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8 Ways You Can Help the Environment (And Save Money Doing It)

Updated on March 27, 2018

How Wasteful Are You?

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How to Reduce Trash: The Idealist Way

Auri Jackson from Buzzfeed started her green journey with this video, which has 101,000 likes on Youtube, and she has since produced several others. While her transition into greener accommodations was thorough. keep in mind that she:

  1. Works for Buzzfeed, a politically left-leaning company that would encourage and allow Auri's venture that also provides its content creators with a living wage.
  2. Was likely given a budget from Buzzfeed to make the video, allowing for easier access and financial liberty for her related purchases and educational outreach efforts
  3. Lives in California, which politically and socio-economically encourages and provides many of the resources essential to Auri's video and subsequent lifestyle changes

What Can *I* Do?

This article isn't going to bash Auri or Buzzfeed. I happen to be a fan of both. But I think that transition to greener accommodations should be more accessible to people not in Auri's situation which, to be honest, is most of us. And as noble as Auri's efforts are, many of us cannot afford or do not have access to container-free stores, housing that might allow outdoor composting stations, or even community gardens. These are some of my ideas that, with the appropriate mindful purchases, can make a noticeable difference in reducing one's overall trash output.


1.) Bottled Water: The Obvious Culprit

This problem is a known one. If you watch TV on most channels, you'll see a commercial for bottled water--Fiji Water, Poland Spring, and in the '90s, Dasani--but what they all have in common is that they end up in places they shouldn't, whether it's a landfill or the ocean. Sure they're recyclable, but too many people don't abide by the rule, or their state has loose rules that don't enforce recycling. There are many other reasons, but the main problem is that according to The Guardian, one million water bottles are used every minute globally. These are 2017 numbers too, mind you.

Try Instead...

So you know that a reusable water bottle is a safe bet. But which to buy and why?
There are water bottles that are BPA-free such as this one from Amazon. Recent concerns over BPA have arisen because it can leech into the water you take into your body, and does so with as little provocation as exposure to sunlight. If your water bottle is soft and crunches in your hand, you should probably put it down.
If your tap water is troublesome, then another choice would be these Brita filtered water bottles from Target. Fill them up with tap water, and it filters as you drink it. Keep in mind that water bottles like this will need their filters replaced, and the Brita brand asks they be replaced every two months or every 40 gallons. The replacements are listed on Target's website at $4.39 for two.
If you have a larger filter at home, then perhaps a metal bottle will be best; not only does it keep your beverage hot or cold longer, but if it isn't plastic at all, it's dishwasher safe and won't bend with use. These start at Target and Amazon for roughly $12. A 28-pack of Poland Spring water bottles from Walmart cost $3.98 (according to their site). If a family of four uses one pack a week, that's about $15.92 a month (without tax) but that's 112 bottles that go into the environment. If each of that family bought a reusable water bottle at $12, then each reusable one would pay for themselves in about three months. Considering most water bottles (without filters) last several years, this would save money overall. Especially since 112 bottles wouldn't be put into the environment every month.

2.) Food Packaging is a Scam

In March of 2016, Whole Foods got into hot water over packaging peeled oranges as shown above. There's a lot to "unpack" here:
Firstly, you're buying a single orange for $6, which is outrageous, even for Whole Foods. Secondly, the orange won't even keep as long as a peeled orange...which is the evolutionary point of the peel in the first place, and thirdly, peels are biodegradable. Plastic is not.

Whole Foods isn't the only store that does this, and oranges are not the only food packaged with tons of unnecessary plastic. If you like strawberries, blueberries, to-go bars of various brands, oatmeal, cereal, cookies, grapes or popcorn then you're familiar with individually-packaged foods. To get to a Kashi bar, you have to open the cardboard box (trash), take the bar out of its wrapping (trash) and then you get to eat it. Compare the edible bars to the packaging that will be discarded.

Try Instead...

It's next-to-impossible to live in a Western world and not buy packaged foods, especially if you're poor, live in a food desert, or have crushing student debt (or all three). Auri from Buzzfeed can because of previously mentioned reasons. The rest of us...not so well.
As stated in the trash fact, almost half of what you find in a landfill is composed of food packaging. What you can do is pay attention to brand packaging. For produce, buy your fruits and vegetables with peels. Avoid or try to reuse those flimsy plastic sheet bags that come in rolls at the market. If you're buying grapes or celery, see if you can purchase them in packaging that is resealable so as to help control how much you're using. You can also forego packaging for say peppers or artichokes and store them in tupperware until you're ready to use them. Here is a helpful resource for determining what needs to be refrigerated and for how long.
If you're buying snacks, see if you can buy them in boxes with the cardboard cut-outs that can reseal, or if you have the time and patience, make your own versions.

3.) Why Straws Suck

Let's return to Auri from Buzzfeed for a moment. The point of this video is to spread awareness at how easy it is to get a disposable straw, how many we might get in an average week, and how to avoid them. Trigger Warning for blood and violence to turtles. Straws are dangerous not only to turtles, but to fish and whales as well. Straws are often translucent or transparent, which makes them harder to see and distinguish from normal prey. Sharks and other fish have been found to have plastic in their intestines and stomach cavities. Birds die from it, and their nests are often lined with straws.

You get them at diners, you get them at Starbucks and hell, you even get them with takeout. They seem largely unavoidable. But are they? Not necessarily. Even for the financially disadvantaged and legitimate impoverished, this is one tip that can be implemented with $0 investment. Avoiding straws is difficult to do simply because it requires asking beforehand for your server or barista to omit a straw and subsequent lid. Naturally someone with less disposable income isn't going to be buying Starbucks coffee with straws every day or even every week, so this is less of a problem for them, but even in fast food chains straws are common.

Try Instead...

Reusable plates, duh. Reusable water bottles, fine. But reusable straws??
Oh yes. Amazon sells this non-plastic, stainless steel dishwasher safe package for $10.99 (free shipping if you have Prime!) If you use Ninja products such as the Ninja Coffee Bar, then Bed,Bath&Beyond sells these BPA-free, dishwasher safe straw sets for $4.99. Target of course has their own sets that start at $3.99. Unlike the other items, where reusable versions are cost-effective, straws are often complementary. Which makes it more difficult to think of as an environmental (and fiscal) hazard. Or that eliminating them from your life makes an impact, but it does. The National Park Service's Commercial Service estimates that humans use almost 500 million straws daily. That's enough to fill 46,400 school buses every year.
Straws aren't so insignificant now, are they?


4.) Disposable/Deplorable Plates and Cutlery

Even though the Trash Fact dates to 2003, the use of disposable food containers and utensils is harmful for other reasons besides sheer volume. It's not just paper plates that are being thrown out--which are 'biodegradable' in the same sense that paper towels are (with a host of agents in their manufacture that can slow degradation)--but Styrofoam cups, containers and plates. Styrofoam doesn't biodegrade, at least not in a human's lifetime. It takes up to 500 years. Most disposable cutlery is made of plastic, so this runs into the same problem.
Sure they save you time on doing dishes, sure they're great to bring on camping trips since they're light and won't puncture equipment, and children are walking hazards that could break your nice sets.
But there are better options. Especially ones that don't end up in the bodies of fish and birds.

Try Instead...

If you're worried about durability, cost and convenience, there are still options that don't fill landfills thousands of pounds at a time. Plates made of melamine will, like paper plates, not break when dropped and are very light and convenient. However, they are more durable and are dishwasher safe, so you can reuse them to your heart's content! However, depending on the item, they may not be microwave-safe, so pay attention to the item's description and/or instructions. Amazon also sells these biodegradable plates in 110- and 500-packs
If you're worried about eating lunch at work, see if the office kitchen has tableware you can use and be sure to wash it afterwards. If not, it would be prudent to store your own in your desk. Like straws, plastic cutlery are often given freely without prompting, so they're easy to accrue. Fortunately, there are outlets that sell reusable cutlery for cheap, such as the Christmas Tree Shop, Walmart, and even Bed,Bath&Beyond if you're willing to customize your set and order individually.
If you're worried about camping situations and the possibility of your cutlery puncturing or tearing equipment, consider this bamboo set that comes with its own case from Amazon. The case is even made from recycled plastic! You would be not one but TWO steps ahead!
If you've just moved into a new apartment, it's easy to use disposable plates and cutlery for meals, but especially if you don't live on the ground floor or have a garbage shoot, you'll be saving yourself trips to the dumpster, time and possibilities of locking yourself out by accident. You'll also look the part of a responsible adult if you have real dinnerware when company comes.


5.) Paper Towels: How Convenient Are They Really?

"But paper towels compost", you might say. While this is true, paper towels can take up to two weeks to break down. Why so long?
If you, like me, enjoy zen shows like How It's Made, then you're familiar with this particular episode. During this brand's process, they add bleaching agents, strengthening agents, and glue; in short, the chemicals used to treat the paper towel that make it an appropriate paper towel may affect how it decomposes.

If you have the membership and enough disposable income to shop at Costco, then you're familiar with bulk purchasing. Paper towels and toilet paper are the two biggest essentials, and Costco's company Kirkland produces this paper towel package that gives you 12 rolls, each with 160 sheets. But, like most paper towels, each towel is going to be used only once. Maybe it'll be to clean off a messy counter. Maybe it's cleaning dog pee from a carpet. Either way, you're probably not going to use it again, so it'll be thrown out. The math comes out to this Kirkland paper towel box giving you 1,920 uses (assuming each mess takes one paper towel and not more, mind you) and costs $18.69 according to their website. This would mean each paper towel is worth $.00097, but would result in 1,026 sq ft of waste. But that cost is hard to beat.

So what do you do, use dishtowels to wipe your hands?

Dishtowels can be washed and reused, however they can also harbor bacteria from, you know, dishwashing and multiple hands' use, not to mention falling off the rack onto the floor constantly. Besides, how often do you wash your dishtowels and bathroom hand towels? Be honest with yourself.

But there's another way.

Try Instead...

These bamboo fiber paper towels from Amazon are reusable. Each towel can be washed up to 100 times. Each roll only comes with 20 sheets, and according to the Amazon listing, only 6 rolls can be purchased at a time for $60.76 which is 40 fewer sheets than Kirkland's box and almost three times as expensive. However, these 6 rolls of reusable paper towels would give you 12,000 uses and would only cost $0.00506 per sheet. Yes, that is more expensive than Costco, but not by that much since neither rounds up to a single cent. Consider also that this product is a Shark Tank product, and if you are reusing paper towels rather than throwing them out, you might be saving yourself at least the trip to get more paper towels in addition to reducing how many times you take out the trash.


6.) Feminine Hygiene Products

It's tough to have a period. There's cramping, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, irritability, mood swings, crying and often impulse purchases--and that's all without further complications, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or Endometriosis. Never mind if you're not a colloquially "cis"woman who has always identified and been recognized as such since birth.
Unfortunately, once you take a ride on that menstruation cycle, there's no getting off until menopause, and that can become expensive. Further misfortune comes from the environmental impact your angry uterus wreaks upon the earth. However, this doesn't mean that periods themselves are bad, or unclean or unnatural. Your uterine lining needs shedding and it's a self-cleaning system that doesn't need any help.

Without hormonal intervention, there's no way you can stop a period. However, there are ways to reduce a period's environmental cost.

Try Instead...

250-300 lbs of waste in the grand scheme of things is not a lot, especially since bio waste such as used tampons can biodegrade. However, pads are a different story. Unless they're made from eco-friendly materials such as these from banana fibers or this reusable one made of cotton, sanitary pads don't biodegrade very easily. Much for the same reasons as paper towels and mop pads, sanitary pads are imbued with agents that help them adhere, be bound together, and are bleached for sanitation and color.
In case the idea of buying pads in Rupees and shipping them only to discard them or washing your bloody pad in a washing machine every day for a week every month doesn't appeal to you, there are other methods to reduce waste.

Tampons can be worse than pads, because the cotton blends can have small traces of fertilizer and pesticides leftover from processing, and the cotton is often blended with rayon. Though rayon is highly absorbent, its bleaching agents can dry out your vaginal lining.
The menstrual cup is an excellent alternative to tampons and sometimes pads. It can be purchased cheaply at Rite Aid, CVS, and Walmart for between $8-12. For other stores such as Walgreens, Duane Reade (a Walgreens subsidiary) and Target they offer Diva Cup brand menstrual cups, which are pricier at around $40 but are sturdier and will last more uses than the previously mentioned offshoots. Diva Cup also sports BPA-free materials and can last up to 10 years. If you do the math, a box of tampons and a package of pads cost between $10-13 a month if you're a heavy user (like myself). A menstrual cup can pay for itself in about 1-4 months depending on your flow and chosen brand. Menstrual cups can last up to 12 hours per use, so they can outlast most tampons, and unlike tampons they do not pose a risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. Additionally, they will not be adding whatever agents may lie in tampons (bleaching agents, etc) to your body. So several other kinds of win!

Another alternative to tampons and pads are Thinx underwear. While these are pricier than menstrual cups, they are reusable and customizable depending on your flow. Each pair starts between $28-35, but some of the proceeds go to helping educate girls globally.

Lastly, if you find that the Thinx underwear and menstrual cup aren't for you, fear not! There is another way to make a positive change to your routine. Cardboard and plastic applicators to tampons are an environmental burden all on their own. If you use tampons and they work best for you, then o.b. brand tampons come without applicators, and can be purchased at Walmart, Walgreens and Rite Aid for between $5-8 a box. CVS carries a different brand called Natracare that does the same thing for $5.45 a box. Natracare, unlike o.b. tampons, uses only cotton blends without rayon, bleaching agents or other chemicals that could be harmful to the body.


7.) How Your Mop Makes MORE Mess

We've seen the commercials where cute children make messes and parents roll their eyes sweetly and clean it up. But every time this happens, that's another pad (or several if it's not a 'one-pad mess') that goes into the garbage. Now we're back to the paper towel problem, and like paper towels you have to buy replacements. More boxes of pads, more money to make sure your mop is functional. This doesn't count the extra replacements if your mop has an attachment that sprays cleaner.
How convenient is having that Swiffer that shoots cleaner if you have to buy more pads and cleaner liquid cartridges to keep it functional? It gets expensive when you add up monthly and then yearly expenses.

Try Instead...

No need to go back to the archaic mop that looks like one of those weird dog show dogs that you have to dunk in that awful water and then slather around your supposedly clean floor. You can have your Swiffer and use it to, but albeit a bit more responsibly. Each box of replacement Swiffer pads costs about $5 (according to Target), which can add up. You realize a significant portion of your weekly budget ends up in the trash between paper towels, disposable dinnerware and mop pads.
If you already have a Swiffer but detest the disposable pads, you can buy reusable ones to use from now on like this set of two from Amazon that are washing-machine safe and will pay for themselves after its 20th use. If you're looking for a new appliance, a Libman mop is a good bet, which you can buy from Walmart or Target for about $20 whose pads are also machine-washable. Cleaning solution is more economical when bought in larger containers that can not only be recycled, but will last longer. You won't be throwing away mop cartridges that are made to be small and replaced often besides their individual packaging.


8.) Drier But Wasteful

Dryer sheets soften your clothes, they reduce static, and your clothes smell pretty good when they come out of the dryer. Can't beat that clean laundry smell.
But dryer sheets can sometimes contain chemicals that act as irritants for people with sensitive skin and medical issues, such as acetaldehyde and butane, which can cause respiratory irritation, quaternary ammonium compounds, many of which are linked to asthma, and acetone, used in dryer sheets, can cause nervous system effects like headaches or dizziness. Now the common family won't experience any of these issues, and probably have no qualms with dryer sheets' chemical additives. Which is fine. However, 1 box of dryer sheets is 1 box of dryer sheets (plus the box) that gets put into the garbage, since most dryer sheet brands use chemicals that compromise the recycle-ability of the sheets themselves. On top of that, dryer sheets add particles to your dryer vents as well as your clothes' lint, which build up as a fire hazard. The bottles of fabric softener will also end up in the recycling, but likely with chemical residue leftover.
Dryer sheets are also annoying to find around the house after they inevitably free themselves from the laundry pile or bin.

Is there something better?

Try Instead...

If you're forgetful and lazy like myself, then the idea of leaving a dryer sheet in the dryer more than once causes the tiniest thorn of panic. Dryer balls work the same as a dryer sheet with one added bonus: you can use them multiple times. Whether you forget and leave the dryer ball in the laundry for a day...a few days...a problem. Depending on manufacturer and fiber content, wool dryer balls can last for several years. If you're a household that has members that are allergic or sensitive to normal dryer sheet ingredients, wool balls can come unscented without a lot of the irritant chemicals, like this Amazon bundle here. You can also find them at Bed, Bath&Beyond, Walmart and Target. They are also safe for households caring for newborns.
Even if no one has any problems with dryer sheets, think of what you'll save in space, trash and energy by switching to reusable items that you can completely (and safely) forget about in your dryer that work, and don't have to be thrown out for literal years? If you're the crafty type or have access to a local sheep farm, you can also make your own.

Changes In Your Life

Which product change do you think will make the most impact in your life?

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