Saving Your Money (and your environment too)

Last updated 2003.11.01

For me, improving the state of our environment is where it really all begins. If all our "progress" only succeeds in poisoning our air, water and food, then we are not going to survive. Period. And so far, as a species, and particularly in the "western" world, we have already moved well down the road to extinction at our own hands. Righteous ranting on various Greenie reasons you should practice conservation.

While there a few people who care enough to spend more to improve our environment, most of us would rather save money than the rain forest. (Honestly, would you have started reading this section if it had not mentioned saving you money?) The interesting thing is, most of the time you can do both. So don't be ashamed of the fact that you are trying to save a few bucks, there aren't many who have more than they would like to spend, but appreciate the fact that you can improve your environment at the same time. This is also not about reducing your standard of living to save the earth. I'm no paragon of environmental behaviour, I just try to make a few little changes that save money, help the environment and don't impact my lifestyle significantly. For example, I have an automatic dishwasher, and I use it. I do make sure the loads are full, and try not to use it from 4 to 9 p.m. when electrical demand is at its peak. It saves me time so I can do other things (like update Web pages); I use as environmentally friendly a detergent as possible, and as little of it as will do the job. I use the least energy intensive cleaning cycle that is appropriate to the load being washed. Little things, but they do help and don't degrade my standard of living. This is the practical application of what I call "econogics".

Do the math. There are a lot of financial savings to be had from environmentally-friendly practices. These are direct, after taxes, savings, which will be the main focus of this page. Some require a small investment, others just a bit of thinking or a bit of effort.

There are also indirect savings, such as electricity bills that could drop, not just because you are using less power (which could permit your local utility to avoid buying more expensive outside power) but also drop the cost per kilowatt-hour because you are helping them level their load curve, allowing more efficient use of their facilities.

There are big tax savings to be had (reduced garbage at the curbside means reduced waste collection and hauling, dumping fees, landfill sites acquisition and maintenance, old landfill cleanup costs, water purification costs, health care costs, transportation infrastructure costs).

If it isn't cost-effective, and environmentally beneficial, I won't be suggesting it here. And that still leaves plenty of areas to cover.

The 3 Rs

You already know the Greenie mantra - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. No money to be saved here right? Wrong! This is all about saving money. Reduce means use less, so buy less and save money. Reuse means using something again, probably avoiding a purchase related to the second and subsequent use of some item, again saving money. Recycle means less processing to create a finished product than if manufacturing had to start from completely raw materials. And all of them mean less garbage being picked up and transported to landfill. The 3 Rs mean a lot more than sorting your garbage into the blue box instead of the trash can.

3 More Rs

In addition to the environment 3 R's we all know (see above), there are 3 more that I call the "helper 3 R's": Refit, Repair, Retain.

Refit is ensuring that your tools and equipment are maintained properly so that they will work efficiently, safely and longer. For example, if your lawnmower lasts 7 years instead of 6, that saves you money. Cleaning out the grass clippings from under the mower deck and sharpening the mower blade will allow your machine to work more efficiently. It will mow the lawn better, faster and use less energy. That makes for a better appearance for your lawn, and saves you time and money.

Repair is fixing something instead of replacing it. Sometimes only a small part is at fault, so a repair saves money and keeps the larger unit out of a landfill site. Rebuilt parts are part of repair as well as reuse. If you do not consider yourself mechanically inclined, some schools offer night classes on basic mechanics, electricity, appliance and small engines repair. Otherwise, perhaps you know of someone else who could repair the item and return it to useful service.

Retain is about keeping useful things at hand so they are available when needed to repair or build something else. Nails can be straightened and reused. Screws, nuts, bolts, washers and other small hardware can usually be reused. If you do not have a need for something, perhaps your neighbour, friend or relative does. Renovating? Perhaps someone could use that sink or cupboards you are discarding in the basement they are finishing or in a cottage or workshop.

Show Me the Money

Where are the savings? They come from small changes in our behaviour. The changes we want to make fall into a number of broad categories (there is lots of potential for overlap):
Energy Conservation
Water Conservation
Landfill Diversion
Think, Research, Communicate

If you have heard these before and are already practicing them, thank you. Otherwise, repetition is a proven method of teaching.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Finished reading that magazine? Don't throw it in the recycle bin! Pass it on to someone else to read. When it has made the rounds of your friends, give it to a hospital or other institution with waiting rooms (I deliver mine to the local hospital). Let them put it in the recycle bin when they are done with it.

Take your bags to go shopping. Instead of getting a pile of plastic or paper bags to carry your groceries and other purchases home, take some back with you. We use cloth bags for this purpose (and they carry a lot of other things when we're not lugging groceries, like taking towels and bathing suits to the community pool or beach). We make a point of shopping at a grocery store that gives us back 3 cents per bag that we supply (instead of taking away one of theirs - they are simply passing the savings on bags back to us).

Landfill Diversion

Support initiatives for 'pay-as-you-throw' - paying for each bag or can of garbage you send to landfill. Harrowsmith Country Life magazine (April 1997, page 14) reports "In Sidney, trash at the curb has been cut by more than half, to less than a bag a week for most families. That has netted the township savings of more than a quarter of a million dollars." This change has come about since Sidney Township in Ontario, has required residents to attach $2.00 (originally $1.50) tags to their garbage bags or cans. Recycling recovery has increased commensurately. For most municipalities, reducing the number of trips to the landfill site by half would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings in reduced "tipping fees", and possibly more in reduced transport, maintenance and labour costs if recycling points are located closer to population centres than the landfill site, which is often the case. (Recycling points do not have to hold their deposits in perpetuity, so they take up a lot less space, and are usually less noxious than the landfill sites. Ordinary industrial sites are often appropriate for receiving paper, plastic, metal or other recyclables to prepare them for packing and shipping to paper plants, plastics factories, foundries or smelters.)

Check into your local municipal recycling program. You might be surprised what you can recycle. Many of these programs have greatly expanded the types of materials they accept in the past few years. In our area, virtually all kinds of plastic, including styrofoam, are accepted now.

If the recycling program doesn't take it, someone else might. Scrap merchants will usually take all kinds of scrap metal, old car batteries, old sinks, tubs, etc., and best of all, they will often pay you for it. Dry cleaners will usually take any extra hangers you can spare. Businesses that do a lot of packing (e.g. Mailboxes Etc and the like) will often accept the plastic packing "peanuts" or similar packing materials. For example, our municipal recycling program does not handle spent dry-cell (alkaline) batteries, but a program at one of my client's does, so I carry my dead "AAA", "AA", "C", "D" and 9-volt cells there. (Yes, I do use rechargeable batteries, but in some cases they are not appropriate, e.g. smoke detectors and devices that require 1.5 volts rather than the 1.2 volts typical of Ni-Cd rechargeables, and devices that see infrequent use or recommend against the use of rechargeable batteries.) Before our municipal recycling program was expanded in 1996, other organizations would accept cardboard and plastic products for recycling. In Canada, Radio Shack stores and others will accept spent nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries for recycling - look for the sign in the store.

New technology! Rechargeable alkaline batteries. Provide 1.5 volts per package (instead of 1.2 volts with Ni-Cd), so electronic devices won't assume a freshly charged battery is already dead. I am using the Pure Energy brand of AA and AAA (and have several months of experience with them now), and recommend them. Cost is about double of a one-use dry cell, and there is the cost of the charger, but these batteries pay for themselves quickly, and many fewer batteries are required.

Got some odd old cutlery in the kitchen drawer? Don't throw it out, put it in your desk drawer at work. Instead of taking plastic cutlery with your take-out lunch that you're going to eat back at the office, use your re-usable cutlery instead. That's a set of plastic cutlery not going to landfill every time you use the set in your desk drawer. If you were to save 200 plastic forks and knives a year (one each per workday), that's several pounds of virtually indestructible plastic not going to landfill.

If you are going to use plastic cutlery for entertaining a large group, collect it, wash it and re-use it. Some of the better plastic cutlery available stands up to machine washing without a problem. Instead of the plastic though, consider renting your utensils for that large party. There are companies that will rent everything you need, and you don't even have to wash it when you are done.

Use the refill packages for products that are available (e.g. liquid fabric softener), especially if the refill packaging is recyclable. They are designed to use less packaging, and normally cost less to purchase than the regular version of the product.


Water Conservation

Nature does it. The total amount of water on the planet is essentially fixed. Nature passes it continually through the water cycle. Evaporation from bodies of surface water, condensation into precipitation, flowing through streams and rivers, back to the bodies of surface water. Some gets diverted to nurturing flora and fauna, and is filtered through the ground; some gets trapped in polar ice caps, glaciers and permanent mountain snow caps.

Why conserve water? First, because you pay for it - whether it is metered into your house, or your municipality supplies it as part of the services you pay for through taxes, or you pump it from a well, or capture rainwater and store it and pay for the storage system, one way or another you pay for the water you use.

Don't put a brick in your toilet tank! It will disintegrate over time standing in the water and may affect the seal of the flapper causing a perpetual leak that will waste far more water than the brick could have ever saved. Instead, put a couple of rocks in a plastic container (e.g. a plastic 1-litre ice cream container) and fill it with water. Put the lid on and place that in your toilet tank to reduce water consumed per flush. Virtually free, reuses a plastic container, saves water and won't damage your toilet. You need the rock to make the container sufficiently heavy that it will not move around as the water refills the toilet tank. This trick should not be necessary on "water-saver" type toilet tanks than have become more common in the past decade - only on those with the larger tanks. Do buy a toilet with an insulated tank. It will slow the heating of that water to room temperature and reduce condensation on the outside of the toilet tank, especially in hot, humid weather. Enough of this condensation dripping onto the floor can eventually lead to rotting of the wood in the sub-floor, requiring an expensive repair.

Think, Research, Communicate

Create a market for reused and recycled products. If nobody buys reused, rebuilt, refurbished and recycled products, then there is no incentive for anyone to produce them, and no market for the materials you are carefully separating for recycling or prepared to sell second-hand. Make a point of using paper products made from recycled paper including toilet tissue, paper towels, writing paper, envelopes, file folders, etc. Buy second-hand when it is appropriate - it will save you money on the purchase price.

Use unbleached paper where it is practical, e.g. file folders, envelopes, toilet paper, paper towels. I know you're thinking that one won't save you any money, it's just me trying to sneak in some hidden environmentalist agenda. Not so. It costs the paper-makers to use bleach and then try to recover it from the waste-water. If we create a sizable market for unbleached paper products, enough for economies of scale to take full effect, the paper-makers should be able to make unbleached products a bit cheaper than the bleached products. And your tax dollars won't be required to clean up the environmental damage done by the bleach that is released from the paper-making plants.

There is a lot of material out there now, probably more than one person can reasonably read. And it isn't just material written in the past decade that is relevant. Our ancestors were masters of "use-it-up" and "wear-it-out".

Off the Net Resources


These are books I have read and found useful enough to consider them worth recommending. There are lots of others, ranging from excellent to total waste of time (and resources).

Cheaper & Better: Homemade Alternatives to Storebought Goods by Nancy Birnes, published by Harper & Row, copyright 1987. A lot of this book is about food recipes, but there is enough about household products, auto care, gardens, clothes, health care, cosmetics etc. to make this a valuable reference even if you are not interested in the food items. I like the implicit philosophy: save yourself some money, and its good for the planet, too.

2 Minutes a Day for a Greener Planet by Marjorie Lamb, published by Harper Collins, copyright 1990. This book focuses on planet-friendly practices, but makes a point of showing how these small efforts can also save you money. Lots of good ideas with minimal impact on your time or lifestyle. I picked up my copy at a used-book store.

If you have some ideas or tips or links to other sites with a similar goal that will allow people to conserve cash and save the environment, please send them along to us. We will add them to this page of ideas so we can all benefit.

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