Updated: Oct 8, 2021
“What can I do to live more sustainably in my new apartment?”
A friend from university recently posed this question to me, considering that I currently work with Green Iowa AmeriCorps (GIA), an environmentally-conscious branch of the national AmeriCorps program. The list below came to mind almost immediately, but if you'd asked me this question exactly one year ago, I would have shrugged.
Most of us believe that sustainability means to "live less," but I'd like to reframe that idea for you, just as it has been reframed for me. What if sustainability on an individual level, could actually mean "cheaper"?
Gardening can be an intimidating topic, especially for first time gardeners or notorious incidental plant-killers; however, container gardening can be a simple, inexpensive way to ease into a slightly more self-sustaining lifestyle.
What you’ll need. 50 gallon bucket, access to direct sunlight, soil (indoor & outdoor potting soil can be a good), plant starts or seeds, and a water source.
Tips from seasoned container gardeners. Grow what you know you’ll enjoy eating. Learn your seasons and when your favorite vegetables & fruits like to be planted and harvested. Remember to water your plants but have care not to overwater. You can use apps, sticky notes, or cardboard that’s taped to the container to remind you to water your plants. One useful tip is to stick your finger 2 inches into the soil. If the soil is dry all the way, water your plants. If it is still a bit soggy, let them sit for another day or two.
We’ve all heard that houseplants clean the air quality (especially VOCs), but did you know you’d need 10 plants per square foot to actually impact your home’s air quality? Instead of focusing on the passive benefits of houseplants, consider instead that focusing on nature can lower your cholesterol, stress hormones, and boost your ability to focus. This article explains more about the benefits of nature on the body.
Reusable items and recycling
I'm not here to encourage you to hoard glass jars. I repeat, DO NOT KEEP ALL YOUR GLASS JARS! But! Do keep some for times when you need extra glasses, watering containers, keepsake holders, or even birthday gifts (tip: a rolled up t-shirt can fit in a large jar). Here are other ways you can reduce, reuse, and recycle:
Cans. You can deposit cans (and in some states glass bottles and plastic bottles) at Redemption centers for coins or even cash.
Composting. Kitchen compost bins fit on a countertop and are excellent for disposing of most scraps. The compost can boost the health of your container gardens, your lawn, or even other gardeners.
If you are comfortable with worms, vermicomposting can be even more effective for breaking down more than your regular kitchen compost bin: cardboard, paper products, most food scraps, and even certain fabrics, like cotton clothing can be broken down with the help of red worms!
Items to avoid or limit usage. Paper products, one-time use plastics, ziplock bags, plastic bags, and non-recyclable containers.
Has someone ever advised you to purchase in bulk? That rule doesn't always apply to everything (lookin’ at you, veggies), but it can be an easy way to save yourself some money on irreplaceable products (think: toilet paper). Some products, like paper towels, can be swapped out with something reusable, like a washcloth or clothing scraps.
Sustainable brands. When you can’t avoid purchasing a product (not everyone makes their own soap, Susan), you can speak with your money to support companies for the environment. Some examples: Lola, Bite Toothpaste Bits, Birdsong Co., Each & Every, and Native (this post is not sponsored by these companies). If you aren’t sure where to start, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database to research your household products.
Bamboo. This recent “sustainability miracle” has been lauded for its many surprising uses; however, the bamboo industry itself may be undoing the benefits of bamboo-based products. We’re valuing bamboo to such a high extent that we are damaging the diversity of plant life in regions where we’re opting to plant a high volume of bamboo. We’re also reducing natural food resources for animals that rely on large, natural bamboo forests. This article highlights how amazing and versatile bamboo is, and this article highlights the concerns behind mass bamboo consumption.
A new fit is absolutely exciting, but participating in fast fashion continues to feed into a damaging cycle for our planet. You can help the environment out by simply wearing your clothing for more than 6 months, buying second-hand, donating old clothes, and using extra fabric pieces/old shirts for alternative purposes (hairbands, kitchen cloths, etc)! NPR details more about the effects of fast fashion and how to combat it here.
Two things to keep in mind when you set your thermostat: can it be programmed and what temperature window can you happily live in. Frequently adjusting your thermostat and turning it off & on can raise your electric bill, so do so strategically: if the outside temperature is close to your thermostat, shut off your thermostat and open some windows. Don’t turn it back on when the heat of the day peaks and is 10 degrees higher than your thermostat. Instead, run ceiling fans and wait until the cooler hours of the night to turn it back on if you know the next day is going to be too hot to have your windows open. For an in-depth and amazing guide, check out energy.gov’s infographic.
Water usage and temperature
Did you know you could adjust the hottest temperature of your water heater? By lowering that number, your water heater will require less energy to heat that water, thus saving you money and preventing excessive energy consumption. Here’s a guide for finding the right temperature!
This is a difficult and often controversial topic, so ultimately I encourage you to find what works best for your body. That being said, the easiest place to start when confronting your food habits is figuring out your staple foods. Staple foods are products that you can consume semi-frequently that provide the nutrients your body requires.
For example, some of my staple foods are turkey sausage, eggs, a dairy alternative, and fresh vegetables. I always have these items stocked in my kitchen, because I’ve found I can create a variety of dishes that meet my nutrient needs from these simple ingredients. A good way to figure out your staple foods is to stick a piece of paper to your refrigerator and mark what you eat and what you crave. Your cravings will tell you a lot about your health and your needs. Understanding your staple foods can help you identify better food sources!
The Farmers market. This is an amazing way to support your local economy, get the most bang for your budget, and boost your personal health. You want to put money back into your own community? Support your local producers and small businesses. Want to get the most out of your EBT/Food Stamps? Check with your local Farmers Market (hint: many vendors accept EBT and some markets even offer vouchers)! Worried about the effects of processed food on your body? Consume local produce!
“What do I do out of season?” If you have the financial ability, Community Supported Agriculture’s (CSAs) are programs organized by local producers. Some programs run year-round, while others may stick to specific seasons. You can also support locally-owned markets that operate year round.
If you start practicing any of these sustainability tips or have tips & advice of your own, please comment below, I'd love to hear what works for you!
About the Author
Austin Newland (she/they) is a Land & Water Steward located at the Center for Energy & Environmental Education. They are a University of Northern Iowa graduate who has recently moved back to the area to learn more about the field of environmentalism. As part of her role with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, she enjoys editing for the Program's blog and writing about what she's learning as a Member. In their free time, you can find them walking local trails with their dog, Mesa, and buying copious amounts of coffee at any (all) of the local coffeehouses.
Wilkerson, J. (2019, November 19). House Plants Don't Really Clean Indoor Air. Harvard University blog. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/house-plants-dont-really-clean-indoor-air/
Yun Tan, Z. (2016, April 10). What Happens When Fashion Becomes Fast, Disposable & Cheap? NPR. https://www.npr.org/2016/04/08/473513620/what-happens-when-fashion-becomes-fast-disposable-and-cheap
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