The Evolution of an Environmentalist

No matter how strongly you feel you should do your part to save the planet, it can be difficult to change your lifestyle. We recommend a gradual approach: Do one new environmentally-friendly thing every few months. This gives you time to get used to each change and incorporate it into your daily life. As an example, here’s a list of changes I’ve made in my own life.

[UPDATE IN 2012: I am linking this old article to Your Green Resource in hopes of inspiring people who are at an earlier stage in their journeys!]

Before 1989

  • My family saved newspapers, steel cans, and aluminum cans; we donated them to school fund drives or took them to the recycling plant.
  • We had a compost pile.
  • We rarely used air-conditioning, and we turned down our furnace at night and when away from home.
  • We had a water-saving faucet aerator in the kitchen sink.
  • We re-used gift wrap, boxes, and packing materials.
  • My mother made a lot of foods from scratch, and we avoided individual-serving packages.
  • We mixed up fruit juice from concentrate, instead of buying it ready-to-drink in huge disposable containers.


  • Started saving paper that was blank on one side to use for scratch paper and letters to my cousins.
  • Started looking for recycled content and minimal packaging in products I bought. For example, I stopped buying feminine pads that were individually wrapped in plastic.
  • Started washing all laundry in cold water and line-drying outdoors in warm weather.
  • Refused to learn to drive, partly out of environmental concern.  I rode the school bus in a town where most teenagers drive to school; therefore, the bus was uncrowded and a relaxing ride.


  • Started bringing home cans from beverages I drank at school and adding them to the recycling bin at home.
  • Started recycling glass.
  • Stopped using rayon tampons and purchased all-cotton ones by mail. (I hadn’t yet heard that chlorine-bleached rayon might cause health problems, but I found it caused a burning sensation.)


  • Learned to drive but continued to walk to most places within a two-mile radius; that fall, I started college in Pittsburgh and had access to public transit.
  • Started taking all my class notes on blank-on-one-side paper. During four-and-a-half years of college, I bought only two packages of notebook paper.
  • Started line-drying laundry year-’round.
  • Started recycling plastic bottles and “office” paper.
  • Took my first Greyhound bus trip. I’ve had occasional unpleasant experiences with Greyhound, but none have been worse than my experiences with airlines. Bus stations are not as dangerous as many people think. Usually I find bus trips very pleasant.


  • Started buying food and other products in larger packages to save money and reduce waste. I lived in a dorm with limited storage space, but I set aside one end of my closet shelf for spare stuff.
  • Started making my own peanut-butter-cracker sandwiches, instead of buying little plastic packs of crackers.
  • Started using a cervical cap instead of spermicide capsules individually packaged in plastic.  (That brand of cervical cap is no longer manufactured, but check out the FemCap if you are looking for a convenient, hormone-free contraceptive!)
  • Started diluting shampoo so I would use less.


  • Started using rechargeable batteries in my portable cassette-player.
  • Started a magazine exchange in my dorm: People put magazines they’d read into a box, where other people could pick them up instead of buying another copy.
  • Redesigned several interoffice forms at my summer job to reduce paper waste.
  • Started using an insulated mug instead of paper cups in campus dining facilities.
  • Started using canvas tote bags for grocery shopping, instead of taking the store’s plastic bags.
  • Convinced a dormitory cleaning person that instead of changing the plastic bag in every wastebasket every time, if the trash was non-messy she could just dump it into her larger bag.


  • Started making large batches of spaghetti sauce and refrigerating it for later use, instead of buying prepared sauce.
  • My housemate drank a case of Mountain Dew each week, so we began using the empty cases instead of wastebaskets. Our landlord allowed us to place these directly in the trash can, saving garbage bags.
  • Cleaned out a filing cabinet at my summer job and acquired enough old two-pocket folders (from promotional mailings) to see me through the last three semesters of college and to fill all my filing needs through 1998.
  • Started using cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.
  • Started carrying plastic forks, spoons, and chopsticks in my book-bag to use when eating on campus or in fast-food restaurants.


  • Started saving reply envelopes that came in junk mail and using them for my own mail by covering the address with blank white labels (which I had purchased in bulk from American Science & Surplus).
  • Started buying products like lip balm and hand lotion made from hempseed oil instead of petroleum.
  • Started recycling glossy paper.
  • Bought a computer with an EnergyStar monitor that shuts off after 15 minutes of idle time. However, when I know I’ll be away from the computer for a while, I turn the monitor OFF to save even more power. (Appliances in standby mode waste a lot of electricity.)


  • Started working full-time and contributing 5% of my income to charity, mostly environmental groups.
  • Quit taking out the trash.
  • Protested my supermarket’s decision to stop selling toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper, in favor of selling adult wet-wipes in plastic boxes!  [UPDATE: It took about 4 years, but they did start selling recycled paper products again.]
  • Bought a low-flow showerhead and a kitchen sink aerator for my current home.
  • Started a plastic-recycling program at work. The cleaning people had been pulling cans and glass bottles out of the wastebaskets to recycle at home, but they lived in a suburb that didn’t collect plastic. I set up recycling bins to collect all bottles and cans in designated locations so the cleaning people wouldn’t have to dig through the trash as much.  A co-worker and I added the plastic bottles to our household recycling.
  • Had a frightening experience with toxic oven cleaner and switched to a citrus-based cleaner, which works better anyway!
  • Switched from buying yogurt in individual containers of #5 plastic (not recyclable in Pittsburgh at that time) to buying big containers of plain yogurt in recyclable #2 plastic.


  • Started buying in bulk (by mail order) toilet paper, facial tissues, and paper towels made from post-consumer recycled, chlorine-free paper. [UPDATE: Here is my article about how to find the best price on the greenest toilet paper in 2018!  The method works for anything you’re buying!]
  • Bought a reusable menstrual cup and found that I liked it better than tampons!
  • Implemented several paper-saving policies at work by finding ways for a single copy of a document to be circulated among several people instead of several copies being printed.
  • Bought reusable coffee filters for work and home.
  • Bought a cloth shower curtain instead of vinyl.  (This saves money in the long run because a cloth curtain is much less likely to rip and much more likely to withstand machine-washing.  It smells a lot better, too!)
  • Bought sneakers made of hemp and recycled rubber.  (Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to replace these cute and comfortable shoes, Adidas had stopped making them.)
  • My housemate started making homemade yogurt, so I stopped buying yogurt in plastic containers at all.  [UPDATE: That housemate moved out in 2000, around the time our curbside recycling program began accepting #5 plastic.  I still buy only the large size yogurt.  There are many ways to reuse empty yogurt buckets!]


  • Started buying plant-based dish and laundry detergents and bathroom cleaner.
  • Bought a car because it was required for my job, but chose one with good mileage and low emissions. I drive it as little as possible.
  • Fought off bugs that were killing my houseplants by spraying the plants with diluted citrus-based cleaner, instead of pesticide.

Read my other Environment articles to learn about my ongoing evolution!

9 thoughts on “The Evolution of an Environmentalist

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