How to Keep the Environment in Mind While You Stay Home

COVID-19 has upended daily life. Here are some small steps you can take to help make your time spent indoors cleaner, calmer, and greener.

Credit: Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for NRDC

COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented public health crisis—pushing health care systems, economies, and already vulnerable individuals and communities to the brink. In this time of turmoil, people are doing what they can to navigate a new reality and to support one another. For some of us, tackling small, personal goals during this crisis presents a means of coping—a chance to shift our perspectives, priorities, and habits and to work toward a healthier future. Spending our days stripped of normal routines can offer us a moment to rethink how we find meaning, and whether it’s time for a reset.

Here are a few green tips that you may find useful or enriching in this chaotic time of social distancing. Take on only what feels attainable—and stay safe.

Maximize the life of your produce and pantry items.

Many of us are spending more time cooking and making fewer grocery runs. NRDC’s Meal Prep Mate can help you come up with a plan before you leave the house to make the most of your grocery haul. The site’s “remix” tool will suggest a set of recipes that use many of the same ingredients, based on your personal preferences. Another way to help your stash last longer is to follow a few basic storage tips: Place (most) produce in sealed packaging and refrigerate it; reserve the coldest part of your fridge (usually the bottom) for the most perishable items; and store nonperishable items in a cool, dry place—rather than in a cupboard that gets sunlight or above your stove. Finally, treat expiration dates as suggestions rather than commands. Eggs and dairy are the products that people most commonly throw out because the date on the package has passed. But actually, “sell by” dates are meant as a guide for grocers in managing their inventory. Discard anything that’s moldy, sticky, smelly, or slimy, but trust your senses before tossing what still seems perfectly edible.

Minimize the impact of your online orders.

There’s no question that a boom in online ordering means a boom in shipping and its associated carbon emissions. But you’ll make your shopping more efficient—and minimize the enormous burden facing delivery workers—by drawing up a list of what you need, then bundling your e-buys. This allows purchases to be boxed and shipped together, when possible. Additionally, this practice cuts down not only on shipping cost but on the packaging and plastic waste you generate. You can also scale back your plastic footprint when ordering takeout by asking restaurants to leave out plastic cutlery and napkins. You’re reducing waste, as well as the number of items that could be contaminated with the virus. Clean and reuse takeout containers for food storage—perfect for the increase in leftovers in coming weeks.

Experiment with plant-first cooking.

Now is the time to try out any plant-based recipes you’ve saved. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants that keep your immune system strong, and they have a lower carbon footprint, too. For example, beef is about 34 times more climate pollution–intensive than beans and lentils, pound for pound. If you’re finding it hard to keep your produce fresh given your newly limited shopping habits, get creative. Whir brown bananas into smoothies, or simmer soft tomatoes into sauce. There are plenty of ways to salvage fruits and veggies slightly past their prime. So boost your repertoire. Share recipes with friends. And come out on the other side of this crisis a climate-friendly chef.

Start an environmental book club.

Connect with loved ones (and nature) while stuck indoors by starting your own environmental book club that meets via video chat. Tackle hard topics, like the ways in which industry has buried science during public health crises, or joyful ones, like the interior lives of octopuses. We’ll throw out some faves to get you started: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. For shorter reads, this set of personal essays curated by writer Mary Heglar—NRDC’s publications director and the current writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute—explores perspectives of grief, guilt, rage, and hope in response to our climate crisis.

Pick up a new green hobby.

Looking for something productive, regenerative, and perhaps distracting during troubling times? There’s plenty you can do for your own mental health, and the planet’s, from home. You could tend a windowsill herb garden, hang a bird feeder, or set up an indoor compost bin. (For that, all you need is a couple of stacking plastic bins, a drill, and a container of red worms—critters you can order online!) Have a pile of thrifted clothes laying around that you never got a chance to alter? Now could be a good time to give them a new life and refresh your wardrobe. Perhaps you already have all the supplies needed to jump-start your hobby and brighten your day.

Breathe easier inside.

With more time spent at home, take steps to improve your indoor air quality. Experts have shown that regular vacuuming, for example, cuts down on dust, dander, and even harmful chemicals that leach from your furniture. Now may also be a good time to replace or clean your furnace air filter (preventing your furnace from working in overdrive—and driving up your utility bills) or to invest in an air purifier. If air quality is not a concern, open windows for increased air circulation, which lowers the concentrations of air pollutants in your home. Taking these steps may improve overall respiratory health and your body’s ability to fight a respiratory illness.

Keep home energy use in check.

As families spend most days inside, home energy use will no doubt go up. Still, there’s a simple way to fight climate change from your sofa while also lowering energy bills: As your 60-watt incandescent bulbs burn out, replace them with energy-efficient LEDs. (Nationally, if all households phased out their incandescents and halogens, annual savings would amount to $12 billion!) Additionally, be mindful of zombie electronics and lights left on in unused rooms.

If you can, give back.

If you have the capacity, give back to organizations and local businesses that have been impacted by this crisis or are on its frontlines, and are meaningful to you. Donate to your local food pantry. Order delivery from a restaurant that supports local farmers, or buy a gift certificate to use when it reopens. Some hospitals and first responders are looking for donations of masks, which sewing groups around the country are coming together to create in the absence of adequate supplies. There’s no time like the present to turn toward our neighbors in need and show our gratitude.

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