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Caitlin Kilgore

Updated: 11/21/2022

Do your part to take better care of our planet with these tips for sustainable living. Plus, a list of eco-friendly products to make these changes easy.

There are many issues plaguing our ecosystems and contributing to climate change, which is moving at a terrifying speed — and plastic waste is pretty high on that list. To be clear, the problem isn’t just the garbage it generates — producing plastic also contributes to the carbon emissions cycle that scientists warn us is warming the globe.

More disturbing truths: "Global plastics production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes," according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). That’s a lot of plastic — and sadly, it's only growing.

Unfortunately, much less of it gets recycled than you might assume — in fact, less than 5 percent actually does, according to a recent report from Greenpeace. In 2021, social commentator John Oliver railed about that abysmal stat on his show, "Last Week Tonight." He explained that it’s cheaper for manufacturers to make new plastic than to recycle the old, exposing a lie that has been fed to us for decades: If we all would just recycle, that would fix everything.

Also, the U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries without an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law on the books, which puts the burden of dealing with waste back on the company that makes it. Legislators have been trying to change that with the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was re-introduced in 2021 but has yet to be passed.

"You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."

So what happens to all the plastic that doesn't get recycled? About 12 percent gets incinerated, and the rest (about 79 percent) ends up in landfills or trapped in the natural environment — like in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It also gets shipped overseas to less-wealthy nations.

Right now you’re probably thinking: Shame on us.

But as bleak as it all may seem, there are countless changes we can make in our day-to-day lives to live more sustainably and to reduce the negative impact on the planet in the process. As leading primatologist Jane Goodall, PhD, once said: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Read on for 15 sustainable living tips and eco-friendly products to help you make a positive difference every day:

1. Start small.

As it is with any changes, trying to overhaul your whole life all at once can be overwhelming. But as Lia Avellino, consultant for Head and Heart at THE WELL, says: When it comes to forming habits, “desire follows will, so if we are able to get started, we are more likely to pick up momentum.”

Commit to one sustainable swap a month. Start with simple everyday product swaps — like using reusable ziploc bags or trading out your laundry detergent for package-free alternatives. Over time, these simple changes can have a powerful impact.

And remember — use up your current stock of products before buying their sustainable equivalent.

2. Reuse or repurpose before you recycle.

Knowing what we know about recycling — that so few recyclables actually end up being recycled — it’s important to focus on the steps that come before recycling. Reusing saves the energy that comes from the process of dismantling and re-manufacturing products because the recycling process itself creates waste and pollution.

While you can’t repurpose everything, there’s so much you can find a new use for. In need of containers? Before you toss that jar from your marinara sauce, wash it out and reuse it for food storage. (Jars make great containers for salads, soups and more.) Consider doing the same with takeout containers. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging amounted to 82.2 million tons of waste generation in 2018.

If you're a fan of candles, here's an idea: Repurpose their containers for office supplies, makeup brushes or loose change.

RELATED: Before You Light That Candle, Read This

3. Embrace minimalism.

A key part of sustainability is living more minimally. In other words, you don’t need 10 reusable water bottles — less really is more. And research, while still new, demonstrates a positive relationship between a minimalist lifestyle and a sense of mental wellbeing. Clear out your clutter, but don’t just throw it away— donate it responsibly. (This Consumer Reports resource tells you how to get rid of practically anything).

4. Commit to Meatless Mondays (or more).

Meat production is the greatest driver of methane emissions — a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Want to determine your own carbon footprint from meat consumption? The Omni Meat Footprint Calculator, designed by Hanna Pamula, breaks it down — and it’s quite the shocker. “If you tell someone that one burger a month is equivalent to 32.6 pounds of CO₂eq [greenhouse gas emissions] produced, it might seem like a small number. But if you find out that it’s similar to charging 1,891 smartphones or even driving for 36.6 miles, then it’s alarming,” explained Pamula for Sierra.

If you're a meat eater, commit to one meat-free day a week. Or if you’re ready to take it a step further, try being a weekday vegetarian, which Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger, discusses in his TEDTalk.

5. Use eco-friendly cleaners.

Many common household cleaners contain toxic chemicals that get washed down the drain and end up in our water supply. Be sure to shop for eco-friendly cleaning products without harsh chemicals, like those from Grove, Common Good and many others. Or make your own — just mix equal parts white vinegar and water and add a few drops of your favorite essential oil.

RELATED: 6 Tips for a Healthier Home

6. Combat microplastics.

Microplastics are the tiny particles of plastic that come from the process of plastics breaking down. These fragments end up in the air, in our waterways, and… in people. In fact a 2019 study suggested we may be ingesting up to five grams of microplastics a week — equivalent to a credit card.

One source of microfibers? Your laundry. The synthetic microfibers, made from non-biodegradable plastic, come off your clothes in the wash and leech directly into the water. An average-sized 13-pound load of laundry is estimated to release 700,000 microfibers. You can buy a filter for your washing machine, to help catch microplastics that come off of your clothes and avoid them getting washed into the water system.

Microplastics are also found in bottled water — a whopping 93 percent of bottled water companies have been found to contain microplastic particles. Consider investing in a water filtration system, like a Berkey filter, which filters out over 99.999 percent of bacteria, viruses and other contaminants. Plus, it cuts down on plastic water bottle waste — plastics that significantly contribute to the microplastic problem.

7. Buy sustainably sourced wellness products.

“Mindful harvesting of wild plants is vital to the health and cultural preservation of our planet,” says Michelle Gagnon,Michelle K. Gagnon, founder of Bio Alchemy Olfactive and an advisor to THE WELL. “If cultivation practices employ pesticides and insecticides, the health of plants and soil is diminished and the population of pollinators that our ecosystems deeply depend on is harmed. As a side effect, the quality of botanicals we enjoy for health and well-being is also reduced.”

Gagnon suggests doing research: “With a marketplace so saturated with wellness products, and many claiming to be sustainably sourced, it is helpful to dig for the facts, the story, the connection, and the truth,” she says. “Learn about the person or practice behind the sourcing of the products you use and consider the materials you use on a daily basis.”

RELATED: THE WELL Q&A: Michelle K. Gagnon

8. Shop your local farmers market.

Think about all the trash that comes from just one grocery run — the plastic containers that hold fruit or lettuce, the mesh bags that surround avocados, the packaging around snacks, the list goes on and on. Shopping at your local farmers market is a great way to reduce packaging waste and support local farmers in the process.

Just bring your stock of reusable bags and you’re good to go! Plus, shopping at the farmer’s market encourages you to eat in season, which cuts down on the energy and emissions it takes to ship off-season produce across the country.

While you’re at it, limit food waste by starting a compost bin. If you don’t have a way to compost at home, check to see if your local farmer’s market will take extra food scraps.

RELATED: Shop the Fall Farmers Market Like a Chef

9. Keep a reusable coffee cup with you.

When you’re busy, it’s easy to pop into a coffee shop for a to-go Joe, but all of those coffee cups add up. The solution? Keep a reusable coffee cup on hand. The ones from Stojo are great because they’re collapsible and compact.

10. Go thrifting.

As the saying goes… “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.” Thrift stores are a great way to find vintage clothes, furniture, goods for the home and everything in between — and you give new life to a piece that may otherwise end up in a landfill. According to ThredUp, “Buying [pre-owned clothes] extends a garment's life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82 percent.”

You can also shop second-hand finds online from consignment websites and apps such as Offer Up, Chairish, Poshmark, Etsy.

"Buying pre-owned clothes extends a garment's life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82 percent."

11. Make your own food staples.

There’s certain food staples that we’ve come to rely on daily, but unfortunately, that means we go through them rapidly — all that food packaging adds up to a lot of trash. So consider making staples such as salad dressings, almond milk and granola yourself — it may take a little extra effort, but when you make them yourself, you know exactly what ingredients are being used... which is healthier too!

RELATED: This Adaptogenic Granola is a Beauty Superfood

12. Harness the sun's power.

Instead of leaving your phone charger plugged into the wall draining energy all day, opt for solar energy chargers instead. And shop solar-powered speakers, outdoor lights and of course, solar roof tiles to really utilize the sun’s energy.

13. Give the gift of sustainability.

For birthdays and holidays, give a gift that is more sustainable — perhaps an experience, like tickets to a concert or play, cooking classes or a spa treatment. Or, consider giving something that helps the recipient live more responsibility. (See the list of products below for inspiration).

14. Vote the change you want to see.

With every election, sustainability policies are on the ballot — like banning plastic grocery bags and single-use plastics, waste management protocol or environmental protection policies. You can learn more about recent sustainability laws and regulations here. In every election, familiarize yourself with what’s on the ballot so that your vote can make a difference.

15. Find zero waste or eco-friendly products.

There’s a more sustainable swap for just about everything these days. And with refill shops for everything from olive oil to laundry soap popping up in neighborhoods around the country, finding eco-friendly products is becoming a lot easier.

“Choosing materials and components that are sustainable — either renewable or recyclable — ensures long-term availability of resources,” reminds Gagnon. For even more ideas and motivation, check out zero-waste blogs.

Starter tip: Focus on one space at a time. Here’s a list of some great eco-friendly products you can incorporate, room by room.

The Kitchen:

The Bathroom:


The Closet:

  • When looking for new pieces, shop ethically made and clothing created from recycled sources:
    • Girlfriend Collective, workout clothes made from recycled plastic bottles
    • Allbirds, sustainable shoes made from natural materials
    • Tentrees plants ten trees for every item sold
    • Prana, certified fair trade, made with responsible forest fibers and tencel
    • Swaggr, socks made from recycled plastic bottles
    • Patagonia’s WornWear program recycles and repurposes old Patagonia gear and gives you credit off your next purchase
  • Donate old clothes, or for things that can’t be donated, box them up to be recycled or repurposed with Terracycle
  • Reuse-a-shoe: Send in old sneakers to Nike, who repurpose them

The Bedroom:

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