Sustainability: What it is and How-to’s for Your Home
Sustainability. It’s quite the buzzword these days. You see it everywhere. Sustainability this, sustainability that, but do you really know what it means and how you can increase it in your own home?
Let’s explore this just a bit, first by talking about sustainability itself and then by giving you some easy-to-implement ideas for your own home.
If you Google “sustainability”, its dictionary will give you “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” and “avoidance of depletion of natural resources in order to maintain ecological balance.”
The 1987 UN Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (that’s a mouthful!) defined it as “meet(ing) the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations.”
Earth Charter says a sustainable society is a global society “founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”
When talking specifically about agriculture, sustainability involves meeting society’s current food requirements without hurting future generations’ ability to meet their needs as well.
Sustainability at Home
So what does creating a more sustainable home mean in a practical sense? It sounds like such a big thing, how can any of us really expect to make a difference? The thing is, no one can do everything, but we can all do something (wow, that sounded kitschy, but it’s true!)
This first one is a biggie, something I’ve had drilled into my head since I was a kid and one of my personal crusades (you should hear me yelling at my daughter when she’s in the shower for 30 minutes!): Save water. Growing up, my family home had a shallow well, so my mom was constantly on guard against wasting water.
Unfortunately, too many people are so used to having an endless supply of (city) water that they don’t really pay attention. They run the water the whole time they’re washing dishes (<<shudder>>) or when they’re brushing their teeth. They run the washer or the dishwasher with just a few items inside.
They run sprinklers to water their lawn (which I find silly anyway, but that’s just my opinion) and since they’re on timers, it doesn’t matter if it just rained, they still run them (ugh!). My personal favorite is when the sprinklers are mis-aimed and they’re watering a driveway or the street. ARRGGHHHH!!!
Anyway, the average person in the US uses 80-100 gallons of water PER DAY! That’s a lot of water. So, what to do?
As I already mentioned, don’t run the water the whole time you’re washing dishes or brushing your teeth (I got so good at it as a kid that I could wash an entire load of dishes by hand, including all rinsing, and never completely fill the dishpan. Not trying to blow my own horn or anything, but, that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think?)
Be sure your washer and dishwasher are full before you run them, or run them on the limited water or small load cycles. And by all that is holy, PLEASE don’t run your lawn sprinklers (if you must run them at all) when it has just rained, and be sure they’re aimed at actual lawn and not pavement.
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How about Low Flow?
Do you have a low flow showerhead? Years ago, those things were OBNOXIOUS! You got a trickle of water and it was awful. However, since then, they’ve been improved and actually work.
We have a well, and even with the somewhat reduced water pressure that you get with a well, we still get fine pressure with the low flow heads. Why not give it a try, they’re not very expensive and make a big difference. Here’s one you can take a look at.
You can also get low flow attachments for your faucets. I haven’t noticed a difference in water flow since we installed ours. I imagine that if you have really low water pressure, you might notice them, but otherwise, they don’t really change anything. Here’s a set for a very reasonable price, and as a bonus, they’re super simple to install.
Car Washing: Yea or nay?
I was curious as to whether it’s better to wash your car at home or at the car wash so I did some research. I found this interesting article about car washes. In case you don’t feel like reading it, basically the newer car washes reclaim the water that’s used so they only use between 9 and 15 gallons of “new” water for each car.
This is in contrast to the 40-140 gallons most home car washers will use. So, I think the verdict is that you should go to the car wash! I know our local one does a much better job than I do anyway!
Another biggie is, of course, recycling. Do you actually use the recycle bin your town or waste company gives you? We sure do! Most weeks, we have much more recycling than garbage.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect solution because many things we place into recycling never do get recycled. If you don’t believe me, check out this article and this one.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to give up on recycling.
Reducing Plastics Use
So, what to do? Try to reduce your reliance on plastic. How about not using those plastic produce bags at the grocery store? Do your two zucchini or three green peppers really need to go in a separate plastic bag? Nope, they don’t!
I have a super simple tutorial on making your own Reusable Produce Bags here, if you’d like to give it a try.
You might say, that’s all great, but what am I supposed to do with that produce once I get it home and cut it? I can’t just put its little naked self in my produce drawer. Nope, but you can use these green bags. I’ve had a set of these for years and they’re incredibly durable.
All I do when I empty one is turn it inside out and wash what was the inside, then let it drip dry. I can’t really speak to whether they keep your produce fresher than regular plastic, but the fact that I’m not using all those disposable plastic bags makes it worth it to me.
Do you take reusable bags to the grocery store? Why not?? They’re actually much easier to carry than those stupid flimsy plastic ones. You can always buy them right at your store, but if you’d rather order, here’s a fairly inexpensive option.
If you want something a little more durable, these look really nice, although I haven’t personally used them.
What about Paper?
If you happen to forget your reusable bags (not that I’ve EVER done that, ha!), does your grocery store have paper? I know Whole Foods does, and I LOVE their paper bags! They have handles and actually stand up in the back of the car (bonus!)
They’re great for carrying books to donate to the library book sale, they make great drop cloths under paint cans, you can use them as book covers on your kids’ textbooks (do people still do that??), AND, once they’re totally beat up, use them in the pathways in your garden under your straw or mulch to help keep weeds at bay.
Another biggie is electricity. How many of us are guilty of walking out of a room, leaving the light on, meaning to go back in within minutes and then getting busy somewhere else in the house for hours? No one? OK, maybe that’s just me. Regardless, when you leave a room, turn the lights off!
Compact Fluorescent Bulbs
But, you say, I have compact fluorescent bulbs and they use more energy turning them on and off than just leaving them on. Well, not exactly. I did some research on this. The Department of Energy suggests that if you’ll be back into the room within 15 minutes, you should leave your lights on. Otherwise, turn them off. This is not because they use too much energy when starting up, but because turning them on and off wears them out more quickly, and those little buggers are expensive!
That said, compact fluorescents do use A LOT less energy than regular incandescent bulbs (like 75% less energy), and they last longer too. I wouldn’t suggest going around and changing all your light bulbs, throwing the old ones out and replacing them with new bulbs (because that’s a really serious waste of resources!), but as the old bulbs burn out (and you know they will, usually at the worst possible times!), replace them with compact fluorescents.
Solar Energy/Geothermal/Energy-Efficient Appliances
There are, of course, bigger things you can do like converting to solar energy or geothermal, or buying energy efficient appliances. These are awesome things to do, but I’m trying to keep these tips simple and inexpensive, so I’ll leave those to your discretion.
And don’t forget, unless you’ve still got a 30-year-old refrigerator, you’re most likely better off waiting until the appliance breaks before getting a new one because disposing of a perfectly good appliance is wasteful too.
However, if you do decide to replace appliances that are still in working order, how about donating them to a place like the ReStore? This is run by Habitat for Humanity and takes lots of different new and gently used goods. Check out their information here.
Get Some Exercise!
What, you may ask, does that have to do with sustainability? Well, do you really HAVE to take your car the 1/2 mile to the market to pick up a gallon of milk? Could you walk or bike there instead?
When we lived closer to town, I would save up all my errands for a nice sunny day and take a couple of hours to walk into town and do them all (bank, drug store, library, that type of thing). Obviously, the car came out for the big weekly grocery shopping, because juggling a toddler and 5 to 7 bags of groceries while walking through town was NOT going to happen!
Maybe you don’t have the luxury of an entire morning or afternoon to do errands, and I get that. But, can you save your errands and do them by car all at once so you’re not making multiple trips? I now live 6 or 7 miles from town so try to save my errands and do them on grocery day.
This week, I needed to make an extra trip, but I went to 6 different places while in town. I’m also one of those crazy people who map out my errands so I just make one big circle and never have to backtrack. But that’s just me, I imagine, I’m a little weird that way. (Hey, right turns are easier, I mean, really!)
A Sustainable Kitchen
Maybe you’re not really the gardening type (although if you’re not, I’m a little surprised you ended up here!). BUUUUT, anyway, how can you be more sustainable when purchasing food? What about meats, since many people don’t raise their own livestock?
A biggie is to buy from local sources. Farmer’s markets, directly from local farms, even some grocery stores will specify that their produce comes from local sources. I’m very fortunate to have several farms within just a couple of miles from me, so I can buy eggs, milk, cheese and any veggies I don’t grow myself close to home.
Buy Organic (when you can)
I also get that organic is expensive, particularly when it comes to meat. I personally can’t afford all organic, free range, blah, blah, blah meat to feed my family of 4. But, when I see it on sale at a price I can afford, I grab it. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, go for it. If you can’t find a local place, this company is very good, and their prices are reasonable.
Certain products, at least in this area, aren’t much more expensive when they’re organic than when they’re conventional. In particular, organic milk isn’t more expensive at all. I’ve found that organic rice isn’t too bad price-wise either, and even certain organic veggies and fruits, particularly when they’re in season, aren’t much more than their conventional counterparts.
The Dirty Dozen & The Clean Fifteen
For your own health, have you checked out the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen? These are lists of produce that tend to be the most and least pesticide-laden so you can make an informed choice about whether or not to buy organic.
If you haven’t seen it or need a refresher, here it is. Trust me, you don’t EVER want to buy conventional potatoes, no matter how cheap they might be. The list of pesticides and herbicides that are used on potatoes will keep you up at night. Seriously!
Buy in Season
Oh, that’s another point. Always buy in season when you can. If you live in the north like I do, that means there are months of the year where nothing is in season. Have you considered canning or freezing fresh produce when it’s in season? You get the benefits of in-season produce any time of the year.
There’s nothing better than pulling a couple of packages of green beans, carrots and corn out of the freezer, combining them with home-canned tomatoes and stock and whipping up a hearty veggie soup on a cold January night (yes, that was dinner last night!)
Preserve that Produce!
Maybe you’re like I was and you’re a little leery of pressure canners because you’ve heard they can be dangerous. The newest generation of pressure canners is much different than the ones your grandma may have used. This is the one I have and I absolutely LOVE it!
My only argument against it is that it only cans 4 quarts or 5 pints at once, but because I have a flat top stove, I can’t use a stove-top one, and I haven’t yet found a larger electric one than this. I may just bite the bullet and invest in a second one before this coming canning season so I can do more in one session.
You can check out my article on canning grape jam here if you’d like. As the summer progresses, I’ll be adding many more food preservation articles so be sure to check back.
Please Can Safely
IMPORTANT: If you’ve never canned before, please check out a trusted resource before attempting your first session of canning. Ball is THE trusted resource and you can check them out here. You need to know how to do things right or you’re flirting with botulism, a fatal disease you don’t want to deal with. That said, canning is very safe when done properly and is a great way to preserve fresh produce.
I prefer it to freezing because it doesn’t require energy to keep things fresh (once you’ve used the canner, of course), and it’s much easier to crack open a jar of green beans 5 minutes before dinner than to remember to get them out of the freezer 3 hours ahead of time. You can even can entire stews or soups and just heat them when you want them.
A Few Final Things You Can Do
We’ve talked about a lot of different things you can do to make your home and life more sustainable, most of which won’t cost you much money. There are a few additional things you can do that probably aren’t everyday things, but can still make a difference.
Using Recycled or Reclaimed Building Materials
For instance, if you’re building a new home or even a garden shed, can you use recycled or reclaimed materials? As mentioned above, the Habitat for Humanity ReStore is a great resource and yes, you can purchase from them. There are also a lot of renewable resources available as well. My hubby built a shed for our firewood completely from pallets he got at work after they were discarded.
IMPORTANT: If you choose to use pallets for any type of building product, make sure they haven’t been exposed to chemicals and that you trust the source. Hubby knows the ones he uses are ok because his company is legally required to confirm that pallets used for their materials are “virgin” pallets, meaning there are no chemicals involved.
Bamboo Flooring is Sustainable (and beautiful!)
When we laid a new floor in our downstairs several years ago, we chose bamboo because it is much more renewable than hardwood (have you SEEN how fast bamboo grows?), plus it was actually a bit cheaper, and really pretty.
Floors made from bamboo are harder than oak, and if our floors are any indication, hold up very well. It’s been about 6 years since we laid them, and they have survived (with no damage!) a clumsy Great Dane and multiple cats. If you’d like to read more about bamboo flooring and its sustainability, you can do that here.
More Sustainable Travel
How about travel? I’m certainly not going to suggest that you don’t travel just because it does use gas (or airline fuel). I know there are those who don’t travel for this reason, and that’s fine, but probably not realistic for the majority of us.
However, have you considered staying in locally-owned hotels or private homes instead of a national chain (think Air bnb versus Hilton)? When we went to California a couple of years ago, I did some research into local travel companies that rented out private homes. We rented the entire top floor of a home (with 3 bedrooms) for a week for less money than a hotel.
As a bonus, the owners lived downstairs and were able to give us insider tips about where to go and what to do while we were there. We had a fantastic time!
If you do this, just remember that you are staying in someone’s home, so be extra considerate of their property while you’re there. Because we were upstairs from the owners, we tried not to make a lot of noise late in the evening and first thing in the morning. Really, though, is that much to deal with when you have the entire floor of a house, with a full kitchen, living room, 3 bedrooms, your own laundry area and giant wraparound porch for the price you would have paid for a cramped hotel room? Nope, not at all!
You can also try to eat at organic restaurants and patronize green businesses on your travels. You’ll most likely eat better and enjoy yourself more while being kinder to the environment at the same time.
Increased Sustainability at Home Isn’t Hard
I hope you’ve enjoyed my tips of increasing the sustainability of your everyday life. It can be overwhelming, but I think I’ve shown you it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of very simple changes you can make that won’t cost you much (or any!) money and can make a difference.
I have another post talking about an aspect of sustainability that I’m really passionate about: Sustainability in the garden. How you can nurture your garden to help pollinators, grow super healthy food and maybe even help the environment at the same time. Please check it out!
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If you have other ideas, or any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Aaaaand, last thing, I promise: I’d love it if you’d pin these last two photos to any of your relevant boards on Pinterest. Thanks so much! As always, smile and have a crazy organic day!
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