20 Sustainable Living Ideas That Actually Help the Planet

Written by • Last Updated November 19, 2020

When I first started my low impact journey, I gravitated to basic sustainable living ideas. Turn off the lights. Recycle. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full.

But once I started educating myself about low impact living, I realized how little those practices actually helped the planet.

Building up momentum with simple tasks is important. However, as we’ve seen with recycling, it’s easy to believe we’re “doing our part” and never go beyond the bare minimum.

Fortunately, there’s a growing community of people who are willing to take the next step in living more sustainably. If you’re reading this, then you are a part of that movement. Welcome!

These sustainable living ideas aren’t revolutionary or complicated. In fact, many of them can be implemented with minimal time, effort, and money. But if you’re looking for even simpler ideas, check out my post on low impact lifestyle habits you can start right away.

And remember: always implement new habits slowly! Taking on too many changes at once is a surefire way to turn sustainable living from joyous to stressful. Instead, choose one or two items from the list to focus on each month, and remember to celebrate the small victories.

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Sustainable living ideas for the home

Blue, green, and yellow cloths stacked next to cut lemon and glass jar

Ditch paper towels for clean-up rags

In 2017, Americans spent nearly $6 billion on paper towels for their homes. That’s a lot of money to spend on something you use for 10 seconds and then throw in the trash! Even if you compost your paper towels, they still come packaged in single use plastic.

Luckily, there’s a dead simple solution to the paper towel conundrum: cloth rags.

You don’t need fancy “unpaper towels”, though they certainly look fun and tidy on a roll. Any absorbent cloth will do. It’s a great way to reuse old hand towels, wash cloths, or even t-shirts.

Just keep clean rags in a readily accessible place (ours are folded in a pile under the sink), and use a small bin to collect them when they’re soiled. I keep partially used rags on my kitchen radiator, but you could also install some Command hooks or a towel bar to hold them.

We still keep paper towel rolls on hand for the odd cleanup job, but the majority of our messes get mopped up with retired washcloths and old hand towels.

Make your own cleaning products

DIY cleaning products are a popular crossover between frugal and sustainable living ideas. It’s amazing what you can do–and how much plastic you can avoid–by mixing a few basic ingredients in a spray bottle!

Here are a few easy eco-friendly cleaning product recipes:

  • All Purpose Cleaner: 1 part warm water, 1 part white vinegar
  • Granite & Marble Countertop Cleaner: 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon liquid soap
  • Toilet & Tub Cleaner: 1 cup baking soda, 3 tablespoons liquid soap (castile soap is best), 3 tablespoons vinegar (hydrogen peroxide can also work)

People in the zero waste movement swear by pure castile soap for its versatility and long-lasting concentration. Dr. Bronner’s is the top brand, and their soap can be used for everything from washing dishes to shampooing hair.

Buy durable, multi-functional home goods

There’s a reason that Reduce comes first in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. By buying fewer things, we create less waste. And one of the best ways to own less stuff is to invest in durable, multi-purpose products.

I cook about 50% of our meals in my Le Creuset Dutch oven. With one piece of cookware, I can make soup, roast a chicken, saute vegetables, and even bake bread! It’s hands down one of my favorite possessions, and it comes with a lifetime warranty.

Vacuum cleaners are another home good where durability and multi-functionality are (almost) priceless. Before I bought my cordless Dyson, I had a cheap corded vacuum and a dustbuster that barely had suction after two years. Instead of tossing them and buying more cheap replacements, I saved up for a quality product that I could use on any surface and in every corner of my house and car.

And if you’re looking for products that are durable yet biodegradable, bamboo can be a sustainable option. For example, bamboo dish scrubbers are long-lasting and can be composted at home once they wear out.

Now, there are two caveats to this sustainable living idea. For one, this isn’t an excuse to go out and buy more stuff you don’t need. Use what you have until it’s no longer functional, and then replace it with something more durable and multi-functional (bonus points if you buy it second-hand).

Also, I recognize the inherent privilege in this suggestion. The poor tax is real, and not everyone can afford to buy a nice Dutch oven or multi-season outerwear. If money is tight, spend it where it matters. 

Save me for later!

Live in a “right-size” house

Owning a large home is a common aspiration. A spacious house is often seen as a status symbol, a sign of financial security. But if you don’t have a large family or a bunch of roommates, what is all that space really for?

Big houses have a larger carbon footprint, and not just because of the building materials. It takes more energy to heat and cool a large living space. And empty rooms are notorious for encouraging us to buy unnecessary furniture and decor to fill them.

So do you need to sell everything and move into a tiny house? Not at all!

When shopping for a home, be mindful and honest about how much space you truly need. Is that large formal dining room a “must-have” because you host one large holiday gathering a year? Are you the type of person who has frequent enough overnight guests to warrant a guest bedroom?

We cut our living space in half when we moved from Texas to London, and I can confidently say that we’re happier in a “right-size” house.

Upgrade to energy efficient appliances

Energy efficient appliances are becoming the new normal. But if you purchased an older home, there’s a good chance your dishwasher, fridge, and washer are sucking up a ton of energy.

While Energy Star-rated appliances are nice to have, most newly manufactured models will use substantially less resources thanks to improvements in design and materials. For example, new front loading washing machines use around 50% less water and 1/3 the energy vs. older top-loading models. High Efficiency (HE) top-loading laundry machines also use less water and have higher capacities, which means fewer loads of laundry and less energy use over time.

Related: Eco Friendly Home Improvements That Save Money

Start composting

At first glance, composting seems like a huge pain. There are special bins and matter ratios and wriggly worms… And what are you supposed to do if you live in an apartment?

It’s easy to come up with reasons not to compost. But all you need to get started with composting is a lidded container and a freezer. This guide will walk you through the steps of composting at home, including what to do if you don’t have a yard.

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Sustainable living ideas in the kitchen

Kitchen counter with fresh produce, bread, and milk on trays

Eat more plant-based meals

It’s no secret that our current meat-eating habits aren’t sustainable. Putting ethics aside, industrial livestock farming has a massive carbon footprint. While some small-scale ranchers have made fantastic strides in sustainable agriculture, we’re a long way off from wide scale reform.

If you aren’t ready or able to adopt a fully plant-based diet, you can always incorporate more plant-based meals into your weekly menu. Every meatless meal makes a positive impact!

My husband and I are flexitarians, so we eat meat a couple times a week. We’re big fans of stir-fries topped with crispy tofu, veggie-based soups, Buddha bowls, and egg scrambles.

Check out this post for more tips to cut back on meat consumption.

Cook with the seasons

Fresh berry salads in summer, roasted root vegetables in winter… cooking with the seasons is a delicious way to live more sustainably.

Shipping food around the world takes a heavy toll on the environment. By shopping local and purchasing produce that’s in season, you can contribute to your community and avoid the heavy carbon footprint of imported fruits and vegetables.

Create a system for leftovers

Across the globe, over 1 billion tons of food is thrown away each year. If you have a big fridge and a busy schedule, it’s easy to forget about the leftover chow mein until it’s too late.

To ensure your leftovers don’t go to waste, come up with a system to use them. It can be as simple as a whiteboard “leftover list” on the front of the fridge, or something more advanced like a color-coded container system indicating what to eat now vs. later.

If you plan out your meals for the week, you can easily schedule in leftovers. And if you’re not a fan of eating the same meal on repeat, you can get creative with using ingredients across dishes. Diced veggies can go into a stir fry, a soup, and on a pizza, while roast chicken can stretch from main course to sandwich filling.

Also, don’t be afraid to freeze things! Soup, stew, pizza, casseroles… While not all foods freeze well, most leftovers will be perfectly fine.

Just be sure to store them properly in freezer-safe silicone bags or containers with locking lids.

Snack on unpackaged foods

Here’s a fun exercise–create a list of your favorite snacks, and then mark which ones come in a package. Even if you aren’t a “snacker”, the results might surprise you.

Every chip bag, candy wrapper, and cracker sleeve we throw away will sit in a landfill for decades. Most of the snack packaging you toss in the trash will outlast your days on Earth. It’s a chilling yet sobering reality.

Fortunately, you don’t need to give up snacking to be eco friendly. There are tons of unpackaged foods perfect for nibbling on between meals.

Fresh fruit and veggies are easy picks. Bulk bins are (un)packed with nuts, cereals, and sweets. And don’t be afraid to attempt making homemade snacks like oven-roasted chickpeas, baked potato chips, popcorn, and even yogurt.

Swap plastic and foil wrap for reusable materials

Some habits are so ingrained in us that even obvious alternatives seem revolutionary. The first time I used a dinner plate instead of wrap to cover my leftovers, I felt like I’d discovered a profound life hack.

For dishes you can’t cover with dinner plates, try beeswax wraps. They’re thin cloths coated in beeswax, and they’re a great, washable alternative to plastic wrap.

Lining baking sheets with foil or parchment paper was another habit ingrained in my brain since childhood. But in reality, most foods are just fine being cooked directly on top of the sheet. For baked goods like cookies, silicone baking mats are low cost and reusable.

Grow your favorite herbs at home

You know what’s annoying? Spending a ridiculous amount of money on a couple sprigs of plastic-wrapped basil, only for them to turn black well before the use by date.

Having a pot of fresh herbs readily available is incredibly convenient. You can keep a small pot in a window, or grow a larger variety on your patio or in a garden corner. Simply snip the amount you need off the plant, and it will keep on growing.

Sustainable lifestyle tips

Bright sustainable living room with green houseplant and rows of colorful chairs

Switch to products with biodegradable or highly recyclable packaging

Since China significantly cut back their recycling processing program in 2018, much of the world’s plastic has been diverted into landfills. There’s a high chance that your plastic soda bottles and shampoo containers are going from the curbside recycling bin to a trash heap in Vietnam (or worse, the ocean).

The best way to avoid this scenario is to change the way we shop. Look for products that come in biodegradable packaging like cardboard, or highly recyclable packaging like glass and aluminum. And for products where you can’t find a suitable alternative, buy the largest container you can.

Bring your own cups/containers (BYOC)

From butcher shops to bakeries, there are a surprising number of places that allow people to bring their own containers. Coffee shops often give a small discount if you BYOC. Some cities even have entire stores dedicated to zero waste shopping, where you can fill your own jars and boxes with bulk goods.

Locally owned places are usually the most welcoming to BYOC, though some chain grocery stores like Whole Foods will let you bring in containers for bakery and deli counter items.

Go digital with your hobbies

There was a time when my stack of video game boxes brought me joy. Today, I feel grateful for digital downloads and external hard drives.

Taking physical hobbies digitall is a contentious sustainable lifestyle tip. There’s an undeniably emotional, satisfying element of turning the pages of a book or sliding game pieces across the board. However, I’m confident anyone can find a happy medium between digital minimalism and overflowing shelves of (mostly unused) hobby items.

Shop local rather than online

Online retailers like Amazon have made shopping so convenient, we order products that we could easily pick up at our local supermarket. But that convenience comes at an environmental price.

Choosing to shop local not only helps the planet, but also supports your community. Next time you’re ready to place an online order, do a quick internet search for a local business alternative. Or better yet, head to a secondhand shop (or online marketplace) to give an existing item a new life.

Become a single car household

This suggestion won’t make sense for everyone, but it has the potential to save a ton of money and energy. Sit down with your partner and map out your daily commutes. If there’s a sensible way to carpool to and from work, test it out for a week and see if it’s manageable.

Purchase new items only when necessary

Conscious consumers only buy what they truly need. Before you slap down that credit card, ask yourself if what you’re about to buy is necessary, multi-use, and long-lasting.

While the “waiting period” rule is usually recommended for expensive items, you can apply it to any non-essential purchase. It’s amazing how quickly you forget about that must-have coffee maker when you press pause for 30 days. And if you still want it after the waiting period, head to a thrift shop or a local marketplace (ex. Craigslist, Facebook, etc.) to see if a quality second-hand version is available.

Repair your stuff instead of replacing it

In this era of convenience and cheap goods, we’ve shifted from repairing broken items to trashing them and buying new ones. I’ve heard countless stories of people throwing away everything from computers to blenders that could have been easily fixed with a replacement part.

YouTube is a gold mine of DIY repair videos. And if you can’t tackle the repair yourself, don’t be afraid to call in a professional.

Get creative with repurposing and reusing old items

Crafty people, this is your time to shine! There are entire websites and social media accounts devoted to breathing new life into old items.

With a bit of imagination, you can upcycle everything from chairs to pasta sauce jars. If you’re teaching your kids about sustainability, this is the perfect opportunity to make it fun and interactive.

Did you find a couple sustainable living ideas to try this month? For more eco lifestyle tips and inspiration, subscribe to my newsletter below.

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