17 ways to be more environmentally friendly

Being environmentally conscious is not all about plastic bags; it’s about making everyday choices that will help keep our world happy and healthy. We can be more conscious about reducing pollution, protecting wildlife, conserving natural resources and take other actions that can help slow the rate of climate change.

Here are 17 simple ideas that you can implement in your life to help reduce waste!

1. Recycle

Recycling conserves natural resources, reduces pollution and saves energy. Recycling involves sorting and cleaning up trash to produce "secondary materials" — mainly glass, paper, metal and plastic — for reuse in products. Recycled aluminum, for example, is a particularly valuable resource; manufacturing using recycled aluminum is 92% more efficient than when unused raw materials are used, according to the Aluminum Association. About 40% of the country's aluminum supply comes from recycling, but we are still throwing away nearly $1 billion worth of aluminum cans that could have been recycled every year.

2. Turn down the bag

Plastic bags pose ecological problems. They take hundreds of years to decompose and pose a particular threat to wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die every year after mistaking plastic bags, which are laced with chemicals, for food. Many animals get entangled in plastic bags and suffocate.

A sound approach to retail bags is to decline them when your purchase is otherwise carriable or bring your own bags. Use and reuse all those bags — paper, plastic, cloth — that have been accumulating in the closet over the years — whether or not they are designed to be "reusable." If they become too grubby to carry your new purchases, use them to line waste cans or for picking up litter. And, ultimately, dispose of them properly — recycle them if you can.

3. Donate used goods

Donation is a particularly positive alternative to throwing away used consumer goods in the trash. Give your used clothing, appliances, and furniture to GoodWill, the Salvation Army, or a local church; computers to schools or needy families; and building materials and tools to Habitat for Humanity. In addition to the environmental benefits of giving these items a second life, you are helping others and may be eligible for a tax deduction.

4. Avoid disposable products

Paper and plastic plates and utensils, disposable diapers, paper towels and napkins, cheap plasticware, and other non-durable consumer goods (goods designed to last for a short period of time) make up about 20% of America's waste stream, which amounted to 50 million tons in 2015, according to the EPA.

A great concern are the greenhouse gas emissions that result from these items manufacture and disposal. Store away a quantity of durable, bargain-priced dishes, flatware, and glassware for parties and picnics. Use cloth napkins, cloth diapers, cloth rags, rechargeable batteries, durable razors, and refillable coffee thermoses for take-out coffee.

5. Kick the bottled water habit

Americans consumed 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2017, beating carbonated drinks for a second year in a row. Though America's tap drinking water supplies are generally clean and have to meet EPA standards for potability, it's the convenience of bottled water that makes it so popular. And consumption continues to grow as consumers move away from sugary drinks in pursuit of better health and still use bottled water to the detriment of environmental health.

According to researchers from the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, energy required to produce, transport, and chill bottled water requires up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce tap water. In addition, plastic bottles can take 450 years or more to decompose. So, yes, drink plenty of water for good health, but use a reusable water bottle or simply a glass as you pour water from your tap.

6. Upcycle

Repurpose items that still have life in them. The internet is full of crafty ideas for reusing waste materials, from high concept artistic statements — like a chandelier from bicycle parts, an aquarium from an upright piano, or a pool table from classic car — to simple DIY projects like turning plastic bottles into planters, wine bottle corks into bath mats, and various containers into toy organizers. These kinds of reuses do not remove a large percentage of material from the waste stream, but, to the extent the reimagined objects take the place of new purchases, they save the energy and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions required for their manufacture.

7. Switch out your light bulbs

LED lights use 75% less energy to deliver the same amount of light as incandescents, and LED bulbs last 25 times longer. LED holiday string lights are not only more energy efficient and much cheaper over time, they also emit less heat (and therefore safer) and more durable. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, by 2027, the widespread use of LED lighting could save $30 billion in energy costs and reduce the use of electricity by the equivalent of 44 1,000-megawatt power plants.

8. Unplug electronics

Even when not in use, many electronic devices, including televisions, microwaves, scanners, and printers, use standby power to save warm-up time. In the United States, the total electricity consumed by idle electronics — sometimes referred to as vampire or phantom electricity — equals the annual output of 12 power plants, according to the Office of Sustainability at Harvard University. Use power strips for these devices to simplify plugging and unplugging.

9. Turn off your computer

It is true that your computer uses a surge of electricity when it starts up, but it's a small surge. The Department of Energy suggests that you turn off your monitor if you aren't going to use your PC for more than 20 minutes, and turn off your CPU and monitor if you're not going to use your PC for more than 2 hours.

10. Rein in heating and cooling

Combined, heating and cooling accounts for nearly half of household energy consumption. You can reduce energy consumption and save money by using a programmable thermostat. For every degree you reduce the temperature in the winter or raise it in the summer you are saving up to 1% in energy costs for each 8-hour period, according to the Department of Energy. Lowering your heating setting or raising your air conditioning settings by 10 degrees for eight hours a day could save you 10% on your energy bill — and reduce your carbon footprint.

There is added efficiency in doing this, in that lower interior temperatures in winter will slow the flow of heat to the outdoors, and higher interior temperatures in summer will slow the flow of heat into the house.

11. Choose local and organic

Growing organic food is labor intensive but requires 30%-50% less energy to produce.

Eating locally-grown food also saves energy because of the lower transportation costs. Eating all locally-grown food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, according to the Center of Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

12. Compost

Nearly 30% of the waste stream consists of food and yard waste, according to the EPA. Over 50 million tons go to a landfill or incinerator. Composting not only saves disposal costs — and reduces the methane emitted from landfills — but it also creates a valuable soil amendment, reducing the need for manufactured fertilizers. You don't need to have a lot of land or technology to compost your household food and yard waste, so long as you follow a simple formula and keep meat, bones and dairy products out of the mix.

13. Save water

Using less water saves energy and infrastructure costs. Saving water also means less water is lost to contamination, and it helps assure an adequate supply of clean water for the future. In your own household you can conserve outdoor water use by mulching your gardens, keeping your grass a little longer, and washing your car on the lawn. Indoors, simply keep the water off when you are not actively using it, like when washing dishes, brushing your teeth, or generally cleaning up. Try this in the shower by turning the water on to the lather up, off while scrubbing up, and on again for the rinse. Shorter showers are good too.

14. Buy a cleaner car

Vehicles produce about one-third of all U.S. air pollution, and the contaminants emitted are more of a health threat than those from smoke stacks because they are at ground level, where we live, work, and play. Cars and trucks also account for 23% of total U.S. GHG emissions, with the average passenger vehicle producing about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the EPA.

15. Drive efficiently

Fast accelerations and high speeds use up fuel, and abrupt stops waste energy. By driving gently you can lower your gas mileage by up to 33% on the highway and 5% in the city, according to the Department of Energy. The optimal highway speed for gas mileage is 50 mph; after that, your gas mileage drops quickly. Don't idle your car, especially while running the air conditioner. In the winter, give your car only 30 seconds to warm up — it will warm up quickly when you start driving. Regular maintenance will help your car run at top efficiency — fixing serious maintenance problems can improve mileage by up to 40%.

16. Leave your car home

While great strides have been made to reduce tailpipe emissions — 99% since the 1960s — we are driving more than ever. There are more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers, and each vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Whenever you avoid getting into your car, you are doing the environment a favor. Walk or bike when you can, and use public transportation where you can't. Find companionable people who make the same routine trips you do and form a carpool. Rather than taking short trips to do your errands, combine your trips, thereby reducing mileage and avoiding a number of cold starts.

17. Volunteer

Many environmental groups, land conservancies and other environmental stewardship organizations have volunteer programs. Whether it is picking up litter, fund-raising, clearing trails, stuffing envelopes, or educating others, by volunteering you will meet new people, stay on top of current environmental issues, and make a difference in protecting our one world.

Article written by Steven Peters; with editing by Adventure Credit Union