While the planet we live on has suited human needs for thousands of years, Earth's bounty may not last forever. Based on research and observation, scientists and environmentalists have good reason to believe our planetary home is in trouble.
According to the United Nations, a whirlwind of issues, many of which are likely caused by man, threaten to harm our precious Earth in irreversible ways. From greenhouse gas emissions to air pollution, deforestation, and issues with water and waste, the human impact on our planet has become real. And if we don’t change, we face both unintended and potentially permanent consequences.
According to most experts, the biggest issue we face is climate change. Although the Earth’s temperature has ebbed and flowed throughout the course of history, some evidence suggests human activity is altering its natural path.
While some environmental changes can be easily explained, much of the evidence for climate change is compelling. According to NASA, global sea levels are rising faster than in recorded history and global temperatures are surging, with 15 of the 16 hottest years in history taking place since 2001. Ocean temperatures continue to rise while artic sea ice retreats. Decreased snow cover, ocean acidification, and global weather events provide even more proof our planet is changing.
Fortunately, there is plenty anyone can do to change the course of history. If you’re losing sleep over environmental issues, you can do more than worry – you can act. With the introduction of new technologies and new, Earth-friendly products, it’s easier to “go green” than ever before.
You can’t change the planet on your own, but you can take steps to reduce your environmental footprint, limit waste, and create a sustainable lifestyle. Keep reading to learn more about cheap green living and the steps you can take today.
Why Go Green?
When you think of “going green” or adopting an Earth-friendly lifestyle, what comes to mind? Do you picture living “off the grid?” Radical left protesters? Hippies abandoning regular lives to live among the animals?
Those ideas probably make you chuckle, and that’s okay. The good news is, you don’t have to be a radical or drastically change your life to help the planet or reduce your impact. When it comes to “going green” this is one of the biggest misconceptions we face. Many families assume they must uproot their lives or make huge changes to reduce their impact on the planet.
And even once you get past the stigma, you’ll also find that far too many people overestimate the costs of caring for the environment. Maybe they read how expensive going green can be in the past. Or, perhaps they just wrongly assume any potential changes they could make would be expensive.
Regardless of what you’ve read or heard, taking steps to help our planet doesn’t have to break the bank. For every costly change you make, there are several Earth-friendly alternatives that are 100 percent free!
We’ll get to some of those steps in a minute. But first, let’s talk about why. Why should you care about the Earth? Why should you take steps to change? Further, why should you spend your own money “going green?”
Believe it or not, embracing a greener lifestyle isn’t just about saving polar bears; it can also improve your health, boost your bank account, and improve your quality of life. With all those potential benefits, shouldn’t everyone want to get on board?
Here are six of the most important reasons you should adopt a green lifestyle today:
The top reason to go green is an obvious one; planet Earth is our only home. If we spoil our planet, we can’t move to Jupiter or Mars and start over.
The big benefit here is that most Earth-friendly foods are also foods that are good for you. Fresh vegetables and fruits farmed locally are some of the best foods you can find, for example.
While it’s commonly believed that going green is crazy-expensive, this is no longer the case. Even energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, which are somewhat expensive upfront, will help you save money on your home energy bills over time. Meanwhile, the price of newer technologies like solar panels continues to decrease every year.
Adding energy-efficient appliances or upgrades to your home will help you save money over the long run. And since buyers love the idea of saving on utilities and energy, you can increase your home’s value and fetch a higher sales price, too.
If you don’t care about the health of our water, you’re forgetting one crucial detail: We need water to live. As humans, we cannot afford to ignore the health of our water supply.
As the scientific journal Nature noted earlier this year, human diets are directly linked to the health of our planet. More than anything else, a vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian diet is the best way for humans to reduce carbon emissions and stop global warming.
41 Inexpensive Ways to Go Green
Once you’re ready to “go green,” you’ll find there are dozens of ways to reduce your environmental impact without draining your wallet. Here are 40+ ways to get started today:
Program your thermostat to conserve while you’re away. You’ll save energy and reduce your utility bills. While some programmable thermostats cost big bucks, you can buy this simple model from Honeywell for around $80.
Even if you pay more upfront, you’ll save money on utility bills. According to the federal government, a comprehensive package of ENERGY STAR appliances can save up to $80 per year in energy costs compared to regular appliances.
According to Ban the Bottle, Americans used 50 billion bottles of water last year, but only recycled around 23 percent. That means around 38 billion plastic bottles ended up in landfills. You can save money- and the planet – by carrying a reusable water bottle and refilling it over and over. If you don’t like the taste of tap water, try filtering your own water with a filtered water pitcher at home.
Whenever possible, choose online bill-pay versus receiving a paper bill in the mail. Since nearly every vendor you work with wants to save money and postage, most businesses offer this option.
While heat and AC may be necessary certain times of the year, you can save money and energy by using them only when necessary. When it’s hot, cool off with fewer layers of clothing and a cold glass of ice water. If you have a ceiling fan, use it. When your home is cold, try bundling up with blankets and sweaters before cranking up the heat.
As traffic congestion and pollution get worse, many cities are opening bike paths to encourage self-transportation. By riding a bike whenever possible, you’ll save money on gas, save wear and tear on your car, and improve your fitness.
Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) last infinitely longer than your old incandescent bulbs. They may cost more upfront, but the energy savings add up over time.
Shopping for clothing second-hand helps the planet in more than one way. First, it helps keep used clothing out of landfills. Second, it doesn’t encourage the production of new clothing.
Many waste companies have instituted their own recycling programs, some of which are free. If your trash service offers free recycling, your only contribution is time. Spend time rinsing recyclable plastics and glass and putting them in the appropriate bins to do your part.
It’s amazing what salt, vinegar, and lemon can do to your home. Before you invest in costly and chemical-packed cleaning products, look for ways to make your own. Check out these non-toxic recipes that replicate home cleaning products.
When it comes to remodeling, it’s amazing what a fresh coat of paint can do. Still, you should strive to choose a paint brand that doesn’t have VOCs – dangerous solvents that release into the air as paint dries. Choose a low or no-VOC paint to preserve the environment and your health.
It’s possible to start a compost pile no matter where you live. Even apartment dwellers in NYC can start a tiny, in-home compost bin with some earthworms. With a little more space, you can invest in an outdoor bin capable of turning all your food waste into reusable matter.
If you’re hauling your family around in a giant SUV, you could save money – and the planet – by switching to a gas-efficient or hybrid vehicle once you’re ready. Thanks to higher fuel-efficiency requirements for newer cars, trading into an Earth-friendly ride is more affordable than ever.
If you waste water in the shower or your kitchen, you can attempt to save water overages and use them in your home garden. At the very least, invest in a rainwater barrel and use water runoff to water your indoor and outdoor plants.
If you sing “Happy Birthday” while you brush your teeth, you could be wasting gallons of water every day. Make sure to turn the faucet off while you brush your teeth or scrub the dishes. Any water waste you can prevent will add up fast.
While paper towels and napkins are convenient, you can reduce paper waste by using cloth napkins and towels instead. Instead of using disposables, keep a bag for used cloth napkins in your laundry room so you can throw them in the washer each time you launder towels.
You can buy nearly anything in disposable form, but that doesn’t mean you should. Over time, all the plastic silverware, plates, towels, and cups add huge amounts of waste to our landfills. Instead of buying stuff you simply throw away, invest in plates, cups, and cookware you can use for a decade or more. And if you don’t want to buy new, look for used cookware and dinnerware at garage sales or online resale sites.
Cranking the temperature on your water heater up requires cash and energy. To save money and cut down on your utility bills, turn the temperature down. You’ll save money, but you may not even notice the difference.
Eating vegetables is great for your health and the environment. Unfortunately, much of the produce we consume is trucked or shipped in from distant environments, creating pollution and waste in the process. You can reduce your food footprint by growing some of your own food and consuming it yourself.
Meat is not only costly; it’s bad for the environment. Research shows that animal agriculture plays a huge role in the depletion of our water resources and the increase of global warming. You can reduce animal-related pollution by avoiding meat or eating it sparingly.
“Brown-bagging” it to work may sound nice, but you should try to avoid costly paper waste if you can. Instead of using disposables for your daily lunch, invest in an insulated cooler you can use for years.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only around 5 percent of the 1 trillion plastic bags used each year are recycled. You can avoid contributing to this problem by investing in reusable grocery bags and bringing your own.
Why throw away used electronics when you can give them a second life and make money in the process? Websites like Gazelle.com make it easy to connect with buyers who want to purchase your used smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Plants filter the air, breathe in carbon dioxide, and breathe out clean oxygen we need to live. You can improve the look of your home and gardens and the environment by planting and caring for green plants of all kinds. If you don’t want to buy plants, ask friends and neighbors for their clippings or extra seeds.
Low-flow showerheads use a lot less water than their flow-heavy counterparts. If you want to conserve water and reduce your water bill over time, investing in an expensive low-flow showerhead is a smart move.
Processed foods require lots of labor and energy to make, use too much packaging, then require transportation to the store. You can avoid much of the environmental impact of processed foods by buying ingredients in bulk and making meals simple meals at home. As a bonus, homemade meals are almost always healthier.
While most of us are used to throwing all our barely warn clothes directly in the bin, you can save money and energy by washing clothes only when they’re dirty. If you wear a shirt for a few hours, for example, consider hanging it back up for a second chance before you wash. The laundry you don’t have to do can help you save money, energy, and time.
“Vampire appliances” suck energy from your sockets – even when they’re not in use. The best way to reduce energy bills and waste is to unplug items you’re not using. While some larger appliances may need to remain plugged all the time, it’s easy to unplug your toaster, curling iron, and other small electronics when not in use.
Disposable diapers add tons of waste to our landfills every year. And since they’re not biodegradable, the waste they leave behind will linger for thousands of years. You can cut down on this waste and save money by choosing cloth diapers instead. You’ll need to pay to launder cloth diapers, but the costs don’t come close to buying disposables for the first few years of a child’s life.
Taking a steamy, luxurious bath might seem dreamy, but the water you waste can add up quickly if you bathe often enough. To save water – and some cash – mix things up by taking some shorter showers in addition to baths.
Stopping by Starbucks on your way to work is not just costly; it’s bad for the environment, too. Instead of purchasing a disposable cup of Joe every day, invest in an insulated mug and make your own coffee at home. You’ll save money and time, and keep paper products out of the trash.
Every time you buy new home décor, gadgets, or clothing, you encourage manufacturers to produce more. Unfortunately, the production of consumer goods has ghastly effects on the environment, both in terms of energy usage and pollution. To stop the cycle, buy used products any time you can. When you buy used, you reduce waste and save money.
Even if you use tools often, you can save money and waste by borrowing from friends and neighbors instead. If each of your friends invests in a few smart tools that complement each other instead of buying a full set, everyone could pool resources, save money, and save some much-needed space in their garage.
If you have several electronics plugged in the same general area, you can save energy and money by plugging them into a power-saving strip. Each time you’re not using them, turn the strip off and conserve energy. And when you’re ready to watch television or listen to your stereo system, you can turn everything on with a single switch.
If you get tired of your furniture, clothes, or household goods, don’t throw them away. To save space in your local landfill, strive to make sure someone else doesn’t want your used items. Post a free ad on craiglist.org, or mention your items on Freecycle.org.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted every year. To reduce waste, make sure to eat leftovers instead of throwing them away. Certain foods freeze well, while others can be saved and reheated for days.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can reduce your home’s heating and cooling costs by adding proper insulation to your home. Strive to add insulation to your attic especially, but also check windows and doors for proper caulking and air-sealing.
Nothing smells better than laundry dried slowly in the summer sun. To save money, reduce energy usage, and create the best-smelling sheets ever, try line drying your clothes when weather permits.
Commercial makeup contains all kinds of chemicals that are absorbed by your skin. You can avoid nasty chemicals, save money, and do something creative by creating your own makeup hues – or skipping makeup altogether.
Buying new books is a pastime for many people, but the paper costs, shipping, and production of said books adds up quickly. To make your reading hobby as environmentally-friendly as possible, check out books from your local library when you can. Also consider investing in a Kindle so you can read new books guilt-free.
When Does Saving the World Cost More?
While there are plenty of ways to “go green” for free or a very small investment, some planet-saving strategies require a larger investment upfront. Still, many of these investments can pay off – both through lowered consumption and lower energy bills.
When should you spend to save? Consider these ideas:
|Upfront Investment||Potential Savings||Environmental Impact|
||The price of solar panels depends on where you live and the size of your system. Expect to pay between $2.87 and $3.85 per watt to install solar, or $15,000 - $20,000 for a 6kW solar energy system. Keep in mind, however, that you can get a 30 percent tax credit for qualifying solar systems purchased in 2017. Some states and municipalities may also offer their own credits for using solar.||A full solar panel system can whittle your energy bills down to zero. You may even produce enough energy to sell your overage back to the utility company for a profit.||Solar is a renewable resource with few environmental consequences. By using solar for your home or business, you’re using fewer fossil fuels and reducing your carbon footprint.|
||You can purchase a four-pack of 60W LED lightbulbs for $6.97 at a hardware store like Lowe’s. However, prices vary depending on the size and wattage of the bulb.||According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LEDs use 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Will a full switch to LED lightbulbs, your home energy bills should drop dramatically.||LED lightbulbs consume less energy overall. And since they last 25 times longer, they create less waste than traditional lightbulbs over time.|
||ENERGY STAR appliances aren’t always more expensive than traditional appliances. Still, you could pay $50 - $200 more depending on the appliance and brand.||How much money and energy you’ll save depends on the condition of your old appliances as well as the type of appliance you buy. However, EnergyStar.gov estimates that the average family with a side-by-side refrigerator could save $760 over five years with an ENERGY STAR model.||Using energy-efficient appliances helps families consume less energy over all. Since energy production is a large contributor to environmental damage and pollution, using less energy whenever possible is a smart choice.|
||Depending on the make and model, you can expect to pay nearly $5,000 more for a hybrid vehicle. However, you can buy plenty of non-hybrid, energy-efficient vehicles without an upcharge.||According to a 2013 study from Vincentric, a hybrid car can help you save up to $3,371 in fuel costs over five years if you drive around 15,000 miles per year. According to the Chicago Tribune, you’ll achieve more savings the longer you drive your hybrid or fuel-efficient car.||Fuel economy is important for several reasons. Not only does it help you save money, but it reduces climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide you create by burning fuel.|
||An energy-efficient HVAC system can cost 20 percent more than a low-grade replacement unit. If your air conditioner or furnace are more than ten years old, notes EnergyStar.gov, you would likely benefit from lower energy costs.||According to EnergyStar.gov, a high-efficiency HVAC unit certified by ENERGY STAR can reduce your annual heating and cooling bills by $115 or more. Further, making sure your new unit is properly installed can help you save 30 percent more.||While saving money on your utility bills is a huge benefit, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems help the environment by reducing waste.|
To find out more about green living, we reached out to lifestyle experts who focus on environmentally-conscious lifestyles. Michael Tamez is a certified eco-consultant who shares tips, tools and strategies for green living on his website, MichaelTamez.com. Our second expert, Jeff Wilson, is an environmentalist and the author of The Greened House Effect. During his career, Wilson has hosted over 200 television episodes on environmental topics for HGTV, The DIY Network, and public television.
During his career, Wilson has hosted over 200 television episodes on environmental topics for HGTV, The DIY Network, and public television.
Michael Tamez: There’s definitely a sense of urgency and people are finally starting to wake up. For this reason, it’s imperative for the average family to be more conscious of their daily choices and actions. Just remember this; every action you take will either harm or protect the environment. As humans, we collectively share the same Earth just as we share our living room! The question is… are you respecting the shared space?
Michael Tamez: The best way to approach something is to keep it simple and not make it complicated, right? Living a greener life is easy. In fact, it’s kind of like going back to the old-school way of doing things. For the sake of discussion, let’s call this “throw-back sustainability.”
First, I suggest making your own cleaning and personal care products from edible ingredients. Call me crazy, but I think you should be able to eat and drink your household cleaners. No, I’m not saying you should throw back shots of your all-purpose cleaner or drizzle furniture polish all over your salad. Instead, I believe the ingredients in your household cleaners should be non-toxic and edible – especially if you have kids or infants in your home.
Take a look at the back of any commercially available household cleaner. You probably won’t see a list of ingredients. This should alarm you! What the hell is in that stuff? Why are there no ingredients listed? What chemicals are they trying to hide? In my book, Green with Envy, I share many recipes to make your own shampoo, deodorant, all-purpose cleaner…etc. Second, I recommend starting a compost pile or build a compost bin. Composting is both fun and rewarding.
Third, use your thermostat wisely. Regardless of the time of year or season, efficient usage of your thermostat can have a drastic impact on your yearly energy expense. Remember to turn the thermostat down in winter, up in summer, and when leaving for the day or when you go on vacation. There’s no need to heat or cool an empty house! For every degree the thermostat is turned up or down, you can save up to 5% of the energy used to heat or cool your home. That may not sound like much, but considering the long, cold winters in places like northern Minnesota and blazing hot summers in Florida, it can add up to some pretty significant savings.
Jeff Wilson: Most people do not see the tremendous waste in their lives. Americans, even the poorest of us, are the richest in the world. Many cultures could live on our waste quite comfortably. If you cut out the waste in your life, you have the resources to live a better life – cleaner, more fulfilling and based on experiences, not just a bunch of cheap crap. Living green is primarily about honestly asking yourself “do I need this, or do I just want this?” Then, most of the time, don’t buy the thing you just want, only the things you need. Occasionally, you’ll have the money to buy something you really want, like a brand new Tesla Model X (did I let that slip?).
One note about energy-efficiency and renewable power: Many people ask me how long my investment in these things will take to “pay me back.” In business-speak it’s called return-on-investment (ROI). If I say ten or twelve years, they scoff and say it’s “too expensive.” I like to make this argument: What else in your home has a ROI? Those granite countertops? That pool? That enormous new 4K TV? Nope, all of those things begin to depreciate as soon as you take ownership. Energy-efficiency and solar actually begin to pay you back immediately and then, over time, offer a profit. This is much more than I can say about any other home expense.
Solar power outperforms the stock market. Google it.
Jeff Wilson: Changing behavior costs you nothing. Changing how you buy things may cost you a bit more up front, but will ultimately pay you back in energy savings, more comfort, and better health.
Jeff Wilson: Spend your $100 on LED lighting. Especially replace recessed fixtures that vent into attics with LED retrofits, which are easy to install yourself. LEDs have come way down in cost, and offer better quality light. They also last so much longer than incandescent bulbs and fluorescent bulbs that they will easily pay themselves back. Start with the lights you use the most, and only replace bulbs as they burn out.
With $500, I’d still spend the first $100 on LEDs like I suggested above. Then find a whole-home energy auditor through a reputable organization like www.BPI.org or www.ResNet.us and get a home energy audit. This will cost $250 - $400 and should take ½ to a full day to complete. The auditor will enter loads of data about your home (types of exterior finishes, windows, doors, HVAC, etc) as well as data from tests like blower-door, duct leakage, and infrared camera into a powerful piece of software. This software will then show where your home is losing the most energy, and help you to make choices every time you renovate part of your home or make a major purchase like windows, doors, HVAC, or appliances. It’s a roadmap to future energy savings, starting with the stuff that costs the least and has the most impact. You should only have to do this once, and it will be there for you for years to come.
Jeff Wilson: The biggest misconception is that green living is all about doing without. That’s simply not true. In my family, we make a modest income from our self-employment (solidly five figures), and yet we’re able to travel for three months of the year together because our expenses the rest of the year are so low. Why are they low? We live in a home that requires almost no upkeep or energy bills, drive an electric car (Chevy Volt, used) on solar power most of the time, and only buy the stuff we really need. We’re debt-free (except for a nearly paid-off mortgage), savvy, green consumers.
In traditional homebuilding, 20% of the total cost of the building comes in the building phase. The other 80% comes in the building’s lifetime in the form of energy and maintenance. When I renovated our home with a deep energy retrofit, I priced out the renovation two ways, with traditional building practices and with the extra energy-efficiency stuff added in. Going with the retrofit cost us 20%-25% more than going the traditional route. I calculated that the extra money I spent would pay itself back in monetary terms in about 12 years. The extra comfort and health were an added bonus. These days, new homes can usually be built to green standards for about the same as traditionally built homes, so people should certainly be aware that a new, green-built home will be putting money in their pockets from day one without any extra outlay.
Jeff Wilson: No matter how you slice it, we pay for our choices. You may pay a lot less to buy cheap food and cheap stuff right now, but you’ll pay for it in the end by shelling out more money over time, being less comfortable, and being sicker more often. Think of green living as an investment, not a cost. That investment pays dividends that are economic, to be sure, but it also pays dividends in comfort, health, and fulfillment.
If you’re interested in learning more about green living on any budget, check out the following resources:
EnergyStar.gov – Learn about ENERGY STAR appliances and how they can improve the energy efficiency in your home.
FuelEconomy.gov – Explore energy-efficient engines and their impact on cost savings and the environment.
U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – Learn about renewable energy and how to implement energy-efficient and renewable energy products into your everyday life.
Department of Energy, Energy Saver Guide – Learn the many ways you can reduce energy consumption at home and at work.
Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings – The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy offers this guide on using energy-efficient strategies at home.
Energy Saver Guide: Tips on Saving Money and Energy at Home – Energy.gov offers a PDF guide on strategies to save money and energy at home.
Guide to Home Insulation – Learn how to insulate your home to maximize savings and energy efficiency.
Eating Vegetarian – Nutrition.gov offers tips, recipes, nutritional information for those dropping meat from their diets.