Seven ways to be green at home

Eco-Reps across Penn offer sustainability tips to save money, help the environment, and consume less during the holidays.

A photos of bunches of peanuts with soil and leaves in view.
Ellen Iwamoto, director of research support services at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, was an avid gardener pre-pandemic. She decided to try kitchen scrap gardening, as well as growing some peanuts (seen here). (Image: Courtesy Ellen Iwamoto)

With the pandemic in its ninth month, many people have now spent more of 2020 in their homes than anywhere else. That has environmental implications—both positive and negative—for all sorts of things. Lockdowns imposed across the world lead to a sharp drop in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions, but at-home energy use has jumped as patterns morph to meet new and ever-changing demands. 

The holiday season is here now, too, a time of year notable for its excesses. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. household waste typically increases about 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a timeframe during which Americans add about 1 million tons of garbage each week to the landfills. That’s in a normal year, and 2020 is anything but. 

It’s hard to say how long COVID-19 will remain part of daily life. And the stresses are very real around a virus that’s sickened almost 15 million Americans and caused the deaths of more than 285,000. Such troubling statistics can make even the most environmentally minded want to throw in the towel, but Penn Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Main says there’s good reason not to.   

A green circle with the Penn logo and the word "Eco-Reps" across the top.

“One of the main arguments for thinking about your footprint at home right now is that a lot of people are seeing it increase. The pandemic has affected sustainability in a lot of different ways,” says Main. “But beyond that, if you remove the sustainability argument, it’s also really important from a cost-savings perceptive. The footprint normally in our offices is being transferred to our homes.” 

To that end, Main and Eco-Reps from across Penn, including Ellen Iwamoto, director of research support services at the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Marie-Luise Faber, an assistant biosafety officer in Environmental Health & Radiation Safety; and Asa Jeppsson-Klapproth, an IT support specialist for Penn Medicine Information Services offer some simple tips to be green at home, during the holiday season and for as long as the pandemic necessitates being there more. 

1. Gear up for the cold months 

With winter around the corner, Main says it’s a good time to do energy upgrades, for both owned and rented spaces. “Door sweeps on doors that lead to the outside are inexpensive and great for cutting down on air leaks. Weather strips are also pretty cheap and can be installed on windows to prevent heat loss,” she says. “Some people even just put old towels and rags around windows and doors to keep the cold out and the heat in.” 

2. Fill the dishwasher, and don’t rinse those plates ahead of time

Eating three meals a day at home instead of one or two will inevitably load up a dishwasher quicker. That could mean running it every day. “As long as it’s full, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you don’t rinse the dishes before putting them in,” Main says. Just five minutes of faucet running can waste 10 gallons of water and uses the same energy as a 60-watt lightbulb turned on for 18 hours, according to the EPA. 

3. Try a new kind of gardening

For Iwamoto, who was already an avid gardener pre-pandemic, this meant trying kitchen scrap gardening. “Aside from the usual vegetables and flowers and herbs, I had time, so I decided to plant a lot of things just for fun,” she says. “You can plant avocado pits, citrus seeds, scallions. I tried growing my own ginger root, and it worked. I also planted peanuts. I don’t think you’re meant to grow peanuts in the Northeast, but I just happened to come across the plants. There was some space available in the community garden and I said, ‘Why not?’” Those grew, too. 

Main tried this as well, cutting in half and planting some cherry tomatoes that were about to turn. “All of the sudden, we had a tomato plant,” she says. “Scrap gardening is really cool.” 

4. Use all produce parts 

This doesn’t have to mean composting, though that’s a smart final place for vegetable waste once there’s nothing left to do with it, Main says. She offers a creative use for all parts of veggies like broccoli and onion, including the stalks and skin: Make a vegetable stock. “Soup is a great way to get more flavor from those scraps you would normally think are past their useable life,” she says. 

Overripe fruits can become smoothies or jams. Citrus zest can infuse vinegars or go into homemade cleaning products. “Vinegar cleans everything,” Main says, “but it’s nice to have that lemony smell instead of your surfaces smelling like apple cider vinegar.” She also recommends freezing, dehydrating, or pickling.

5. Start a neighborhood native plant swap

Native plants, unlike those introduced to an area, thrive because they’re adapted to the local climate and soil. They’re also great for birds and pollinators, and they’re relatively simple to maintain. Pennsylvania has about 2,100 native plants, according to the state Department of Conservation & Natural Resources. 

About 10 years ago, Faber started swapping trimmings with people who lived nearby. “Most plants in my yard are from neighbors. If you don’t do it already, I’d encourage you to start a garden group in your neighborhood,” she says. “Become friends from a distance and go find some plants.” Faber also organized a more formal biannual native plant exchange—one for house plants, another for perennials—paused during the pandemic, but which she plans to pick up again once it’s safe to do so. 

6. Ditch the plastic

Last summer, Jeppsson-Klapproth read a statistic that grossed her out: A 2019 University of Newcastle study found that people consume about five grams of tiny plastic pieces each week, equal to the weight of a credit card. “I had already thought it was bad, but it was even worse than I thought,” she says. “We’re just littering nature with plastic.” It prompted her to reimagine how she used plastic in her own life. 

Now, she gets her milk in reusable glass bottles and makes her own yogurt, which she says is simple and takes just five minutes. If even those steps feel a bridge too far, people can start by assessing their own plastic use, she says. Is it possible to reuse plastic bags or that glass olive jar, for example? The key, Jeppsson-Klapproth says, is getting creative to break old habits.

7. Get involved in hyperlocal exchange 

There’s Buy Nothing and Freecycle and Next Door, the latter of which Iwamoto uses for giving things away or finding free items. “It’s also for buying or selling,” she says. “You can add filters like your neighborhood.” Sites like these both connect neighbors and offer a place to seek out or give items a second life.