Clever tricks to help you reduce your ecological footprint...
        ...including a few you've probably never seen before.

Author: Ryan Geiss
Last updated: 3 May 2009

     1. saving electricity & money
     2. the washer / dryer
     3. staying warm
     4. for your health
     5. packaging and recycling
     6. the big picture
     7. in the kitchen
     8. on the road

  • Buy thinner, smaller towels for after you shower. Most people buy gigantic, thick towels, but these take a ton more energy to wash and dry, and because they don't dry quickly after a shower, they tend to get skunky very quickly. (ew)   If you have short hair, you can get completely dry with just a hand towel.

  • If you use a clothes dryer, keep the lint trap clear. Notice that when the lint trap is covered in lint (which only takes a few loads), it takes clothes twice as long to dry - which means the drier is using twice as much energy as it needs to - and you have to wait around longer.

  • Set up a small clothesline, or use one of those accordian-like wooden rack things, if only for just for the big & heavy stuff - towels, sheets, sweaters, etc. These few items take little time to put on the line, but save a disproportionate amount of energy because of their size and weight.

  • Wash clothes in cold water; they get just as clean. Don't do the extra rinse unless the clothes were super-dirty and you used huge amounts of soap. Buy phosphor-free, biodegradeable, eco-friendly detergents - they work wonderfully and are much healthier for you and the environment, especially aquatic life.

  • In the winter, when it's cold indoors, wear a hat... inside the house! It will keep you much warmer than you probably would have guessed. Long underwear gives you another 5-degree advantage. These can also help you stay healthier through the winter.

  • For your bed, use a thin synthetic (fleece) or down comforter, with a heavy cotton blanket on top of it. The fleece/down layer does the insulating (cotton is utterly useless in that respect - ask any backpacker), while the heavy cotton layer keeps it pressed down and conforming to your body.

  • Invest in double-pane windows. Most people don't realize how little insulative value single-pane windows have; a double-pane window, with its air buffer, is really almost magical in how much energy it saves (and how much warmer you'll feel). Single-pane windows should be abolished! (in cold climates, at least)

    A cheap and easy alternative for renters is to buy clear plastic sheeting from the hardware store (usually $0.40 cents per square foot) and pin it tightly over the window recesses. Because it's plastic (synthetic) it has superior insulating properties, and it's fairly robust so you can reuse it over many winters. It's almost as good as having double-pane windows, but it only costs about $10 per bedroom, so it pays itself off in just 2 or 3 months. We recently did this to my house ($50 total, 5 bedrooms) and the heat now runs about 40% as often as it used to... the house is more of a home and our gas bill should be going way, way down. Note that you can also put this stuff behind blinds, so they're still operable - it's quite bendable and malleable. Also notice that where your windows before were freezing cold to the touch - meaning they were sucking lots of heat away - the plastic is at room temperature. Amazing!

  • If you have cold tile or wood or linoleum floors, that represents a huge draw of heat away from your house; putting down some rugs or carpeting will save you lots of money and make the house more comfortable. (Do you see why? The floor temperature will be closer to the temperature at the thermostat sensor. Same goes for the double-pane windows.)

  • In the winter, open all drapes in the morning, and close them at night - especially on south-facing exteriors. During the day, the sun will hit the inside of the house and the heat will be absorbed, keeping you warmer all night long. At night, the closed drapes will block heat leaking out into the cold night.

  • Install a programmable thermostat. If you live in a hot or cold climate and have no pets, there's no reason to keep the hot warm (or cool) during the day when no one is home; it's a huge waste of money (it'll pay itself off in two months, then perpetually save you money). Also, set it to around 65 (or lower) when you sleep; a little cool night air is healthy. Make sure you have a nice synthetic comforter (fleece, etc.) to keep your body toasty, though.

  • If you have high ceilings, installing a ceiling fan can drastically reduce your heating/AC bills. Run it at a high speed in the summer; the convection will keep you cool. Reverse the blades & run it at low speed in the winter to push all that heat that drifted up back down to where the people are. Fans use very little electricity compared to heaters and A/C units, which are energy monsters.

  • Buy the product with less packaging, when other factors are equal.

  • "Paper or plastic?" Try neither! Buy a few of those $1 "Green Bag" totes at Whole Foods, or some $10 cotton/canvas tote bags, and keep them in your car for carrying groceries (or other things); over a lifetime you'll save tens of thousands of plastic and paper bags. If you're really serious, buy your grains, cereals, nuts, teas, rice, pastas, beans, etc. from the bulk section of a health food store, and reuse those clear plastic bags, for produce & bulk dried foods. [For produce, once I'm done with the bag, I just rinse it out and hang it from the fridge with a magnet to dry.] You'll save *tons* of packaging, and money too, because buying bulk is often very cheap.

  • Don't buy beverages in plastic; go for glass. Glass is made from an abundant source (sand) and recycles well, whereas plastic is made from precious oil and recycles poorly; it never becomes "new" plastic - it can only be remade into industrial plastic like in picnic tables, plastic decks, and insulation - and all too often, there is far more than is needed for these purposes, and it goes into the dump.

  • Better yet - just drink water. Most juices are mainly sugar water anyway; they're expensive to buy, require a lot of energy to transport, and leave you with a container afterwards. Drinking water with meals is often healthier anyway (...than drinking sugar water).

  • On the road a lot? Keep a water bottle and/or a good metallic coffee cup, and take it with you; use it instead of throw-away bottles and cups. I also keep a tupperware container (actually a cool porcelain one) in my car, for leftovers at restaurants. (It always impresses.) I also bring my own chopsticks (when I think to).

  • Who needs paper towels? In the kitchen, use a real cloth and wash it. In public restrooms, shake your hands dry in the sink, then pat them on your clothes. Your body heat will dry your hands off completely in about 30 seconds. I haven't used a paper towel in a restroom in 5 years (except once at a wedding when I was wearing a suit), and frankly, I don't understand why anyone does...

  • If you have to get disposable plates or cups for an event, get paper instead of plastic. As mentioned, plastic doesn't recycle as well, and is a limited resource, whereas trees are renewable. (And believe it or not, forests in the U.S. are regrowing; deforestation is only a problem in developing countries. However, they're often deforesting to use the land to make products that we buy!)

  • Buy local. In general I try to vegetables grown, and beer brewed, in the state I live in; who needs their food and drink trucked thousands of miles? It's a big waste. Some say eating local foods is better for your allergies, as well.

  • Use a lid when cooking. Most heat escapes through the top (heat rises), so with a lid, you can turn the flame (or current) way down and easily save over 50%.

  • Let hot foods sit out for a while before you put them in the fridge.

  • Leave some space behind your fridge so the air can circulate; unplug it and wipe off the condenser coils once a year, to keep it operating efficiently.

  • If you do nothing else, make a CarbonFund donation each year, which will make your car carbon-neutral for the year. The average car driver shoves about 12,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, contributing to global warming. But for only $30 (tax-deductible, too!), you can pay CarbonFund to make your car climate-neutral for the year by financing projects to sequester 12,000 pounds of CO2 during the year. Very clever, and very cheap! (...twice as effective as buying a hybrid, but far less expensive!) They also make great gifts.

  • Fly less. This is very important! Many people don't realize that flying produces even more CO2 (per passenger, per mile) than driving. If you do fly, consider buying a Flight Terrapass to cover it.

  • Slow down. Wind resistance increases with velocity cubed, meaning that when you double your speed, your wind resistance increases by a factor of eight, lowering your gas mileage. At low speeds (under 50) it doesn't matter much - wind resistance is not a key factor. But above 50, the difference is quite noticeable - as much as 20%, depending on the car. (Interestingly, hybrids tend to be so efficient, internally, that the wind resistance factor becomes a larger, more noticeable efficiency bottleneck.)

  • Pump the air in your (car) tires up to the recommended level every 3rd fill-up at the gas station. It'll make a big difference in your gas mileage! Also keep in mind that most manufacturers err WAY on the side of caution and tell you to leave your tires practically flat. Ask your mechanic what you should really pump them up to!

  • Throw some low rolling resistance (LRR) tires on your car for an extra 2-3 miles per gallon.

  • Carpool; use public transportation; consolidate errands; keep "to buy" lists, and let 'em get long, 'til you must go.

  • Check out a fuel-efficient hybrid gasoline-electric car like the Honda Insight (60-70 mpg), Honda Civic Hybrid (46-51 mpg), or Toyota Prius (45-52 mpg); they capture energy when you brake, and re-use it to help you accelerate. Several Volkswagen diesels (golf, new beetle, jetta) get good mileage but are *really* dirty. For lower budgets, check out the (regular) Honda Civic (up to 44) or the Toyota Echo (up to 43). Click here for complete listings. But the best thing you can do is drive less (which is free!). Carpooling is especially effective; when you carpool with another person, it's the equivalent of doubling your gas mileage, because it takes the other car off the road. (The real measure of gas mileage is "people miles" per gallon.)

[ return to main page ]