Seems everything's "going green" these days – from products at the grocery store to tips in school newsletters to email signatures that say, "Please consider the environment before printing this."
But before you swap all your linens for organic cotton and throw every piece of leftover food into a compost bin, check out these common eco errors to make sure you're on the right path to total eco-awareness.
1. Going green all at once
Living a more sustainable lifestyle involves taking small steps, and learning what changes make sense for your family. Trying to change everything all at once can lead to green burnout – and making choices that aren't necessarily good for the environment.
"I like to think of going green in stages," explains Kris Bordessa an author, mother and the voice behind Attainable Sustainable, a blog about green living. "Every little attempt is worth making. For instance, a family might decide to incorporate more organically grown items into their diet."
One way to move toward that goal is to swap regular sugary cereal for an organic alternative in order to avoid the pesticide and herbicide load. Bordessa notes that by taking small steps, families could influence a bigger change: If more consumers purchase organic products, the demand for organic ingredients would rise and farmers and manufacturers would start growing and supplying more to match that need.
2. Tossing your CFL light bulbs
By now you've probably started replacing most of your regular incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones (CFLs). These twisting bulbs use 65-75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than regular light bulbs – not only helping the environment, but also saving you in energy costs. But you'll be making a big, green no-no if you're tossing these bulbs into the trash when they burn out. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which is toxic, and can hurt the environment if they end up at the dump.
To avoid this goof, look for recycling centers in your community that take CFL bulbs. You can call your local garbage pick-up service. Or go to Earth911.com and type in "CFL" into the search box.
3. Using plastic bags for produce
Sure, you've made the switch from plastic and paper grocery bags to carting along your own reusable shopping bag. But once you get to the produce section, are you still using plastic bags for your apples and oranges? Instead, consider buying mesh bags to reuse each time you go to the store.
Put these bags in with your other reusable grocery bags. Paige Wolf, author of Spit That Out: The Overly Informed Parent's Guide to Raising Children in the Age of Environmental Guilt explains that you often don't even need a bag. With bananas, avocados and other produce, she goes bagless.
4. Tossing everything in your compost bin
Tabletop compost bins and outdoor compost piles have become a great way for families to recycle food waste. But composting can be a little confusing at first – and you can't put every food scrap into your bin or you might end up with critters in your compost.
For example, any kind of bread scraps, milk and meat products can attract pests. Some foods even have elements that are bad for the environment. For example, walnuts contain a compound that can be toxic to plants. And even throwing out dead or dying plants onto your compost pile isn't such a good idea because they may contain fungus or bacteria.
So what should you compost? Refer to information sites like Mother Nature Network for specific lists and ideas. Bordessa has another suggestion, with food scraps like vegetables and fruits: "Drop those bits and pieces into your blender, add water to cover, and blend into a puree. Use the puree to water your outdoor plants. Simply use a trowel to dig a tennis ball sized hole near the base of a plant, pour in the puree, and cover with soil."
5. Using recycled paper towels
Products made out of recycled materials can help your family begin living more sustainably, but try to look for an alternative that you might already have on hand. For instance, those paper towels made out of 100 percent recycled paper help avoid using wood and saves trees.
Yet if you were to dig around your house, you could probably find kitchen towels to use for spills and drying that would help you avoid buying the paper products altogether.
6. Buying new energy efficient appliances
These appliances will definitely help you trim your energy bill. But is buying a new product and tossing out the old really good for the environment?
"Often people think it's better to upgrade to green," says Wolf. "But it's actually better if you can use up what you have with non-green stuff than to buy something new."
So for those old appliances, if you can figure out a way to have them recycled, it might make sense to swap them out. But if you're looking to live more sustainably, Wolf believes salvaging what you already have might be the better way to go.
Sometimes the manufacturers of large appliances will offer a recycling program; check into what's available before you buy. Visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star site to learn more.
7. Forgetting to weatherize your home
You may already have a programmable thermostat to better manage your heating and cooling needs. And you may be keeping your indoor temperatures low in the winter and high in the summer.
Those steps all help; but if you haven't also gone ahead and weatherized your home, you might be using more energy than you need. You can pay to have an energy audit service come to your home, or you can try to look for drafts yourself.
Check around windows and doors to make sure that cool air isn't seeping in – and your heated air escaping out. Around window frames you might want to caulk to prevent drafts. Heavy drapery and window treatments also can prevent cold air from coming in. For doors, look at whether you need to place stripping on the bottom; items like rugs and towels work, too.
8. Trying to recycle your pizza box
Not all boxes can go in the recycle bin. Even though the materials in the pizza box may be recyclable (you may even see the sign on the box), the grease from the pizza makes this a no-go.
The oil in the grease doesn't mix well with the ingredients used to recycle paper. So by trying to recycle your pizza box you're actually harming the environment, not helping. According to information from Earth911.com, contamination of recycled goods costs the industry around $700 million per year.
You can cut around the greased part of the box and still recycle the rest of the box, but avoid the urge to toss it in as a whole.
9. Running water in the kitchen sink
You've probably already heard that you should turn off the sink water when you're brushing your teeth, but are you doing the same with your water in other parts of the house? Consider your dishes. Do you let the water run to get it hot and then keep running while you're gathering up dishes to clean?
Instead of running the water while you clean up, gather up all of your dishes and dirty pans before turning on the sink. That way you can wash quickly and use less water (and you might even trim your cleaning time too!).
10. Shopping without a grocery list
Sustainable living centers around not using more than you need – and reusing what you already have. Shopping with a list helps you avoid buying unnecessary goods.
We've all had that experience where you purchase something that ends up crammed in the back of the refrigerator until it's been there so long it's no longer edible. While you might be able to compost the food item, why not avoid buying it altogether?
Start thinking about what you need before you go to the store; maybe take a quick peek in the refrigerator and freezer. Maybe there's still some sour cream lurking on the fridge door, or fresh apples at the back of the produce drawer.