Embracing a low impact lifestyle is one of the best things you can do for the planet. But if you’re just getting started with sustainable living, it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to do “all the things”.
When I first committed to low impact living, I felt a burst of excitement and motivation. Within the first week, I scoured the internet for zero waste swaps, cooked only vegetarian meals, and vowed to never buy prepackaged food again.
As you might imagine, that energy fizzled out faster than a New Year’s resolution to “exercise more”.
It’s tempting to immediately “fix” everything you’re doing that harms the environment. Once you realize that every toothbrush you’ve ever used is still sitting in a landfill, it’s hard not to feel guilty whenever you clean your teeth.
However, the problem with making lifestyle changes is that our willpower is limited. Building new habits takes a LOT of mental energy, so trying to change more than one thing at a time is a recipe for disaster. This is especially true for major shifts like going vegan or avoiding single use plastics.
Instead of tackling everything at once, it’s best to focus on one small part of low impact living at a time.
These habits are all easy to incorporate into daily life and provide some quick wins in your low impact journey. Just remember to implement them one by one and use habit stacking to supercharge your efforts!
Check out these sustainable living ideas for more advanced tips.
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Keep reusable bags in convenient places
When we moved to a city that banned single-use bags, this eco friendly habit turned into a necessity. I can’t tell you how many times we set off to the grocery store only to realize that we left our reusable totes at home. Although we could have bought plastic bags at checkout and ultimately recycled them, I knew it wouldn’t do anything to help us remember the totes in the future.
So we added an extra step in our post-shopping routine: put the totes back in the car. It was a simple solution, but a highly effective one.
Now that we live in London and walk to all the shops, we hang our reusable bags next to the front door. If you don’t have a coat rack, you can easily attach a hook to your wall (removable Command hooks are great for apartment dwellers like us).
Don’t forget your reusable produce bags either! I toss them back inside one of our tote bags after we finish unloading the groceries.
And if you slip up and forget to bring a bag, do yourself a favor and turn around. The annoying inconvenience of going all the way back home will literally teach you a lesson to grab bags before you leave.
Turn the faucet off
Did you know that the average faucet uses about 2 gallons of water per minute? Now think about all the times you leave the water running, from washing pots and pans to shaving. That volume adds up quickly!
One of the easiest low impact lifestyle habits is turning the faucet off when you’re not actively rinsing or filling something. Here are some times to be mindful of water usage:
- Brushing your teeth
- Washing your hair
- Scrubbing dishes (dishwashers only use 4-6 gallons per cycle, so limit your handwashing to the essentials)
Rinse and sort your recycling properly
The main focus of a low impact lifestyle is to reduce and reuse, with recycling as a last resort. Unfortunately, many of the items we put into recycling bins end up in landfills or incinerators, especially since China’s waste import ban that went into effect in January 2018.
Does that mean we should just throw everything into the trash? Definitely not!
But it’s now more important than ever to learn what belongs in the recycling bin.
Different states/townships/municipalities have their own set of standards for what can and can’t be processed in the recycling plant. For example, my hometown accepts grocery bags and other #4 plastics in curbside bins, but yours may not. Your local government website should have a page that outlines which materials they accept (or you can always call and ask).
Recently, there’s been some confusion around rinsing recyclables. While you don’t need to scrub your empty containers clean, it’s important to rinse out the residue to reduce contamination. If too much gunk gets into the recycling pile, it spoils the whole batch, and everything gets sent to the landfill or incinerator.
This is particularly important for mixed recycling bins, where paper and cardboard join the bottles and cans. If leftover dregs of marinara sauce leak onto your old shipping box, it can no longer be recycled. Soiled paper products, like greasy pizza boxes or used paper plates, must be composted or trashed.
I realize how daunting this sounds, especially if you’re like me and spent years tossing receipts and dirty pizza boxes into the recycling bin (oops!). But after a couple weeks of referencing a recycling cheat sheet, it will become second nature.
Adopt a “vegetarian first” mindset
Cutting down on meat consumption is a fantastic way to reduce your environmental impact. As with all habits, though, it takes time and practice to build. When you’re used to cooking meat every meal and skipping over the salad section of restaurant menus, you need a strategy to say no.
Enter the “vegetarian first” mindset.
I use this mental trick whenever I’m ordering food. Basically, I start by scanning for vegetarian options before reading the meaty descriptions. If I spot a vegetarian meal that sounds good, I order it without reading the rest of the menu.
The same goes for meal planning. I have a beautiful, visual Trello board full of vegan and vegetarian recipes, and I always start there when deciding what to cook. We’ve had plenty of 100% vegetarian weeks since we started doing this instead of playing the “well, what do YOU want for dinner?” game.
Cook double batches of your favorite meals
Convenience is a beautiful thing, but it comes at a price. When I was a full time teacher and grad student, I relied heavily on microwave meals and delivery. I promised myself that it was only for two years, and then I’d start preparing fresh food again.
Cut to five years later, and my bins were still overflowing with plastic containers and takeout boxes. I’d grown too comfortable with the convenience, and only cooked a few times a week.
Does this story sound familiar?
Breaking away from instant meals and takeaway isn’t easy. But one way to start is by cooking double batches of your favorite foods.
You can use mason jars to freeze single portions of leftover soups and stews. Freezer safe silicone bags work well for larger amounts. And glass food storage containers are ideal for meats, stir frys, pasta bakes, etc.
Swap paper towels with cleaning rags
Many of the best low impact lifestyle habits are also frugal ones. And if you live with kids, pets, or a messy partner, this swap can save you a lot of money.
We used to grab a wad of paper towels every time our German Shepherd, a.k.a. Mr. Drippy Mouth, drank from his bowl and tracked water all over the kitchen. Today, we have a dedicated pile of rags for mopping up his mess and wiping his paws.
I have a separate box of cleaning cloths for wiping counters, cleaning spills, and other little tasks. When they get soiled, I toss them in the towel bin and pull a new one from the box.
You can also find cute “unpaper” towel rolls on Etsy or make your own from sewing together cloth diaper fabric and flannel.
Save me for later!
Open your windows
Foregoing air conditioning is another frugal and eco friendly practice. AC units require a lot of electricity to run, and that energy mainly comes from burning fossil fuels. Every time you open the windows instead of turning on the AC, you’re helping your wallet and the planet.
Having lived in central Texas, I realize you can’t do this all summer. But if you closely follow the weather, leave (safe) windows open at night, and use light-blocking curtains strategically, you can significantly reduce the number of days your air conditioner needs to run.
Avoid media that tempts you to buy more stuff
I had an unusual hobby in my 20s: watching HGTV and looking at online house listings. I must have seen every episode of Fixer Upper and House Hunters at least three times, and my thirst for pretty farmhouse decor grew every day. When we purchased our first home, I had already picked out a hundred different items to buy before we officially closed.
And then two years later we sold our house and (nearly) everything in it, moved halfway across the world, and we couldn’t be happier.
Humans are hardwired to want stuff. We don’t need any extra temptations from meticulously curated Instagram feeds, celebrity TV shows, or glossy sales catalogs.
If you find yourself wanting to buy things every time you scroll through your feed or watch TV, it’s time for a media cleanse. Unfollow those fashion influencers, recycle those magazines, and find a new favorite show to binge. Freeing up your time and headspace is one of the best things about simple living.
Evaluate every purchase with the “three finger rule”
Reducing what we consume is an important part of low impact living. Before you get overwhelmed by figuring out what products are ethical/compostable/sustainable/etc., start with a simple buying exercise.
I use the “three finger rule” to evaluate every purchase:
- Do I need this?
- Right now?
- In this form?
This brief set of questions has stopped me from buying all sorts of stuff I didn’t need or would have only used a few times. It also comes in handy when you’re trying to avoid plastics and wasteful packaging. I’ve found plastic- and package-free alternatives to everything from grass seed to scissors by delaying my purchases and looking elsewhere.
If you do a lot of shopping on Amazon, the three finger rule is invaluable. It slows down impulse spending and forces you to consider where (and how) else you can buy what you truly need.
Bring your own cup to the coffee shop
If you don’t want to give up your morning coffee run (or can’t resist the siren call of Pumpkin Spice Lattes), start bringing a reusable cup. Many coffee shops not only allow this, but also offer a small discount if you BYOC! Just let the barista know how many ounces your cup holds so they charge you the correct amount.
Eco friendly cups make excellent low waste gifts, particularly if they’re dishwasher safe (though I recommend avoiding bamboo cups for hot drinks, as they can leech chemicals). When sustainability meets convenience, everybody wins.
Take up a low impact lifestyle hobby
Gardening, cycling, cooking, sewing…There are dozens of hobbies that work in synergy with a low impact lifestyle.
If you love buying fresh herbs but often throw half of them away, try growing your favorites in pots If you hate driving and want more exercise, get a secondhand bike and start cycling to nearby places in your neighborhood.
You can also make your existing hobbies more sustainable.
Love to read? Borrow from your local library or buy/rent ebooks. Are you a gamer? Invest in an external hard drive and opt for digital downloads over physical copies.
Aligning your passions with your low impact mission is a surefire way to succeed.
If you build these habits one at a time, you can make sustainability…sustainable! For more eco living tips and half-baked witticisms, join my mailing list below.