How Do You Make a Difference?

When it was announced that Martha Stewart Living was launching a new environmental-awareness initiative called "Change the Day" (a new ecological theme and champion are highlighted every month in the magazine), I started thinking about the choices I have made over the years to reduce waste and cultivate a healthier, more eco-friendly life. As the old saying goes, 'Charity begins at home.' By making smarter, more-conscious decisions around the house and throughout our daily routines, we really can make a change.

It turns out, my husband and I are actually doing a pretty good job of things, considering. We're not perfect and we could certainly be doing more, but we've struck a balance and the decisions we make have, I believe, made a difference. From biking and walking most places (or taking public transit) to making sure we always bring our tote bags to the grocery store with us, we're keeping a car off the road and plastic out of a landfill. That's something! And if more of us did 'something' - anything, really - to reduce waste and conserve energy then the effect would be felt more widely, I believe.

Below I've highlighted some of the ways we 'change the day' by reducing waste, conserving energy and living our lives with a bit more awareness by making sensible choices at the grocery store. By doing so, we're supporting brands that help make a difference, too. Is it always easy and comfortable to make a choice that results in a bit more effort or costs more money? No, but when I consider the alternative (a planet laid to ruin by irresponsible choices in the name of ease and convenience) I can take it on the chin. Hopefully you'll find some of our tips helpful in your own home. Maybe you practice the same logic - and perhaps you might even go a step further! I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments.

My grandmother taught me this: almost anything can be cleaned with either plain water or a solution of soap and water. I keep these two bottles under the sink and use them every single day. When a bit of tomato sauce splashes onto the counter or the floor, I don't attack it with chemical-laden sprays and cleaners. There is no need. I simply spray it with water and wipe it up with a bar cloth and then rinse it out. Each night before bed, I wash down the counters, stove and fridge with a solution of soap and water: I mix about two teaspoons of Dr. Bronner's lavender liquid soap in about four cups of water to make the solution in a large spray bottle. Dr. Bronner's soap is all-natural, pure-castile soap, which is olive-oil based. For disinfecting, I use a vinegar and water solution (vinegar acts as a disinfectant, killing both the E. coli and salmonella bacteria) or one of the green cleaners mentioned below.

For cleaning glass, I use a solution of white vinegar and water. It also works well on stainless steel sinks. It can also be used to unclog drains and clean coffee-makers. Similarly, lemon juice and baking powder can be combined to make a cleaning paste that's effective on numerous surfaces, including wood, copper, ceramic and stainless steel. Both lemon and baking soda are effective stain removers and deodorizers.

Get used to the idea, too, of using cloths and mops to do most of the dusting and wiping up. The aisles at the grocery store are packed with convenient housekeeping options that only result in more waste. We keep paper towels on hand but we rarely use them, opting instead to use washable cloths and old t-shirts that have now been relegated to cleaning rags. On our floors, we use a good old-fashioned mop with a removable sponge that can be washed and disinfected: no magical 'erasing' wipes or sweep-and-toss stuff in our house.

Does it require a bit more effort? Yes, it does. Does it cut down on toxic chemical use in the home, as well as the amount of trash we throw out? Yes, it does. To me, the results are worth it. (You also save money by not having to replenish disposable cleaning supplies - a vicious cycle - so it's a win, win).


We do buy some commercial cleaners but use them fairly infrequently. We also research most of the companies we buy from to make sure they're on board with a commitment to reducing their impact on the planet. We buy method products, because they work extremely well and smell very nice. (Unlike Martha, I do enjoy cleaners that have a touch of fragrance. Nothing overpowering, but a little hint of something nice). This company's commitment to a cleaner environment was another big draw for us. All of their products are completely non-toxic. All of their bottles are made with recycled plastic, and are fully recyclable in turn. Its corporate offices are LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an environmental rating system developed by the United States Green Building Council), meaning they take extraordinary measures to reduce their impact on the environment through energy conservation and waste reduction. At method, employees compost on site. The company also works with its suppliers in implementing sustainability programs and renewable energy initiatives. Many of its products, such as its laundry detergent, are super concentrated, meaning the consumer uses less. And because they can be packaged in smaller containers, there is a reduction in the fuel and packaging needed to transport it to distributors.

Because we use natural cleaners most, these store-bought cleaners last us a very long time, reducing the need to buy more often.

It takes a bit of time, but doing some research on the products you buy really is a learning experience and can greatly impact your selection process. As consumers, we have enormous clout through our purchasing power. How we choose to spend our money influences the larger market forces. Spend wisely by supporting brands that actually care about the environment and we may see more companies jumping on the Green bandwagon.

When it comes to laundry, we have opted to make choices that are beneficial to our personal health and to the greater health of our planet. We've opted to buy Canadian brands as much as possible, since we live in Canada. (Buying products that are produced and packaged in far-off locations increases shipping - fuel - and packaging). We buy eco-max lavender laundry wash, which is free of any parabens or sulfates and the solution is entirely plant-based. Again, the plastic used is fully recycled and recyclable. Instead of bleach, we use Soap Works Safe Bleach - a super-concentrated, environmentally-sound formula that is free of phosphates and is odorless. You only need one teaspoon per wash, and it's safe to use on dyed fabrics as a brightener. You can also use it as a whitener in other areas of the home, just as you would with bleach. Grandma's Garden is another brand we love. It is not only Canadian, but local to our city. Shown in the image is a linen spray made entirely of all-natural ingredients, made by Grandma's Garden. They also sell laundry soap, which we do occasionally buy as well. Buying local is another great way to reduce our carbon footprint and support the local economy.

The method dryer sheets we use (right) have naturally-derived, plant-based ingredients and are fully biodegradable. The box it comes in is made with recycled paper and is recyclable. The laundry bar is by Grandma's Garden as well and is vegetable-based. (Lemon, baking soda and vinegar can also be used in laundry as whiteners and fresheners).

One of the best things we did was to invest in glass storage containers, forgoing plastic entirely. There is no plastic in our fridge or cupboards at all. All of our food is stored in these glass containers with rubber lids. We have a multitude of them and have used them for over ten years without needing to replace them. They are easy to clean and don't leech chemicals into our food the way some plastic containers can, especially when they come into contact with hot foods. Additionally, it eliminates the need for plastic wrap completely - another item to remove from your grocery list (and the landfill) once you select a more permanent, eco-friendly option. These ones were made by a Canadian company called Anchor TrueSeal.

One of the biggest contributors to landfill mass is our convenience-based culture: plastic cups, plastic straws, plastic water bottles and soda bottles, paper coffee cups that, let's face it, get thrown into trash cans far more frequently than recycling bins. Americans throw out 58 billion disposable coffee cups each year. Yes, 58 billion! Each year! Again, there are options out there that can completely eliminate the need for disposable convenience packaging.

I've had my Swell water bottle for close to five years and it's still in perfect condition. Swell is another company committed to environmental causes and reducing consumption of disposables. I use the bottle every day for cold or hot drinks; I can't remember the last time I purchased bottled water, or bottled anything, while on the go. Also, get used to tap water. If you live in North America, you should be ok. Besides, it's been proven in numerous studies that commercially bottled water is no more 'sanitary' than tap water.

I am not a coffee drinker, but if I were, I'd probably get the Stojo collapsible coffee cup. Made of food-grade materials, and completely leak-proof, the cups collapse to be easily stored in your bag or pocket until the next use: a nice alternative to bulky travel mugs. And then there's the tried-and-true Thermos, which has been around for 110 years. It's perfect for any hot or cold beverage, soups or even hot cereals.

If you find yourself at a fast-food restaurant or coffee shop, ask your server nicely if you can use your Swell bottle, travel mug or small Thermos for your beverage. Chances are, they'll say yes! They will simply measure the amount that is standard to your specific order and pour it into your container. At least that's what my barista does! And then you've avoided using a disposable cup, which you would have in your hand for an average of ten minutes, only to toss into the garbage where it will languish for years in a landfill. Click here for more insight about reusable bottles from the New York Times.


In short, it's all about reducing how much and how often we buy by making informed consumer decisions about the brands and companies we choose to support. If we're doing our part, the companies we buy from should be doing theirs as well.

So, here is a checklist of some of the things you can do to make an impact:
  • Buy local and/or support homegrown entrepreneurs and makers when possible
  • Do your homework: do the companies you support care as much as you do about the environment?
  • Buy less plastic: invest in a few good-quality, reusable containers for storage and convenience and you'll have them for years to come.
  • Avoid disposable cups and straws: brew your coffee or tea at home and use your Swell bottle, Thermos, travel mug or Stojo mug instead for beverages on the go. (If you're at Starbuck's ask your barista to fill your container with the equivalent amount of a tall Pike Place roast, for instance, and you're golden).
  • Avoid disposable dusters, wipes and brooms and use washable cloths and mops instead
  • Avoid chemical-laden cleaning products and opt for greener choices
  • Make your own cleaning solutions using water, castile soap, lemon, vinegar and baking soda.
Visit the Martha Stewart Change the Day site to learn more.

1 comment:

Anne Van Acker / Saratoga Springs, NY said...

Thank you for referring me to this post, Andrew. I do the vast majority of things you suggest here. I have finally started transition to all glass food storage (I had a large collection of plastic food storage from the Martha Stewart Everyday collection- it's been a little hard to give up, but I know it's the right thing to do).