6 Everyday Habits You Might Not Realize Are Hurting the Environment — and How to Change Them for Good

updated Apr 23, 2021
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Credit: Tamara Gavin

Make no mistake about it: The sooner you take action, the faster you can help slow the effects of Mama Eco notes, experts estimate that the next decade is crucial for people and corporations to change the ways we function — and it seems like the clock may be running out. “The problem is, most people don’t realize that climate change will cause more than just warmer temperatures and rising sea levels,” she says. “It can affect mass migration, food security, and ultimately, the ability for us to meet our basic human needs.” These aren’t future issues, either — climate refugees have been forced to move from their homes all over the world.

Whether you realize it or not, many seemingly insignificant habits can have an adverse impact on the environment. “An easy way to get an idea of how much you’re contributing to climate change is to check out one of the many ecological footprint calculators online,” Kenny says. “If you’re more of an auditory learner, the podcast How to Save a Planet by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg, really dives into common questions people have about climate change, and the actual solutions we can and should be taking as individuals.”

While big-name companies are the driving force behind the climate crisis, that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps everyday people can take to help slow the effects of global warming. “Change starts with people,” says healthy home advocate Marla Esser Cloos of The Green Home Coach.  “Taking some action today, no matter how small, can help build habits that are better for our own health and the health of our world.”

Curious what kinds of things you might be doing at home that are actually harmful for the planet? From tossing used dental floss into the toilet to buying commercially grown produce and more, here are six common practices that sustainability experts say are major don’ts, and what you can do instead. 

You’re tossing contact lenses and dental floss in the toilet.

If you have a habit of flushing your used contact lenses and dental floss down the toilet, Kenny says you need to stop ASAP. “Most people don’t realize this, but floss and contact lenses are made of plastic,” she explains. “When you dispose of them in the toilet, you’re literally putting small plastics — that will eventually become microplastics that are very difficult to identify and remove —into our water systems.”

To help prevent water pollution and potential harm to aquatic life, Kenny says it’s as simple as tossing your contact lenses and strands of dental floss in the regular trash — not the toilet — when you’re done with them. Starting with one small but doable thing can have a snowball effect, too: “When you start being mindful of how you dispose of things, it’s like a veil gets lifted, and it becomes easier to make other small changes at home to help conserve the earth’s natural resources,” Kenny says. 

You’re wasting more paper than necessary.

Paper waste is bad for the environment for a lot of reasons. Along with contributing to deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that paper products generated more than 17.2 million tons of landfill waste in 2018 — more than any other material. 

Fortunately, there are lots of little ways you can decrease the amount of paper you waste at home. “Start by reducing the pile of junk mail that arrives on your doorstep,” says Kris Bordessa of Attainable Sustainable. “Visit the Direct Marketing Association or Catalog Choice where you can register for free and then opt out of receiving certain mailings.”

You can also switch to tree-free paper products, including paper towels and toilet paper, to help preserve the planet’s forests. “Be nice to your bum without flushing our forests down the toilet,”  Cloos advises. “The Natural Resource Defenses Council (NRDC) published ‘The Issue with Tissue’ to share more about this situation.” 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

You’re not checking the ingredients in your cleaning products.

For as much as we depend on cleaning products to keep our homes free of dirt, dust, and other allergens, Cloos says cleaners composed of certain chemicals, such as alkylphenol ethoxylates (a common surfactant ingredient), can pose a serious threat to our immediate health and the environment. “Cleaning products with certain synthetic ingredients produce a chemical run-off that pollutes indoor air and our waterways,” she explains.

Luckily, Cloos says cleaning up your homekeeping routine is as easy as switching up which cleaning products you’re reaching for (just be sure to check the labels for buzzwords or fear tactics). “There are many plant-based cleaning products available that clean well and do not present a health and safety threat,” she says. “Or better yet, switch to cloths that do the work for you and don’t require cleaning solutions or produce any waste.”

You’re buying pet products that don’t consider the environment.

It might not seem like dogs and cats have an impact on the environment, but the supplies you buy for your furry friend can add up. “Pet food alone can contribute to around 25 percent of all the environmental damage that results from meat production,” says sustainable life coach Anne-Marie Soulsby. “Additionally, the garbage generated from the plastic bags containing doggie waste or cat litter also means that your four-legged family member is contributing to landfill waste.” 

Unless your pet is on a certain diet for health reasons, check with your vet to see if you can phase out beef-based foods from your furry friend’s diet, given that they require more land and water resources to produce, and create more greenhouse gas emissions than other protein-rich foods. Soulsby suggests insect protein-based diets for dogs, or chicken-based diets for cats, as two places to start. “In terms of waste, choose food that comes in either tins, cardboard, or recyclable packaging, as well as eco-friendly cat litter and dog waste bags made from biodegradable cornstarch,” she adds.

You’re buying brand-new clothes for every event and occasion.

For as fun as it may be to buy a new outfit for every single occasion, Kenny says the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion brands, can have catastrophic effects on the environment. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is responsible for eight to 10 percent of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping emissions combined. “Fast fashion is a very carbon-intensive process,” she explains. “Not only that, it involves a ton of water and often a lot of toxic dyes to produce low-quality products that you will eventually have to replace.”  There are plenty of reasons why the fashion industry is due for an overhaul — not least of all because, for some people, fast fashion is the only choice — but there are ways to rethink your clothing consumption.

Before you rush out to buy a brand-new ensemble for your next social outing, Kenny recommends shopping for gently-used clothing items that are built to last. “Secondhand shopping is an affordable way to shop, especially when trying to find higher quality items, and it’s a way to give existing items an extra life, avoid the landfill, and make better use of the resources that initially went into making the product,” she explains. “If you do buy something new, try to source it from a sustainable brand that reduces the footprint of its products by avoiding toxic chemicals and synthetic virgin materials.” Alternatively, try shopping your closet for a new combination you haven’t tried yet, or pick a tried-and-true option that helps you feel your best. 

You’re overbuying reusable products.

While making the switch from disposable products to reusable ones can help reduce landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions, Kenny warns that buying too many eco-friendly items when you don’t actually need them can create a whole new problem for the planet. “The truth is that reusable products, such as coffee cups, utensils, and straws, also have an environmental footprint, and that footprint is much larger than the single-use plastic alternative,” she explains.

Before you stock up on a slew of reusable housewares, Kenny says it’s important to take note of how often you use these products. “You should only buy a reusable item if it makes sense for you to own it,” she says. “If you frequently drink coffee on the go, then you might want to consider a reusable travel mug since the footprint will be less than all of the single-use cups you’d be using.” Other people might need a plastic option due to mobility issues or another disability or allergy. But if you assess your own lifestyle and realize that investing in a certain tool fits with your needs and routine, go for it.