It's Easy Being Green: Five Ways You Can Help the Environment

Small changes to your normal routine can make you more environmentally friendly -- and save you some money

Twenty years ago, if you showed up at the supermarket with your own bags, you'd elicit eye-rolling and mockery. These days, however, failure to bring your own bags is seen as a moral failing that can inspire a different flavor of eye-rolling. There remain several similarly easy lifestyle changes we could all be making that could have just as big an impact. We've identified five:

Turn off your computer
According to the Department of Energy, if you're walking away from your computer for more than two hours, you should turn it off. Over the course of a year, you can save nearly $100 by some estimates. Now imagine if you turned off both you work and home computer every day? And you might as well turn off your iPad while you're at it.

Pay your bills online
You hate writing checks, you hate opening bills, you hate buying stamps, you hate forgetting to go to the mailbox… What part of paper bill paying do you like? Spare us this nonsense about how you don’t trust computers: They’ve had access to your money since ATMs appeared 40 years ago. Think of all the bills you get each month: cable, credit card, cellphone, mortgage, electricity, heat, gas. If everyone went paperless for all their bills, it could add up to a lot of trees.

Keep a fork and spoon at your desk
We get that disposable cutlery can come in handy in many situations — picnics, parties and the like. But, according to, Americans use roughly 40 billion plastic utensils every year, which translates to roughly total of 275 million pounds of plastic. It's a problem that's easily fixed: Bring metal cutlery to work and stop throwing away those plastic utensils. People wash their hands and brush their teeth at work. Would washing a fork or knife be so difficult?

Use the short cycle on the washing machine
For most white-collar workers, the regular cycle on your washing machine is probably a little more firepower than you need on a day-to-day basis. Honestly, how dirty are you getting sitting at your desk? Try the short cycle on your washing machine. You'll save water and electricity, and you probably won't even notice the difference. Using cold water and a little less detergent will help, too. The average home does about 400 loads a year, so these small changes can add up.

Update your thermostat
Yes, this one requires a little time and money, but has the potential for huge savings. According to the DOE, properly setting your thermostat can shave as much as 15% off your home heating and cooling bills — with a programmable thermostat, you don't need to think about it. The programmable thermostat has been around for a few years now, but setting them was so complicated that most people didn’t bother. Newer models, however, don’t require an engineering degree. Among the easier to install is one from a company called Nest. In about 30 minutes you can have the thing mounted on your wall and set to change the temperature multiple times a day. Nest estimates (PDF) they can save you an average of $173 annually, which means the unit pays for itself in about 18 months. Another great feature of the Nest is that you can control it remotely, via smart phone, tablet or computer. Forgot to turn off the heat before going on vacation? Pull out your phone. Flying home on a cold winter day? Pull out your phone and your home will be nice and warm when you there.

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