Living Sustainably, Little by Little: What Changes Can I Make Now?

All right, Ms. Crunchy Baker. You’ve told me about waste and waste reduction. You’ve railed about climate breakdown (and will continue to do so here and in future posts – this isn’t just a baking blog, after all). Now, you may be asking yourself, what can I do NOW to live more sustainably? Is it possible to change what I’ve been doing for my whole life for the better?

The answer, of course, is yes.

We (as in, husband and I) are in the process of making these gradual changes to our lifestyle. Are we done? Have we done all of them? Definitely not – this process takes time, so don’t feel awful if you can’t make every change now, or if you’re not doing a lot of things right at this moment. Some are easier than others. Some are much, MUCH easier than others. And some are going to look gross and awful and really hard when you’re just starting out, but really aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. But our goal (and yours, as well), is to make all of them, and more, in relatively short time. The more you do, gradually, the easier it becomes to continue doing more to help the planet heal itself, as well as support your fellow human beings who may or may not have access to the luxuries you’ve had and are already suffering from the effects of climate breakdown.

I’ll add to this list as new items arise. Leave comments below if you have more ideas!

Groceries and Shopping

  • Use reusable cloth bags when grocery shopping. Plastic bags are the literal worst. Paper bags require manufacturing and felling trees, so they’re not much better, even if they are made of recycled paper. Leave at least one cloth bag in your car at all times so you never forget them. You also don’t need to spend much (or really, any) money on these buggers – we’ve gotten the majority of ours for free from various events or gifts, and others cost less than a dollar. Bonus: they’re washable!
  • On the same note, use reusable cloth bags for separating produce instead of the cellophane bags provided at the store. Avoid pre-packaged, pre-chopped produce – it often costs more anyway (especially the prepared stuff), and it creates more waste.
  • Avoid packages that can’t be recycled or reused easily – think clamshell packages, plastic bags, and the like. This includes plastic bags inside of cereal and snack boxes (oh man, and I do love me some cereal), as well as individually wrapped, well, anything.
  • Get reusable containers for bulk goods (Mason jars, bins, tubs, cloth produce bags, ziptop bags, etc.) and buy in bulk. Weigh your containers for the tare (the weight of the jar, tub, etc.), write it down on the container (write it in pounds and ounces, if you’re in the States), and keep them with your bags.
  • Shop small, two ways: one, shop only for what you need in a given time to avoid food waste. Make lists and plan. Two, shop locally. Get your produce from farmers and farmer’s markets. Research and support small groceries and co-ops that have environmentally-friendly practices – they may cost more, but the money stays local, and some of these items (again, do your research) spend less time and energy traveling to you.
  • Shop in season, and for what’s available locally (within 50 miles, even less if you can swing it). No more winter tomatoes or peaches (they’re gross, anyway), as well as sub-tropical fruits. Your food will taste better, and you’re one less customer for food shipped from hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. The wait for different seasonal produce is actually quite satisfying (delayed gratification) and gives you yet another thing to look forward to during seasonal changes. There are also a ton of tasty fruits and vegetables that grow in the United States that you might not even know exist, simply because they don’t sell well or keep well on store shelves – pawpaws in the Southeast, for example – as well as very good substitutes for tropical produce and flavors. In fact, we just discovered a passionfruit variety that grows in northern North America, which is pretty fantastic!
  • Make what you can and enjoy making – think bread, jam, baked goods, and other canned goods, as well as crafts and home goods. Everyone is capable and probably enjoys making something. 
  • On that note, don’t feel like you have to make everything in the world. There are probably things you hate making or don’t want to put in the effort to make. For example, I hate making and forming pie crusts, and I’m also not particularly crafty. I totally get it. If you don’t enjoy making it, find someone who does (preferably local) and uses sustainable (or no) packaging.

Home Waste Reduction and Reuse

  • Make it inconvenient to throw away garbage. Move the can(s) to an annoying location (the garage, for example). Use a smaller bin. Make the recycling bin easier to access than the garbage can. This may help you decide whether or not to throw something away if it’s annoying to reach the bin.
  • Compost, compost, compost! Put food waste and biodegradable goods back into the earth instead of the landfill. If you don’t have the space to compost where you live (say, a small apartment), research local groups that take compost, or do what we did before we got our house – find a friend who is composting, and take your stuff to them. Don’t know what composting is or how it works? Start here.
  • Buy and use reusable metal straws and eating utensils. Keep them in your bag, pocket, or purse for on-the-go eating and drinking.
  • Eliminate your use of single-use plastics. At the very least, reuse all single-use plastics. If you can’t reuse them, don’t use them in the first place. This includes plastic wrap, Ziplocs (these are highly washable and reusable), plastic grocery bags, and the like.
  • Find alternatives to single-use plastics. There are beeswax food wraps, reusable bottles, reusable airtight containers, and other options besides throwing away more plastic. Do your research – there may even be someone near you who makes these items!
  • Recycle more than you throw away. Reuse more than you recycle. Reduce your waste so neither of these bins is filled on a weekly basis.
  • Keep track of your food supplies (fridge, pantry, shelves, etc.) with visible lists, and update them immediately when you run out of items. Make meal plans and stick to them.
I’m an intensely list-oriented person. Also, I really like spices. Fight me.
  • Do a monthly pantry raid. Commit to using only what you have on hand to feed you and your family for the week. This reduces both food waste and the need to drive to the store for more groceries and packaging.
  • Buy used whenever you can. Think furniture, certain clothing, decorations, and household goods. These items are often given away or resold with little or no use, you’ll get them cheaper, and you’ll be one less customer for an unnecessarily manufactured new item.
  • Use cardboard boxes for sheet mulching. Recycling is great, but why send them off for recycling when you can actually put the boxes to your own use and know exactly where they are going? Why, there’s even a blog post for how to do this.

Energy and Water Savings

  • Shut off the water between rinsing anything – your hands while you soap up, your body and hair while you soap in the shower, while you brush your teeth or shave, while washing dishes, etc.
  • Take shorter showers. You really don’t need more than five minutes, and you know it.
  • Take fewer, cooler showers. Most people do not need a daily shower, and doing so (especially with hot water) can strip good bacteria and oils from your skin and hair, anyway.
  • Use cold water whenever possible for washing.
  • Install a clothesline to reduce or eliminate dryer use.
We’re pretty proud of ours. It doesn’t have to be pretty – it just has to work!
  • Install rain barrels for gardening. They’re super neat, make use of the rain that just goes into gutters otherwise, and make you actually look forward to rainy days!
  • Use faucet aerators on all of your faucets. They’re cheap and easy to install (literally, just screw them on the faucet head).
  • Use energy-efficient bulbs (LEDs, preferably). They cost more, but they last a lot longer, will save you money in the long run, and use less energy than traditional bulbs.
  • Turn off lights and unplug electronics you’re not actively using.
  • Turn down your thermostat during the winter (68 is room temperature, y’all), and up during the summer (you can thrive at 78 degrees or more. Admittedly, I’m still working on this one at night).
  • Research clean energy options (e.g., solar panels) for your home and have a reputable, local company install it.

Transportation

  • Drive less. Significantly less. Carpool whenever possible. Ask yourself if you physically need to drive where you want to go – am I going to work or school? Am I wanting to go shopping for the sake of shopping? Do I need to get food today? Combine any and all trips in one direction so you save time and reduce your carbon emissions.
  • Bike and walk whenever possible. Is the next location less than a mile away? Are you able to walk or ride safely to your next destination? Keep your car parked and get some exercise while you’re at it. Refer back to the previous bullet to decide if you need to drive.
  • Use public transportation. If you have access to a bus, metro, or other form of cleaner transport, use it. The more we use public transportation, the better (and better funded) it gets.
  • Consider your and other people’s carbon footprint when planning trips and travel. Carpool. Find the most convenient and shortest routes for the largest number of people. Look into and consider the carbon emissions from different forms of travel (e.g., car, train, airplane, cruise ship), and plan from there.

Speaking Out and Acting Beyond

  • Vote intelligently. Research your politicians and potential politicians, especially local figures since they will affect you most noticeably. Do they support environmental efforts? Do they put their money where their mouths are? Have they supported environmental efforts in the past, or are they jumping on the green bandwagon via lipservice? Vote for people who actually have climate change solutions on their agenda – if they’re not speaking up about it, they don’t care about it. Don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise.
  • Research conservation and sustainability groups (especially local ones) and consider donating and/or volunteering.
  • Start or volunteer for sustainability programs (e.g. recycling, conservation education, waste reduction, etc.) at your work, school, church, or other community activity. Just because a program is not in place yet doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future!
  • Get involved locally. Go to town hall meetings. Get involved in your local schools and community centers to aid in sustainability efforts. Speak out if something – a practice, a leader, a policy – looks bad, and make an effort to change things for the better.

Remember: making changes is a process. We’ve been living in particular ways, with particular comforts, for years and years. It takes time to break habits and think differently about our waste and carbon footprints, but it can and must be done. Climate breakdown (not just change breakdown) is happening now. The time for change is not sometime in the future – it is NOW. We can do it – we owe it to our children, future children, and ourselves.

Have other suggestions for changes? Leave them in the comments!

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