"Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" painted on wall

With a full-time job, an active social life, and perhaps a kid or a pup to raise, it can be tough to fit in a commitment to the environment — especially if it seems to require added cost or responsibility.

Take heart, though, because there are many simple ways to reduce your impact on the planet that actually help you save money. Once you’re up to speed with the basics like changing your incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient LEDs and shopping with reusable bags, check out these equally easy ways to simplify your high-wattage life.

polystyrene take out box
Avoid take-out waste by bringing your own to-go containers. Image courtesy of dotpolka

1. Say ‘No’ to To-Go Waste

Even if you’re constantly on the run, it’s possible to reduce the amount of waste you generate by packing your own reusable mug, water bottle, food containers, and cutlery. The majority of restaurant to-go containers are still made from plastics that don’t recycle easily, so they’re used once and then thrown away. Each plastic cup, fork, straw, and clamshell box costs money, and you can be sure this cost is passed onto consumers — not to mention the environmental costs of all that plastic waste.

To help encourage a shift to more sustainable packaging, check out the JYBE app, which connects you to restaurants that use earth-friendlier to-go containers.

2. Water Well

Water is a precious resource, which is often a fact overlooked in developed countries where we can just turn on the tap and get clean, safe water. However, millions suffer from lack of clean water, and the available supply of potable water on the planet is dwindling. You can decrease your water consumption by following a few simple steps.

  • Flush and run sparingly: The average toilet uses between 1.6 and 5.5 gallons of water per flush. If you are already “letting it mellow,” save even more water by turning on the tap only when absolutely necessary. There’s no need for the water to run when brushing your teeth, washing your hands, or doing the dishes, for example.
  • Make sure it’s really dirty before washing: Clothing, dishes, and your body should undergo the wash and rinse cycle only when necessary. Use the same water glass all day, and wear those jeans more than once.

3. Hang It Out to Dry

After the fridge, the clothes dryer is the second-largest consumer of home power. Most of us are not willing to give up cold milk and crisp veggies, but we can easily use the dryer less often, which can add up to a significant savings of energy and money.

As an added bonus, letting your clothes air dry extends their usable lives (it is much less taxing on the stitching and fabric), it gives you a good excuse to get outside in nice weather, and line-dried laundry smells better too! If you live in a place where drying clothes outside right now would mean wearing duds that are cold and wet, consider using indoor drying racks to accomplish the same energy-free job.

4. Lights, Camera, Out!

Many electronic devices — such as chargers for phones and cameras, televisions, and computers — continue to draw energy even when in the “off” position. To avoid this phantom power use, unplug such devices, or plug everything into a power strip that you can turn off when not in use. Encourage these same practices at your workplace. And no matter where you are, always turn off unnecessary lights.

5. Be a Wise Post-Consumer

In the digital age, many of us still rely on a steady stream of paper in our offices, kitchens, and bathrooms. Here are some easy suggestions for keeping more trees outside.

  • Print sparingly: When you do need to hold a document in your hand, be sure it has been printed and/or copied on both sides, and of course, be sure to recycle when done.
  • Buy the highest level of post-consumer, recycled paper: From toilet paper to notebooks, there is rarely a reason to use virgin paper. Look for the percentage on the packaging (such as products made with 100% recycled and/or 50% post-consumer materials), and also look for paper that is processed chlorine-free (PCF).
  • Class it up with cloth: Reusable napkins are not just for fancy dinner parties. They can be washed and reused indefinitely. The same goes for old T-shirts or towels, which can be repurposed as rags and used instead of disposable paper towels.

6. Resist the Urge to Splurge

A lack of excess cash can serve as a great excuse to reduce your consumption. Here are a few suggestions to help you consume less.

  • Take a consumption vacation: Consider taking the day or week off from making any new purchases, with the exception of necessities such as health products and food. By doing this, you’re not only saving money, but you’re also reducing the waste created throughout the life cycle of each new product, the packaging used, and the fuel consumed and produced in transporting products from original resources to manufacturer to consumer.
  • Buy nice, don’t buy twice: For necessities, make sure that you buy the highest quality, most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly model available within your budget. From appliances (Energy Star) to food (Local Harvest), there are low-impact alternatives for almost everything on the market.
Public transportation
Do you have to drive, or can you take public transportation? Image courtesy of L.A. Urban Soul

7. Bid Your Car Adieu

We are a society that loves our cars, but there are many alternatives to a day spent solo in your gas-guzzling ride. Backing out of your car rut can also provide new opportunities to socialize and get some exercise.

  • Get on the bus: Many cities and towns have excellent public transportation systems that include buses, subways, and trains. You’ll be surprised at the new friends you make or the added reading time you find when not behind the wheel.
  • Carpool with friends or co-workers: There are several rideshare services available now that will help you make a match, including Hytch. Mark Cleveland recently talked with Earth911 about Hytch’s programs that help companies, cities, and nonprofits collaborate to reduce traffic.
  • Get on a bike or walk: While riding your bike or walking might take a little longer to reach your destination, the fresh air, lack of carbon emitted, and exercise more than make up for the extra minutes.
  • Phone it in: Explore telecommuting or teleconferencing options with your employer to significantly reduce your daily commute. Just telecommuting a few days a week will save money for you and your employer.

8. Ban Planned Obsolescence

The more we view potential waste as building blocks for new products, the lower our overall impact will be. Granted, some products (“gum” comes to mind) are decidedly single-use items, but with a little creativity, many others can easily be creatively repurposed.

Feature image courtesy of Kevin Dooley. Originally published on April 6, 2009, this article was updated in January 2022.

By Libuse Binder

Read more from Libuse Binder at Weekly Way.