I'll admit that I haven't always been the most conscious about living an eco-friendly lifestyle. From slacking on recycling to buying single-use plastics without thinking twice, I'm guilty of plenty of not-so-green practices.
But the start of every new year always has me rethinking my daily habits—from how I'm eating to the number of times a week I don't veg on the couch watching reality television—and it's time I finally devoted some attention to building sustainable practices that I can actually...well, sustain.
Now, before you go congratulating me on permanently ditching all plastic or building a human-sized compost bin, I'm talking about small changes in my everyday routine that when combined make a noticeable impact. For some help, I turned to a few experts who are well-versed in the art of green living for tips and tricks on how to cut back on daily waste. Here's their best advice:
If you've already watched Marie Kondo's new Netflix series, you know that de-cluttering can transform a home, but you may not know that it's actually the first step towards living more sustainably. "This allows you to assess what you have, how much you have, what you actually use, and what you need," says Abby K. Cannon, a dietitian, sustainability advocate, and blogger behind Abby's Food Court. To make sure you don't get overwhelmed, she suggests going through one room at a time and cleaning as you go.
Have you been using the same plastic containers to carry your lunch for far too long? Or are you stuck with a stack of old takeout containers overcrowding your drawer? (I've been there.) Make the investment and swap them out for stainless steel or glass containers that will actually maintain their quality over time. Not only will they last, says Abby, but they also "don’t leach toxic chemicals into your food, and at the end of their life are recyclable."
"Buying in bulk is my favorite sustainable practice," says Abby. Bonus: A lot of eco-friendly options cost less when purchased in bulk. "I buy nuts, seeds, grains, dried fruit, olive oil, vinegars, and cleaning supplies in bulk. You save money and reduce how much single-use plastic you use," she adds.
But this doesn't just apply to food, according to Dayna Castano, the corporate director of marketing for Arlo Hotels. "Buying things in bulk, like hand soap or hair products, cuts down on single-use plastics," she explains. "You can even take it a step further by buying shampoo bars like the ones sold at Lush for no waste at all."
If you're anything like me, the freezer is first and foremost a vessel for ice cream. Turns out, it should also be the next destination for food that's starting to go south, or for leftovers you know you're not going to finish anytime soon. "If you see that you’re not going to finish food that’s in your refrigerator, you can easily avoid wasting it by popping it into the freezer," says Abby. (If you're not sure what will and won't freeze well, check out our guide to freezer-friendly foods.)
Before tossing an old item (like a dresser) to the curb, Elisa Marshall, co-founder and creative director of Maman, always asks herself whether it's the practicality or the look of it that isn't working anymore. "With a little bit of sandpaper, some cute new knobs, and two coats of fresh paint, you can re-invent the piece and also save money," she says. Two of her favorite DIY projects: a couch that she made from wooden pallets found on the street (all it took was "a little bit of sanding, lots of cleaning, and a twin mattress"); and her grandmother's 1970s decorative lampshades (for which she "removed the coverings and suspended them over some decorative bulbs for a unique lighting fixture").
But DIY doesn't just apply to decor—there are tons of cosmetic and cleaning products you can make at home. "You can clean so much of your home with baking soda and vinegar," says Abby. On top of that, you can also make anything from toothpaste to deodorant to moisturizer, oftentimes using ingredients and products you already have on hand.
From the glass jar in which your favorite jam is sold to the wine bottles you've been racking up, almost all glass items can be repurposed one way or another, according to Rachel Krupa, founder of Krupa Consulting and The Goods Mart, a socially and environmentally conscious convenience store. "Reuse glass bottles and containers for other beverages as much as possible," she says. "If not for your own bottled beverage uses, you can also use them for a flower vase or fun art project." Her other tip: Reuse your candle jars for jewelry containers (you can store things like cotton pads and Q-tips in them, as well).
Repurposing old items not only keeps waste out of landfills, it also creates great conversation starters, Elisa adds. "My table is filled with pre-loved and repurposed items which always seem to create conversation, like a vintage flour jar used as my champagne bucket," she says. "It adds a ton of character, beauty, and conversation while saving money and doing good by the environment."
Even Abby admits that starting to compost may not be the easiest. But "it’s the best way to divert food scraps from the landfill and return precious nutrients to the ground," she says. The kicker? You don't actually need outdoor space to start composting. Sure, you can build a compost pile in your yard (if you're lucky enough to have one!), but you can also do it in your kitchen using a discreet countertop compost bin. No matter how you compost, in a few weeks you'll have nutrient-rich fertilizer perfect for garden beds or potted plants.
Though you might be inclined to send fruit and vegetable scraps straight to the trash can, don't! According to Abby, you can actually use certain vegetable tops and roots (e.g., from the likes of lettuce, onions, celery, and potatoes) to grow more of those vegetables; you can use vegetable scraps (like onion skins, carrot peels, corn cobs, and potato skins) to make stock; you can even make chips out of apple and potato peels (bake them with honey and cinnamon for a sweet, crunchy treat).
It doesn't stop there, though. "At home, I use carrot tops and fresh herb stems to make pestos and sauces, and I add cheese rinds to my broth to give it a rich and salty essence." You can even put the pulp left over from juicing to good use, too, according to Angela Garbacz, owner and head pastry chef of female-run boutique bakery Goldenrod Pastries. She's done it with all kinds of pulp, including ginger, apple, lemon, carrot, and turmeric, for wholesome, low-waste treats like muffins.
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✳CHOCOLATE PULP MUFFINS✳ I 100% expected these to be quite gross, I won't lie. I also was definitely ready for sub par results. But alas, friends, ALAS!!! these muffins are... Dare I say.. Delicious?? Unbelievably moist?? (sorry if you don't like that word 😬) and pretty darn satisfying. Satisfying in the sense that my kale had THREE lives ➡ the leaves were used in a supper at one point, the stems were frozen and eventually used to make soup and now the pulp made muffins! Talk about getting that bang for your buck 🙌 🍴RECIPE: 1/4 cup oil 1/4 cup applesauce or more oil (I did all oil) 1 egg 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup buttermilk (use milk with a splash of vinegar) 1/2 tsp vanilla 1 1/4 cups flour (I used whole wheat) 1/2 tsp baking soda 1/8 cup cocoa powder 1 cup pulp (from juicing or straining a soup) 1/3 cup chocolate chips (optional.. But not) ➡Mix wet ingredients in a bowl and sift dry ingredients directly into bowl. Mix until just combined. Add chocolate chips and fold in. Bake at 325F for about 25 minutes. Makes 10 muffins. Recipe slightly modified from @cheapskatecook 🙌🙌
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Of course it's not really feasible to banish all single-use plastics from your life, but try to make a conscious effort to avoid them when possible. An easy way to start, Rachel says, is to kiss the plastic water bottle goodbye. "Try to eliminate all single-serve plastic bottles—carry your own or choose a non-plastic option," she says. Also, opt for reusable zip-top bags and food wrap, like these Silicone Storage Bags and these Bees Wrap Lunch Wraps.
As for plastic straws, well, refusing them at your local coffee or juice shop really does matter, says Abby. "By taking steps to live more sustainably, you’re demanding that the market care about sustainability."
One of the most important steps to creating sustainable habits that last is to know that everything you do counts, Rachel explains. "Be proud of the small improvements you make, because they will most likely lead to bigger changes," she says. "Don’t assume that you are too small to make an impact, because everything we do as individuals becomes a greater collective and helps tremendously."