Add solar panels to your house. With the plunging price of solar power, and an increasingly diverse group of companies such as Tesla and Forward Labs offering new products, the toughest decision may not be whether to install, but which style and color panels to place on your roof. And the boom in solar installations will only continue; on the heels of a record year of sales, analysts expect the market to nearly triple by 2020. The Energy Department has a good resource guide for homeowners, while Google’s Project Sunroof helps calculate the potential benefits of home installation.
Get a home energy audit. A simple home energy audit can show how much energy your home consumes and give you tips on changes that can make things more efficient. Most assessments help homeowners save between 5 to 30 percent on their energy bills, and audits can significantly reduce a home’s carbon footprint.
Change lightbulbs to LEDs. Quality LED lightbulbs can last 25 times longer, are more durable, and use at least 75 percent less energy than other bulbs. In the United States, widespread use of LEDs over the next 10 years could save the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large power plants (about 348 TWh).
Ask your utility company about buying clean electricity. You may not know exactly how much of your electricity is coming from renewable energy, so now is the time to find out. Contact your utility company, find out the sources of the electricity they supply, and see if you can opt in for “green pricing” in order to pay slightly more in exchange for electricity generated from clean, renewable power.
Clean or replace HVAC filters every three months. A dirty filter on your air conditioner or heater will make the system work harder and waste energy.
Use a programmable thermostat. Instead of keeping your house a constant 70 degrees, invest in an automatic thermostat, which can cost as little $25. Higher-end smart thermostats like the Nest or Ecobee can customize your temperatures so you’re not blasting the air conditioning when no one is home or using too much heat when everyone is tucked in bed.
Wash clothes in cold water. Most Americans still wash their laundry in warm water, which costs more money and takes a toll on the environment. Approximately 75 percent of the total energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions produced by a single load of laundry come from warming the water itself. That’s unnecessary, especially because studies have shown that washing in cold water is just as effective as using warm.
Upcycle your furniture. From shopping cart couches to chairs from old skis, upcycled furniture can be innovative and environmentally smart. Consider using recycled materials—like pallets—or repurposing the furniture you already have instead of buying new.
Recycle your clothes. The average American throws away about 80 pounds of clothing a year. Not only is fast fashion wasteful, but the environmental cost of manufacturing and distributing new clothes is devastating. A handful of retailers offer recycling programs, while companies like Patagonia will actually purchase, refurbish, and resell your gently worn garments.
Buy new appliances with the Energy Star label. When you need to replace a refrigerator or dishwasher, choose an appliance that’s Energy Star certified. Energy Star products are more efficient, meaning they can help lower your energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Design your workspace around natural light. On June 16, firms around the world will turn off their lights to raise awareness about using natural daylight instead of electric lighting in offices.
Unplug electronic devices when they aren’t in use. Just because a device or appliance appears to be off doesn’t mean it’s not drawing power. About a quarter of all residential energy consumption is used on devices in idle power mode, which means “sleep mode” is costing upward of $19 billion in electricity bills. Things like your cable box, laptop, and even your speakers may be using almost as much power when they are off but plugged in as when they are on. Group appliances on power strips so you can turn them off at the same time, especially if you’re going on vacation.
Obsess over every drop of water. Water management not only helps cities become more resilient in the faces of storms, droughts, and natural disasters, but also saves energy. Rain barrels and rain gardens help capture and purify water, putting less stress on municipal systems and replenishing underground aquifers.
Build a downspout planter box. If you live in an apartment building, you can still capture your rainwater to save water and cool streets. Philadelphia offers free training for homeowners on stormwater management. Afterward, attendees receive a free downspout planter box for their home. Check out more tips from Curbed Philly.
Insulate. Simply making our homes more efficient can substantially cut the energy needed to heat and cool. Adding insulation, weather stripping, and caulking around your home can cut energy bills by more than 25 percent.
Downsize. Does saving the planet “spark joy?” Then take a page out of Marie Kondo’s books and try to be mindful of what you do and don’t need. A more measured approach to consumption can also eliminate unneeded purchases that contribute to global emissions.
Hack your thermostat. Simply adjust your thermostat to run 2 degrees cooler in the winter and 2 degrees warmer in the summer. You likely won’t notice much of a difference in your house, but the energy savings can be dramatic.
Remove your lawn. That “little” patch of green in front of your home is the U.S.’s most widely grown crop—there are 42 million acres of grass nationwide, more than the total acreage of corn. Lawns require extra water, gas-powered equipment, and fertilizer that pollutes waterways (and homeowners pollute much worse than farmers, since they aren’t versed in professional landscaping). Less grass equals less gas.
Buy furniture made with sustainably harvested wood. Deforestation is a serious problem, but buying sustainably sourced wood—look for the Forest Stewardship Council logo—ensures that your wood is coming from 380 million acres of FSC-certified forest and not an old-growth forest.
Don’t buy a new home; renovate an old one. Preservationists often say that the greenest home is the one that’s already built. That’s definitely true, but often, older housing stock is less energy efficient, so those seeking to lovingly restore and rehabilitate an old gem end up paying higher heating and cooling costs. The true green home, however, is an old house brought up to speed with 21st-century sustainability solutions. A new project by Harvard’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities seeks to transform an old stick-built home into a model for energy efficiency with an affordable retrofit. Inefficient existing buildings are one of the world’s biggest energy problems; the best place to start making a difference is at home.
Xeriscape your yard. Huge lawns use a lot of water to maintain, so consider adding drought-tolerant plants in order to reduce your water consumption by 50 to 75 percent.
Hang-dry your clothes instead of using the dryer. There are more than 90 million clothes dryers in the United States, and if all Americans line-dried for just half a year, it would save 3.3 percent of the country’s total residential output of carbon dioxide.
Recycle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013 Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.3 percent recycling rate. We need to do better.
Plant a community garden. Rolling up your sleeves and digging in the soil offers a great way to meet neighbors and collaboratively add something to your neighborhood. To get you started, the American Community Gardening Association offers a set of resources and recommendations on how to manage and maintain a public patch.
Start or support an urban farm. Talk about locally sourced: Supporting urban agriculture that’s not just in your region, but also down the block, can help cut carbon emissions and provide local employment while offering more chances to enjoy that just-picked freshness. From warehouse rooftops to urban orchards to innovative vertical farms, new ways to raise crops are taking root.
Eat less meat. Going local for food matters, but not as much as methane. Raising cattle and sheep creates vast amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Cutting out meat, or even reducing consumption and favoring fish and chicken, can seriously save carbon. Studies at Carnegie Mellon suggest merely swapping red meat and dairy for a more balanced diet with fish, eggs, and fowl makes a big difference.
Reduce food waste. Whether it’s left on your plate or rotting in your fridge, wasted food is a big problem in the U.S.—to the tune of 38 million tons a year, according to the EPA. Luckily, small changes to your routine can make a big difference. Here’s a great list of ideas for saving food, including ways to be thrifty and smarter about storage and preservation.
Don’t drink bottled water. Landfills already contain more than 2 million tons of plastic bottles. And 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture water bottle every year. And those bottles take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade. Yeah, that reusable water bottle does sound like a good idea.
Plant your own vegetable garden. It doesn’t get more local than fresh tomatoes from your backyard.
Join a CSA. Community-Supported Agriculture connects consumers with seasonal food sold directly from nearby farmers. You’ll help support farmers while also eating local—a proven way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Start composting. Transforming food scraps and lawn clippings into fresh, nutrient-rich soil gives home gardens a boost (and if done right, doesn’t create an olfactory offense). Roughly 20 to 30 percent of what we normally throw out can be composted. And the process offers huge benefits at the city level, too. New York City’s composting programcreates “black gold” in the form of rich soil, saves money on shipping organic waste to landfills, and even generates energy from methane.