Easy and inexpensive ways to go green

We’re willing to cut back to save for something we want, but are we willing to do the same for a much larger goal? Every Earth Day we’re reminded how even the small choices we make can have a big impact on our environment. Even small changes to our lifestyle can help preserve our planet — you don’t have to make major renovations or buy a hybrid car to make an impact.

And if we’re honest, many of these changes are good for us too — especially our budget and our health. In honour of Earth Day, here are some easy ways to go green.

Cut down on screen time. We’re used to hearing this advice from health experts, but TVs and computers are also an energy drain. According to Earth Day Canada, the average person watches more than five hours of TV or streaming video every day — accounting for more than a quarter of our waking hours and up to 10 per cent of our household energy consumption. Reclaim TV time to exercise, enjoy a hobby or spend more quality time with loved ones.

To get the full effect, you’ll have to unplug as well as power down — most TVs, cable boxes and other accessories draw power even in stand-by mode.

Eat less meat. It isn’t just about rising food costs: unsustainable farming or fishing practices and the mistreatment of livestock might have you thinking twice about eating so much meat. Studies have shown that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is good for the environment and the body. While plant-based meat and dairy alternatives can be pricy, many good sources of protein like lentils, beans and quinoa are a fraction of the cost of meat.

However, you don’t have to go “all in”. Dieticians recommend we get some of our proteins from plant-based sources like nuts and legumes — at least a couple of times a week. Expand your recipe repertoire with meatless recipes — you can even find options for the grill. If you’re short on time, toss a handful of nuts in a salad or stir fry, or quick cooking lentils.

Want to keep the meat? Keep your portion sizes in check and choose organic, sustainable and local meats and seafood if possible.

Shop smarter. In addition to draining our wallets, all the excess “stuff” in our lives depletes natural resources too. Consider: it takes a lot of energy and materials to produce, transport and sell products, not to mention unwanted by-products that can end up in our water and air. Much of this “stuff” ends up in the trash, using even more resources transporting it to deal with its disposal. The average Canadian produces one tonne of waste per year, according to Earth Day Canada. In our lifetime, we’ll each generate 600 times our weight in trash.

You can keep items in circulation — and out of landfills — by donating, selling and buying used goods. Swapping and bartering have also made a come back in recent years, and you can borrow or rent items you don’t need often. Both environmental and financial experts encourage us to “buy what we need, not what we want” — in other words, keep up those conscious spending habits.

Want to go one step farther? Try a “buy nothing” challenge for a week or a month where you don’t buy any new items. Don’t worry: essentials like food, basic clothing, medication and hygiene products are allowed, and you can purchase used items. You can even challenge yourself to cut down in one area — like a “fashion diet” where you don’t buy any new clothes for a season.

Leave the car at home. The only tried-and-true way to avoid rising gas prices? Drive less. We already know that cars are one of the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution — not to mention consuming non-renewable resources. However, transportation also accounts for one fifth of water toxicity, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Experts still advocate to use our cars less — like grouping all our errands into one trip, carpooling or taking public transportation. Even better: if possible, use your feet or take your bike to visit friends, travel to work or run errands. If you’re moving, experts note to choose a location where you won’t have a long commute and you’ll have easy access to public transportation or places within walking distance.

When you do drive, make sure your car is well-maintained and your tire pressure is correct — these steps can help improve fuel efficiency. Also, try to avoid idling or speeding.

Make your own cleaning supplies. Are we polluting while we clean? The average Canadian family uses 20 to 40 litres of toxic cleaning products each year. Many of these products contain petroleum-based chemicals — like bleaches, dyes, perfumes, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that can pollute both our indoor environment as well as the outdoor one.

If you carefully examine the claims, you can find many “natural” or “green” cleaning products on the market. However, an even cheaper alternative is to make your own. Baking soda and vinegar will tackle many jobs around the house and won’t harm pets or people. (See Natural cleaners and Greener homemade cleaners for ideas and recipes.)

What about air fresheners? They can contain harmful chemicals as well. It’s better to tackle unpleasant odours at the source, like eliminating mould and mildew. There are many natural ways to sweeten the air like boiling orange peels. (See Sweet smelling toxins for more information and ideas.)

Think reusable, not disposable. There’s a reason it’s called a “throwaway culture”: clever marketing has made many disposables the norm in many households. However, reusable items are not only cheaper in the long run, they also cut down on both waste and the drain on resources needed to produce a never-ending stream of replacements. Even recyclable items take energy and resources to collect and process.

While reusable tote bags are becoming more common place, there are many other ways to cut down on disposables around the house. For instance, swap those disposable dusting clothes for a microfibre clothe that attracts dust and ditch the one-use mop covers for washable ones. Instead of using disposable dishes for your next gathering, borrow what you need and get some help in the kitchen washing and drying.

Use smart disposal strategies. Many of the products we use like electronics, paint, vitamin supplements, batteries and cleaners contain substances that end up in environment. When these items end up in landfills, toxic chemicals can leach out and into the water supply.

Not sure what’s considered toxic or how to get rid of it? Do a little checking with your city’s website and contact local stores — many have programs to deal with hazardous items like electronics, batteries, medications and paint. (Check out Get rid of your toxic garbage safely for more information.)

What about the usual culprits like food and containers? Composting organic waste and recycling helps cut down on green house gas emissions from landfills, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Choose sustainable travel options. Going green isn’t just for around the house or office — sometimes our environmentally healthy habits go out the window when we’re on vacation. Air travel contributes to air contamination, and many environments are being damaged by too many visitors. However, sustainable and eco-friendly travel is out to change all that. Watch for hotels, transportation and attractions that offer eco-friendly programs to sustain the environment and support the local community. Many of these options cost less than over-crowded, over priced tourist hotspots.

Even if you don’t travel the eco-friendly path, you can still reduce the foot print of your trip, like turning off the lights, TV and air conditioning when you the leave your hotel room and not requiring new sheets and towels every day. You can also “offset” the environmental costs of your trip by calculating your carbon dioxide emissions and cutting back elsewhere to compensate. (Visit Sustainable Travel International for more details.)

Sounds like a lot to take on? Experts aren’t asking people to be perfect — just to decrease their footprint with a few changes. You don’t have to tackle them all, or tackle them all at once. Small sacrifices can become habits, and you can put the extra cash towards a savings goal or paying down debt. While the effects on our health and our environment may not be immediate or easily seen, cumulatively they can make a big difference in the future.

For more information about Earth Day and more ways to live an eco-friendly life, visit Earth Day Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation websites.

We couldn’t list them all! What eco-friendly habits do you practice? Tell us in the comments.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ loops7

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