10 Costly Ways We Fail at Being Green (And What You Can Do About It)

We all know we should use less gas, recycle more, and ditch plastic bags, but we're only human. Let's look at some realistic ways we can help the environment, and your bottom line.

It's not that we hate the planet; but sometimes, going green can be tough, or at least inconvenient. Plus, when we don't see the negative impact of our actions immediately, it's hard to convince ourselves of the urgency of recycling something instead of tossing it in the trash.

So just how are we not living up to our green dreams, and how could we do better? In honor of the upcoming Earth Day, let's take a look at 10 ways in which we fail at trying to live greener, and how we can increase our chances of succeeding.

Using Your Car Less

Cutting down on driving doesn't just help reduce carbon emissions: it can be a big money-saver, too. Not only are you cutting down on what you spend on gas, but you're also reducing wear and tear on your car, which could help keep it happily running for longer.

The simplest way to cut down on driving is to plan your excursions in a way that lets you combine trips, hitting several errands in a single outing rather than running back home after each trip. To drop your vehicle usage even further, you might consider carpooling or public transportation, which can offer both cash and environmental savings by putting multiple travelers into one vehicle.

Why We Fail: The downside to all of this is that it's just not convenient, especially if you're accustomed to driving yourself everywhere. Combining trips to maximize your fuel efficiency takes planning, which can be a problem when you remember you need something at the store right now. Sharing rides with others, whether through carpooling or public transportation, is always going to take a bit longer as you wait for a ride and go out of your way to drop people off — which is probably why 76% of Americans drive alone to work.

How to Succeed: Overuse of your car can be a difficult habit to kick, but if we can all cut back in small ways, it can still have a big overall impact. Once in awhile, consider taking a train for long distance trips, or riding a bike for shorter ones.

Getting an Electric Car

An electric car could cut down on your gasoline bill to zero, but the potential inconvenience of owning one (and the high pricetag) keeps buyers at bay.

Why We Fail: Electric cars are a long way from overtaking conventional vehicles in popularity. With rental vehicles (a handy way to try out a new car before buying it), electric cars are swapped for conventional cars after 1.6 days on average (compared to six or seven days for cars on average). Perhaps the hesitation comes from the car's limitations: They can only travel a certain number of miles on a charge, and when they run out of power, you're not going anywhere until you plug in again.

How to Succeed: Calculate your actual mileage needs to see if an electric car would work; being stranded on the roadside is a frightening thought, but most EVs can go over 100 miles on a charge. Combine that with the fact that 54% of drivers drive less than 40 miles every weekday while 80% drive less than 100 miles every weekday, and using an electric car seems far more reasonable. If you're part of a 2-car household, you might be able to afford to have at least one electric car, reserving the gas powered one for longer trips.

Using Your Thermostat Properly

Heating and cooling our homes are some of our biggest expenses — and the power draw isn't great for the environment, either. Though it can be difficult to remember to set your thermostat properly (or to cope with it being a little too warm or a little too cold when your ideal temperature is just a button-press away), it can result in some big power savings.

Why We Fail: In the battle against the weather, thermostats are your best friend, but many of us don't use them properly. If you have a non-programmable thermostat, you may be leaving it set to the same temperature all the time, whether you're home or gone, awake or asleep. If you have a programmable thermostat, you may not be programming it to get the best energy savings.

How to Succeed: Read up on your thermostat's settings to make sure you're optimally programming it. Also consider getting a smart thermostat, like the Nest, that can automatically adjust without you having to think about it.

Saving Power by Switching Things Off (or Unplugging Them)

Even when you aren't actively using electronics or appliances in your home, they can still be sucking up power — sometimes even a lot of power. Televisions, cable boxes, and gaming consoles are common culprits. The best way to solve this is to remember to turn your gadgets off or even unplug them to be sure they aren't adding to your electric bill even when you're not using them.

Why We Fail: Unfortunately, doing so can be a real hassle (especially if you want to unplug things that are difficult to reach).

How to Succeed: You can make it a bit easier with power strips that can simply be turned off, or eco-friendly power management gadgets that let you "unplug" things without actually pulling the cord from the wall.

Replacing Your Appliances

Old appliances aren't very energy efficient, which can be a drain on your household budget as well as on the environment.

Why We Fail: They can be pricey to replace, a hurdle that certainly keeps us from replacing household appliances casually.

How to Succeed: Picking up new, Energy Star-certified products can help you save on energy costs over time, so check out the savings you'd accrue from a new machine and see if you can fit it into your budget.


Replacing Light Bulbs

If replacing appliances is out of your budget range, how about replacing light bulbs? New compact florescent and LED bulbs produce light without producing nearly as much heat as a conventional incandescent bulb, which makes them more efficient.

Why We Fail: Consumers have been slow to pick up on the new lights, even stocking up on incandescents before energy efficiency regulations phased out some of these classic bulbs. This is perhaps because LED lights generally cost more. (For example, this Rosewill 8-watt A19 Non-Dimmable LED Bulb may be $5 off, but it still costs $6.95 for just one.)

How to Succeed: Once again, think about the lifetime savings! Though new bulbs are pricier, they last for a lot longer, and the energy they save will add up over time. Changing out a single bulb could save you between $30 and $80 in electricity over the life of the bulb. The average US household has more than 50 bulbs, which would add up to a savings of $1,500 to $4,000. So when your bulbs burn out, maybe it's time to finally make the leap to CFL or LED bulbs.

Saving Water

With many parts of the country in drought, saving water is a major environmental concern.

Why We Fail: Because the cost of water often isn't very high (compared to your electric bill, for example), it's easy to overlook water conservation. But as drought conditions continue in much of the southwest, water will only become rarer — and perhaps pricier.

How to Succeed: Now's the time to start think about shorter showers, fewer loads of laundry, low-flow shower heads and toilets, gardening with native plants that require less water, and installing a sprinkler system, which can be less prone to overwatering than you.

Skipping Bottled Water

Grabbing a bottle of water from a convenience store shelf is an easy way to hydrate, and better for you than soda.

Why We Fail: Drinking bottled water all the time results in a lot of waste: 50 billion plastic water bottles are sold each year, but only 23% of them are recycled.

How to Succeed: Consider the effect on your wallet. If you're drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day all out of disposable bottled water, you're spending about $1,400 a year on it, compared to the $0.49 (on average) you'd spend on the same amount of tap water.

Don't like your tap water? Then filter it. After all, Aquafina and Dasani are just commercially bottled, filtered municipal water, so whatever you make at home is just as good.


Recycling is easier than ever for many Americans; it's commonly done alongside trash pickup, and often doesn't require any complicated sorting. But it's still not common. Of the 251 tons of garbage Americans generated in 2014, only 34.5% of it was recycled. This means not only are we shoving more waste in landfills, we're also trashing things we could turn into material for new things.

Why We Fail: So why don't we recycle? Even as recycling has become easier, it's still not available to everyone. And even when it is, taking our recyclables to a separate bin can be time-consuming (hey, we're sometimes really lazy), or we simply forget.

How to Succeed: Do whatever you can to make it easy to recycle; switch to an under-the-cabinet, roll-out trash bin that has two separate bins for trash and recycling.

Reusing Grocery Bags

Though plastic shopping bags are common in supermarkets around the country, these bags can't always be recycled and create a huge amount of waste.

Why We Fail: The convenience of the omnipresent plastic bag is paramount. Even while cities nationwide have had luck banning plastic bags entirely, there's been a backlash from stores, consumers, and lawmakers.

How to Succeed: Switching from plastic to reusable bags isn't tough, but it means we need to remember to carry reusable bags with us whenever we go shopping, which can be a tricky behavioral change when we're accustomed to having plastic easily provided at the store. It's a hard sell, too, considering there's very little financial incentive for most of us to make the swap, though for those living in areas with bag bans or bag taxes, you'll save a few cents for each bag you'd use, which adds up.

To help you remember, consider keeping reusable bags in your car at all times, to account for unplanned supermarket trips, or buy nylon ones that pack up tightly to keep in all your messenger bags, purses, etc.

Readers, do you have any additional tips for how to make it easier for us all to adhere to our dreams of going green? Let us know in the comments below!

Elizabeth Harper
Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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