Find out what eco-friendly changes really make a difference and which ones you can skip.
YOU'VE HEARD Opt for cloth diapers
WE SAY Give your washing machine a break
Cloth versus disposable: It's the mother of all eco controversies. At first glance, it may seem like a no-brainer. After all, babies go through an estimated 5,000 diapers before they're toilet trained-that's a lot of plastic piling up in landfills. But when you factor in the water and energy used to wash all those diapers, the choice isn't as clear-cut. In fact, a British study showed that disposable and cloth diapers have the same environmental impact for that very reason.
Then there's the question of convenience. How many bleary eyed, spit up-stained parents really have the time to wash a dozen diapers every day? While there's no such thing as a 100 percent biodegradable disposable, some are better for the environment than others. Companies like Seventh Generation (seventh generation.com), TenderCare (tendercarediapers.com), and Tushies (tushies.com) are made without chlorine, so they don't emit toxins during manufacturing. Also consider GDiapers (gdiapers.com), a hybrid between disposables and cloth. They have a reusable cotton cover that's held on with Velcro, and a liner you flush down the toilet.
YOU'VE HEARD Replace regular bulbs with compact fluorescents
WE SAY Make the switch in certain rooms, not all
By far, the easiest way to save energy is to change out incandescents for
compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which use about 75 percent less energy and
can last 10 times longer. So why hasn't everyone made the swap? The main reason is light quality, which is still inconsistent across brands. For a warm, incandescent-like glow, choose a CFL with 2,700K (Kelvin) rather than 5,000K (the lower the number, the warmer the color of the light), and pick a highly rated manufacturer, like GE or N:Vision. Then install CFLs where lighting isn't a big deal, like in a hallway or bedroom, and keep incandescents in the living room and bathroom.
Finally, remember that CFLs contain a small amount of mercury. When the bulb burns out, call your municipal solid-waste department or go to epa.gov/bulbrecycling to find out about disposal in your area. You can also drop off used CFLs at Home Depot or Ikea stores.
YOU'VE HEARD Opt for paper over plastic
WE SAY Bring Your Own Bag
Think about a typical day spent doing errands: You stop at the pharmacy, bookstore, shoe shop, and supermarket. Back home you unpack 10 plastic bags and toss them in the trash (or use them to hold garbage), albeit with a tinge of guilt. Not only do those bags pile up in landfills, but if you live in a city like New York or Seattle-which have proposed charging consumers for plastic-they also could wind up costing you a chunk of change. That's why reusable totes are the only way to shop. Green-kits.com sells loads of natural and organic cotton bags, including produce-specific versions and stylish personalized totes that make cute, pro-earth gifts.
YOU'VE HEARD When it comes to food, be an organic purist
WE SAY Go organic for some products
With signs screaming "organic" in every aisle, grocery shopping has become downright stressful (especially because organic food can cost 20 to 30 percent more). But filling your shopping cart with organic fare doesn't make you the greenest gal on the block. When you factor in the use of heavy machinery, extensive processing, and shipping food thousands of miles, organic doesn't necessarily mean better for the environment. Plus, USDA organic standards don't differentiate between farmers who go above and beyond organic growing techniques and those who follow the bare minimum, so the consumer doesn't really know the quality of what they're getting. (Experts do recommend buying organic for certain high-pesticide crops, such as strawberries, peaches, apples, celery, and lettuce; for a full list of produce that contains higher levels of pesticides, go to foodnews.org).
Instead of opting for organic, experts advocate buying from local producers whenever possible to get quality food at a lower price. Besides the reduced processing and shipping involved with smaller, local farms, buying items grown close to home also enables you to develop a relationship with producers, so you can ask how they're growing their products (though many smaller farms can't afford to get organically certified, they may not be using pesticides). If you don't have access to a farmers' market, consider joining a community-supported agriculture group (CSA), where members pay a seasonal or monthly fee to a farm in return for food. To find a CSA in your city or region, go to localharvest.org/csa.
YOU'VE HEARD Redecorate with low-VOC paint
WE SAY Do it-and breathe easier
There's a reason a fresh coat of paint has that distinct smell-you're breathing in low levels of toxic emissions called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They not only pollute indoor air, experts believe they also contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Fifteen years ago, companies began offering low- and no-VOC paints, which have since been improved to match the durability and coverage of traditional paint, minus the off-gases. It's one of the easiest eco-friendly choices you can make in your home. Just about every company now has low- or no-VOC options. They do cost more [anywhere from 15 percent extra to double the price], but as companies continue to jump on board, prices will come down. A few of our favorite green paints include Benjamin Moore Natura (Benjaminmoore.com), Yolo (yolocolorhouse.com), and Devoe Wonder Pure (devoepaint.com).
YOU'VE HEARD Replace your toilet; it uses way too much water
WE SAY Just a little retrofitting can reduce your water usage
If you have a perfectly good toilet and aren't in the process of renovating your bathroom, save yourself the hassle and expense of installing a low-flush model. Instead, for less than $2, you can drastically reduce the water you use by installing the Niagara Conservation Toilet Tank Bank (energyfederation.org). All you do is fill it with water and hang it in the tank and it's like you've put in a new high-efficiency toilet. (Standard toilets manufactured since 1994 use 1.6 gallons per flush; most high-efficiency models use 1.28 gallons. The Toilet Tank Bank reduces water usage by 0.8 gallons per flush.)
If you are ready to replace an old toilet, don't assume low-flush is the way to go. Try installing a dual-flush model instead. They're not as easy to find (check at Home Depot and at specialty home and kitchen stores) and cost about $100 more. However, you often have to flush more than once to get everything down with lowflush toilets. A dual-flush has two buttons-one for liquid waste, which uses just 0.8 gallons of water, and one for solid, which uses 1.6 gallons.
YOU'VE HEARD Install a low-flow showerhead
WE SAY Save your bucks
If you're addicted to that steamy, full-on morning shower, you probably won't be happy with a low-flow showerhead, which cuts water output by 25 to 60 percent. Rather than stand under a trickle, struggling to rinse out conditioner, take a shorter shower; you'll save up to 2.5 gallons per minute.
Where you can cut back, however, is your sink. Install an aerator-they're just a few bucks-and it will reduce water flow by 2 gallons a minute, which is not a noticeable sacrifice.
YOU'VE HEARD Recycle your electronics
WE SAY Go for it
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, each American household owns approximately 24 electronic items. And it seems like every day, newer, better versions of our old cell phones, computers, and TVs come out, which means a heap of outdated stuff to get rid of. But electronics contain hazardous materials, like lead and mercury, which need to be disposed of properly, so you can't just leave them out for the trash collector.
Log on to epa.gov/epawaste, then click on electronics recycling (ecycling) for a list of recycling organizations and links to stores and manufacturers-including BestBuy, Verizon Wireless, Dell, and Office Depot-that offer their own programs. (And when you purchase electronics, go to a manufacturer, such as Apple, that encourages and facilitates recycling.)
YOU'VE HEARD Invest in carbon offsets
WE SAY Don't buy into it
This is an idea that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much. Here's the premise: To offset emissions you create going about your daily business-washing your clothes or commuting to work-you can pay a company that promises to help the environment by, say, curtailing air pollution; developing renewable energy sources, like wind power; or planting trees.
While it is a brilliant marketing idea, you can't cancel out the effects of your activities. Once you've taken a flight, the emissions from the plane are already in the atmosphere. There's no way to get rid of them, no matter how many trees you plant. Investing in carbon offsets may help alleviate some guilt, but it doesn't impact the bigger picture. Curtailing your energy use is a much more efficient alternative.
YOU'VE HEARD Purchase a hybrid car
WE SAY Jump on the bandwagon
Perhaps nothing screams "I'm pro-planet!" louder than driving a hybrid. These cars run on a small, fuel-efficient engine combined with an electric motor that assists the engine when you accelerate. Hybrids cut back on gasoline use and reduce emissions, and a 2008 report by Intellichoice also found they save consumers money in the long run (despite a higher sticker price) through lower maintenance and insurance costs and fewer repairs. Plus, if you purchased a hybrid after January 1, 2006, you may be eligible for a tax credit.
So if you're in the market for a new auto, by all means, shop for a hybrid. If it's not in your budget, there are plenty of other good fuel-efficient options, new and used. Go to fueleconomy.gov and you'll find mileage and emissions
ratings for all car models.