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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Excellent article!! Thank you Report
great Article, Thanks, I have recycled most everything for almost 70 years now. I learned from my Mom who went thru the depression and nothing was wasted. My kids had cloth diapers that I made, no throw away ones. Report
The city I live in now makes it super easy to recycle - large containers and no sorting. They take just about everything. I've also been collecting items at work and bringing bags home to recycle. The article had great ideas. Going paperless at home sounds like an interesting challenge. Thanks for sharing. Report
Let's all tell the tv networks to put on the "Walton's" tv show again, so we can get used to the way it will be again some day for all of us........well, maybe not the "celebs" too many of us worship. Report
This is a great list, and every item on it is easy and accessible, I thank you for writing such a great blog! Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Thanks for the reminder. Report
I cut the main fuses off to the oven, dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer; keep things that aren't use unplugged; and switched to the curly lightbulbs. We use greenbags for shopping, use a water filter pitcher, and recycle everything! I even bring home the recycleables from work. Report
We've been gradually going green for years, switched lightbulbs, use rags instead of paper towels and use cloth napkins, recycling & composting. When I read suggestions about going eco-friendly, I realize we've done a lot of these things all along. When my kids were little, I made their clothes from old clothes and baby dresses from old but not worn bedsheets. I reused buttons and zippers. We cut up clothes that had gone beyond being sold or given away and used them for rags. We used old comforters and pillow shams for dog beds. It was especially fun to use the kids' old comforters-who else had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dog bed?!? Report
It is not a new concept to reuse and recycle. Most of what I do I learned during and after WW11 from my mother and its continued from there: save bits of string in a ball; push small pieces of soap onto bigger ones; wash and reuse plastic bags from milk; always take buttons off clothes before throwing away (I used to also save good zippers but as my sewing machine hasn't worked for years, I stopped); clothes that have good parts are cut up for patching and the rest used as rags; even cat hair is put into the compost. A broken flower pot is perfect to bang up with a hammer and use in the new one as drainage; scented soap that is given as a gift is put into drawers and between linens; advertising flyers that are printed on one side are used as list paper. Report
uhm, you have reusable toilet paper too? (said absolutely nothing disposable) how do your guests react to that? Report
I am not one to jump on band wagons, moving or otherwise. We recycle because our city provides the service. I do not reuse containers that were not designed to be reused because chemical stabilizers break down over time causing potentially toxic chemicals to be released from the plastic. We do reduce waste in the paper products we purchase: since we don’t use paper towels except for “bio” cleanups, we purchase the brand that is cut in half sizes. I drink only bottled water, but we recycle the bottles. Report
I recycle everything my town will allow. Papers, cardboard, cans, aluminim, glass, yard trash, cut branches. We have a plant that crushes the glass and it is used for roads, driveways, flower beds, etc. They chip all wood to make wood chips we can get loads for free.
My family does not buy bottled water except for our emergency kit. We all use reusable water bottles.
We shop at thrift stores, consignment shops and yardsales. We give our unwanted used clothes to others we know will use them. After my RYN I gave my clothes to my Dr's clothes closet.
I comparison shop for foods. I don't just buy things because I want them. I think about wheather I really need and will use the item first.
I buy fruits and veggies from my local farmer who is usually cheaper and definitly fresher than the grocery. I believe in supporting my community people first.
We do not buy disposible plates, cup, plastic wares.
We have the luxury of a beautiful beach. We carry a bag with us to clean up th beach area as we have so many people who will leave their trash on our beaches, some of which will kill our wild birds and fish if ingested. Report
Used blankets, sheets, towels can always be donated to animal shelters - they need them for cleaning, for bedding, etc.

And remember that walking helps the environment (and saves money too)! Report
Mahalo again Nicole for another awesome, well writen article! Kudos to you!

I am especially pleased that someone is bringing to main stream the 'let it mellow' idea. I have grown up using that idea, as my mother was born on an island & clean water was a VERY expensive commodity. They learned at a young age, do NOT flush unless NEEDED! At first I thought this was gross but it just makes me clean my toilet a little more frequently. Also, a plumber once told me putting a brick (or similar item) into the tank will help reduce water usage b/c the tank will think it's full w/ less water.

Yeay on line drying clothes! I love the savings on my electric bill & that fresh clean smell my clothes have during the spring/ summer/ fall weather!

I also want to commend you for advocating composting. My mother has always done it & in turn, when I started my garden at my house, I do too. It's SO easy to do, I don't understand why everyone doesn't do it! My garden soil has become SO fertile from my year round composting that I have such an over abundance of herbs & tomatoes that I can can sauce each year! Can't beat home made tomatoe sauce for this Italian! I now have everyone in my office handing over banana peels & other organic scraps at the end of each day!

Something I do that I did not see specifically in the article was reusing plastic zip lock bags. Again, something my mother has done & now, as a homeowner, I do as well. Just wash them out, put them in the drain board to dry & they are ready to use again! I even reuse those special food saver bags till there is almost nothing left of them.
I have my reusable shopping bags, though I tend to forget them in my truck, but I reuse the plastic bags for animal waste.

Another idea is to put buckets (or if you have the space, a large drum) under drain spouts to collect rain water, so when it's time to water the garden or flowers, you don't have to run up the water bill. it's a small 1 time investment for years of savings.

& thanks for the 'Navy shower' idea! I will also look into the water saving shower heads!
Again, GREAT article! Report
Great article - this has re-newed my desire to live a simpler life! Report
I do a lot of the things you aready listed. I donate and I shop second hand. I reuse bags, wrapping paper, bows etc. Great article to remind us not to waste. Report
My friend & I both reuse the plastic ziplock-type bags by washing them out each time when doing the dishes. My hubby has learned not to toss them! Report
I recycle everthing I can and buy in bulk to reduce the packaging. Now that spring is here I hang out my clothes to dry on a clothesline in the yard. Report
My family has been recycling for years. When I lived at home, we used an old wooden toybox to throw stuff in. When it was full, we sorted it and took it down the road to the recycling center. Now, that same center recycles cardboard, both corrugated and regular packaging type boxes. I get upset with my dh when I find a box in the garbage and I usually pull it out and put it in my tote. I have separate plastic totes outside to put aluminum and tin (which we will take for a bit of cash when we get enough) and milk bottles and juice bottles, as well as detergent bottles when I have enough for a trip. The good thing is, the preschool where my ds goes and I help at 3 days a week, has one just over the hill that takes everything except the cardboard.

For a while when the kids were younger, I quit recycling because I didn't have the time. We have much less trash since we have started again. As far as feminine products, I don't use as many as I used to, and I refuse to use cloth.

I usually can't wait for spring to hang clothes on the line, not only to save on electricity, but to have that wonderful smell. In fact, I need to get two more pieces of clothesline so I can hang more out! Report
Happy Earth Day! I am definitely working on this as a checklist & marking them off!! Report
I'm not a mother so I guess that if I did have a baby I could possibly change my mind. However, what totally gets me much more than feminine hygiene product waste is BABY DIAPERS. Those plastic ones full of who-knows-what that never decompose or break down in landfills that every baby goes through many times a day. Now there are even diapers for children who can't hold it all night. What ever happened to mattress protection and potty training?

Anyway, one thing my ex step mother did do that was environmentally responsible that will always stay with me and will guide my choices should I ever have kids is that she used a cloth diaper service. They make sure that the diapers are totally sanitized and like new before restocking you with new diapers for the week. All you do is throw the diaper in the diaper pail and the services comes for the diapers, takes them away, and gives you fresh ones. It's a bit more expensive than plastics, but a LOT more eco-friendly than throwing away plastics that never biodegrade. Report
Appreciate all the ideas many of which I use. I do have a pet peeve and I'd appreciate ideas - I live in the country which makes recycling a little more challenging but I do it. However, when it comes to recycling hazardous materials that becomes problematic and really expensive because even when there is a hazardous materials recycling day - i have to pay a premium to have things disposed of safely - i'm talking about things that have been in the garage for decades before i bought the house. any realistic ideas. Report
unplug, changed lightbulbs, energy star appliances are replacing old ones as we go (instead of buying what we don't have to...another savings as you mentioned.) also trying to grow some veggies. we need to do more and appreciate the suggestions. Report
going vegan is the single most effective thing you can do to save the earth. Report
Just quit buying so much stuff and live like your grandparents did. It amazes me that so many people find these ideas 'helpful' as if they've never heard of them. My grandparents did all these things just to be 'thrifty'. Report
eh, i could take it or leave it. Report
Useful information Report
Please! Don't scold ME! When I live alone, I'm a formidable reducer, reuser and recycler. Talk to my partner instead. He doesn't comprehend any of this. He's mindlessly wasteful and has no idea what recycles and what doesn't. He has no comprehension of using cloth bags, and instead comes home with all these plastic supermarket bags. He runs water needlessly and uses gobs and gobs of toilet paper, far more than necessary, and tosses all this unused paper in the wastebasket. I've given up trying to explain. He doesn't get it. Report
Recycling and reusing doesn't cost money or the planet. Okay even I draw the line at reusable sanitary products.

I am amazed at the people who don't recycle. One of my co workers complained that now she has a glass recycling crate (collected from her property each week!!!) it was so tough as she now had to rinse out her Mayonnaise jar rather than simply drop it in the trash. What does that "cost" ooh 30 seconds of your precious time. She has two teenage daughters but doesn' thinnk it right that they should have to consider these things either.

Let's all become more aware of the planet, the other people on it and what legacy we are leaving for our children. By the way I'm not some kind of freaky earth mother. I enjoy a good blast in my new car with the roof down just as much if not considerably more than the next guy but I don't do it all the time. If I can walk instead I do. If I can hang my washing in the garden I do and it gives me such a blast when bringing it in to smell the freshness, not a chemical perfume. PLastic bags can all be reused or recycled at the store, save money on bin bags, lunch bags and shopping bags by re using what you get rather than buying for the purpose. Report
We recycle lots all our kitchen scrapes, bones, meat and paper towels, anything in fact that was once living gets turned in to compost for the garden, we have a garden bin that is collected every fortnight, costs us but worth it as we are not able to do it our selves but we dont mind as our land fill has gone way way down. Report
Well, according to these suggestions - at least they are more practical than ride a bike - me and my family and friends are already and have been green for a long time. It's just life. I can't afford much so I make due with what I have. I remember stories from my mother, aunts and grandmother about feminine products that were green - back in the stone age. They remembered using cotton pads for the cycle, washing and putting up on line. They remember how bulky the materials were, how those pads didn't absorb well and how everyone knew because it showed through the clothes. They hated it. My uncle was a kid and cried when he wasn't allowed to take a "hanky" to school like his older sister. Nope. I'm not going there. Besides, no where to hang dry them and there is no way I'm going to go through a heavy cycle with cloth. Not a chance. craigslist is a joke and I'll never use that site. If one is truly into sharing go to freecycle sites. They are all over the place and totally free, no hidden agendas and better moderated than craigslist. As for clothes I can't find clothes my size very easily, so tend to hate shopping and thus, I wear the same thing for years. And now when bugged, I'll tell people I'm simply being green. *grin* By the way, water bottles can be returned for cash, rather than thrown away. For those of us living where water isn't safe to drink water bottles are part of life. Sometimes even Britta can't filter out the garbage, so water bottles have to be used. Just return them for cash, it'll keep them out of the landfill. Report
I'm very much more motivated now than I was before I read this. I have recycled for years, but not to this extent, and I love the navy shower idea!!!! Report
Thank you for this article!!
I have some tips: "freecycle" is a web based way to recycle your unwanted items, there are local groups everywhere in the world, it's a great way to list and receive items for free!
In Australia, where I live, a relatively new webbased initiative has taken wing, called "sharehood", fantastic for borrowing lawn mowers, sewing machines, etc. Maybe there is something similar in your neck of the woods?
Finally, my partner came with 2 brothers, and all 3 delight in collecting and sharing "the right tool for the job"! Report
great article with great ideas. have to agree about the washable feminine products -- i used them once and once was enough!!!!! Report
I can't see myself using the washable feminine products but I am green in every way we can be in our house. We do kept electric usage to a minimum, frequently use freecycle.org, and craigslist type agencies as well. Seldom does anything actually get tossed out t othe landfill unless it is truly unusable to anyone. I am proud to say that our recycling bins fill up faster than our refuse bins! I'm sure we can always be greener but we do more than others on our neighborhood block, so I am happy to be a good example! Report
Appreciated this blog. Good ideas. I recycle and have been for years but these ideas sort of motivate you to do more. Report
Good information, & lots of useful tips. I do recycle, but o know I could do more. Report
We reuse many things and compost. Next, we need to get recycling bins. Report
You failed to mention DIAPERS! Report
You provided wonderful information to those who don't think 'green' and reminders for those of us who do. On the humorous side, my family did most of these things back in the 1950s. We did them because we had absolutely no money and had no choice. Now, it's considered pro environment. For us, it has always been a way of life. Report
I had no idea they made washable feminine products. Talk about going retro. Luckily I'm at an age where, hopefully, I soon won't have to worry about it. Report
your ideas are often gross - see washable feninine products (which I have HAD to use ) and expensive at times. Thrift stores BEAT craigslist which is mostly porno anyway -- hands down Report
Awesome ideas! I am motivated. Report
Rewashable feminine products may sound unappealing to many, but it was the way menstruation was handled for centuries before the invention of disposable products.

Another thing to try if possible is taking a small container with you when you go out to eat to prevent having to use styrofoam or other packaging. This obviously depends on where you are going and how easily you can carry one, but for most casual restaurants, we haven't had any problems. You also have a container ready when your food arrives so you don't have the opportunity to graze on remaining oversized portions.

Use zippered mesh laundry bags for produce.

If you do not have reusable shoppng bags and were already planning to buy one, some companies such as Lands End and LLBean put their canvas totes on sale or clearance during the year. I use these as my shopping bags. The canvas is a bit heavy, but they stay open and stand upright instead of flopping over when items are being packed. Disclaimer: I do not work for, have never worked for, and am not being compensated in any way by either company. I just use their totes for shopping. : )

Wish these types of alternatives were around when I had a cycle. Report
I reuse old clothes as rags and I compost. Report
I second what June said! Women have come a long way from when we had to hide in the woods with a bloody towel for a week a month. I'm not willing to give up my tampax, no matter how un-eco-friendly they are.
I do like the idea of repairing instead of buying new. It's definitely true that we tend to just toss things, and I'm as guilty as anyone. I do have a big mending pile though, and someday I hope to have the time to go through it! Report
Wonderful blog! I saved it to my favorites. Have recycled all my life (it's a generational thing!) But there are more ways that I can help the environment - thanks for the blog!!!!!!!!!!!! Report
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