We know we need to do our part to prevent pollution and conserve resources. But what does living sustainably really mean? To put it simply, we need to live in a way that ensures we have, and will continue to have, the water, materials and resources needed to protect our health and environment.
"People are recognizing that we live in a more resource-constrained time, we don't have unlimited water or forests," says Aynsley Toews, project manager in the Office of Sustainability, University of Maryland, College Park. "Families are making that awareness part of children's culture," she adds.
It may seem like a tall order, but there are simple ways every family can do their part to live sustainably today.
Compost your waste
According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste make up 20–30 percent of our trash. By composting these materials, you'll add less to landfills, and create rich compost to enhance your soil.
Traunfeld says it's easy to begin composting. "You only need a 3-foot by 3-foot area to compost tree leaves and garden plants."
For indoor composting, you could try vermicomposting, also known as worm composting. Worms can transform kitchen scraps and shredded newspaper into nutrient rich soil that will help your plants grow, according to the University of Maryland Extension website.
"The farm-to-table movement is very popular locally. Families at home should try serving one vegetarian or local meal a week," suggests Toews. "It's healthier, reduces the high costs of shipping food, as well as the carbon footprint created by certain foods, like beef or lamb."
There are over 145 farmer's markets in Maryland where you can obtain local, often organic products, while supporting neighborhood farmers.
Think before you throw
Recycling and reusing remain the backbone of sustainability. Giving an item a second or third use minimizes waste and the fuels and materials associated with production.
"The easiest thing for a family to do is find out what's recycled in their county, and take part," says Hilary Miller, deputy director of Land Management Administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Bottles and cans are recycled almost everywhere, while paper can differ by county."
The United States generated approximately 32 million tons of plastic waste in 2012, reports the EPA, representing 12.7 percent of total trash. Any reduction in plastic waste helps: buy reusable shopping bags, store food in covered glass containers rather than plastic wrap, and use containers in lunchboxes, rather than disposable plastic bags.
Small changes at home
Minor adjustments to your daily routine can add up. If you let the water run continuously during certain activities — brushing your teeth, cleaning dishes, or washing a car — try turning it on and off as you need it. And if you languish in the shower, cutting back will give the environment, and your water bill, a break.
"There are cool timers on the market that can help," says Toews. "They'll time you; then start trimming your shower time by sounding an alarm." These inexpensive alarms are easily mounted in your shower. Or for control over your kids' showers, try a shower management system that controls the showerhead and automatically reduces and then stops the water flow as time runs out.
If you are weighing bath versus shower, shower usually wins for using less water. According to the EPA, a full standard bathtub requires about 70 gallons of water, while taking a five-minute shower uses 10 to 25 gallons.
Lowering the heat overnight is another way to make an impact. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can save about 10 percent per year on your heating bills by turning your thermostat down 10–15 degrees for eight hours. Installing a programmable thermostat will enable you to raise the temperature before you wake.
Once you've made some changes, share your knowledge. "If you notice neighbors aren't recycling, offer to help, or give them a container," suggests Miller. Collectively, small changes will go a long way toward a brighter future.
— By Debbie Swanson, Tribune Brand Publishing