Would you like to reduce your impact on the Earth but don't know where to start, given your limited time and resources? Fortunately, small steps at home can make a big difference in the world. We've pulled together some easy, ecofriendly ideas that cost only a few dollars each, offer immediate health benefits by reducing indoor pollutants, and have long-term positive effects on the wellness of our planet.
Photos by Jeff Padrick
In The Kitchen
Instead of: Plastic storage containers
Choose: Glass storage containers
Why: Plastic is manufactured from a nonrenewable, limited resource: petroleum. Glass, made from sand, soda, ash, and limestone, can be recycled easily and perpetually into more glass. It's also nontoxic, won't stain, and doesn't leach into your food or water. Trade your plastic water bottle for a glass or metal one that you can refill with filtered tap water.
Instead of: Paper or plastic bags
Choose: Reusable bags
Why: Avoid the debate on whether petroleum (plastic) or wood (paper) is easier to recycle. Instead, choose to reuse durable canvas or string bags every time you shop.
Instead of: Conventional dishwashing detergent
Choose: Nontoxic dishwashing products
Why: Conventional detergents may be petroleum based and contain chlorine or phosphates, all of which pollute our water supply, don't biodegrade easily, and present health hazards. Look for alternatives that are biodegradable, nontoxic, chlorine free, and phosphate free.
Instead of: Pots and pans with nonstick coatings
Choose: Cast iron
Why: Nonstick coatings are blends of fluoropolymers, manufactured with the use of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical shown to cause developmental problems in lab animals. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that routine cooking with such pans does not expose consumers to PFOA itself, the EPA also has noted that PFOA lingers in the environment and, at low levels, in the blood of the general population. Cooking in cast iron, on the other hand, can increase the amount of beneficial iron in your food by as much as 80 percent.
In Your Living Areas
Instead of: Incandescent light bulbs
Choose: Compact fluorescents (CFLs)
Why: CFLs use many times less energy per bulb than incandescents and last up to ten times longer. Replace four incandescents with CFLs and you'll reduce CO2 emissions by 5,000 pounds, says the Center for the New American Dream. Over the life of the four bulbs you've replaced, you'll save about $100 on your electric bills.
Instead of: Synthetic fabrics and fibers (polyester, nylon, acetate, acrylic, etc.)
Choose: Bedding, upholstery, rugs, and carpet made from natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, linen, and wool
Why: Conventional synthetic fabrics, battings, and fibers usually are derived from nonrenewable petrochemicals, which don't biodegrade and are difficult to recycle. Natural plant fibers are fully renewable and biodegradable. Avoid chemical treatments such as stain resisters or waterproofing, and look for organically grown fibers.
Instead of: Chemical cleansers
Choose: Natural cleansers (vinegar, baking soda, borax, etc.)
Why: Many standard household cleaning compounds are caustic, irritating to lungs and throat, or even deadly?and they aren't healthy for the environment, either. In particular, avoid products that contain ammonia and chlorine bleach because when the two mix, they release deadly chlorine gas. Look for all-natural substitutes, or clean up with vinegar, baking soda, or simple soap and water.
Instead of: Conventional paint
Choose: Low-VOC paint
Why: While it is drying and curing, conventional paint (even water-based latex) gives off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ozone formation, react with nitrous oxides to form smog, and lower indoor air quality. Most paint manufacturers now offer low-VOC brands; they usually have less odor, too.
In The Bathroom
Instead of: Conventional toilet paper
Choose: Recycled-paper toilet paper
Why: If every household in the country replaced just one roll of standard toilet paper with one made from 100 percent recycled paper, it would save more than 400,000 trees, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Instead of: An old or leaky toilet
Choose: A new water-saving toilet
Why: If your toilet was manufactured before 1993 (the date stamp is usually inside the lid or behind the seat), it may guzzle up to seven gallons per flush. A new ultra-low-flush (ULF) model will use 1.6 gallons or less, saving thousands of gallons a year.
Instead of: Antibacterial cleansers
Choose: All-natural soaps
Why: Antibacterial agents are not necessarily more effective than common soap and water, and the Centers for Disease Control says they may reduce resistance to infectious diseases and contribute to the development of allergies by interfering with our antibodies. They also are difficult to remove from the water supply. Look for soaps made with all-natural ingredients, such as vegetable oils, milk, herbs, and mineral pigments.
Instead of: Conventional cotton towels
Choose: Organic cotton towels
Why: Conventional cotton farming is chemically intensive, accounting for a fourth of the world's pesticide use, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Organically grown cotton may cost more, but it protects our soil and water supply, isn't as petroleum dependent, and doesn't pose a health risk to cotton-farm workers.
Instead of: Vinyl shower curtains
Choose: Cloth shower curtains
Why: Polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC or vinyl, is another petroleum-derived synthetic. PVC stays in the environment and may contribute to a host of illnesses, ranging from cancer to birth defects, according to Greenpeace. A natural-fiber cloth shower curtain, made from organic cotton or hemp, is washable, breathable, and free of chemicals.
Instead of: "Spa" showers
Choose: One water-saving showerhead
Why: A full-body, spa-type shower system with multiple nozzles may use as much as 60 to 100 gallons of water per minute (gpm). A single water-conserving showerhead may use less than 2 gpm?and you won't run out of hot water. even better: Look for a showerhead with an on-off button; you can further conserve while you lather up.
Misty McNally is a writer who advocates lifestyles that are healthy for humans and for the Earth. She resides in the City of Fountains?Kansas City, Missouri?with her husband and furry "family."