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15 Easy Ways to Go Green on the Cheap

Save Money and the Planet at the Same Time
  -- By Nicole Nichols, SparkSavings Staff Writer
During the past few years, "green" living has gone mainstream. Words like "carbon footprint" are commonplace and many companies are trying to highlight (sometimes even fabricate) how eco-friendly they are so that consumers will view them more favorably.

I have long considered myself an environmentalist, and the fact that eco-friendly options are more readily available and accepted by the masses excites me. But one thing you may wonder, whether you've considered switching to plant-based cleaners, energy star appliances, organic cotton clothing, or a backyard composter made from recycled plastic is this: Why does "doing good" for the earth have to be so darn expensive? Organic, natural, plant-based, recycled, biodegradable, and fair trade do—for the most part—cost more. And that higher expense, unfortunately, deters many consumers from changing their ways.

I care about the planet, but I also live on a budget and want to save money. Luckily, monetary constraints haven't stopped me from incorporating green products and practices into my daily life. In fact, many of the choices I make actually SAVE me money instead of costing more. If you're willing to spend a little time and think creatively, there are plenty of zero- and low-cost options to green your lifestyle, diet and home. In honor of Earth Day tomorrow, I wanted to share some of the cheap ways you can go green to protect our planet.

REDUCE
  • Use what you have. Let's be honest. Consumerism is extremely wasteful and hard on the environment. Think of all of the resources needed to make a single item you buy at a store, from the raw materials grown or created to the marketing, packaging, shipping, and selling of said product. One of the greenest things you can do is choose to buy less stuff. Sure, that organic cotton T-shirt made with environmentally sensitive dyes is eco-friendly, but unless you truly NEED new a new shirt, the most eco-friendly option is not to buy one at all, no matter how environmentally responsible the item or the company that made it may be.

  • Buy secondhand. If you do need something, buying secondhand is always better than buying new, even if that new product is eco-friendly. Buying secondhand uses existing resources instead of tapping into new ones. There are many things that you can buy gently used, and this option will typically always save you money as well. I'm a big fan of craigslist for finding furniture, tools, lawn equipment and other miscellaneous items. Garage sales, flea markets, antique malls, consignment shops (great for clothing and accessories) and thrift stores can be amazing resources for inexpensive and truly unique fashions, home accessories, furniture, toys and other odds and ends. Next time you think you need something, ask yourself, "Does the item I need already exist?" or "Could I buy this used?" Another bonus to these scavenger hunts is that everything you buy has a story and memory associated with it.

  • Borrow. If you don't already have it, can't buy it used, or don't really need the item more than occasionally or for a one-time project, considering just borrowing or renting it. How often do you really use a ladder, power washer or leaf blower? Sharing fosters community spirit and saves you and others money in addition to placing less demands on the planet. Don't forget the library, a great place to borrow books, movies, and music.

  • Stop buying disposable goods. A few years ago, I stopped buying all disposable products. I haven't bought paper napkins or towels, disposable plates or plastic ware in more than five years and yes, I have survived and kept my house clean and even hosted my share of parties. If you are regularly buying single-use disposable items, such as bottled water, disposable toilet scrubbers and the like, consider investing those same dollars into a more permanent solution to save money and decrease waste that goes to landfills. Ladies, you can even green your period with washable feminine products. Cloth napkins, kitchen towels, and reusable water bottles are inexpensive, eco-friendly and they save you hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in the long run.

  • Unplug and turn off. When plugged into an outlet, many electronics are using power even when they're off. You could invest in an expensive "smart" power strip to prevent this, or for free, you can simply make it a habit to unplug your electronics whenever you aren't using them. I keep my TV, cell phone chargers, computer and kitchen appliances unplugged when not in use. And this probably goes without saying, but if you're not using it, turn it off!

  • Opt out of mailing lists and switch to paperless billing. This will save you time, paper waste, and postage. Each time you buy something from a website or catalog, request that company not share your address with anyone else and say you do not want to be added to their mailing list. When junk mail comes in, collect it. Once a week, spend a few minutes calling the company from which it came and ask to be removed from their mailing list. And don't forget about officially opting out of credit offers (it's free and easy!) to prevent even more junk mail from coming your way. When you receive "privacy notices" from companies you are in business with, read it. Most of them require you to call or write-in with a request for them to not share your address with other mail-marketing companies. Lastly, most bills can be sent to you and paid online these days (but look out for hidden fees). Schedule paperless billing as often as possible to reduce paper waste and save on checks, envelopes and stamps.

  • Control your portions. There are enough calories available from food in the United States alone to meet the needs of twice our population. Yes, this prevalence of easy, cheap calories does contribute to an obesity-promoting environment, but it also wastes a considerable amount of resources. Eating less not only helps you manage your weight; it can prevent food from going to waste and prevent overeating, both of which save money and resources.

  • Buy fewer packaged foods. Those little plastic produce bags for your apples and broccoli—totally optional. When possible, forgo food packaging or try to make some of your purchasing decisions based on foods that use less packaging. This most often will apply to processed foods that you often don't need to eat anyway. When you do, choose the larger sizes in lieu of small packages or single serving items to decrease packaging waste. Yogurt, beverages, snack foods, cereals and more all come in larger economy sizes, so choose those whenever you can.

  • Install a low flow showerhead. Sure, it'd be ideal if we all could install low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads in our homes, but you can make a big dent in your water usage with just one low flow showerhead. I bought a $4 shower head at Home Depot (similar to this one) that can be turned down or off for a new take on a "navy shower" without affecting the water temperature. You can turn down the flow while you shampoo, lather up or shave your legs and then turn it right back up—to exactly the same temperature. Saving water has never been so cheap or easy! And if you want to take it further, instead of replacing your current toilet, you can simply use the "let it mellow" option or install an inexpensive dual flush valve that reduces the water used per flush—this will be one of my next home improvement projects.
REUSE
  • Reuse and repurpose what you already have. This may mean rethinking what you currently view as trash. Every bag that enters my house, be it a bread bag, shopping bag or take-out bag is saved and reused before it is thrown away or recycled. All of the above can be used as pick-up bags for your dog, countertop compost bags before you take your scraps outside, lunch sacks, produce bags—you name it. Don't want to invest in reusable cloth bags for the grocery store? Then reuse the plastic and paper ones you get from the store for free, stocking them in your car and bringing them into the store with you each week. Paper bags can also be turned inside out and used as wrapping paper or flipped over and used as scrap paper. You can also keep and reuse boxes or padded envelopes for future shipping needs (just peel off or black out the labels or put a new label on top). Wash and save plastic or Styrofoam takeout containers to send leftovers home with guests or store my own leftovers from dinners at home! Clean out those glass jars of pasta sauce to store small household items or use again for food storage. Get creative! I recently started using the plastic mesh from my bags of oranges as pot scrubbers that don't scratch my cookware the way steel wool can.

  • Make something new out of something old. I recently made my own washable "hankies" out of a large piece of fabric that used to be curtains in my old apartment. I've made cleaning cloths out of ragged T-shirts and boxer shorts, and bottle cozies out of mismatched or holey tube socks. With a little craftiness or the help from a crafty friend, you can turn your old bedspread into pillow shams—or anything else your heart desires.

  • Donate, sell or give away before you throw away. Throwing something away should always be your last resort. Try first to give it a new home, donate it to an organization or school (think tax write off!), or sell it in a yard sale, online ad or consignment shop.

  • If it breaks, repair instead of replace. Back in the day, we used to sew buttons, mend holes, and fix broken appliances or cars. These days, we toss our broken items and buy something new. Just as buying secondhand is more earth-friendly than buying new, fixing a broken item is the way to go—for your pocketbook, too. Recently when my washing machine stopped working, I started looking up the cost of a new one. However, for a fraction of the cost, I was able to repair my current machine and it will last another five to 10 years as a result—a much better investment. Taking good care of the items you own can also ensure that they'll have a longer useful life, reducing waste in landfills and saving you some green.
RECYCLE
  • Recycle—everything. Most of us do our part to recycle plastic containers, paper and cardboard each week, but many easily recyclable items fall through the cracks and into the trash. Make a commitment to recycle everything you can. At my house, not a single piece of paper ends up in the trash—all of it goes to the recycling bin. That goes for cardboard boxes, cardboard food packaging, magazines, catalogs, wrapping paper—you name it. (Keeping your recycling bin right next to your trashcan will help you remember to do this.) But there are many items that need special treatment to be recycled: no. 5 plastics (typical for yogurt containers), electronic waste (computers, monitors, TVs, etc.), steel, latex paint, tires, used motor oil, hazardous chemicals and more. Some of these things should never be thrown away because they can contaminate the water we drink, for example. Others will never break down in landfills and can emit chemical contaminants into the atmosphere. If you can't reuse or repurpose these items, a quick Google search will help you find how to recycle pretty much anything. Most cities have hazardous waste drop offs or pickups throughout the year. Some even have special recycling centers. Do your part to collect these items and t hen make just one trip a year to dispose of them properly.

  • Compost. I think of composting as recycling since it turns what would otherwise be trash into something valuable and useful: a nutrient rich soil for your lawn, garden and flowers. If you think sending your food scraps to a landfill is virtually the same thing, think again. This composting article from SparkPeople is probably the most thorough and simple explanation of why composting matters and how the process really works. Composting isn't gross, dirty, stinky or an attraction for animals or pests. It's a completely natural and clean process that you can do in your own backyard without spending a dime.
Like changing your lifestyle, incorporating green changes into your life can be overwhelming. No matter what your budget or time constraints, we can all take small steps to make the earth a better place. Start with what you can do and once it becomes a habit, try to make another change. We owe it to ourselves, our planet and to the future generations of humans, plants and animals that will inhabit this amazing planet.