Supporting sustainability means making decisions that improve the health of people and the planet as a whole. While these are strong goals, choosing a more sustainable lifestyle can feel daunting at first. It means limiting our consumption of natural resources and reducing waste with a strong focus on the wise use of water, energy, and trees. That’s a lot to account for and requires changes in our habits and buying decisions to make it happen.
Embracing sustainability, however, is not as complex as it may seem. According to a recent survey by Opendoor, 66% of individuals have already taken intentional steps toward simple living in the past year.
If we start with a few simple steps, we make the journey easier, and each step means progress toward healthier people and a healthier planet. In this article, I’ll explore a range of simple, sustainable swaps that anyone can adopt at home.
Using Less Plastic
Plastic is the second leading contributor to waste in the United States. Worse still, our country is the largest contributor to global plastic waste.
Recycling is designed to curb the plastic pollution problem, but it’s less effective than we might think. People recycle fewer plastics, while plastic use and resulting plastic waste are increasing.
Plastic ends up in sewage, landfills, oceans, soil — even groundwater and drinking water. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that plastic breaks down into tiny particles that infiltrate the land and water and, eventually, the bodies of living things, leading to a multitude of problems. Plastic also emits greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
What’s the best solution? Avoid using it. Below are easy tips for curbing plastic usage.
Switch from Bottles to Bars and Powders
Many cleaning and body care products come in plastic bottles, but we don’t need to use liquids. There are dry alternatives, such as solid bars of soap and shampoo and, tablets of dishwashing soap, laundry detergent, toothpaste, and cleaning products. Many of these products don’t use plastic packaging.
Switching to powdered detergents packaged in cardboard versus traditional plastic jugs is an easy swap. Brands like Dropps sell dishwasher and laundry detergent sheets that simply need to be tossed in the drum.
Ethique is a beauty brand that sells shampoo and conditioner bars that eliminate single-use plastic bottles. The shampoo bars lather just like traditional shampoos, making them an easy alternative.
Make Your Own Products at Home
You can use materials you have at home to create your own beauty and cleaning products — and avoid creating more demand for plastic. Baking soda, vinegar, and lemon are common ingredients that make great household cleaners. Beauty products can also be made at home using commonly available ingredients. These homemade products are also more environmentally friendly than commercial products that use polluting chemicals. Just mix up your eco-friendly products and store them in reusable containers.
Making beauty staples like body scrubs and face masks at home gives you control over every ingredient while cutting down on plastic waste. You can use ingredients like sugar, coconut oil, and essential oils to craft pampering products. Glass jars bought in bulk make perfect vessels for DIY creations.
If DIY isn’t your thing, look for sustainability-focused companies like Dropps Laundry and Dish Soap.
Ditch Non-Reusable Beverage Containers
Switch from drinking water bottled in plastic, which creates tons of plastic waste, to drinking tap water from a reusable bottle. Invest in a water filtration system if needed. A reusable coffee cup is much more sustainable than getting your coffee in paper cups every time.
Bottled water generates over 3 million tons of plastic every year in the US alone. Unfortunately, a standard plastic water bottle takes over 400 years to degrade in a landfill. So, making the switch to reusable bottles and mugs creates a big impact over time.
Non–Plastic Food Storage and Transport
Carrying and storing food often involve plastic. Still, you can make the shift away from plastic using these strategies:
Reusable shopping bags: Carry reusable shopping bags instead of taking new plastic bags every time you shop. Any bags from home will do. If you don’t have any, you can buy them at the same stores where you do your food shopping or from stores like Target and Walmart. Amazon also sells them. Many grocery stores now offer reusable bag credits to motivate customers to adopt eco-friendly habits. Some states have banned single-use plastic bags outright.
Plastic-free food containers: Switch to glass or aluminum containers for storage. Go a step further by buying bulk food and filling your jars or containers at the market. Each step taken in this direction reduces plastic.
Non-plastic food wrap: Plastic wrap is popular for food storage, but you can avoid it by switching to beeswax wrap.
Switch Away from Teabags, Paper Coffee Filters, and Coffee Pods
Teabags and coffee filters are often made with trace amounts of plastic to keep the paper from falling apart.
A better alternative is choosing loose-leaf teas and reusable strainers instead of tea bags. Loose-leaf tea has more flavor, and you avoid the plastic found in most bags.
To avoid paper coffee filters, brew coffee using a French press or coffee maker with a reusable filter. You’ll also save a lot of plastic waste from coffee pods if you make coffee with one of these methods. Reusable coffee filters prevent tons of waste over time versus throwaway paper filters.
With the increase in droughts in recent years and the threat of even drier conditions due to global warming, conserving water is more important than ever. All life needs water to survive, and reduced water levels in reservoirs increase the possibility of ingesting higher concentrations of chemicals.
Here are some ways to limit water usage.
Upgrade Your Toilet
Upgrading your toilet to a more efficient model can save 20% to 60% of the water used by an older, inefficient model. In addition, dual flush toilets have one button for light flushes and another for more thorough jobs, reducing the frequency of large flushes and reducing water usage.
Low-flush toilets use 1.6 gallons of water per flush versus older models, which use over 5 gallons per flush. Toilets account for nearly 30% of an average home’s water consumption, so an upgrade can lead to major savings. Many utilities even offer rebates when swapping out water-wasting toilets.
Install Water-Saving Showerheads
These showerheads are an effortless way to keep water usage down — you likely won’t even notice the difference from your old, water-wasting showerhead. Companies like High Sierra make a variety of great options!
Water-efficient showerheads have flow rates of 2 gallons per minute or less. They provide equally refreshing showers while cutting water use significantly.
Switch to Water-Saving Appliances
Many appliances focus on lower water usage to help the environment and keep our water bills down. Examples include dishwashers, clothes washers, and water heaters.
High-efficiency washing machines can save over 50% more water than conventional top-loading washing machines. Front load washers use less water overall by better saturating clothes. ENERGY STAR-certified dishwashers use at least 3 gallons less per cycle.
Energy production is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
79% of our electricity is produced using fossil fuels. By conserving energy, we reduce reliance on fossil fuels and their contributions to pollution while lowering energy bills. Below are some effective ways to cut down on energy usage.
Buy ENERGY STAR Appliances
Aside from saving water, many new appliances and home systems also require less energy to operate. ENERGY STAR appliances are popular options and have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 5%. The more we make the switch to energy-wise appliances, the higher the percentage goes. We also lower energy bills in the process — a double win. Some examples of ENERGY STAR appliances and home systems are washers, dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and heat pumps.
On average, ENERGY STAR-certified products are 10 to 50% more energy efficient. Over 75% of Americans have chosen ENERGY STAR products over less efficient models.
Ditch the Dryer and Use Clotheslines
Why not forgo the dryer completely? Find an area inside your home or yard to hang your clothing and let nature do the work for you for free.
Dryers account for a whopping 6% of electricity consumption in US homes. Sun-drying clothes reduce this energy expenditure plus soften fabrics in the process. Some HOAs prohibit visible clotheslines, but there are still indoor options. Retractable lines mount to walls and ceilings out of sight when not being used.
Switch to Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs
Lighting represents 15% of average home electricity usage. By switching to energy-efficient bulbs, our homes can save an average of $225 per year. As a bonus, energy-efficient bulbs last longer than incandescent bulbs, saving you even more money.
LED bulbs use at least 75% less energy while lasting over six times longer than traditional incandescent options. They give off less heat, too, making them safer.
Upgrade your Windows, Doors, and Skylights
Energy-efficient windows, doors, and skylights reduce our heating, cooling, and lighting costs. We also gain a more comfortable home in the process.
Poor insulation leads to energy leaks, which drive up home energy bills. Sealing cracks and gaps around windows and doors should be step one before considering full replacements. Vinyl framed, double or triple pane window units provide superior insulation over less efficient models. Fiberglass entry doors prevent air infiltration better than plain wood doors.
Skylights and tubular daylight devices channel natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting during daytime hours. This cuts lighting electricity usage significantly.
Reducing Air Pollution
Cleaner air benefits all who breathe it. Cutting air pollution, including greenhouse gases, is also critical in the fight against global warming. We reduce air pollution by paying more attention to what we consume and adopting different buying patterns.
Below are some strategies for creating cleaner, healthier air.
Use Microfiber Dusting Cloths
Microfiber cloths are easy to clean and reuse, eliminating the need for disposable dusters containing chemicals that pollute the air when tossed.
The tiny fibers on microfiber cloths trap way more dust than traditional feather dusters. Just a wet rinse restores them to like new condition so you can use them over and over.
Switch to Natural Cleaning Products
Switch from chemical-based cleaners to natural alternatives such as baking soda, vinegar, and lemon. These ingredients work for a broad range of cleaning needs and cost less than many commercial cleaners.
Baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, and Castile soap can tackle over 90% of household cleaning needs. Mixing up all-purpose cleaners at home takes minimal effort and keeps cans full of toxic chemicals out of landfills.
Switch Away from Toxic Candles
Candles may seem healthy, but those made of paraffin (a petroleum product) and particularly scented candles contain toxic materials that increase air pollution. Shift to candles made from nontoxic materials like soy and beeswax.
Beeswax and soy wax candles burn cleaner than paraffin alternatives while free of artificial fragrances. They’re also better for home air quality and produce less soot. Just be sure to trim wicks as recommended to prevent excessive smoking.
Avoid Air Fresheners and Plugins
Air fresheners come as sprays, plugins, and diffusers. Like candles, they often release toxic chemicals into the air when used. Transition to more natural solutions like essential oils or herbs.
Instead of masking odors, essential oils fight bacteria and germs that cause unpleasant smells at their source. They purify air naturally with pleasing scents derived from plants. Just a few drops in a diffuser fills rooms with a clean fragrance that is free of harmful volatile organic compounds.
Preventing Food Waste
Food waste is a massive yet often overlooked source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. This section outlines impactful strategies to cut personal food waste.
Thirty to forty percent of the total U.S. food supply ends up as food waste. That’s an astonishing amount. Food waste also makes up 24% of all municipal solid waste in landfills. Much of this emits methane — a potent greenhouse gas — as it decomposes.
Below, I’ll outline some effective ways to cut the waste.
Start a Compost Bin
Composting reduces methane gas and provides healthy fertilizer for growing your own fruits, veggies, and other plants. You can also take your food waste to a compost drop-off facility for others to use. Over 150 communities across the US now offer curbside pickup for household compostables. For DIYers, countertop bins provide odor-free collection right inside kitchens. Outdoor units can handle greater quantities generated by households and yards.
If you want to understand how to make compost, check out our article that outlines the steps to compost-making for more insight.
Purchasing subscriptions from companies dedicated to breaking the cycle of food waste, like Misfits Market, reduces waste by helping farmers sell produce that would otherwise be tossed or declined by conventional markets. Grocery stores are picky about what they buy, and not all food meets their strict standards. Subscriptions help us buy what grocery stores won’t, reducing waste.
Create Less Miscellaneous Waste
Our purchasing decisions drive production and waste on a large scale. This section explores lifestyle changes that limit material waste through smarter shopping and reuse.
We can limit landfill waste that contributes to air, water, and soil pollution by changing our buying patterns. We also save money in the process, making it a win-win.
Shop at Thrift Stores
Shopping at thrift stores helps us fight issues like fast fashion and furniture — products made poorly and cheaply to keep us buying.
The products often use plastic-based materials like polyester and other unsustainable materials to save production costs. They also require more resources to meet demand. The lower-quality items require replacement more often. Buying an existing, used item reduces landfilling.
We can also donate furniture, clothing, and housewares to the same thrift stores we buy from. Our trash is someone else’s treasure, further reducing what ends up in landfills.
Major retailers like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher actually encourage customers to buy and sell used apparel through their stores’ Worn Wear programs. Keeping items in circulation longer leaves a smaller environmental footprint.
Buy Books Used Or Invest in An E-Reader
Cut down on waste, paper production, and environmentally unfriendly binding materials and ink by switching to used books. Buy them in thrift stores or get them for free from libraries and local book exchanges. Purchasing new books electronically for a Kindle or other e-reader is also cheaper than buying new paper books.
Repurpose What You Can
Upcycling existing items is an affordable and creative way to increase their usable lives, avoid landfills, and improve your home or wardrobe. Along the way, we learn more DIY tricks and get a chance to show our crafty sides.
- Cutting up an old shirt to use as a cleaning rag
- Making art out of wine corks
- Repurposing a cabinet as a bathroom counter
Before tossing anything, think about ways it could be reused. You can often give frames, fabric, containers, and more another purpose before disposal. Kids’ art projects present a great opportunity for repurposing all sorts of household items destined for the curb.
Skip Paper and Go Digital
Moving to more electronic-based solutions like e-readers and computers for reading and communicating reduces paper waste. Thankfully, companies are embracing paperless communication and billing.
We can opt for digital bank statements and bill payments and halt catalog subscriptions in favor of visiting websites.
Billing and payment apps make managing finances completely paper-free. Features like autopay eliminate paper bills altogether once enabled. Some providers even offer incentives for going paperless, like discounted rates and fee waivers.
So, Is Adopting Sustainable Swaps Worthwhile?
Sustainable swaps don’t require dramatic lifestyle overhauls. We can phase changes in gradually at our own pace. The collective impact of small shifts across large numbers of people adds up significantly over time. Our planet has limited natural resources, so adapting habits that preserve them benefits everyone.
Many everyday convenience items swapped for eco-alternatives also save money in the long term. Reusable versions of bottled drinks, storage containers, and cleaning supplies generally cost more up-front but pay dividends over years of use. Shopping secondhand also stretches budgets further. Ultimately, convenient sustainable swaps help us collectively move toward a smaller environmental footprint.
FAQs About Sustainable Swaps
Are sustainable swaps actually effective?
Yes, sustainable swaps reduce personal environmental impact when alternatives replace single-use, disposable products. For example, a reusable water bottle avoids plastic waste generated by hundreds of individual plastic water bottles over its usable lifetime.
Do sustainable swaps require giving up convenience?
Not necessarily. Many reusable alternatives provide comparable convenience once habits form around them. Customers initially choose bottled water for portability, and tap water lacks that on-the-go access. However, portable, reusable water bottles provide similar convenience without resultant waste. Eco-friendly swaps aim for familiar utility using sustainable materials and designs.
Which sustainable changes make the biggest impact?
Reducing plastic usage and food waste reap huge benefits by keeping tons of waste out of landfills and oceans. Another high-impact area is water conservation, an increasingly precious resource threatened by climate change and pollution. Upgrades targeting major home water users like toilets, showers, and washing machines effectively slash usage.
Do sustainable swaps fit most budgets?
Yes, individuals across all budget levels can realistically reduce environmental footprints using sustainable alternatives. For example, buying secondhand goods or switching to natural homemade cleaning staples costs very little while dramatically decreasing waste. Other choices like installing water-saving showerheads or swapping reusable shopping bags cost more initially but pay back over years of use.