MONEY sustainability

10 Super Easy Practices That Are Good for the Earth—and Your Budget

In honor of Earth Day, here are 10 incredibly easy things we should all be doing: They're good for the environment and save money at the same time.

Taking major steps like installing rooftop solar panels or buying an electric car are hardly the only ways to go green. It’s very possible to practice an earth-friendly lifestyle without incurring a major cost outlay. In fact, tons of tiny, easy tweaks to what you do and what you buy day in, day out can not only help the environment, they’ll save you money as a bonus. Here are 10 green cost-saving practices for Earth Day—and every day.

  • Walk or Bike

    Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.
    James A. Parcell—The Washington Post via Getty Images Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.

    Cities and even many small towns are increasingly focused on becoming more walkable and bike-friendly. So why not take advantage? Obviously, neither of these modes of transportation requires the use of fossil fuels or electricity. They’re also free or nearly so. Depending on where you live, you might not even have to buy a bike: The bike share program in Washington, D.C., for instance, costs $75 per year and rides are free if they last 30 minutes or less. (Check out MONEY’s ranking of the Best Places to Walk or Bike.)

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    You could take separate car trips to go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup. Or you could combine them into one outing, in a process some call “trip chaining,” which is as simple—or challenging, for some—as being a little more organized and efficient. By planning ahead and grouping errands, you save time and gas money and reduce congestion on the roads.

  • Use Public Transportation

    150420_EM_EarthDay_MassTransit
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images New York subway

    Some parts of the country have better public transit than others, and surveys indicate that people—millennials especially—place a high priority on living in cities with good options for getting around. This makes sense for a number of reasons. According to a study on commuter satisfaction, people who get to work on foot, bike, or via train are happiest. These options are not only more affordable compared with driving, the time of one’s commute is more consistent and therefore less stressful. Check out the tools at PublicTransportation.org to scope out transit options and see how much money and carbon emissions you could save by using public transportation in your neck of the woods.

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

    Americans spent roughly $13 billion on bottled water last year, up 6% from 2013. We’re drinking roughly 34 gallons of bottled water annually per capita, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976. Granted, this is a much healthier option than sugary beverages, but is bottled water any better for us than tap water? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water is completely safe; many bottled waters are just tap water that’s sometimes (but not always) filtered. And bottled water easily costs 100 times or perhaps even 1,000 times more than tap water. Only an estimated 23% of disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, by the way.

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

    The environmental benefits of shopping with a reusable bag like these recommended by Real Simple are pretty obvious: They eliminate the need for plastic bags that tend to wind up in landfills. Shopping with a reusable bag may also save you money, because stores in places like Dallas and Encinitas, Calif., charge customers 5¢ or 10¢ apiece for non-reusable bags.

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

    Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food we buy in the U.S. is thrown away. What this shows is that too many of us buy too much at supermarkets and warehouse bulk-supply retailers, and/or that we’re not particularly good at strategically freezing or concocting leftover dishes. To waste less, shop smarter and be creative with foods that might otherwise be dumped in the trash. And to avoid going overboard with impulse purchases at the grocery store, always make a shopping list in advance, and stick to it.

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

    Among the many straightforward and fairly simple steps you can take to trim back household costs and conserve resources: Turn the heat down in winter (you’ll shave 1% off your heating bill for every 1 degree lower); use fans rather than nonstop A/C in the summer; insulate around doors and windows to protect from drafts; and put heating and cooling systems on a timer so that they’re only in use when needed.

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

    They tend to cost more upfront than less efficient models. But they’ll save you money in the long run because they eat up less electricity when being used, and, at least in terms of lightbulbs, they have longer lifespans so therefore have to be replaced less frequently. As for appliances, look for the Energy Star label as a sign of a product’s efficiency—and its potential to shave dollars off your utility bills.

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

    It’s not wise to battle against Mother Nature by trying to force flowers, plants, and grasses to grow in areas where they’re simply not suited. A low-cost, low-maintenance yard is one that incorporates native plants and greenery that flourish in your zone, without requiring extensive watering, fertilizer, and attention—nor a big budget. Check out classic tips from This Old House and Better Homes & Gardens for landscaping that’s gorgeous, affordable, and earth-friendly. Don’t fixate on having a prototypical grassy front lawn, which may look good but often requires loads of time, energy, money, water, and chemicals to maintain.

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

    Many towns give residents free or deeply subsidized composters, and using one is generally as simple as dumping vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and such into the bin. The resulting material can be help your garden and new plants grow, and eliminate much of the need to water and buy fertilizers and pesticides. Composting reduces the amount of waste in landfills as well, of course. (Even apartment dwellers can get in on the act with vermicomposting, or composting with worms.)

TIME Environment

Questions Remain Over U.S. Preparedness for the Next Oil Spill

Eleven People Missing After Explosion At Offshore Drilling Rig
U.S. Coast Guard Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

Despite more frequent drilling, environmental activists say not enough has changed in the way the government oversees deepwater drilling.

In the midst of 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, President Barack Obama’s administration declared a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. The spill was one of the country’s most devastating environmental disasters, and the freeze was intended to give the federal government time to assess what safety measures it had in place. But the moratorium passed, and drilling quickly resumed.

Now, five years later, offshore oil drilling is more frequent and is done to even greater depth. Since the BP spill, the federal government has approved more than 20 ultra-deepwater drilling expeditions, according to the Associated Press. Environmental activists say not enough has changed in the way the federal government oversees the deepwater drilling.

“The BP spill happened five years ago, but the next offshore oil disaster is still just one mistake away because the oil companies have fought putting the strongest possible protections on the books,” said Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a statement.

Since 2010, the federal government has addressed the causes of the spill by heightening standards for the design and casing of deep-sea oil wells and nearly doubling the number of inspectors. Earlier this month, the Obama administration proposed increasing regulation of the blowout preventer, the last line of defense in preventing a spill. The blowout preventer failed in the Deepwater Horizon accident, one of the many factors

“A lot has occurred to make offshore drilling safer,” said Eileen P. Angelico, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), an agency created to monitor offshore drilling after the BP spill. “Government oversight of drilling has been strengthened…and there has been a significant increase in the number of offshore inspectors and technical experts.”

But environmental activists say the changes aren’t enough. The number of offshore incidents including fires, oil spills and explosions, among other things, has remained high over the past five years, according to data from the BSEE. There were nearly 2,800 incidents and 11 deaths between 2011 and 2014. There were 3,200 incidents and 32 deaths in the previous four-year period. More importantly, environmental activists say, many spills go unreported.

“The industry has destroyed hundreds of square miles of sensitive wetlands, while daily, and often unreported, leaks and spills pose serious threats to our fisheries, wildlife and natural habitat,” said Jonathan Henderson, who monitors field operations at Gulf Restoration Network, in a statement.

At the same time, oil companies have launched operations drilling at depths far greater than the 13,000 feet below sea level where the 2010 spill occurred, according to the Associated Press. Stopping a spill in the deeper and more complex wells would be far more difficult than it was to stop the BP spill—which eventually spewed an estimated 176 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

But even if tougher regulations were able to prevent all potential oil spills, many environmental activists—and some officials in the federal government—argue that offshore drilling still needs to end. Drilling only deepens reliance on the fossil fuels that cause climate change, experts say. Indeed, Obama used the Deepwater Horizon debacle in 2010 as an opportunity to advocate for the “transition to clean energy.”

“There are costs associated with this transition,” said Obama at the time. “We can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy—because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.”

Despite the environmentally friendly gesture, environmental activists say the president’s energy policy leaves much to be desired. The White House is pushing to open new areas to offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Atlantic and Arctic waters need to be taken completely off the table to oil and gas drilling,” said Natural Resources Defense Council Executive Director Peter Lehner in a statement at the time. “All offshore drilling is risky, but the worst thing we could do right now is open up new, never-spoiled, or long-closed areas to the risks this industry poses.”

TIME animals

Humpback Whales May No Longer Be Endangered

Whale Breaching
Michael Penn—AP In this July 9, 2014 photo, an adult humpback whale breaches in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska.

Two populations of the whales would still be considered endangered

Most humpback whales may no longer be endangered.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed removing more than two-thirds of the world’s humpback whale population from the endangered species list.

Humpback whales were first classified as in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1970. The NOAA’s proposal would remove 10 of the 14 recognized whale populations from the endangered species list, while two would be listed as endangered and the remaining two would be classified as threatened.

“The return of the iconic humpback whale is an ESA success story,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, said in the NOAA release. “As we learn more about the species—and realize the populations are largely independent of each other—managing them separately allows us to focus protection on the animals that need it the most.”

The last time NOAA removed a species from the endangered list due its recovery was in 1994, when it took off a population of gray whales, the Associated Press reports. Once removed from the list, all the humpback whales would still be protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

TIME Environment

5 Million Iowa Hens to Be Euthanized After Bird Flu Found

It's the second recent outbreak in the state

An Iowa egg-laying facility found to have chickens infected with bird flu will see all 5.3 million of its hens euthanized to prevent the spread of the disease, agriculture officials said Monday, following an initial avian influenza outbreak discovered elsewhere in the state last week.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the outbreak, which officials believe is being spread by migratory birds, the Des Moines Register reports. Just last week, an Iowa turkey farm had to kill 27,000 birds after the virus was detected.

While health officials say H5N2 presents a low risk to humans, the epidemic could be a big problem for Iowa farmers, as their nearly 50 million hens provide one out of five eggs consumed in America.

[Des Moines Register]

TIME Environment

Stop Counting on Individuals To Solve California’s Water Crisis

A sprinkler waters a lawn on April 7, 2015 in Walnut Creek, California.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A sprinkler waters a lawn on April 7, 2015 in Walnut Creek, California.

Janet Vertesi is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University.

"Even if 50,000 people shorten their showers, this is a drop in the proverbial bucket"

The drought in California has revealed more than just dry lake beds. As NASA issues dire warnings about the prospects for water in the state, Californians are cutting down on their showers, draining their swimming pools, and berating their neighbors for their neatly manicured lawns. Most distressing about the current crisis, though, is what it has revealed about the assumptions that underlie our environmental policies and technologies. Many believe that saving water starts at home, but in this case it’s not residential consumers but large agricultural customers who use most of the water provided by state utilities.

We like to think of individual consumers as rational economic actors, whose choices to consume (or not) affect the pricing and availability of a product through market forces like supply and demand. So deeply ingrained in us is this notion that it appears to be common sense for Governor Jerry Brown to impose restrictions on residential water customers. We are therefore currently witnessing an unprecedented interest in water and the idea that individuals matter. Remember when we used to count our carbon footprint? Now Californians count gallons of water. They’re actively discussing the benefits and drawbacks of “water-hungry” legumes, meats and vegetables online. It is already a faux-pas to serve almonds at parties.

Our environmental technologies also reflect this simplistic individualist ideal about conservation. The Nest thermostat not only manages your home heating and cooling systems, it also tells you how much energy you’ve saved and encourages you to save more. Airlines offer online carbon counters so you can offset your upcoming flight, while new cars such as Prius or Leaf allow you to drive with lower contributions to the CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s probably not long until we’ll see apps that can show you exactly how much water you are consuming.

The idea that individual consumption choices can make a difference is nice in theory. But individual efforts to “go green” pale in comparison to the effects of large-scale systems on our air quality, our water availability, or our climate. The enormous agricultural systems in California require so much water because they are busy feeding the rest of the United States and exporting food to other parts of the world. Even if 50,000 people shorten their showers, this is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Like any infrastructural change, it is expensive to require individual citizens to opt out. It can take years for the added cost of a hybrid vehicle to make the reduced cost of a tank of gas worthwhile. Further, because companies negotiate discounted costs for their access and use, their choices to consume are sheltered from mainstream market pricing. Even when supply is limited, demand can remain high due to this price-fixing. So a market-based approach aimed just at individual consumers is doomed to failure.

To be sure, existing theories of “efficiency generation” suggest that individual consumers do matter. If thousands of customers install energy-efficient light bulbs, environmental economists equate this power savings to the investment of bringing new facilities online. Although the cost of utilities is established differently for residential consumers versus industrial ones, individual habits can and do add up.

But only if we start thinking on a larger scale. That means thinking about how existing systems influence or curtail our actions and possibilities, rethinking how our current large-scale systems intersect with people, companies, and regulatory agencies, and considering new technologies, policies, and pricing structures that can produce system-wide change.

It also means opening new technological opportunities. What if my thermostat didn’t just tell me what I am saving but also what my neighbors are saving, helping me to support and reinforce their choices? What if we expanded the “carbon offset” idea to water-needy companies to help them consume what they needed while giving back elsewhere? What if several different companies that wish to manage certain resources could band together, across distances, accessing and visualizing the data they need to evaluate their changes?

Fortunately, many of our best and brightest are already on location in California. Silicon Valley has long professed its desire to “disrupt” the system and “change the world.” Here is their chance.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

What Caused the Worst Oil Spill in American History

Big Spill
Cover Credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS GRAYTHEN - GETTY IMAGES. INSET: AP The May 17, 2010, cover of TIME

The Deepwater Horizon spill started on April 20, 2010

Five years ago Monday, when there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the first news reports said that nearly a dozen people had been killed by the blast.

Before long, however, it was clear that the impact would continue to be felt, and by many more people. The oil spill that began that day and continued into the summer would end up being the worst such accident in U.S. history, spilling millions of gallons of crude into the fragile waterway. How it would be cleaned up remained a mystery, one that is still being answered today.

Another mystery, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh explained in a cover story shortly after the spill began, was what had actually happened on that fateful day:

Investigators are still exploring exactly what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, but the catastrophe seems to have been the result of a cascading series of failures–and too little oversight. Rigs are equipped with blowout preventers, 40-ft.-high (12 m) stacks of machinery with multiple hydraulic valves that are designed to seal a well should anything go wrong. Crew members on the Horizon couldn’t activate the blowout preventer, and a deadman’s switch that should have kicked in when control of the rig was lost failed as well. One safety feature the Horizon did not have is an acoustic switch, an additional backup that can activate the blowout preventer remotely. Regulators don’t mandate them in the U.S., though they are effectively required in nations like Brazil and Norway.

When the rig sank, the riser–the pipe that runs from the wellhead to the surface–fell as well, kinking as it did and causing three breaks, from which thousands of barrels of oil are leaking each day. “There were multiple chances to stop this,” says Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. “And they all failed.”

Read the full cover story, here in the TIME Vault: The Big Spill

TIME Crime

More Than Two Environmental Activists Were Killed Each Week in 2014

US-PERU-ENVIRONMENT-UNREST
Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images Diana Rios Rengifo, the daughter of one of the four indigenous Ashéninka leaders murdered in the Peruvian Amazon in early September, speaks during a ceremony in New York on Nov. 17, 2014

A majority of deaths were tied to disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business

The killing of environmental activists jumped by 20% in 2014, with at least 116 deaths around the world tied to disputes involving land and natural resources, the London-based advocacy organization Global Witness claimed this week.

“[That’s] almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period,” its report said. “Disputes over the ownership, control and use of land was an underlying factor in killings of environmental and land defenders in nearly all documented cases.”

According to How Many More?, the majority of deaths took place in Central and South America; Brazil topped the list with 29 cases followed by Colombia with 25.

Global Witness dubbed Honduras as “the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist,” where during the past five years 101 individuals have been killed in relation to their advocacy work.

The organization urged governments across the globe to take bolder measures to tackle the issue ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference that will be held in Paris later this year.

“Environmental and land defenders are often on the frontlines of efforts to address the climate crisis and are critical to success,” said the report. “Unless governments do more to protect these activists, any words agreed in Paris will ultimately ring hollow.”

TIME Environment

Millions of Jellyfish Invade Pacific Northwest Beaches

Jellyfish are washing up on shore in Oregon and Washington

Beach-goers beware.

Millions of jellyfish are washing up on the shores of beaches in Washington and Oregon, CNN reports.

It is not unusual for the bluish-purple species called Velella velalla to turn up in the spring, but a sail fin on their body usually keeps them away from the shore. This spring, though, their sails were no match for the wind.

The species, also known as “purple sailor,” has stinging cells that are not seriously harmful to humans, but the Oregon State website warns it’s best to avoid rubbing your eyes after touching them or walking barefoot through them on the beach.

TIME Environment

Will California’s Drought Mean More Expensive Jeans?

California is a big producer of high-end cotton

Drought and water shortages could push California’s cotton acreage to its lowest levels since the early 1930s, and that could become a problem for yet another industry that the state currently dominates—high-end apparel manufacturing.

California accounts for most of the U.S. production of an economically important, high-end type of cotton called Pima. A reduction in the crop could spell trouble for the local apparel makers—many of them in Los Angeles—that are already bracing for the state’s first mandatory water reductions.

“There’s going to be some major impacts into our company, primarily as a result of the water problems that…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

 

TIME Environment

North America May Have to Live With Bird Flu For a ‘Few Years,’ Says Top USDA Vet

A flock of turkeys at a Minnesota poultry farm
Bethany Hahn—AP A flock of turkeys at a Minnesota poultry farm

No quick end to the outbreak

A leading agriculture official has forecast that North America’s bird flu outbreak could last for some time.

“It’s something in North America that we may have to live with for a few years,” the USDA’s chief veterinary officer John Clifford told lawmakers in Minnesota.

The state is the area of the U.S. hardest hit by the disease, detecting bird flu on 26 turkey farms. Bird flu has also been found in Wisconsin, South Dakota and others.

A Minnesota House committee voted unanimously Thursday to allocate nearly $900,000 to help combat bird flu, which has afflicted 1.6 million turkeys in the state and become an economic blight for its almost $1 billion turkey industry.

No cases of human infections have been reported so far.

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