15 Bad Earth Habits You Didn’t Know You Had
From filling your recycling bin to hand-washing your dishes, these everyday habits can have a bigger impact on the environment than you might think—and not in a good way.
You’re recycling the wrong stuff
You’ve got your recycling bin in place and you’re fairly conscientious about throwing in those take-out containers and disposable coffee cups. Here’s the problem: You’re actually doing more harm than good. Turns out, a fair amount of what we recycle is either contaminated or simply not accepted at most recycling plants. According to Globalcitizen.org, there was an 84 percent increase in the amount of recycling being rejected between 2012 to 2016, which means your whole bundle gets transferred to a landfill instead of being recycled. Although it varies depending on your municipality, the typical no-go list includes: Plastics that have the numbers 3, 4 or 5 printed in the recycling symbol (a triangle) on the bottom; greasy takeout containers or pizza boxes; and plastic bags (including the bag that’s holding all those recyclables in the first place), and these 13 other things that shouldn’t go in your recycling bin.
Your car tires are too low
Only one in five cars have the right amount of air in its tires, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). At worst, driving around with under-inflated tires is dangerous, potentially leading to a flat tire, a blowout, or the tread coming off, which can lead to a crash. And too little air in your tires isn’t only dangerous, it can also make an impact on the environment. Poor tire pressure can mean a higher rate of emissions, as well as lower fuel efficiency. According to Earthday.org, for each gallon of gas you save you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by 20 pounds. This is a bonus for your wallet, too: According to the NHTSA, you’ll save as much as 11 cents per gallon on fuel by keeping them at the right pressure level.
You toss all your old batteries in the trash
You may think about recycling bigger electronics like computers and phones, but even single-use batteries (like AAA or 9V) can make an impact over time. That’s because they’re typically loaded with heavy metals that, when combined with rainwater in landfills, can leach into groundwater and contaminate water supplies. Keep your eyes peeled for recycling bins in stores or at local community centers, or go to Recyclenation.com to find a recycling center near you. Find out 30 ways to recycle almost anything, including all those tricky items.
You don’t ever really turn off your TV or computer
Even when the screens are dark, these devices are still drawing power. About a fourth of all residential energy consumption is spent on devices that are in their default “idle” mode, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group estimates that the average U.S. home has 65 devices that are permanently connected, which means they are constantly drawing electricity. That translates to 64 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity use per year, with 44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution and a cost of about $19 billion. The simple solution? Unplug electronics when you’re not actually using them or simply turn off a power strip they may be attached to.
You use plastic grocery bags
We use an estimated 14 billion plastic shopping bags a year, according to Waste Management, one of the country’s leading waste management companies. A paltry 1 percent of these end up being returned for recycling. Besides the energy costs to produce the bags (estimated at 12 million barrels of oil a year), plastic bags take an enormous toll on the environment. It can take 1,000 years for a single bag to biodegrade in a landfill, but even worse, plastic bags are one of the biggest ocean pollutants on the planet, with nearly 90 percent of ocean debris coming from plastic. The easy answer? BYO. You might have to soon enough: A growing number of cities (Chicago, Boston, and Seattle) and states (California, Hawaii, and starting in 2020, New York) are banning the use of plastic bags at checkouts. We like these cute reusable totes from Baggu, available in a wide range of fun patterns and all made with 40 percent recycled materials. Plastic bags aren’t the only items clogging up landfills—here are 12 more everyday items that take decades to decompose.
You use pesticides in the garden
Keeping mites, beetles, and aphids at bay may make for a better tomato crop in your vegetable patch, but be careful not to use pesticides that can harm other insects—especially bees. In the past few years, environmentalists have raised the alarm about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon where the majority of worker bees in a colony simply disappear. The Environmental Protection Agency lists pesticide poisoning as a possible cause for CCD. Whenever possible, use pesticide-free cleaning products and insecticides in your garden. If you can’t get away with natural agents, apply chemicals early in the morning, when bees and other pollinators are less likely to be out and about.
You sip your iced coffee with a straw
Once a ubiquitous accessory to any fountain drink, iced beverage, or cocktail, straws are finally starting to get the stink-eye, thanks to renewed attention to their potential environmental impact. As of 2017, Americans used about 390 million plastic straws each day, according to the market research firm Freedonia Group. The vast majority of those straws aren’t recyclable, which means they end up in the ocean or in landfills. According to data from Ocean Conservancy’s TIDES system, straws and stirrers are the eleventh-most commonly found ocean trash in cleanups. Either refuse straws (just say “no thanks” when dining or ordering out) or use your own environmentally friendly one, like these reusable stainless steel ones from Klean Kanteen or biodegradable bamboo ones like these from Totally Bamboo. You’ll be in good company: Even the Queen of England has banned plastic straws from Buckingham Palace.
You buy bottled water
Each minute, about 1 million plastic bottles are sold throughout the planet, according to Earth Day Network. But less than 25 percent of plastic bottles are actually recycled in the United States. Use a reusable water bottle and you can save an average of 156 plastic bottles annually. It’s also less of a drain on your bank account: It costs mere pennies a year to use tap water, while you can easily spend thousands of dollars on bottled. Can’t stand the taste of tap? A water filter (either one attached to a refrigerator, or in a stand-alone unit like the Brita Everyday Water Pitcher) will get rid of most of the chemicals and contaminants.
You drive to all of your errands
It’s not practical for everyone to walk to the store, but even parking your car in one spot and then walking from place to place (dry cleaners, post office, pharmacy) will cut down on both gas and emissions. Transportation continues to have a major impact on the environment, accounting for 27 percent of all energy used in the country, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Bonus: You’ll also burn a few more calories as you rack up your step count—up to 200 calories an hour for a 150-pound person (more if you’re carrying bags).
You use coffee pods
We know those single-serve coffee machines are super-convenient, but they are also producing mountains of waste since the majority of the pods are made from non-recyclable plastic. And with one out of three U.S. homes owning a single-serve machine like Keurig, that translates to billions of nonreusable plastic pods ending up in landfills each year. While Keurig is pledging that all of its K-cups will be recyclable by 2020, most companies are still selling the higher-waste products. But there are other options: Reusable filters like Eko-Brew let you use your own coffee, and are ultimately a cost-saver. Or look for brands that are made from biodegradable and compostable materials, like those from San Francisco Bay Gourmet Coffee or Juan Valdez.
You’re still using regular light bulbs
Even though U.S. companies no longer manufacture incandescent bulbs, they are still available in stores and online. But while they may cost less at the checkout counter, they add up to higher electric bills—and more of a drain on the environment. “Ninety percent of the energy in a traditional light bulb comes from heat,” explains Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network. LED bulbs, on the other hand, may cost more up front, but last significantly longer (about 25,000 hours compared to 1,000 hours for an incandescent bulb). Another option: CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) which cost only a dollar or two more than traditional bulbs but use 70 percent less energy.
You wash your dishes by hand
Think you’re saving water by scrubbing with a sponge? It’s actually more wasteful than using the dishwasher, reports Michael Helms, the Seattle program coordinator for the Student Conservation Association, a leading conservation advocacy group for youth. “You use up to 50 percent more water when you wash dishes in the sink as opposed to filling up a dishwasher,” he explains. According to the New York Times, the typical kitchen faucet uses 1.5 gallons of water every minute; most dishwashers use 3.5 gallons per cycle. So even just five minutes of washing by hand significantly outpaces the amount of water used by the machine.
You’re a slave to the latest fashions
We get it: Trying out a new trend is fun, and if doesn’t cost a lot, who’s it hurting? For one, fast fashions are harmful to the environment to make, “producing 20 percent of wastewater while also generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined,” according to Foodtank. Then, when you’re done enjoying the item, chances are it will wind up in a landfill. While the vast majority of textiles can actually be recycled, 85 percent ends up in the garbage; Americans throw away about 81 pounds of clothing each year, according to the EPA. Harming the earth is only one of 11 ways your clothes could be killing you.
You keep the shades open
Sure, natural light is a beautiful thing, but on hot days it can also increase energy costs as you fight to keep your home cool. In warm weather, about 76 percent of the sunlight that comes through standard double-pane windows enters as heat into the home, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Keeping your blinds drawn, coating windows with a reflective film, or using insulated shades or other coverings can also help reduce your electric bill and your energy use.
You throw out all your leftovers
Food waste is a major problem in the United States. About 30 to 40 percent of our food supply—around 133 billion pounds of food each year—simply ends up in the trash, according to the USDA. The EPA reports that food waste is the single-largest component going into municipal landfills. In addition to factoring in elements like land, water, labor, and energy in producing food that is simply dumped, food waste itself turns into climate-changing methane gases. “This waste has a global impact,” says Rogers. Discovering these 13 food scraps you never knew you could eat will help you save money and cut back on waste.