Earth-friendly swaps in our home

22 April 2020

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! How cool! While I don’t think of myself as a traditional environmentalist (it’s just not one of the first labels that springs to mind when I think of myself!), I really, really love the Earth and think often about how I can keep her beautiful. We’ve talked about various efforts our family has made over the years, but today I thought I’d highlight a few in one spot (and I’d love to hear yours, too). If you, too, find a lot of the conversation around sustainability and eco-friendliness to be really discouraging and overwhelming, welcome. The power of little-by-little is alive and well here, and I’m excited to cheer each other on as we swap ideas today!


Using cloth towels and rags instead of paper towels | I wrote about this 5 years ago, and I’m including it first on this list because it was a real aha moment for me: John was initially resistant to this swap, but I eventually realized even if he wasn’t onboard I could still change my own behavior. Half a decade later, we’re still going strong (with the same set of towels, ha!) – this change alone has saved us more than a thousand dollars! We’ve also used 100% cloth napkins for meals for years – our favorites are these from Ikea.

Reducing meat in our meals | Though we do have a few meatless meals in our regular rotation, something I’ve found to be even more doable in our current life stage is reducing meat instead of eliminating it entirely. In almost every recipe we make (aside from something like, you know, meatloaf), I’ll half the meat called for, and double the veggies or beans. This has been extremely successful for us – we still get the flavor and depth of meat, but our consumption has basically dropped by half. And I can still rely on my trusty stash of recipes instead of searching out all-new vegetarian favorites!

Buying secondhand, swapping with friends, and reselling or donating when we’re finished | 90% of our kiddos’ clothes is secondhand or a hand-me-down from a relative or friend. Likewise, most of our toys and kid gear is secondhand, passed down, or borrowed (as far as it’s safe to do so). When we’re finished with something, we aim to pass it on instead of trashing it, either through reselling at a consignment sale or on Facebook Marketplace or through donation!

Keeping things for a loooooong time | John and I both come from a hearty stock of thrifty people, and combined with our love for personal finance and hefty money goals, this is a no-brainer. Whether it’s a sofa or car we’ve had for a decade or a shirt we’ve worn since college, we simply don’t replace our things that often. And when we do, we almost always consider a secondhand option first.

Reusing wrapping items | Though I haven’t graduated to my grandmother’s level of folding and reusing wrapping paper, I use the same satin and grosgrain ribbon to tie things off year after year. I also store and reuse tissue paper, boxes, and gift bags, and wrap more things than not in recycled kraft paper (cheap and you can paint designs on it if you’re feeling crafty – fun with kids, too!).

Reducing packaging on cleaning supplies | After hearing rave reviews from friends, we bought the starter pack from Blueland (cleaning supplies and foaming hand soap you replenish with a tablet!) and can’t wait to get started! You can try it here with my referral link and get a free pack of refills with a new subscription.

Using a Lunette cup | I hesitate to recommend this, because I don’t feel like I’ve completely mastered it, but a few months ago I bought a Lunette cup after years of considering it. The waste from a monthly cycle adds up over the years, so I’ll keep experimenting!

Driving more than flying | Since having kiddos, we’ve done a lot more driving to destinations like Connecticut, Maine, and Michigan than flying. Though I don’t think this is perfect math, and we’ve made this swap firstly for other reasons than eco-friendliness, it’s a happy by-product.

Meal planning, eating leftovers, and using reusable containers | Pretty self explanatory, but all greatly help reduce food waste! We received a set of glass storage containers from our wedding registry (similar to these) and they’re still going strong 7+ years later – we use them to store leftovers and take food to and from work. June and Shep take their lunches to school in these bento boxes, which completely eliminate plastic baggies (we have 4).

Composting | The newest addition to our repertoire! I also come from a long line of composters, and it’s something I’ve wanted to try for several years – but I was intimidated by doing it on my own, and didn’t really want to allocate space for it in our small yard. Earlier this year, I had another aha moment: our neighborhood has a community garden with a compost barrel, and I could easily add our output to the community bin! I bought a countertop container in January and haven’t looked back. I empty it every 5-7 days when I’m already on my way out of the neighborhood, and it works great!

Loving the Earth and teaching our children to do the same | In How to Raise a Wild Child, the author makes the point that the best way to help the earth is to have a personal and deep connection to it – and to raise a next generation who does, too. We make a point to spend time in the beautiful places we love, both close to home and farther afield, to keep them close to our hearts. Many are pictured throughout this post.

Things we’d like to try next: using reusable bags at stores other than the grocery, shopping more at our farmer’s market, buying more of my own clothing secondhand, exploring refillable/reusable packaging for beauty products (like this deodorant), replacing Ziploc freezer bags, and bringing our own takeout containers to restaurants (feels so bold but I’m sure once we do it the first time it will be less scary!).

Friends, I’d love to hear: what Earth-friendly swaps have you successfully tried at home? What’s next on your list? I can’t wait to learn from your successes!

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April 22, 2020 1:46 pm

Wow, so much of this post resonated with me! I made the switch to cloth napkins not long ago and am so amazed every week at how many trees I’ve just saved. :) I desperately want to take my own takeout containers to restaurants (especially when ordering take-out Chinese!) but I am too scared of being notably weird, haha. Hopefully I will get the nerve up sooner than later. But also, I feel like this needs to be a cultural shift. They are not giving out straws anymore, but they will happily throw 5 Styrofoam containers at you. That does not make sense. I think there needs to be another shift in that we all start taking our own containers. Em, you and I can start this cultural shift and blaze this trail! Haha

My most significant contributions are: cloth napkins, applicator-less tampons, reusable water bottle and coffee mug (I always make my own coffee at home and NEVER use those Keurig disposable cups, opting instead to buy beans in bulk at Costco), and preparing 97% of my food at home. I also reduce, reuse, and recycle! :))

April 22, 2020 2:44 pm

We do a lot of these, and I love them because they’re also often the more economical choice and they sometimes support the local economy. This year we signed up for a CSA share (Community Supported Agriculture), so we’ll be getting almost all of our fruit and veggies from local farms. I’m looking into a similar thing for sustainably caught seafood. For pantry staples, I buy in bulk when possible to reduce packaging waste. I’ve also dived into other household reusables (cloth diapers and wipes for my baby and period underwear and cloth make-up remover wipes for me). I’m in the west so we try to be conscientious about our water usage. Related to your wrapping ideas, we’ve just started using kids artwork instead of greeting cards, and I have several bags I sewed with my mother-in-law that I reuse every year as gift wrapping. I also try to use my local library instead of buying books when I can.

April 22, 2020 2:48 pm

Ohhh I love this topic very much! And such excellent swaps you have made, friend.

Here are some things we do in our home: keep paper towels hidden upstairs and only use them for cleaning our windows which requires us to buy paper towels maybe twice a year (I’d love to eventually eliminate them), grocery shop at the store and farmer’s markets with reusable bags which if we forget ours
and end up needing the stores plastic ones we return them to the store next time we’re there, buy secondhand as much as possible but also, try to sell items to others that want / need them instead of tossing or ‘donating’ them, use the QuickWash setting for laundry and do full loads instead of smaller loads of separated / specific colors, invested in a reusable steel pod for our Nespresso machine but make sure we recycle the non-steel ones once our mailable bag is full, eliminated all candles and sprays from our home in favor of oils, I just purchased Andrew a new lunch bag and reusable zipper bags for his work lunches to cut back on eating out, and perhaps the biggest swap is using the bar soap I make at home in lieu of body wash or bottled options. I’ve also gone ink, plastic, and paper free for my soap shipping supplies and as you know, have labels that are plantable; a win win for consumer AND Mother’s Earth!

I’d LOVE to finally master my Diva Cup, too. I have a group of girlfriends who SWEAR by theirs and it seems like there’s just a steep learning curve to overcome! I’d also love to cut back on the trash we accumulate. I think being home full time as a family for the last six weeks has a lot to do with how quickly our trash has been piling up but I believe we can be more cognizant of what really goes in the trash can each day.

April 22, 2020 3:05 pm

Love these ideas! We actually started going paper towel-less because of your post recommendation, and it’s been great! One of the things i’m trying to be more conscious of is ordering from Amazon and other online retailers. They seem to use so much packaging, so if it’s something I can pick up at a store i’m already going to, making an effort to get it there as opposed to buying it online.

April 22, 2020 4:04 pm

I do a lot of the things on your list too, but one switch I recently made was buying reusable cotton rounds to use in my skincare routine. I actually prefer them to the disposable ones now — they are much more durable and feel more luxurious. :) I also recently switched to doing most of my cleaning with rags/microfiber cloths rather than using paper towels/wipes!

I am slowly trying to switch our cleaning supplies to be more eco friendly as things need to be replaced. And I would love to compost, but we live in an apartment, so that one might have to wait until we buy a house. :)

April 22, 2020 5:31 pm

Love blueland and my menstrual cup lol! I also bought some silicone lids in various sizes to cut back on plastic wrap, and just bought silicone zip baggies as well (haven’t tested those yet though!) And I have to put a plug in for follain refillable everything soap, we have it in both bathrooms and the shower (we keep the blueland soap in the kitchen). We hadn’t really adjusted to the bar soap life, so this has worked better for us. We’re lucky to live near a store so we can refill it from these big metal barrels that they have, but I know they sell refills online as well!

April 22, 2020 10:45 pm

I have brought my own Tupperware to restaurants and honestly they’re a little shocked when you whip it out as they try to clear the table, but then are very happy to accommodate! I usually offer to pack it up myself as well so they don’t feel awkward :)

Love all of the things you mentioned — we are trying to do a lot of the same in our house!

April 23, 2020 11:14 am

I’ve replaced my twice a day cotton rounds for toner and makeup wipe at night with reusable cotton rounds! I cut an old towel and pair of pj pants into circles and got my sister to help me sew them and they’re amazing! I bring our newspapers to an animal rescue that uses them as cage liner. I’ve taken a page from my grandparents and use comics from the paper to wrap presents in! I save veggie scraps in the freezer to make vegetable stock (free! and no packaging!). I hang dry almost all of my clothes and wash with cold water, I think it’s expanding the life of my clothes and I know it’s less energy. I also do repairs on my clothes and am trying to follow the 30 or more wears. When I give something away I try to direct it to someone who wants it either through my local Buy Nothing Group or a group who actually wants that item Dress for Success for work clothes, formal dresses to a prom closet so that the item has a better chance of being used.

Kelly Strawberry
April 23, 2020 2:11 pm

LOL at bringing your own takeout containers. That is bold and something I had never considered, but just cracks me up for some reason! I never thought I would be a reusable bag person, but I must say I love my Green Bulldog brand bags I got off of Amazon! I leave them in the car and now I am a convert. Plus so many workers commented to me that they are the only type of reusable bag that they like, because the others collapse and are awkward to fill.

April 23, 2020 3:18 pm

Hi there! Farmer and “ag-vocate” in Western NC, here! I really enjoyed your post and agree that I don’t label myself as an environmentalist, but some lifestyle changes make so much sense for our planet and are so simple that it would be crazy not to do it. I did want to mention, though, that while I will never criticize anyone’s food choices, meat production is sustainable—I never want anyone to feel guilty for consuming animal protein! If you have any questions about animal agriculture and the environment, please let me know (:

April 27, 2020 8:21 am
Reply to  Em

I love that y’all take an interest in where your meat comes from! There are tons of small producers that I love supporting. We raise the breeding stock for a large chicken company and collect the eggs that hatch to become the chicken that you get in grocery stores and restaurants. I like to tell people that the size of the operation is less important than efficiency and attention to animal comfort and health. There is room for all kinds of producers at the table!

April 24, 2020 12:33 pm

These are great suggestions and practices! We also swapped for dish towels and cloth napkins about 6 years ago. We probably use 1 roll of paper towels per year. I always forget they exist until someone comes over and is like, where are your paper towels? Haha. I got my first menstrual cup a few months ago too and feel really good about how easy it is to use and how much paper/plastic it saves.

For using reusable bags outside the grocery store, I always carry a fold-up bag in my purse (the ones from Baggu are awesome and only like $7). I don’t think it’s weird at all, but you have to insist on using it because cashiers just don’t understand that you don’t want their bag, ha. I also try to not use any bag when possible and just carry whatever I bought. It feels more personal to me. :)

Next up – we just bought a house and I ordered a free composter from the city. Can’t wait to try it! I’m also on the waiting list for the community garden – growing my own veggies/fruits will be great for the environment (and budget).

April 5, 2021 12:38 pm

I love reading about all your swaps and small steps to care for the Earth, Emily! In our house, we’re working on changing to cloth napkins, using paper towels much less, and having a few meatless meals each week. I’d like to try refillable deodorant, too, and switch to using a menstrual cup.
It would be great to hear an update of how this part of life is going for you, one year later – an update on your “things we’d like to try next” section above! (We LOVE the Stasher bags, you referenced above). I’m curious, how will having a new little one change this area of life? Are you considering cloth diapers? :)