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10 Practical Steps for Sustainable Living

Updated on March 21, 2015
relache profile image

Raye gardens organically, harvests rainwater, strives to eat locally, and honors the gods from her home in the Pacific Northwest.


Why Be Sustainable?

Changing your lifestyle to be more sustainable offers opportunities to save money, build a stronger local community, increase the quality of your home and possessions, be more insulated against the collapse of larger systems, simplify, continue learning, be organic and contribute to a healthier style of living on the Earth.

The number one thing required is personal commitment. By making sustainable choices, all the rest flows from that. It doesn't take more money, but it will take continuous effort and mindfulness. The best way to truly achieve lasting change in your lifestyle is to take small steps and change specific areas that really mean a lot to you. Then once you are adapted to that change, you can pick a new situation to address or your first changes may naturally lead to others.

Here are my ten steps for having a more sustainable lifestyle. And yes, I'm working towards this myself.

The Ultimate Guide To Living More Lightly On The Earth

Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste
Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste

Bea Johnson's book offers up simple steps to guide anyone to having less clutter, more sustainability and creating less garbage and waste in their life.


1. Learn the difference between "being green" and "being sustainable."

Being green frequently has nothing to do with being sustainable. Being green is more of a buzzword, a marketing concept and a way to turn a profit. Being sustainable means that whatever is being done has the least impact, the least waste and is a cycle or means that can be repeated indefinitely without cumulative damage or harm to living things.

Here are things which are considered green, but are in no way sustainable:

  • Hybrid cars - they use oil-based fuels, a resource that is very finite. They have parts that are costly in resources to make, and toxic to dispose of afterward. Owning a hybrid car is green, getting around by bicycle is sustainable.
  • Solar power - the sunlight part of solar power is sustainable, but the resources it takes to manufacture and dispose of solar panels and batteries is not. Switching to solar power is green, building a house that uses passive solar gain is sustainable.

BioBag 13 Gallon Tall Kitchen Waste Bag, 12 CT (Full Case of 12 Boxes, 144 Bags Total)
BioBag 13 Gallon Tall Kitchen Waste Bag, 12 CT (Full Case of 12 Boxes, 144 Bags Total)

Biodegradable garbage bags do not contain petroleum products like some plastics and will break down safely over time.


2. Reduce or Eliminate Usage of Oil/Gasoline/Petroleum

This is the number one problem facing the entire world today. Oil, from which over 90% of the fuel and energy sources of modern civilization are based and powered, is an extremely finite resource. Scientists have already determined that we have passed "peak oil" meaning all resources of that type are now in decline. Almost everything plastic is based on oil. Almost all transportation is based on oil.

Learning to reduce and cease the usage of anything derived from oil is paramount to becoming sustainable. What supplies of oil the world has left are going to become critical in areas where there is no substitution for it. In the end, to truly become sustainable, one would have to eliminate all petroleum/fossil fuel usage from their life.

The Sea of Plastic

3. Shifting from "want" to "need."

The whole point of advertising is to create a state of desire, to make someone want something that they actually don't require to conduct their life. First one has to learn how they have adopted this type of mindset. Then you have to stop thinking this way. Unlearning this type of behavior is part of the key to adopting a sustainable lifestyle.

This can involve not buying new products unless you truly and genuinely needed them. This can involve not owning multiples of things. This can involve not following retail trends or styles. Instead of paying for services like regular maintenance and repairs, learn to care for and repair the items you own yourself. It's interesting how you simplify when you really start to do-it-yourself.

One great rule for this is to look at every single item you own and ask yourself if you've used it or worn it in the last calendar year. If not, get rid of it. You'd be surprised by how much you really need and how much stuff you have in your life just because it got there and has been hanging around ever since.

This mindset also ties in closely with the next point listed below.


Reusable Bags and Containers

flip and tumble Reusable Produce Bags, Pack of 5
flip and tumble Reusable Produce Bags, Pack of 5

Stop using plastic bags and get reusable bags for when you buy produce at the grocery store. Better yet, stop going to the grocery store and buy from a local farmer's market.


4. Eliminate Waste

In the late 1800s, the average American family generated a grocery bag's worth of trash per year. That refers to material that absolutely could not be reused again in any way. Presently, the average American individual generates nearly five pounds of trash per day! To truly reduce waste, you have to make changes across nearly every part of your life, looking for excess and either changing what you use or how you use something, or both.

Good areas to start reducing waste:

  • Packing - so much of what we buy and consume comes with excessive and wasteful packaging. Switch to buying in bulk, but also be sure to try to switch away from items that use unneeded and non-recyclable packing and wrapping. This applies to household products, food, clothing you buy and much more.
  • Gift-giving - Use recycled materials to do gift-wrapping, try using cloth wrapping that can be used again, or give gifts just marked with a cute bow or tag.

This type of thinking and action ties into the action below just as it is connected to the one above.

5. Buy for a lifetime AND take care of it.

Instead of using disposable things made for a one-time use, a sustainable thinker goes for quality, getting tools and goods which are made to last a lifetime or longer. Instead of just throwing things out when they aren't perfect, things get maintained and repaired so that they can be used again and again. Many items that used to be made from metal or wood are now crafted from plastic and won't last for decades. People are also not used to performing regular repair and maintenance on their own appliances or homes.

Ways that good used to be durable and became disposable include

  • Pens - Use a fountain pen and not a disposable one.
  • Lighters - Use a refillable butane lighter and not a plastic disposable one.
  • Razors - Straight razors last longer than a lifetime and get resharpened instead of thrown out.
  • Shoes - Good quality leather shoes get resoled when they become worn and last for many years, not just a year or two.


6. Location, location, location

As part of addressing issue #2 above, it's important to cultivate a local lifestyle. The more you can conduct your life and needs local to where you live, the better. It's going to become too costly to ship items and goods over long distances. Those apples from New Zealand that you get at Trader Joe's? Totally not sustainable.

Patronizing local businesses eliminates cost of transportation and effects of pollution. It also creates diversification of small businesses which feeds into the growth of smaller, localized economies.

Rain Barrels

Enviro World Corporation Rain Barrel , 55 Gallon
Enviro World Corporation Rain Barrel , 55 Gallon

Rain barrels can save both money and water. Be sure to check if it's legal to catch rain where you live because some states ban this.


7. Conserve Water

As much as the media is putting a lot of attention and focus on oil and petroleum, one of the biggest problems that the world will face soon is going to be water. Water is a natural resource and for thousands of years, it fell freely from the sky and flowed across the surface of the planet and anyone who needed it had access.

Industrial society changed all that. Companies claim to own the rights to water, forcing people to pay for something that used to be free. Carelessness for this precious resource has led to depletion of water in some areas, and terrible contamination in others. As the human population grows, having access to clean and plentiful supplies of water will change radically. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated that by 2030, almost half of all people on Earth will live in areas of high water stress.

When you rinse your lettuce to make a salad, how can you reuse that water instead of just pouring it down the drain? When you start your shower, do you catch the water that comes out before it becomes hot and use that for anything? Every time you go to pour water down the drain, think about if it really could be used for something else instead.

8. Learn To Grow Food

If there is one thing that all humans used to be sustainable at and now are just about as far from it as you can get, it's producing food. Once upon a time, every family produced all of their own food and nowadays, you'd be surprised just how many people have no idea how food is produced or where it comes from other, and how many have never cared to wonder.

Large scale food production has increased pollution, supports food systems that are more at risk of breaking down, contributes to a devastating loss of biodiversity, encourages waste and excessive consumption of resources. Even if you have a small garden, it can provide tasty and healthy food. Talk to your neighbors: if everyone grows slightly different things, you can pass along the extra when the harvest comes or share foods in season.

9. Do It Without Electricity

If there's something where you can complete your task or get the job done without electricity, try and do it that way. Electricity is most often derived from a process that uses fossil fuels, or uses some other precious resource, and generally is non-renewable. For hundreds and hundreds of years, humans lived without electricity and now you'll find people who spend their weekends in RVs with satellite TV, microwave ovens, air-conditioning and generators saying they are roughing it. Compared to how millions of people live day-to-day in the world, they aren't.

A few ideas to get started:

  • Dry clothing on the line instead of in the dryer.
  • Use manual kitchen tools instead of electric ones.
  • Use manual yard tools instead of electric or gas-powered ones.
  • Exercise using just your own body instead of going to the gym.

10. Change Your Lifestyle Now Gradually

There's a lot of increasing evidence that the modern, Western lifestyle (most notably the American version) isn't going to be possible for much longer. Too much fossil fuel is consumed and too much water is wasted. Environmental pollution just keeps increasing even as stricter rules are put into place. Larger systems keep evolving, but they are often endangered by small breaks in their process. Look at product and food recalls for examples of this.

Start to make sustainable changes and choices in your lifestyle on your own terms and at your own pace before the world situation demands it. This makes it more adaptable and adjustable. Think of how people who survive natural disasters are traumatized by the sudden loss of everything. Many of the ways we live and modern conveniences may be going away or being reduced in the next few decades and by shifting how you live and consume, you will make yourself more adaptable to these changes without shock or loss.

What Are Your Thoughts On Sustainability?

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    • relache profile image

      Raye 14 months ago from Seattle, WA

      Just paying attention to waste is a great way to start being more sustainable.

    • profile image

      Gjergj Pepaj 14 months ago

      Consumers should pay more attention to wastage! Be more sustainable and contribute to a healthier environment. Good article! Thank you.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 15 months ago from Seattle, WA

      Anna Marie, I'm doing some water barrel maintenance ahead of the summer water rates kicking into effect right now. All the little bits do wind up shifting a lot.

    • Anna Marie Bowman profile image

      Anna Marie Bowman 15 months ago from Florida

      Some great tips. If we all did a little more, took a few small steps towards being sustainable, it would make a huge difference. And, almost all of these tips can save you money, as well. It's an extra incentive.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 15 months ago from Seattle, WA

      Apt rubbish, thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      Apt rubbish 15 months ago

      This is an excellent explanation of the difference between "green" and "sustainable". Thanks

    • profile image

      Green to the Core 19 months ago

      Love this! I love to find new ways to be sustainable. really helps with great tips too. :) PEOPLE! BE GREEN!

    • Molly Madley profile image

      Molly Madley 22 months ago from San Francisco,Ca

      I totally agree with this!

    • adevwriting profile image

      Arun Dev 2 years ago from United Countries of the World

      This is a really good issue you have written about. Sustainable living is very important. You have to be responsible as a human being.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Marisa, I volunteered at a "green faire" and it was clear it was all about shopping and generated TONS of garbage, and that really shifted things for me. And I have a devotedly, low-impact housemate who has lead the charge on our end, and we keep finding ways to reduce what we use.

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Marisa Wright 2 years ago from Sydney

      This is an excellent explanation of the difference between "green" and "sustainable". I think a lot of people "go green" and feel smug that they've done their bit, whereas often it's not as effective as they think.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 2 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks, Kristen! We just keep working on our sustainability at my house and slowly it's getting better.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub Rae on how to live for a fuller and greener life. Very useful. Voted up!

    • ilikegames profile image

      Sarah Forester 3 years ago from Australia

      Great tips! I'm always looking for ways to try live greener. I'm hoping to build in the next few years with that goal in mind.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Haza, it depends on what's being upcycled and how. If the upcycle process uses a ton of non-sustainable energy and new materials, that defeats the purpose.

    • profile image

      Haza 3 years ago

      What about Upcycling, what do you think about that?

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      lol. I attempted life without the 'net for a while, but instead of simply feeling like I was off the grid, it was like feeling I was off the planet. :)

      I think there are definite advantages to our isolated existence of past decades, but it is hard to imagine suddenly going back to snail mail and hearing news from the other side of the world a week after the event. Won't we all get a shock if that day comes!


    • relache profile image

      Raye 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      LTM, batteries and electrical usage for moden appliances/technology is the big debate in many off-grid communities and families trying to be more sustainable. At present, the lifestyle most people have has some very unsustainable habits built-in to them. The Internet is unsustainable from top to bottom, which is going to make it a huge challenge at some point in the future when we can no longer sustain it.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Hi relache. I live off the grid, grow my own food, collect my own water, and take advantage of passive solar design. But I can't imagine life without my solar panels and batteries , or my solar cooker.

      I consider them a necessary part of my sustainable lifestyle, but I'm always open to considering other good ideas for options. What would be a more sustainable option to deep cell batteries in a world where internet connection, for instance, is a must-have?

      I can't think of one. Has your research revealed anything you can point me towards? (Living off the grid makes it difficult for me to spend too much time searching the net.) Thanks.

    • relache profile image

      Raye 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      If you take care of your car and use it only when absolutely necessary, there's no reason it won't last for many decades or your lifetime. If you live in a city with public transport, you may be able to live car-free, which I have done for nearly 30 years now.

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