We all use tons of “stuff” in our lifetimes-like the 25 billion Styrofoam cups Americans drink from once and dispose of each year. These items are filling our landfills and littering our landscapes. Some-such as plastic six-pack rings-are even responsible for killing wildlife. Instead of continuing to buy things and throw them away when we no longer need or want them, try the three “Rs” and a “C”-reduce, reuse, recycle and compost.
- Get your money back-return empty beverage cans and bottles
Don’t lose the nickel deposit you paid when buying a soda, beer, mineral water, or wine cooler with a New York refund label. If you don’t redeem it, the money is kept by beverage distributors.
- Compost food scraps and yard waste
It’s all about recycling the nutrients and returning them to the soil to be used again. Learn more about composting.
- Feed your compost pile
Grow nutrient-rich crops like alfalfa, red clover and yellow sweet clover in a separate bed, and harvest them during the spring and summer for your compost pile. These crops add nitrogen and organic matter and encourage beneficial soil microbes.
- Hang a blackboard
Use it for phone messages and reminders, instead of leaving paper notes.
- Stop junk mail
Contact solicitors and advertisers to get off mailing lists.
- Don’t toss it, wash it
Use cloth napkins, washable plates, cups and silverware. Serve condiments from recyclable or reusable containers.
- Forgo coffee pods
Popular single-serve coffee pods aren’t recyclable or biodegradable. If you don’t want to give up the convenience of using coffee pods, buy a reuseable pod to fill with your own coffee, and you’ll save money too. Save the grounds for composting and rinse out the pod so it’s ready for next time.
- Recycle your old cell phone, or donate it
More than 425 thousand cell phones are retired in the US every day! NYS law requires all wireless service providers that offer phones for sale to accept old cell phones for reuse or recycling. Phones can also be donated to domestic violence support programs such as Hopeline Cell Phone Collection or to the military.
- Compost fall leaves
Put leaves in biodegradable bags if your town collects them that way and you don’t want to compost them. Avoid burning leaves or raking them into the street or a storm drain, where they can block storm runoff and cause flooded streets and basements.
- Compost with worms (vermicompost) year-round
Continue composting during the cold, winter months. Red wiggler worms will eat leftover fruits and vegetables and make lots of worm castings, an excellent soil amendment.
- Eat local year-round
To find farmers’ markets, coops, CSAs and restaurants that serve local and/or organic foods near you, enter your zip code on the EatwellGuide or Local Harvest sites (see offsite links) for information. Basements, attics, sheds, porches, and unheated spare rooms and closets can be adapted as cold storage space if they are evenly cool at 32-60°F. See the link to Cornell’s Storage Guidelines for Fruits & Vegetables in the right-hand column for more information.
- Reduce food spoilage
The location of food in your refrigerator can affect how long it remains fresh. Store meat on the bottom shelf, and avoid keeping milk in the door, where it’s warmer. Put apples in a crisper but separate them from other produce. Apples emit ethylene gas, which ripens fruit.
- Try local turkey
Wild turkey is delicious, but if you don’t hunt, try a locally raised turkey instead. Use the link in the right-hand column to visit the Local Harvest website and find turkey farmers close to you.
- Drink green beer…and wine
We’re not talking about just on St. Patrick’s day. Choosing local microbrews and wines from a nearby vineyard is another way to be a “locavore.” See the link to NYS wines on the right side of this page.
- Have a green Halloween!
Let your creative juices flow to create environmentally themed costumes from thrift store finds. Try a polar bear carrying a chunk of styrofoam ” polar ice,” or a New York State symbol or an invasive insect like the emerald ash borer. See instructions for making masks (PDF) (192 KB).
- Make holiday ornaments from your old incandescent bulbs
Turn your old incandescent bulbs into colorful holiday ornaments. Paint bulbs with latex craft paint, and glue on glitter, ribbon, sequins and other decorations. Use pipe cleaners or wire to make hangers.
- Try tree-free holiday cards
An e-card uses no paper. If you want something tangible, try cards made from kenapf, hemp or recycled carpet. If you prefer a paper card, look for one with a high percentage of post-consumer waste. Recycle holiday cards into gift tags and ornaments.
- Use alternatives to gift paper
Conceal gifts in reusable gift bags or baskets, fabric scraps, scarves, unwanted maps, the Sunday comics or decorated paper bags. Save bows, ribbons and boxes for the next year. Remember that metallic gift wrap cannot be recycled.
- Decorate for the holidays the old-fashioned way
Use pinecones, evergreen boughs and garlands of popcorn and cranberries (put garlands outdoors later for birds to enjoy). Hang cookie cutters and snowflakes cut from used paper. LED lights are a greener choice than traditional lights. Avoid using tinsel; trees with tinsel can’t be composted.
- Use your holiday tree outside
After removing lights and reusable decorations, put your tree in the yard. Birds and squirrels will eat the garlands made of food, and birds can perch in the tree while waiting for a turn at the bird feeder. Then put the tree curbside if your community offers mulching services.
- Winterize your car with propylene glycol anti-freeze
Propylene glycol anti-freeze is less toxic for pets, children and wildlife. Anti-freezes based on ethylene glycol are highly poisonous, even in tiny amounts, and spills attract animals because they smell and taste sweet. See the link in the right-hand column for precautions in cleaning up ethylene glycol spills.
- Try a zero-waste picnic
Pack your basket with real flatware, cloth napkins, and reusable cups and plates. Wrap food in tin foil (which is recyclable) or wax paper (which is compostable), or put it in reusable containers. Compost your food scraps.
- Go green when building or remodeling
If you’re building a new home, think small. The smaller the structure, the fewer materials you’ll need and the lower your heating and cooling expenses. Consider using renewable flooring such as cork or bamboo, real linoleum instead of vinyl, and carpeting that eventually can be returned to the manufacturer for recycling. In addition, choose metal roofing, which lasts longer than asphalt and is recycleable. To get good items for free, or to donate usable items, join FreeCycle (see the offsite links on this page). If you can’t do construction or remodeling work yourself, hire builders certified by the National Green Building Program. Use the link on the right side of this page to find a certified green builder near you.
- Handle storm debris properly
After a severe storm, check these storm debris management guidelines for suggestions on what to do with everything from appliances to hazardous substances.
- Rent college textbooks
College students can save money and resources by renting some of their textbooks instead of buying them. Google “rent textbooks” to find vendors.
- Declutter your e-clutter
Manufacturers must provide free and convenient recycling for electronic waste. Remember to “wipe” all personal information from your electronic devices before recycling them, and be sure to remove their batteries, which may need to be recycled separately.
In the Store
- Shop at local produce stands, farmer’s markets and co-ops
They sell fresh produce and other products with much less packaging than in stores. Don’t forget to bring your own shopping bags.
- Select products with little or no packaging
Not only are you paying extra for the packaging itself, you’re paying to transport it and later to dispose of it! For example, buy concentrated cleaners and detergents; their containers are smaller. Check with your waste hauler which recycling numbers they collect.
- Close the loop
Read labels and purchase products with a high post-consumer recycled content. This is easy to find in stationery and office paper but you can also find clothes and shopping bags made from plastic soda bottles, garden hoses made from tires, purses from inner tubes and much more.
Bring Your Own (shopping) Bags. Cloth or mesh are best! Skip the small plastic bags offered in the produce section, or reuse those you already have.
- Make use of libraries
Libraries are the masters of reuse. In addition to borrowing books, you can access the Internet, do research, borrow CDs, DVDs, and read newspapers and magazines-all for free! Donate your own used books to libraries, hospitals and schools.
- Shop garage sales, penny-saver circulars and thrift stores
Find homes for your unwanted items the same way. You’ll save money and the environment at the same time.
- Reuse paper
Scrap paper and backs of envelopes are perfect for shopping lists and phone messages.
Skip the bottled water
Single-use bottled water is the fastest growing beverage in the United States, yet only 10% of these bottles are recycled (see “Too Many Bottles” at right). Get a durable, safe, re-usable water container.
In the Office
- Make friends with your computer
Send e-mails and electronic copies instead of paper. Keep electronic files on computers instead of keeping papers in file cabinets. Review documents onscreen rather than printing them out.
- Reuse office supplies
Mailing tubes and envelopes can be used more than once. Use scrap paper for phone messages. Reuse boxes and use shredded waste paper as packing material.
- Print and copy thoughtfully
Make double-sided printouts and copies. Circulate, rather than copy, notices and memos. Buy printer paper with a high percentage of post-consumer content.
- Ditch the disposables
Bring lunch to school or work in reusable containers. Keep reusable plates, cups, utensils, and napkins at your desk.
- Learn about sustainable practices
Be inspired by reading about projects that have received a DEC Environmental Excellence Award.
In the Car
- Get a travel mug
Refill your mug instead of buying coffee in Styrofoam or paper cups.
- Return old tires for recycling
Don’t pay to throw them out. Return them to where you purchased them or take them to a tire recycler.
- Keep tires balanced and rotated regularly
Have it done every 6,000-8,000 miles (or as recommended by your tire manufacturer) to save hundreds of miles in wear.
- Recycle old battery
It’s illegal to throw it in the trash. At the time you purchase a new one, take your dead battery to a retail store, distributor, or battery recycling facility. By law, retailers must accept used batteries from customers