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Living Sustainably

Did you know that the average American consumes more than twice as much water and energy as people in other industrialized nations?  We also contribute far more than our share of pollutants to the atmosphere and garbage to local landfills.

The small choices we make every day can have a major impact on our world.  Below you’ll find some simple day-to-day changes you can make to help protect and conserve our natural resources.

General Consumption:

  • Reduce reduce reduce!
  • Avoid using plastic utensils, paper cups, paper plates, and plastic stirrers, and instead use items you can wash and reuse, like a travel mug for your coffee.  When eating in the dining halls, only take the paper napkins you need (each American uses an average of 2,200 two-ply napkins each year!). After washing your hands, use an electric hand drier rather than paper towels. When a sales clerk asks if you’d like a bag to take home your purchase, only say yes if you really need one.
  • Paper or plastic?  Neither!  Bring your own canvas or cloth bags to the grocery store.  If you have to choose, paper is the better of the two options if you reuse and recycle the bags.
  • Skip buying bottled water, and fill a reusable water bottle with tap water instead.  For every one million bottles of water that are manufactured and shipped to consumers, 18.2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions are released into the air.  And if just one out of every 20 gym-goers picked up this habit, the United States would save almost 30 million pounds of plastic waste each year.
  • Always recycle. Go out of your way to find the recycle bin. By separating paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum and putting those products in the recycling bin, Americans would decrease our annual waste production, which currently fills an area as big as the state of Pennsylvania, by 75%.


  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs, which use 75% less energy and last 10 times as long.  And turn off your lights when you leave the room!
  • Message people from a portable device.  Whether you’re text messaging or sending an email, doing so from a cell phone or other mobile device uses more than 30 times less energy than using a computer.
  • Activate your computer’s power management “sleep” or “quiet” mode, which can save up to $75 in electricity each year.  Screensavers do not save energy.
  • Unplug your TV and cell phone charger when you’re not using them.  Appliances still suck power when turned off – an estimated 95 percent of the energy consumed by cell phone chargers happens when they are left plugged in.  So pull the plug on appliances when not in use, and try plugging your TV and DVD player into a power strip that’s easy to reach and turn off.


  • Wash clothes in cold water, and save 90% over the energy used when machines are set for hot cycles.  If all American households switched to cold cycles, we could save the energy equivalent to 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
  • Keep showers short.  A two-minute reduction in your daily shower time can save more than ten gallons of water.  If every American used a gallon of water less every day, we would conserve the amount of water taken every two days from the Great Lakes, which is the world’s largest source of fresh water.
  • Turn the sink off when you’re not using it. This goes for brushing teeth, washing hands, and washing dishes. If every U.S. resident did this, it could save as much water each day as all of New York City consumes daily.


  • Go without ATM receipts.  Thrown on the ground almost as much as gum wrappers, ATM receipts are one of the biggest sources of litter on the planet.  If all the ATM users in the U.S. stopped getting receipts for one year, we would save over two billion feet worth of paper, enough to wrap around the equator fifteen times.
  • Go paperless with your banking. Whether it’s checks or credit card statements, try to use as little paper as possible.  If every American household switched to paperless for just their credit cards, it would save enough money in postage to clear the average credit card debt for a quarter of a million people.
  • Reduce junk mail. The average American home receives a tree and a half’s worth of junk mail each year. To rid yourself of junk mail, register (for $1) with the Mail Preference Service at Recycle any junk mail you continue to receive. If the whole nation recycled that waste, we would save $370 million in landfill dumping fees every year.


  • Buy products with as little packaging as possible.  If every American bought just one minimally packaged item out of every ten purchases, the waste eliminated from landfills each year would be enough to cover all of New York City’s Central Park with a 27-foot-high layer of garbage.
  • Buy items made from mostly or all recycled material.  Millions of trees, as well as other valuable environmental resources, can be saved if more recycled material was used for new products.
  • Buy eco-friendly products.  Most environmentally friendly products are only slightly more expensive than traditional products, and many stores now have eco-friendly sections to make shopping easier.
  • Support environmentally conscience companies.  The world’s corporations believe that the customer is always right.  If your shopping choices show that the environment is important, they will listen.


  • Don’t drive if you don’t have to.  Walking, bicycling, and taking a bus are all less costly, more energy efficient modes of transportation.  Just six hundred thousand students who bike to school save about one hundred thousand gallons of gasoline each day.
  • Downsize your car.  Every extra 100 pounds a car weighs requires 2% more fuel to move it.
  • Air conditioning or windows down?  When driving around town and at lower speeds, roll down your windows to save gas.  But it may surprise you to learn that when highway driving, it’s more energy-efficient to use your air conditioning.  The drag caused by open windows while driving at higher speeds counteracts the energy saved by keeping the AC off.
  • Fly direct, when possible.  Takeoffs and landings are when the most fuel is burned, and takeoffs alone can consume 25% of the energy used on a short trip.


  • Cut down on the amount of meat you eat, and instead try introducing soy or other vegetable proteins into your diet.  It takes five pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to make one pound of beef – which translates into eight times as much energy as it takes to produce a pound of tofu.
  • Buy local produce.  Shop at area farmers markets to support local farmers, and to help reduce emissions and fuel use associated with transporting food from distant locations.
  • Buy organic, when possible.  Organic products are grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and reduce the amount of toxins that enter our ecosystems, our water supplies, and our bodies.

In the Home:

  • Set your thermostat a degree higher for air-conditioning and a degree lower for heating.  Not only can you save hundreds of dollars each year, but if every American practiced this method of conservation, the nation could cut $10 billion out of its energy costs each year.
  • Close the refrigerator door.  Refrigerators consume more energy than any other kitchen appliance.  Better refrigerator habits could save enough energy in one year to light every U.S. household for almost five months straight.
  • Run full dishwasher loads and don’t hand-wash dishes before putting them in the machine.  By doing both of these, each of us can save in one year the amount of water the average person drinks in a lifetime.
  • Avoid wasting food by using products before they go bad. If every American household saved twenty-five grams of food (a slice of bread) every day, the amount food waste reduced would be enough for the 1.35 million homeless children in the country to eat three meals a day.
  • Buy 100% recycled toilet paper.  If every American home replaced a single 12-roll pack of regular toilet paper with recycled each year, it would save five million trees.
  • Use your microwave, which is more energy-efficient than electric ovens.  If every person in North America used microwaves only, we would save in a year the amount of energy that all of Africa uses in the same time span.  And keep your microwave clean – a cleaner microwave works better and cuts down on energy use.

Other Resources:


The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time
By Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen (Three Rivers Press, 2007)

The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills To Stop Climate Change
By David De Rothschild (Rodale Books, 2007)

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