You are the master of sustainable living, at least among the people you know. You recycle. You buy organic foods whenever possible and you try to combine your errands so you don’t use too much fuel. Maybe you carpool to work because why should all of you drive the same route every day in multiple cars.
Sometime you buy and sell from consignment and thrift stores.
Sustainability is on your radar. You want to be a responsible citizen that takes care of the planet and lives an environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
You are AWESOME! Really and truly. If you’re feeling any guilt that you’re not doing ‘enough’, back up a bit and take a big breath. You’re doing more than pretty much everyone you know, and you need to recognize that you’re doing great before you can … well, do more.
When it comes to sustainability there is a balance, and I want to make sure you stay balanced as you move forward.
Many people want to do more to live an eco-friendly life, but they also want to make sure that it doesn’t consume all of their time, energy, and money. If you can’t maintain your sustainable lifestyle, then it’s not very sustainable, is it?
For example, there’s a difference between starting a garden and converting your entire household energy to solar power.
Both are good!
However, one requires a few hours a week of your time and a small investment of money, and the other may require several months of renovations, possibly a bank loan, and certainly a drastic drop in energy consumption that you may not be prepared for.
So how do you know where that balance is? How do you know if you’re doing as much as you can do without dramatically changing the way you live your life and freaking out your entire household? How do you maximize your sustainable living without hitting the this-is-not-sustainable brick wall?
Are You Ready to Take Sustainability to the Next Level?
Sustainability is a lifestyle, not something you just slip in between the cracks of your life. It impacts everything. As you take steps to live a greener life, some of the changes will affect how you eat, drive, and spend your spare time. Are you ready for some changes?
I have a few questions that you should ask about yourself and your family.
How Organized Are You?
Do you find that you often create systems to organize your life, your space, and your routine? For example, do you occasionally re-organize the pantry or create chore charts for yourself or your children?
Chore charts that actually get used and not stuck in a junk drawer, that is.
If you’re often creating systems that work, you’re fully capable of tackling a more sustainable life. You might even have what it takes to take on a larger project or lifestyle change.
If you’re a little more disorganized (like me!), you might want to take things a bit more slowly. Work at one thing until it is a solid habit and then add one more change. Be honest with yourself. The goal is to have systems that work long term, not a great idea that peters out after a week or two.
Can you handle the changes?
Change is good – sometimes.
It keeps you fresh, it challenges your mindset and your mental processes. It helps you grow.
But you know what? If a wage earner in your house has just taken on a new job, or there has been a death or a birth, or there is a huge celebration being planned, maybe you need to wait a bit.
No one is going to be happy if you’re so focused on your not-very-sustainable sustainable changes that you wreck Grandma and Grampa’s 75th anniversary. “There wasn’t enough sun to use the solar oven and bake the cake, so I picked one up at the grocery store. Will they notice that Grandma has three n’s?”
No matter what sustainability project, habit or system you are planning to adopt, everyone in the household needs to be on board, willing and able to make the change.
A friend of mine recently told me about the time her parents installed a wood stove and decided they would heat with wood that winter. The endeavour lasted until the first snow buried their poorly-stacked woodpile and the mother threw up her hands at the ashes, wood chips and other mess that made their way into the living room. In the long run, all it did was convince the entire family that wood heat was a terrible idea. That’s not the kind of story you want your children telling in forty years!
If you’re ready and everyone is excited, though, go for it!
Are You Looking to Feel More Fulfilled, Rewarded, and Engaged?
Okay, some of you might think that’s a trick question. Living a sustainable lifestyle is rewarding.
Some projects are hard work but that work pays off. You’ll feel more engaged in life and in your community. You’ll also enjoy a feeling of satisfaction when you know that your new habits do have a positive impact on the world.
So are you ready to take sustainability to the next level? Don’t worry; you don’t have to go off the grid if you don’t want to. I’m about to give you eight different ideas to add more sustainable habits and projects to your life.
Choose one or all eight – it’s up to you. Let’s get stared with composting.
Sustainability Idea #1 Composting
What do you do with your vegetable scraps? What about your banana peels, coffee grounds, or egg shells? Whether you have a garden or not, you can turn that everyday kitchen garbage into compost.
Compost is nature’s recycling program. Materials decompose and turn into extremely fertile and rich soil.
You can use the compost around your plants, in your houseplants, and of course you can add it to your lawn or garden. While adding composting to your lifestyle does require adopting a few new habits, it’s actually pretty easy to incorporate into the way you live.
Step One: Your Containers
You’ll need two containers if you’re creating an outdoor compost.
You’ll need a composting bin or area outside. You’ll also need something to store your kitchen waste in. Outdoors there are different types of bins to consider. Some have a handle on them so you can turn the bin and mix your compost. Others allow you to pop off the top. You mix by hand using a rake or shovel.
Indoors you want to choose a ceramic or stainless steel container. You’ll want it to have a lid. Even if you empty it daily (and you should), the container won’t smell good.
Step Two: Start Your Compost
Outside you’ll want to place your compost bin in an area where it will be out of your way but convenient.
Start your compost with a layer of brown material. Brown material is anything that is dry like twigs, dry leaves, straw, or dried grass. This should a few inches thick. Inside, you can start collecting your kitchen waste.
In general, don’t compost any meat, grease, or material that has animal waste on it. If you do, you’ll quickly discover just how many mice, raccoons, dogs and other scrounging wildlife is in your area. A few years ago, we thought our compost was safe because we had 6×6′ metal grates surrounding it. Turns out bears can pull apart metal grates, and it’s not a lot of fun to step out your front door and see a mature, hungry bear twenty feet away.
You can compost cardboard, fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee and tea grounds, and newspapers. If you aren’t sure, play it safe and don’t add it to your compost.
A word of warning: if you add seeds to your compost, for example apple or tomato seeds, don’t be surprised to find plants growing in your compost, or later in your yard where you’ve placed the compost. Potato peelings will often turn into potato plants. If they do, feel free to pull them up in the fall – the potatoes will be perfectly edible.
When your indoor container is full, add it to your outdoor compost bin and mix it up.
Step Three: Evaluate and Maintain
Your compost needs to stay moist but not soaking.
If it gets too wet, it will mold. If it’s too dry, nothing will happen. You can add water to your compost if it’s looking dry. Stir your compost every couple of weeks. Turning or stirring it aerates it, which facilitates decomposition.
Yard and food waste make up more than 30% of the waste in our landfills. This is absolutely unnecessary and could be avoided if everyone who can compost would do so. When you compost your kitchen and yard trimmings, you’re helping to divert that waste from the landfill. It’s a great way to live a more sustainable life.
Sustainability Idea #2 Raising Chickens
More and more people in cities, suburbs, and in the country are raising chickens.
They’re relatively easy to keep and an absolutely fresh egg is quite a treat. It’s becoming so common that you can probably find chicken feed at your local home store.
This is of course a bigger project than composting but it’s not as huge of an undertaking as you might think.
Step One: Your Chickens and the Law
The first step is to see if you can legally keep chickens in your area.
Check city and neighborhood laws and ordinances. If you live in an HOA community there may be rules that say you can’t keep animals/livestock on your property. Some cities that do allow them will still limit the number of chickens you can keep.
Don’t overlook this step. Many people have assumed that chickens are allowed and then later run afoul of local ordinances. In those cases the chickens must either be slaughtered or rehomed.
Step Two: Choose Your Breed
Before you build a chicken coop or plan their ranging area, decide what type of chickens you want to keep. This is important because chickens come in different sizes and have greater or lesser space requirements than other.
Consider looking for breeds that lay a lot of eggs so you can get more bang for your cluck. Hybrid chickens tend to lay more eggs and they’re generally easier to raise, which is great for beginners, while heritage birds are often hardier and more independent. We raised Black Australorps for a few years – a hardy, independent bird that required a great deal of space, did poorly in confinement and raised chicks with little interference from us. They were perfect for us on twenty-four acres in the woods, but not necessarily for someone in town.
Step Three: Build or Buy Your Chicken Coop
A chicken coop serves several purposes. It keeps your chickens dry and warm in bad weather. It protects them from predators. It also gives them a happy place to lay their eggs.
Make sure the coop is well ventilated. You’ll need nesting boxes, roosting poles, a place for food and water, and bedding material.
Step Four: Feed Your Chicks
You can buy chicken feed at your local hardware or farm supply store. It’s a well-rounded material that provides your chickens with the nutrition they need. You might also give them some scratch and some kitchen scraps but don’t overdo it.
Yes, your grandmother might have fed her chickens entirely on chicken scraps but that doesn’t mean they were healthy or long-lived birds. Make sure they have fresh water and create a system to keep the water flowing. You can buy automatic waterers for chickens, which are convenient.
Step Five: Room to Roam
In order to be healthy, your chickens need a fenced-in area to roam, peck and play. Keep in mind that the area where they’re able to roam will get scratched up pretty quickly. If you can rotate where you let them roam, you can prevent completely destroying your yard. This also helps prevent boredom.
Yes, chickens get bored.
Bored chickens peck and hurt each other and pull their own feathers out. It’s not a good thing.
Raising chickens is an adventure. Talk to other chicken owners to learn more about the best breeds and how they’ve managed their flock. And then enjoy the daily fresh eggs you get and the fun of raising chickens.
Okay, so whether or not composting and chickens are for you, how about alternative energy?
Sustainability Idea #3 Embracing Alternative Energy
You want to lower your energy bill, reduce your impact on the environment, and get some really cool bragging rights?
Or wind. Depending on where you live, that can work, too.
Step One: Choose Your Approach
There are several different alternative energy sources to consider. The most popular are solar and wind.
Solar is generally considered the easiest option and the most affordable. While people might complain about the initial cost, solar panels and systems have never been cheaper.
If you’re looking to replace your current system with solar or wind, you’ll be looking a huge investment and you might never see a return on that investment. Most people who switch to alternative energy decrease their consumption at the same time, though. We found that creating our own solar power made us very aware of every watt that we used.
Wind and hydro systems are another option. However, they’re generally more expensive and more difficult to maintain. Solar is durable and lasts for decades with minimal maintenance.
Step Two: Identify Your Budget and Goals
Don’t go into this one blindly. Before you get started, decided what you want to accomplish. Do you simply want to recharge your devices without having them increase your current power bill? There are plenty of small solar charging appliances that can even be used in apartments. There are even solar charges built into backpacks so that you can charge your devices while out walking.
If your goal is complete independence from the power grid, though, you’ll need a lot more planning.
Step Three: Get Quotes and Price It Out
There are two general approaches to this.
You can reach out to local installation companies who can give you the full package. This can be on-grid or off-grid. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of going solar while still connected to the power company. On-grid solar is promoted as a way to go solar without investing in batteries and while (maybe) earning money back from the power company, but everything I’ve heard about it makes me think that it is much more headache than it’s worth. Get a quote for a full package that includes batteries, a charge converter and everything you need to create your own power year round.
The other option is that you can install your system yourself. It’s a lot more work, and it’s made more difficult by the confusing language used in every solar power book I’ve read. They seem to make it purposely more difficult than it needs to be so that people give up and call a solar technician.
But what kind of money can you save? We ended up frustrated and called a solar technician to check our charge converter and install our panels on the metal roof of our shed. The entire job took him half an hour and he charged us $1500.
So for $1500, what are you willing to learn and do?
Step Four: Install and Enjoy
Whether solar, wind or hydro is your choice, large or small, and however you choose to have it installed, you now have an alternative energy system in place.
You can still listen to the news when there’s a power outage. Depending on what you install, perhaps your oil furnace (which requires electricity to start) still runs during that outage.
Make sure you have a plan in place for maintaining your system. Batteries need to be checked and replaced, panels need to be cleaned. There’s work to be done.
Keep a copy of last year’s energy bill. Track how much you’re saving each month. Even if you took out a loan to install your system, you can track your usage (and how much it would have cost you) as you pay off the loan.
Sustainability Idea #4 Harvesting Rainwater
Most of us today understand the importance of harvesting rainwater. We don’t need a drought to convince us. However, if you are dealing with a drought, you know that the hassle of alternating watering days or outright watering bans can wreak havoc on your landscaping and your garden.
Even here in damp, cool Nova Scotia, we know that a rainwater harvesting system helps. If you’re drawing on town water, it reduces your consumption. It also reduces stress on local aquifers and rivers. Reducing that stress means more water is available to sustain aquatic life.
Step One: Review Your Home Codes and Laws
Just like chickens, you can’t harvest rainwater in all locations. Some communities don’t allow it, and some home organizations have strict guidelines on what your system can contain.
Please be sure to follow the rules. I am not going to get into the pros and cons of laws that prevent harvesting rainwater since I don’t understand the legacy water rights or the ecological balance of different areas. I grew up in a place where there is water, water, water – if we go more than a few days without precipitation in Nova Scotia, we think we’re having a drought.
So please be sure to understand the rules of your area. If you can’t legally harvest water, don’t do it. If you’re going to risk jail time for civic disobedience, aim a bit higher than rainwater.
Step Two: Design Your System
The simplest system just takes water from your drainspout. Buy rain barrels from your local home store or make your own. If rainwater harvesting is encouraged in your area, you might be able to score inexpensive ones – check with your local municipality.
If you only have room (or money) for one rain barrel, look for the downspout that gets the most flow and locate it there.
Step Three: How Will You Use the Water?
The first time we tried collecting rainwater, when we lived in our off-grid cabin, we learned why you need a system. Water that’s allowed to sit will start growing things.
Lots and lots of mosquitoes.
When the dog, who likes his freshly caught prey to get nice and green and bloated before eating, looks at you like “Dude, a bit of fresh water here”, it’s time to recognize that just letting rainwater flow into a container isn’t good enough.
You can attach a garden hose to your rain barrel and use it to water your garden. You can also create a drip irrigation system from your rain barrel. Or you can simply fill watering cans from it and use the water to hydrate your plants both indoors and out. But you definitely need to use that water.
It is very important to sometimes clean out your rain barrel. Empty it completely and clean out the leaves and debris. You’ll be amazed how much dirt and material can come off your roof, through your downspouts, and into your rain barrel. Keep your gutters and downspouts clean, too. By doing this, you’ll ensure that the flow remains strong and that you don’t start growing bacteria or fungus in your barrel.
After three years of living off grid and relying on collected rainwater and water that we hauled from the spring, we became extremely aware of every drop consumed. When you start taking control of your water, you will also become much more conscious of your water consumption. Don’t be surprised if you never throw a glass of water down the drain again.
Let’s take a slight detour with the next idea. It might not be what most people think about when “sustainable living” comes up, but it’s absolutely important.
Sustainability Idea #5 Have Fun
For many, part of living sustainably is creating a sense of community.
It’s not just a lifestyle; it’s a movement. It’s a collective approach to make the world a better place and that doesn’t just stop with environmental steps.
Let’s take a look at three fun ways to give back, live sustainably, and enjoy a simpler lifestyle.
Join a CSA
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Essentially, CSA members buy shares of a farm and receive the benefits. When you buy a share, the benefits include whatever the farm produces. The benefit is that the farmer receives money in the off-season, when they need it to get ready for the growing season. The downside is that, if the season goes poorly, the CSA members take a risk and might not get as much back.
Some farms focus solely on growing produce. You’ll receive weekly bundles of lettuce, onions, and tomatoes in the summer months, and squash and dark leafy greens in the fall – whatever grows well in your area. Other farms might sell shares of the livestock they have on the farm.
You might get eggs from chickens, milk from goats, or meat from a cow at the end of the year.
Some farms sell partial shares which are good for small families. Whole shares might provide enough weekly produce to feed a large family or multiple families. CSAs are fun because it creates a community. Everyone is welcomed to pitch in at the farm, though you don’t have to.
You create a routine of visiting the farm and picking up your fresh organic produce. They’re great for the local economy and excellent for the environment as most CSAs are organic farms. Additionally, you’re not buying produce that had to be shipped from another country to your supermarket, so you’re cutting back on your carbon footprint.
Join a Food Co-Op
A food co-op or cooperative is an organized grocery store. Members help decide what items are carried in the store and where they come from. In exchange they also get reduced prices. Most often, items in the market come from local farmers and local companies.
You have the ability to buy materials in bulk and to save money. Co-operatives can be fun because you’re part of a community of decision makers.
Grow a Community Garden
Another option to enjoy a simpler lifestyle while giving back is to participate or start a community garden. This type of initiative works well in suburban or urban environments where green space may be limited.
Find a plot of land, get permission from the city, and then invite others to participate in the tending of the garden. Those who help out and give their time are able to enjoy the fruits of their labors. It’s also a great way to get children involved in the growing process and to help them understand how plants grow and how food is produced.
Finally, if all of these ideas are a bit too time consuming or they’re unavailable in your area, consider creating a weekly outing to your local farmer’s market. You can enjoy the time outside with your friends and family and support local farmers at the same time. And you just can’t beat the flavor and nutrition of locally-grown produce.
Sustainability Idea #6 Reducing Your Food Waste
You would be shocked to know how much food is wasted every year. In the United States alone, more than 34 million tons of food spoils – mostly in landfills – creating greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
The USDA estimates that households waste about 27% of the food that they buy.
Want to help our planet and fatten your wallet? After all, every $1 spent on food that spoils and is thrown away is just flat out money wasted.
Sit down once or twice a week and plan your meals. Plan what you need for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Create a list and then shop from the list.
Sit down once a week and plan out what you’ll be eating – breakfast, lunch, dinners and snacks. It doesn’t need to be as strict as knowing exactly what you’ll eat on Monday, but you most likely need seven dinners, seven lunches, etc. Plan for packed lunches, too.
Check through what is already in your fridge and freezer so that you can make use of them first.
What you don’t plan to use right away needs to be immediately packaged and stored properly. This is a lesson I learned years ago from my mother. She would buy huge family packs of ground beef and then make me sit there with a box of freezer bags. I became very good at eyeballing and measuring out a pound of meat! (And she was equally good at making a pound of ground beef feed five to ten people!)
When it comes to perishables like greens, don’t buy more than you can use before it spoils.
Learn to Love Leftovers
Much of the food that goes to waste in your home is probably due to leftovers. Either change your meal planning so you don’t have leftovers, or learn to love them. For example, leftover stir fry may not sound like a typical breakfast, but it can be quite satisfying. Or use them for your packed lunch.
Learn to Preserve
There are many different opportunities to preserve your produce before it goes bad. I cover a lot of this in my cookbook A Cabin Full of Food because the very best way to buy apples is by the bushel.
You can chop them up and freeze them.
You could slice them up, dip them in orange or lemon juice and dry them in a food dehydrator. Homemade apple slices are wonderful.
You might also want to cook them down, puree the apples and make applesauce, apple butter or homemade fruit leather.
Finally, if you just can’t do anything with that food and it’s going to end up in a landfill, compost it. Composting turns your food scraps and paper scraps into rich soil that you can use in your garden, landscaping or even in your indoor plants. It’s a smart way to help keep waste out of landfills and to reduce your food waste.
Sustainability Idea #7 The Lowdown on LED
This sustainability idea is a super easy one. However, the initial financial output may be more than you’d like to take on. We’re talking about switching all of your home’s light bulbs to LED bulbs.
According to the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, if every household in the United States replaced just one standard incandescent light bulb with an energy-efficient one, the nation would save about $600 million in annual energy costs. That’s enough to power three million homes for a year.
You might also be surprised to learn that lighting your home typically accounts for about 20-30 percent of your electric bill. When we moved into our new home, we accessed a local program that’s funded by our provincial government and all of our lights were changed to LED. That’s part of why our monthly power bill, for a 3000 square foot home and six people, sits at around $100/month.
But Aren’t LED Bulbs Expensive?
The truth is that when compared to a 99 cent incandescent light bulb, a $25 bulb may seem outrageous. However, here’s the thing. That $25 bulb will last twenty years or more, which brings it down to about a dollar a bulb annually.
And that incandescent bulb that you buy will probably need to be replaced in four to six months. So you’re actually spending a bit more annually on incandescent bulbs than on LED. The difference is negligible but it’s in favour of the LED. The real savings is in the annual energy savings.
A Strategic Approach
If you’re not excited about spending a thousand dollars or more replacing every single light bulb in your home, then you might enjoy this frugal strategy.
Step One: Identify your priority lights
What lights do you use the most? Chances are they’re in your kitchen and living room. This is where you spend the most time each day and where the lights are on more than any other room. Replace these lights first.
Step Two: Buy in bulk
In many cases you’ll be able to save a bit on LED bulbs if you buy them in multipacks. Make sure you’re buying the right size bulb for your fixture. Make the appropriate lumens to watts conversion (there’s usually a conversion printed on the packaging).
Look also for the appropriate size base. For example, some lights have pins at the base and others have screw bottoms. Also choose the right size and shape bulb. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a bulb home and realizing it peeks out above your light shade. It’s unattractive and irritating.
Step Three: Keep an eye out for sales and coupons
Make a list of the next priority room and keep an eye out for sales and coupons. More and more stores, including your local supermarket, carry LED bulbs so you should be able to find some savings.
And be sure to check with your power company to see if there’s a program like the one we accessed. With an incredible 52 lightbulbs in our house, we saved well over a thousand dollars.
LED bulbs are a simple way to live a more sustainable life. Add them to your home in a way that makes the most financial sense for you.
For the last idea, we’ll shift away from light and talk a bit about saving more water.
Sustainability Idea #8 How to Save More Water
Weather is so strange these days. It seems like places are either up to their necks in water, like we are in Nova Scotia right now, or they’re dealing with droughts. Even if you’re not in a drought, though, it makes good environmental sense to save as much water as possible.
That doesn’t mean you go without showering. Your friends and family would probably not appreciate that degree of effort. And it doesn’t mean you need to follow the rather disgusting “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule. There are six people in my family – with that much activity, the toilets must be flushed immediately and scrubbed daily or my house smells revoltingly of urine all the time.
And it doesn’t mean you need to get a composting toilet either. Same reason. Times a hundred.
There are other things you can do, though.
Step One: Install a Low Flow Shower Head
Low flow doesn’t mean that your showers will be weak and unsatisfying. In fact there are many powerful low flow showers that make you feel like you’re in a spa. Older model showerheads generally have a flow rate of about five to eight gallons per minute. A low flow shower head uses about one and a half to two and a half gallons per minute. Simply unscrew your old model and attach the new model, then enjoy the savings.
I promise, you won’t notice the difference in your shower but you will notice it on your water bill.
Step Two: Xeriscape
Xeriscaping is the process of using plants in your landscaping that don’t need much water. And we’re not just talking about cacti and succulents. There’s actually quite a large selection of plants that are drought friendly AND native to your area.
If xeriscaping isn’t your style, consider watering your lawn in a more conservative manner. Water every couple of days and water your lawn when the sun goes down. Water it for a solid twenty to thirty minutes to give it a good soaking. This helps the roots go deeper and they’ll be able to retrieve more water down deep instead of relying on surface water.
Step Three: Laundry and Dishes
Only do complete loads of laundry and dishes. Don’t run the appliances when they’re less than full. The same is true when you’re hand washing laundry or clothes. Fill the sink instead of letting the water run.
Every little step you can take to conserve water helps the environment. The changes don’t have to be monumental to make a difference. Install a low flow toilet, take shorter showers and pour any leftover water into plants. Be water wise!
How to Make a Smooth Transition into Your New More Sustainable Lifestyle
There are so many ways to make a difference in the world and the environment. From composting to installing a solar panel system in your home to providing your energy, there are so many options it might seem overwhelming. How do you decide where to start and more importantly – once you’ve decided, how do you make the transition a smooth one?
Step One: Prioritize and Plan
Choose one new habit or one area of your life where you want to make a change. What’s the most important change you feel capable of tackling right now? Where do you think you can make the biggest difference? For example, maybe you want to start eating more organic and locally grown foods.
Once you’ve decided what’s most important to you, consider how you can accomplish your goals. For example, if you want to eat more organic and locally grown foods you might join a CSA, add a garden to your yard, or visit the local farmer’s market to get your produce.
This helps you add organic and locally grown produce to your daily life. It also helps cut down on emissions and your carbon footprint because the food you’re buying doesn’t have to travel far to get to your table.
Step Two: Make Small Changes
Decide what you can do and take small steps. Your changes and goals should be realistic and achievable. For example, maybe gardening isn’t really something you have time for but you can visit the farmer’s market once a week. That’s a realistic goal that you can achieve.
Step Three: Be Patient and Persistent
Finally, keep in mind that it takes a few weeks to create a habit. Every step you take to live a more sustainable life is a positive step. Be patient with yourself and persistent in your life changes.