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Small life changes you can make to be more sustainable

Everyday Green

Small life changes you can make to be more sustainable.

In the big picture, protecting our beautiful world—with its delicate ecosystems and 9 million plant and animal species—can feel overwhelming. But in some ways we live in a small world, and there are simple, everyday habits that can make an ocean of difference for the planet.

Recycle. This is one of the biggest ways to help the planet, and the recycling movement is rapidly growing beyond recycling plastics, paper and glass, which residents in the Washington metro area have been doing for years.

Many local communities are introducing ways to make yard waste and discarded food useful and earth-friendly.

John M. Snarr, principal planner and technical manager of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said that an impressive 40 to 50 percent of waste generated in the metro area is diverted from landfills and waste-to-energy plants. Much of it is going to community organics composting programs. “That’s probably the new frontier,” Snarr said.

When the focus is food waste, according to Snarr, “The first option [for residents, restaurants and food markets] is to try to increase donations and prevent wasting of edible food. Ultimately there is going to be some waste, but there is a way to capture that.”

Some communities, including Falls Church, are designing a program to offer residents a way to recycle discarded food. Every ward in Washington, D.C., offers food scrap drop-offs at farmers markets for compost. “People are exploring how to do this,” Snarr said, including building infrastructure. “To have a zero-waste program, you have to capture more of the organic matter—food, grass and leaves.”

Visit to learn more about recycling in the metro area or for recycling basics.

Get dirty. Consider planting a tree. Interacting with nature and appreciating its beauty is therapeutic and helps heal the Earth. (Some reports estimate that our planet is currently losing more than 15 billion trees each year.) When you plant a garden or flowers, avoid products laden with chemicals. Grow your good deed even more by planting with a young child at your side. Composting in your yard, when feasible, is a wonderful activity to do with a child.

Think about water. Water is a precious resource. Check your home for leaky faucets. Reconsider whether a lush, green lawn is worth the water it demands. (Some estimates show that 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns.) If you have a cultivated grass lawn, water it efficiently. Don’t run the dishwasher or clothes washer for just a few items.

Reduce plastic. According to, more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the world’s oceans every year. Instead of buying bottled water, refill your own bottle, at home or at one of the many water refill stations popping up in public places. 

Help cut greenhouse gases. Consider biking, training, walking or carpooling to work at least one day a week. Don’t idle your car’s engine when you don’t have to. Eat locally produced food when possible—food transportation accounts for a substantial amount of emissions. Eat less red meat, which comes from livestock that produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Save energy. Replace light bulbs with ecofriendly models. Turn off lights and devices when not in use. Timers, dimmers and motion detectors may help save electricity.

Remember the big picture. Reduce, reuse and recycle. The Earth belongs to everyone, and everyone has a part to play in helping it thrive.

- Mary Grauerholz

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