28 Ways Your Family Can Protect the Earth

Recycling and Conservation

Ground Zero Garden with Paul Greenburg
Ground Zero Garden with Paul Greenburg

Best intention: Walk or ride a bike for nearby errands.

Real-world solution: Because short car trips are the worst polluters and gas guzzlers, combine errands whenever possible. Make a plan from your to-do list: Can you return the library books on the way to the dry cleaners before picking up the kids and then hit the supermarket before coming home? Or, if you work, walk to the cleaners and video store near your office on your lunch break. And if possible, why not try the occasional car-free Saturday and see what you can accomplish using just strollers and bikes?

Best intention: Recycle every can, bottle, and piece of paper, and fertilize your garden with composted leftovers.

Real-world solution: If your city doesn't run a recycling program, recycle your cans and bottles yourself, and make collecting them a family project. Have the kids stash the refunded change in a jar, and set it aside for a summer-vacation fund or a special toy. As for composting, scatter food scraps (except meat, dairy products, cooking oil, or grease) in the garden to provide nutrients for the plants.

Best intention: Swear off toxic household cleansers.

Real-world solution: Yes, those potent cleaners may make housework faster and more convenient. But the bad news -- for your health and for the planet -- is that they introduce harsh chemicals into the atmosphere. But rather than swearing off these products, simply substitute nontoxic cleansers for some jobs. Consider using vinegar diluted with 25 percent water to clean windows and mirrors, and try baking soda to scrub your oven, bathtub, and sinks. You can also try vegetable-based cleaning products, particularly on floors, where little ones crawl and are more likely to ingest chemical residues. Save some paper while you're at it by switching to reusable rags to get rid of the grime.

Best intention: Conserve water and energy by washing your dishes by hand and letting them air-dry and by rewearing clothes to reduce laundry.

Real-world solution: This would be reasonable if a) dishwashing were a quick chore and b) kids stayed clean for longer than five minutes. Instead, be environmentally savvy by doing large loads of laundry and only running a full dishwasher. Choose unscented laundry and dish products, which contain fewer chemicals and make the wastewater less toxic (cut packaging by opting for the super-concentrated varieties). And good news for whoever has after-dinner cleanup duty: Most newer dishwashers are so efficient that you just have to scrape and load, which means there's no wasteful prerinsing to do. When it's time to replace an appliance, look for an energy-efficient model with the government's Energy Star logo; get purchasing tips at energystar.gov.

Best intention: Install light sensors so your lamps turn off automatically when people leave the room.

Real-world solution: Add "light monitor" to your family's list of household chores. The monitor makes periodic sweeps of the house to make sure lights are off in unused rooms. When lights are left on, the culprit has to put a quarter into a penalty jar. Bonus: Try using compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which help lower your electricity bill and last longer than traditional bulbs.

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