15 Easy Ways to Go Green on the Cheap

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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.

  • 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. I also love the free app PaperKarma. You can take a photo of your mail, send it with the app, and they'll remove you from the requested mailing list--free.
  • 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 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—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. Happy Earth Day!

How do you go green on the cheap? What "green" goal or challenge are you going to take on next?

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ATHENA2010 8/24/2020
Excellent article..should learn this stuff growing up..the only people making money from buying stuff is big business so don't worry about the economy if you are spending your money on disposables to go green! Report
Great article! Report
Gotta stop raping the planet Report
great article Report
These are great tips, Coach Nicole! Thanks! Report
They now charge for bags here in Chicago where I live and I have learned how to reuse them. My car trunk is full of them. Thank you for this great article. If we don't take care of our planet, then who will? Report
interesting Report
When I was a kid, we said "use it up, wear it out, make it do." Some people add: or do without.

The mark of a true greenie is starting with "reuse." Report
I found a great company that focuses on living natural and green lifestyle. While being able to earn an income staying home with your kids. Take a look at sp dot momsprovide dot com
A reposted article from 4/22/2010 Report
I'm not green enough, but I will try harder. Thanks for this great list. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
There are many good points to this blog - but really? Ladies, you can even green your period with washable feminine products. YOU can try that if you want to. That would be going back into the dark ages of feminism. Not gonna happen on a wide scale

There are many other good points in this article & I embrace many of them, thanks for the tips I haven't thought of!

I own and operate a soap store called The Soap Box where I sell my hand crafted castile soap. Google 'castile soap'. It is what we used for hundreds of years before corporations and chemicals came along. It is a natural, eco friendly and ECONOMICAL all purpose cleaner for your body, home and life:-). It's made out of plant based oils. I use it to shampoo and condition my hair, wash my dog, wash my laundry (without added fabric softener) clean my tile and wood floors, wash my dishes and treat all manner of stains on clothing, upholstery and carpets. I even run a website with FREE recipes on how to replace EVERY, SINGLE corporate engineered, chemical based cleaner you currently use FOR PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR!!! Visit BACK2BASICSsoap.com for ingenious ideas on how to get rid of the chemicals and the multinational Wall Street corporations who are decimating our democracy with lobby money, wrecking this precious environment and trading away jobs! IF MONEY IS SPEECH, LET'S START SCREAMING!!! Find a local castile maker and put this wondrous product to the test! Thanks for listening!

stephi :-) Report
Great Blog!
Thank you for sharing to others who might not know but- know you! Report
Although I live in Western New York, I never put my bed and table linens in the dryer from April to November and save two dryer loads per week. They smell great, don't wrinkle, don't shrink, and I get a little extra exercise! Report
My mother taught me to make a game to reuse and recycle. She spends little money.
I recycle. Report
Love this article! I have saved it later to find out more ways to recycle, reuse and reduce. I try to do the best I can, but the more ideas the better!

Thanks Coach Nicole! Report
Stop using commercial cleaners and opt for natural ones. I use vinegar and water to clean my tile floors, my bathroom (it's a disenfectant), and even to replace fabric softener in my laundry. I have allergies, so use a fragrance-free laundry detergent, the vinegar smell dissipates quickly, and my house and laundry smell fresh and clean, and comes out as soft as it did with fabric softeners. I save money as well. Report
I loved this article and it is a good reminder to think more about what we consume. Thank you so much. Report
Great article! I've been doing a lot of these things for years but discovered a few new ideas (the orange bag as a scrubbie!) Thank you!!! Report
When it comes to unplugging equipment to save power............well then when you power on a lot of items..TV's, DVD's, and such have to be reprogrammed.......that can get to be a pain for sure Report
Thank you for a well-written and informative post. I think we can all use a reminder now and then plus some ideas we may not have considered before. Report
I thought I knew all these things but thank you for the reminders. I have to say that I did NOT know that yogurt containers were not recyclable.
My husband recycles the foil seal from the top with the cans that are recycled. There are collection points throughout our county where caring citizens put bags of cans that volunteers pick up and take to a place that buys the aluminum by the pound. The money goes to the local wildlife shelter.
I need to get into the habit of re-purposing things rather than get hooked by the cute things for sale these days. When I couldn't afford "things" I used to repurpose regularly. I also need to get out of the habit of buying clothes. I don't NEED new clothes and the quality of the new clothes certainly does not stand up to the quality of the older clothes that still hang in my closet until I gather them all up and take them to one of the local thrift shops. Report
we recycle everything, burn when we can, also hang out the laundry. We are making a compost bin (area) But really like see this blog and the more people that are doing it. Woot! Woot! We all care Report
We recycle, compost, and have burn pile for indoor fireplace and outdoor fire pit. By trash day we barely have a full bag to put on the curb Report
I am a big-time re-user of anything I can get my hands on. We even reuse the little pharmacy bags for daily kitty litter cleanouts (I tried to get the pharmacy to take them back, but they said they can't). This is a really great article. Hopefully those who haven't thought of some of this stuff will be inspired to do a little more - every little bit helps! Report
I work for Savers in IL, a department store-sized thrift store started over 50 years ago in Washington state that partners with non-profits (win-win), plus we package up soft goods (clothes, bedding, etc.) after a given period of time & ship it to undeveloped countries for them to use, & that keeps TONS & TONS of 'trash' out of landfills. I love working AND shopping there!!! Report
thanks Nicole for a great article.
I do a lot of green living and do whatever I can, but I appreciate any other ideas I can get!
We have curbside recycling in our neighborhood and I also do composting.
One thing I might add to help the environment is to make your own cleansers from ingredients you have at home. Save $$ and get things clean too!. Then you can grow some of your own food to save on packaging as well!

We recycle everything that we can recycle. We donate to Lupus things things we don't use any more but still works really well.
Most of all, we put out the lights when no one is in the room, and we don't let the water run while we brush our teeth. Report
When you do need to purchase something, don't forget to shop in the Goodwill or Salvation Army store. Report
Loved this article. Learned new ways to recycle. Report
Great article, thanks! Report
There's an electronics recycling drop-off event downtown today, and I've had a box of stuff ready to go for months! A dead electric space heater and coffeemaker, a couple of old remote controls, leftover connector cables, etc. Feels good to declutter my house and help the environment at the same time! Report
I would add, give your money to businesses that practice sustainability, sell organic products, pay their workers a living wage (so that THEY can afford to live a green life like you do), and behave responsibly when it comes to the environment. Companies only change their behaviors when we tell them that they won't get our dollars unless they employ ethical business practices. Report
I believe in many of the things you said, and got a few new ideas which are awesome. I believe we all should be as GREEN as possible! way to go! Report
Great blog Nicole ~ Happy Earth Day! In our neck of the woods, area college students volunteered and helped residents to clean their yards this past weekend. One of the recipients posted "free sod". I called, DH went and picked up (with help of the college students), and, "Happy Earth Day to us", daughter's family is getting new lawn! Report
We used to live in a community that had curbside recycling. Now we don't and I sure do miss that. It is much harder to take the stuff somewhere. Also, I didn't buy a new car for about 13 years because...why? Well, the old car got GREAT gas mileage and try to "use up" my stuff...so I kept driving the car. When I did finally get a new one, I got a hybrid. We don't have good public transportation where I live but I do ride a vanpool in to work when I can, or else ride with my husband...it saves money and is environmentally friendly. Report
Nichole - thanks. One of the best articles I've seen on Spark, with excellent explanations. I've been recycling and reducing for years and still found very helpful comments. Thanks again. Report
Thanks, Nicole. Some things here that I had forgotten. A couple of you mentioned alternate transportation and as a public transportation manager, I would like to expand on that. The APTA website has the cost comparisons between driving a car and using public transit. Switching to transit can save a family over $9000 a year! Ridesharing, vanpooling, alternate fuel vehicles and transit use really makes a difference. Sadly, it is not available everywhere. If you are lucky enough to have public transportation take a bus or train ride this week and see how nice it can be. Report
Good article. Lots of good ideas. Report
Wonderful article. I do recycle but you have given me some ideas that I never thought of. Thank you so much! Report
LOVE this article! Owning a little furniture and home accessories consignment gallery I'm RIGHT with you! People can buy twice the quality, twice the style, and triple the interest in beautiful furniture items for about a quarter of the price.
Not only are homes furnished through consignment much more interesting but they are full of better craftsmanship and style!

My mantra is "reuse, repurpose, recyle...Mother Earth will give you a hug!"

I also package any purchased articles in my recycled bags that I have from around the house, and most of the time the customers are happy to take the article with no wrappings at all.

I recyle my greeting cards for thank you notes and food labels in my pantry, my curtain material for recovering furniture seats that need newer upholstery,
I even try to re-cyle postage stamps that aren't cancelled..that's a GOOD one and a small thrill of thrifty victory! :-))
Great information. Report
One thing that makes me crazy is that there's a new disposable product on the market every week! Enough already!

I do, or have done, everything you mentioned in your article, including cloth diapers and feminine pads, and I'm only in my early 40's! It's not as icky as you might think, but I never have super heavy flow. I made my own by sewing liners made from a leak-proof baby change pad, inner pads from diaper flannel, and outer wraps to hold it all together also from diaper flannel. These pads are WAY softer and more comfortable than disposables.

I also "line-dry" about half of my laundry. I don't have a line outside, although I'd love to (we have a very small yard), so I hang my clothes on a drying rack, on the rail around my stairwell, and on chairs or anywhere else I need to. The only clothes I put in the dryer are the ones that take a long time to dry, such as jeans & towels, or ones that are too big to hang, such as sheets. If I had an outside clothesline, everything would go on it!

I use microfiber cleaning clothes, so I just use plain water for most of my cleaning, and I use shampoo or body wash to clean my toilets, instead of bleach.

I grow my own veggies and berries, as much as I can in my little yard. Report
Loved the article. I've done most of the suggestions, either because of environmentalist desires, or an enduring broke, starving student mentality.

I considered cloth menstrual pads. I sew and have plenty of cloth around. But I came up with a better solution, I stopped having periods. ;-) That solution took a few years to put into action.

I disagree that vegan is "the single most effective thing you can do to save the earth". My chickens (in my suburban back yard) are great for my little piece of earth, they recycle the old vegetables, and the eggs are an added bonus.

Before I line dry my clothes, I do put them in the dryer for 5-10 minutes to remove lint and wrinkle. A few things I do that I haven't seen mentioned are using graywater (slightly dirty water from washing machine, shower etc, regulations vary by region) in my garden and using coldwater to wash laundry that doesn't need to be sanitized. And I make my own dog food, at least the wet stuff. I can buy the ingredients in bulk instead of all those cans..

Couple of things on my to do list is a compost system (mini septic systems) for animal waste, which is the primary content of my garbage can, and using alternate means of transportation to work at least one day a week. Please keep the ideas coming.

Interesting article with some great tips. But, I wouldn't go so far as to say that consumerism is extremely wasteful. Consumerism is a vital part of the total economy. I'm certainly not implying that we should all by one-time use items all the time. I recycle everything that can be recycled. But, I don't buy second-hand clothes mainly because I buy very few clothes. Also, I prefer to let the people who truly can't afford to buy new clothes buy second-hand.
I see a big problem with junk mail and those subscription cards that are stuffed into magazines. A majority of my mail gets put in the recycling bin - in other words, it's junk mail. And those subscription cards - Hey magazine people - We don't need 500 subscription cards stuffed into each magazine. I've get only one magazine by subscription and on a rare occasion buy one in the store. The first thing I do is go through the magazine and remove all those annoying cards and drop them in my recycling bin. What a waste of time and trees.

Finally, I completely agree with ethelmerz's comment about the Walton's and "celeb-worshipping". Report
Great article. Am doing lots of this plus parking my day with self-propulsion (bike/walk/run) rather than fossil fuels as much as possible, have solar on our roof etc. STill there's always A LOT to learn and your links were great! Thanks for helping to green our spark community! Report
These are all good ideas and I have been doing a lot of them. I'm just not too crazy on the suggestion of the suggestion on what to do about "go green" on feminine products. Report