Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Lessen Your Eco Footprint

Let's review the basic tenet of sustainability, which demands that one action be capable of going on indefinitely. Example:

Food Scraps — Chickens — Fresh Eggs and Fertilizer — Garden and Dinner Table — Food Scraps

In the above example, food scraps and free-range roaming is nourishing chickens, who provide fertilizer and food for the system supporting them. That fertilizer nourishes the plants growing in the garden, which feeds the people, who turn the food scraps back over to the birds. This system is sustainable; as long as there are an appropriate amount of chickens, food scraps, and gardens, all branches of the chain stay in business. Another example, using our aquaponics setup:

Fish in Tank — Fish Poop in Water Fertilizing Plants in Grow Bed — Plants Filter Water and Send Nutrients Back into Tank

But any system where there is more going out than coming in, or vice versa, ceases to be sustainable. Example:

Massive Drilling for Natural Resources > Heating, Fuel, etc. in Homes > No More Natural Resource

In the above example, oil or natural gas is a finite resource not being replenished at an equal rate of removal; similar to the depletion of rainforests and old-growth forests.  In sustainability, what you take needs to be replaced in order for you to take and give it all over again. So in your daily life, how much more are you taking out than putting in? Below are some quick, extremely simplistic things you can do right now that will limit what you're taking out. Next time, we'll talk about ways to put back in.

1. Stop Using Tissue Paper
Paper napkins, paper towels, facial tissue, and yes, even toilet paper account for a huge amount of all trees cut down annually. As per the records of WWF, 10 percent of the 270,000 trees cut every day are used in the manufacturing of toilet paper. It doesn’t come as a surprise that an average American household uses more tissue paper than the rest anywhere in the world: The North American usage of tissue paper was estimated in 2005 to be 24 kg per capita which is six times higher than the global average of 3.9 kg consumption per capita. And while it's great to buy recycled tissue paper, there's still an awful lot of energy and fresh water (and, often, natural resources like fuel) going into the process of recycling. There's really no "green" way to use disposable products. Some people really go all the way with removing tissue paper entirely from their lives (family cloth, anyone?!), but I'm not quite there yet. How about easing into this transition with these three ideas:

  • Handkerchiefs Back in the day, Kleenex didn't exist. Everyone had handkerchiefs! Ladies and gents carried lovely, embroidered hankies, hankies of different silks and cottons, hankies of every color. King Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, is widely believed to have invented the cloth handkerchief, as surviving documents written by his courtiers describe his use of square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. Certainly they were in existence by Shakespeare's time, and a handkerchief is an important plot device in his play Othello. The use of a cloth handkerchief is occasionally considered old-fashioned or unhygienic, or both, in some parts of the world, mainly due to the popularization of disposable paper handkerchiefs (talk about subversive marketing!) and the fact that they are stored in a pocket or a purse after being used. However, they are a potentially more environment-conscious choice, as cloth handkerchiefs are reusable. I don't know of a single person who has ever been made sicker by having a hanky on-hand. Try it out and see if you don't also agree they're much gentler on the face.
  • Rags Companies like Bounty have made mega fortunes off of convincing you that spills need to be picked up with soft, super-absorbent, disposable paper towels. But you know what works better than paper to pick up liquid? Fabric. Every single time. Those old, stained, ripped T-shirts, sweatshirts, towels, and sheets that you'd otherwise throw in the trash make perfect rags that you can use, wash, and reuse hundreds and hundreds of times. For cleaning windows and mirrors, crumpled-up newspaper works just as well. Ditto for absorbing oil run-off on bacon, fried green tomatoes, or deep-fried anything. Keep a pile of folded rags in a kitchen drawer, or hang a decent-looking one on a hook near the kitchen sink.
  • Cloth Napkins Whether you want to buy your cloth napkins at a store or make your own, this is such a no-brainer it's ridiculous everyone's not already made the switch. Why are cloth napkins reserved for fancy dinner parties only? You can toss your entire family's cloth napkins into the laundry pile after a meal, they take up minimum space, and it's so easy to make your own out of old clothing garments and fabric scraps, there's really no excuse not to.
2. Stop Bagging your Purchases in Disposable Bags
I know this one gets kicked around a lot, and I know a lot of us now have more than our fair share of reusable, adorable totes with cutesie messages like "Save Our Mother"—but it still always amazes me how few people stand in line at the supermarket with reusable bags; or at the pharmacy, clothing store, or pet shop. Most commonly, people walk out of their homes without remembering to grab their totes. My suggestion: Keep three or four reusable bags in your car at all times. No car? No problem—put a hook near your front door and hang your bags there so you're always reminded to grab one (or several) on your way out.

3. BYO Doggy Bag
Here's another big one. There's really no reason to send any food back into the kitchen at a restaurant, only for it to be tossed right in the trash. Whether you take the food home to be your leftovers, tossed to the chickens or dogs or pigs, or thrown into your compost bin, no food should ever go to waste! Up the ante by bringing your own to-go box so as to avoid the completely unnecessary, grotesquely outdated and unsustainable Styrofoam container.

4. Get Your Feminine Hygiene Products Right
Ladies, listen up. Landfills are over-taxed with feminine hygiene products. In 2000, more than 55.9 million women (in the U.S. alone) were monthly users of disposable feminine hygiene products. The 41 year menstruation span (11-52 years) creates billions of pounds of disposable feminine hygiene products being "dumped" into the environment each year.  Want to make a switch? Good. You've got lots of options. 

There's a whole category of disposable menstrual products made by companies like Seventh Generation and Natracare that are unbleached, made with less plastic, made with plant materials, etc. While they are still disposable, if you are not ready to try reusables then this is a good way to go. Eliminating these nasty ingredients from the manufacturing process (and keeping them away from your tender bits) can only be a positive. But please take 'biodegradable' claims with a grain of salt. If you're composting your biodegradeables in your yard, then these claims may apply (though how long it takes for a "biodegradable" product to actually break down can vary wildly). Please, please remember that in a modern landfill, nothing is breaking down. No air and water reaches any of those products, so they never get to fall apart and turn into dirt. 

If you want to take your feminine hygiene to the next level, there are a lot of reusable options. You've got your reusable menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup made from silicone, and The Keeper made from natural rubber (they also make a silicone version for women allergic to latex). Then there are the reusable cloth pads that you wash and wear, like Glad Rags, Lunapads and homemade varieties (or make your own). Grist did a comparison of various types of pads that might be helpful. There are also sea sponge tampons, made from, yes, sea sponges.

5. Entertain in Style
It's tempting to have red Solo cups, plastic cutlery, and paper plates at your next backyard barbecue, New Year's Eve party, or kid's birthday party. But this creates an unseemly amount of waste that's just going to require a lot of energy to recycle (yes, you should be recycling all those plastic cups, forks, and knives) or—you guessed it—end up in a landfill somewhere far, far away.

My top recommendation here is to use real dishes, real forks and knives, and real glassware. For easy cleanup, put a few rubber tubs out and a pail with designations marked on them: plates, glasses, compost, etc. When they're full, just pour warm soapy water into the tubs for easy cleaning and empty your pail into your compost pile (or feed your chickens, they love love love table scraps!). We do this at all our gallery openings, and have never had an issue with an inconvenient clean-up. And I guarantee your guests will take notice should you serve them in glassware with cloth napkins—this is a simple way to class up any occasion.

If you are having a big guest list, please consider using biodegradable plates, cutlery, and napkins. And don't send them to a landfill (see reasons above)!. When your party's over, put your biodegradables into your compost pile or bury them. Click here for a cornucopia of biodegradable items for entertaining.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.