6 Little (But Totally Effective) Ways to Make Going Green a Lifelong Habit

updated May 24, 2021
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Young woman wearing face mask watering plants on urban farm.
Credit: Getty Images | Thomas Barwick

There was once a time when my eco-friendly habits could be considered casual at best. Though I practiced turning off lights when I left the room, and would make an effort to take things to the recycling plant once in a while, I wouldn’t say I made green living a conscious habit.

But watching coverage of the growing climate crisis and the mounting plastics in our oceans pushed me to think about how much of my attention I dedicated toward developing eco-friendly habits in my day-to-day life. I knew I needed to make a change, especially if I strived to be a role model for my daughter. 

Through the years, I’ve made a point to recycle paperwork and milk cartons, as well as limiting food waste. I rarely use plastic bags and opt to take reusable totes to the grocery store. That said, though my shift toward becoming eco-friendly wasn’t a big ask, it didn’t happen overnight. It required me to pause, reflect and make changes in my routine. I didn’t make myself feel bad for what I hadn’t done in the past, but looked to areas of my life where I could slowly integrate better habits that become automatic. And in doing so, I learned doing my part to be eco-conscious doesn’t have to be complicated. 

Here are six ways to make being eco-friendly a lifelong habit: 

Begin with small changes.

I learned that becoming eco-conscious could start with several small changes. I began unplugging my phone charger when I wasn’t using it, started drying towels on a clothesline rather than automatically throwing them into the dryer, and decided to no longer drink water from plastic bottles. These were minor changes and could be easily integrated into my life. 

“There are small steps and then there are giant leaps,” Stephanie Seferian, the author of “Sustainable Minimalism” and host of  The Sustainable Minimalists podcast says. “As you begin adopting eco-friendliness, find one area where you know you can do better, then commit to it.” She recommends that people who want to make lasting change focus on a single area in their life at a time. 

She admits that she jumped head-first into eco-friendliness. “I did all the things, and I did them at once. I drastically changed my family’s diet from one that ate some meat and an awful lot of dairy to one that was plant-based. In one clean sweep, I discarded all the products with harmful chemicals in our bathrooms.” As a result, she didn’t do any of these tasks particularly efficiently, nor did they stick.  Her key to embrace eco-friendly strategies now is to tackle them slowly, one by one. 

Try to look for different areas in your life to integrate eco-conscious habits in small ways. ”For instance, if you are in the habit of using the dryer to dry your clothes, a  practical first step toward eco-friendliness is to commit to line drying your clothes once per week,” Seferian suggests. When it begins to feel second nature, you can build on that habit with another one. 

Don’t beat yourself up for slipping up.

Changing habits require time, and it might feel difficult to prioritize living a little greener when you are overwhelmed with day-to-day responsibilities. And if you’re particularly busy, it can be plenty appealing to revert to old habits and shortcuts.  “As a mother with two young daughters, a full-time job, and a house to maintain, I often feel as though I can’t possibly take on another habit shift,” Seferian says. “Convenience means throwing clothes in the dryer instead of taking the time to hang them up or to resort to food items in disposable packaging (granola bars, cheese sticks) when there isn’t time to cook.” 

She suggests reframing how you view eco-friendliness as a long-haul effort, rather than judging yourself by one or two slip-ups. “It isn’t a zero-sum game,” Seferian says. “Remember that the goal is progress, the good-faith efforts add up, and that your efforts are likely creating a ripple effect amongst your friends and family who are watching you practice eco-friendliness.”  

Make space in your home for a compost bin.

If you’ve been curious about composting your food waste, consider this a good place to start. Health coach Alessandra Kessler is a big fan of composting, and suggests that people start and feed a compost bin if they have the space to do so. “This would help you sort out your garden and the waste that it produces and it is quite easy to make,” she says — in fact, if you have a windowsill, you probably have the space to start composting. “Your scraps for unwanted and rotten food can also be reused for your garden soil,” she notes.

Use what you have rather than prioritizing yet another purchase.

There are several household goods that can be repurposed and be put to use. Sometimes it requires creativity or a little more effort or cleaning on your part. Aleks Strub, the founder of sustainable home goods company Oona Goods, suggests using old jam jars instead of buying new ones to store bulk goods and cleaned-out yogurt containers as tupperware. She’s also a big fan of reusing plastic Ziploc bags — just because they’re marketed as a single-use product for lunches doesn’t mean you need to throw them out after each use. (Just ask your mom — she’ll likely agree.) 

Look at going eco-friendly as a way to experiment with new recipes.

So much of eco-friendliness relies on an ability to be creative with learning how to prevent waste, and that goes double for food waste. The United States discards more food than any other country in the world. It is estimated that Americans throw out 80 billion pounds of food every year.  

If you’re not yet comfortable in the kitchen, Strubs recommends learning cooking basics so that over time you feel more comfortable improvising. “You can cut down on major waste in your fridge and wallet” the more you know how to work with what you have, she says. Looking for pointers on how to repurpose those odds and ends floating around your fridge? Our sister site Kitchn is a great place to start.

Plan ahead.

With a little foresight, it’s easy to adjust your habits so that your new green lifestyle extends outside of your home. Strubs loves takeout food, but “makes a point to plan for it” by bringing containers, bamboo utensils, and reusable bags just in case she needs them. Making sure your car or bag always has a refillable water bottle can cut down on the need to purchase a plastic bottle, or that you keep a stash of canvas bags in your trunk for last-minute grocery trips can help make a big dent in your long-haul waste.