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Ringing in the New Year often goes hand in hand with thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what we’d like to change. But it’s not always easy to choose where to focus our efforts.

Many of us feel short on time. Taking on another responsibility or altering our habits can seem daunting when our days are already jammed with things to remember.

That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the ten easiest ways you can make a difference this year. These actions aren’t hard to embrace when you approach them one at a time, but they can have a huge impact because they help tackle some of our planet’s most pressing concerns.

1. Stop using the ‘Big 4’ single-use plastics.

Disposable plastic coffee cups (including lids), straws, bags, and water bottles: these are the worst offenders when it comes to the plastic trash accumulating globally in oceans and rivers. Bans on plastic bags and plastic straws are catching on in places around the globe (including Boston and Seattle to name a few) while cities like Vancouver and Washington, D.C. have banned plastic straws and expanded polystyrene foam containers and cups.

In the UK, the environment scored a huge win in 2018 when industry leaders signed the UK Plastics Pact, an agreement that will see supermarkets, coffee chains, manufacturers, and waste disposal companies come together to create a circular economy for plastics in the UK. This will have a global impact, because the companies involved include multinational giants like Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Proctor & Gamble.

So how can you get on the plastics elimination train? Avoiding these single-use plastics will not only cut down on waste, it will save resources by removing those disposable from production. Choose one or two items to begin and add more as the habit takes hold. It really is that simple.

2. Refuse products containing microbeads.

Last year saw more countries banning microbeads, those tiny plastic particles added to personal care products and cosmetics for their scrubbing action and filler capability. And while these bans are positive steps towards keeping plastic out of the food chain, they haven’t completely solved the problem. That’s because in America and elsewhere, microbead bans focus on products that get rinsed off, such as shower gels and facial scrubs. Microbeads are still permitted in a variety of other personal care products and for industrial uses. Additionally, the transition period built in for companies to reformulate their products means even rinse-off scrubs and gels may still contain microbeads.

To find out which products to avoid, visit beatthebead.org and review their list for your country (America’s product list is located here) or download the Beat the Bead App. Then consider alternatives. Products that meet the organization’s “Look for Zero” certification will sport this logo. Its presence means you’re buying products guaranteed to be free of microbeads and other plastics, including Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and Nylon.

To make your own plastic-free alternatives, consider the following natural alternatives.

HoneyContains anti-bacterial properties and anti-oxidants. Use only unpasteurized, raw honey as a facial cleanser. Mildly exfoliating.
Yogurt and lemonNatural exfoliators suitable for face and body when combined. Add 2-3 drops of fresh lemon juice to ½ cup of plain, unsweetened yogurt and apply. Lemons contain AHAs. Yogurt contains lactic and malic acids.
Baking sodaCombine with jojoba oil for a neutralizing, effective scrub.
OatmealContains anti-inflammatory properties. Absorbs excess oil. Process in blender with water to make a paste and apply as scrub or face mask.
SugarContains glycolic acid. Mix with jojoba oil or honey to create a vigorous scrub.
SaltA natural purifier. Add a few drops of essential oil and use on feet and body.

3. Start composting.

If you haven’t already tried composting, what are you waiting for? Seriously, composting is the simplest, most effective way to reduce trash. It’s low cost and often easier than stuffing your organic waste into garbage bags and hauling it to the curb to throw away. Not only that, compost is the Holy Grail of gardening additives. It’s full of nutrients to help plants grow and vastly improves the soil structure of any gardening bed.

Even if you’re not a gardener, composting your food waste is important because it helps reduce harmful greenhouse gases and forestall climate change. That’s because food waste that breaks down in a compost pile produces CO2, while food waste that breaks down in a landfill (under that mountain of other trash) produces methane gas, which is 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Today there are so many ways to compost, even if you live in an apartment. If you live in a small space, check out our vermicomposter (worm composters). If you have a yard, patio, or extra parking area, consider compost tumblers or read our comparison between compost tumblers and compost bins for more options. Vermin-proof, pest impermeable, apartment-friendly: there’s a composter for everyone.

4. Grow (or sprout) something to eat.

If your backyard gets more than six hours of sunlight, you could be growing a portion of your week’s groceries. Adding a few raised garden beds can help reduce your lawn maintenance routine and increase the quality of your diet by upping the freshness of your food. Home-grown fruits and vegetables are not only better for you, they’re better for the earth because they eliminate the fuel needed to transport produce to market. You can even install garden beds on concrete.

If you don’t have a backyard to cultivate, consider growing vegetables inside in a kitchen window box or on your balcony in a raised garden planter. Depending on the amount of light that streams into your windows, you could be growing a variety of healthy, fresh ingredients for your daily salad. Growing fresh herbs is a great place to start.

Want something even simpler? Try growing sprouts for quick and easy greens during the winter months. All it takes is a mason jar, some sprouting seeds, and water.

5. Plant some trees.

Trees are one of the most effective carbon-storing organisms on the planet. They also provide shade to cool our homes in summer, and structures for playful childhood afternoons— climbing and swinging anyone? Every year deciduous trees replenish organic matter in the soil when they drop their leaves. Both deciduous and coniferous trees improve soil structure.

If you have property, planting one of the top ten carbon-storing trees can help reduce the load from our atmosphere and contribute the other benefits mentioned above. For those with smaller outdoor spaces, dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees are an alternative. Many varieties produce during their first year and increase their load rapidly thereafter. Talk with your local garden center for varieties that do well in your area.

If you don’t have the space to plant a tree, consider growing some of the grasses and flowers favored by pollinators. You can put these adjacent to your front steps, in a balcony planter, or even in pots on a porch. Nectar-producing plants will attract and support bees, hummingbirds, and other species.

6. Avoid fast fashion. Try on a capsule wardrobe.

It’s easy to fall prey to the vast amount of advertising we see every day urging us to purchase the latest fashions or ‘refresh’ our wardrobes. The reality is that buying from cheap clothing chains contributes to landfill waste and a throwaway mentality. When was the last time you purchased something with staying power? Capsule wardrobes demand that we think carefully about each clothing purchase and only permit garments into our closets that coordinate with other items. They also streamline our mornings and free up space in our closets so we can live without clutter.

To get started, review your wardrobe with the goal of paring everything down to 25-30 items (including shoes, hats, and other accessories). Make a plan to buy clothes only twice per year, and consider shopping second hand. When you buy something new, support clothing companies using long-lasting ethical fibers like hemp, organic cotton, and bamboo.

7. Energy-proof your home or apartment.

Whether you rent or own your living space, there are ways to save money and resources by weatherizing. From doors to windows to hot water heaters, a few simple tweaks can lower your electrical bill and your impact. Start by getting an inexpensive energy audit to learn more about your space and what you can do to plug leaks, reduce phantom loads, upgrade appliances, and reduce your heating and cooling needs. Your local utility company may offer an energy audit service. If they don’t, consider hiring an independent auditor to learn more about how you can increase efficiencies now and for the long term. Auditors look at everything from caulking in your doors and windows to the insulation in your walls (with infrared cameras to show the weak spots).

Next, consider what types of alternative energies are within your reach for meeting or further reducing these needs. Is this your year to go solar or install a heat pump? If those are beyond your reach, consider adding a programmable thermostat, window curtains, and draft catchers along the bottoms of doors and windows. These are simple, inexpensive upgrades with big payoffs.

8. Join the sharing economy.

In our independent minded society, it’s easy to think we need to buy our own copy of everything, even if we only use these things a few times each year. This outlook has left many of us struggling to manage our possessions, or trying to cram the latest useful tool into a shed that’s already overflowing. Thankfully there’s an alternative. Sharing programs have sprung up across the continent, offering everything from tools to toys for borrowing or renting. Like a public library, these programs operate on the simple premise that every member has the right to borrow each item for a limited period of time. Some require a rental fee, while others operate by yearly membership. You can now search national databases for tool shares, toy shares, and even car share programs for outlets near you. Making the choice to buy one less item this year saves resources and prevents more things from entering the waste stream.

9. Vacation close to home—without flying

When winter comes around, many of us book trips to warmer climates to raise our spirits and restore our sense of wellbeing. And while many people are aware of the need to conserve water and generate less waste when traveling, few of us think about reducing our travel distances or the number of trips we take in a year. Why is this when the emissions generated from air travel have the greatest impact per kilometer than any other mode of transportation?

Airplanes produce a variety of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides. And because they produce these emissions at high altitudes, they trigger a series of atmospheric reactions that increase their climate impact. Improvements to airline emissions seem to have reached their limit, and the percent of the world’s population able to afford the cost of a ticket is growing fast. Current estimates put the total climate impact of airline travel somewhere between four to nine percent of all human activities.

Taking fewer far-flung trips this year is one concrete step you can take to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Before planning your vacation, use this calculator to find out how much carbon your flight would use. Compare that with the information provided for other modes of transportation and decide how to lessen that footprint.

If and when you do fly, choose an airline with a good carbon reduction scheme. The cost of that cheap transatlantic flight isn’t quite so cheap when you factor in the costs to the planet and the world’s governments fighting climate change. You can also purchase carbon offset credits to lessen the impact of your flight, but this will always be less effective than deciding not to fly in the first place.

10. Invest in the future. Donate to charities making change.

Organizations across the globe are working on the issues covered above and more. By supporting their good work you can help them succeed. Read our Green Giving Guide to find out how you can make a difference, or contact the charity of your choice and ask how to help. Put your dollars to work where they matter the most.

Making a Difference for the Long Term

Shifting into a new year gives us the opportunity to review our priorities and commit to doing things differently. It also gives us the chance to change habits that might not be serving the planet. Which action above will you choose for 2019? How will you make it happen?

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