Earth Day: A Dozen Ways Going Green Will Save You Some Green

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Help save the Earth, and you may help save yourself some money.

Most of us say we should do more to save the planet, but about half agree living green ain’t easy, according to a Harris poll taken for the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22.

While almost 6 in 10 say the current focus on the environment in our society is not going far enough, Americans remain divided on whether it’s easy (45 percent) or difficult (49 percent) to live a green or environmentally conscious lifestyle, the Harris poll of 2,244 adults found.

Cost and convenience are oft cited concerns, as is confusion. Is organic food really healthier or just labeled that way as an excuse to charge more? Six in 10 are not sure.

If you’re considering a greener lifestyle, here are 12 ways to start that will help you save some green. Some have immediate returns, others take a while to pay off.

1. Savings are in the bag

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Dozens of cities and municipalities have banned or imposed charges on single-use plastic bags and/or paper sacks at grocery stores and other retailers. As that trend continues — lightening the load for landfills — more consumers are finding it makes good economic sense to bring their reusables. Dallas put in place one of the most recent bag laws, and as of Jan. 1, stores in the Texas city are required to charge 5 cents per single-use bag.

Nationwide, Target and other retailers offer customers a nickel or other discounts for each reusable bag they use. If you paid $20 for a typical 10-pack of reusable bags, instead of paying a quarter a bag at checkout for typically eight paper bags for a weekly shopping trip, you’d break even in 10 weeks.

The tough part, if you’re not used to using reusable bags already, is remembering to take them into the supermarket when you shop. But if you can do that, you can save a bit and feel good about yourself, too.

2. Curb your car

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AAA estimates your driving costs 59.2 cents per mile, or $8,876 per year, based upon 15,000 miles of annual driving. A big chunk for most people, by federal estimates, is the average 12.6-mile commute morning and night, which takes on average 25.8 minutes each way, racking up 6,300 miles and costing more than $3,700 annually.

American Public Transportation Association said in March that commuters who ride public transportation instead of driving can save, on average, $9,316 a year, which includes an average monthly cost of $166 for an unreserved parking space in a downtown business district.

Besides buying hybrid or electric vehicles, you can save on driving costs by carpooling (3 out of 4 workers still commute alone, the Census Bureau says), combining errands to drive less, and keeping your car engine tuned and tires properly inflated.

Or you can join the truly green commuters: The Census Bureau says 882,198 people ride bicycles to work and about 4 million walk.

3. Grande gulp of savings

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KillTheCup.com says if we all switch to reusable tumblers for our lattes, we’d keep 158 million disposable cups a day out of landfills. Plus, you’ll save a dime a drink at Starbucks if you bring in your own reusable cup. A $10 tumbler pays for itself on the 100th coffee drink.

You’ll also get discounts at other stores. For example, 7-Eleven says its Big Gulp won’t drain your wallet so fast if you get it in its refillable cup (prices vary).

4. Tap into the sunshine

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In 2013, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,908 kilowatt hours (kWh), or 909 kWh per month, with a monthly bill of $110 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The upfront cost may be daunting, depending on your means: Switching your home to solar power can run around $25,000 for a typical 3 kilowatt system that solar panel sellers say will power a 2,500-square-foot home. But the combination of federal tax credits of 30 percent, currently set to continue through 2016, reduced energy bills and increased home value, the system will pay for itself in about 9.5 years, according to vendors. Also, with net-metering, which measures the difference between the electricity you buy from the utility and the electricity you generate with your solar panel system and distribute to the grid, your electricity bill could drop to zero.

The Census Bureau estimates 50,235 homes across the country were heated entirely by solar energy in 2013 vs. 56.8 million homes, or 49.1 percent of all homes, heated by utility gas. Electricity averages 11.3 cents per kWh; natural gas, $13.29 per million Btu.

5. Heap of savings

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Food scraps and yard waste make up 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If you compost the organic waste, you can turn it into rich, free, garden fertilizer. Composting not only keeps the waste out of landfills, but also reduces the methane the waste would produce. All composting requires three basic ingredients:

  • Browns: dead leaves, branches, and twigs.
  • Greens: grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.
  • Water.

Pile it in a backyard enclosure of chicken wire or wood and turn it with a pitch fork, or get a tumbler bin for $350 to $450. Smaller indoor bins run about $30.

OrganicGardener and scads of other sites explain different approaches to composting depending on your space and living situation.

6. It pays to recycle

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Each of us produces 4.4 pounds of trash each day, which adds up to about 251 million tons a year throughout the nation, says Keep America Beautiful. That’s enough to fill Busch Stadium from top to bottom twice a day, says the EPA. Besides conserving natural resources and cutting down on the amount of trash bound for landfills, you can make money recycling — and that’s not rubbish.

According to the Aluminum Association, Americans earn nearly $1 billion a year from recycling aluminum cans, but another $1 billion of aluminum cans are tossed into landfills. To find the closest recycler to you, click here. Atlas Recycling recently was paying $2.05 a pound.

In some states, you can find recyclers for plastic bottles. Check your bottle for the most common marks: HDPE, opaque; PVC, clear with a seam along the base; or PET, clear with a hard, molded center on the base. Atlas recently posted $1.31 a pound for small bottles; 94 cents for large bottles.

7. Get scrappy!

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Metal can be sold for cash at local scrap yards around the country.

Use a magnet to determine if your metal is ferrous (the magnet will stick to not-so-valuable steel or iron), or non-ferrous (the magnet won’t stick to higher valued copper, aluminum, brass, stainless steel and bronze).

You can use iScrapApp or ScrapRegister to find scrap yards and prices, which vary day to day. Aluminum auto wheels recently were going for 88 cents a pound; #1 copper wire, $2.17.

8. Thrift store thrills

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Next time you need clothes, find a second-hand steal at a thrift store. Americans recycle or donate only 15 percent of their used clothing and send the rest — about 70 pounds per person totaling about 10.5 million tons a year — to landfills, says the Council for Textile Recycling. At the thrift store, you’ll save about 90 percent of the price of retail first-hand goods, plus you’ll extend the wearable lives of clothes.

If you’re about to toss clothes into the trash, consider these figures from the council: About 10 to 20 percent of donated clothing is sold in thrift shops; of the remainder, about 45 percent is exported as second-hand clothing, 30 percent is reclaimed as rags, and 20 percent is recycled into items such as home insulation, carpet padding and automotive materials; only 5 percent ends up as waste.

9. The heat is on – and you’re not home

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To save money on your heating and cooling bills, reset your thermostat when you are asleep or away from home. Madison Gas & Electric says you’ll save $74 per heating season by setting back your thermostat 3 degrees. Cutting air conditioner use by 10 percent this summer could save enough electricity for 2,400 homes. Try setting your thermostat at 78 degrees in the summer; 68 in winter. A programmable thermostat, $30 to $100, will allow you to set temperatures for various parts of the day each day of the week, so you won’t have to remember when you’re coming and going routinely.

10. Plug into savings by unplugging

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Turning off lights when you leave a room is hard enough for some of us, but have you considered the savings from unplugging electricity-sucking appliances like computers, TVs and game consoles?

Even your cell phone charger is a culprit. The Department of Energy says the average charger consumes 0.26 watts of energy when not in use, and 2.24 watts when your fully charged device is connected to it.

A cable box with DVR left on but unused will cost you about $44 a year, DOE says. Try setting your computer to sleep mode or saving a game and powering down instead of leaving it paused for a prolonged period, and you can save more than $100 a year.

11. Replace old appliances

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Consider replacing old energy-demanding appliances with Energy Star models. They may cost more to purchase than standard models but will pay you back in lower energy bills within a reasonable amount of time, even without a tax credit, says Energy Star, an EPA voluntary program.

Look for the Energy Star endorsement on clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, audio and video devices, cordless phones, lights and fans.

A pre-1994 dishwasher costs you $35 a year more to operate than an Energy Star model, the program says.

12. Cleaning up

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Vinegar or baking soda mixed with warm water goes a long way toward cleaning up most of your home. Traditional petroleum-based household cleaners may contain chemicals associated with eye, skin or respiratory irritation, says the EPA. For cleaning dishes, counter tops, furniture, clothes, floors and windows, look for “green” products that are non-toxic, biodegradable and made from renewable resources (not petroleum).

And maybe you could even cut back on the amount you wash. (See: Save on Water and Extend the Life of Your Jeans and How Often Do You Have to Wash Your Hair?)

What ways have you found to save money while being kinder to the planet? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page and share this article with your Facebook friends.

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