The nice thing about reducing your carbon footprint is that you can help the world while also saving yourself money. My wife, Allison, and I have always been conscientious about conserving resources -- both for the environment and for our own bank accounts.
I’m not sure if it comes from living in California for over 20 years, where being a conservationist is a bit of a religion. Or if it comes from Allison’s upbringing, where she was taught never to waste anything. But over the years, we have developed a variety of habits to reduce, reuse, and recycle (in that order) as much as possible.
The best way to conserve is to reduce the amount you use in the first place. Unfortunately, we live in a society where it’s all too common to waste precious resources like food, electricity, and water.
The good news is that it’s not that hard to significantly reduce your usage -- it just takes a little thought, consideration, and practice. Here are some ways we reduce our consumption…
It’s so common for people to walk out of a room or their home without turning off the lights, TV, radio, or computer. We try to make a point of minimizing our energy usage to keep our electric bill as low as possible. Here are some ways we do it...
1 - Power strips -- We plug most of our electronics (TV, computer, phone chargers, etc) into power strips, so that we can turn everything completely off at once. When an electronic device is plugged into an outlet, it’s still drawing a minute amount of electricity, even when it’s not turned on (it’s also known by the spooky term vampire power). But if you use a power strip, you turn off the electricity to those devices completely.
2 - Air drying clothes -- Clothes dryers use a lot of electricity (plus, they increase wear and tear on your clothes), so we rarely ever use ours. Instead we hang all our clothes on a fold out clothes drying rack. It’s easy to set up on your patio or deck, or even just in a spare room. Or you can use a clothes line in your backyard if you have one.
3 - LED bulbs -- LED light bulbs use much less electricity and last much longer than standard bulbs. So they’ll save electricity, and you don’t have to replace nearly as often. Studies show they save the typical US household about $8.33 per month. Many utility companies will do free energy audits of your home, and some will even replace your fluorescent (or, shudder, incandescent) light bulbs with LEDs.
4 - Hold that heat & AC -- We rarely ever use heat or air-conditioning in our home. Granted, Oakland is a near-perfect climate with highs in the upper 60s and 70s pretty much year-round. But even when we lived in chillier San Francisco, we usually opted to wear an extra layer and put on an extra blanket in the winter. You can also keep your shades down and use fans in the summer.
For the past decade, California has been in one of its worst droughts ever recorded. As Californians, we know how precious water is and how important it is to monitor how we use it. Here are some ways we try to save this resource and reduce your water bill...
5 - Don’t let it keep running -- I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen guys at the gym shaving or brushing their teeth with the water faucet running constantly. So unnecessary and such a waste! You just need a little sprinkle of water on your toothbrush or razor in between strokes to keep it clean and wet. Same goes for the shower. A navy shower can save over 90% of the water used by a regular shower. Easy peasy.
6 - Use the dishwasher -- You save much more water by using the dishwasher (3 gallons per load with an ENERGY STAR-rated machine) than by hand washing (27 gallons per load). Most modern dishwashers are so effective, you don’t even need to pre-wash or rinse your dishes before you do a load of dishes.
7 - Toilet usage -- There are several ways to make your toilet more efficient:
Install low-flush models
Turn your old toilet into a low flush by placing a plastic jug filled with water in your toilet tank. In the past, people advised using a brick, but they can break down over time, causing issues inside the tank.
Collect water in a bucket while your water heats up or while you shower and use that water to flush your toilet (you can even use that water on your lawn or plants - a twofer!).
The old adage “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” In other words, you don’t necessarily need to flush every single time you go to the bathroom.
Packaging & Plastic
In case you haven’t heard, our oceans are getting overloaded with plastic. Far too many of the products we buy are encased in plastic bottles or containers. Consumers use them once and dispose of them. Here are some ways we try to reduce our usage...
8 - Avoid products that use a lot of packaging -- When we’re out food shopping, Allison will purposefully not buy anything that has too much unnecessary packaging. For example, we used to get our milk at Costco until they changed from cardboard boxes (more easily recycled) to plastic wrapping.
9 - Don’t use a straw -- Recently Seattle and Vancouver banned single-use plastic straws, and now several businesses are starting to follow suit. Whenever we go out to eat and order a drink, we always ask not to have a straw. Also, try not to use those plastic utensils that aren't recyclable or compostable. Allison keeps a couple of real forks in our to-go bags just in case we need them.
We try never to waste anything, especially food. Having worked in the food industry after college, it was hard seeing so much food being thrown away a nightly basis. Here are some ways we try to reduce waste…
10 - Always take home leftovers -- Unless we’re ravenous, Allison and I usually always have food left over when we eat out. But rather than let that food go to waste, we always take it home with us and enjoy a second “free” meal later. Extra bonus: we bring our own to-go containers (unless we’re at a super fancy restaurant). The servers are usually a) very surprised, and b) very thankful we’re being conscientious about wasting single-use containers.
11 - Scrape out every last bit -- I love love love peanut butter. I eat it right out of the jar as a snack between regular meals. So when I get to the end of my jar, I make sure to get every last bit by using a little rubber spatula. You’d be amazed how much extra goodness you can get with that technique. This goes for any other product that’s hard to get out -- jelly, honey, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, etc.
Other ways you can reduce your consumption: drive an electric car, install solar panels on your roof, and walk or bike instead of drive.
I consider reusing items to be in one of two buckets: 1) donating items that others can use, or 2) utilizing “multiple use” items rather than single-use items.
“Donating items” it can be any of these activities: giving away stuff for others to use, swapping or exchanging items with others, or receiving items from others they no longer want.
12 - Donate what you no longer use -- Rather than throwing unwanted items in landfill, consider giving them to others who may be able to use them. There are a variety of places that will take your donations, such as Goodwill, local libraries, and food banks. And if you itemize your deductions, you may be able to get a tax write-off on your charitable donations.
13 - Clothing swaps -- We absolutely love clothing swaps. We get 95% of all our clothes at clothing swaps, including jackets, hats, shoes, shirts, pants, shorts, etc. As a result, our clothing budget is pretty small. Our friend Monica has been doing 1-2 swaps a year for the past decade. If you don’t have a Monica, check around online for a local swap, or create one of your own! You can also swap books, games, music, etc.
14 - Free stuff sites -- Our favorite site to get stuff for free (and give stuff away) is Freecycle. We also use Nextdoor, and other local social groups, like our condo’s internal messaging system. It’s a great way to re-use items that others no longer need or want!
15 - Dumpster dive -- Ok, we don’t really dumpster dive, although when we were younger and living in San Francisco, we would frequently find some pretty nice things left on the street or our apartment trash area. But I will say we scored a few amazing items just recently from our condo building’s summer cleaning initiative to get rid of unwanted bulk items. We grabbed a $350 Weber gas grill (that someone tossed because it got “too dirty”), a $400 stand mixer, and a guitar that just needed to be restrung.
Utilizing multiple-use items simply means using things that can be used over and over again, like using a ceramic plate instead of a one-time paper plate.
16 - Use your own cups -- When we go to Starbucks or any other cafe, we always bring our own travel coffee mugs. It saves on throw-away cups, and sometimes you even get a small discount.
17 - Tupperware is your friend -- I already mentioned how we bring our own containers to restaurants to take leftovers home. Well, we also use these containers to bring snacks with us to places like parks, road trips, on flights, etc. I graze throughout the day, so keeping snacks handy keeps us from impulse buying food and prevents me from getting hangry.
18 - Bring your own bags -- We always bring our own bags when we go to the grocery store, produce markets, or pharmacy. There’s no sense getting additional plastic bags (and paying for them) every time you go shopping. Allison keeps bags on the closet door handle next to our front door as a visual cue for us as we walk out the door.
In addition to reducing and reusing, you can recycle whenever possible. Most people at least know about recycling cans, bottles, and paper. But in California, we’re also big on composting. Here are the main ways we recycle…
19 - Cans, bottles, paper -- We make sure to always properly recycle our cans, bottles, and cardboard and paper products. Allison will even take a bottle home from a store or restaurant to be recycled properly if there aren’t any recycle bins nearby.