The Lazy Person's Guide to Being Ecofriendly

Photos: Eco-Oddities

The recent election probably quashed the chances for far-reaching climate or clean-energy legislation at the federal level, and with the Republican takeover of the House, even the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions may be in jeopardy. In other words, the pressure is on for states, localities, and individuals to do their part to lighten America's footprint. Now, nobody expects the average person to save the planet. First, it takes time. Second, a lot of us often tell ourselves "someone else will do it." But even if both are true, there are things individuals can do without breaking a sweat. So if you happen to be on the fence about whether you can easily be a greener guy or gal, we'd like to respond with a resounding "yes you can." Here are seven ways to get started.

Turn the Knob

Plain and simple, laundry day is a heat sucker. It turns out that 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes goes to heating the water. Our solution: wash your clothes in cold water. The benefits are threefold. You end up with clean clothes, you reduce that nasty carbon footprint of yours, and you could save more than $100 a year. Not bad for a turn of the washing-machine knob.

Feast on This

Apples should not have to travel roughly 1,726 miles to get to your supermarket, which is what an Iowa State University report found. A local apple, on the other hand, travels about 61 miles. Why does this matter? Local fruits and vegetables are generally fresher and, consequently, higher in nutrients. They aren't transported across the country or the world, and thereby don't result in needless greenhouse-gas emissions. Also, buying them supports local farmers and your local economy. So pick the local apples over the South American bananas next time you have the choice.

Stay Eco-Clean

Typical soaps—including hand soap, dishwashing detergent, and laundry detergent—are petroleum based, and usually contain unhealthy chemicals that can potentially harm people and the environment. But alternatives abound and make more of a difference than you might think. In fact, if every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle of petroleum-based laundry detergent with an equivalent plant-derived product, 466,000 barrels of oil could be saved, according to Seventh Generation, a leading manufacturer of ecofriendly household goods. Not sure how to pick the right soap? The GoodGuide iPhone app can help you choose. It lets you scan product bar codes on the spot to get easy-to-understand ratings of an item's health, environmental, and social impacts.

Be Fish-Friendly

If you're a new or aspiring saltwater aquarist, consider the ecological impact of your next fish purchase. Ornamental fish are often captured from reefs using cyanide, which is dumped into the water to stun the fish and make them float to the surface for easy collection. The fish that survive are sold to aquarium suppliers, but the majority don't make it. The cyanide also damages coral (which is already threatened worldwide by the impacts of climate change) and the marine life that depend on reefs for survival. The good news is that captive-raised fish are widely available, so it's not hard to find fish that were collected without damage to natural coral-reef ecosystems. Reef Protection International puts out a guide to sustainable aquarium fish, and you can also look for Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) certification.

Get Printer-Smart

"Think before you print," and if you insist on putting something to paper, then take a minute to set your printer to print double-sided. Most office printers can do this automatically, and it's easy to make this your computer's—or printer's—default setting. Americans use 50 million tons of paper each year, which takes more than 850 million trees to produce. Double-sided printing could reduce that impact by up to 50 percent. And less paper costs less money—the University of California, Davis, for instance, was able to save $68,000 a year through double-sided printing.

Slow Down

More important than what you drive is how you drive it. By driving aggressively (speeding, rapid acceleration, and frequent braking) on the highway, you could be lowering your gas mileage by as much as 33 percent—and by 5 percent if you're driving around town. The mileage you get per tank of gas also decreases rapidly at speeds above 60mph, so slow it down—you know who you are. It will save you money and keep you safer. And don't think buying a hybrid is a license to speed. Driving a hybrid aggressively, in fact, could be even less efficient than a gas-powered car, as demonstrated on the popular British TV show, Top Gear.

Bank on This

Do you really need a paper copy of every deposit slip, withdrawal slip, and statement from your bank? If you have a computer with an Internet connection, the answer is no. Taking your banking online also makes keeping records easier and cuts down on your footprint. Virtually all banks are offering paperless options now, but some go a step further and actually offer you incentives for going paperless. Citizens Bank, for example, has a program called GreenSense on its checking accounts, which pays you 10 cents each time you conduct a transaction without paper, like using your debit card and paying bills online, up to a maximum of $120 a year. As an added environmental bonus, GreenSense debit cards are also made out of recycled plastic. By their calculations, receiving 19 statements and paying seven bills online would save six pounds of paper, 4.5 gallons of gasoline, 63 gallons of water, and the greenhouse-gas equivalent of 176 miles of driving. Do you need more incentive than that?