE TIME since a pipe burst issue in December and I cant even imagine how much energy we are wasting. We don’t pay extra for our utilities, but I hate wasting energy.

    Since moving to northern Ontario, I’ve had to become even more conscious of the plastics I consume. We can only recycle #1 and #2 plastics, everything else has to be thrown out. Now when we go grocery shopping, I make sure to check a product before purchasing it. I refuse to spend money on a product whose packaging I’ll just have to throw in the garbage.

    I’d love to read more sustainability stuff from you! I’ve also been contemplating writing more about it over on Tiny Ambitions – I do have a degree in environmental management after all (plus, you know, the whole tiny house thing).

    1. As long as you keep your home above 55 degrees (Fahrenheit), you shouldn’t have any issues with pipes freezing. Of course, that means you may have to leave cabinet doors etc open so the heat can actually get to the pipes.

      Not being able to recycle a lot of “normal” plastics would give me pause for sure! I probably should pay closer attention in general, because even if we can recycle them, certain plastics do have a better recycle return than others.

    1. The great thing about #2 and #9 is once they’re fully implemented, they’re really not things you have to think about after that, because they’re just part of life 🙂

  7. Oops, I need to be better about vampire energy. We’ve also been able to save by getting energy efficient appliances, although that’s a much bigger investment than lightbulbs, of course!

    1. As our appliances have died, we’ve replaced them with much more efficient ones as well. But yeah, a little bit more money than switching out lightbulbs 😉

  8. It’s a great list you have on here. We’ve been washing our clothes in cold water for a while now because we figured out it’s as effective as using hot water.
    I was not aware of vampire energy. I barely use the TV at home but it’s plugged to the power strip. I’ll make sure to unplug from there after I use the TV. Thanks for the reminder Angela!!

    1. If you have a power strip that has a switch on it, you can just flip that off instead of needing to unplug it every time. Especially if you barely use the tv, definitely make sure it’s fully off!

  9. Great post! Another tip that I’ve used is to lower the temp on your hot water heater. They often come from the factory set higher than what’s necessary. It’s a small change, but every little bit helps right?

    1. Oh yeah – that is a good easy one! A safety tip too if you have kids in the house, so they can’t scald themselves.

  10. Cool post, I already do most of them to some degree, but I’ve never tried washing clothes in cold water. I think I might give it a try, and see what results I get. I am a bit sceptical, but I am going to try and see what happens.

    And we so need more water fountains here in the UK – they are decidedly missing from the landscape, and there are only a handful in central london if you know where to find them.

    1. I was definitely skeptical as well, but I haven’t noticed any kind of difference. If you need the heat to kill anything in particular, only your dryer will get hot enough anyway.

  11. Nice list! For saving water I would add rain barrels. I have two that total 120 gallons and all it takes is a decent rain for 20 minutes and they get full. I use the water to wash my car, water my plants, clean my bikes, and refill my koi pond from evaporation loss among other things.

    1. Yeah, we have one rain barrel set up for now, and it does offset a tiny bit of the gardening water. Bigger use these days though is water that our son can play with and I don’t have to yell at him for wasting it lol. He makes sure to remind me that “it’s going to rain soon” so it’s okay 😂

  12. Love this list! And thanks for contributing to and including mine!
    One of our big pushes over the past year is to think twice before we drive. We try to batch our errands and driving to see friends trips as much as possible.

    1. The good news about having a kid that HATED the car the first year of his life is that I got lots of motivation to batch drive for everything 😂

  13. Love all of these! I’m fairly smug with myself for having a smart power strip my TV and Roku are plugged into so they’re not wasting energy when they’re not on, but then again I accidentally leave my computer charger plugged into other power strips that I absolutely need to be better about turning off.

    Living with a roommate sometimes makes the temperature a struggle. It’s pretty damn warm in my apartment over the summer because I hate a/c and refuse to leave it running constantly (am I the only one who gets cold from moving air period, let alone chilled moving air?), but it sounds like my roommate and I might be fighting over the thermostat more this year because she apparently thought it was beyond bearably hot last year. We shall see…

    1. How warm DO you keep your apartment in the summer?? My husband has us keep our house a bit warmer than I’d be okay with in winter, but he’s outside most of the day for work, so I get why he wants to come home to a warm house.

      1. Thermostat says 80-ish (ideally I’d have the a/c come on around 83 and I do bump it up to 85 during the day when no one’s home) but temperature is weird in my apartment. Even 68 in the winter feels MUCH colder than that (and frequently we bump the heat down to more like 64) and while 80 isn’t particularly comfortable, I don’t think 80 in my apartment is ACTUALLY 80 (and using a fan works just fine, although my roommate is disinclined to agree). So who knows.

      2. Yeah, that is pretty dang warm. The warmest we’ll do in the summer is 75-78, so I applaud you for going to 80+.

    2. Oh, and I totally hate chilled air. Our apartment in South Carolina always felt SO freaking cold.

  14. We do a lot of these but we could stand to do more! I’d be really interested in more of the small stuff that has an impact and big appliance stuff. We will need to replace our water heater (researching tankless), and go over our whole HVAC system to be sure that we’re getting the most efficiency out of the whole thing. Our furnace seems to do a poor job for us but it might be because the rest of the system is shoddy.

    1. Hmmm okay, will add these to the list to think about with the next round! We debated the tankless option but ultimately decided against it for cost reasons as well as the fact that we like to have the hot water take as an emergency backup fresh water tank as well.

  15. Washing in anything but plain cold water has always been something that I associate with the posh haha. Hot water is expensive!!! We didn’t always have hot water growing up and there’s people out there who washes clothes with it…like damn, slow down. I looked into some research behind hot vs cold water and yes, regularly soiled clothes don’t need it. I didn’t know that hanging your clothes made them last longer though.

    1. I’d never considered washing clothes in warm or hot water to be posh, but that totally makes sense. It’s odd some of the ways it’s normal to waste energy that has absolutely no return for doing it. As far as hanging clothes… think about the material you pull from the lint trap – where do you think that came from? 🙂

      1. A little bit is dust/dirt, but not all of it unfortunately… pay attention to the color next time 🙁

  16. YES, to the vampire charges. My husband thinks I am a lunatic when I run through the house unplugging things. He seems to think that vampire charges are just something I made up to justify my anxiety that every appliance we own is going to burn our house down…..which may be one of the reasons I unplug things but vampire charges are still a real thing.

    1. Ha yeah I may go a little overboard unplugging things, but it’s such a habit at this point I can’t help myself 😉

    1. Reusable bags really are the best! They hold SO much more and are way more sturdy.

  17. So many good tips. The vampire power consumption is problem in our house. I’m scared to know how much power we consume just for the privilege of leaving an electronic plugged in. Xbox, computer, tv, DVR it all adds up. Great post!

    1. More than you’d think, for sure. The TV alone consumes more than half the energy in “standby” mode than fully on!

      1. Our local library has these small digital meters your plug in and then plug your electric device into. They are supposed to tell you how much power a device uses. I’m now inspired to actually borrow one from the library and give it a try.

      2. Oh that’s so cool that your library has those! Now I wonder if ours does.

  18. This is great! Food waste gives me anxiety lately, I’m trying so hard not to waste food! I asked a neighbor if she wanted some of my food scraps for her chickens and she looked at me like i was crazy haha. This reminded me that I need to blanch & freeze some green beans in my fridge before they go bad.

    1. Isn’t that half the reason to own chickens?! I’m getting better about freezing vegetables that would otherwise go bad (besides just eating them, of course!)

  19. I just found your blog (and am loving it), so you may already have a post on this that I just haven’t seen, but what about composting? Hubby desperately wants to start composting, but I’m on the fence. I have visions of a buggy, smelly mess in the backyard. Do you compost? How do you get started? Any tips on making it user friendly?

    1. Nope, haven’t written anything on composting yet! Our city actually does compost pickup, so that’s what we do for now because it’s just easy. But vermiculture (composting with worms) can be done in a self contained tub and is really simple.

  20. These are great ideas. We try as hard as possible to reduce our waste and do pretty well for a family of four. I tried to go zero waste with grocery shopping and found myself so stressed out because I was driving to 3 different grocery stores to get what I needed (which is obviously not great as far as CO2 emissions). Now I just try to do the best I can within reason and call it a day.

    1. Yeah, zero waste grocery shopping is HARD. But I figure paying attention and continuing to head that direction is a good place to start 🙂

  21. I preach this all the time on my facebook page, twitter, instagram and my website! The healthy changes for our world begin with us, without consumer habit changes the power of money and capitalism will hold society hostage while hurting the environment.

    1. Holding society hostage is right. If we screw up the environment, the rest of it doesn’t matter so much.

  22. I’m such a composting fool! We reduced our garbage waste by about half or more just by starting to compost. We now have a curbside service do we can toss everything—meat, seafood, sauces—in our compost bucket. And no it does not smell! I’d love you to do a post on composting in your series!!

    1. We do the exact same thing!! We had a compost on the property part of the time I was growing up, and I keep meaning to have one again, but it is just SO easy to dump it in a container and then set it out for pickup once a week.

  23. Came back to this today after trying to remember the phrase “vampire energy” lol. I got close when telling a colleague about the “Invisible sucking energy from devices even when it is off.” Or they just started nodding so that the feminist gone environmentalist stopped talking. Haha!

  24. Great information here. I have started doing a lot of these already, but I know there are still a number of steps I can take to be even more sustainable. LED light bulbs is one I’m working on, but I haven’t yet found ones I really like.

    1. Like most things, baby steps are great. Over the years I’ve picked at different things and have slowly gotten better and better with the years. Once you’ve gotten something set in place, it just becomes normal (or in the case of LED lights, once they’re installed you don’t have to do anything 😉).

  25. Great list! We do pretty well with most of these but we have room to improve on the thermostat and plastic waste fronts for sure!

    1. I think there’s always room for improvement, no matter who you are, but awareness is the biggest battle.

  26. Finally, I’m committing to making more drastic changes in my family’s life on this front. This list is a fabulous place to start and I went through it to make sure I was doing most of them (I’ve got a little of vampire energy use I can rid myself of). I found a place recently called earthwell refill fairly close to me where you can get most cleaning supplies (I use environmentally friendly stuff already but this is the next and just as important step), but also lotion, shampoo, hand soap, etc. I had experimented with making my own of some of these things but I don’t love the process or the results so I decided to try this instead. I’m also curious to see if there are some significant positive changes to my bottom line. I have a feeling there will be and I am looking forward to reducing the amount of stuff that ends up in my recycling bin especially in the form of packaging.

    1. So glad to hear that you can tick off most of this list already! Have you switched out your plumbing fixtures yet?

      1. We have not hooked up the stuff to flush our toilets with the rainwater we collect yet, but do have a design drawn and researched and I think we know all the parts we need. I’m hoping 1st quarter 2019. This is a project where I could use the expertise of my very handy partner and his work schedule is changing and should allow time to get this done! Truth be told, when I do certain types of projects without supervision (read: anything with plumbing), I tend to break things. In the meantime, we continue to let things mellow and try to take short showers (though I’m the WORST with my long showers).

      2. Yeah, I definitely leave plumbing to others! But fingers crossed you get it done this quarter! It’s frustrating that so many places still have such restrictions on gray water.

  27. This is great! I will say I haven’t figured out how to navigate the energy/water use thing with roommates yet. I just moved into a new place a few weeks ago (and I didn’t know my roommates in advance) and it is KILLING me how often I wake up and find the lights are on downstairs, or how at least one of them always forgets to turn the hallway light on/off when they leave or enter the house. It’s driving me crazy but I haven’t said anything yet because I’m not sure how to phrase it :/ And I feel even less comfortable proposing bigger changes like switching all the lightbulbs, the power surge thing, the thermostat, using unpaper towels instead of paper towels, etc. Do you have any suggestions for talking to new roommates about things like this? I feel like they are all environmentally friendly (one even works in sustainability) yet I still feel really awkward asking people to change their behavior.

    At work too we have so much waste. I noticed the other day that my boss always uses a disposable cup to get the free coffee at work – when we were all given mugs as corporate gifts a few months ago! And he’s not alone! Also, we have a dishwasher, but just disposable silverware and plates, which is absurd. We also *stopped* recycling Kcups when we moved to our new office in April due to some office politic absurdity. However, I am also part of this problem. I have had my own silverware and bowl and mugs at work for months that I wash every day, but for some reason I had never brought a plate so at least once a week I used a disposable plate. I am going to bring in a plate today! And I am also going to put in a request to our corporate wellness team to ask for reusable silverware, at least. However, given the history of some higher-ups’ stubborn refusal to be sustainable at work I am not too hopeful.

    1. I guess my biggest advice is to just speak up! In a way, the “bigger” things like switching out lightbulbs might be an easier sell because they require zero behavior change 🙂

  28. It was mentioned that one of the ways we can help with life sustainability is to bring your own water bottle or coffee mug with you. In doing this, you can lower the waste that your yourself produces. I will have to pay attention to this more as I try to do my part to sustain life on this planet.

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