These everyday habits can have powerful effects on the planet.
You may not be ready to splurge on solar panels, an electric car or move to a tiny house equipped with an outdoor composting toilet (yes, there is such a thing!), but you can still live an eco-friendly life. Here are some small changes you can do at home that can have a surprisingly big impact on the health of the planet.
1. Use these potted plants in your house
Trees are the lungs of the planet. Environmentalists lament the destruction of rainforests because they absorb carbon dioxide. And its excess carbon dioxide from over-population that is a major driver of climate change. Trees also remove pollutants and release oxygen.
Your home is a microcosm of the larger environment and often contains contaminants. But it may be possible to improve the air you breathe with houseplants. Studies by NASA revealed their purifying power. Researchers put plants inside sealed chambers and injected chemicals commonly found in the atmosphere: benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde. They took air samples later to monitor pollutants. Plants like peace lilies, ficus, English ivy, bamboo palms, spider plants and gerbera daisies caused significant reductions in benzene and formaldehyde.
This experiment was conducted in a small space. So, unless you have a lot of plants inside, you likely won’t experience the same potency. Still, plants are thought to be natural air filters and have other benefits, even to psychological health. But take note: Many plants are toxic to pets, if consumed. So, choose safe varieties and keep others out of reach.
2. Learn to identify recyclable materials
If your town offers recycling with garbage pickup, then you’re probably already separating glass, metals like aluminum cans, plastics, and paper. But even if your area doesn’t offer recycling pickup, you can still do it.
Look up your city’s garbage collection website for recycling drop-off locations. Be sure to learn the rules to ensure that you’re disposing of what can be recycled. Tip: There’s a code on plastic products made with 3 curved arrows forming a triangle (the ‘”chasing arrow” symbol.) The number within the triangle indicates whether that type of plastic can be reused or recycled. In general, flimsier plastics like foam and plastic wrap cannot be recycled, while harder and thicker plastics can.
Even if your area doesn’t offer recycling pickup, you can still do it.
One thing to know: Your glass bottles, cans, and plastic containers should not be kept in plastic bags when you place them in your bin. These handles get caught and damage the separating equipment. So throw them into the bins loose or place them into paper bags.
3. Just say “no” to plastic
To say that plastic is a problem is an understatement and it’s not new news. But the gravity of its damage is worth repeating: It takes 20 years for the typical bag, 200 years for a plastic straw and up to 500 years for water bottles, coffee pods and toothbrushes to break down — all contributing to landfills that never go away. And around 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, presenting increasing threats to all ocean life.
Most plastic is “single use” and can only be used once, so it will linger on Earth for centuries.
According to the Sierra Club, only 9% of all plastics produced have ever been recycled. Most plastic is “single use” and can only be used once, so it will linger on Earth for centuries. Of those that can be recycled, more than 80% is never turned in—it goes to garbage landfills instead.
More recycling doesn’t solve the problem, though. When plastic breaks down, tiny pieces infuse the water, air and food supply. A study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials estimated that a person can ingest up to 5 grams of microplastics a week, the amount found in a credit card. This rough estimate was based on analyzing microparticles in foods like fish, beer, salt, and drinking water and considered to be the high end of the range. So, average intakes could be much lower. Still, the stats are sobering. Plastic particles and related chemicals have been found in blood, sweat, urine and the stools of both humans and cats and dogs.
While the impact on health is not entirely understood, this man-made material is toxic. Particles can also be inhaled and are thought to contribute to reproductive disorders, immune-related conditions, lung diseases and cancer.
So, how can you minimize plastic usage in everyday life?
- Start with bags, of course.
- Avoid single-use plastics like straws. Buy paper or even metal straws that you can wash and reuse.
- Plastic containers do keep products protected, but you can often skip them. Some shampoos, conditioners and house cleaning products are sold with refills in non-plastic packaging, although this is not the norm—yet.
- Try to buy grains, beans, nuts and the like in bulk.
- Choose food that is not wrapped in plastic. For items that must come packaged, look for glass, metal or cardboard wrappings.
- For take-out meals, just say “no” to the plastic utensils.
4. Keep your home cool without air conditioning
Air conditioning may be one of man’s greatest inventions. But when it’s powered by electricity generated from coal, gas or oil, it can do serious harm. When these fuels burn, they produce greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The more in the atmosphere, the more heat that’s trapped. The heat jacks up the temperature of the air and oceans, leading to catastrophic droughts, acidic ocean water and the death of sea animals who can’t thrive in that environment. Arctic glaciers melt, causing more disastrous effects on related ecosystems. These conditions encourage more severe weather patterns, including more and worse hurricanes, all of which further contribute to land erosion and destruction.
Fans require 20 to 50 times less energy than air conditioners.
It's a big problem and you might feel like small changes you make won’t make a difference. But your contribution does count: When hundreds of millions of individuals consume less, there’s an impact. And that starts with each of us. So, what can you do? Try to stay cool in ways that don’t involve spiking A/C and increasing power usage.
Here are ways to keep indoor temps lower:
- Keep blinds and curtains closed.
- Tape poster board inside windows to block light and heat during the hottest periods.
- Seal up: Install well-fitted door sweeps to block airflow. Add window insulation to stop warm air coming in and cool air escaping.
When you need more cooling:
- Use fans. They require 20 to 50 times less energy than air conditioning units. Install ceiling fans and scatter stand-up and table fans.
- Wet warm skin with cool water (be it with a garden hose, pool or with a spray-on beauty tincture.) To enhance the effect: Spritz your face and torso (areas where most of your body heat is centered.) Then sit or stand in front of a fan.
5. Unplug your devices
Using less power in multiple ways can save the planet. One simple way to use less electricity (translating into using less coal, gas or oil) is to unplug. Even when an appliance, lamp or TV system is turned off, electricity is drawn from the outlet (known in the energy sector as “energy vampires.”) So, unplugging is an almost-effortless way to conserve.
How do you know what to unplug? If you see a ‘standby’ light or sleep mode on an electronic item, that’s a sure sign that power is used to keep it ready to wake up. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that, on average, Americans have around 65 devices permanently plugged, using the equivalent of $19 billion a year in energy, or about $165 wasted dollars per home.
If you see a ‘standby’ light on an electronic item, that’s a sure sign that power is used to keep it ready to wake up.
6. Capture, conserve and reuse water
At least two-thirds of the US experiences water shortages. As climate change worsens and temperatures rise, water scarcity will increase. But you can conserve this resource. First, look at your water bill. The average family uses more than 300 gallons a day—most for indoor use. But smart practices can cut that in half.
The bathroom is where most water is wasted, so it’s a good place to start:
- Keep the faucet off when shaving or brushing teeth.
- Take a shower, instead of a bath, and keep it short. A bathtub holds up to 70 gallons of water, while a quick shower uses 10 to 25. Water conserving showerheads keep you on the lower end. And place a bucket or two in the shower to capture spraying water. Those few gallons can be used to water the lawn, plants, or for washing items like your kitty litter bin.
There are also a few ways to minimize water usage in your kitchen and laundry room:
- Wash dishes by hand in a basin or stopped sink.
- If you use the dishwasher, scrape and wipe plates instead of rinsing first.
- Only run your dishwasher when it is fully loaded and choose the shortest cycle.
- In the laundry room, only wash full loads, or adjust load size to match what’s inside.
7. Eat a plant-based or plant-forward diet
Eating more unrefined plant foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, is a proven way to better health. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine notes that a plant-predominant diet helps weight management, can reduce the risk of some cancers, prevents and treats type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a number of other conditions. But it’s also the best diet for the planet.
When you eat more veggies, you save water.
When you eat more veggies, you save water. Raising animals uses twice the water as does water crops for people. More land is used to grow food for billions of farm animals than is used for humans, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Start with your plate by lessening the demand for animal foods. Instead of an occasional meatless Monday, skip meat on several, if not all, days of the week. Going meatless also means going fish- and poultry-less, and dairy free. All animal agriculture on land and in the sea drains resources and pollutes, causing environmental damage and contributing to climate change. That doesn’t mean you’ll go hungry or will lack delicious foods. Plant-based meals are everywhere and can be as simple as sticking to the veggies and bean dishes from your favorite ethnic cuisines.
Changing your daily habits can be tough, but knowing that every effort to lead a more planet positive lifestyle makes a difference should keep you going. Eat more plants. Decorate with plants. Use less plastic. Consume less electricity. Conserve water. Love your earth.
Martica Heaner PhD
Martica is a writer who covers topics ranging from health, fitness, sex, nutrition weight-loss, health and mind-body. She is also a plant-based nutritionist and exercise physiologist.